Symposium Introduction

Years ago, when I first began studying eighteenth-century Scottish philosophy, I read an author who pointed to Adam Ferguson (1723–1816) as the person most deserving of the title “The Father of Modern Sociology.” When I asked a sociologist friend of mine about the accuracy of this claim, the first words out of his mouth were, “Adam who?”

The history of sociology aside, it is most certainly a shame that the philosophical accomplishments of Ferguson are not nearly as appreciated today as they were in his time, and, indeed, as they were for several decades after his death. Jack Hill’s superb intellectual biography, Adam Ferguson and Ethical Integrity: The Man and His Prescriptions for the Moral Life, will hopefully help to rectify this neglect and bring Ferguson’s thought to a wider audience, for he is most certainly deserving of greater attention.

Moreover, Hill’s book is an excellent introduction for those unfamiliar with Ferguson’s thought, and a reader cannot come away from it without getting a very strong sense of why Ferguson’s work merits serious philosophical consideration today. For Hill, Ferguson was not a philosopher who merely contemplated the notion of “ethical integrity” in the abstract, but one who dedicated himself to teaching others how to achieve it for themselves. In the documenting of this endeavor, it is hard to imagine that Ferguson could have a greater champion than Hill; as one contributor puts it, he “manages to capture the very essence of Ferguson’s philosophical project.”

Given that most of the particulars of Hill’s account of Ferguson’s life and thought are so well described in the essays that follow, I won’t repeat here what they say, but do let me say a few words about the contributions themselves. For this Syndicate Philosophy symposium, four scholars of Scottish thought have been invited to offer their reflections on Hill’s important book. First, C. B. Bow asks about both the influence of Ferguson’s “project of ‘ethical inquiry’” on his students, and the reaction among the British and American readers to Ferguson’s concept of “progress.” He also wonders about any effects Ferguson’s years of living among the literati of Edinburgh had on the “Highlander ethos” that Hill emphasizes as central to Ferguson’s thought. And he agrees with Hill on the importance of Ferguson’s thought (and worries) for us today.

Next, Glen Doris’s contribution neatly summarizes the main principles Hill sees at work in Ferguson’s prescription for ethical integrity. However, in contrast to both Jack and Mike Hill (see below for the latter), Doris claims that Ferguson did not have much interaction with his own society, having written little on either the French revolution or slavery, for example. Despite Hill’s insistence of the contemporary relevance of Ferguson’s ethical project, Doris writes that “Ferguson’s own example appears to condone inaction.”

Following this, Anna Plassart, like Bow, makes note of Hill’s stress on the importance of Ferguson’s Highland identity, though she raises the question of whether it was as significant a factor in Ferguson’s thought as Hill argues that it was. Though she speculates whether Ferguson’s originality as a philosopher is overplayed, she does maintain that “there is much to learn from Hill’s wide-ranging analysis of Ferguson’s writings, and his rereading of Ferguson as an ethical philosopher is entirely convincing.”

Finally, Mike Hill highlights Ferguson’s concern for those left out of the traditional “happy” Enlightenment story, specifically the women and children, the servant and the slaves, and he urges us not to forget Ferguson’s sensitivity to the plight of “the rest.” He expresses admiration for Hill’s “rare frankness in making sure that we understand the specific form of Enlightenment that Ferguson did have in mind,” and like the other contributors, he calls attention to Hill’s appeal for an appreciation of Ferguson’s relevance for today.

In all, these four readers have given us engaging reflections on a rich and important biography. Enjoy the discussions!



Questioning the Historical and Modern Limits of Ferguson’s “Ethical Integrity”

The field of eighteenth-century Scottish studies has greatly benefited from a series of recent intellectual biographies of prominent Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, such as Jeffrey Smitten’s The Life of William Robertson (2017), James Harris’s Hume (2015), Robert Zaretsky’s Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), Nicholas Phillipson’s Adam Smith (2012), and Ian Simpson Ross’s The Life of Adam Smith (2010, 2nd ed.). Just as there were competing philosophical systems among the Scottish literati, this genre envelops a wide range of methodological approaches to the analysis of eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment philosophy and exposés of the intellectual culture in which it appeared. Whereas the various types of intellectual biography necessarily draw from methods of intellectual history, this genre is not confined to the historical contextualisation of ideas. More nuanced ways of interpreting what the Scottish Enlightenment meant emerge from the field’s emphatic movement toward an interdisciplinary perspective of Enlightenment thought. The book under review in this Syndicate symposium is an example par excellence of this trend. For the purposes of this symposium, I shall attempt to sponsor further discussion through a series of questions that might arise from argumentative lines developed throughout this book. I hope that my arrangement of discussion questions in the contexts of a partial review alerts potential readers to the considerable value of this book while allowing the author and symposium contributors to discuss areas of research that did not appear in this intellectual biography of Adam Ferguson.

Jack Hill’s Adam Ferguson and Ethical Integrity (2017) provides a most welcomed contribution to the limited literature on a lesser-known Scottish Enlightenment thinker, Adam Ferguson (1723–1816), by identifying his pedagogical “project” of “ethical integrity” and its contemporary utility as “a primer for the reader’s own quest for living a life which is emblematic of ethical integrity” (xi). Of these two distinct objectives, the first sheds new light on Ferguson’s moral philosophy with a focus on what Hill identifies as an overarching ambition to instruct “ethical integrity.” Coining a new term to define Ferguson’s philosophical system departs from the recent scholarship by Iain McDaniel’s Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment (2013) and David Allan’s Adam Ferguson (2007). And yet, Hill develops convincing reasons why Ferguson’s “ethical integrity” merits serious attention, which will certainly enhance future studies on the subject. Akin to Ferguson’s fear in the late eighteenth century that “we were losing who we are and who we ought to be,” Hill identifies a modern ethical crisis “in the US and the West as a whole” (xiii). With clear caveats that Ferguson was a historical figure living in a historic age, Hill argues that Ferguson’s instruction of “ethical integrity” could be usefully applied in the twenty-first century. Hill achieves these distinct objectives through a skilful accounting of the life and philosophical writings of Ferguson and a probing analysis of how Ferguson’s “hallmarks” of “ethical integrity” might be taught and applied in modern contexts.

Beyond these intended objectives, it would be interesting to know more about the reception of Ferguson’s project of “ethical integrity” among his students at Edinburgh University, subscribers to his Principles, and among the Scottish literati. Ferguson’s former student and successor to the chair of moral philosophy at Edinburgh, Dugald Stewart (1753–1828), drew heavily from Ferguson’s lectures between 1785 and 1790 before launching his own version of Scottish common sense philosophy in 1792. Apart from Stewart, did Ferguson’s programme of “ethical integrity” inspire a following of intellectual disciples? If so, who were they and in what ways did they apply “ethical integrity” in public life? This line of questioning about the reception of Ferguson’s “ethical integrity” is not a criticism of Hill’s primary focus on its conception. But a more in-depth examination of how Ferguson’s notion of “ethical integrity” impacted the age in which he lived might strengthen or weaken the case for its modern application.

This book thoughtfully flows from the ways in which Ferguson’s upbringing (chapter 1) informed the source of his ethical integrity (chapter 2) on “knowledge of the self and society (chapter 3) [as] foundational for knowledge of the good (chapter 4), and hence for knowledge of applications of the good (chapters 5 & 6)” (52). In chapter 1, “Born in the Heart of Scotland,” Hill argues that Ferguson’s contributions to Scottish Enlightenment moral philosophy symbolically reflected his inheritance of a “Highlander ethos.” Challenging John Brewer’s portrayal of Ferguson’s moral philosophy as removed from the influences of his youthful years in the Scottish Highlands, Hill illustrates the lifelong importance of Ferguson’s “hybrid” identity that harmonised colliding cultural conventions. Hill suggests that “Ferguson’s upbringing in a largely Gaelic-speaking Logierait and his role with Gaelic troops [as Chaplin to the Black Watch] consumed most of the initial thirty-two years of his life, the question is not ‘Did Ferguson have a Highlander identity?’ The question is, ‘How could someone with such a background so rapidly integrate into the urbane social circles of the Edinburgh literati?’” (5–6). Hill threads Ferguson’s lifetime attachment to this “Highlander ethos” as indispensible in the development of his project of ethical integrity as a resident of Edinburgh. The originality of this argumentative line is unmistakable in light of the considerable attention Hill devotes to situating the nuanced parts of Ferguson’s project within the established literature. In doing so, Hill does not shy away from challenging competing views on Ferguson.

Jack Hill’s recovery of Ferguson’s “Highlander ethos” is entertaining and instructive. Ferguson’s striking ability to thrive in culturally different environments animates an example of his “ethical integrity” as adaptable to new circumstances without being prescriptive about cultural expectations. Perhaps the environment in which he lived shaped his identity during different seasons of his life, which would explain the reactive nature of his philosophical writings in responding to timely concerns. Although Ferguson’s embrace of a “Highlander ethos” informed his worldview later in life, I am curious if his encounter with war and membership of Edinburgh literary and philosophical societies changed his belief system. Could a change in Ferguson’s religious convictions after the Jacobite Rising of 1745, for example, be interpreted as a transformation of his identity? Is there evidence that Ferguson resisted the corruption of his “Highlander ethos” during his residence in Edinburgh? Beyond being treated as a novelty, did the Scottish literati of Edinburgh challenge Ferguson’s identity in any way?

The following chapter, “Reading Ferguson as an Ethicist,” fleshes out sources of Ferguson’s “ethical integrity.” Of Ferguson’s philosophical writings, Hill identifies that his unpublished lecture notes, Analysis of Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy (1766), Institutes of Moral Philosophy (1769), Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), and Principles of Moral and Political Science (1792) best represented what “ethical integrity” meant and sought to achieve. By demonstrating Ferguson’s continuity of thought, Hill’s analysis of the differences between Analysis and Principles as bookends to Ferguson’s “project” is particularly remarkable and will certainly sponsor further study in the field. “Although he did not specifically articulate one unified, systematic account of his approach, . . . it is difficult not to make some connection between Ferguson’s affinities for a Highlander ethos and his methodological conviction about the scientific need to incorporate information from those deemed ‘primitive,’ ‘barbarian,’ or ‘savage’ by the Scottish literati of his day,” according to Hill (59). In chapter 3, “Elements of Human Nature,” Hill turns to Ferguson’s empirical treatment of the conjectural “progress” of the human condition in different “stages” of civil society. Hill argues that Ferguson’s view of progress balanced “two trajectories in constant tension: the sense in which humans as intelligent beings are destined to grow in perfection, and the sense in which they are vulnerable to precipitous decline and imperfection” (92). This fundamental belief in the contingent or conditional “progress” of human improvement or corruption of civil society famously distinguished Ferguson’s use of philosophical history from contemporary views on the inevitability of “progressive” human and societal movements. In light of these competing views, some scholars generally treat Ferguson as a counter-Enlightenment thinker in the historiography. According to Hill, Ferguson’s “most seminal” principle in depicting human nature was “expressed in twin dispositions (self-preservation and association), situated in modes of social life (family, clan, tribe, nation, empire), manifest in powers of choice (moral, aesthetic and rational), spurred by ambition (laws of progress), shaped by habits, honed by accessions of power and perfected in arts or callings” (99). This succinct portrayal of Ferguson’s complex comprehension of human nature in his Analysis, Essay, and Principles turns to a thorough contextualisation of “probity” (i.e., veracity of social, moral agents) as the “highest expression of ethical integrity” in the following chapter, “Elements of the Virtuous and Happy Life” (129). Ferguson’s principle of “probity” instructed the exercise of ethical conduct as a resource for navigating revolutionary changes to the commercial, social, and political landscape in which he lived. The question of the extent to which Ferguson’s view on human and societal “progress” was exceptional among the Scottish literati is worth discussing. How did British men of letters and participants in the Scottish Agricultural Revolution respond to Ferguson’s treatment of “progress”? It would also be interesting to discuss the early American reception of Ferguson’s view of civic virtue and its potential significance as a founding principle of the early republic. An examination of the ways in which Thomas Jefferson’s promotion of Yeomen farmers and views on a standing army resembled Ferguson’s philosophical writings would serve Hill’s argument.

In chapter 5, “The Commercial Arts and Ethical Integrity,” Hill explores how Ferguson responded to the consequences of the British commercial revolution by focusing on who we ought to be. Hill emphasises that “Ferguson was troubled that man, in the eighteenth century, was mistakenly reducing the modus operandi of the arts—ambition—to matters of rank, wealth or political power” (147). Ferguson countered the individualistic pursuit of financial gain by appealing to sources that encouraged patriotic civic virtue and fostered the natural inclination toward safeguarding civic welfare. Ferguson’s support of local militia in the Poker Club and well-documented criticisms of a standing army are very well understood in the literature. His response to the commercialisation of society and professionalization of the military, for Hill, registers with modern American concerns of income inequality and waging war for financial profit. With these considerations in mind, Hill entertains a solution in the same vein as Ferguson that “perhaps something akin to a re-introduction of a military draft, as a substitute for standing professional armed forces should be seriously considered in the public sector” (156). The sense of urgency in this proposal to encourage civic virtue and, in particular, who we ought to be as active members of a civil society is not merely a provocative tongue-in-cheek consideration of a bygone Enlightenment concept. Ferguson, of course, did not persuade the British government to abandon their standing army, and he did not live to witness the moral consequences of a large-scale military expansion throughout the British world during Pax Britannica. Nevertheless, I share Hill’s belief that Ferguson’s project of “ethical integrity” should be revisited in discussing viable solutions to an American loss of civic virtue. Perhaps establishing a programme for American civil service that drew from earlier precedents, such as the Corps of Engineers’ infrastructure projects that followed WWII, would be a good way to realise Ferguson’s project. If introduced as a relevant source, how might we counter the abuse of Ferguson’s support of a militia, which could be used as justification by fringe American factions to forcefully defend local interests at the cost of national unity?

The question of how revealed and natural religion factored into Ferguson’s project of ethical integrity is addressed in the sixth and final chapter, “Ethical Integrity and Religion.” Hill charts how Ferguson “developed a religious anthropology from below, rather than a revealed theology from above” (163). This view of religion is best understood as a humanistic deism in light of Ferguson’s criticisms of religious institutions, use of natural religion, and silence on preaching revealed religion after 1745. Although Ferguson acknowledged that evil factored into the natural order of life, Hill masterfully explains precisely why he rejected the doctrine of sin in the first full-scale explanation of Ferguson’s religiously unorthodox belief system. According to Hill, “the heart of Ferguson’s belief system concerns a moral anthropology … [that evaluates] whether or not man has the will to play his part as a mini-Designer—to learn from his mistakes, run and not be weary, and renew his strength in the process” (182). That Ferguson served as a ruling elder of the Church of Scotland, Hill argues, suggests his engagement with the ecclesiastical, secular, and social politics of Enlightened Edinburgh rather than an enduring commitment to the Kirk. This critical point is strengthened by Hill’s convincing portrayal of Ferguson as thriving in between cultural and religious worlds.

This book concludes with a thoughtful discussion about the ways in which Ferguson’s “Ethical Methods and Hallmarks of Integrity” might be applied in the United States “regarding what a person should wish for themselves, their friends, their country and mankind as a whole” (197–98). The earlier chapters lead the reader to recognise “Ferguson’s hallmark—that consciousness of existence entails facing ultimate questions openly and candidly—would resonate with the American moral narrative that ‘we’re all in this together’” (210). Without question, Hill “openly and candidly” reveals his personal views in prescribing a highly original interpretation of Ferguson’s project of ethical integrity and its relevance to the modern American crisis of losing who we are and who we ought to be. An impressive work of scholarship and intervention in contemporary debates on ethical conduct, Adam Ferguson and Ethical Integrity offers an important and instructive contribution to understanding the central ambition of Ferguson’s moral philosophy and why it still matters.

