Society and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740-1820

By Mark Salber Phillips | Go to book overview

Seven
Conjectural History: A History of Manners
and of Mind

THE MOST ambitious development in eighteenth-century historical writing was the genre known as “conjectural,” “natural,” or simply “philosophical” history.1 Though contemporary usage was not consistent, I will use the term philosophical history to designate the broad thrust of eighteenth-century historiography toward a more systematic treatment of the social, while reserving conjectural history for that smaller group of works that in formal terms made the most radical break with classical tradition and dispensed with connected narrative altogether. By this definition, then, Hume's History of England is a philosophical history, but his Natural History of Religion is a conjectural one.

For the conjectural historian, history was not a political narrative governed by classical rhetorical prescriptions, but a moral science held together by the desire to investigate fundamental principles of human nature. The father of the genre was Montesquieu, but a considerable group of Scottish philosopherhistorians soon created a body of speculative writing to rival the French. Works like Lord Kames's Sketches of the History of Man, Adam Ferguson's Essay on the History of Civil Society, or John Millar's Origin of the Distinction of Ranks acquired considerable prestige and ever since have been regarded as particularly characteristic of Scottish intellectual life in the Enlightenment.

The direction given to historical studies was not entirely new. The long development of historiography in the West could be written as a dialectic between systematizers and particularizers—between Polybius and Livy, Machiavelli and Guicciardini, or Bodin and de Thou. But in the eighteenth century the systematic impulse found new grounding in the Enlightenment aspiration to a science of the mind and new scope in the exploration of the structures of everyday life. These ambitions, as I have suggested, helped to differentiate the mature historiography of the eighteenth century from its classical and Renaissance predecessors, thus endowing the new classics of eighteenth-century Britain with a distinctive sense of achievement. Seldom, in fact, has a systematic

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1
“To this species of philosophical investigation, which has no appropriated name in our language, I shall take the liberty of giving the title of Theoretical or Conjectural History; an expression which coincides pretty nearly in its meaning with that of Natural History as employed by Mr. Hume, and with what some French writers have called Histoire Raisonnee.” Dugald Stewart, “Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith,” ed. I. S. Ross, in Smith, Essays on Philosophical Subjects, 293.

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