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The Critique of Society

As some discovered the power of society, and celebrated its independence from the state, its civilising effects and its capacity to moderate the passions of men and women, others began to see in the social world, and in the realms of fashion, luxury, and competition associated with it, a deeply corrupting force - corrupting of morals and the independence of judgment, and consequently corrupting of the state. Where most social contract theorists had traditionally seen society as moderating the brutish character of men and women in the state of nature, allowing the emergence of civil society, and its consequence, civilization, Rousseau turns this story on its head.

His account became profoundly influential for others, even when they disagreed with some of his core ideas - as with Mary Wollstonecraft and her rejection of his relegation of women to the subordinate chattel of man. Nonetheless, the insight into the ways in which social life threatened to render the individual dependent upon the validation they could secure from others was exploited in their critique of contemporary mores.

For class this week please read:

Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (this text is less than 50 pages, so you should be able to ge through most of it. If not, just read enough to get a flavour of Rousseau's ideas on man in the state of nature and his critiques of society).

Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), Part I (if you have time, please also take a look at part V, sections 3-5 and part VI, sections 1-3).

You may also find this overview and excert from Ferguson helpful (from Broadie, The Scottish Enlightment)

Class slides here

Questions to consider

How does Rousseau characterise the condition of man in the state of nature? On what grounds is he critical of modern society? What implications does this have for his wider political theory?

On what grounds does Ferguson reject enquiries into the state of nature? Which of these are targeted at/apply to Rousseau?

According to Ferguson, what are the causes of corruption in a state? What benefits, and problems, does Ferguson perceive in the commercial society of the 18thc?

Suggested secondary reading

Iain McDaniel, Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment (2013) - ebook

Lisa Hill, The passionate society : the social, political and moral thought of Adam Ferguson (2006) - ebook

Charles Griswald, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith : A Philosophical Encounter (2017) - ebook. This book foucses on Rousseau and Smith's contrasting views on society and the state of nature; a useful bridge between this week and next week's texts!)

Christopher Berry, Essays on Hume, Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment (2018), esp ch 7 and 8 - ebook