Writing "States of Nature, Stages of Society"

States of Nature, Stages of Society

The following post is an interview with Frank Palmeri, author of State of Nature, Stages of Society: Enlightenment Conjectural History and Modern Social Discourse:

What did you find most interesting in the course of your research for State of Nature, Stages of Society? Did you find anything that surprised you in the documents and texts you consulted?

I was able to consult many fascinating texts in my research—including scores of articles from the earliest anthropology journals in the 1860s. But the documents I found most compelling were the notes Charles Darwin made when he was preparing his thoughts and materials for writing the Descent of Man, which was published in 1871. Darwin left all his papers to Cambridge University, and they are still kept in the library there, in the boxes in which they originally arrived. I needed to go through box numbers 81-83 for his notes and papers from 1868-69.

In the first place, Darwin’s writing is extremely difficult to read, so it took me a couple of weeks to learn how to make out what he was saying in these notes. I was trying to see if there was any record that he was thinking of the conjectural historians as he wrote his own history of the early transition of mankind from our ape-like ancestors to human beings. As soon as I began looking, I was actually surprised to find that he had indeed been thinking about the conjectural historical thinkers, some of whom he had read earlier in his education—for example, in his time at Cambridge. He referred many times to Bernard Mandeville, David Hume, and Adam Smith, as well as the eccentric Lord Monboddo, who believed that chimpanzees (he called them orangutans) were the same species as humans and were capable of speech.

It was surprising because you often do not find the evidence you are looking for right where you look for it. But it was even more interesting because, although Darwin was using the ideas of the conjectural thinkers as models and foils for his own thought, he also made notes about how he would have to obscure his indebtedness to them, telling himself that they were too radical, that references to them might alienate his readers and undercut his authority. Hume, for example, was notorious for his reputation as an atheist.

Was Darwin unusual or unique in this respect? Did other writers in the conjecturalist tradition in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries hide or obscure their use of conjectural history?

Actually, most of the later writers who employed conjectural history in their thinking covered up or suppressed their ties to the earlier tradition. They each had their own reasons for doing so. Darwin and others did not want to appear unscientific; there was a strong emphasis on empirical data at the time, and conjectural thinking could seem dangerously speculative. Thomas Malthus derided earlier conjectural historians like Condorcet because of their theories that population might increase indefinitely; yet the truth is that Malthus himself relied on the theories of other conjectural thinkers to make the contrary argument. Nietzsche tried to supersede all previous philosophers, although his Genealogy of Morality takes the form of a classic conjectural history of a revolution against aristocratic, knightly values in a very early time for which we have no documents.

The two later conjecturalist thinkers who most candidly acknowledged their predecessors were Auguste Comte, one of the founders of sociology, and Sigmund Freud. Freud openly based his theory of the development of morality and religion on Darwin’s theory of the primal horde at the beginning of human society, and he referred as well to other, less well-known conjectural historians. Comte’s writings are the most paradoxical because while he formulated the Positivist philosophy that established facts as the highest form of truth, he did so through two massive works that sought to tell the story of the earliest stages of human thought and went on to tell a history of the near future in which his philosophy would replace all other world religions and unify humanity.

How did the ideas and the argument of your book take shape? Which parts of it came together first?

The part of the argument that I began with was the extensive influence of the Enlightenment conjectural historians—especially Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume—on three well-known later thinkers: Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud. The three later thinkers all narrated speculative accounts of the emergence of humans from their pre-human past and of the development of society, religion, and morality.

It was only after I had been working on these major figures that I began to investigate the way that the conjectural form of thought influenced the less well-known figures who developed the discipline of anthropology. And once I found that conjectural thought had shaped the emergence of one of the early social sciences, I was able to confirm that it had also exerted a shaping influence on two other early social science disciplines—sociology and political economy. So work on those two early chapters actually followed the later chapters on Darwin, Nietzsche, and anthropology. It was only near the end of the project that I realized that a form of historical novel also participated in this line of speculative narrative, especially in imagining the transitions between stages of social life such as that from feudal or tribal to modern commercial society. The study of these literary works provided another perspective on conjectural thinking in the final chapter of the book. Finally, in the Conclusion, I was able to jump forward to find instances of a resurgence of conjectural thinking in our own time.

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