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Henry Buckle and the Wealth and Poverty of Nations May 30, 2012

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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Henry Buckle (24 November 1821 – 29 May 1862), much like the semi-acknowledged French sociologist Alfred Espinas, was among the ‘universal citations’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The economist Alfred Marshall makes great use of him.  Much like Ellen Semple and Ellsworth Huntington, Buckle had the unfortunate fate of being labeled a “geographical determinist” by historians of geography, sociology, and anthropology.

Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-1862)

Ted Porter and Ian Hacking have accused him of “historical determinism.”  He was neither. He also tragically died far too early for his ideas to be sufficiently clarified.  While Buckle in his History of Civilization in England ascribed great power to climate or “physical causes,” he nonetheless did so only with respect to “savage” or “rude” nations.

While leaving a role for climate in civilized nations, Buckle nonetheless argued that progress was indeed possible in Europe as well as in England due largely to the advancement of scepticism.  By ‘scepticism,’ Buckle meant the, “spirit of inquiry, which during the last two centuries, has gradually encroached on every possible subject; has reformed every department of practical and speculative knowledge; has weakened the authority of the privileged classes, and thus placed liberty on a surer foundation….”  What Buckle says here is actually quite significant when placed in the context of the history of ideas.  Buckle was both last in a long line of those who conjoined civilizational progress with the spread of rationalism and the decline of superstition and barbarism in England, beginning with the philosophy of David Hume and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; and also within the rising tide of authorial monuments to the progress of philosophy and manners, as exhibited in the early works of Lucien Levy-Bruhl and W.E.H. Lecky’s History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe. (more…)

Robert Ranulph Marett, Eugenics, and the Progress of Prehistoric Man September 10, 2011

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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R. R. Marett’s account of the progress of prehistoric man in Progress and History (1916), edited by Francis Sydney Marvin, had the  object of assuring his audience that no matter how savage individuals were in the past they still grew, through gradual biological adaptation and an increasing awareness of divinity, into full grown Englishmen.

Robert Ranulph Marett (1866–1943)

Marett is remembered, if at all, for succeeding E.B. Tylor as Reader in Anthropology in Oxford in 1910,  and for proposing a primal stage of religious worldview,  pre-animism.  This elaborated on Tylor’s evolutionary scheme of psychic development.  Marett, like Lucien Levy-Bruhl, considered the primitive mind to be a uniform entity which ordered reality in a distinct way from that of modern man.


Lucien Lévy-Bruhl: The Course of French Philosophy and the Primitive Mind November 17, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Lucien Lévy-Bruhl was born in 1857 in Paris.  In 1876, he entered the Ecole Normale Superieure, specializing in philosophy.  Lévy-Bruhl taught at secondary schools until 1895.  Obtaining his doctorate in 1884, from 1886 onwards he lectured at Ecole Libre des Sciences, and from 1895 onwards, at Ecole Normale and the Sorbonne.  At the Sorbonne, in 1904, Lévy-Bruhl became professor of philosophy.  In 1917, Lévy-Bruhl became the editor of Revue Philosophique and in 1925 founded the Institut d’Ethnologie, together with Paul Rivet and Marcel Mauss.  In 1927, he retired from the Institute as well as the Sorbonne.  He was a visiting professor at Harvard from 1919 to 1920.  Levy-Bruhl died in Paris in 1939.

Lévy-Bruhl considered the history of French philosophy, from Descartes to the 1890s, to demonstrate specific features connected to the French national character and intellectual life.  For Lévy-Bruhl, it was of utmost significance that many French philosophers began their studies in either mathematics or the natural sciences.  Voltaire “became the herald of Newton” in France, while Condillac wrote on the language of the calculus.  “It seems allowable to infer,” Lévy-Bruhl concluded, “not that French philosophy was based upon mathematics, but that there has been in France a close affinity between the mathematical and the philosophical spirit” (History of modern philosophy in France, 470.)

Due to the legacy of Descartes as well as mathematics,  philosophers “took it for granted that among the various ways of representing reality, there is one which is adequate and recognizable on account of its clearness and sufficient evidence” (ibid.)  The connection of French philosophy to mathematics explained why French philosophers “have nearly always taken care to show that their doctrines were in perfect accord with common sense” and that method “was a mere application of the rules of common sense”  (474,475.)  

Consistent with Lévy-Bruhl’s coupling of French philosophy with the rational and the scientific was his privileging of the Cartesian tradition over that exemplified by de Maistre.  Lévy-Bruhl’s association of French philosophy with a particular kind of system and a particular kind of intellectual work forced him to gloss over some of the more extravagant features of the French socialists and Utopians, such as Saint-Simon and Fourier, as well as the more extreme ideologues of the French Revolution.  For Lévy-Bruhl, the history of “philosophy” was the steady growth of reason itself.  Any derivation from such a growth was explicable by either a falling away from tradition or to a concern for justice which obviated reason.  (more…)