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The Nineteenth Century Problem August 15, 2011

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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The universal historian Henry T. Buckle (1821-1862) was last subject of a serious scholarly monograph in 1958.  This is the fate of any number of nineteenth-century intellectuals.   The first reason for the disappearance of these writers has been the inability to connect them to the catastrophic events of the twentieth century: the World Wars, National Socialism, the deradicalization of the European right after Nuremberg, the flight of the Marxist intellectuals, and so on.   Second, the nineteenth century has been the province of sociologists and literary scholars.  Such attention continues to be selective, judging from the ceaseless publications on the canonical sociologists: springtime for Weber, and winter for Gobineau and Bagehot.

Third, ignoring the nineteenth century allows anthropologists to get on with their own work.  Fourth, and finally, while some nineteenth century economists get attention — Alfred Marshall (1842-1924) has been accumulating more slim volumes as the months go by — the impression I get from some not so cursory reading of the literature is that the with the exception of the proponents of “evolutionary” and “heterodox” economics, philosophers of economics, and Philip Mirowski, it’s Smith, Marx, Keynes, Hayek, Mises, or monograph wilderness.  (more…)

Walter Bagehot on Ancient and English Civilization June 14, 2010

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Walter Bagehot (3 February 1826 – 24 March 1877) in both Physics and Politics (1872) and in The English Constitution (1867) combined a historical and functional analysis of political institutions with an anthropological account of their primeval origins and the forces behind their growth.  These writings on political theory combine the sociological account of the utility of institutions found in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America with the economic and material anthropology of Henry Maine’s Ancient Law.

Bagehot’s Physics and Politics was also an extension of the work of Henry Maine, which like that of John Lubbock, Lewis Henry Morgan, John Ferguson McLennan, and Edward B. Tylor, was part of the late nineteenth century effort to ground the most primeval age of man in scientific fact, using a variety of evidences from linguistics, archeology, contemporary traveler and missionary accounts, and biblical hermeneutics. Bagehot, like his Enlightenment predecessors  Edward Gibbon, David Hume, and William Robertson,  was most concerned to discern what factors accounted for the progress which appeared to separate refined Europe from the underdeveloped rest of the globe.  Such an inquiry was given new life by what appeared to social theorists to be a satisfying account of the mechanism behind social, political, and intellectual development, that of “natural selection.”  Bagehot grafted archeological, linguistic, and legal researches onto this biological causality.  For Bagehot, this biological narrative was superior to the merely conjectural account of the Enlightenment due to its ability to ground a working hypothesis in natural laws, whereby the development of human civilization mirrored that of the rest of nature.  (more…)