  • Avatar

    Jack Hill


    C. B. Bow and the Limits of Ferguson’s Project


    I want to express my gratitude to the four scholars who have contributed these highly-nuanced reflections on Adam Ferguson and Ethical Integrity.1 It is particularly noteworthy that each of these reader responses raise different—though occasionally complementary—issues and questions regarding my iteration of Ferguson’s ethics. I can only hope that my responses do partial justice to the intellectual richness of each of the preceding reviews. Ferguson, I suspect, would have enjoyed reading them and been honored that his work has given rise to the kind of interactive scholarly discourse that is made possible through Syndicate online.

    Response to C. B. Bow

    In his seminal essay, Bow raises four explicit, carefully crafted questions. Paraphrasing Bow: (1) “How was Ferguson’s work received by his students and how did it impact the age in which he lived?” (2) “Was Ferguson’s identity significantly challenged by the Scottish literati?” (3) “To what extent was Ferguson’s view of progress exceptional among the Scottish literati?” and, (4) “How is Ferguson’s project helpful for dealing with the loss of civic virtue and a concomitant rise of fringe militias which threaten national unity in the United States?” Since other reviewers also articulate versions of questions three and four, I will delay comment on issues raised by those questions for subsequent sections.

    Significantly, Bow notes that Dugald Stewart—a former student of Ferguson’s and his immediate successor to the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University—“drew heavily” from Ferguson’s lectures during the seven years prior to developing his own common sense philosophy. This is an important observation for at least two reasons. First, Stewart has yet to receive the attention he deserves as an original, independent thinker. He has frequently been relegated to the role of the penultimate compiler of insights of the Scottish Enlightenment—as a scholar who provided little in the way of original insight or philosophical innovation. Bow’s forthcoming scholarship on Stewart will no doubt go a long way toward challenging this narrative. Clearly, if Stewart’s stature as a major transitional figure in Scottish intellectual history is fully appreciated, then Ferguson’s legacy as a teacher of moral philosophy is thereby enhanced. As Ferguson made abundantly clear from the outset of the Principles, while he could provide a method for moral inquiry, “every reader must perform the work for himself” (1:4).2 Ferguson did not aim to create a “school” of followers or make Fergusonian “disciples” as such. The fact that perhaps his most famous student developed his own philosophical perspective in contradistinction to Ferguson’s own views is itself a testimony to the efficacy of Ferguson’s pedagogy.

    Regarding Ferguson’s other students, it might well be illuminating—as Bow suggests—to conduct a full-scale inquiry into how Ferguson was received by them, their friends and associates. However, the larger story of Ferguson’s reception is primarily the story of his footprints in Germany, France, Russia, Italy, and more recently, Australia, South Asia, and North America.3 It is no small matter that Ferguson’s Essay was one of the topics studied by the candidates of the agrégation d’anglais in 2012 and 2013 in France.4 Bow’s suggestion concerning affinities between Ferguson’s ideas and the thought of Thomas Jefferson could be further explored. Ferguson’s pedagogy made an impression on students alluded to in the “Postscript” of AFEI. Nevertheless, while reception history has its merits, it is prudent to exercise caution when asking questions about how something impacts something else. “Impacts” can be direct or indirect, privately conveyed or institutionally embodied. While they may constitute traces of actual causes and effects, they are notoriously difficult to measure, pinpoint or circumscribe.

    It is important not to lose sight of the old adage that “no prophet is recognized in his own country.”5 If Ferguson is interpreted as going against the grain of the more optimistic views (associated with Hume, for example) of the prospects for society, and if the latter view shaped the rubrics of evaluation concerning what counted as a credible perspective on such prospects, then, Ferguson’s account—especially his radical critique of the ethos being spawned by the commercial arts—would not have resonated with the reigning consensus of his age. As a moral prophet, Ferguson was not likely to be received as an easily adopted resource for constructing one’s own intellectual perspective. I also wonder if Ferguson, as something of a sociological maverick, may have shielded himself from what might be termed “controversy overload.” The bulk of the truly intimate and personal letters in his published correspondence appear to be written to select friends—such as John Macpherson and Alexander Carlyle—who were not philosophers or historians of the likes of Adam Smith or William Robertson.6 Consequently, his interpersonal “impact” on the Scottish literati as a whole may have been limited out of a sense of self-preservation.

    Fast-forwarding to the twenty-first century, where the contemporary ethos bears all the marks—and more—of the one which disturbed Ferguson in the late 1700s, it would not be surprising if Ferguson’s views (when brought into high relief in a platform such as Syndicate) would receive something less than a positive assessment regarding potential for “impact” on the dividing issues of our time. As it was at the dawn of the nineteenth century, Ferguson’s voice will always remain a minority voice, that is lifted up by some prescient minds. (I referenced the twentieth-century philosopher Alastair MacIntyre in AFEI [148, 159n25], but not seriously acknowledged by most of the movers and shakers in academia.) Perhaps it might be fruitful to pursue a more hypothetical question: namely, “How should Ferguson’s work have been received by his students, and how might it yet be received—especially by those open to, in Mike Hill’s words, thinking about “the Enlightenment we never had?”7

    Bow’s second line of questioning—that “the reactive nature” of Ferguson’s philosophical writings “in responding to timely concerns” might be explained by investigating the varying environments in which he lived during “different seasons of his life”—is food for further reflection. Given limitations of space I simply want to pick up on one thread of this query; namely, that changes in Ferguson’s religious commitments following the ’45 uprising may well have contributed to a “transformation” of his identity. By the mid-1750s, after his father died, Ferguson had already become disenchanted with the nomenclature of “clergyman.” He began thereafter to view his life calling as novel intellectual inquiry into the nature of the moral life in service of humanity as a whole wherever it exists—in the Highlands, Edinburgh, or the Cape of Good Hope. Given his Highlander background, this calling necessarily entailed wrestling with what he termed “partiality to our kind”—whether the parochial biases and cultural insularity of Edinburgh literati or those of Scottish Highlanders (Principles 1:6). Bow appears to view Ferguson’s sojourn among Edinburgh literati as a matter of resisting “the corruption of his ‘Highlander ethos.’” But perhaps Ferguson’s evolution into a cosmopolitan intellectual can be understood as more of an intracultural balancing act. In this scenario, one might envision Ferguson weaving Highlander predilections about the moral significance of the clan together with classical moral theory and contemporary enlightenment thought into a multicultural tapestry of ethical reasoning—a tapestry that encompassed the widest possible reaches of human experience. Clearly, Ferguson’s project was in certain respects representative of the kind of intellectual exploration typical of Scottish literati such as Smith, Robertson, and Kames. Yet, in Ferguson’s case, his Highlander upbringing and background may well have predisposed him to conduct this exploration in an unusually profound and persuasive manner. This might help explain the wide-ranging acclaim which accompanied the appearance of the Essay. Accordingly, one could argue that Ferguson’s various interactions with the Scottish literati did not so much “challenge” his identity as they refined, enhanced, and deepened it.

    1. The full bibliographical citation is: Jack A. Hill, Adam Ferguson and Ethical Integrity: The Man and His Prescriptions for the Moral Life (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield, 2017)—hereafter cited as AFEI.

    2. Principles of Moral and Political Science: Being Chiefly a Retrospect of Lectures Delivered in the College of Edinburgh, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Creech, 1792)—hereafter cited as Principles.

    3. See especially, David Allan’s chapter on Ferguson’s impact and influence in Adam Ferguson. Aberdeen Introductions to Irish and Scottish Culture (Aberdeen: AHRC Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies, University of Aberdeen, 2006) 121–52. Fania Oz-Salzberger (Translating the Enlightenment: Scottish Discourse in Eighteenth-Century Germany [Oxford: Clarendon, 1995]), has provided a meticulous account of Ferguson’s reception in Germany. Lisa Hill (The Passionate Society: The Social, Political and Moral Thought of Adam Ferguson [Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, 2006]) has referenced his popularity in Russia, and Voltaire once alluded to the rapid incorporation of Ferguson’s Institutes into the curriculum of the University of Moscow (Allan, 126).

    4. The agrégation is the official exam for the recruitment of secondary class teachers in France as civil servants in the ministry of education. The recommended editions (in English) were Duncan Forbes, ed., Adam Ferguson: An Essay on the History of Civil Society [1767] (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1966), and Fania Oz-Salzberger, ed., Adam Ferguson: An Essay on the History of Civil Society [1767] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). I am indebted to Jean-François Dunyach for this information.

    5. Luke 4:24. The passage is quoted from the New English Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).

    6. See The Correspondence of Adam Ferguson, 2 vols., edited by Vincenzo Merolle, with an introduction by Jane Fagg (London: Pickering, 1995)—hereafter cited as Correspondence. Fagg provided a useful “List of Letters” (cxli–clii) as part of her extensive introduction to Correspondence.

    7. See Mike Hill’s contribution, “Ferguson, Marx and Us: On the Enlightenment Never Had” in this collection of reviews of AFEI.

    • Avatar

      C. Bradford Bow


      Response to Jack…

      Thank you for your thoughtful response to my sweeping questions. Your account of Ferguson’s published works in global contexts is interesting. I completely agree that tracing the reception of Ferguson’s lectures on moral philosophy among his former students could be problematic and difficult to convincingly measure. While Ferguson did not attempt to construct a new ‘school’ of philosophy for others to follow, it might be worthwhile to consider how his ethics factored into the well-established philosophical tradition of teaching metaphysics as moral philosophy at Edinburgh University. In other words, how did Ferguson’s lectures on moral philosophy contribute to the institutional conventions or expectations at Edinburgh? In doing so, you might reconsider the extent to which William Cleghorn’s lectures factored into Ferguson’s treatment of ethics. As you mention in response to Jeng-Guo Chen (p. 179), Ferguson did not replicate Cleghorn’s alternative to Hutcheson’s philosophical system. Likewise, Stewart’s educational doctrine did not appeal to Ferguson’s instruction of ‘ethical integrity’. While the succession of students replacing their former professors at Edinburgh did not imply a closed loop of recycled thought, degrees of continuity persisted among those who occupied the Chair of moral philosophy at Edinburgh. Perhaps situating Ferguson’s lectures on moral philosophy as contributing to the Scottish philosophical tradition at Edinburgh might be a way to trace the reception of his ‘ethical integrity’. I am not suggesting that these areas of research should have been addressed in your book. I believe they merit future research. Once again, thank you for your instructive response.

    • Avatar

      Jack Hill


      Ferguson’s Teaching of Ethics in Institutional Context: A Reply to Brad’s Reply

      Dr. Bow frames an interesting terrain of inquiry by turning our focus toward Ferguson’s social location within the evolving context of the teaching of moral philosophy at Edinburgh University. How did Ferguson contribute to institutional conventions and/or expectations? First, Ferguson was apparently Cleghorn’s preferred choice as an heir apparent, so Ferguson may have felt some obligation to continue the teaching of moral philosophy in ways that did not depart too radically from Cleghorn. I must confess that when I examined pages of Cleghorn’s handwritten lecture notes at the University of Edinburgh, I found the cursive very difficult to read. So, I’m afraid I can’t be much help on linking the content of his lecture notes with those of Ferguson. Second, a couple of Ferguson’s students have indicated that Ferguson did not simply “read” his lectures, but spoke from notes extemporaneously. This may have been a departure from Cleghorn and perhaps the usual expectation at Edinburgh in the 1760’s-1780’s. Certainly, there is evidence (continual additions of notes in the margins and occasional scratch outs of original phrases) in Ferguson’s later lecture notes (1776-1785), that he was constantly revising his lectures–right up to the very end of his career. This would suggest a teaching of ethics as creative, adaptive pedagogy. Third, however, it is important to be mindful of both the larger pressures on the holder of the Chair of Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh–especially the expectations of leading lights in Edinburgh’s city council–and the degree to which institutional variables often have the effect of tamping down or otherwise minimizing any one individual professor’s influence on institutional directions. Certain aspects of Ferguson’s “ethical integrity”–particularly his emphasis on the principle of probity–would probably have been viewed as good fits with the university’s ethos at the time. But there is also evidence that Ferguson tried the patience of his overseers. On more than one occasion he abruptly abandoned his teaching–most notably to serve on the Carlyle Commission to the American colonies–and had to appeal to the good graces of friends to hold onto the chair in his absence. In any event, my hunch is that in faithfully fulfilling his vocation as a professor of moral philosophy–when he was in residence–that some of his “independent,” even “maverick” behavior would have been tolerated. My final thought is that Bow’s question raises afresh the whole issue of how individual professors do or do not have any lasting effects on the institutions in which they serve. None of us are indispensable and Ferguson would not, I believe, have thought that he left much of an impact on the teaching of ethics at Edinburgh. In later life, reminiscing about his legacy, he speculated that perhaps if he had written in the field of law that his philosophy would have been better received, and less vulnerable, to assaults from ecclesiastical circles. A full inquiry into the matter would also entail an analysis of how institutional academic politics shapes and re-shapes the legacies of all professors. Many thanks to Bradford for posing this line of inquiry.



Adam Ferguson’s Ethics for the Modern World

The idea of moral science has become, for some, oxymoronic in an age of what the author labels “scientism,” the rejection of any meaning beyond what can be empirically determined. In his book Adam Ferguson and Ethical Integrity, Jack Hill examines the life and moral theory of this lesser-known but important Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, and calls into question the validity of such a worldview. He encourages the reader to consider both the necessity of ethical inquiry and postulates a method for today’s ethicists to formulate their own foundation for understanding human activity and “the virtuous life.”

Hill’s subject, the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century moral philosopher Adam Ferguson, has not received the kind of attention that other contemporaries such as Adam Smith and David Hume have in the literature of history and philosophy, however, as the author points out, Ferguson was, in his own time, an “academic rock star” whose lectures were very popular and were attended by large numbers of students as well as many lay visitors. His published works were widely read in Europe and in the Americas and his influence on the thoughts and ideas behind many subsequent philosophical and political movements has been little acknowledged. Ferguson’s long life and prodigious literary output allowed him a wide audience spanning generations and his rich personal history gave him a perspective missing from his more illustrious peers.

Hill begins his highly readable work with this history, placing the philosopher into the context of his birth on the very boundaries of the Scottish highlands, a place deemed by many of the literati in the more genteel South to be a close-by example of “rude” society in their own land. The son of a Church of Scotland minister father and a gentry-born mother, Ferguson grew up with both the Calvinist sensibilities of the predominantly Protestant Lowlands and the Gallic-speaking clan kinship ethic of the Highlands. This particular heritage allowed him to become, early in his career, chaplain to the Highland Black Watch regiment of the military, the only member of the Scottish literati to join the armed forces. With both religious training and martial experience, Ferguson the ethicist combined an understanding of the transcendent and the esprit de corps of the regiment to formulate his own understanding of moral philosophy which he later espoused in lectures and publications. As the author points out, the religious underpinning of Ferguson’s thought morphed and shifted away from the traditional Calvinist Christology to a more rationalized theism, never abandoning the concept of God, but perhaps shifting it toward a more nature-revealed creator. In this the Scottish philosopher opened the door to ethical enquiry that did not have to lean closely on a traditional Christian foundation.

Jack Hill posits Ferguson’s nonspecific theism as a basis for a moral philosophy adept at tackling the postmodern, and post-Christian consensus world and its concurrent need for a basis for ethical norms. Ferguson defined the chief virtue of the ethical person as “probity,” an unfamiliar word in the modern lexicon but one that was perhaps more widely understood in the eighteenth century. In giving his readers a definition of the word, the author has had to devote considerable space to fleshing out its meaning. While contemporary dictionaries define it with such synonyms as “honesty” and “veracity,” other sources confuse the matter by aligning its meaning with words that defy simple explanation such as “Fiddes.” It is difficult not to conclude that the word was chosen as a literary chameleon, a term that fits almost any praiseworthy attribute and that describing someone as a man or woman “of probity” was perhaps a means of avoiding the need to fight a duel. What is perhaps of greater value to the reader attempting to encapsulate Ferguson’s ideal of probity, is the goal of acting in concert with what one “ought to wish for himself, for his country, and for mankind.”

