Godwin, Contractarianism, and the Political Dead End of Empiricism

Share Embed


Godwin, Contractarianism, and the Political Dead End of Empiricism

Peter Howell St. Mary’s College, University of Surrey

At one point near the end of the preparatory philosophical chapters of the second and third editions of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1796 and 1798), William Godwin makes what amounts to, given the fundamentalist empiricist basis of his description of the moral and political improvement of man, a quite extraordinary recantation. Godwin, remember, has in the later editions of the work, with their expanded philosophical argument, systematically dismissed any idea of innate principles in the human mind, and of knowledge not grounded in the rational individual’s sense perception. He has further argued against Hume to say that all actions proceed from conscious motives that can be analyzed and reformed. Allied to those philosophical errors are political errors— the assumptions, first, that individuals have innate characteristics and, second, that they do not behave rationally in any understandable sense, which has allowed the maintenance of political states that are every bit as superstitious as the philosophies of mind that support them. On the other hand, so Godwin claims, if one can establish epistemological certainty, one can establish a political state in which one’s own knowledge can be relied upon; and the state, therefore, eventually becomes unnecessary. At this point comes the “extraordinary recantation” I have in mind:

Eighteenth-Century Life Volume 28, Number 2, Spring 2004 © 2004 by The College of William & Mary



Eighteenth-Centur y Life

We can neither be present to all places nor to all times. We cannot penetrate into the essences of things, or rather we have no sound and satisfactory knowledge of things external to ourselves, but merely to our own sensations. We cannot discover the cause of things, or ascertain that in the antecedent which connects it with the consequent and discern nothing but their contiguity. With what pretence can a being thus shut in on all sides lay claim to absolute perfection?1

This passage is preceded by the section, “The Voluntary Actions of Men Originate in their Opinions,” which introduces the important concept of “opinion” as a kind of intermediary between rational and habitual decisionmaking. It also attempts to establish a doctrine of “resting places” as a procedure for drawing conclusions without starting from first principles, but by using memories of similar situations. But confidence in this is likewise overturned in what is at best a very uneasy accommodation: Perhaps no action of a man arrived at years of maturity is, in the sense defined above, perfectly voluntary; as there is no demonstration of higher branches of mathematics which contains the whole proof within itself, and does not depend upon former propositions, the proofs of which are not present to the mind of the learner. . . . In the meantime it is obvious to remark that the perfection of the human character consists in approaching as nearly as possible to the perfectly voluntary state. (127)

So what? Godwin has obviously been reading Hume, whom he partly refutes and partly uses in his argument. As we cannot hold all knowledge in our heads at one time, we have to rely on the conclusions of others in order to form our own opinions; equally, we cannot know things for sure, and the best we can do is refine approximate ideas about external reality. This is not a perfect epistemological situation, but it will do. Empiricism deals in sensations rather than a priori knowledge, so it is always haunted by skepticism; but this does not cause it to collapse: because the human mind starts with nothing and builds up its stock of knowledge through acts of perception, it tends to constant improvement. Our task is, therefore, to work toward a situation where we do gain a perspicuity by which we are no longer beings “shut in on all sides.” I shall argue that such an accommodation is something of a fudge in Godwin’s text, as in empiricism generally, and that the resultant doubt reverberates around the whole of Political Justice. Godwin, as we know, denies the possibility of a just democracy in favor of a virtuous anarchism based on

Godwin and the Political Dead End of Empiricism


the evolution of the rational individual; but if empiricism collapses, so too must Godwin’s understanding of rational individualism. The reason for this is that Godwin’s epistemology is insufficient to the political work it has to do; doubt in his theory of knowledge erodes the basis for his virtuous individualism. Democracy is rejected by Godwin, and his empiricist epistemology also collapses under the pressure of doubt. But so too, in a parallel movement, does his anarchism based upon virtuous individualism. What’s left? Attention to anxieties over the certainty of political knowledge and the status of the political actor shows another side to the work. Godwin at times dreams of an order in which the individual is effaced in his community and in which, far from abstracting impersonal principles of justice from political knowledge, the political actor can only imagine his identity through his responsibility to, and identification with, the other. With his rigorous argumentation, Godwin thus ends up projecting a new world and relationships within that new world that are almost the opposite of what he appears to be trying to establish at first. The most acute locus of this tendency is, as will be seen, the issue of the social contract. In a social contract, the individual gives up a certain part of his resources and interests to the rest of society. But the paradox of contracts is that in regulating selfinterest they give rise to the idea that the interests of the individual and those of the community are separate and in competition. Further, the knowledge on which the social contract’s negotiation of difference between selves is to be based is never secure enough for Godwin; epistemological doubt leads to a reformulation of the terms of that difference. If we read Political Justice, then, with sensitivity to its anxieties and retractions, we can see a turning away from the century of empiricist and contractarian political philosophy on which it draws. However, the way of reading this work that I am recommending does not, as most readings hitherto have done, see this as something of an embarrassment — a lack in the final parts of his argument caused by an inability to construct a system that matches his stringent criteria — but instead as opening up exciting possibilities for going beyond contractarianism. In order to emphasize the positive nature of this shift, I wish first to offer an analysis of a near-contemporary work of political philosophy, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Wollstonecraft exhibits little epistemological skepticism as it relates to political knowledge or political identity, and bases her vision of the new society on the social contract. The result of this is that she ends up with a dis-


Eighteenth-Centur y Life

ciplinarian and highly prescriptive vision of the relations between people in society. In showing where I believe she went wrong, I shall also be suggesting how liberal political philosophy has come to a blind alley in modernity. It will then be possible to come back to Godwin’s more rigorous work, to exhibit the splendid possibilities suggested therein.

