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History of Political Economy Annual Supplement to Volume 35 (2003) 42-73

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The "Spirit of System" and the Fortunes of Physiocracy

Jessica Riskin

1. Physiocracy and Teleology

While debating the epistemological limits of mechanics, A. R. J. Turgot—philosophe, political economist, and finance minister to Louis XVI—wrote to the marquis de Condorcet, in a letter dated 18 May 1774, that impulsion could not account for the existence of movement in the universe because it presumed a prior source of motion. Any given push had to have been precipitated by a prior push. Moreover, daily experience established that matter in motion was always causally preceded by an act of will. Following the pushes back to their source, one invariably found an intelligence at work. Both to avoid an infinite regress and to be properly empirical, therefore, physics must ultimately arrive at teleological explanations. Turgot concluded, "The only principle that experience shows to be productive of movement is the will of intelligent beings . . . which is determined, not by motors, but by motives, not by mechanical causes, but by final causes."1 Here was an interesting model of natural science to be espoused by one of the principal inventors of [End Page 42] the so-called moral sciences, Enlightenment precursors of the modern social sciences. Turgot was closely connected with the circle of economists who named their moral science physiocracy, meaning "rule of nature," to suggest that political economy (and, by implication, each of the moral sciences) reduced to a natural science. Taking their cue from such gestures, historians writing on eighteenth-century economic theories in general, and on the ideas of the French physiocrats in particular, have often emphasized their naturalism.2 But it is not enough to say that the physiocrats drew upon the methods of natural science, for these methods were themselves subject to heated controversy. One must therefore specify that the model for physiocracy was a certain kind of natural science, one that I will call "sentimental empiricism."

By this I mean a distinctive, Enlightenment mode of natural science that rooted knowledge, not in sensory experience alone, but in an inseparable fusion of physical sensation and moral sentiment, a union of experience and emotion residing in the Enlightenment ideal of sensibility.3 Subscribers to this ideal assumed that to sense was to feel, and accordingly, around 1750, began to talk, write, and argue about the sentimental origins of knowledge. They supposed that nature was propelled, not by matter in motion, but by benign purpose. Therefore the science they promoted was antimechanist, and they found their foil in René Descartes's physics, which to sentimental empiricists epitomized a deplorably reductive, mechanist, dogmatic, and arrogant philosophy. A natural philosopher's business, they believed, was not to build ambitious rational systems, but to maintain a certain sensibility, an emotional sensitivity to nature's purposeful behavior. It was this sentimental view of nature and natural knowledge that informed physiocracy. Naturalism was common to the economic theories that arose during the latter part of the eighteenth century, particularly in France and Britain, a cluster of theories of which physiocracy was an early and influential member.4 But naturalism in the sentimental-empiricist mode entered political economy through physiocracy, crucially shaping the theory and the surrounding controversy. According to the physiocrats' sentimental-empiricist logic, [End Page 43] tariffs, complex tax laws, industrial regulations, and currency manipulations constituted foolish attempts to impose an artificial, rational order on the economy.5

Using "sensibilist" science's nastiest word, they called mercantilist policy a "system." The phrase spirit of system, denoting the misguided inverse of sensibility, was drawn from the internecine battles of natural philosophers beginning around midcentury. In these battles, system-building—the construction of mathematical and mechanical systems to explain natural phenomena—had emerged as the evil opposite of a philosophy of sensitive responsiveness to nature's ways. Systems were arrogant, dogmatic attempts to impose one's own scheme on nature.

Actors' categories such as "spirit of system" and "system-builder" are difficult to read because they were polemical, not applied with...


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