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The Burke-Wollstonecraft Debate

Savagery, Civilization, and Democracy

Daniel I. O'Neill

Publication Year: 2007

Many modern conservatives and feminists trace the roots of their ideologies, respectively, to Edmund Burke (1729–1797) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), and a proper understanding of these two thinkers is therefore important as a framework for political debates today.According to Daniel O’Neill, Burke is misconstrued if viewed as mainly providing a warning about the dangers of attempting to turn utopian visions into political reality, while Wollstonecraft is far more than just a proponent of extending the public sphere rights of man to include women. Rather, at the heart of their differences lies a dispute over democracy as a force tending toward savagery (Burke) or toward civilization (Wollstonecraft). Their debate over the meaning of the French Revolution is the place where these differences are elucidated, but the real key to understanding what this debate is about is its relation to the intellectual tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment, whose language of politics provided the discursive framework within and against which Burke and Wollstonecraft developed their own unique ideas about what was involved in the civilizing process.

Published by: Penn State University Press

Front Cover

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xii

This book has been a very long time in the making. It bears little resemblance to its first formulation as a dissertation, and I daresay that I can mark major moments in my adult life—personally, professionally, and geographically—by recalling what phase of reading, writing, or revision the project was in at the time. ...

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pp. 1-20

For more than two centuries, conservatism and feminism have been driving ideological forces in Western political thought. What concerns initially animated these two powerful modern theoretical perspectives? That is the fundamental question at the heart of this book. ...

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1 The Scottish Enlightenment, the Moral Sense, and the Civilizing Process

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pp. 21-50

In the past thirty years, a number of scholars have demonstrated the unique intellectual contribution made by a group of like-minded eighteenth-century Scots who were closely affiliated, both personally and professionally, and self-consciously unified around an identifiable theoretical project. ...

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2 Burke and the Scottish Enlightenment

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pp. 51-88

When it comes to reading Edmund Burke, there are an astonishing number of preexisting theoretical frameworks in the secondary literature. There is, to be sure, a good deal to be learned from all of these readings. We have had Burke as a liberal of the nineteenth-century utilitarian1 and anti-imperial2 variety, ...

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3 Wollstonecraft and the Scottish Enlightenment

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pp. 89-124

Jane Rendall, in particular, has demonstrated that the theoretical status of women was central to Scottish Enlightenment moral philosophy and historiography, and that the Scots articulated a unique and influential understanding of women’s changing role and social position over time.1 ...

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4 "The Most Important of all Revolutions"

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pp. 125-156

One of the most remarkable aspects of Edmund Burke’s interpretation of the French Revolution was the early date at which he became passionately and irrevocably opposed to it. The Reflections appeared in 1790, years before Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the other members of the royal family were executed, ...

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5 Vindicating a Revolution in Morals and Manners

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pp. 157-194

Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men was the first published reply to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. She wrote it hastily. Burke’s work appeared on the first of November 1790, and her answer, initially anonymous, was in print by the end of the month. ...

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6 Burke on Democracy as the Death of Western Civilization

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pp. 195-226

Burke claimed never to have read Wollstonecraft’s reply to him, despite its having been sent directly to his home.1 Nevertheless, it is clear from his letter to Mrs. John Crewe, quoted above, that he counted Wollstonecraft as one of a new brand of politically active women who were ingenious and evil supporters of the French Revolution, ...

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7 Wollstonecraft on Democracy as the Birth of Western Civilization

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pp. 227-256

In this final chapter, I take up Mary Wollstonecraft’s least-read work, her history of the French Revolution. My argument is that Wollstonecraft’s text can be interpreted as the third installment of a response to Burke’s narrative of the Revolution as the death of Western civilization and its devolution into democratic savagery. ...

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pp. 257-262

The broad question at the heart of this book was how two of the canonical figures of modern conservatism and feminism interpreted the foundational event of political modernity, the French Revolution. I conclude that we misunderstand Burke if we see his writings as a cautious antidote to the type of grandiose political scheming ,,,


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pp. 263-276


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pp. 277-291

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780271053066
E-ISBN-10: 0271053062
Print-ISBN-13: 9780271032016
Print-ISBN-10: 0271032014

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2007