We welcome Paul Sagar in this conversation about his book, The Opinion of Mankind: Sociability and the Theory of the State from Hobbes to Smith, forthcoming in February 2018 with Princeton University Press.
Paul, your book is about the development of the modern state in the history of Western political thought. This is quite a broad, fascinating topic, so how did you narrow down your main research questions? Why did you find them so compelling?
The book took shape over about 6 years – I originally started working on David Hume’s moral and political philosophy, as part of my doctoral thesis. By the time I was handing in the thesis, I knew that I wanted to tell a bigger story, as well as to cut out the frankly more boring bits of the PhD. This required continuing the trajectory: no longer stopping with Hume, but continuing to the next generation of thinkers and beyond, who were wrestling with the same topics, but coming up with different answers. I already had the groundwork in place, but by bringing Rousseau and Adam Smith into my story it also became clear to me that there were distinct fault-lines running through Enlightenment political thought, as regards two foundational issues: human sociability, and the nature of the state. Both fault-lines led back to Hobbes – but with very different endpoints.
Whilst I was doing this research, it became increasingly puzzling to me that so few contemporary political theorists are concerned with either the question of how human beings are able to form large and lasting societies, nor with what exactly the modern state is. For the most part, they just assume – in Jacob T. Levy’s wonderful phrase – that it is a ‘justice dispensing machine’. But the more I read of Hume and Smith, the more I became convinced that the dominant contemporary approach is not only wrong in failing to appreciate the rather less flattering reality of the modern state, but in the process issuing normative demands that can only make sense in a fantasy world where an honest appraisal of the modern state is left out of the picture. So the way the book finally came out, I opened and closed it with attempts to show why going back to the foundations matters. The history of political thought that I present is supposed to be unsettling of some pretty fundamental assumptions that are currently commonplace in political theory.
Why did the Hobbesian view of the state prevail for so long in history? How did Smith and Hume manage to change the Hobbesian status quo?
As it happens, I don’t think Smith and Hume did manage to change the status quo. A large claim of my book is that their alternative has been seriously neglected, something that actually started with their own contemporaries, who often did not really understand what was being argued (one exception, I think, being Edmund Burke, although the misunderstanding of his thought is a history in itself). But part of that neglect is explained in the same way that the relative dominance of the Hobbesian approach can be explained – namely, that Hobbes offers a theoretic finality, a definite answer, which even if imperfectly realised in practice, taps into something very deep (at least amongst philosophers) regarding the desire for settled answers, and the hope that they might be had.
Although very few people agree with Hobbes on every point (then, and even less now), his vision was that we might be able to finally and with certainty specify what the modern state is. From there, we can work out definite answers to very thorny questions about violence, coercion, and the justification of power when it is wielded over human lives. Hobbes’s way of thinking (and this gets amplified later in Kant, in complex ways) promises that we might be able to settle those questions. In a godless universe where not much seems to make sense, and there is a lot of arbitrary suffering, I think that holding out for the hope that we as theorists could sort some part of it out, even at an ideal level, has a powerful pull. Unfortunately, I’m with Hume and Smith: sometimes it works out quite nicely for some people in some corner of human history – but that’s mostly just luck, and how it works will be highly contingent upon local circumstances. There’s nothing fundamentally holding it in place beyond those contingencies, and we can’t sensibly aspire to reveal anything that might, and which will in turn independently justify the violence that all modern politics is ultimately founded upon, and operating through.
Why did this change in thinking happen in that time and place? What was so special about the Scottish Enlightenment?
It’s a really good question, and one I’ve asked myself before – and frankly don’t have a good answer to. Part of me wants to say that it boils down to the sheer fact that these two people – firstly Hume, who broke a path that a young Smith was then around to follow – just happened to view the world in a different way to the major philosophers that came before them. Hume here must take a huge amount of credit: when it comes to questions in ethics and politics, he was able to see that scepticism about previous theories, and especially about assumptions regarding what philosophy is and can achieve, didn’t need to result in scepticism about values. He just thought we needed to look at our values in a different way, whilst continuing to affirm them.