For the modern reader of Ferguson, Hill distils six principles for working toward ethical integrity. Firstly, observing one’s own mind and thoughts is vital to beginning the ethical journey; the old Greek philosophical adage “know thyself.” Once this inner subjectivity can be mined, the second principle is to ascertain his or her relation to others. This can only be done through observation of the world around us and the people we interact with, nearby or far away. Counter to Rousseau and Hobbes, Ferguson saw humankind as a social animal from the very beginning and no ethical enquiry could end without an examination of those with whom one shared society. Thirdly, the ethicist must avoid the bias of a purely local outlook. By examining the wider world and the rights and wrongs of other cultures, the enquirer avoids ethnocentrism and avoids trap of merely considering what is good for his or her own nation. Ferguson’s own sources for these accounts of the manners and mores of peoples around the world were, perhaps by modern standards, skewed toward a European gaze, nonetheless the author is correct in claiming his principle of seeking out the moral standards of other cultures to point the way toward a modern cross-cultural basis for determining ethics. For a forth step, the Scottish philosopher sought to examine the past and triangulate modern moral ideas with those of writers in earlier epochs. Could one see a link between the actions of those in ancient Rome and Greece and what the man of probity sought in the world of Commercial Britain? This leads to the fifth principle, a “canvassing of how others today and yesterday have in fact made moral judgements.” To do this, Ferguson utilized what Dugald Stewart called “conjectural history,” essentially estimating how history, in the absence of definite records, probably progressed. This tool was a staple of Scottish Enlightenment historians, and was characterized by the rejection of the “great man” principle. Using this idea, Ferguson claimed to be able to discern common moral values throughout history. Lastly, step six involved taking a step back and examining the wider picture of events and circumstances to give the moral enquirer a broad understanding of the context into which the ethical judgement should be made.

Jack Hill asserts that these six steps in ethical enquiry are valuable tools in determining modern moral actions and maintaining ethical integrity in the midst of a world in which the reader is inundated with news and information, the veracity of which is difficult to ascertain at first glance. Starting with an understanding of one’s own thoughts, desires and aims and then moving onto an examination of those of others, the reader is urged to explore widely both geographically and historically to attempt to gain a view that goes beyond the latest Facebook post or opinion piece on a favourite news network. Only through pausing and looking at the big picture can the reader make the best ethical decisions.

If there is one area where this reviewer finds drawbacks in examining Ferguson, it is the subject’s choice to limit his own engagement with contemporary issues. While Ferguson was a widely-read academic, it is pertinent to note how little he interacted with the contemporary society in which he lived. With such tumultuous events as the French Revolution and socially transforming movements in Britain such as Slave Trade Abolition and Catholic Emancipation occurring within Ferguson’s writing career, it is all the more bewildering that such a social critic and student of history appeared not to discern momentous events when they occurred in his own time. While certainly eager to write on such subjects that took his attention, such as the Scottish militia, Ferguson wrote very little on the French Revolution and almost nothing on contemporary chattel slavery, both arguably monumental issues of his day. For the modern ethicist seeking to tackle great modern issues such as climate change, global poverty or the gun crime epidemic in the United States, Ferguson’s own example appears to condone inaction, despite Hill’s extrapolation of the subject’s ethics toward such practical actions as joining in “public demonstrations and protests.” While it is hard to imagine the elderly (by this time) professor marching in the streets of Edinburgh in support of Abolition, writing his opinions would not have been inconceivable. The modern scholar can only utilize “conjectural history” to posit that Ferguson shared his Abolitionist contemporaries’ abhorrence of the subjugation of Africans (as some have done in elevating Ferguson to company of anti-slavery writers) or confess that his own ethical enquiry did not result in considering the issue worthy of his commentary. As such the moral formulas of Ferguson, while useful for the modern ethicist cannot be their sole resource.

As a teacher of ethics in a modern American university, Jack Hill is in an ideal place to guide the reader of Adam Ferguson and his book opens up doors to long-forgotten treasures in the moral philosophy of eighteenth-century Scotland. In terms of laying a foundation for personal and communal ethics in the twenty-first century, Hill’s call to question the unthinking acceptance of scientism and materialism, and to rediscover the transcendent in our value systems, is vitally important. While other moral systems, such as Adam Smith’s sympathy principle with his call to consult the inner “impartial spectator” as an arbiter of the moral quality of our actions, have little to offer the narcissistic “me” generation, Ferguson’s rational basis for ethical enquiry is ideally suited for those wary of religion-based morality. Jack Hill had done a remarkable work in examining the voluminous and often dense works to distil his moral philosophical system. His book will be a valuable resource for both Enlightenment scholars and students of ethics.

  • Avatar

    Jack Hill


    Theory and Praxis in Ferguson’s Ethics

    Among the numerous issues raised in Doris’s thoughtful essay, I would like to focus on two fundamental philosophical questions: “What is the basis of ethics?” and “How should the gulf between theory and praxis in Ferguson’s ethics be addressed?” While the first goes to the very heart of Ferguson’s preoccupations as a moral philosopher, the second raises legitimate concerns regarding the practical efficacy of his enterprise. I will attempt to provide an initial response to each and look forward to continued dialogue on both questions.

    I think Doris is correct when he states that Ferguson appears to ground ethics on a “non-specific theism.” Ferguson used different metaphors (for example, “Providence” in his “Lectures” and “Principle of Being” in later essays) to evoke a transcendent plane of reality.1 This plane constitutes the outer horizon for all the earth’s species. It is the most comprehensive context of human dwelling. It is the overarching canopy that shelters the manifold microcosm of minute biological exertions in the great unfolding of the universe. When Ferguson does ethics, it is always with an awareness of human thought and action within this broad dialectical continuum: Principle of Being—Exertions of species beings. At the center of this continuum is the distinctly human experience of forming intimate relationships with significant others. Consequently, the three core symbols of the ground of Ferguson’s ethics may be construed as: Principle of Being, acts of exertion and freely chosen, intimate relationships. Humans “select” their friends as well as form more exclusive bonds with a partner. Looking around us in the past—near and far—and studying human intention in the present, it is possible to discern enduring strands of moral guidance, or what Ferguson says one “ought to wish for himself, his country, and for mankind” (Principles 1:10).

    Such an ethic is thus a matter of what one ought to do, or ought to refrain from doing. Initially, reasoning from Ferguson’s conception of human nature, it is perhaps easier to discern what one ought not to do. Individual selves, given to acts of exertion, ought not to succumb to inactive, banal lives aimed at convenience. Social agents, seeking their fortune together, ought not to acquiesce to the lowest common denominators of civic life. Human beings, wherever they live, ought not to be plagued by political slavery. On the other hand, reasoning from empirical observations, concerning the ways we treat those closest to us—and in response to their expectations of how we ought to treat them—positive aspects of “oughtness” are disclosed. The just, courageous, and candid person is judged to be preferable to the brutal, cowardly, and deceitful person. Strong, healthy marriages manifest love, hope, and charity. Weak, troubled marriages manifest hate, despair, and selfishness. For Ferguson, the bridge to the ought is integrally and indelibly connected to what is experienced as the case.

    Of course, this way of articulating the ground of ethics entails several problems. Perhaps the most confounding one is that human experience varies, not only from culture to culture, but also among persons belonging to the same culture. This is why Ferguson devotes so much space in the first volume of the Principles to a depiction of human nature in general. To explicate two points of orientation, let us return to Ferguson’s dialectical method. All human beings are created beings. Another way of stating this is to say that our lives are not our own. They are given to us and for relatively short time spans in infinitesimally small corners of the universe. We do not will ourselves into being and we have very little ultimate control over the cessation of our being. This is the case, relative to the Principle of Being, whether we live a few seconds or one hundred years; whether we live all our days on a tiny island or travel the planet. To live well is to live with this radical awareness of one’s limits and mortality. The big picture is a humble picture which entails a basic sense of gratitude that we are. In Ferguson’s cosmos, that gratitude was due to the Principle of Being. In a non-theistic, scientist context, it is difficult, if not impossible, to articulate the object of our gratitude. In fact, it is difficult to conjure up discourse that gives a reality sense to any all-encompassing object of gratitude. Eventually, as the object fades from view, an underlying sense of gratitude tends to diminish as well.

    This is one way of characterizing the first part of what Ferguson means when he says that we are losing a sense of who we ought to be. We ought to be people who live with a sense of gratitude. Such a posture enables the development of a calm and resourceful view of the world. It is humbling, but it is also liberating. Second, while they are created beings, all humans become who they are through acts of exertion. The infant survives, in part, because it breathes, cries, and flexes its muscles. The infant also survives because its mother (and/or father) nourishes it, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Without such nourishment it ceases to flourish. What Ferguson calls the love or compassion of the parent for the infant is emblematic of humanity. As they learn to walk, speak, and socially interact with others, infants become social actors in pre-given webs of social relations. Flourishing in these webs entails the extension of proclivities for love, especially because self-preservation and continual survival will require competitive skills and defensive postures that are in tension with dispositions to love one another. For Ferguson, we ought to be persons who are predisposed to love others, not in obsequious or unrealistic ways, but as humans who are most truly themselves when they act with compassion, especially with regard to the sufferings of others. This reflection suggests the following question: “What are the obstacles to maintaining and enhancing a sense of gratitude and a predisposition to love others in our contemporary societies?”

    An ethic rooted in human relationships which attends to others’ suffering is problematic if it is not readily conducive to concrete action on behalf of those who suffer. Aside from a few general statements regarding his opposition to human slavery, Ferguson did not, as Doris argues, comment specifically on the chattel slavery in the British Empire or join in the Abolition campaign. Without mounting an apologetic for Ferguson, I would make the following three observations. First, part of the issue concerns where one puts one’s energy. According to several accounts, Ferguson was meticulous about preparing for his lecture performances, even up to and through the final year of his full-time teaching of moral philosophy (1764–1785). Between 1759 and 1764, he also expended enormous effort getting up to speed in order to teach the course in natural philosophy, also at Edinburgh University. Prior to these two teaching stints, Ferguson was hard at work writing and revising his famous Essay—a work based, in no small degree, on an encyclopedic review of the literature concerning indigenous peoples. After leaving full-time teaching, Ferguson devoted several years to refining and revamping his lectures into what later became the lengthy two-volume Principles. And in the midst of all this, he was researching and writing his voluminous history of Rome, which he later revised as well.2 In short, throughout his career, Ferguson focused his full attention on teaching and scholarship. And regarding the latter, he was primarily invested in theory as opposed to elaborations of praxis. In fact, although they can be found in the Principles, what I have termed “epitomes of moral dynamics” are often difficult to unearth and even the sections of the Principles that focus on “Applications” tend to range at a fairly theoretical level.

    Second, Ferguson, like all of us, was not immune to social and political pressures associated with his professional status. In particular, his university appointment was subject to the political and religious sensibilities of the Edinburgh City Council. He was not independently wealthy, and depended on patrons for social security in retirement. He helped support a large family of siblings. This is all to say that Ferguson may have been especially sensitive to the risks that active political engagement on issues such as the Abolition movement might pose for someone in his social situation. Again, this is not to excuse inaction, but rather to attempt to shed light upon it. Clearly, one needs to be perspicacious regarding the battles one chooses to fight.

    Third, it may be that Ferguson’s theory does not lend itself to the types of praxis that I conjected about in AFEI, especially under the hallmark pertaining to civic engagement. Actually, my specific suggestions were not intended to be understood as actions that I thought Ferguson would have advocated were he alive today, but rather possible types of praxis that Ferguson’s concern about civic action might evoke in the twenty-first-century reader. Nevertheless, it may be that Ferguson’s own idea of progress—with its ambivalence about society’s prospects—entailed a certain reticence regarding contemporary efforts at reform. Clearly, on the spectrum of social change, Ferguson’s instincts were somewhere between the extremes of revolutionary excess and reactionary stagnation. However, his fears of the potential chaos of the former generally outweighed his reservations concerning the limitations of the latter. Ferguson viewed himself as a conscientious Whig who was committed to the mixed government of the Britain of his day—a government which he thought did a reasonable job of balancing the interests of monarchy, nobility, and the common populace in an uneven, often flawed, but roughly sustainable, constitutional order. While in hindsight one might wish that he had been proactive on certain issues, it is perhaps equally true that future generations may similarly wish that each of us had been proactive on issues such as species protection and preservation, immigration, or human contributions to global warming

    In retrospect, Ferguson’s failure to actively engage a cause like the Abolition movement merits further research and it may be fair to argue that he underestimated the need for greater urgency in ending chattel slavery. Ferguson certainly recognized the oppressive plight of the factory worker (in the Essay), and yet did not explicitly advocate for labor reform.3 However, one way to think about all this is to recall that Ferguson, like Marx, was always balancing empirical observation in the present with an eye to the big picture of the unfolding of human history as a whole. The long, uneven trajectory of human progress tends to relativize all particular injustices (as well as meritorious reforms), however heinous or glorious they may be. Human slavery persists into the present day—in the more overt forms of human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of minors, but also in the many covert forms of slavish labor arrangements in which migrant workers are paid pittances for arduous work and the elderly are consigned to mind-numbing jobs which do not yield a living wage. My point is not to equate the brutality and cruelty of the slavery of plantation America with these other forms of slavery, but rather to suggest that slavery does indeed appear in many guises and it is the entire panoply of “enslavement” that particularly concerned Ferguson.

    1. “Lectures on Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy,” original lectures (autograph) revised on various dates, chiefly 1776–1785, Doc. 1.84-6, Edinburgh University Library—hereafter cited as “Lectures.” The later essays have been published in The Manuscripts of Adam Ferguson, edited by Vincenzo Merolle, with Eugene Heath and Robin Dix (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2006)—hereafter cited as Manuscripts.

    2. The History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic, six books in one volume, 1783, reprint (London: Jones, 1829)—hereafter cited as History.

    3. An Essay on the History of Civil Society 1767, edited with a new introduction by Louis Schneider (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1980)—hereafter cited as Essay.

    • Avatar

      Glen Doris


      Divergence in foundation, different outcomes? A Reply.

      My response to Dr Hill’s response has taken a slight detour in that his emphasis on the foundations of Ferguson’s ethics has sparked a particular idea that I think has been given less attention in the study of the Scottish enlightenment. I hope the reader will indulge me as I spring off into a new vector of inquiry and hopefully add to the discussion my review touched upon.
      For me to suggest an ethical blind spot for Ferguson is perhaps not really fair to the man in isolation. The focus of Ferguson’s ethics on the integrity of relationships close to the individual is shared with others of his literati circle. Dr Hill’s analysis of the foundation for Ferguson’s ethics in gratitude to the “Principle of Being” I believe is an important one. I believe it opens the door for further exploration of the commonality we see in particular ethical foci of Ferguson and his peers in Scotland and the difference of outcomes we witness in the praxis of groups like the Abolitionists. That Ferguson was aware of what Hill describes as the “Principle of Being”, and found the locus of what humankind “ought to be” emerging from a sense of gratitude toward it is perhaps what anchored his motivation to embark on the ethicist project. But how did Ferguson’s idea of the divine allow him to proceed from there? After abandoning the specificity of the Historic Christian understanding of God and the particulars of the Biblical ethical commands, the theism (what C.B. Bow labels “humanistic deism”) of Ferguson could only provide elementary guidance as to ethical direction. It is here that Ferguson shared his starting point with his contemporaries David Hume and Adam Smith. Smith, embarking on a project to capture the very essence of an ethical foundation in the absence of divine revelation, had to begin with the rational human mind and centred on the principle of sympathy. While Ferguson and Hume perhaps did not argue precisely the same, their ethical boundaries began with the individual reaching out to those around them. Naturally, their sense of fellow-feeling extended to their families, friends, and neighbours though, as both Smith and Hume argued, in ever diminishing force (Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 99, and Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 219-200). The imagination of the individual could encompass one’s own country as an object for sympathetic concern, but little beyond. What one might wish for mankind as a whole was merely a projection of what a virtuous person could hope for his own kin and country, the commonality of human nature being the best guide for appropriate action in required.
      If I am to contrast with groups such as the Abolitionists whose ethical projects were unambiguously rooted in their historic Christian faith, their acting on the particular world-embracing commands of Jesus (“Go into all the world and make disciples”, for just one example) gave them a proto-manifesto for global action. While sharing the principle of care for those in their immediate circle, their imagination of the plight of far off peoples suffering injustice could be acted upon without usurping the role that Smith argued was self-evidently the role purview of the divine (Smith, 237).
      While it is certainly true, has Dr Hill has argued, that Ferguson’s occupational tasks may have prevented his attention to wider political action or commentary on slave trade abolition or the French Revolution, the contrast in practical outcomes emerging at the same time may also have had some connection to the divergence in religion. The turn of the 19th century saw a move from observing the wider world to actively seeking to change it, first in abolishing the British Slave Trade and its wider suppression to the emergence of the modern missionary movement, as well as the darker aspects such as colonialism under the rubric of “civilizing” other lands. Ideas that Smith would have dismissed as “universal benevolence” and beyond the abilities or mortal humans (ibid), soon became the impetus for global change, with both blessings and curses for the world.

