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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…)