Nothing’s the Matter With Anarchy

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

On Thursday through Saturday I and several of my colleagues will be attending SEASECS, an interdisciplinary conference on 18th-century thought. The paper I plan to present is titled “No Matter, No Master: Godwin’s Humean Anarchism.” Here’s an abstract:

William Godwin is often regarded as essentially a Berkeleyan in his metaphysics and a Rousseauvian in his social philosophy. I argue that in both areas the influence of David Hume is far more fundamental than is ordinarily recognised, and ultimately more decisive than that of Berkeley or Rousseau – though the relation is more one of Godwin’s creative repurposing of Hume’s ideas than of his passive receptivity to them.

William Godwin With regard to metaphysics, although immaterialism is a Berkeleyan rather than a Humean thesis, Godwin’s version of immaterialism is flatly incompatible with Berkeley’s, and in both its epistemological foundations and its role in our reflective life owes far more to Hume than to Berkeley.

With regard to social philosophy, while Hume might seem an unlikely precursor for Godwin’s socialist anarchism, in fact Godwin, in his Enquiry and other writings, takes precisely Humean arguments for the rule of law and prevailing institutions of property and turns them in the opposite direction; and inasmuch as Hume’s account of the role of public opinion in sustaining social order inadvertently provides Godwin with grounds for the present-day feasibility of anarchism (by contrast with Rousseau’s relegation of anarchism to an irretrievable golden age), it is actually Hume, not Rousseau, who proves the most useful source for Godwin’s political program.

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