Evolutionary Social Theory: Chapter One Overview

Chapter One

                      Social Newtonism and the Origins of Evolutionary Social Theory


In this chapter I examine the origins of Evolutionary Social Theory and its relationship to Political Economy during the Enlightenment. I argue that social theory during this period can be usefully thought of as “Social Newtonism”, by which I mean the application of the “Newtonian method” in the search for the laws governing human social arrangements. It is possible to identify three general approaches to social theory though the boundaries were often blurred. One approach, exemplified in social contract theory, was abstract, a historical, deductive and akin to geometry. The other approach, often referred to as Philosophical or Speculative History as exemplified in the Scottish and French Enlightenment of the late 18th century was comparative, inductive and historical. The Philosophical history of the Scottish and French Enlightenment made considerable progress towards a materialist and evolutionary understanding of human social arrangements and laid the foundations for further developments in the 19th century. The Political Economy of Smith and Turgot was derived from this method. At the end of the Enlightenment, a third approach arose in Germany, which was also a form of “Philosophical History”. This version of philosophical history, exemplified by Kant and Hegel was abstract, idealist and speculative and threatened to shunt social theory down a wrong path.[1] Social Theory during the Enlightenment was tied to the ideas of liberty, equality, progress and improvement. However, with a few exceptions, these ideals were compromised by the prevalence of the acceptance of social hierarchies founded on invidious distinctions of class, race, gender and differences in levels of civilizational accomplishments. In addressing these problems, I will treat them as obstacles to, rather than products of, Enlightenment.

In developing the argument of this chapter, I will proceed as follows. Part 1 explains in more detail what I mean by the terms “Newtonian method” and “Social Newtonism”. I argue that it arose as an extension of the Natural Philosophy of the late Renaissance and Enlightenment, was closely associated with Lockean Empricism and can be contrasted with Cartesianism. Social Newtonism, as I use it here, does not necessarily imply social physics. Or, put more simply, I argue that Newtonism can be thought of as a convenient shorthand for a general world view that was characteristic of Enlightenment philosophy in Britain and France. Part 2 addresses the contributions and failures of social contract theory to the development of an evolutionary perspective on society. Part 3 examines the comparative and historical method and its relationship to Political Economy as an effort to explain social change in Britain and part 4 addresses this effort in France. Part 5 briefly addresses the problems of the twilight of the Enlightenment in the form of a short critique of the teleological schemas of Kant and Hegel and part 6 summarizes the arguments of the chapter.

[1] Readers familiar with the much earlier contributions of Meeks (1976) will note that substantial portions of this chapter owe a significant debt to his analysis as well as to that of the anthropologist, Marvin Harris (1968; 1977) and secondarily to the contributions of Winch (1978), though there are places where my treatment departs from their respective arguments.  Though this chapter is inspired by their contributions, my own arguments draw on my own reading of the referenced texts. Under the category of Social Contract Theorists I have included Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu and Rosseau. Yet Montesquieu can also be viewed as having laid the foundations for comparative and historical approach and there are hints of evolutionism in the writings of Locke and Rosseau. Amongst the prominent representatives of the empirical and comparative strain of Philosophical History, I have  included Ferguson, Robertson, Millar and Smith in the Scottish Enlightenment and Voltaire, Turgot, and Condorcet in the French Enlightenment. Kant can certainly be classified as a social contract theorist but in other respects, he belongs in the category of Philosophical History. The term Philosophical History itself is a fuzzy term and was often used to refer to the aforementioned theorists in the French and Scottish Enlightenment. However, Hegel also used the term “Philosophical History” to refer to any thoughtful consideration of history. Thus, despite the differences between Hegel, Kant and the above mentioned writers, I have chosen to use the term “Philosophical History” to encompass both approaches while noting the very real differences in method. The term “Social Newtonism” is perhaps not applicable to Hobbes as he wrote prior to Newton. However, in many respects, Hobbes can be viewed as a forerunner of this trend. With respect to the use of the term “Enlightenment” my periodization is standard and goes from Locke through the end of the French Revolution and its betrayal by Bonaparte, which of course makes of Hegel a bookend to the Enlightenment.

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