    • Avatar

      Jack Hill


      The Modernist Turn in Ferguson’s “Humanist” Ethics

      Glen Doris’s reply raises several intriguing points for further reflection. First, if one develops one’s “ethics” (i.e., one’s specific way of reflecting on moral experience) out of a particular sectarian religious tradition which includes a strand of prophetic teachings (such as missionary Christianity or engaged Buddhism), one will be predisposed–to the extent that she/he takes that strand seriously–to be proactive on social justice issues. While the institutions of traditional, major religions like Christianity often reflect some of the most conservative norms and values of any institutions in society, they also occasionally spark radical initiatives for social change (think of the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., as well as the Abolitionist movement in Britain). In each case, some of the most prominent agitators and leaders were devout Christians. They could and did justify their social activism by appealing to Biblical injunctions (such as “let justice roll down like a river”) and core narratives, such as the Exodus story in which Moses leads his people out of captivity into freedom. The God who authors the ten commandments in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, is the very God who liberates the Hebrews from slavery. In other words, guidelines for social ethical action can be derived from Biblical teachings.
      The matter is far less clear, as Doris implies, for those who operate out of a humanistic ethic. In fact, reasoning from human experience as the alpha and omega of ethics, it is very difficult to get beyond some form of utilitarian ethics–where the good is equated with what is good for a great number of persons, and what is right is what promotes the happiness and/or well-being of humans as a whole. This appears to be where both Adam Smith and David Hume end up, Smith’s appeal to sympathy as a heuristic norm notwithstanding. The problem, however, is that without an implicit strand of prophetic principles or values, utilitarians are not generally predisposed to oppose the status quo, especially if it seems to be benefiting oneself and one’s circles of acquaintances. An injustice that impacts a minority group or even a large mass of persons who are geographically remote, may not, and usually does not, trump taken-for-granted laws, customs and conventional mores that are socially approved among members of “one’s kind.” Indeed, it should be frankly acknowledged that, with few exceptions, the leading lights of the Eighteenth-Century enlightenment in Britain did not address some of the glaring social injustices of the age, including slavery, exploitation of the worker in manufacturing, and the subjugation of women.
      Although Ferguson explicitly critiques the ethic of what he terms “utility” in the Principles; like Hume and Smith, he did not really provide distinct, non-utilitarian guidelines for human conduct.

      Nevertheless, two points should be emphasized in this connection. One, Ferguson is quite clear that what he is doing is outlining a method for doing ethics, not constructing a system of ethics. In a notable passage from the Principles that deserves quoting in full, Ferguson states:

      The distinction of good and evil originates in the sensibility
      of intelligent beings to the circumstances in which they are
      placed, or to the qualities of their own nature. But the appli-
      cations of this distinction, and the course of life to proceed
      from it, will depend on the associations men have formed,
      and even on the epithets of good and evil, they are used to
      bestow on the subjects that occur to their choice (I: 126-27)

      What is striking here is the modernist turn in Ferguson’s humanist ethics. Like Martin Heidegger, Ferguson begins with “man” in relationship to “the circumstances in which they are placed.” These “circumstances” presuppose a divine horizon (what Heidegger calls “the divinities”), and an agent who is actively pursuing some project (what Heidegger refers to as “Dasein”)–in everyday life, and who is situated in a context (what Heidegger refers to as a “world”). Rather than an autonomous “subject,” Ferguson’s self is an artisan who comports himself toward a task in a purposeful manner and who is situated in relation to other persons. Good and evil are discovered in the course of one’s engaging the world–they are built into the fabric of our exertions as agents who are employing skills in the fulfillment of callings or vocations. What scholars have recognized as a strong sociological bent in Ferguson’s thought can also be interpreted in terms of a social relational, philosophical turn that anticipates twentieth-century phenomenology.

      Second, while I think it is correct to say, with Doris, that Ferguson abandoned “the specificity of other historic Christian understandings of God” and certainly did not ground his ethic in Biblical revelation–still, many particulars of Ferguson’s ethics resonate with Biblical themes (e.g., emphases on gratitude, love of neighbor, concern for the sufferings of others). In this sense, there is what might be termed a “Calvinist scent” in Ferguson’s ethics. However, this scent is not the modus operandi of his ethics. The latter is found in his modernist notion of the self–a being characterized by exertions in the world–exertions in which she or he realizes who she or he is (or in Heidegger’s language, a “being there”). Furthermore, Ferguson’s self is a complex being who is inseparable from a “fellow-feeling” that extends to, and is most dramatically seen and made manifest in, the clan. It also reaches beyond the clan and is expressed in duty to nation and mindfulness of responsibilities to all of mankind. But the latter is admittedly a weaker extension of fellow-feeling than that which is experienced among intimate friends and companions. What makes Ferguson’s humanist ethic more resourceful than Hume’s or Smith’s however, is the imprint of his Highlander background … and his unabashed fascination with, and critical yet empathetic use of, the dense and far-ranging literature on the so-called rude peoples. They were not, for Ferguson, peoples that one ought to have sympathy for (re: Smith), or less developed, less refined subjects than the British intelligentsia (re: Hume) … but, to a certain degree, moral exemplars to emulate (see Ferguson’s reference to the religiosity of Native Americans in AFEI, p. 161). Thus, what made Ferguson different from many of his peers is that his moral imagination was not so much a projection of a commonly shared humanistic vision as it was a genuine, cross-culturally nuanced, apprehension of how rightness and goodness are manifest in situations quite removed from eighteenth-century Britain. Doris is justly disappointed that Ferguson does not explicate practical, social ethical guidelines in his articulation of a humanist ethic. I concur that this is a shortcoming. Here what is wanting in Ferguson’s approach could perhaps be supplied by careful readings of Marxists and thinkers such as Marcuse. What Ferguson does give us is a calm and resourceful vision of human flourishing that enables a depiction of three hallmarks of the moral life–although none function as explicit calls to action which address systemic roots of injustice. But one can say that in his empathy for the manners and mores of “peoples of the mountains,” Ferguson may have been on the cusp of challenging what he called “partiality to our kind” in terms of economic and cultural elitism. And such a challenging may contribute to preparing the ground for social justice activism in contemporary struggles around the world.



Ethical Prescriptions from the Highlands

Adam Ferguson’s Scottish Enlightenment

In his time, Adam Ferguson was a widely celebrated teacher, philosopher and historian. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries however, his reputation has suffered from comparison with his more famous Scottish contemporaries. While the Scottish Enlightenment has come to be broadly associated with the idea of “modernity”—most famously for its writers’ contributions to socioeconomic thought, as they attempted to come to grips with the rise of commercial society and its implications for political life—Ferguson’s lifelong concern for the ethical and virtuous life has sometimes seemed disappointingly out of step with his colleagues’ supposedly more “modern” outlook. He has been praised for some of his proto-sociological insights (especially his early presentation of the concept of alienation), but at their core his writings are not as easily celebrated as those of his Scottish contemporaries for heralding post-Enlightenment social and political science—he was more circumspect about the potential benefits of commercial society than Hume or Smith, less enthusiastic about democratic politics than Millar, and less optimistic about the possibility of progress than Robertson.

Ferguson certainly stood out among the men of letters of late eighteenth-century Scotland: he was a Gaelic-speaking Highlander who had once held a commission in the famed Scottish “Black Watch” regiment, and a man whose imposing presence and taste for adventures inspired many a contemporary anecdote. His reputation, then as now, was also that of a conservative political thinker. He was a moderate Whig who valued civic participation more than democratic rights: because he voiced strong misgivings about the moral and political dangers inherent to Europe’s emerging commercial society, and because he was a vocal critic of both the American and French revolutions, he has sometimes been (unfairly) dismissed as an outmoded civic republican, increasingly out of tune with the rise of democratic politics.

Jack Hill’s book, however, eschews the weight of this scholarly history by approaching Ferguson from an entirely different perspective. Refreshingly, Hill is not interested in assessing Ferguson’s role in the development of social and political thought, and he is at pains to avoid reading him through the lens of specialised academic agenda—this would be, he aptly writes, “not only to summarily underestimate the significance of his writings, but also to risk misunderstanding what he was trying to achieve” (31). Rather, his study of Ferguson—“part biography and part philosophical enquiry” (ix)—is exciting and ambitious, precisely because it takes Ferguson seriously on his own terms, as a philosopher of ethics. From this starting point the book reconstructs Ferguson’s intellectual project, and offers an organic, holistic reassessment of his thought.

Hill’s thesis is a deceptively simple one: Ferguson’s various works are best understood as forming the strands of an ambitious and complex ethical enquiry, whose practical insights remain relevant in the twenty-first century. He develops this argument alongside a detailed biographical account, in an effort to demonstrate that Ferguson’s brand of ethics was directly tied to his personal experience of the Scottish Highlands.

The book’s first chapter, therefore, offers a fascinating and richly detailed account of Ferguson’s bicultural background. While the evidence used by Hill to support his argument that Ferguson’s “hybrid” (7) cultural identity was a major influence in shaping his intellectual outlook remains largely circumstantial, he does convincingly argue that Ferguson’s Highlands identity was far from insignificant. The extent of its importance, however, remains in my view up for debate—Hill’s suggestion that previous accounts were based on “selective reading of the data” (4) could equally apply to his own analysis.

The following three chapters form the thematic core of the book, and are highly convincing in their presentation of Ferguson’s project as one fundamentally anchored in his moral philosophy. While scholars have long appreciated Ferguson’s comparative historical method as a remarkably non-ethnocentric form of early anthropology, and have usually analysed his praise for the moral qualities of “rude nations” in relation to his republican critique of the corrupting influence of commercial society, Hill recasts these approaches in his broad rereading of Ferguson’s writings. Ferguson’s project, he demonstrates, is best understood as a “full-blown ethical enquiry” (31), a coherent philosophical system whose unifying principle, and most distinctive feature, was the notion of human agency. Ferguson’s moral philosophy was a multidisciplinary endeavour that aimed to provide socially contextualised, practical tools for discovering “what man ought to wish for himself, for his country, for mankind” (Ferguson, cited at 32). Recast in this ethical perspective, Hill argues, Ferguson’s inquiry is best examined not through his famous Essay, but through a close analysis of his Principles of Moral and Political Science. Arguing that the Principles represent the culmination of Ferguson’s philosophical endeavours, Hill provides an illuminating account of his moral philosophy, including his depiction of human nature as centred on the principle of exertion, the grounding of moral life in social interaction, and the power of habit. One clear lesson here is that the Principles ought to attract much more scholarly interest than they usually have. But more broadly, there is much to learn from Hill’s wide-ranging analysis of Ferguson’s writings, and his rereading of Ferguson as an ethical philosopher is entirely convincing.

Moving on from his reconstruction of Ferguson’s ethical philosophy, in chapter 5 Hill applies his findings to Ferguson’s analysis of commercial society. He enriches previous scholarly discussions by replacing Ferguson’s critique of the “commercial arts” in a broader landscape, relating it to the political arts as well as aesthetic production and intellectual enquiry. In the later sections of the chapter (as well as in the book’s conclusion), Hill mines Ferguson’s ethical philosophy and critique of eighteenth-century society for lessons applicable to the twenty-first century. The shift may appear a little jarring to the historian reader, and some may wonder whether Hill’s efforts to demonstrate Ferguson’s relevance for twenty-first-century US politics will date his book unnecessarily quickly—but it remains that he certainly succeeds in illustrating the striking modernity of Ferguson’s concerns.

The last chapter focuses on Ferguson’s efforts to construct a religious thought compatible with his prescriptions for ethical life. As in the first chapter, Hill’s discussion of Ferguson’s naturalistic religion locates the relevant context for his enquiry in the details of Ferguson’s biography rather than in the broader intellectual environment of Moderate, enlightened Scotland. While Hill provides rich additional contextual layers that also rely on a broad use of primary sources, he understandably struggles to provide conclusive evidence for the nature of Ferguson’s faith, or lack thereof. Nevertheless, the chapter opens up fascinating (yet arguably, ultimately unanswerable) questions about the role of religion in Ferguson’s practical ethics.

The sum of these parts adds up to an important contribution that should be required reading for all Ferguson scholars. Even if some of Hill’s specific insights aren’t entirely novel, he performs an important shift in emphasis in how we should approach and understand Ferguson’s intellectual project as a whole. Most importantly, he shows that Ferguson’s moral philosophy stood at the core of his historical and political writings, and demonstrates that his Principles need to be thoroughly reexamined, not to mention benefit from a modern edition.

The few remarks below, some of which I have already hinted at, are certainly not intended to take away from Hill’s contribution—merely to share some of my thoughts as a starting point for discussion.

First, it seems to me that Hill’s methodology invites debate, because it cobbles together several different approaches and research questions. At its core the book is an account of Ferguson’s philosophy of ethics, but Hill’s approach to his subject is part intellectual biography, part history of philosophy, part practical ethics. Which could lead the reader to wonder—if this is intellectual history (or history of philosophy), why isn’t Hill exploring in more detail both Ferguson’s philosophical debt to his predecessors and colleagues, and his intellectual heritage? Hill appears to have limited interest in placing Ferguson’s view of human nature in relation to that of his Scottish and continental colleagues, who were often preoccupied with at least some of the same questions, particularly when it came to natural sociability. This leads him to sometimes questionable generalizations. To take but one example, it could be disputed whether such a thing as “classical stadial theory” (71) existed, and whether Ferguson’s refusal to adopt linear, teleological views of societal progress was truly original among his Scottish (or indeed European) colleagues. From the opposite perspective, at a few points Hill appears to suggest that Ferguson’s ethics did have an important intellectual heritage (notably when he writes that Ferguson “essentially initiated a shift in the trajectory of moral inquiry . . . a re-framing of ethics in terms of concrete moral experience rather than systematic reflection on theoretical questions,” xix). However, he doesn’t pursue this line of inquiry, preferring instead to locate the relevance of his topic in Ferguson’s philosophical insights, and in their potential for application in modern contexts. But if this is the case, it is not immediately clear why Ferguson’s philosophy cannot stand on its own, and what added value is gained from the biographical context in which it is embedded here.

