Monday, June 19, 2006

Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith and David Hume: the unhappy trio

Continuing on the theme of the growing interest in all matters to do with the Scottish Enlightenment in general and the personalities of its luminaries in particular, Kirsty Milne, a staff writer for the Scotsman group, picks on Adam Ferguson, a lesser known (to the general public) contributor to the flood of ideas that poured over the walls of academe in those heady days of the last half of the 18th century.

Ferguson wrote a book, An Essay on The History of Civil Society (1767), regarded by many, as the first real book on sociology. He had an ambivalent relationship with David Hume and Adam Smith and Kirsty Milne hooks her piece around their supposed differences:

Visionary who realised struggle held the key to enlightenment by Kirsty Milne” (Scotland on Sunday)

“Ferguson does not get the attention that is paid to his friends Adam Smith and David Hume, though they socialised in the same Edinburgh circles and helped one another with introductions and jobs. Notwithstanding the Essay on the History of Civil Society, published in 1767, which made his name known throughout Europe, Ferguson has lost out to Hume's suavity and Smith's sonority

There is probably something in the tone of this paragraph which captures what went wrong with the personal relationships of these three intellectuals (Hume died in 1776, Smith in 1790 and Ferguson in 1815).

Ferguson had many qualities and some excellent insights that if they had been cultivated by deeper study of existing societies they could have produced and enormous contribution, recognised as among the best of the Enlightenment. Consider this sentence from his ‘Civil Society’:

Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design’(Ferguson, 1767: Pt. 3.2).

He was onto something fundamental here, along similar lines to Smith’s social evolution through the independent unplanned, unconscious and unintentional actions of individuals over long periods. It is close to later ‘spontaneous order’ theories.

Yet he also includes in his Essay an excess (in my view) of un-researched, undocumented and largely untenable assertions that flow from his personal predilections about idealistic notions of the ‘warrior’ man, martial spirits and 'courageous imperatives school of history'. Once these assumptions about human behaviours from an unspecified age are set loose, Ferguson’s text takes on an unprovable and unconvincing tone which led readers, such as Hume (who read it in draft) to dismiss it as unworthy of publication, a remark that did not endear him to Ferguson, who was miffed with Hume thereafter, as he was with Smith on other occasions where they had differences of opinion.

In short, far from being bosom friends, the three men were divided 2:1 as fellow members of the Republic of Letters, in which minority relationship Ferguson felt aggrieved that he wasn’t taken seriously enough by the other two. This is a pity because, as I recognise, Ferguson was close to being brilliant but just short of also being average.

While Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, draws up a model for social relations in a market economy, Ferguson frets about how markets might damage our civic health. The other Adam is an antidote to the idea that the Scottish Enlightenment was all about free trade and 'politeness', an 18th-century buzzword describing ideal behaviour towards strangers in expanding towns and cities. Ferguson dismissed this shallow form of sociability as insincere, claiming that behind every polite facade lay 'a grimace'.”

I think the last sentence on the ‘insincerity’ of sociability was perhaps a personal experience of Hume’s putdowns and Smith’s complicity in them (for example their undisguised amusement at Ferguson being appointed to Edinburgh's Chair in Natural Philosophy although he knew nothing of mathematics; a bluff he carried off for three year before moving to the more congenial, for him, Chair of Moral Philosophy). Smith had his own reservations about Ferguson’s Essay on grounds, not fully explained, that he thought it used ideas from his Glasgow lectures without acknowledgement.

Ferguson’s ‘frets’ about the negative features of Commerce were widely shared by 17th and 18th century philosophers, including by Smith. The classical philosophers of Greece also had deep reservations about commerce, luxury and money accumulation as corruptions of the proper virtues (of which the ‘martial spirit’ was one of them – 'effeminacy' from the indolent life had undone many civilisations in the view of this school).

All the philosophers of the Enlightenment had been taught the philosophy of the classical schools. On balance, Hume and Smith considered the benefits to enlightenment and to the dreadful condition of the labouring poor from a revived commercialism, overcame its potential negative features. Ferguson, living just below the ‘Highland Line’, may have had romantic notions about the causes and the price of the famed ‘martial spirit’ he attributed to the males in the Clan System, no doubt fuelled by Ferguson’s role as Chaplain to the Black Watch, a Highland regiment of the line, peopled by the males of the species. Incidentally, see below, Ferguson was at the Battle of Fontenoy, a bloody battle to say the least, but whether he did more than administer his Chaplain’s duties from the rear or by actually joining in the fighting is not known (he let it be known for years that he wanted to join in and help the men dying within view ,but was ordered back by his Commanding Officer).

