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9 - Civilization and Perfectibility: Conflicting Views of the History of Humankind?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 June 2023

John Robertson
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
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Summary

In her chapter, Silvia Sebastiani treats Scottish Enlightenment thinking about the history of society as the product of a dialogue with natural history as well as moral philosophy. The key reference points were Buffon’s Natural History and Rousseau’s Discourse on inequality: from these the Scots derived two rival accounts of how natural man became historical. One conceived of history as the ‘progress of society’ through successive ‘stages’ of development, culminating in the attainment of ‘civilisation’. With contributions from David Hume, Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith, this account was premised on the idea of a uniform human nature, but did not exclude the possibility of hierarchies between humans, and attached lesser value to forms of social organisation preceding civilisation. The alternative, explored at length by Lord Monboddo, a practising judge, took Rousseau’s assertion of the ‘perfectibility’ of man as an invitation to appreciate the variety of ways (physical as well as moral) in which humans might develop, and to accept that quite different outcomes were possible, corruption and decline as much as progress. There was no single Scottish conception of the ‘progress of society’, and the normative implications of stadial history were less uniformly positive than its later admirers have supposed.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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