Wollstonecraft’s Empirical Certainty and the Discipline of the Social Compact The dominant thrust of much of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication is to rubbish essentialist claims by those contemporaries who argued that because men and women are inherently different from each other, and because the lower and the higher ranks are likewise different, people should have roles and duties in society based on their class and gender. She then tries to replace these with a system based upon universal principles, which would mean that the same general imperatives are applicable to all regardless of class and gender. The problem with her system becomes clear by the end of the argument, when she argues that each individual’s duty is defined by his or her place in relation to the social compact, and she starts recommending prescriptive roles for individuals based on the classes and genders of which they are a part, in a way that she has previously very specifically rejected. It is my contention that this is the result of an immediate neutralization of a number of epistemological and social problematics concerning difference between individuals and classes of individuals at the beginning of her argument. These are typical of contractarian thought based upon empiricist thinking; and failure to deal with them results, again typically, in the normalization of certain “prejudices” she had sought at first to debunk. Here is one occasion on which she fantasizes about such a neutralization of difference: A wild wish has just flown from my heart to my head, and I will not stifle it though it may excite a horse-laugh.— I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society, unless where love animates the behaviour. For this distinction is, I am firmly persuaded, the foundation of the weakness of character ascribed to woman; is the cause why the understanding is neglected, whilst accomplishments are required with sedulous care: and the same cause accounts for their preferring the graceful before the heroic virtues.2

Godwin and the Political Dead End of Empiricism


This is one of those many passages in Wollstonecraft in which, midway through or at the climax of, an accumulative description of the corruptions of the age, a vision of the resolution of these problems slips into the text, either as a dream-like sequence, or, as here, as a whimsical expression of revolutionary desire. It comes in the section, “Observations on the State of Degradation to which Woman is Reduced by Various Causes,” which starts, surprisingly, not with questions of gender but with class politics. She relates an opinion she has heard from “sensible men, who are in favour of an aristocracy” that it would be possible for the mass of mankind to rise up against the aristocracy; but the fact that they don’t have the planning and foresight to do this is evidence for the justice of their subjugation. “Women,” continues Wollstonecraft, “I argue from analogy, are degraded by the same propensity to enjoy the present moment” (121). So the specific area of difference under discussion, that of gender, is a subset of a more general political problematic. The argument goes on to observe some of the ways in which, in the present corrupted state of society, relations between man and woman (or, to speak more generally, between master and servant) are characterized by a perpetual, superficial, and ultimately destructive play of difference as it manifests itself physically in outward appearances. Women, by their efforts at “entrancing loveliness” can be only either “slave, or despot,” both of which situations “retard reason equally.” The links between the analysis of the workings of class politics within current social arrangements and the specific instance of gender difference are, then, clear. In an aristocratic society, the identity of any “individual” depends upon the difference enacted upon the subject by other subjects. In the same way, even when women are “placed on thrones,” their ultimate subjection is assured, as is that of those whose gallantry has put them there; master and servant alike are enslaved. And women, of course, participate in their own subjection by responding to male interventions that demand superficiality and thus also demand education into habits of mind that preclude the “power of generalising ideas, of drawing comprehensive conclusions from individual observations”— the ability to do which would appear to be the nature of Wollstonecraftian reason. The world set up thereby is one that is essentially unreal, predicated upon the “delusions of flattery,” as Wollstonecraft says, before going on, with a clear reference to Thomas Paine’s famous comment on Edmund Burke, to compare the predicament of women to that of fine birds who forget the real substance (125).3


Eighteenth-Centur y Life

The critique of society relies upon the idea that distinctions between classes and genders are not essential but contingent: were one to subject them to rigorous empirical scrutiny the reality of their status as prejudice would become obvious, as would the substance of the individuals they perniciously divide. And then, “a wild wish” (126) rushes from the heart to the head. The distinction of sex is to be confounded in society; in liberal style, Wollstonecraft proceeds to an immediate neutralization of difference. This immediacy needs some qualification; although the practical means by which this is to be brought about would take a generation or more, in terms of the main argument it is structurally immediate. There is also the caveat, “except where love animates the behaviour”— a point that will haunt her analysis later on. With that exception “the distinction of sex [is to] be confounded in society,” and at this point Wollstonecraft broadens the argument beyond gender to the practice of power in general terms: the relations between people at present, structured as they are by superficial appearance and based on essentialist assumptions about the different roles of subjects, are demeaning to both master and servant. The possible alternative she suggests is based on the “reciprocation of civility” (125); but the fact that the individual is defined by intersubjective difference is hidden from view, so that we get the individuated subject created from the intersubjective relations that it then leaves behind. Whereas at present one is very conscious of the relational nature of identity and of behavior’s fitting in with preconceived norms, in the new order, so Wollstonecraft dreams, one will not be so. But it is, of course, still there; the subject is still constructed in an intersubjective field, but it works in a different way and one does not, without analysis, grasp the constructedness of it. So we reach something of an aporia in her analysis of class and gender relations (which I am suggesting is a general feature in liberal political philosophy), although she will no doubt have some tricks up her sleeve to get round it in the communicative/disciplinary society that she proposes. Time and again Wollstonecraft insists on the superficiality of normative descriptions of virtue that distinguish between roles based on class and gender. To think of a world beyond such normalization, she acknowledges, requires an effort of imaginative or visionary thought. But this imaginative or visionary thought is oriented toward the penetrative observation of society and individuals, which though difficult under present circumstances is thus all the more necessary. Here is one example of her attempting such penetrative observation, again expressed as a kind of “wild wish”:

Godwin and the Political Dead End of Empiricism


Let me now, as from an eminence, survey the world stripped of all its false, delusive charms. The clear atmosphere enables me to see each object in its true point of view, while my heart is still. I am calm as the prospect in a morning when the mists, slowly dispersing, silently unveil the beauties of nature, refreshed by rest. In what light will the world now appear? — I rub my eyes and think, perchance, that I am just awakening from a lively dream. I see the sons and daughters of men pursuing shadows. (185 – 86)

Correct political observation requires the ability to see through illusion, to peel away the layers of appearance to see things as they are. The ability to see through “prejudice” is generalized into a whole political system that involves a process of going back to first principles; it is necessary always to ask whether any social or political practice started “rather [out of ] local expedient than a fundamental principle” (188)— the local expedient here would be the accidental results of circumstantial prejudice. As with the constitution and the state, so with the education of minds to form virtuous citizens; by a process of peeling away the layers of superficial and delusive rust to get to the unoxidized metal inside, the youth can finally fix on something substantial: There appears to be something analagous in the mind. The senses and the imagination give a form to the character, during childhood and youth; and the understanding, as life advances, gives firmness to the fair purposes of sensibility — till virtue [arises] rather from the clear conviction of reason than the impulse of the heart, [and] morality is made to rest on a rock against which the storms of passion vainly beat. (190)

