Liberal Languages: Ideological Imaginations and Twentieth-Century Progressive Thought

By Michael Freeden | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
Hobson's Evolving Conceptions of Human Nature

IT IS A TRUISM to suggest that every social and political theory is rooted in a conception of human nature. Hobson was no exception to that rule, but his interpretation of human nature was novel and wide-ranging. It did not merely refer to an abstract model, artificially—even cunningly—employed to explain or justify this or that social practice. Rather, it was grounded in concrete, commonsense, empirical observations; it encompassed a broad openness to different aspects of human behaviour; and it attempted to incorporate insights from new developments in philosophy, psychology, sociology, and physiology as well as relate to older moral conventions. Most significantly, on closer inspection it served to underpin many of the better-known theories that Hobson had developed in his critiques of economics and imperialism and in his reconstruction of liberal ideology. As with so much of his work, his scattered writings on human nature exhibit both a derivative and often sketchy approach to highly complex problems, but also an ability to cut through existing traditions in order to arrive at clear and bold statements of a highly innovative character.

Throughout his writings, but especially in his early works, Hobson's thought has two recurring characteristics: extensive reading and retention of new information for the purpose of shoring up his arguments, and carelessness, if not stingy reluctance, to attribute these sources. Hobson's avid assimilatory powers enabled him to synthesise the latest writing in a whole range of disciplines concerning man and society. He was aware of the trends in philosophical and psychological thinking, and able to attach them to an evolutionary perspective that had profound impact on his arguments. Concurrently the radical circles he moved in infused his views with strong social and collectivist, if not socialist, predilections. Uniquely and in a genuinely pioneering sense, though without the meticulous and scholarly basis that was necessary to achieve academic recognition, Hobson wove those different strands together to produce his first major noneconomic work, The Social Problem, undoubtedly one of the most important and original of his books. The product of Hobson's lecturing and journalistic activities in the 1890s, originally published in thirty-six parts in 1898,1 it contains his most suggestive early treatment of human nature, and reflects the impressive development of his thinking over a decade in

1 In Ethical World, between 26.3.1898 and 26.11.1898.

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