Leaving the Cave: Evolutionary Naturalism in Social-Scientific Thought

By Pat Duffy Hutcheon | Go to book overview

Four
The Political and Educational Theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I am very fond of truth, but not at all of martyrdom.

-- Voltaire, Letter to d'Alembert

D avid Hume represented the radical extreme of a continuum of ideas referred to by historians as the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. His philosophy of naturalism was based on three assumptions, all vital to the continued development of a social science. The first of these concerned the unity of science: the recognition of its validity as a mode of knowing for the human as well as the physical realm. The second was a nominalist belief in the function of language and its relation to mental conceptions of reality. To a nominalist, words are merely symbols devised and used by fallible humans to represent things; they contain within them no "essence" of the things themselves. This means that precise definition is a prerequisite for study. Hume's third assumption involved a rejection of the prevailing idea of cosmic necessity, or of a predetermined direction and goal, as applied to either human history or physical change.

Not only did these assumptions pose a challenge to the Christianity of the time; they were also in conflict with the deism and pantheism of most Enlightenment thinkers. The ideas of Newton and Locke in England -- and of Voltaire, Diderot and d'Alembert in France -- contained remnants of metaphysical thought unacceptable to Hume. They were committed to a teleological form of materialism which allowed for the rule of immutable natural law originating in a force beyond matter and aiming at the progress and ultimate perfection of humanity. Their other vital commitment was to a rationalism that seemed to ignore the complexity of human motivation and the continuity between humans and the other animals in the evolutionary process. Both beliefs were ultimately to become obstacles to the progress of a science of humanity.

This is not to minimize the magnificent contributions of those who represented the mainstream of Enlightenment thought. Voltaire ( 1694-1778) -- who, more than any other person, epitomized its core of rationality -- was

References for this chapter are on p. 69.

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