Thus we have the individuated, particularized subject constructed upon a “rock,” which is in fact the imagination of conditions that by their very nature are imagined or ideal. I wish to point out some of the problems that Wollstonecraft gets herself into with this position by looking at how such a “rock” is to develop and engage in the social contract. The primary way of bringing about this “rock” is of course through education. Wollstonecraft’s interventions in this debate will here be examined briefly by contrasting her confrontation with Rousseau (in which she wants to take gender and difference in general out of the question) with her remarks on national education (where she puts it right back in, and in quite the most normalizing and disciplinarian way imaginable). The Rousseau of Emile; ou, de l’Education is, of course, a constant


Eighteenth-Centur y Life

antagonist throughout the Vindication, and it will not be possible here to cover all the intricacies of this confrontation. Her strategy is for the most part a curious one of quoting long passages and incredulously rubbishing them; “What nonsense!” snorts Wollstonecraft on a couple of occasions (91, 151). At the start of Emile, Rousseau construes a conflict between natural man, who is complete in himself, and civil man who experiences fractious division because he exists only in relation to his society: L’homme naturel est tout pour lui; il est l’unité numérique, l’entier absolu, qui n’a de rapport qu’à lui-même ou à son sembable. L’homme civil n’est qu’une unité fractionnaire qui tient au dénomitateur, et don’t la valeur est dans son rapport avec l’entier, qui est le corps social.4

The contradiction concerns not only the problem of what duties one owes to society and what proportion of resources or energies one should keep for oneself, but also the more general existential question of precisely what an individual consists of — in relation to others, or for and of himself. It is this conflict that the social contract would attempt to negotiate, for the most part unsuccessfully according to Rousseau. In Wollstonecraft, there is no essential conflict, or rather the conflict is played down and submerged under certainties about the justice of the ideal social compact. She in effect ignores the whole of the Rousseauvian problematic of dependence on others (instrumental, psychological, and ontological); but, as will be seen, she does this only to normalize in the strictest possible terms the place of women (which is extended to the place of all people) by regulating how they interact communicatively and rationally within the social compact. In a sense, Rousseau answers the question he poses at the start — shall one be for and of oneself, or for and of others? — by proposing a gender divide: a boy is to be educated so that he can be a man sufficient to himself, while a girl is to be educated in order to be sufficient to a man. Hence the question to be asked of a boy (“To what purpose are you talking?”) is modified when applied to girls (“How is your discourse to be received?”). The faculty required to answer the first question is the understanding, while to answer the second question it is taste, that is, a feeling for others’ reception of one’s self-presentation. This gender divide— and more generally, the idea that people should be educated according to their circumstances rather than the dictates of universal virtue — is what Wollstonecraft objects to, of course; and she rightly goes on to say that, in fact, under present social conditions both men and women are insufficient to themselves, are depen-

Godwin and the Political Dead End of Empiricism


dent entirely on others, and are hence both enslaved. Yet, despite her critique, she sees that humans are demonstrably not sufficient to themselves, so that she — and this is really quite startling — concurs with Rousseau’s “just description of a comfortable couple”; quoting directly from Rousseau, she applauds the situation in which “when love hath lasted as long as possible, a pleasing habitude supplies its place, and the attachment of a mutual confidence succeeds to the transports of passion. . . . When you cease to be mistress of Emilius, you will continue to be his wife and friend, you will be the mother of his children” (163). Such parts of Wollstonecraft’s argument are nowadays regularly identified as its main shortcoming.5 But the reason for its regressive flight into normative roles for women is the premature neutralization of difference at the start, the denial of interdependence, and the faith that, when empirical observation has stripped away appearance, everyone will be subject to the same dictates of duty. Citizens will learn these roles through the main building block of the Wollstonecraftian revolution of female manners, the system of national education that she proposes, one based largely on that being devised in France. The problem with the two systems already in existence — private education and education in public schools — is that they are both too dependent on the parents. The first is so because the child inhabits the same space as the family and so remains in a familiar position of submission and dominance, the latter, because the parents pay and expect the child to be taught what will fulfill their expectations rather than be taught disinterested virtue. Thus preconceptions about familial and social roles are learnt in both cases, and errors concerning the relations between individuals are replicated in each successive generation. In such conditions, children are encouraged to learn things by rote and behave according to certain forms and outward displays — at the expense of generalized understanding and interiorized virtue. Instead, Wollstonecraft proposes a system that is seemingly comprehensive, based on the premise that true citizenship involves something very different from the familial structures learnt in the present modes of educating children, which is, in her earlier terminology, “partial,” rather than particular. To achieve “expansive benevolence” all children up until nine are to be educated together, regardless of gender and social class, and are to wear the same uniforms in an attempt to reduce obvious division. Wollstonecraft explicitly states that such a project is designed to resolve the Rousseauvian contradiction between living for oneself (natural man, the child amongst his semblables) and living for others (civil


Eighteenth-Centur y Life

man, at school): “The only way to avoid the two extremes equally injurious to morality, would be to contrive some way of combining a public and private education” (242). However, in this charge toward establishing the uniformity of virtue, with “particularity” replacing “partiality,” divisions start very quickly to be made. For a start, education requires a material infrastructure. This is provided initially by the family, which teaches social affections in the microcosm of the home (246). Once children have gone into the education system, they are from nine years of age divided according to their intended destinations in life: “girls and boys, intended for the domestic employments, or mechanical trades, ought to be removed to other schools, and receive instruction appropriate to the destination of each individual . . . in the afternoon, girls should attend a school, where plain-work, mantua-making, millinery etc. would be their employment” (253 –54). Each individual, then, has a life project laid out for them by the overseers, a narrative that they are expected to fulfill. In the interest of equality, boys and girls are still, in adolescence, to receive some instruction together. But it turns out that this supposed universalization of values is in fact intended to reinforce the tasks laid out for individuals: “this would be a sure way to promote early marriages, and from early marriages the most salutary physical and moral effects naturally flow. What a different character does a married citizen assume from the selfish coxcomb!” (254). And it turns out, too, that this is how a woman can find her identity, play her role, and fulfill her life-narrative, in the state that Wollstonecraft proposes: As the rearing of children, that is, the laying a foundation of sound health of body and mind in the rising generation, has justly been insisted on as the peculiar destination of woman, the ignorance that incapacitates them must be contrary to the order of things. (278)

So being a mother and a wife is the “peculiar destination of woman,” that is to say, is how their part in the social compact is to be fulfilled. This can only be gone about properly by educating individuals to fulfill that role, based on a universalized view of things and the common good, but at the same time a particularized purpose for each person. In other words, the ends of virtue are universal rather than partially distributed in society according to distinctions such as class and gender, but these ends produce duties particular to each individual. These proscriptions for domestic production find their model in the state: “A man has been termed a micro-

Godwin and the Political Dead End of Empiricism


cosm; and every family might also be called a state” (264). So the social compact, which prescribes a particular life project for each party to that impartial agreement, produces the “individual” insofar as each subject fulfills his or her role. This turns out to be one of the central contradictions of modern liberal-contractarian thought.