Second—and this is the historian of political ideas talking—I was struck by the choices Hill makes in his contextualisation of Ferguson’s thought. He consistently prioritizes Ferguson’s Highlands background at the expense of other (sometimes more obviously relevant) contexts. One example that comes to mind would be Ferguson’s remarkably non-Eurocentric interest in other cultures. Hill attributes this almost entirely to Ferguson’s bicultural upbringing, yet one could object that he was hardly the only, or the first, Enlightenment philosopher to adopt such an approach—here his admiration for Montesquieu (which Hill acknowledges) could be, at the very least, a reinforcing influence. Similarly, Ferguson’s critique of the “commercial arts” is contextualised biographically, primarily in terms of his lifelong financial insecurity, rather than in relation to the huge increase in trade, especially global trade, experienced by Scotland and Europe in the eighteenth century, and which became the object of much philosophical and political debate among Ferguson’s contemporaries. More generally—and this is the other side of the coin to Hill’s admirable effort to understand Ferguson on his own terms—Ferguson’s originality seems to me to be occasionally overplayed, precisely because Hill underplays his roots in European philosophy as well as his implantation in the Lowlands intellectual culture of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Regardless of my occasional reservations, Hill undoubtedly succeeds in his attempt to recast Ferguson as a philosopher primarily occupied with ethical questions, and whose entire intellectual production should be reread in this light. It seems to me that Hill’s thoughtful, sensitive and profoundly sympathetic account manages to capture the very essence of Ferguson’s philosophical project—as well as provide tools to help his readers reflect on its continuing relevance. This is an occasionally flawed, yet deeply invigorating call to reexamine one of the Scottish Enlightenment’s most misunderstood figures.

  • Avatar

    Jack Hill


    Method and Context in Reading Ferguson

    With a historian’s acuity, Anna Plassart draws special attention to two critical issues relating to the interpretation of Ferguson’s project: “How does one develop a coherent methodology that does justice to the ethics articulated in Ferguson’s work?” and “What constitutes a proper contextualization of Ferguson’s various performances for an assessment of the originality of Ferguson’s ethics?” These are both highly complex questions that have not been explicitly addressed in Ferguson scholarship. I offer the following comments as suggestions for further reflection.

    Three preliminary clarifications are in order. First, although I reference the phenomenological approach of Alfred Schutz in the introduction (xviii), chapter 6 (185) and in an endnote regarding “Ferguson’s Ethical Method” (193n98), I did not provide an explicit, detailed account of my methodological approach in AFEI.1 I did refer the reader, at the beginning of chapter 2, to a description of this approach in an earlier work (62n5), but in retrospect, Plassart and other readers might justifiably raise questions concerning the method used in AFEI. I will try to briefly articulate what was left unsaid in this regard below.

    Second, with respect to the contextualization of Ferguson’s work, if one adopts Schutz’s approach to understanding a strand of Ferguson’s thought, then that strand will be apprehended in terms of what Schutz called the lifeworld, or the most comprehensive context in human experience. Schutz explicates this context in terms of broad spatial, temporal, and social features. Accordingly, the first chapter of AFEI culminates in an account of Ferguson’s lifeworld in terms of an exposition of “Symbols of a Sense of Place” (10–22). Perhaps it would have been better to organize the chapters of the book in terms of these focal symbols—the river Tay, Celtic stones, Church of Scotland, Regality Court, and the Ràth—rather than as a presentation of his ethic in a philosophically structured manner. In fact, in my initial notes I associated different symbols with distinct terrains of intellectual influences that are not subsequently explored in the book. For example, by Regality Court I had clustered Carmichael, Pufendorf, and Locke. By Church of Scotland, I had Robertson, Home, and Hutcheson (and by way of counterpoint, Voltaire and the Socinians). In any event, I will say more about the issue of context subsequently.

    Third, Plassart expresses concerns about the posing of different research questions. As I stipulate at the beginning of the preface, AFEI is not only intellectual biography and philosophical analysis, but also moral praxis primer—a work intended to be useful in one’s own personal moral reflection. That said, the primary research question was, “How should one understand Ferguson’s ethical framework?” And perhaps the book should have begun and ended with that question alone. For, in my effort to provide illustrations of how the book might also be useful for personal moral inquiry, I introduced examples of contemporary figures and events that ranged far afield from the primary question above. In hindsight, this was a mistake—especially because it has had the effect of sidetracking readers from the primary question of the work. If I were to do it again, I would have written two books—the first restricted to articulating Ferguson’s ethic; the second focused on the problem of applying that ethic to other social and political contexts.

    Regarding method, the approach one adopts to inquire about a particular phenomenon depends on both the researcher’s own interests and the nature of the phenomenon under investigation. As Plassart observes, in AFEI I provide a “selective” reading of Ferguson. However, in my view, because any reading of a text proceeds on the basis of the interest of the researcher, all readings are selective. This is why it is important to be transparent about one’s own interest. In this book my aim was to articulate Ferguson’s vision of “ethical integrity”—a concept I define at the outset as an “overarching frame of reference for properly orienting thought and conduct in relation to a particular moral ethos” (xxiv, n1). The problem then becomes, “How does one discern something like an ‘ethical frame of reference’ of a particular eighteenth-century, Scottish philosopher?” In AFEI, I strive to delineate this framework, as much as possible, in Ferguson’s own terms. What this means is that I take my point of departure from Ferguson’s own description of the ethics aspect of his project in Principles. To reiterate, Ferguson states that the “specific principle of moral science is some general expression of what is good,” and in order to “investigate such a principle relating to man,” that “it will be necessary to recollect what is known of himself” as well as “what is known of the situation in which he is placed” (2:2–3, my emphasis).

    Thus, the particular phenomenon under analysis in AFEI, is an ethical framework that is rooted in a notion of the good, a concept of self and an account of the situation or context which one inhabits. The key insight to stress is that these parts of Ferguson’s ethical framework resonate with what constitute three of the four “base points” or elements of a social ethics. In this connection, I draw on the work of the religious social ethicist James Gustafson.2 Because a “social ethic” is a shared system of value meaning regarding symbolizations of the good, selves and situations, I have found Schutz’s phenomenological method—which entails investigations of symbols—to be extremely illuminating. What I attempt to do in AFEI is to ground my inquiry in a concrete case (that is, Ferguson’s elaboration of his ethical framework) rather than on theory, but employ theoretical constructs—the above mentioned base points of ethics—for analyzing the case at hand. In other words, I strive to develop a methodology which is a fit with the phenomena under investigation. Thus, what may appear to be an eclectic approach in AFEI is a singular effort to develop a novel way of interpreting Ferguson’s ethical framework. Although it draws on insights culled from researchers who have used methods associated with traditional demarcations of inquiry—such as history, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy—it should not be confused with any one of these terrains of investigation.

    Turning to the question of context, in Ferguson’s case, the situation is a life span in which the first thirty-one years are primarily spent growing up in Logierait and ministering to a regiment largely composed of Highlander troops. Given the sense in which one’s developmental identity is to a major degree forged in the first third of one’s life, I am still convinced that Ferguson’s Highlander background was a major influence on his thinking about ethics. Whether or not it was the primary influence is, as Plassart argues, a point for further debate. My concern was to elevate Ferguson’s Highlander identity in ways that will enable it to be a central part of discourse about Ferguson’s thought.

    There is no question that Ferguson was also strongly influenced by ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, Bacon and Newton, Montesquieu, Shaftesbury, and the lesser-known James Harris. I did not, for the most part, explore these intellectual influences because David Allan had already done so in Adam Ferguson and because that would have entailed delaying the publication further. As far as the originality or novelty of Ferguson’s ethics in relation to his contemporaries—especially Smith, Hume, Millar, Kames, or Robertson—it is true that much more needs to be investigated. As Plassart observes, many of Ferguson’s contemporaries were also reading the literature of indigenous peoples that was flooding into Europe at the time. My question is, “Did these contemporaries make the kind of use of the material that Ferguson did in evolving his ethical framework?” The majority of citations in the Essay are references to this literature. One point I strive to establish in AFEI is that Ferguson was indeed unique in the sense that he directly challenged the ways in which Mandeville, Hume, Kant, and Smith accounted for the basis of ethics.3 Additionally, I also sought to emphasize that Ferguson did not really buy into stadial theories of progress. The fact that Ferguson began the Essay by rejecting both Rousseau’s and Hobbes’s views regarding the subject of an original state of nature foregrounds his ensuing dialectical account of the ambiguity of the trajectory of human flourishing. Nevertheless, whether or not this was a “novel” way of approaching ideas of progress may still be a matter of debate.

    Plassart also raises the question of the impact of the burgeoning economic development on Ferguson’s ethics, particularly regarding the commercial arts. Although I allude to this economic context in the preface, and again when discussing the commercial arts (AFEI, 146–56), it should have received greater attention. In fact, Ferguson’s considered ambivalence regarding humanity’s prospects would certainly have been firmly rooted in his experience of the industrial revolution.

    1. See Schutz’s phenomenological perspective in his Collective Papers, 3 vols. (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967), especially vol. 1, The Problem of Social Reality.

    2. See Christ and the Moral Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 1–2.

    3. See my elaboration of this claim in AFEI, 126–27.

    • Avatar

      Anna Plassart


      Method and context – a reply

      Thank you very much, Jack, for your thoughtful response to my comments. Your discussion of the methodology you employ was particularly illuminating, and has given me much to think about.

      While I come from a historical perspective and read the book with my historian’s hat firmly on, I recognize that historical questions are not the only questions worth asking (although they are certainly the only ones I feel qualified to comment on !). In fact what made the book such a rewarding read for me, a historian interested in Ferguson’s political thinking, is the holistic picture that emerged of Ferguson not only as a historian, or an ethicist, or a professor, or a Highlander, but rather as a man who was more than the sum of these parts.

      I will reassert one point, which I meant to be the central point in my review essay : we may approach Ferguson from different methodological perspectives, and ask different resarch questions with different agendas in mind, but what struck me reading this book was how much I recognized “my” Ferguson in your account. For a variety of reasons he has often been unfairly dismissed by historians of political ideas as unoriginal or old-fashioned, and one of the reasons this book is important is that it provides a long-overdue attempt to take him seriously as a moral philosopher, and generally speaking as thinker we can all still learn from. Your sympathetic account does him justice, in my view – I may have a few quibbles on points of detail, but it seems clear to me that you are fundamentally correct about him, his worldview, and the power and relevance of the message he was passing on to his students and readers.

      There is one point I would like to elaborate on – I would not dispute that “Ferguson’s Highlander background was a major influence on his thinking about ethics”, as you write. And the book’s detailed account of Ferguson’s cultural and intellectual roots in the Highlands is very welcome indeed, since Ferguson’s Highlands identity, when it has been acknowledged, has until now more often been assumed than precisely demonstrated. What I would dispute, however, is that the Highlands provide, as such, the key to understanding Ferguson’s particular take on the world he lived in, or his recommendations for the ethical life. In my view Ferguson is fascinating precisely because he stood at the interface of the Highlands and the Lowlands, of admiration for virtuous republicanism and acknowledgement of the benefits and drawbacks of modern commercial society. And it would be to fail to do justice to him, I think, to characterize him as primarily belonging to one world over the other. But I suspect we are not in fact in disagreement about this, and I would fully subscribe to your description of a « double bridging – one biographical and one intellectual » that would explain why Ferguson was able to offer such pertinent – yet sympathetic – criticism of the increasingly commercialised and individualistic society he lived in, and why his recommendations remain relevant in the twenty-first century.

    • Avatar

      Jack Hill


      My Ferguson & The Vulnerability of the Democratic Project

      Anna Plassart ‘s generous, personal and thoughtful comments are fruit for further thought. I was particularly captivated by her reference to finding “My Ferguson” in AFEI. Indeed, at a deeply subjective level, especially when reading particular strands of Ferguson’s different types of rhetoric in the Essay, political satires and Principles, I frequently found myself in conversation with a kindred spirit of sorts. One encounters an almost scandalous willingness to say what is obviously true, but which is decidedly not politically correct. This is of course true of Millar, Kames and other enlightenment figures, but one senses that with Ferguson it is coming from the heart–and it is deadly serious. It is also courageous, at times unpopular, and sometimes “in-your-face-take-that” kind of discourse. This is the down home, practical, Highlander maverick Ferguson–the one who is not afraid to “say it like it is” or the one you would most enjoy hiking or drinking with–that keeps turning up in my book. This is the Ferguson who really does not suffer fools lightly and who has no patience with academic pretensions or the schemes and pseudo projects of those he calls “the purse proud.”

      However, there is also the contemplative Ferguson–the prodigious student of natural science and history, especially of Greek and Roman history–the admirer of Newton, Montesquieu and Smith, the modern thinker who yet discovered afresh the ethical power of Aristotle, Epictetus and Cicero. To my mind–although it may not come through as strongly in the book as the Highlander maverick Ferguson–this is the Ferguson that the argument of the book revolves around. As Anna states in her above response, it is Ferguson’s focus on agency (really his adaptation of Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia–of human flourishing) within the framework of the organicism of Bacon’s vision of natural science, that is the linchpin of Ferguson’s intellectual world. This focus dovetails with the Highlander maverick Ferguson, but it supersedes it once he is firmly ensconced in Edinburgh and begins to pursue his academic vocation in earnest. Thus, I think Anna and I are largely in agreement about the role of the Highlander ethos in what I have termed Ferguson’s “hybrid” character. It is in the background. It is never far away. It is a deeply rooted, emotionally charged aspect of his enduring character. It influences his “selection” of readings. But it is not at the core of his “philosophical” outlook. In this sense, we probably ought to speak of “many Fergusons.” And in the final analysis, my Ferguson is the stoic philosopher of exertion and the arts who takes center stage.

      I also want to comment further–at the risk of being very wrong–on a thought related to Anna’s comment about Ferguson being “less enthusiastic” than Millar regarding democratic politics and less optimistic than Robertson regarding progress. I couldn’t agree more with both assessments. I also think they have contemporary resonance. Many U.S. citizens are a bit dumbfounded concerning recent political developments in the nation, especially, of course, with the rise of Donald Trump and what is often portrayed as a new nationalism in the U.S.A. Trump has succeeded in saturating media coverage like no politician before him. It is really quite remarkable. But perhaps, given recent U.S. political history, it is not so remarkable.

      Allow me a simple hypothesis: Deep in the U.S. psyche is a repressed yearning for something like a return to monarchical authority. From the onset of this fragile democratic experience (1776-2018 and counting), there were those who would have been quite pleased with George Washington as a kind of American version of King George. That the likes of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson held sway makes fascinating history. But fast-forwarding to the 1900s–ever since the presidency of Woodrow Wilson–we’ve seen an ever expanding role for the executive in our tripartite system of government. We’ve had the four-term reign of Franklin Roosevelt, the Camelot era of the Kennedy family, and the rise of that last symbol of the self-made, wild west, horse-riding, wood-choping, independent cowboy–personified in the movie actor turned politician Ronald Reagan. Then came the Clinton’s and the Bush’s, but both families fell short of Reagan’s symbolic magisterial air (could you imagine Trump taking down Reagan–the politician who once induced a loud ovation by seizing a mic and indignantly proclaiming, “I paid for this mic”–in a Republican primary debate?) But, then, lacking a politician with the symbolic, patriarchal oomph of a Kennedy with his “New Frontier” or a Reagan with his “Morning in America”–here comes D. Trump–the master salesman (or “con-man” if you prefer–as in Melville’s the Confidence Man) with a truly regal sounding jingle– “Make America Great Again,” with all the subtly of a sledge hammer. Daughter and Son-in-Law are ensconced in the White House, sons continue to make the Trump family wealthy with business deals in foreign countries, and Melania becomes a kind of Jackie Kennedy without the capacity to speak French, but in the post-modern era, a beautiful former model with a pretty “face” and figure.

      To cut to the chase if you are still reading this caricature of American history, as Ferguson would remind us, democracy only works as long as one has a committed, educated and patriotic citizenry to prop it up. There are still a lot of committed folks out there doing pretty extraordinary things in local communities, but public education has taken a real dive since the early 1970s and genuine patriotism is now confused with a pseudo patriotism that is patriotic in name only and entails little if anything in the way of personal sacrifices. The outcome? The times are ripe for submission to a real monarch–a strongman who is quite happy to leave the conventions of democratic rule behind. Alas, for Ferguson, the worst possible scenario imaginable in a democracy–the election of a businessman with absolutely no prior experience in public service, who appears to admire demagogues (e.g., Kim Jung Um and Putin), and views himself as “the only one” who can fix what’s wrong with the nation.

