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  • Conjectural History and the Origins of Sociology
  • Frank Palmeri (bio)

Among the individuals or groups of thinkers who influenced sociology as the new discipline took shape in the middle and late nineteenth century, those most frequently named as precursors have included Montesquieu and the Scottish social thinkers such as Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, John Millar, and Henry Home, Lord Kames.1 Ferguson in particular has figured prominently, beginning with an early study by William Lehmann which considered him the father of sociology.2 Associated thinkers too have been named as the crucial influence on the formation of sociology, especially the Scottish Enlightenment figures as a group. Without undervaluing the importance of such figures, we may look for the origins of the discipline not only in antecedent individuals or schools, but also in a genre of historical narrative, in this case, the form that has been known as conjectural, theoretical, or speculative history ever since Dugald Stewart discussed it under those terms in his life of Adam Smith.3

Shifting emphasis away from an approach based on a history of individual ideas or motifs may suggest an account of the emergence of the new discipline based on a genealogy of narrative forms. Such a method traces not so much the occurrence and reiteration of ideas as the transformation and recombination of features of form. For example, because eighteenth-century conjectural history exhibits, among other features, a stadial view [End Page 1] of history and an organic understanding of society, changes in the conception of historical stages and in the extent of a thinker's organicism will have dramatic effects on the shape of the genre in his hands. Thus, when Comte argues that not only has the history of western society fallen into three stages, but also that each science must proceed through the same stages before the highest period of scientific knowledge is reached, then the stages of conjectural history have been transformed, moved beyond designating merely the means of subsistence and reconceived as forms of intellectual, scientific, and institutional life that are not even bound to a single chronology. Similarly, when the implicit or metaphoric organicism of most of the conjectural histories becomes in Spencer's Principles of Sociology a recurring assertion of detailed parallels between processes in various organs and organisms and social processes exemplified by different cultures in different times and places, then the parallels have moved from being metaphoric to being metonymic—instances of the same processes in different registers—and again, the pattern from the earlier genre has been both retained and significantly altered.

The elaboration of the methodological approach sketched here may not appear entirely unfamiliar because the form is to a certain extent a generalization of the ideas or content it expresses. That is, conjectural history and the discipline of sociology both seek to explain the origins and developmental history of religion, languages, and forms of political organization, but divergent theses or emphases on some or all of these subjects account for the differences between the two discursive forms. Nonetheless, beneath dissimilarities and incommensurabilities, a focus on conjectural history holds the possibility of bringing into focus continuities that remain obscure when tracing the influence of individual figures, single ideas, or national schools of thinkers.

We may consider as conjectural histories not only narratives by Scottish thinkers of the late eighteenth century, but also similar accounts from other national cultures and contiguous periods. Among early examples of such histories could be included works by Bernard Mandeville (especially the second volume of the Fable of the Bees [1729]), Giambattista Vico (The New Science [1725 & 1744]), and A.-R.-Jacques Turgot ("Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind" [1750]). Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Discourse on the Origins and Foundation of Inequality (1755), David Hume's Natural History of Religion (1757), and Adam Ferguson's Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) constitute classic instances of the form. Many of Adam Smith's works incorporated conjectural histories, including "Considerations Concerning the First Formation of Languages" (1761), and the "History of Astronomy" (1795), [End Page 2] as well as parts of the Wealth of Nations (1776). John Millar's Origin of the Distinction of...


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