Godwin’s Empiricism and its Political Limitations I intend to argue that the kind of anxieties and unsatisfying accommodations found in Wollstonecraft, and ultimately more or less violent repressions thereof, are brought into an explicit state of tension in Godwin’s Political Justice. To speak very schematically for the time being, this work, like the Vindication, starts with a relentless critique of the subject within the theory and practice of power in contemporary society, and the political knowledge produced in that situation. Unlike the Vindication, however, it then moves on to a critique of the posited alternative — democracy — along with anxious considerations of the autonomous, individuated citizen. Much of this anxiety stems from a latent dissatisfaction with available epistemology; the supposed fundamentalism of Godwin’s empiricism leaves doubts that become gaping chasms and are more or less unbridgeable. Broadly along the lines suggested by Wollstonecraft, empiricism offers the possibility of a penetrative analysis that might peel away the layers of appearance, provisionally to reveal a supposed truth beneath. But these truths are in turn illusory, because there is no reliable epistemology. And the attempt to apply empirical epistemology to the political scene turns out, in fact, to be oppressive, creating, as is illustrated in Caleb Williams, a diabolic circle of scrutiny and consequent domination. Godwin’s philosophical and political “anarchism,” which when viewed superficially is based upon the independence and autonomy of the individuated subject, becomes, if one pushes his conclusions to the limit, an order ensuing from the necessary erasure of the individual, or rather the dispersal of his identity as political actor or politicoepistemological agent. The movements by which this happens will be the subject of this section. The intellectual adventure that is Godwin’s Political Justice begins with consideration of the current status of political science, the possibilities for advancing it further and the effect it might have in the realm of practical politics. At first glance it is highly confident about the future of this type


Eighteenth-Centur y Life

of enquiry, giving as a desideratum a political science that has the same methodological and epistemological certainty as, and whose truth claims can thus inhabit the same order of credibility as, “those works of literature that treat in a methodical and elementary way the principles of science.”6 But knowledge of what follows makes one notice the subjunctive mood in which its assertions are predicated. The premise is that government should not be understood as acting in a negative manner, as a regulatory framework within which free individuals transact, but rather as forming the very framework that dictates the possible nature of those transactions. By extension, it would be possible to set up, by the application of the conclusions arrived at by a perspicuous political science, the material conditions in which it is possible, and in fact necessary, to be good. Writers before him have been “prompted rather by a quick sense of justice and disdain of oppression, than by a consciousness of the intimate connection between the different parts of the social system” (1st, iii). Godwin wishes to show that political institutions are not of subordinate but of primary importance to the progress of human morals because the character of government penetrates into all human activities; therefore, the utopian project of the good society must be based upon a political science that does the same. He is thus analyzing a social system that exists with tools that look forward to a utopian project of the future. This makes for a paradox and a potential impasse that becomes more apparent as the work goes on. What are the channels of power through which the perspicuity of knowledge leading to moral improvement can flow? And what are the impediments to these movements? In the first edition, the three possibilities are Literature, Education, and Political Justice. Literature is a good way of disseminating truth and is characterized by the kind of reciprocal communication that tends toward the establishment of truth, but because literature is not disseminated throughout society and lacks systematic method it is inadequate for the job. Education, too, can be useful; but it is not possible to educate enough people to make a decisive difference. The only possible solution is Political Justice. At this stage it is difficult to know what Godwin means by that term, but it has something to do with the universal application of a principle as yet to be explicated. Reform through reform of political institution has the advantage of extensive reach and thus would allow the natural propensity of men to perceive things as they are to exert itself throughout society. The kind of error it would potentially be able to combat is summarized thus:

Godwin and the Political Dead End of Empiricism


Superstition, an immoderate fear of shame, a false calculation of interests . . . [is an error that has] always been attended with the most extensive consequences. How incredible at the present day do the effects of superstition exhibited in the Middle Ages, the horrors of excommunication and interdict, and the humiliation of the greatest monarch at the feet of the Pope appear? What can be more contrary to the European modes than the dread of disgrace, which induces the Brahmin widows of Indostan to destroy themselves upon the funeral pile of their husbands? But however powerful these errors may be, the empire of truth, if once established, would be incomparably greater. The man who is enslaved by shame, superstition or deceit, will be perpetually exposed to an internal war of opinions, [involuntarily] disapproving . . . the conduct he has been most persuaded to adopt. (19)

In an enlightening mood, Godwin is writing against the kind of social and political organization that he sees as structuring the ancien régime in Europe, by comparing it, in a familiar trope, with Eastern tyranny. The most urgent political application of this analysis in the early part of Political Justice is in antiwar polemic; war must be demythologized, so it is no longer seen as a theatre in which acts of heroism are played out, but a scene where real and specific bloody violence and suffering take place, both on the front and at home. Caleb Williams at one point similarly takes apart Falkland’s conceptions of Alexander the Great and heroism in general.7 The key is that sense experience is to be employed in political observation, and this experience is to be described in realistic language in the construction of epistemologically reliable political knowledge. Some interesting things happen to this argument in the second and third editions. The whole becomes more philosophically grounded, a new chapter being added (“The Voluntary Actions of Men Originate in their Opinions”) in order to expound the concept of opinion as it forms a bridge between the material, external circumstances of men and their behavior and characters that derive from those circumstances through the opinions drawn from their perceptions of things as they are. The first edition’s attack on political superstition is replaced by an attack on philosophical superstition during a discussion of the doctrine of innate principles in a number of (unnamed but readily recognizable) philosophical systems. Godwin comments, It appeared upon their system that we were furnished with a sort of sixth sense, the existence of which was not proved to us, like that of our other


