NEW PUBLICATION: Proto-sociology of Hume and Smith

The Proto-Sociology of Mandeville and Hume

2500 words

Sociologists have for a long while largely turned their backs on the foundations of their discipline as a science of society. Two or three decades ago prominent authors such as Zygmunt Bauman (1991) and Nikolas Rose (1996) concluded that the end of society, even the social, has arrived. Niklas Luhmann’s (1989 [1986]) system theory advanced the idea that there is no integrating centre in modern society; differentiated subsystems function according to their own closed logic, interacting and vibrating in their environments but not needing any particular explanation for what holds the whole together. Many other more or less light-handed assertions of the end of society where heard. Why societies hold together is a pointless question if there is no society.

                Historians, fortunately, have at the same time turned to what could be called the first classical period of modern social science in the 18th century with this very question in mind. Rousseau, Montesquieu, Mandeville, Locke and others in France and England; and Hume and Smith with their predecessors and contemporaries in Scotland have received new attention as theorists of a society that is constituted by autonomous agents. As Reinhard Koselleck (1988 [1959]) argued already in the 1950s, these authors were responding with their critiques to the crisis of sovereign absolutism and its Hobbesian justifications. Such a critique is more than wanted in the current world situation where fallen dictatorships tend to turn not into democracies but into battle fields that much resemble the bellum omnium contra omnes  to which Hobbes offered his solution and for which the 18th century philosophers were seeking alternatives.

                Mikko Tolonen’s (2013) thesis on Mandeville and Hume, now edited and published by The Voltaire Foundation at Oxford, undertakes an ambitious and dauntless task to show that Hume’s (as well as Mandeville’s) intellectual ambition was as much focused on society as on classical philosophical issues of epistemology and prescriptive moral philosophy. His theory of modern society was far more advanced than has been thought so far. The challenge Tolonen faces is considerable, given the amount and quality of research on both of his principal authors as well as on contemporaries and the debates they aroused in their day. The argument is subtle, the evidence is either indirect or hidden in the revisions of manuscripts and different versions of published work, and the outcome topples down even some of the most established authorities.  But the toil is well spent.

                Tolonen’s reinterpretation consists of two parts. First, Hume (2007) follows Mandeville (1988b [1924]) in distinguishing two elements in the ‘selfish principle’: self-love and self-liking or pride. The first derives from Hobbes’ idea of the natural fear of death and motivates the effort to assure one’s own survival, security and well-being. The other, more subtle, refers to men’s natural tendency to ‘think higher of themselves than they deserve’. Both of these natural motives must somehow be constrained by society to facilitate co-operation. The first, when properly managed, constitutes the basis of the institutions of justice (law and government); the second, the institutions of politeness, notably formal education.

                Secondly, Tolonen insists on Hume’s distinction between artificial and natural virtues. Whereas the latter are motivated by non-moral passions, the former, artificial virtues, result from education and civilization built on habit and custom. Only in small family-based or tribal societies self-interest may ensure compliance to the common good (peace and some sort of justice). In large societies, however, the original motive of self-love (persistence) fades away, and conformity to what in society is considered right becomes an autonomous force not related to direct self-interest. In Tolonen’s interpretation it is vital (but very difficult to ground the argument on Hume’s rather confusing text especially in the Treatise of Human Nature, which Hume published in 17  at the age of 23) (Hume 1988 [1924]) that the institutions on which social order depends, justice and politeness, are not natural but have a social origin. Again, Hume follows Mandeville, but in a less straightforward way than in the distinction between self-love and self-liking. In Tolonen’s terms, the ‘conjectural history’ that Hume constructs to theorise the emergence of society from the state of nature involves a break forward from the first couple who are drawn together by lust alone, to the following generations that must learn to live in society. Two other elements besides lust are indispensable for social order to emerge: parents’ affection for their children (that now would be called parental altruism in evolutionary theory), and self-liking or pride. Tolonen’s main argument is, first, that in this starting point Hume draws on Mandeville’s (1988b [1924]) Part II of the Fable of the Bees, and secondly, that Mandeville’s Part II is actually a different book from the original Fable Mandeville (1988a [1924]), only accidentally published as its second volume. Mandeville’s turn of mind breaks away from the Hobbesian tradition of ‘the selfish theory’, which makes the case that humans have only one natural desire, which is to persist, and this desire appears as fear of death. All of the three desires except lust only emerge as humans begin to form societies (Rousseau (1998 [1755]: 72-73) picked this view from Mandeville), and they create both the source of conflicts and the basis of institutions that shackle their destructive effects. Hume continues on the break-away course from Hobbesianism to arrive at a social theory that in the end turns upside down the idea that the political society (sovereign absolutism) is the guarantee of social order. Now the political order becomes the effect of society, not its cause, and this is already quite close to later sociological understandings of modern society.

