The origins of the modern social sciences are often traced to the eighteenth-century European cultural turn toward scientific methods and empirical knowledge. Frank Palmeri’s insightful analysis of influential modern European thinkers argues, however, that some of the Enlightenment era’s most influential cultural legacies came from “conjectural histories” that provided almost no empirical evidence to support wide-ranging speculations on the early evolution of human societies. State of Nature, Stages of Society: Enlightenment Conjectural History and Modern Social Discourse therefore develops a well-informed, ambitious intellectual history of how speculative social theories shaped the construction of modern social scientific knowledge. Such theories provided conceptual paradigms that Palmeri compares to Thomas Kuhn’s account of the shaping paradigms that generate knowledge in the natural sciences. Although researchers may downplay these epistemological frameworks, they often carry disciplinary power long after specific empirical studies disprove parts of the theory. Palmeri wants to explain why nonempirical conjectures became so important for the creation of empirical-minded social scientific research. “Conjectural history,” he writes, “opens up a space for theory, for hypotheses” (14); and this theoretical “space” created opportunities for new critical thinking. Palmeri supports this argument through careful analysis of conjectural historical works whose paradigm-shaping authors still provoke deep dialogical engagement. The genre began with Bernard Mandeville in the 1720s and reappeared in the influential books of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Adam Smith, the Marquis de Condorcet, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Malthus, Auguste Comte, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, and Michel Foucault—to name only the most notable theorists whom Palmeri examines. All of these authors and many others (including the women novelists Harriet Martineau and George Eliot) speculated about the early emergence or continuing evolution of religion, marriage, language, government, and economic relations, even though they often lacked the kind of empirical evidence that a social scientist would now expect to see in a Ph.D. dissertation. According to Palmeri, conjectural histories can generate very different ideological arguments (for example, Malthus’s vs. Condorcet’s), but their formal structures have important similarities. Conjectural historical works typically (1) discuss historical transitions in the era before written documentation or speculate on later transitions without much precise empirical evidence; (2) ignore or reject all providential explanations for the development of human societies; (3) stress that human social life evolved over hundreds of generations, which means there was never a founding social or political contract; (4) describe stages of development such as savage/barbarian/civilized or theological/philosophical/scientific and offer causal explanations for the changing historical stages; (5) emphasize that people do not plan or understand the consequences that flow from their actions; and (6) frequently express ambivalence about modernity as they explain the evolutionary processes that “must have” caused social transitions. The phrases “must have” or “were likely” are common in conjectural histories because there is little or no empirical evidence to support claims such as Rousseau’s description of humans wandering freely in forests, or Marx’s theories about early communal agriculture, or Freud’s argument for the prehistoric murder of tribal fathers. Palmeri notes that facts are not essential for these long-debated ideas because “the criterion for the success of conjectural histories and theoretical constructions is their usefulness for interpretation, their explanatory power” (270). Michel Foucault, for example, lacked convincing empirical evidence for many of his influential conjectures about the disciplining processes that shaped modern medicine, education, and sexuality, yet his theories have generated streams of historical research. Historical conjectures, in short, may lack the documents to explain history as it actually happened, but they seem to be essential for critical thinking and creative empirical research. Palmeri disagrees with those who view most Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment European thinkers as racist or as naïve believers in social progress. The conjectural writers whom he examines were far more interested in cultural or social practices than in race (though they were usually Eurocentric), and they often wrote critically about the disciplining processes that constrained people in modern societies. Max Weber described a bureaucratizing “iron cage” that transformed work into the key aspect of modern identities, and Freud argued that repression of sexual drives gave modern people an almost inescapable unhappiness. Conjectural historical critiques of modern repressions thus became part of the Enlightenment’s main cultural legacy, which Palmeri defines as a critical, analytical mode of thinking rather than as specific beliefs about scientific progress or the superiority of modern European cultures. Palmeri’s approach to the history of knowledge resembles Nietzsche’s method of genealogical analysis. The history of discourses shows an endless “borrowing from, revising, and contesting [of] previous genres” that are constantly made to “serve new purposes and to carry new meanings” (188). Much as Nietzsche found the earliest human drives and cultural traces in modern social actions, Palmeri finds the legacy of conjectural theorizing in modern sociology, anthropology, psychology, and historical studies. Analyzing such evolutionary traces in modern intellectual history, Palmeri implicitly suggests that historians still draw on conjectural historical patterns whenever they make causal statements such as “early modern commercial capitalism gradually undermined traditional social hierarchies” or “there were five main causes of the French Revolution.” Palmeri’s final chapter surveys the evolution of modern literature to show how conjectural historical themes also influenced important novelists, including Sir Walter Scott, Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, George Eliot, and H. G. Wells; but Palmeri (who is a literary scholar) offers a much more abbreviated analysis of the novelists after his long, detailed chapters on the social theorists. Palmeri’s most important insights therefore appear in his argument for the conjectural origins of the modern social sciences. He persuasively explains the connections between social theories and empirical research, but he also shows how the evolutionary themes of conjectural history continue to influence historical periodization, causal explanations for historical change, and historical analysis of premodern or modern ideas, institutions, and social change. Palmeri’s thoughtful book thus reaffirms the importance of studying the history of knowledge, especially when historians set out to create new knowledge themselves or when they assume they have escaped the earlier paradigms of nonempirical conjectural theories and naïve positivisms. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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