Eighteenth-Centur y Life

senses, by direct and proper evidence, but from the consideration of certain phenomena in the history of the human mind. There is an essential deficiency in every speculation of this sort. It turns entirely upon an appeal to ignorance. Its language is as follows: You cannot account for certain events from the known laws of the subject to which they belong . . . therefore you must admit another principle. (3rd, 98)

The superstitious doctrine of innate principles has the effect of subduing efforts in education and social evolution because it implies that social evolution is not possible. In one of Godwin’s most perspicuous phrases he sums up contemporary society’s understanding of the political agent as “the pretence that man is born all that it is possible for him to become. . . . How long has the jargon imposed upon the world which would persuade us that, in instructing a man, you do not add to, but unfold his story?” (109). The subject, in philosophy as much as in society, has a predefined place, is strictly a void defined and hemmed in by its difference from other subjects, which are the fixed and real parameters of his being. From the realization of lack springs an ideology that affirms the political self by giving it a proper place in the great scheme of things. From this critique Godwin spins out a theory of the development and perfectibility of the individual as an infinite potentiality that, in the learning process, annexes more and more of the strangeness of the world to his own understanding, calming its energy and irregularity by the fixedness of its own self-definition, along the lines laid out by eighteenth-century empiricism: In this state . . . the human being . . . comes to perceive a considerable similarity between situation and situation. In consequence he feels inclined to abridge the process of deliberation and to act today conformably to the determination of yesterday. Thus the understanding fixes for itself resting places, is no longer a novice and is not at the trouble continually to go back and revise the original reasons which determined it to a course of action. (3rd, 125)

The possibilities for education are thus greater than in the first edition, and it is here that the doubt and retraction with which I began this article comes into play. As has been seen in the surprising passages with which this article started, there is doubt in the doctrine of “resting places,” with the consequence that no man can ever be “truly rational” in Godwin’s strict sense. And there is doubt in sense experience, with the result that — astonishing in the context — Godwinian epistemology “cannot penetrate into the

Godwin and the Political Dead End of Empiricism


essences of things” because each of us is fundamentally “a being . . . shut in on all sides.” These doubts echo throughout the work. In the opening chapters, Godwin concludes that the only way of improving society is by the general application of political justice; but quite what was meant by that is unclear. Much of the first volume is concerned with definitions of what justice might be in theory and in practice. It is, as in Wollstonecraft, a prescription for political and moral action that is universalized, but in a way that makes it particular and individual; that is to say, ethical decisions cannot be made based upon who the political actor is or what position he holds in society. Instead each decision has to be based on circumstances unique to each case and on a calculation of the effects an action is likely to have on society at large. This last calculation requires a new order of knowledge that cannot be provided by the normal political procedures of the ancien régime, one that would follow the process outlined above of using empirical observation and clear description rather than prejudiced inclinations and symbolic representations of the issue at stake. One expression of this is the denial of the magic of the pronoun “I,” so that attachments to oneself, to one’s family and one’s immediate community — partial attachments — are shown to be mere prejudice. These attachments are usually described in the discourse of morality as, “mercy, gratitude, temperance, or any of those duties which in looser speaking are contradistinguished from justice” (1st, 50). But of course more strictly speaking such attachments are always to be subsumed by justice, which has no regard to immediate duties or the supposed economic utility of charity’s beginning at home. It is as such impersonal, in the older sense of not being specific to one’s place in society; but it is also highly personal, in the newer sense of being individual and specific to the particular but universal circumstances of the moment. In the 1796 edition, a new paragraph is added, which, as would be expected, makes explicit the epistemology of this rejection of all duty except the consideration of the justice of any given action at any particular time: If there be such a thing as virtue, it must be placed in conformity to truth, and not to error. It cannot be virtuous that I should esteem a man, that is, consider him possessed of estimable qualities, when in reality he is destitute of them. It surely cannot conduce to the benefit of mankind that each man should have a different standard of moral judgement, and preference, and that the standard of all should vary from that of reality. Those who teach this impose the deepest disgrace upon virtue. They assert in other


Eighteenth-Centur y Life

words that, when men cease to be deceived, when the film is removed from their eyes, and they see things as they are, they will cease to be either good or happy. Upon the system opposite to theirs, the soundest criterion of virtue is to put ourselves in the place of an impartial spectator, of an angelic nature, suppose, beholding us from an elevated station, and uninfluenced by our prejudices, conceiving what would be his estimate of the intrinsic circumstances of our neighbour, and acting accordingly. (3rd, 173 – 74)

We can recognize this kind of argument from Wollstonecraft, and ultimately from Adam Smith, who expounds a method for making particular moral judgments by emptying oneself of partial concerns so that one can view things with a sense of the universal that, paradoxically, implies their particularity. Further, Burke’s writings on the French Revolution seem to be strongly implied in Godwin’s description of those who require fictions for proper political knowledge, selfhood, and action. But how is this justice to be administered or applied in a general enough fashion for it to be all-pervasive? When answering this question, Godwin parts company with Wollstonecraft, and it is this parting that concerns me here. Wollstonecraft’s answer is negotiation within the social contract combined with better education into habits of empirical scrutiny. Arguments addressing this kind of answer — the contractarian answer preferred by most late-eighteenth-century radicals — form much of the material for the rest of Godwin’s Enquiry. Most of the analysis and criticisms of social contract are familiar from Locke and Rousseau, as Godwin points out — the nature of tacit agreements; the inheritance of a contract from one’s forefathers, which is unchanging and thus potentially unjust; and the related problem of agreeing to a binding compact even where better information is later to be had. In addition, it is more or less impossible for any one person to know enough about, for example, the “laws of England presented in fifty volumes folio,” to make a rational and informed judgment upon them (1st, 85). Following Rousseau, Godwin further asserts that it is not consistent with the principle of justice that the body of the people, or any individual for that matter, give up power even if only temporarily. He translates from Du Contrat social: “The general will cannot be represented. It must either be the same or another; there is no alternative. The deputies of the people cannot be its representatives; they are merely its attorneys. The laws that the community does not ratify in person are no laws, are nullities” (1st, 85).8

