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September 27, 2006

The dream of liberal progress

One of the things I want us to discuss tonight and in this blog is the notion that the new liberal formations of government and civil society contain within them the possibility of universal application. So many of the emerging political philosphies in the 17th century and foundational documents of new "nations" (like the U.S.) dress themselves in a rhetoric of universality. After all, what's more universal than a "state of nature" or more objective and fair than natural economic law? Some critics of liberal philosophy, however, argue that inequality is written into these documents and inescapable as long as people continue to be committed to to the social systems and governmental institutions spawned in the 18th century. They point to Locke's Second Treatise and his comments on marriage, the family, slavery and political rights, Smith's preference for small gentry over the irresponsible masses in Wealth of Nations, Jefferson's own ideas of the importance of property ownership for a voice in government (as well as his ownership of slaves, several of whom were his own children) as evidence that liberal societies are rotten at their roots and therefore no good for the present.
Others argue we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater, that the transformations of the 17th and 18th century opened up a public sphere and that, over time, marginalized people have been able to elbow their way into civil society. The egalitarian documents that formed the nations of Great Britain (the Bill of Rights), the U.S. (the Declaration and Constitution), and France (Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen) may have been written by racist, sexist, classist men, but they provide everyone access to rights through the slow, painful, democratic processes of civil society.
What do you think? Should we call civil society out as a lie and a handy tool for the privileged to rationalize and legitimize their rule - a lie we give credence to every time we go through the pointless ritual of voting? Or, is liberal civil society, despite its early faults in aiding and abetting empire, racism, sexism, the exploitation of the poor, etc., a work in progress that will eventually show itself as the most perfect organization of peoples?

Finally, what kind of monkey wrench does Foucault throw into this debate with his focus, not on the power of law in civil society, but on disciplinary forces that come before civil society?

September 19, 2006

Bacon, the new science, and empire

The new science looks away from the past and toward the present utility of knowledge as well as the future possibility of applying science to practical human problems. This all seems really great, no? But what is unmistakable to me is the language of mastery that is all over the text. Here is my favorite quote from the New Organon:
"But any man whose care and concern is not merely to be content with what has been discovered and make use of it, but to penetrate further; and not to defeat an opponent in argument but to conquer nature by action; and not to have nice, plausible opinions about things but sure, demonstrable knowledge; let such men (if they please), as true sons of the sciences, join with me, so that we may pass the antechambers of nature which innumerable others have trod, and eventually open up access to the inner rooms.�

Bacon’s understanding of nature and the intellect is like an edifice – brick by brick we will build our knowledge of the world. We can master it by strokes. But the method of accumulation must be deliberate and must have a purpose. All sorts of good things can come from this – practical things that can change people’s lives even if the common man doesn't understand how we arrived at this knowledge. There is the implication in this that man can shape and exercise his mind to near perfection. Oh, the handle we can get on the world!

But let's situate this within its historical context. First of all, this is a text fitting the context of transcontinental exploration. Bacon is conscious of this when he essentially states: What a shame if we explore the world and fail to expand our intellectual world.

But look, too, at how this intellectual adventure lends itself to the kind of relationships between English people and other peoples of the world and between people and the natural world that will be sadly characteristic of the next few centuries. First of all, a question Bacon doesn't really ask here is where do human beings end and the mystery of nature begin? What is natural and up for mastery and who exactly is the objective agent of science and industry? As the English move about in the world, they are making all sorts of assessments about other people in the world, and many of these are scientifically informed. But the scientific information is already derived from the prejudices the scientist approaches it with, since the notion of the objective observer of nature tends to have hard wired in his mind the mandate of human beings to master nature. It is science, then, that comes up with theories of race that place Africans as natural beings to be numbered, classified, and ultimately mastered. Remember, this is also the era, well almost, that the English acquire Jamaica (a Cromwellian expedition) and deprive many Irish of their homes and offer them up to Presbyterian collaborators in their Civil War – later the best science will confirm that the Irish are a different and inferior race than the English (which makes them great servants but bad politicians) and that the Finns are really descendents of the Mongoloid race (asiatic people) and don’t deserve the same treatment as whites. Really, the English are becoming Masters at the same time they are becoming scientists. What does this tell us about the potential of boundless progress for science and civilization that Bacon seems to be anticipating? Do scientists have to be masters? What about social scientists? What about historians?

Hobbes and Rochester

Hobbes is most known for his contributions to political philosophy, especially his focus on the state of nature. Yet, his work on what a commonwealth is and should be, who can wield power over people, and what the people's role in government is comes from his thinking about even more abstract things - like sense, reason, language, reality and imagination. These abstractions were the focus of the pieces you read for class.