Clearly, this was only going to be possible in some particular times and places and not others – the mid eighteenth century was a period when old religious certainties were crumbling, and so no doubt the zeitgeist was such that someone like Hume was possible. But we mustn’t over-do it: the vast majority of Hume’s contemporaries were believing Christians. So there really is something special about Hume, and also Smith who so readily took up the baton. Why them, why there? I don’t really have a good answer. But again, it’s worth emphasising that they were not universally feted by their contemporaries. On the contrary, few genuinely understood them during their lifetimes, and their philosophical works fell into relative decline from the early nineteenth century until the mid-late twentieth. Hume was famous during his lifetime as a historian, and Smith’s popular legacy rests upon The Wealth of Nations, a work often erroneously credited with having invented economic theory. The recognition of both Hume and Smith as major philosophical voices is in fact a phenomenon of more recent scholarship – which suggests that there’s something about us now, and not just them then, which is at play.
What are the most significant ways in which the Hobbesian and Scottish Enlightenment views about the state influenced contemporary political thought?
Again, I feel obliged to point out that there was no ‘Scottish Enlightenment view’ about the state – Hume and Smith were relative outliers, often criticised by their contemporaries, and didn’t even agree with each other on all the points of detail. And in fact, I think I want to say that the most striking thing about Hume and Smith’s legacy is how little they have influenced contemporary political thought. Smith is almost entirely neglected as a theorist of politics (some specialist scholarship aside), whilst Hume is widely thought to have been a mere sociologist of political institutions and history, unable to address the ‘normative’ issues about moral justification that contemporary theorists are absolutely obsessed by. My book aims to show that these are mistakes, and that we stand to learn an awful lot from Hume and Smith – if we are prepared to give up on some of the more unrealisable hopes and aspirations of ‘normative’ philosophy, as indeed Hume and Smith give us compelling reason to do. To that extent, I hope that Hume and Smith will in future come to have more influence on contemporary political theory, likely as part of the growing ‘realist’ critique of what are the presently dominant approaches.
What legacy have Smith and Hume left in modern economics and social science?
In both cases their legacies are complex, and show the inevitable corrosion and distortion that history inflicts upon the reputation of any thinker of note. Hume has largely been unfairly forgotten as a pioneer of political economy, whose writings on the subject were hugely important in Smith’s composition of The Wealth of Nations. In turn, whereas Smith now often gets credited with having ‘invented’ modern economics, this is itself a bizarre turn of events. The Wealth of Nations bears little resemblance to the ahistorical, highly mathematical, sociologically deracinated nature of present economic theory, and is better described as a work of ‘political economy’ – a once prevalent field of study that suffered a striking decline in the second half of the twentieth century as it was squeezed out by economics on the one hand, and political science on the other.
Most unfairly of all, Smith is now typically dragooned into the ranks of the free-market right, as an early champion of laissez-faire and state-minimalist politics. But this is just not correct: Smith spent far more energy in the Wealth of Nations attacking the monopolists and merchants who had captured state power for their own sectional interests than he did attacking politicians. Yes, Smith was in favour of liberalised markets – but his real target was crony mercantilism. He would certainly look at the crony capitalism rampant in the world today and despair. But he would also think that anybody believing that a Thatcher or Reagan style neo-liberalism could sort that out was making very serious mistakes about how economics and politics distort each other, and usually to the detriment of ordinary people. Smith was a sceptic in politics, but precisely because of that he was no ideologue for the free-market right. Which isn’t to say that he was on the left, either – the story is altogether more interesting than that. (I’m currently working on a paper called ‘Adam Smith and the Conspiracy of the Merchants’ that goes into this in detail, and will shortly have an essay on the website Aeon.co dealing with similar themes – look out for those if you want to know more.)
As regards social science, the story is again very complicated. Hume has tended to be recruited by crude forms of behaviourism and positivism, and Smith’s entirely reasonably claim that modern economies run on the engine of self-interest has seen his thought traduced into the ridiculous claim (beloved by some rational choice theorists and economists) that all human action is inherently concerned with the maximisation of private utility. In fact, I’d suggest that what the social sciences ought to learn from Hume and Smith is that we only get anywhere when we expand, rather than narrow, our scope of enquiry. To understand our world in its vast complexity means combining the lessons of history, politics, economics, sociology, psychology, and philosophy. The social contexts we live in are so intricate that no one academic discipline has a hope of by itself revealing adequate answers. Hume and Smith were social science polymaths – and we ought to learn that we will have to be too, if our work is to have the value we presumably aspire for it to have.
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To hear more from Paul on this topic, check out his recent long essay on “The Real Adam Smith.”