      It could well be that our vulnerable democratic project–the 242 year experiment–is seriously unraveling as I write. It is not so much that Trump is to blame, though he appears to herald the end in a particularly vivid and dramatic way. As I argued above, we’ve been yearning for a monarch for quite awhile lately.

      This brings us full circle to Ferguson. Ferguson admired the mixed monarchy of his day. He feared that the American colonialists would, if they proceeded in their rebellion, eventually self-destruct into civil war. This of course is what happened in 1860-65. Again, the Union held firm, but just barely. However, as contemporary politics bare witness–the underlying divisions that fueled the civil war are still lurking at the edges of America’s culture wars today. Ferguson feared rule by the mob almost as much as he feared what he called “despotic tyranny.” What he surmised in the Britain of his day was that a balance of the interests of royalists, nobles and commoners was the best working compromise available.

      To conclude, in the U.S. today I would argue that Trump and his minions in the White House, State, Justice, Health & Human Services, & EPA Departments and Congress are increasingly functioning as if they they were a royal court of sorts; in the age of capitalism par excellence, we “professionals”- i.e., lawyers, doctors, hi-tech engineers, business CEOs, well-known journalists, well-placed clergy, and even some of us “professors”- are the new nobility; and pretty much everyone else are the new commoners. This is not meant to sound “elitest” but rather to suggest that–in the grant scheme of things–in historical perspective–that perhaps less has changed than we usually think. Given the picture I have painted, Ferguson would counsel us to be realists: keep an extremely weary eye on Trump and his soldiers (the much anticipated White House military parade this fall would have given Ferguson concern under the circumstances), prod the intelligentsia of whatever stripe to exert more push back on Trump and his minions, and pay heed to the sufferings of those at the bottom of the economic order while recognizing that their rights and privileges need to be balanced with those of the de facto monarch and the nobility.

      I hope Anna will forgive me for perhaps moving much too far astray in this political commentary, and to others who may have spent their time more profitably reading something else.



Ferguson, Marx, and Us

On the Enlightenment Never Had

Jack Hill’s Adam Ferguson and Ethical Integrity: The Man and His Prescriptions for the Moral Life is a welcome and refreshing account of an undervalued eighteenth-century figure whose life and work, like Hill’s book itself, challenges us to think about the Enlightenment we never had.1 In that Enlightenment, free markets operated peaceably and for the good of anybody willing to labor. There, the people were free, unified, and at peace. There, the people were just generically “the people,” and not the “other” people, instead. Similarly, the truth of science was assured in a Cartesian way. Knowledge was deemed useful insofar it referenced a subordinate—because nonhuman and inanimate—material world out there, a world that we knew within our deeper selves. God, nature, country, and commerce: they were all supposed to add up neatly and univocally, like so many concentric circles, at once circumscribing and securing the permanent arrival of so-called modern man.

In Hill’s more nuanced biographical and philosophical account of Ferguson, the soldier-scholar-diplomat-church leader (and in later life, country grazier) moved across class divisions, from “peerage to peasantry” (4). His father was “sprung from a family of laborers” (4). And, without the brand of “promised-land” nostalgia towards the “Highlands of Scotland” that so offended Marx in volume 1 of Capital, Ferguson found practicable value in the ethical possibilities of clan sensibility where it might mix with the modern kind for the greater good.2 Ferguson was therefore neither a Romantic nor an essentialist in his treatment of other people or other times. Towards an Enlightenment that was perhaps more complex and open than the one espoused by his more famous Scottish cohort, Ferguson affirmed and found social solidarity among what others would see as disparate classes. Moreover, those classes were not simply bifurcated in the traditional Marxist sense of existing in flat opposition. He acknowledged and wanted to keep vital the clan’s investment in collective happiness, their suspicion of luxury, as well as the Highlander’s other-than-exclusively-commercial attachment to land. Indeed, as chaplain to the 43rd regiment of Black Watch (1746–54), Ferguson communicated under fire with these so-called ruder sorts of folk in the mother tongue of Gaelic that they shared. His association with them had to do with lived experience, up-close and life-or-death kinds of encounters.

Thus, with characteristic insight, Hill points out the formative role Ferguson played in positing a distinctly non-Eurocentric approach to what we retrospectively call “anthropology.” (Kant later named the discipline itself.) Ferguson had no love for ethnic chauvinism, and denounced the eighteenth century’s excesses of wealth (one thinks of Glasgow’s Tobacco Lords). Indeed, as Hill repeats throughout the book—and not just in chapter 5, where an excessively commercial ethos gets its most direct critical treatment—Ferguson was “preoccupied with wealth and virtue” (xii). He was preoccupied with this division not just because the maldistribution of property and money would appear (for some, anyway) impolite, but also because capitalism at a certain point could bring the empire crashing down on rich and poor alike. To affirm a Marxist formulation that perhaps Hill would not, commercial society contains the seeds of its own destruction. I say Hill may not affirm Marx in this way only to point out his astute observation that, just because those seeds are there, there is no hardbound economic rule that says such self-destruction is guaranteed. For Ferguson, it was a matter of ethical contingency and not—contra a certain version of Marx—teleological-historical law.

What makes Ferguson so important among the other Scottish moderates in the eighteenth century is that the ethical contingency at work here was not limited to one class versus another. There were a lot of people other than “the people” who lived under British Imperial rule in the eighteenth century. They all stood to lose in one way or another if commercial society happened—probably violently—to fall into its grave. Indeed, if you tallied up the women and children who are very marginally a part of “the people,” and the servants and the slaves, as well as Ferguson’s beloved Gaels, most of the human beings under British rule were “other” in this way. In this sense, Ferguson’s ethics seem uniquely tuned in to a version of social being that supersedes and surrounds society in the more limited and so-called civilized sense. He knew and cared about otherness at this level and, or if you like, at this scale of diversity, because he was not a modern in the idealist sense, let alone of its ideologues. Singling out Ferguson’s appreciation for the Highlander’s disregard for the “superiority of rank in the possession of wealth” (77), Hill shows rare frankness in making sure that we understand the specific form of Enlightenment that Ferguson did have in mind.

Saying he was no idealist means that Ferguson had an idea about knowledge that was also modern in the way we are still waiting to be. Another important matter Hill puts on the table, though in a less prominent way than the ethical concerns, is Ferguson’s epistemology. The Scottish historian began from the Baconian principle of the “reality of things” (44). But Ferguson was also grounded in the idea that the mind “acts” on (and within) physical reality, and that reality as such is made meaningful in a way only human beings can make it (we should add, with the appropriate tools) (57). So you can be a realist—to use the latest philosophical terms—while at the same time affirming the productive power of thinking that is associated with the artisan. The level of complexity regarding class opposition holds here, too, on the question of knowledge. There is no need for the usual mind/body, reason/experience, or “organic”/”inorganic” (51) split that you come to expect with lesser Enlightenments than the one Hill offers apropos Ferguson. Ferguson was a self-proclaimed empiricist on the order of Bacon and Newton, and we might add—for reasons of Ferguson’s nonsectarian approach to religion that Hill so concisely delivers—Galileo, as well. Ferguson appreciated (and Hill clearly also appreciates) historical fact over the eighteenth century’s penchant for conjectural history. This is especially so when the facts in play happen to overturn narrow-minded social habit and self-satisfied institutional orthodoxy.

But if Ferguson was not exactly of the Enlightenment in its traditional vein, he was not a historical materialist in what became, after Marx, the usual sense of that term, either. Nor was Ferguson, anticipating Latour and the speculative realist school, a proto-actor-network theorist, or an object ontology philosopher, waiting for French theory to make it all clear. As Hill’s book title states, “ethical integrity” provides the critical draw to Ferguson, that is, the draw to both his life and his work: subjectivity, society, religion, and love, are the redeeming factors Hill draws out of Ferguson on human nature.

Thus, in Adam Ferguson and Ethical Integrity, you should not expect to find historical detail on the Highland Clearances, a genocidal application of class war (if you’ll allow the term) against the Celts that made Ferguson’s Highland sensibility so appealing to Marx; or a close reading of the Christian society documents used (along with the northward reaching arm of English law and Cumberland “The Butcher’s” army) to stamp out the life-affirming collectivist disposition of the Gaels; or a focus on the slave and other forms of revolt widely manifest by the empire’s myriad “turbulent populations.”

Ferguson did care and write about history as an example of these kinds of conflicts, as exemplified not only in the serious caution he famously expressed about commercial progress in the Essay on the History of Civil Society, but less famously, if more dramatically, in The History of the Progress and Termination of Rome. Hill states that the history of Rome is “largely untapped” by serious scholarship on Ferguson, and he’s right. But it might be time to do the tapping.

One of the reasons Hill’s book should be read widely is that it makes both a timely and convincing case that we should be reading more Ferguson, too. In contrast with the more widely known—and I would join Hill in suggesting, individualist, idealist, and overly sanguine—prescriptions of the likes of Adam Smith, for Ferguson, the Enlightenment is not only unfinished but is also situated in a precarious way. It is precariously situated, then as now, in a context that joins Ferguson to us insofar as the possibilities of modern progress and human happiness are positioned in a constructively problematic way. The problem, to say again, is that the “termination” and “perfection” of market fundamentalism are proximate to each other, and that this proximity may (or may not) eventuate in some serious unhappiness for us all.

Hill puts forth a set of what he calls the “hallmarks” of Ferguson’s ethics. They are considered as “hallmarks” because ethical practice as such ought to exist in actu, and are meaningful only insofar as it delivers measurably worthwhile outcomes. Hill does not look to Ferguson to provide rote moral commands, or to project the banal social fiction of Smith’s so-called impartial spectator. For Smith—though neither Hill nor I would say that Smith is making Mandeville’s case—ethical responsibility begins and ends with an interest that is primarily mine and transparent to me as I pursue and protect my own property. All the rest—the suffering of so many others, or better, the suffering of the many others that allows the few of us not to have to suffer like them—is rendered unavailable for ethical discussion. As long as those suffering others can someday, eventually—that is after I have got the spoils that are mine—pursue and protect their private property as I do, then humane ethical outcomes are best guided by Jupiter’s invisible hand. But if I read Ferguson right, you can’t ignore “the rest” entirely, or if you do, you risk your own peril, not just theirs. The dependence on “the servile classes” to make a nation’s wealth is liable to result in the making of a “nation of helots,” to cite one of the most popular and divergently interpreted of Ferguson’s many pithy lines.3

The helot nation raises these questions for me: isn’t the atomistic logic that bothers Ferguson most the same logic behind Adam Smith’s capitalist theosophy, as well as that behind Locke on the need for colonialist expansion? Isn’t the placing of private property law over human need itself what joins empire with the failure of empire, from Plymouth Rock to the Isthmus of Darien? The reduction of a person’s rights to property is why Ferguson took issue with Rousseau, calling the “social compact”—especially when examined in relation to the most extreme conditions of commercial society—a “mere fiction.”4 Isn’t that same “mere fiction,” according to Ferguson, the reason the Roman Empire entered its terminal phase? And, isn’t it how we—“we” beneficiaries of a system that is right now moving toward isolation and war in the name of so-called greatness—maybe facing termination, too?

For Ferguson, what I just called above, “the rest,” is not only a massively larger and different assemblage than “the people,” as I said, but it is also a more vibrant and intimately available constituency than the one that must reassure themselves (ourselves) that the they (and we) are still great. In Ferguson’s ethics—which we can hope are greater than we are alone—“the rest” are given humane consideration. This consideration of “the rest” is more pressing than you’re likely to hear about from a pantheon of Enlightenment thinkers who would not have recognized them fully because in the end we are they. We might simply interject here that Smith’s invisible hand provides the kind of historical erasure that history perhaps no longer allows. Against such a form of disappearance, Hill usefully emphasizes Ferguson’s affirmation of rude nations and so-called uncivilized states, as well as the moral legitimacy of the common and ordinary people who are too different to be just another version of us.

We might therefore ask the question: when is it legitimate to break the social compact, if not also, go against the law; and when might the lawbreaker do so precisely on ethical grounds? This will sound extreme, especially, given the strong favor in Scottish Enlightenment studies in the Western academy (the Chinese are just now reading Adam Smith, in depth) for the “Moderate literati” (emphasis mine) and for its accompanying political formation of the liberal state. Ferguson entertained the tension, under certain conditions, between law and need. Those conditions were, very explicitly for Ferguson, “the unequal distribution of property . . . so favorable to the rich . . . [, and] injur[ious] to the poor.”5 I wonder if his validation of the other’s suffering over and above the security of property could open up a productive path of discussion. Though Hill is right in distancing Ferguson from Hobbes, the minister’s notion of sociability—perhaps uniquely in his day—was never very far from what he called “the social war.” As the “multitudes of slaves from every quarter flocked to his [Cinna’s] standard” (HPT, 155), certain acts of Spartacan resistance do not come off at all times badly in the History of Rome. Indeed, “power,” Ferguson writes, “originates with the multitude.” Moreover, he continues, “they have a right to reclaim it wherever it is abused” (IMP, 69).

One of Ferguson’s more explicit examples of this conflict between law and need under conditions of extreme inequality comes in the form of a story. So it’s an aesthetic intervention, as well as an ethico-political one. Here, a starving orphan is “found almost naked, lying on the grave of his parent of whom he had been recently deprived.”6 There is a person passing by who is on his way “to discharge a debt.” But he uses the money for the orphan, instead. Ferguson then asks: “Will anyone reprobate this act of humanity, as interfering with a matter of more perfect obligation?” (PMP, 136). Reading further, Ferguson notes that “even the courts of law . . . can admit the extreme necessity of one person [the sufferer] to suspend the right of another [the creditor]” (PMP, 136). But before we congratulate him for telling a story where law and need seamlessly support one another, he remarks: “A person about to perish for want of food is allowed to save himself by recourse to the property of another; and the plea of humanity is held to be more sacred than that of an absolute and exclusive right. Why should not humanity therefore be enforced” (PMP, 136). This “enforce[ment]” of “humanity” against the law of property would have not appealed to Adam Smith. It would have entirely frustrated the adoption of Smithian political economy by the likes of Hayek’s necro-economics, where the law of property must dominate even the right to life itself.7 It is an “enforce[ment]” of “humanity” that perhaps has resonance with the “right of the multitude” to “reclaim [power] whenever it is abused” (IMP, 69).

Although Hill does not link this affirmation of “the rest” to Ferguson’s unique and important penchant for “martial virtue,” it is tempting to do so in connection with what might be called —at the risk of being oxymoronic—Enlightenment violence. Among so many other prospects, Ferguson helps us think about the serious destruction that lies beneath and must be used to sustain market fundamentalism; and not least, the prominence of grain riots and other modes of popular eighteenth-century revolt. It is tempting to nudge the “martial virtue” conversation ahead (or is it behind?) given Ferguson’s account of the “termination” of Rome. There, the masses of suffering others, accurately dubbed by him “the Proletariat,” come after the wealthy and governing classes in the form of civil war; and there, the too gleeful enterprise of Western political ascendancy comes tumbling tragically down.

As I dash out that string of grim indictments, Hill would be right to remind me that I must show a little Fergusonian restraint and not become gleeful about what might come in the wake of such a tragedy, which I must assure you, I am not. In homing in on the tension between commerce and virtue, or in simply raising the prospect of planetary plebian revolt, I am not simply saying that violence is the only thing that produces—or is produced by—capitalist economic systems. It would be worse if I were to suggest that Ferguson is saying that; and worse still to claim that Hill is saying this is what Ferguson says.