Despite the philosophers' mutual affection, there were real ideological differences between them. (Hume so disliked the Essay on the History of Civil Society, which he saw in draft, that he felt it should not be published.) While Smith and Hume rejoiced in market-led prosperity, Ferguson worried that it had made man "a detached and solitary being", dealing with others "as he does with his cattle and his soil, for the sake of the profits they bring". Nor did Ferguson accept that the world was moving inexorably towards what he called "polished and commercial nations", warning that empires can fall as well as rise, and that civilisation can easily revert to barbarism.

What Ferguson did not consider was what the absence of commerce in the Highlands did to the females of the men in danger of being “detached and solitary beings”. Smith in Wealth of Nations reports on the dreadful lives of young women having as many as 19 children of which few survived from the grinding poverty of a rural economy in the desperately unforgiving environment of the Highlands. ‘Brigadoon’ it wasn’t. Ferguson was not a Jacobite, but his blind sympathy for the full costs of life in the Highland culture for the women and children, and any men of a non-martial spirit, suggests a tinge of guilt felt for what the murderous men in the army of the British King did to the unarmed Highland people at their raping, looting and murdering lack of mercy after the failure of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion.

Smith was very clear about the prospects of all civilisations and warns in Moral Sentiments that their inevitable fate is to decay.

This ambivalence shows in his admiration for the loyalty and courage of 'primitive' peoples. Unlike Hume and Smith, who were strictly Lowlanders, Ferguson was born in Perthshire and knew Gaelic. He served as chaplain to the Black Watch for nine years from 1745, and may have fought with them against the French at the battle of Fontenoy. Whereas Smith uses the Highlands in The Wealth of Nations to illustrate poverty and feudalism, Ferguson never mentions Scotland, drawing his examples from North American tribes. But his stress on the bravery, generosity and honour of "rude nations" may have been intended as a covert compliment to the clans in the post-Jacobite era.”

Ferguson’s knowledge of ‘rude societies’ was not unusual in the 18th century. He drew from the same deep well as did Hume, Smith and the others. Indeed, Smith’s lectures at Glasgow (1751-64) show more than just traces of acquaintance with the writings of those who had lived among the North American tribes (e.g., Charlevoix and Lafitau were extensively quoted from by many writers from Locke’s time to Ferguson’s – North America was a veritable theme park on life before civilisation).

Ferguson drew his usual stress on the martial honour strain allegedly found in ‘savage’ societies, much along the line of Rousseau in his idealistic, where not totally imaginary, portrayal in his ‘Discourse on the origin of Inequality’ (1755). Ferguson (and Hume and Smith) read French.

Kirsty gives the impression that Smith ignored the American tribes to focus on the Highland case. He most certainly did not. She forgets just how big a book the 990-page Wealth of Nations became because of Smith’s detailed coverage on every theme and evidence of data he could find. Smith’s earlier Glasgow lectures show a strong acquaintance with the American literature. She might have wondered why Ferguson ignored the evidence of the Scottish Highlands, a few tens of miles to the north with which many readers were familiar, and chose the evidence of books about a continent’s people, thousands of miles west and which most of his readers would never visit or meet anybody from.

She could also have mentioned that Karl Marx praised Ferguson in ‘Capital’ and considered him to be Smith’s ‘master’ and ‘teacher’, with Smith his ‘pupil’, who was also guilty of ‘reproducing’ Ferguson’s work (Marx, Capital, 1867, pp 123, n1; 354; 361-2). The Glasgow Lectures on Jurisprudence (1762-3) show that Smith preceded Ferguson, who probably acquired notes of Smith’s lectures (many were circulating in Edinburgh and Glasgow) and used them for parts of his Essay (causing a minor squabble between them). Marx did not have access to the Glasgow Lectures because they were not discovered and published until 1895.

However, this does not detract from Ferguson's contribution to sociology and you should read his Essay - second-hand copies are available (try Abe

Also read Kirsty Milne’s informed piece at: It's a good place to start.


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