In a famous letter of 1709 to a young protégé, the third Earl of Shaftesbury commented at length on his philosophical differences with his own mentor, John Locke. Not only had Locke mistakenly attacked innateness, but he had also asserted, according to Shaftesbury, that virtue was measured by nothing more than fashion or custom. Right and wrong had no permanence as distinctions, no residence in the mind. Thus Locke had landed the ‘home blow’ aimed by Hobbes: Locke ‘struck at all fundamentals, threw all order and virtue out of the world’. The accuracy of these accusations can be debated, but the strength of Shaftesbury's reaction indicates the urgency and challenge of defining a philosophy of human nature in opposition to Locke, the man who had played a central role in Shaftesbury's education and upbringing.
The specific issues raised by Shaftesbury suggest that diversity played a key part in defining what he regarded as the pernicious effects of Locke's philosophy. Locke began with a critique of innate moral principles and the elimination of an innate idea of God in the first book of the Essay. In Book ii, Locke went further by introducing a sociological account of how moral rules functioned in practice – codified by Locke in the law of opinion or fashion – which introduced a perpetual disorder in the moral world in Shaftesbury's estimation.
In April 1683, John Locke wrote to an agent of the East India Company who was shortly to depart for Cossimbazar, asking for information on India. Published accounts had whetted Locke's appetite and he sought a more ‘exact’ description from an eyewitness whose observations he could direct and whose testimony would answer his curiosity. Locke noted:
Some of those who have traveld and write of those parts, give us strange storys of the tricks donne by some of their Juglers there, which must needs be beyond leger de main and seeme not within the power of art or nature. I would very gladly know whether they are really donne as strange as they are reported …
Consistent with his long-standing interest in comparative religion and the problem of enthusiasm, Locke went on to express an interest in tales of apparitions and spirits, as well as the religious opinions and ceremonies of Hindus and other sects in the country. But he hoped, in fact, for a thorough ethnography, which would include detail on the languages, learning, government, and manners of the country, together with information on Aurengzib, the famed Mughal emperor.
By framing these inquiries, Locke followed a well-established practice among devotees of the new science. The Royal Society often enlisted the energies of voyagers in describing the physical world. Locke's extension of methods associated with natural history to include the natural history of man provides the focus of this chapter.
Francis Hutcheson, whose work became a leading force in the philosophical and cultural movement known as the Scottish Enlightenment, devoted his first major publication, An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725), to a defence of the third Earl of Shaftesbury. Like Shaftesbury, he believed that mankind shared a fundamental core of moral ‘affections’ and that our ethical responses and motivations exhibited an important consistency. As a result he worried over the implications of diversity which disrupted the picture of an orderly and unified moral world. Continual testimony of savagery, corruption, and incommensurable beliefs potentially undermined the plausibility of the view that a ‘moral sense’ resided in human nature. There are reasons for suggesting that Hutcheson felt this challenge more acutely than Shaftesbury. Hutcheson democratised the moral sense and made its reach encompass all mankind. At the same time, he positioned his philosophy on a more observational basis than Shaftesbury and therefore encountered an obvious objection from reports of diversity.
Hutcheson not only adapted what he inherited from Shaftesbury, he was also well disposed towards a number of developments in natural philosophy and epistemology promoted by Locke. Finding a basis for rapprochement between these opposing figures posed a considerable problem. The intriguing tensions created by his synthesis of Locke and Shaftesbury provide the focus of my discussion.
To understand early modern conflict over the question of diversity we need a more nuanced history of philosophy, alert to the traditions of argument and counter-argument available to participants in the debate. With this we may begin to identify the contours and fault-lines that separated opponents addressing fundamental problems of human variation. The third Earl of Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson, as we will see in later chapters, disputed Locke's conclusions even as he set the terms of the argument. The difficulty, as they saw it, was not Locke's politics or his position on toleration, which they admired, but rather his willingness in the Essay to cite profound human differences in moral and religious matters without explaining them satisfactorily and restoring the normative force of nature. Where they sought uniformity, under the influence of Stoic teaching, he was only willing to acknowledge incommensurable customs, manners, and beliefs.
Locke's readiness to introduce this material owed something to the method of natural history, as I argued in the previous chapter. His accumulation of testimony on customs and manners treated human nature as something to be understood inductively, rather than through pre-assigned assumptions about essences. The modern, up-to-date, references to travel accounts he provided placed him in the company of naturalists who showed a similar enthusiasm for travel as a source of testimony and evidence. But Locke's argumentative strategy, as it emerged in the Essay, had another pedigree which we need to appreciate: the sceptical tradition.
The trajectory of John Locke's impact in the eighteenth century has been traced in numerous ways by historians of philosophy. The most familiar approach has been to link him with Berkeley and Hume as part of a group which developed (and complicated) an empirical account of knowledge acquisition. This book describes an alternative triptych, connecting Locke with the third Earl of Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson. The argument between them focused on the problem of diversity and the question of whether any moral consistency could be located in mankind. Such a perspective explicitly joins their work with a number of current concerns in philosophy and politics, giving this study a dual purpose: to recover a neglected theme in intellectual history, in which a debate over the content of human nature and issues of cultural difference emerged during the English, Irish, and Scottish Enlightenments; and in conclusion, to explore the relationship between these arguments and some major dilemmas in contemporary thought.
Locke's decisive role was ensured by the publication of the Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) and above all the opening book in which he supplied a critique of innate ideas and principles. In order to unseat the mistaken notion that human beings inherently recognise certain moral truths as well as the idea of the divine, Locke pointed out evidence of widespread cultural diversity: what one country embraced, another one abhorred. Some groups believed in God and others remained entirely atheist.
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