The push-pull between commerce and virtue is an open question if I read Ferguson (and Hill) correctly. Whether that question is any less open for us, and how Ferguson might help us figure that out, is perhaps beside the point of reading him in the eighteenth-century context. That said, of course, the enclosure acts were nasty practices for those who suddenly found themselves being put on the outside of the fence. The burning out of the peasants, and the canalization of surplus of labor driven into Glasgow and other manufacturing towns to keep wages sufficiently low, upset Marx and could hardly be thought about by Ferguson as ethically appealing events. The bad effects of commercial economy at its most self-evidently bad were more than just personally, individually, or subjectively, objectionable for Ferguson. Without ethical restraint, its repercussions could lead to the kind of longer-term social instability that the one philosopher referred to—more or less optimistically—as a class war, while the other—more or less pessimistically—worried about as the amassing of riotous plebes. In any case, this line of thinking is what makes Ferguson stand out for me among other Scottish Enlightenment figures, and what makes Hill’s book such an important one.

  1. Jack A. Hill, Adam Ferguson and Ethical Integrity: The Man and His Prescriptions for the Moral Life (London: Lexington, 2017), hereafter cited with page number in text.

  2. Karl Marx, Capital (New York: Penguin, 1976), 1:890.

  3. Adam Ferguson, Essay on The History of Civil Society, edited by Fania Oz-Salzberger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 186.

  4. Adam Ferguson, Institutes of Moral Philosophy (Edinburgh: Kinkaid, 1773), 201. Cited hereafter in text as IMP.

  5. Adam Ferguson, The History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic (New York: Derby, [1783] 1856), 36. Cited hereafter in text as HPT.

  6. Adam Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science (Edinburgh, 1792), 317. Hereafter cited with page number in text as PMP.

  7. On “necro-politics” from Adam Smith, to Hayek and Von Mises, see chapter 3, Mike Hill and Warren Montag, The Other Adam Smith (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2016.

  • Avatar

    Jack Hill


    Contesting Ideology—Ferguson’s Enlightenment, Marx, and Capitalism

    Mike Hill’s essay raises some of the most fundamental questions concerning the purchase of Ferguson’s project for political economy during the Scottish Enlightenment, as well as the relevance of Ferguson’s critique of commercial arts regarding the moral legitimacy of today’s entrepreneurial culture. Hill’s essay also suggests the need for further research on the relation of Ferguson’s ideas and those of Karl Marx. Although I focused on several antinomies between Ferguson and Marx in an earlier article, perhaps another ought to be written that explores the many points of convergence between the two thinkers.1 Picking up on one of the many provocative issues raised by Hill, I will concentrate reflection on the following question: “How might it be possible to open up discourse about what Hill terms, ‘Ferguson’s validation of the other’s suffering over and above the security of property’ in scholarship on the Enlightenment?”

    To open up discussion concerning law and need in society in general, let alone in Enlightenment scholarship, is to confront and contest an ideological iron cage. Part of the problem is that virtually all discourse about law in the modern West presupposes that the right to unlimited private property ownership is an unassailable—essentially sacred—right. In general, both “leftist” and “rightist” political factions take for granted that there is not a real alternative to “trickle-down” economics. Leftists would like to see more of a steady, sustained flow (if not an occasional gusher), while rightists seek to maintain the trickle (if not occasionally shut off the valve altogether). What is not seriously questioned is the moral legitimacy of trickle-down economics itself, let alone the types of political and social systems that it spawns. It is simply understood that economic growth is good, indeed, must at all costs continue in an upward trajectory; that the only real viable engine for this growth is private capitalist investment; and that such investment necessitates relatively large disparities in income and wealth. Hence, by the very logic of the operation of so-called “free markets,” wealth must necessarily trickle down.

    Ferguson opposed large disparities in wealth as dangerous to the body politic, and was particularly worried about the emergence of political slavery—or, as Mike Hill observes, the creation of a nation of helots—that unbridled capitalism might create. Allow me to suggest that the belief in the supposed inalienable right to an unlimited accumulation of capital functions as a kind of secular religion—perhaps the most dominant religion (secular or spiritual) in the United States today. The problem is that many of us are not conscious of the fact that this religion—this allegiance to an ultimate concern of economic growth—tends to function as a religion.

    Let us relate this line of argument to the question of need versus law. Since the inception of the United States in the late 1700s, virtually the entire legal system has evolved to serve the interests of the secular religion of unbridled capitalism.2 This fact makes it genuinely difficult, if not practically impossible to, in Hill’s words, take up “Ferguson’s validation of other’s suffering over and above the security of property.” First, to quote Ferguson, “We are not to expect that the laws of any country are to be framed as so many lessons on morality. . . . Laws, whether civil or political, are expedients of policy to adjust the pretensions of parties, and to secure the peace of society” (Principles 2: 144). But with the rise of the religion of capitalism, the expedients of policy are adjusted in such a way that an unlevel playing field is institutionalized that serves the pretensions of the wealthy capitalist. In such a system, the game is rigged and there is really very little legal recourse for the victims of this religion, especially the homeless and the poor.

    Second, the rise of an individualist ethos, coupled with a privatest turn in human dwelling (think the disappearance of front porches, sidewalks, public squares, and the rise of gated real estate enclaves, private schools, and the commercialization of public space in shopping malls) and the concomitant breakdown of a sense of community have resulted in a shocking absence of a recognition that many people are suffering at all. In short, we dwell in our own small life-worlds—and research suggests that basic forms of social media—Facebook in particular—have tended to exacerbate, rather than lessen, such dwelling. If someone is suffering in our home or in our family or in our circle of friends, then of course we care about them. But otherwise, all the maiming, starving, killing, and dying that is occurring out there somewhere is as a blur that we barely recognize and can hardly decipher.

    Consequently, the conundrum is, at the very least, twofold: unmasking and critiquing the religion of private property and bursting our small life-world bubbles in ways that allow for encounters with the sufferings of others. Ferguson provided at least three clues. First, he observed that the virtues associated with success in the commercial arts are different from the virtues associated with success in the political arts (see Principles 1:244, and AFEI, The upshot of this is that those who excel in business and those who excel in a legal profession that protects and enshrines the interests of business, are not necessarily qualified to lead in the public sector. And yet, in the United States, success as a lawyer or as a private sector entrepreneur has been considered a virtual calling card for serious consideration as an upper-tier candidate in US politics. In part, this has been a result of the increasing role of large, private campaign contributions. Unless one can raise ever-increasing, huge sums of money (and who are better connected through their networks to do this than businessmen and their lawyers?), one cannot reasonably expect to become a serious candidate. Consequently, politics has become the handmaiden of big business. This is to invert Ferguson’s understanding of the relation between commerce and politics. Commercial entrepreneurs are not to manipulate the political arena for their own self-aggrandizement. Government is to protect the rights of all citizens from those who would usurp them.

    I will therefore reiterate what I stated in AFEI. If we accept Ferguson’s argument, it is crystal clear that the election of a businessman (with no prior political public service) to the presidency of the United States is a recipe for disaster (no matter who that person is or what political party she or he represents). This is simply because such an individual will not be predisposed to exercise political virtues. Quoting one of Ferguson’s most succinct passages, “Mere wealth has no natural connection with merit” (Principles, 1:245). The fact that such an idea would strike many in our body politic today as ludicrous is no doubt a sign of how far we have become thoroughly entrenched in the religion of capitalism. Here, of course, Marx (along with Ferguson) was prescient, and we cannot overemphasize this point. We need to change the direction of the discourse. The primary questions ought to be, “What are the political virtues?” and “Which prospective candidates are most predisposed to exercise those virtues?”

    A second clue about the law and need issue is contained in Ferguson’s definition of the man of probity: “Men who regard the rights, and feel for the sufferings, of others; who are ever ready to do acts of kindness; who are faithful and true to the expectations they raise—are said to have probity” (Institutes, 99).3 Of utmost importance, both “the rights” and “the sufferings” of others are invoked in the same clause in this definition. Note that not only is there no reference here to the security of one’s own property rights, but there is the insinuation that the human rights of others should be highlighted in tandem with a feeling for the sufferings of those others. This suggests that the central question should not be, “How can my own property rights be more firmly guaranteed and extended?” but rather, “What needs to be done to ensure the human rights of others and to adequately attend to the sufferings of those others?” Such a dialogical pivot shifts the focus away from one’s privatest, individualistic concerns, and toward others in our midst, especially others who do not experience a comfortable or luxurious lifestyle. Moreover, in one of his moral philosophy lectures, Ferguson appears to call for something like this pivot. After lamenting, “We act as men . . . but are not accustomed to review our own Actions, to recollect our thoughts, our desires and our aversions or to take any of these particulars as the subject of a science,” he penned the following note in the margin: “Does this indifference arise from security?”4 This question seems prophetic when one considers that the bulk of moral philosophizing increasingly occurs in the highly secured, comfort zones of the modern academy.

    A third clue about the relation of law and need pertains to the fact that the economic arts are essentially aimed at fulfilling individual aims and needs, whereas political arts are directed toward the fulfillment of societal aims and needs. Since, as discussed above, the legal profession has evolved in the US context as the handmaiden of economic arts, it is generally exercised to fulfill individual needs rather than societal needs. This suggests the need to recast discourse about a focus on individual rights to a focus on the obligations all individuals have to serve the needs of the community—and especially, for Ferguson, the “nation.”

    Finally, if the religion of capitalism is deeply entrenched in twenty-first-century mindsets, the phenomenon of modern technology may be equally, if not more, sacrosanct.5 Even to raise questions about the propriety of resisting the latest innovations in communications technology, artificial intelligence, or robotics is to be summarily dismissed as a modern-day Luddite. Yet the evolution of modern technology may be fundamentally altering the ways we engage our world. Hill’s rich essay leaves us with a question that we are ill-equipped to handle, namely, “How do we negotiate the tension between modern progress and what Ferguson termed “the attainments of a happy mind” (Principles, 2:74) that appear threatened by the disengagement and distraction wrought by the device paradigm?”6

    To prompt discussion of this question, I will close by suggesting a line of inquiry. Ferguson feared that the commercial ethos was not only fueling a slackening of “man’s” disposition toward association, but that it was also producing “errors of the imagination” which he said were “constituent of moral weakness and scarcely separable from actual depravity of heart” (Principles, 2:77). Ferguson emphasizes that “to commit errors in the imagination” is to commit errors regarding the capacity to “conceive subjects together as wholes,” and that in every moral estimation “the whole of every subject must be conceived together” (Principles, 1:104–6).7 Consequently, Ferguson’s concept of the imagination would appear to be crucial for understanding moral virtue, and hence, for apprehending happiness. In light of the previous discussion, citizens in the grip of the religion of capitalism might well be predisposed to commit errors of the imagination. They certainly would only grasp part of the whole, and thereby lose a capacity to think about an appropriate overarching context. This leads to a final question, “How might Ferguson’s understanding of imagination become a resource for living a happy life today?”


    1. The earlier article is “Marx’s Reading of Ferguson and the Idea of Progress,” Journal of Scottish Philosophy 11.2 (2013) 167–90.

    2. See an account of how the legal system developed in tandem with capitalism in the nineteenth century on the American frontier in Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York: Random House, 1979). This is especially true of tax and corporate law, but also of criminal law.

    3. The reference is to Ferguson’s Institutes of Moral Philosophy: For the Use of Students in the College of Edinburgh, 2nd ed., rev. and corr. (Edinburgh: Alexander Kincaid, W. Creech, and John Bell, 1773).

    4. “Lectures” (12 November 1776), emphasis is Ferguson’s.

    5. See my argument in AFEI, 152f.

    6. For a fascinating phenomenological account of the device paradigm as the basic structure of modern technology, see Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

    7. See my brief explanation of the import of such errors for the moral life in AFEI, 138–39.

    • Avatar

      Mike Hill


      Response to Jack Hill

      Jack Hill’s responses to my comments on his book go right to the heart of the Enlightenment we never had.  What’s more, he avoids despairing about how the best of the Enlightenment’s promises have yet to be realized, and refuses to retreat into pristine detachment.  Instead, Hill offers some helpful ideas about how to be modern in the fuller (more truthful, more equitable, and more adequately human) sense of that very weighty term.

      I suggested in my first set of remarks that there was an original conflict between law and need within early modern commercial society, a fundamental set of contradictions between equality and freedom, wealth and rights, individuality and the greater good, all predicated on Lockean notions of private property.  Locke uses natural law theory to argue for a societal arrangement where private property is primary over collective wellbeing:  your freedom depends precisely on your obedience to the law, where the law in this case is written to guarantee that your property is secure from your neighbor’s interest in it, and visa-versa.  If you happen not to have any property—which most Enlightenment citizens did not—then so much greater the need for your freedom to be conceived as legal obedience.  Inequality, sometimes even to the degree that it morphs into forms of radical austerity, is as necessary for the progress of the so-called “free-market,” as it is, paradoxically, for freedom itself.  So evidently is human suffering.  If the Highland clans couldn’t interiorize commercial sensibility for themselves as properly socialized members of the newly united Greater Britain, it was made certain that they would obey the laws of property and money at the point of an imperial gun.  (Starvation, fire, and other means of state control were also very much on hand.)  Ferguson’s unique identification with clan society as resistant to market fundamentalism has both ethical and a political dimensions, which are what Hill’s book does such an excellent job in allowing us to see.

      I just said that most Enlightenment citizens didn’t have property.  But Hill would know—and he shows how it would puzzle Ferguson mightily—that to say a citizen doesn’t have private property would have been, in the eighteenth century context, an inconceivable contradiction:  no property, no citizenship; and indeed, no individuality in the politically enfranchised (if less clearly, the ethical) sense of that vexed and ambivalent term.

      Locke in fact makes a rather cynical point about slavery that reveals his commitment to private property above-and-beyond just about everything else. (He was against slavery on paper, but applauded colonialist expansion, and was heavily invested in the Royal African Company, which brought black Africans in bondage to labor in the New World in order that it could be acquired by his colonizing groups.)  Locke’s peculiar argument against slavery was a private-property based one:  if you’re a slave, you should know that your most basic sense of self exists in the form of your own body being conceived as something you can own.  Your only property is you in this case, because your other property—for Locke and Marx, it was your labor—has been forcibly taken by your master when he put you in chains.  (The trick after Locke is to voluntarily sell your labor at a wage, preferably, a wage lower that your neighbor’s as you successfully compete against him for work.)  Locke says to the slave that you can get your freedom in only one way, save insurrection, which is by taking your own life.  That your life is yours-for-the-taking proves for him that you are your own property, the collateral consequences of getting that property by also being dead, notwithstanding.  The contradictions of the early market economy (in this case, they were suicidal) were not lost to Locke.  He just found a way to affirm them by wrapping the very idea of humanity in the principles of ownership that God ordained: religion = salvation = death.

      I only alluded to Locke in my original comments on Adam Ferguson and Ethical Integrity.  But Hill is spot on in his response to me when he calls “private capitalist investment…a kind of secular religion.”  He’s spot on because the word “religion” means in this context (there are more forgiving ones) that it’s hard to talk critically about the distribution of wealth, about who works and who profits, or about the volatility (at times, indeed, the death inducing logic) of markets.  God forbid we might enter in to the historical record the myriad ways in which “the multitudes” rather than “the people” have resisted (sometimes, also violently) the savage practices that accompany what capitalist faith supposes are the civilizing effects of commercial qua inter-personal relations.  But that’s exactly what the record shows if you know how to look.

      The word “religion” in this context rules out rational discussion of the contradictions of the market.  It rules out looking accurately and honestly.  It rules out, in other words, the Enlightenment we never had.  That a kind of religious commitment to the progress of capitalism pervades academic discussions about the Enlightenment, and especially, the likes of Adam Smith, is a symptom of our own complacency.  Hill mentions this as a convenient feature of what constitutes the most popular kinds of scholarship in our shared field of eighteenth-century studies.  But this is an ironic complacency, which, in the case of Locke’s freedom-loving suicidal slave, may spell our self-induced demise.  Our complacency about the market getting into areas it’s not supposed to is ironic because we academics are right now being pinched by the forceful squeezing of our own labor—and of humanities work in general—into the very corporate models of efficiency and profitability that too many of us still refuse to name.

