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The Pursuit of Certainty

Shirley Robin Letwin

Publication Year: 2012

By examining the thought of four seminal thinkers, Shirley Robin Letwin in The Pursuit of Certainty provides a brilliant record of the gradual change in the English-speaking peoples' understanding of "what sort of activity politics is." As Letwin writes, "the distinctive political issue since the eighteenth century has been whether government should do more or less." Nor, as many historians argue, did this issue arise because of the Industrial Revolution or "new social conditions [that] aggravated the problem of poverty" but, Letwin believes, because of the "profoundly personal reflection" of major thinkers, including Hume, Bentham, Mill, and Webb. David Hume, for example, believed that to "reach for perfection, to seek an ideal, is noble, but dangerous, and is therefore an activity that individuals or voluntary groups may pursue, but governments certainly should not." By the end of the nineteenth century, as Letwin observes, Beatrice Webb came to "equate the triumph of reason over passion with the rule of science over human life." Thus did the "pursuit of certainty" displace the traditional English understanding of the limitations of human nature—hence the necessity of limits to governmental power and programs. Consequently, in our time, "Politics was no longer one of several human activities and at that not a very noble one; it encompassed all of human life" in quest of philosophical "certainty" and social perfection. The Liberty Fund edition is a reprint of the original work published by Oxford in 1965.

Shirley Robin Letwin (1924–1993) was a Professor of Political and Legal Philosophy at Harvard, Cambridge, and the London School of Economics.

Published by: Liberty Fund

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

I would like to thank the William Volker Foundation, the Earhart Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation for grants during the early stages of my work. I owe a special debt of gratitude to the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study and its director, Miss Constance Smith, ...

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pp. ix-xx

Although nothing inspires dispute more easily than matters of politics, there is wonderful agreement about the questions at issue. Not only is the nature of political controversy in the distant past supposed to be clear. What has more recendy agitated men seems equally certain. ...

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1. A Man of Moderation

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pp. 3-8

Puritanism does not often breed defenders of pagan virtues. Yet it was partly because he grew up in a culture preoccupied with hell that David Hume came to speak so profoundly for the tolerant civilization, devoted to living gracefully here and now, that flourished in the great Whig houses of eighteenth-century England. ...

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2. The Kirk

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pp. 9-20

Hume's moderation had, however, been acquired. It was fashioned by rebellion against the dogmatic and austere civilization that bred him. Beneath the bland surface of his life, there is another story that begins with Scotland in the early decades of the eighteenth century, where Calvinism still ruled with much of its early strength but little of the grandeur. ...

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3. The Combat of Reason and Passion

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pp. 21-33

When he surveyed the scene, Hume found enemies of an affable virtue also outside the Kirk. There were many alternatives to Presbyterian theology, ranging from what seemed to be rank materialism to a theology that offered redemption and virtue to all men. They differed in purpose and form from the Kirk's doctrine, ...

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4. A New Scene of Thought

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pp. 34-53

To achieve his purpose, Hume had to show that man had no extraordinary powers like those claimed for him by others. Philosophers as well as the vulgar, Hume declared, felt obliged to assign "some invisible intelligent principle" for anything that surprised them. As they could not understand the effect either of the mind on the body, ...

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5. Virtue in a Bundle of Perceptions

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pp. 54-67

Having tumbled reason from her high throne to set her on earth judging facts and thus removed the divine imprint from man's soul, Hume used the same means to show that man bore no mark of Satan. For man restored to nature, he described a virtue that required no struggle with sin, no repression, no divine intervention, ...

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6. The Philosophical Enthusiasm Renounced

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pp. 68-74

In the end, Hume's feeling for the complexity and uncertainty of everything human destroyed his faith in his own philosophy. All his painstaking inquiries led him to conclude that there were no grounds for being sure of anything, either in philosophy or common life. ...

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7. A Matter of Degree

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pp. 75-82

What Hume was really sceptical about is most obvious in his views on politics, with which he occupied himself in the years after he had recovered from his philosophical enthusiasm. He did not forget his philosophical interests, but let them take the more natural shape of a History of Natural Religion, a Dialogue on morals, ...

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8. The Science of Politics

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pp. 83-93

It is disconcerting then to find that on other questions Hume takes a stand, even lays down general rules, as if for all men and all times. But he is speaking with the authority of prudence, not science, as a man who has learned wisdom more than truth. And his notion of prudence implied that any attempt to settle political questions ...

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9. The Proper Political Disposition

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pp. 94-113

However reserved Hume was about the possibility of discovering, or the usefulness of acting on general laws in politics, and however impartial he was between political parties, he was altogether committed to a particular style of politics. Whenever he found instances of it, he was ready with praise; when it was absent, he could not be sympathetic. ...

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10. The End of Profane Politics

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pp. 114-130

The same considerations perfectly consistently determined Hume's reactions to the political events of his last years. When Wilkes became the cause of a public furore that threatened a revolution, and for what Hume regarded as frivolous reasons, he was bound to be against Wilkes. ...

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11. Blackstone's Challenger

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pp. 131-141

The death of Hume was but one of several omens that 1776 marked the end of an era. The list of great monuments to Whig civilization was completed with the publication of Gibbon's Decline and Fall and Smith's Wealth of Nations. The Americans declared their independence in terms that gave intimations of something new to come. ...

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12. Utilitarianism—A System of Tolerance

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pp. 142-161

Thus Bentham opened his introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. The principle that he so confidently placed beyond question was an unusual sort of principle, certainly if it were meant to serve as the foundation of a moral system. It simply approved or disapproved of every action "according to the tendency ...