Godwin and the Political Dead End of Empiricism


Now, such problems, in the hands of Godwin at least, are clearly linked to the doubts about empiricism that he expresses during the sections on epistemology earlier in the book, and more especially in the second and third editions. The political actor cannot simultaneously examine all aspects of every issue in the political realm; therefore, so the contractarian-democratic argument would go, one needs to divide political and intellectual labor and have representatives do the political thinking. This would be a political application of Godwin’s doctrine of “resting places,” wherein others provide a body of thought whose line of reasoning the active citizen can continue. But, as has been noted, Godwin rejects this way of reasoning, with the result that “no action of man . . . is perfectly voluntary” (3rd, 125). And so the familiar question is asked, now at the political level as it had been at the philosophical level, “With what pretence can a being thus shut in on all sides lay claim to absolute perfection?” (145). Within rules set up by the epistemological and ontological premises with which Godwin starts, it is not permissible for representation of opinion to take place; an immediacy is required in which each political actor can see each object of political dilemma in itself. When I say that the doubts over empiricist epistemology inform Godwinian rejection of governmental attempts to represent popular opinion, thereby “abridging” the operations of mind, what I mean is that, in Godwin, empiricism goes beyond itself and cannot match its own stringent criteria— a phenomenon that I believe pervades many political projects of modernity. The fundamental difficulty for Godwin with all kinds of government stems from the fact that although promises need to be made the structure of the promises is inconsistent with his epistemology. The concept of the promise presents a number of problems. If society demands that people keep their promises, it is to demand the hypostasization of that person’s knowledge accumulation; new information is constantly to be had, making any promise obsolete as soon as it is made because it is not based on an immediate calculation of general advantage, and thus contrary to the idea of justice. Godwin entertains the dream of being totally specific yet totally universal in each moral and political decision and rejects as being insufficient the contemporary attempts by various means (the press, public address, political association) to transmit information so fast and accurately that all persons at all times have the opportunity to form opinions, express them, and thereby have their say in affairs of state. This rejection is structurally


Eighteenth-Centur y Life

similar to the doubts over empiricist epistemology, and indeed arises from them. Hence the distrust of society, and the dissolution of government, to be replaced by the individuated, rational subject. Most studies of Godwin would stop at this point. But the logic of the rejection of the promise can be carried further, and indeed it is carried further by Godwin, anxiously, uncertainly, but undeniably if we are alive to the richness of his arguments. The promise is a fiction, and that fact is enough for Godwin to deny its legitimacy, as opposed to, say, Bentham, where fictions can in exceptional circumstances have utility. The promise is also a fiction that presupposes that different individuals have different and ultimately competing and contradictory claims about resources in society. (Indeed, contractarian theory arose during the seventeenth century in response to economic individualism and as a solution to the observation that people do have different and conflicting interests.) This is an idea of which Godwin will clearly not admit; for it is crucial for his project that this is in fact and in itself a fiction, a “prejudice,” or, as we might say, an “ideology,” in the sense of an illusory set of ideas that mask a truth behind it. In reality, people’s interests are the same once the ignorance of the current age is done away with. To be an individual in the Godwinian sense, or rather at the extreme of the Godwinian sense, is to empty oneself of individuality, to see how one’s self fits in with everyone else’s self, or to construe oneself as part of a greater whole. The world is not like the rational society wished for by contractarians, in which each individual negotiates to optimize personal utility with others in conditions approaching as nearly as possible to perfect visibility and perfect knowledge, all of which turns out to be to the ultimate benefit of the whole of the society in which these conditions obtain; instead, this view of reality is flipped ever so quietly on its head. Individuals do not force a crack in the great chain of being: they are a link in it, inevitably and necessarily, and their identity depends on those links. This may be illustrated by some attention to a section on loyalty and resistance to a constitution, which will highlight how Godwin, following other early 1790s radicals,9 sees certain procedures of contemporary society and thought as causing an “abjectness” in each individual because they demand that each political actor empty himself of individuality; but once this theory is destroyed, Godwin repeats this requirement by almost insisting upon the giving up of individuality. The final book of the first volume, entitled somewhat misleadingly “Miscellaneous Principles” in the first edition, concerns some ways of effecting change and gives some hints about

Godwin and the Political Dead End of Empiricism


what the Godwinian utopia might be like. The new title of this section in the next two editions —“Of the Operation of Opinion in Society and Individuals”— is a far more helpful one if the meaning of “Opinion” is understood in the positive sense and is used to oppose prejudice and force, both of which negate justice. Before going on to consider methods for effecting change through such opposition, Godwin first considers the argument that one should have respect or gratitude for the present constitition and, therefore, not try to effect change. As one would expect, for him the political actor has not really assented to this constitution, and even if he had the need for constant examination and revision would render the idea of perpetual commitment to the constitution illegitimate. At root, this is a consequence of the fact that “gratitude to the constitution” is “an abstract idea,” and has an “imaginary existence” (1st, 114)— the argument is familiar. However, from the second edition onwards, another of these gradual collapses takes place. First, the current situation is described more explicitly: However imperfect might be the political constitution under which they lived, mankind have ordinarily been persuaded to regard it with a sort of reverential and implict respect. The privileges of Englishmen, and the liberties of Germany, the splendour of the most Christian, and solemn gravity of the Catholic King, have each afforded a subject of exultation to the individuals who shared, or thought they shared, in the advantages these terms were conceived to describe. Each man was accustomed to deem it a mark of the peculiar kindness of providence that he was born in the country, whatever it was, to which he happened to belong. (3rd, 256)

The critique of present arrangements barely needs to be expanded upon; the advantages, so it is implied, are imaginary under the ancien régime, and people believe only that their country possesses them. Against this, there is in Godwin a revolutionary zeal that approaches the apocalyptic in so far as a changed state of affairs is dreamt of without much optimism in the immediate means by which this will come about: The time may come when men shall exercise the piercing truth upon the mysteries of government, and view without prepossession the defects and abuses of the constitution of their country. Out of this new order of things a new series of duties will arise. (256)

What constitutes this new “order of things,” what is the “new series” that arises from it, and how would the political actor understand himself and