      What’s so poignant about Hill’s book is that he reads the other Adam (Fergsuon, rather than Smith) so that we might get a handle on an other Enlightenment, as well.  That other Enlightenment is there in Ferguson, he seems to be saying, but it is there in an allusive, or trace-oriented kind of way.

      The problem of this enigmatic kind of “there-ness” is why I am particularly intrigued and encouraged by Hill’s closing paragraphs on my review about technology and the imagination.  His thoughts on the way in which “errors of the imagination” are inseparable from an “actual depravity of the heart” (he’s quoting Ferguson here) is rich with possibility if we want to coax the Enlightenment into getting here one day.  First, in that reference to the “heart,” there’s Ferguson’s word “actual.”  I take this to mean that “moral sympathy” on the order of Adam Smith’s effectively atomized way of connecting with the other through “fellow feeling”—that is, of identifying with the sufferer in some commercially “measured” way—isn’t the same as the rich losing some of their stuff so that the poor and/or enslaved might enjoy a materially satisfactory life.  Second, there’s the whole problem—a subjectivity problem, but also, it turns out, one that remains technological—of figuring out the relationship between our “imagination” and the “actual” world.

      For a long time, that is, until more nuanced accounts of ideology came to exist outside the ones authorized by certain forms of state communism, imaginary relations were just the opposite of real ones.  If you were involved at all with making or appreciating any cultural product produced from within a capitalist system, you were ideologically blind.  By simple inversion, if you adhered to what professional revolutionaries decided was the right kind of culture, you got to be real and see things as they “actual[ly]” existed.  Imagination used to mean simply illusion; ideology critique was your only hope of identifying what was real.

      The problem with this model is that the real is presented in a way that is naively positivistic: already existing, visible to a handful of professional revolutionary vanguards, inarguably present, and largely unchanging.  Moreover, culture was deemed to be the passive reflection of economic relations that determined its value in a univocally a good or bad way that only the vanguards could now.

      I know this a terribly reductive account of (so-called) Marxist thinking; but I offer it in the restrictive format of our Syndicate exchange as a way of pivoting back to the conundrum of the Enlightenment’s non-existence.  A better way to put that non-existence, to use Ferguson’s word, would be to think of the Enlightenment in “error.”

      You might think I am about to do something like the positivist-Marxists (straw figures, I still want to insist), and say:  “look, the Enlightenment is right here in front of you and already existing in a complete and objective way.  It’s ready for all to enjoy.  Just read Marx, and Ferguson, and Hill, and me.”  But that’s not what I’m saying.  When I say, following Hill, that the Enlightenment is here in some sense, the sense I mean is that the Enlightenment we never had requires us to make—and not simply to name—it.  So also like Hill—and Fergsuon, who one does hope will be more widely read—I think the imagination can be an “actual[izing]” force.  It can be an actual[izing]” force as long as: (a) it’s related in the right order to other “actualit[ies]”; and (b) we grant from the start that the imagination originates in the same “actual[ity]” oriented way.  The word “actual” is worth highlighting because Ferguson says explicitly that he did not like the projects of what he called “speculative men.”  Ideology is not just an illusion in other words, but it can allude to the real world in the right kind of Enlightenment ways.

      When I use that phrase “in the right order,” I mean to reference reality both as it exists in the plural, and reality at a level of scale that exceeds both my own sense of me, and the too narrow scope of the tiny world that the me in question wants to think is all there is.  This, too, is a Fergusonian prospect that Hill brings very much to the fore.  I also mean “in the right order” as a way of thinking not just about space but also about time:  “order” not just in the organization of mind-and-matter, but as the way in which we work with the archive, who we read, and not just who, but when.

      Put simply, this has to do with the ways in which we tell more and less effective kinds stories, which is why in my review of Hill’s excellent book I wanted to give Ferguson’s parable of the orphan-bandit (along side the History of Rome) as much prominence as the more developed works of ethics and social theory. (Contemporary science is also interested in the cooperative relationship between reality and the imagination.  The relationship is these days discussed under the heading of quantization.  In quantum theory, for example, what’s real is precisely what you can’t see.  You therefore have to fictionalize reality in a virtual way to get at reality at all.  But this is because you’re getting closer to the very fabric of the universe as an infinitely scaleable information entity.  Apposite to an unlikely paring of quantum mechanics and Marx:  the poor must be represented because they cannot represent themselves.  They must be brought into existence from a reality that paradoxically exists—like a shadow photon exists—in the form of its absence.)

      But let’s ground this heady swerve into the physical fabric of the universe in more comfortable Enlightenment terms.  I’m grateful for the refreshingly loose genre that the Syndicate forum allows:  can I really be putting Marx in the cosmos? (The eyes must be rolling on all sides of the debate!).  I don’t want to drift into the theoretical ether (a good physics word), but I do think we must keep Hill’s imagination-technology association front-and-center in our minds.

      Maybe Habermas is worth mentioning, as far as he goes.  Recall, he offers an account of the public sphere as it emerges for the first time in the eighteenth-century.  It emerges in his account with very concrete structural contours, and with a historically explicit set of media-technological inputs.  (Frustratingly, he singles out England against France and Germany, and doesn’t mention the real home of the Western Enlightenment, which we all know was North of the Tweed.  Can we even fathom China’s much earlier Enlightenment, or that of the pan-Arab word?)  Some have said that Habermas’s blueprint for bourgeois society is too rigid; and that the media forms that he chooses are too narrow in scope.  But let’s review his public sphere argument, just briefly, in the context of the technology-imagination link.

      The structural organization of modern society is for Habermas fairly straight forward, but he complicates it in an interesting, if under examined, kind of way.  He says that modern social order has three distinct parts:  the private sphere (where your family is, and where you keep your deepest thoughts); the public sphere (where you use your private reason in a publicly oriented way, and where you buy and sell); and the state (where wars are fought, and laws are enforced in a way that should not impinge on either private or public matters because they exist in a way that is supposed to be more-or-less free).  In a classic individual-society-state relation such as this, the boundaries separating Habermas’s self-society-state triad must be more or less absolute.  You don’t want the public telling you how to love (though it did); or the state interfering even in times of famine with the free-flow of money and goods (though it did not); or moneyed interests running the state (though it does).

      From here, Habermas admits something few give him credit for when he says that the public sphere ideal, where an individual was free, where communication could be rational and open, and where the state was the subject to the critical correction of its membership, as just that:  an ideal.   He says that in fact it never existed, or if it did, it was for too short a “blissful moment.”  Habermas recognizes that, in fact, the public sphere ideal was never realized, that individuals were subject to nasty cultural norms (especially race and gender norms), that the public sphere was highly partial to commercial interests (the public is the middle class and not the masses), and that the state’s job, as Adam Smith says, was above all to “protect the rich from the poor” (here again, Locke on the sanctity of property).

      So it goes, you might say.  But there is a more revelatory part of the public sphere discussion that connects with Hill’s suggestion that we think about the imagination and technology.  The revelation (I’m not afraid of this religious word) has to do with two other things Habermas that says, which is where we might pick up with Ferguson, too:  first, it was print culture, and especially stories—the so-called realist novel—whereby the modern individual came to imagine herself into ethical, if not yet political, existence; second, Habermas says that while public-sphere cultural (i.e. reading) practices served above all the capitalist and colonialist classes of propertied British men, story telling as such was simultaneously “ideology and more than ideology.”  If you like, forget the hoary theoretical debates within Marxist circles about what the nature of ideology is.  Just think seriously instead about the word “more.”

      It’s along these lines that I’m wondering, first, if Hill could help us find a way through Ferguson for recognizing the sufferer as a matter of expanding our scale of identification beyond just the other-as-opposite-of-me; and second, more to the immediate point, if telling stories, stories that reach down to our most fundamental presumptions about the Enlightenment, modernity, and needed for doing that work.

      When I say “fundamental” I mean it in precisely with the religious connotations of skewering the sacred cow of private property, and when necessary, putting need over law; when I say “stories,” I mean to highlight the aesthetic dimension to Ferguson’s ethical cause.

      This is why I can’t shake Ferguson’s orphan-bandit parable.  It sticks with me like some half-conscious commitment to justice not just because of what the story means about Ferguson’s demotion of property but also because the story triggers real (indeed, dangerously real) action in the world vis-à-vis the imagination  The orphan-bandit exists in our imagination with a bearing on actualizing an Enlightenment we never had.  The real Enlightenment, like the orphan-bandit, is “there” in some traceable, but not yet fully realized, place we call the past.  In that sense, again, the “there” I have mind is both imaginary and real.  I’m wondering  therefore if this kind of “there”-ness isn’t a technology problem in the disguise of a purely human one (you’ll note here that I don’t want to keep tools and people too far apart).  Might we humanists might add technology to our ethical toolbox in ways that are commensurate with Ferguson and the absent Enlightenment, rather than seeing them purely as obstacles?   (A better way to put this would be to suggest—after Habermas—that the technology was already there in the form of the mass-produced book.)

      So my final thought back to Hill—and it goes back (I hope!) in a way that keeps our conversation going forward—has to do with the technology part of imagination as precisely to the point of the reality-rendering kind of work that happens when we tell stories in a Fergusonisan way.  Habermas doesn’t use the term, but other media theorists do:  stories are technology, couldn’t we agree?  And this is so—with the good and bad effects that we Enlightenment technicians must determine—whether we are taking about the Aboriginal rock art of Northern Queensland, Ferguson’s orphan-bandit, or experiments in digital humanities.

      In that sense, maybe a key to realizing the Enlightenment-to-come is to affirm and engage with media innovation, rather than leaving it to the big data potentates to monopolize, manipulate, and control?  Surely, print technology in the eighteenth-century (especially in Scotland, where modern copyright laws were determined in 1774) brought with it the same hopes and fears then that digital media does now.

      Ferguson was not only tuned in to the “social wars” latent within superficially peaceable forms of commercial sociability but was also intrigued by what he called “paper wars.”  Is there a way to suss out a theory of aesthetics in Ferguson, one linked to his investment in the “imagination,” particularly, its link to “actual[ity],” as I referenced these two terms above?   He says that mere “speculative maxims” are not up to the job of following “the instinct of nature,” and derides “mere words” because they “cost nothing.”  In his sermon to the Highland regiment, Ferguson draws on the use of “parable” in “the writing of the Apostles,” namely, those scriptures concerning the “Army’s of Israel.”

      It seems to me he was seeking a theory of knowledge—and a place for the practical applications of story telling within it—that forged a necessary link between thought, experience, and action.   I’m wondering if we can surmise where Ferguson would stand on media as part-and-parcel of an epistemology of this kind.  How, for example, would the media-technology explosion in reading material during his time, which Ferguson did in fact notice in his own writing, inform his sense of social organization and community making?  This is a rich and relevant strain of further inquiry, one made possible by Hill’s book, and his response to my reading of it. For that and a lot of other reasons, I’m grateful for his having set the course for our reading of Ferguson today.

    • Avatar

      Jack Hill


      Ferguson and the Future of Civilization

      In this brief closing response, both to Mike Hill’s superb comments above and to all the respondents, I want to express my sincere “thanks” for all of the time, energy and thoughtfulness that has been contributed to this symposium on my book. I want to in particular offer my gratitude to Fred Ablondi and Sean Larson for their frequent and kind interventions. This bookend to the symposium will not do justice to the many points that Mike Hill has raised, but perhaps can at least provide a partial address to a few of them. Clearly, many issues have surfaced which deserve a much longer conversation than can be initiated at this point.
      I think that the subjects of imagination, private property, story and modern technology (which are all central to Mike Hill’s intellectual project) will remain with us well into the twenty-first century. By that I mean that they appear to be integrally related to what I am calling the future of civilization.
      In a way, this brings us squarely back to Ferguson’s initial concern to write a book on what he originally entitled something along the lines of, “the vicissitudes of the history of civilization”–what later became the Essay on the History of Civil Society. The term “vicissitudes” refers to the rise and decline of phenomena, change, fluctuation, mutation, decay as well as progress. There are elements of fortune, chance, growth and assertion.
      As I and other contributors have argued, Ferguson’s legacy is a powerful one because, in part, he was a man of many worlds–the literary world of Edinburgh, the salons of Europe, the wilderness of the Highlands, the genteel countryside of the Borderlands, the British diplomat, the wandering, inquisitive tourist, the Poker Club agitator, the nascent anthropologist, the science instructor, the philosophical ethicist, the contrary savant, the social gadfly, and the devoted, if often distant, father and husband.
      Hence, when he turned his attention to the really big question of the direction, flow and nature of “civilization” it was with a lot of fire power and multiple weapons. I keep coming back to his basic understanding of human being as “exertion” into the world, an “exertion” which is inseparable from a “project” of some sort–ideally, the on-going realization of a duty, calling or vocation. Imagination is crucial because “art is natural to man” and “man is an artisan” of his own creation. His exertion is an act of artistic creation. (See the opinion piece in this morning’s (June 30, 2018) New York Times on the striking absence of “culture” [construed primarily as the musical and theatrical arts] in the current White House administration–I believe this is especially telling). Private property–at least a modicum of possessions and/or the space and time to utilize possessions in the here and now–is necessary for the exercise, communication and sharing of the imagination in the world. Fiddles and fire places were as essential to the ancients as electric guitars and recording studios are to we contemporaries. The quill served the monk on the 11th century as well as the computer keyboard serves scholars of today. But as Mike has emphasized, the aggrandizement of private property, especially in the hands of a few, tends to structure, control and delimit the expression of human imagination. This is something Ferguson and his colleagues were struggling with given the massive economic and cultural changes occurring in eighteenth-century Europe. Ethically speaking, it quickly became virtually impossible to take into account all the relevant features of a situation, let alone estimate how these features were likely to play out. Massive productions and concentrations of capital tended to create a cultural ethos in which economic standards became the measures of success, human happiness…and alas…human flourishing.
      Modern technology has yet to be understood as a phenomenon in its own right. I have intimated earlier in this symposium that I think Martin Heidegger’s insights in “On the Question of Technology” and other writings might be a good place to begin. Heidegger’s view of the human being as a being thrown into a world, as having a being by virtue of being in a world, and of being engaged in some “in-order-to-project” as a central feature of this existence–resonates in an uncanny way with Ferguson’s understanding of “man” as “exertion” in a context of a project or calling. I strongly suspect that the arc of modern technology is changing the manner in which we engage the world. If so, this affects the ways in which it can be said that being is in the world. Heidegger has referred to a distinction between “things” in their essence (which we stand over and against) and “resources” that have become “standing reserve” (which we use or not, but of which we no longer stand over and against). I realize that this language is difficult to decipher, but I think it points to a real “vicissitude” in modern human experience that is at the very heart of what it means to be human.
      This brings me to the theme of “story.” In my view, stories are historically nuanced, narrative sequences of meaning which give our lives direction, purpose and fulfillment. We each live out our own story, and we flourish to the extent that we can read our own story into the stories of others. This is why, for me, novels–especially ones with complex character developments–are so important to continuing to grow and to recognize myself. But stories are also conveyed in well-written and well acted cinema, in song and poetry, in the tales we tell one another in everyday conversation. They are not simply “resources” (though this can be a side-effect of some stories), they transcend resources, data collections, and all of the myriad types of kernels of information that one is showered with in computer applications today. Hence, the modus operandi of modern technology–the creation of resources that promise greater and greater efficiency, comfort, ease and distraction–may, I fear, dilute the salience and power of story (especially story that evokes slowness, discomfort, “dis-ease” and engagement).
      In any event, these are simply intended as closing thoughts to what has been a marvelous dialogue. Thank you one and all. Jack