So how does this realm of ideas on nature and human understanding relate to the political and social worlds of the 17th century?

What do you think Hobbes theory of sense and reason suggests about how he might view institutions of authority in the mid-17th century? Remember, the foundation of the political authority of the monarch rested on a notion of divine right of kings. Given Hobbes' theory of sense and language (in which human beings create the rules by which we even understand the world - e.g. his discussion of reason as nothing but mathematics) how do you think divine right holds up?

To illustrate the impact of Hobbes' philosophy, it's helpful to look at Rochester. Rochester was a contemporary of Hobbes and was considered to be a Hobbite (a follower of Hobbes). "A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind" can be read as a lyrical distillation of Leviathan (in fact, Rochester's subversion of the notion of "the light of reason" with "ignis fatuus" (a false light produced by swamp gases that only served to get people lost) is pulled straight from a line of Hobbes you read ("Of Reason"). Rochester's verse caused a huge stir in the 1670s. It was so scurrilous that it couldn't be printed in London. Most of it circulated in manuscript form and would be recited and passed on in pubs. Anglican ministers (and Bishops) railed against him from the pulpit, and he fought back with satire. The "Satyr Against Reason and Mankind" was actaully written as a response to one minister's denouncement of Rochester in a sermon.

Look at the "Satyr" closely. What are the orthodoxies that Rochester takes aim at? Does he really despise Reason? What kind of Reason bothers him? Does Rochester care about the ideal world or the ideal commonwealth? Is there a divine image to man? Where does power and authority come from? What is man like in nature and how does Rochester see natural man behaving in relation to other men (look toward the end of the satire for this, when he's talking about Jowler [a dog])?

September 14, 2006


I'll be posting something on science later, but I wanted to give people an opportunity to share any evidence they might have on the issue of Shakespeare's authorship. I'm including a few links. One is to a page full of information defending Shakespeare as writing Shakespeare. The second is to the Shakespeare Oxfordian Society, dedicated to "honoring the true bard" (Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford). The third is a summary of evidence for the case that Francis Bacon wrote the plays.

My question is: Does it matter who wrote Shakespeare? Why? or Why not?

September 7, 2006

The Two Bodies of the King

I was talking to a couple of you after class and thought I would bring our conversation to the group. First of all, the end of the story of the Civil War (or really the middle we didn't quite get to) is that the king is beheaded - a first for the English.
Why is this so significant? Or is it significant at all?
To start to answer this, we need to consider the theory of sovereignty under the monarchy. In England, as well as in France, the king or queen was understood to have two bodies - the "Body Corporeal" (or the fleshly body) and the "Body Politic" (that aspect of the monarch that made him the spiritual and political embodiment of all the people of the realm. If you look at the picture (click "View Picture" below this entry) of the frontispiece from the first edition of Hobbes' Leviathan you can see how this operates. Sitting aloft the landscape is a sovereign - a monarch - with a scepter, a sword, and a crown. You have a representation of a real body (the Body Corporeal) in the flesh, but there is also another body here. If you look closely you can see that the sovereign's torso is entirely made up of tiny little people and that his body is fused with the land. The implication is that the sovereign is the land and the people in it, that he is the sort of metaphysical embodiement of everyone he rules. As discussed in class, the popular conception of the king was one imbued with loads of religious meaning. In fact, the inscription above the sovereign is from the book of Job in the Old Testament: "There is no power on earth which can be compared to him."
So, the question is, if your entire world view and cosmology is wrapped up in a notion of the king being the embodiment of all his subjects and the absolute power on earth (beholden only to God), then what happens when you chop off the physical head of that body? How can you assemble something out of such an act that makes sense?
View image

September 2, 2006


Welcome to History 3152. This term we will survey the history of Britain starting in a moment of intense political crisis in the 17th century during which orthodoxies were challenged by new ideas about sovereignty, the role of "the people" in government, the power of the Church in society, and the power and legitimacy of the Nation. Through the course of the term we will follow the story of Britain as it becomes a powerful empire and seeks to export some of its new vision of civilization to the corners of the globe. Of course, building empire was never just about civilizing people (in fact, it was often the case that imperial subjects were forcefully held at a distance from the promise of British concepts of political and religious freedom, freedom of contract, and even popular sovreignty). We will continue the story through the violent processes of decolonization, world wars, and the emergence and subsequent dismalting (we can debate this point) of the Welfare State. Hopefully, we'll take the story right up to the present day.
Please feel free to contribute to any comment posted by me or any of your colleagues. Also, feel free to start conversations here; there's no need to stay on the topics that I find interesting.
I look forward to hearing from all of you this term!