Eighteenth-Centur y Life

his place in the political order under the new dispensation? The most usual answer for Godwin’s commentators is, the rational independent individual living by the dictates of political justice, which is both universal and as such highly particular, being as blind to position in society and personal history as Wollstonecraft’s virtue is blind to class and gender. In the ensuing sections, however, this accommodation collapses under the weight of Godwin’s relentless pursuit of ideas to their logical conclusions, expressing anxiety about the coherence of individualism in a way that Wollstonecraft does not allow. The collapse is inevitable because the principle of immutable justice conceives an order not so much where everyone’s interests converge — as in social contract thought — but where individuals empty themselves not only of “partial” concerns, but of particular self-interest and particularity itself. The new order of things is to be dreamt of by only a few at first — one might say “imagined,” which would enable us to put this idea alongside, for example, Coleridge’s perception of the imagination as possessing “splendid possibilities” that a select few intuit beyond the ordinarily visible world. To conceive an order of society totally different from that which is now before our eyes, and to judge of the advantages that would accrue from its institution, are the prerogatives only of a few minds. When these advantages have been unfolded by superior penetration, they cannot yet for some time be expected to be understood by the multitude. (1st, 114)

Of course, there is to be a gradual dissemination of the knowledge from intellectuals to popular culture, although it is difficult to see how that is to happen effectively: [T]hough association, in the received sense of that term, must be granted to be an instrument of a very dangerous nature, it should be remembered that unreserved communication in a smaller circle, and especially among persons who are already awakened to the pursuit of truth, is of unquestionable advantage. There is at present a cold reserve that keeps man at a distance from man. There is a sort of domestic habit, the object of which is to instruct us to elude curiosity and to keep up the tenour of conversation, without disclosure either of our own feelings or our opinions. The Philanthropist has no object more deeply at heart than the annihilation of this duplicity and reserve. No man can have much kindness to the species, who does not habituate himself to consider on each successive occasion of social intercourse how that occasion may be most beneficently improved. (120)

Godwin and the Political Dead End of Empiricism


It has been argued from such passages that what Godwin ends up with is communication; it is rational exchange, conversation and mutual intellectual appraisal that is to replace government institutions.10 This is doubtless in part because, as has also been argued, “[H]istorical changes throughout the 1790s deprived Godwin’s theory of political justice of its empirical basis,” which forces the theory into abstract idealism, which is impossible to realize.11 However, this “hidden secret of Godwin’s anarchism” (Hamilton, 50), by which the empirical gaze of the citizen turns in on itself, is not simply a reaction to events in France or Britain, but the result of epistemological doubts. Any processes he can delineate are insufficient to the purpose; communicative rationality always eventually becomes institutionalized; and, as Andrew McCann has argued, Godwin is always suspicious of opinion when it moves from an ideal of communicativity to tangible, institutionally mediated structures.12 But, as I have contended, the underlying reason for this is the doubt about empiricist epistemology, with the consequent collapse of the concept of the autonomous political actor acting within communication and material exchange. Godwin destroys the politico-ontological and politico-epistemological metaphysic involved in the ancien régime’s modes of representation; but because of his doubts over empiricism neither does he have confidence in the epistemological and communicative processes advocated by contractarians and democrats. Further, he cannot come up with communicative procedures that would produce the autonomous but transactional individuals necessary to facilitate the dissolution of all forms of government. The apparent Godwinian dream of a virtuous anarchism thus has neither the practical means to bring it about or the philosophical support necessary as a condition of its logical possibility. Moreover, I wish to go one stage further; something has to fill in this void, and that is a new imaginative order in which people’s interests are not essentially contradictory but essentially the same, in which the world becomes comprehensible as a chain of entities in which each individual is simply one of the links and can define himself and have knowledge of the world only in that way: Human beings are placed in the midst of a system of things, all the parts of which are strictly connected with each other, and exhibit a sympathy and unison by means of which the whole is rendered intelligible and as it were palpable to the mind. The respect I shall obtain and the happiness I shall enjoy for the remainder of my life are topics . . . of which my mind has


Eighteenth-Centur y Life

a complete comprehension. I understand the value of plenty, liberty and truth to myself and my fellow men. I perceive that these things and a certain conduct intending them are connected, in the visible system of the world, and not by the supernatural imposition of an invisible director. (1st, 272)

Now, this passage would perhaps most easily be interpreted as a representation of the mechanistic universe of cause and effect, continuity and contiguity, etc., which the rational being can find intelligible by the use of his sense and intellectual faculties. However, given the doubts about empiricist knowledge already demonstrated it is possible to put another construction on it, viz., that the kind of universe of which Godwin is talking actually comes from within the mind, requiring not an act of revelation (as the natural theology against which he is arguing would require) but a shift in mind-set, an act of secular imagination. We have only to imagine a universe like this, and it will actually be like this. This is particularly clear in ethics, where individuals have to be imagined as having common interests and so then will have, in fact, no particularized self-interest! Time and again he advocates the kind of penetrative and all-seeing knowledge of things associated with a confident empiricism, then holds up his hands and admits that the secure knowledge of things as they are is a project beyond reach: That desire can only be denominated virtuous, which flows from a distinct perception of the value, and consequently of the nature, of the thing desired. But how extensive must be the capacity that comprehends the full value of that benefit which is the object of virtue! . . . It must discriminate among all the different causes that produce a pleasurable state of mind, that which produces the most exquisite state of mind, that which produces the most exquisite and durable pleasure. . . . God, according to the ideas usually conceived of that being, is more benevolent than man, because he has a constant and clear perception of the nature of that end which his providence pursues. (1st, 143)

The final comment is illuminating: utilitarian calculation, which seems at times to be the method of ethical decisionmaking in Godwinian justice, is really beyond our ken. We would need to be an empirically active deity in order to do it correctly. The fudge that we can in any case work toward such perfection would appear to be distinctly inadequate to Godwin’s monumental and absolutist project. Such a reading of Political Justice will seem perversely tangential, and no doubt it goes somewhat against its grain. Godwin actually uses some-

Godwin and the Political Dead End of Empiricism


thing very like the phrase I have used —“the dissipation of the individual into society”— and denies its legitimacy: One of the most essential principles of political justice is diametrically the reverse of that which imposters and patriots have too frequently agreed to recommend. Their perpetual exhortation has been, “Love your country. Sink the personal existence of individuals in the existence of the community. Make little account of the particular men of whom society exists, but aim at the general wealth, prosperity and glory. Purify your mind from the gross idea of sense, and elevate it to the contemplation of that abstract individual of which particular men are so many detached members, valuable only for the places they fill.” (1st, 278: my italics)

