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Alexander M. Carr-Saunders on Social Selection, Heredity, and Tradition May 6, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences.
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Alexander M. Carr-Saunders (14th January 1886-6th October 1966) was president of the London School of Economics from 1937 to 1956.  When his The Population Problem: A Study in Human Evolution appeared in 1922, it cemented his reputation.  According to his obituary in Population Studies this book has since been viewed as a seminal contribution to “social biology” due to its formulation of the “optimum number.”  Carr-Saunders defined the optimum number as the greatest number of individuals who could be sustained by a given environment.  For Carr-Saunders, moreover, this optimum number “involves the idea of the standard of living,” where in order to reach and to maintain this standard of living, populations, from primitive to civilized, employ practices to either “reduce fertility” or to “cause elimination,” including abortion, abstinence from sexual intercourse, and infanticide, in greater or lesser proportions (214.)

Alexander M. Carr-Saunders

Alexander M. Carr-Saunders

This was not all, however, as the maintenance of the highest standard of living possible required that the  “younger generation must become proficient in the skilled methods which makes this standard possible of attainment, and in particular it is important that young men should not marry unless they are both energetic and skillful.”  In such basic facts “we may see evidence exerted by social conditions and conventions” (224.)

Carr-Saunders has attracted some attention from Hayek scholars due to his influence on Hayek’s notion of cultural evolution.  Erik Angner in Hayek and Natural Law contends, “there is good reason to think that Hayek’s evolutionary thought was significantly inspired by Carr-Saunders and other Oxford zoologists” in particular supplying Hayek’s understanding of the mechanisms of group selection.



John Austin, Legal Positivism, and the Debate over the Sources of Law January 14, 2013

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences, Philosophy of Law.
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One of the most important developments in the understanding of law, what law is and why it is that law has authority in society, was the move away from natural law jurisprudence, articulated by Cicero, Montesquieu, and by Hugo Grotius in the nineteenth century. Natural law jurisprudence was the idea that law derived its authority due to the perfection and purpose of nature and divinity. Since true law had its origins and its sanction from nature and divinity, outside of society, it stood against whim, convention, custom, and caprice. Laws which were against natural law, against reason or justice, were not laws at all.

Early in the nineteenth century, legal positivism, espousing a narrow definition of “positive law,” or those laws enacted by the State or sovereign in the form of commands, attempted a similar style of reasoning to that of earlier natural law jurisprudence insofar as, like natural law theory, it was both rationalistic and deductive. Legal positivism in John Austin’s prose, considered law to be law (as opposed to morality and custom) if it was a command from a sovereign authority that was coercive. This meant that going against the command of the sovereign brought threat of an “evil.” Law was sovereign, moreover, if it emanated from an authority which was subject to no other, such as a king or parliament, who was habitually obeyed.


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…)

Margaret Schabas on the Concept of Nature in Economic Thought June 6, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club, History of the Human Sciences.
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In my first post on the need for historical studies of the relationship between scientific and economic thought, I was greatly remiss in not discussing a scholar who has done a great deal to develop and organize work in exactly this area: Margaret Schabas of the UBC philosophy department.  Thankfully, a quick reference by Tiago Mata over at History of Economics Playground set me aright.  For a first pass through the existing literature, I’d like to take a look at her book, The Natural Origins of Economics (2005).

The book is a critical-intellectual history.  As an intellectual history, it sticks to an analysis of the published works of (mainly) canonical authors.  Where a straight intellectual history might recount the arguments that historical authors explicitly made, critical-intellectual histories draw out continuities and breaks over time in authors’ lines and methods of argumentation.  Like many intellectual historians, Schabas is mindful of detailed arguments in the secondary literature, and does a good job of acknowledging, consolidating, communicating, and building on the gains of that literature.

Schabas argues that where 18th-century philosophers of political economy understood their subject to connect deeply to nature and natural philosophy, economics began to explicitly frame itself as a science of peculiarly social phenomena following John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy (1848), the rise of the idea of “the economy” as an object of study, and the rise of neoclassical economics in the late-19th century.


Systems-Thinking and Robert Redfield November 9, 2010

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Robert Redfield

Robert Redfield (1897-1958) earned his degree in sociology and anthropology from the University of Chicago in 1920.  More than any anthropologist of his generation, argues Clifford Wilcox, Redfield adopted a “pronounced sociological approach to anthropology.” According to Wilcox, two broad intellectual currents influenced Redfield’s development: “the deep-seated critique of civilization that emerged among European and American intellectuals following World War I,” and “his father-in-law, University of Chicago sociologist Robert E. Park ” (Social Anthropology, xiv.)

In contrast to the assertive Victorian belief in progress, in the period following the First World War, intellectuals began to “question the nature not only of Western civilization, but of civilization itself, particularly the equation of civilization with progress.”  Among those who penned withering critiques of civilization were Oswald Spengler and Edward Sapir. (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…)