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13. A Perfect System of Legislation

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pp. 162-185

At first sight, then, nothing very striking distinguishes Bentham's general view of politics from Hume's. His concern for tolerance was perhaps more nearly a ruling interest, but it was one that Hume would have found congenial. Hume might have been amused by Bentham's painstakingly detailed discussions of questions ...

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14. Gadgets for Happiness

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pp. 186-193

Bentham offered his services as codifier to everyone-Russia, Bavaria, Spain, Venezuela, France, Portugal, the United States, the state of Pennsylvania; his papers even include an essay on Securities against Misrule adapted to Mohammedan states. But in fact, he never wrote a code. ...

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15. A Modest Utopian

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pp. 194-202

Yet for all his single-mindedness, Bentham cannot be summed up by any simple, uncompounded idea. He seems rather to be one of those divided natures which lend themselves to two quite opposite portraits. ...

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16. James Mill

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pp. 203-215

It was a triumph of conviction over temperament when James Mill became associated with Bentham. For the two men could hardly have had more different dispositions or more opposed notions about the way to live. ...

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17. The Young Disciple

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pp. 216-226

Once he was enrolled in the new faith, it was only natural for James Mill to hope that his gifted eldest son would become a revered leader of the congregation. The story of how he educated John Stuart for this task is well known. The rigours of the education and the early age at which it began were certainly as formidable as the son felt them to be, ...

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18. The Failure of Utilitarianism

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pp. 227-239

By the 1820's, Bentham's principles, even if they had been transmitted in the master's true spirit, had become, if not irrelevant, somewhat out of place. The world that had inspired Bentham, and that even James Mill knew best, the world in which personal relations were all and it was a struggle to make men attend ...

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19. Intimations of a New Creed

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pp. 240-252

John Mill was echoing the popular charges against utilitarianism when he declared that it had led him to neglect the feelings in favour of speculation and action. His training, he said, had been all on the side of developing analytic habits, so that he inevitably analysed whatever he felt until he wore away his feelings. ...

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20. Many-Sidedness

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pp. 253-262

The first effect of Mill's new experience was a yearning for something less severe, more gentle and graceful than he had known before, and he allowed himself to rest a moment from the struggle for improvement. It was almost as if he were trying to reach back, beyond his father, even beyond Bentham, to a less censorious, more easy-going outlook. ...

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21. The Creed of Progress

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pp. 263-273

It was Comte who helped Mill to see precisely how he could express his revelation in works. A St. Simonist whom he met at the Debating Society introduced him to Comte's work, but Mill never became the centre of English St. Simonism as D'Eichthal had hoped. ...

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22. Radicals in Politics

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pp. 274-285

For a few years, between 1829 and 1832, John Mill went so far as to speak of the Radical programme—universal suffrage, the shorter parliament, the ballot—as "mere conditions of election." He told himself and his friends that he would do best to stay away from politics and work out principles ...

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23. Sociology

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pp. 286-306

The reason for the Radicals' failure, for the generally sad state of politics, had been clear to Mill even before it had been revealed in practice. Had he not said before that without scientific knowledge, nothing much could be accomplished either in politics or in morals? ...

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24. Sociology Applied

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pp. 307-316

For some time after completing the Logic, Mill toyed with ethology, upon which everything else depended; but nothing came of it. In the end, he had recourse to the qualification he had made in the Logic when he explained that although every part of society influences every other, some social facts have causes that can be studied separately.1 ...

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25. Liberty and the Ideal Individual

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pp. 317-340

While Mill was meditating on the possibility of discovering and applying scientific truth about men and society, the agitated England he had known as a young Radical was growing more sedate. By the time the Political Economy was published in 1848, England was well on the way to the "age of Bagehot and Trollope," ...

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26. The Liberal Gentleman

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pp. 341-350

Once Utilitarianism and Representative Government were out of the way, there remained only one more pressing subject to cover—the Subjection of Women, which Mill wrote at about the same time as Representative Government, but did not publish until a few years later. For the most part, his duties had been fulfilled. …

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27. A New Climate of Opinion

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pp. 351-374

When Mill pleaded at St. Andrews for the liberally educated gentleman, he was defending a losing cause. Faith in science had triumphed to a degree he had not dreamt of even in The Spirit of the Age. Public school masters agreed with scientists that the school curriculum must be revised to make room for science, even at the expense of classics.1 ...

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28. The Making of a Socialist

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pp. 375-400

Beatrice Webb was born Beatrice Potter, on January 2, 1858, into a prosperous business family. The Potters had risen in the usual way. Richard, Beatrice's grandfather, came from a farm in the North, where his family also kept a draper's shop. His elder brother William, convinced that young men could rise most easily in trade, ...

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29. The Apotheosis of Politics

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pp. 401-416

How science could dispense with politics in the traditional sense Beatrice Potter discovered after becoming Mrs. Sidney Webb.1 From early on one of Sidney Webb's favourite arguments for socialism had been that nations should be thought of as social organisms engaged in a struggle for survival. ...


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pp. 417-434

Publication Information

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E-ISBN-13: 9781614878247
E-ISBN-10: 1614878242
Print-ISBN-13: 9780865971950

Page Count: 454
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: None

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Subject Headings

  • Political science -- Great Britain -- History.
  • Hume, David, 1711-1776.
  • Bentham, Jeremy, 1748-1832.
  • Mill, John Stuart, 1806-1873.
  • Webb, Beatrice Potter, 1858-1943.
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