“He (Adam Smith) wanted to show how from being a savage, (man) rose to be a Scotchman.” (Walter Bagehot)
The Rev. Dr. Folliott:
“Pray, Mr. MacQuedy, how is it that all gentlemen of your nation begin everything they write with the ‘infancy of society?’”
(Thomas Love Peacock, Crotchet Castle)
The purpose of this essay is to consider an intellectual method which enjoyed a considerable vogue among the philosophes of Scotland. This method, ‘conjectural history,’ appears to be the direct or indirect source of many of the schemes of social evolution so popular in the nineteenth century, but it has itself been little investigated, and often misunderstood by assimilation to its progeny.
I. The Nature of Conjectural History
‘Conjectural history’ was, it seems, first distinguished from the more conventional narrative form of history by Dugald Stewart. He remarked on its use in the writings of Adam Smith, but the sort of inquiry to which we find Stewart referring is a method for understanding social phenomena which was characteristic of a whole group of Scottish writers, and we may take what he tells us about Smith as preliminary identification of the method.
Stewart explained conjectural history as arising out of comparisons between “our intellectual acquirements, our opinions, manners and institutions, [and] those which prevail among rude tribes” (whether of the past or the present). Such comparisons, he claimed, cannot fail to raise the question “by what gradual steps the transition has been made from the first simple efforts of uncultivated nature, to a state of things so wonderfully artificial and complicated.”