This has a good many resonances with various political discourses: “that abstract individual” refers to Hobbes’ body politic; and there is an implied critique of Burke in the attachment to a certain constitution that allows one to go beyond oneself to imagine a greater whole. But Godwin might also be thinking of the patriotic discourse of citizenship current in France, most especially that of the duty to serve the state before personal interests — as advocated by the nascent Montagnard-Jacobins. Viewed in this way, the passage continues in a way that opposes Enlightenment discourse: “Society is an ideal existence, and not on its own account entitled to the smallest regard. The wealth, prosperity and glory of the whole are but unintelligible chimeras” (1st, 278). The first sentence makes a distinction between political fact and political fiction, reminiscent of, for example, Bentham’s rejection of legal fictions such as the social contract; but the second rejects the attempt to observe and calculate the benefits of society in a utilitarian way. In the third edition, Godwin attempts to make clear that virtue rejects the “rant of romance”: “happiness, in order to be real, must be individual” (509). But this only confuses things: we cannot favor those close to us over the interests of society (as discussed above). The only logical way out of this confusion, as elsewhere, would be to imagine a world where such contradictions do not exist, or to reconfigure relations between individuals so that their interests do not conflict — or to imagine a world where individuals have no interests. The generation of political knowledge would consist not of acts of observation and calculation but of imagining. It would require not responsibility but sympathetic identification with others in a community.


Eighteenth-Centur y Life

Conclusion: Godwin and Romantic Communitarianism Godwin’s critique of the theory and practice of power in the ancien régime across Europe is based on what I have been calling an empiricist “politicoepistemology.” His critique of the contractarian-democratic alternative is given energy by the fundamentalism of his empiricism; representation, association, loyalty, the promise and even language itself abridge the principle of political justice because they problematize the basic model of empirical perception. Although Godwin attempts to reject Humean skepticism his doubts make him slip into a similar skepticism; and with that he loses confidence not only in institutionalized methods of conveying and sharing information, but in the ability of the individual to make political decisions. Behind this we glimpse the only logical alternative available to him — social conditions in which social identity is experienced as alterity, and in which the individual empties himself of particular interest and imagines himself as a link in the communitarian chain. Although such a situation can only be imagined at present, the act of imagining is an important step toward bringing such conditions about, as the shift requires a change in the way we imagine our identities as much as any institutional change. As we have seen, Wollstonecraft’s argument runs in a diametrically opposite direction to this; difference (between sexes, individuals, and types of individuals) is taken out of the equation at the start, making the individuation a philosophical given. But she then proceeds to aggressively counter that, saying that individuals negotiate within, and get their normative roles from, the social contract. This, so I wish to claim, is a feature of contractarian thought in modernity generally; the contract defines and provides the structural possibility of individual self-interest, before it abridges the “liberty” so inaugurated. The uncompromising nature of Godwin’s politico-epistemological thought follows in many ways the movements of empiricism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What I have described in Godwin might be called in philosophy a kind of Idealism, and in cultural studies “Romanticism.” This essay opens up an opportunity to reassess Wordsworth’s famous description in The Prelude of his adopting Godwinian rationalism in the mid-1790s:

Godwin and the Political Dead End of Empiricism


This was the time when, all things tending fast To deprivation, the Philosophy That promised to abstract the hopes of man Out of his feelings, to be fixed thenceforth Forever in a purer element Found ready welcome. (thirteen-book Prelude, bk 10, ll. 805 – 10)

It is through Wordsworth’s rejection of those ideas in the late 1790s that Godwin has, in literary studies at least, so often been mediated. Replacing the idea that Wordsworth in the late 1790s rejected Godwinian thought outright, we can see how Wordsworth from 1797 to 1798 onward seems to echo the Godwin-at-the-extreme that I have delineated, endorsing the emptying of self-interest and imagining social conditions in which political selfhood is a site of alterity differentiated by surrounding communities — and by so imagining begins to bring these conditions about. The comparison with Coleridge (see above) shows how early Romantic thinking on the political uses of the imagination runs parallel with, rather than divergently from, Godwinian thought. I hope, too, this essay opens up an opportunity to reassess Godwin as a political theorist whose project does not embarrassingly fail because it lacks an empirical or institutional basis, but instead points the way on an exciting journey beyond empiricism and contractarian thought to a defiantly communitarian and Idealist understanding of political selfhood and action.

Notes 1. Enquiry [3rd edn.], ed. Isaac Kramnick (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), 145. Hereafter cited as “3rd.” 2. Vindication, in Political Writings, ed. Janet Todd (Oxford: Oxford Univ., 1994), 126 – 27. 3. Cf. Paine, The Rights of Man, ed. Henry Collins (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), 46. This is a rep. of the 4th edn. (1791). 4. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile; ou, de l’éducation (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1966), 39. 5. The archetype for the critique of Wollstonecraft’s denial of feminine sexuality and advocacy of female participation in middle-class interests is Cora Kaplan, Sea Changes: Essays on Culture and Feminism (London: Verso, 1986), 32 –50.


Eighteenth-Centur y Life

6. Enquiry [1st edn.], in The Political and Philosophical Writings of William Godwin, vol. 3, ed. Mark Philp (London: William Pickering, 1993), 2. Hereafter cited as “1st.” 7. Godwin, Things as they are, or, the Adventures of Caleb Williams, ed. Maurice Hindle (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988), 116. 8. Godwin is translating from Du Contrat social (Amsterdam: 1762), bk 3, chap. 15, 214. 9. Most famously in Richard Price’s sermon, A Discourse on the Love of our Country, to which Burke responded in Reflections on the Revolution in France (London: J. Dodsley, 1790). See Price (London: T. Cadell, 1789), 22. 10. See especially Mark Philp, Godwin’s Political Justice (Ithaca: Cornell Univ., 1986). 11. Paul Hamilton, “Coleridge and Godwin in the 1790s,” in The Coleridge Connection, ed. Richard Gravil (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990), 55. 12. Cultural Politics in the 1790s (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999), 59 – 82.

Copyright of Eighteenth-Century Life is the property of Duke University Press and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.

Lihat lebih banyak...


Copyright © 2017 DATOSPDF Inc.