                Tolonen’s first re-intepretation of Hume is already more radical than it seems. For long, Hume has been considered utilitarian in his moral philosophy, ever since his friend Adam Smith who called him ‘the ingenious and agreeable author who first explained why utility pleases’ not only directly but also in the indirect aesthetic and moral sense (Smith, TMS: IV.2.3, p. 188). The hypothesis of utilitarianism connects Hume back in history with the Hobbesian tradition. What is worse, it leads to mistaking him for a follower of his predecessor Francis Hutcheson, who thought that the natural virtue of benevolence is the moral foundation of society. This would appear as ‘enlightened self-interest’, which reason accords to members of society so that they prefer co-operation to unheeding pursuit of greed and lust. This is a metaphysical assumption that Hume never agreed with. If pushed to the extreme, the utilitarianism hypothesis would place Hume in the vulgar lineage of contemporary neo-liberalism, with which Adam Smith is also so often, and so wrongly, associated.

                The second re-interpretation is equally important. There is no such thing as a natural social order. A society constituted by autonomous, reflexive and self-recognizing members requires governmnent that cultivate self-love into institutions of justice and self-liking into institutions of politeness. In Tolonen’s own words, Hume’ theory requires that modern social order is regulated by a political society – no longer in the Hobbesian sense of absolute sovereignty to keep private passions in check but now a political society that is founded on moral sentiments emerging from the underlying principles of co-operation that are only possible when society already exists.

                For Hume, pride is the master passion. It is the desire to be satisfied with oneself, which requires approval by others. This makes it the passion that restrains both itself and self-love in large societies. To be approved and complacently attended to requires that people do not express their pride as they themselves experience it, lest their conversations turn unpleasant and grumpy. Likewise, even if individuals often find serving their self-interest more attractive than following the rule of law in large societies, the desire to be approved shuns them away from acting on their impulse. The passion of pride is thoroughly social. The institution of politeness requires everyone to restrain the expression of their pride no matter how deserving the self-praise is. Even the man who has won half of the world must mask his pride to enter into polite conversation with others. Pride – or self-esteem – does not stem from the objects of the impressions, for example the comfort and beauty or one’s home, but from the idea of it being my home. Therefore anything, even the meanest and even imaginary fortune can be the cause of pride or self-esteem. On the other hand, pride is an indirect passion that cannot be saturated, unlike hunger and other passions that are related to self-love (or preservation of the body). For this reason this passion has the same compelling power over everyone. This important, because the reputation that upholds self-respect is the force that binds members of society into conformity with the law and loyalty to government. Pride, or sovereignty, is in other words the famous Mandevillean private vice of vanity, which is so necessary for the public good also in Hume’s theory.

                   Tolonen’s re-interpretations bring Hume right to the centre of contemporary issues concerning social orders that come with inequalities in wealth, power and life-chances. As Hume states in the essay on the origins of government: ‘… as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.’(Hume 1987 [1777]  p. 32). No social order can be permanently based on force and fear alone, but on the other hand there is no such thing as a natural social order either. The principles of justification concerning power and inequalities must be institutionalized in political structures that guarantee a sense of justice as well as a sense of appropriateness – or ‘politeness’ – of claims to pride (for example rewards to politicians and business managers).



To cite this article: Pekka Sulkunen (2014): The proto-sociology of Mandeville and Hume,
Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory, DOI: 10.1080/1600910X.2014.897639
To link to this article: