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Public Culture 14.1 (2002) 125-145

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The Liberal Civil Subject and the Social in Eighteenth-Century British Moral Philosophy

Mary Poovey

Harnessed to so many theoretical paradigms, "the social" is a phrase that no longer conjures a common set of assumptions about society, culture, representation, or the methods by which we write history. Nevertheless, whether one uses the social to invoke an objective infrastructure that underwrites culture, as members of the Annales school did, or to suggest a gradual, continuously changing process that establishes threshold conditions for cultural and political events, as Marx and Tocqueville did, or to identify one in the series of relatively autonomous domains that compose modern life, as Niklas Luhmann tended to do, deploying the social as a noun automatically mobilizes certain theoretical claims implicit in the term's grammatical status. It is possible to use the social as a noun phrase that designates an objectified abstraction because of a historical process that has made such abstractions seem as real as material entities. As a consequence of the general acceptance of what Thomas Nagel (1986: 3-27) calls a "view from nowhere," which is organized from the standpoint of a nonparticipating, objectifying observer, it has become possible to think about social structures, relationships, and processes as entities, as relatively autonomous, and as sufficiently systematic to warrant scientific descriptions--which are systematic as well. Whatever individual theorists mean by the term, "the social" has become thinkable as part of the long history of reification that we call modernity. [End Page 125]

In this essay, I discuss one phase of this historical process: the forging of a link between philosophical theories about a specific objectified abstraction--human nature--and the legitimation of a new form of governmentality in early eighteenth-century Britain. This episode is relevant to the history of the social for three reasons. First, the endeavors of eighteenth-century British philosophers to theorize human nature constituted some of the earliest attempts to position a law-governed abstraction at the intersection between a providential order that was presumed to exist and the institutions of society. In so doing, philosophical theories about human nature advanced a method for studying what-can-be-seen through an abstract intermediary, which also functions as the implicit focal point of a disembodied, nonparticipating, and objectifying point of view that facilitates the basis for understanding (or acknowledging) what-cannot-be-observed (the "view from nowhere"). This method lies at the heart of all modern uses of the social to explain observable practices and relationships by reference not only to this point of view but also to an infrastructure that can only be theorized through the objectifying perspective that creates the mediating abstraction in the first place.

Second, experimental moral philosophers advanced a theory about the dynamics of human interaction that resembles the content of some modern theories about the social. According to this theory, individuals produce a secular code or semantic system in the process of living and working together, but the code that individuals collectively generate is said to be delimited by something that lies beyond both consciousness and individual human beings. For the eighteenth-century philosophers, this "something" was providential order, which was thought to manifest itself in human nature, among other places. For modern theorists, this "something" is comprehensible through one or more classificatory categories (class, race, gender) or one or more transindividual structures or processes (class relations, capitalism, urbanization), which are also comprehensible through interpretive categories.

Third, in theorizing that government emanates from human nature instead of being imposed on it, eighteenth-century moral philosophers implied that another abstraction, which Michel Foucault called governmentality, was as law-governed as human nature (and the providential order that informs it). This idea reemerges in one modern theory of governmentality which maintains that the ideal (liberal) state is not coercive but wields power indirectly by inciting the voluntary cooperation of individuals. 1

Before embarking on a more detailed account of eighteenth-century British [End Page 126] moral philosophy, I address two theoretical issues that help clarify the concept...


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