#ReadWithMe: Ritchie Robertson’s The Enlightenment Part 5: Practical Enlighteners

science enlightenment practical knowledge

Amy Willis for AdamSmithWorks

How are (and were!) the forces of commerce to be used to the best advantage of all people? In part, with improvements in agriculture, medicine, and more. Amy Willis continues her adventures reading Ritchie Robertson's The Enlightenment.   
The next few chapters in this magisterial book, Ritchie Robertson's The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of Happiness 1680-1790, take a practical turn. Robertson defines “the Practical Enlighteners as  “...the many, often obscure Enlighteners who tried to promote public happiness by reforming the way people lived and by introducing innovations in areas as diverse as industry, agriculture, education, health care and criminal law.” (401)

I find much to admire—and relatively more to disagree with—in these chapters.

Robertson begins by asserting that these practical-minded folks need a framework within which their ideas could take hold and be implemented. And so, we witness the birth of the administrator, alongside a complementary statistical apparatus, which included censuses and similar data collection projects, pioneered especially in Germany. Robertson begins his discussion of this Police system by reminding us that “police” during the Enlightenment meant the “external infrastructure of society,” similar to the way Adam Smith uses the term in the Wealth of Nations and Lectures on Jurisprudence.

Robertson thinks rather highly of this sort of infrastructure, and cautions us not to judge it with modern eyes: 
“...if we see all police as authoritarian interference with people’s freedom, without distinguishing its more punitive from its more philanthropic aspects, we risk being unduly influenced by a liberal individualism which was not yet present in eighteenth century Europe,” (406) 
Robertson also acknowledges that “policing” can be accomplished via the private sector, noting British private enterprise as an outlier:
“Although British private enterprise contrasted with state direction on the Continent, it regulated people’s lives as much as German officialdom did.” (411-12) 
He cites the example of Wedgwood’s factory system, which made great use of the division of labor, potentially stultifying the minds and virtue of its workers. At the same time, Wedgwood offered many social and practical amenities for these workers. Concludes Robertson, “It was not necessarily a bad bargain.” (412)

As you might imagine, I have some philosophical disagreements with this chain of Robertson’s thought. But perhaps more interesting is the way he contradicts himself two chapters later discussing the civilizing effects of commerce on society. More on this below.

Developing alongside the policing infrastructure, Robertson details other practical enlightenments including agriculture, medicine, and education. 

In agriculture, the enclosure movement solves the “insoluble dilemma” of land distribution making Britain the exemplar for enlightened agriculture. As well as promoting a flurry of agricultural innovation, Robertson sees the agricultural revolution as a social revolution. He points to the necessary abolition of serfdom and evidence of agriculturalists’ early awareness of climate change.

In medicine, Robertson recounts the emergence of inoculation, curing scurvy, and the building of hospitals (albeit originally for control of vagrancy and deviancy). Alongside this last development, changes in criminal justice occurred. Prisons and punishment shifted more toward rehabilitation than primarily retributive. Both victims and criminals came to be seen as part of the social contract; the greatest crimes those aimed at society rather than an individual. The death penalty, torture, and public executions began to fall out of favor.

Ideas about children and the practicality of educating them are also of interest to Robertson. He points first to John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education, and the notion of children’s minds as blank slates. While pointing to practical enlighteners like Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, a public education pioneer, Robertson acknowledges that such opportunities were not afforded to all classes- or genders!- by the enlighteners. (There is a fascinating section on Rousseau’s [in]famous Emile, which is too long to recount here… but might make for a wonderful Virtual Reading Group!) Happily, here Robertson acknowledges the insistence of Adam Smith’s on educating the lower classes, both as an antidote to the division of labor (not necessarily a bad bargain?) and as developing their capacity to see through enthusiasm and superstition, faction and sedition.

After a lengthy and interesting discussion of the development of aesthetic philosophy, Robertson turns to a subject more dear to my heart- political economy, as part of the new “Science of Society” (Chapter 10).

Robertson recounts Montesquieu’s typology of political regimes, particularly to illustrate why Britain did not fit in any of these categories. The answer, in short, is commerce. Robertson describes commerce as a civilizing force, freeing both individuals and societies from isolation, and bringing awareness that both are a part of a global chain of relationships. The enlighteners believed that countries linked by commerce would not have war, and that the best guarantee of peace is free trade
“The rational interests of the businessman were seen as promoting peace and stability; in contrast to the unbridled passions of the aristocracy.” (523) 
He recounts the work of Smith and David Hume especially favorably in this section, yet concludes with a mere line on the “drawbacks” of commerce as being “inherently unstable” and creating cycles of wealth and poverty. This seemed to me in grave violation of his earlier caution with regard to “police” that we should not evaluate the enlighteners’ stance with our modern notions…
Robertson defines Enlightenment Political Economy with a question, “How were the forces of commerce to be used to the best advantage of all?” (529) Political economy was to be the science that looks for the “progress” of society. 
“The political economists of the Enlightenment saw economic life not as an affair of cold calculations but rather as ‘a place of warm and discursive emotions’ powered by desire, which had to be properly channeled in order to produce happiness.” (529) 
On said channeling, the administrative apparatus Robertson describes in the beginning of this section seems the likely place to look.

Until then, I leave you with some questions I hope you’ll consider. We’d love to hear what you  think!

Questions for Us:

To what extent are we able to distinguish the punitive from the philanthropic elements of “policing” today?

Robertson comes close to suggesting that the age of “big data” began during the Enlightenment, and that it was ushered in by the administrative apparatus of society. How would you describe the evolution of the use of data to promote human flourishing from the Enlightenment to today?

If merchants in the Enlightenment were known for promoting peace and prosperity and “warm and discursive emotions,” what happened??? Why is commerce thought of so differently today? Has the nature of the time changed? The nature of commerce? The nature of commerce’s proprietors? 

How appropriate is Robertson’s definition of Enlightenment political economy? To what extent does this differ from economics as we know it today? And to what extent is this difference positive or negative? 

Want to Read More?
Adam Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence: Part I: Of Justice, Part II: Of Police
Graham McAleer, Smith’s Scientific Milestones, at Speaking of Smith
Maryann Keating, Adam Smith on Fostering Civility and Self-Control at AdamSmithWorks
Sarah Skwire, What would Adam Smith think about your iPhone? at Speaking of Smith