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Some three decades ago, David Kettler opened his still unsurpassed consideration of Adam Ferguson by observing that "he is today almost forgotten."(1) Recent attention to `civil society' as concept,(2) as the basis for an oppositional politics to communist governments,(3) and as the source of social capital,(4) as well as the growing interest in republicanism and the civic tradition,(5) have helped produced a boomlet in Ferguson studies.(6)
This rediscovery is most welcome. It reinscribes Ferguson as a formative thinker within the lineage of modern political thought, presenting the opportunity, which we seek to seize in this essay, to revisit the lineage of liberalism. This renewed attention has been flawed, however. Fania Oz-Sulzberger, who has introduced and edited a new imprint of Ferguson's An Essay on the History of Civil Society, and Ernest Gellner, who devoted one of his last essays to Ferguson, present him one-dimensionally as resolutely republican, missing the rich complexity of his political writings. Oz-Sulzberger stresses his "cautious restatement of classical republicanism,"(7) isolating his quest for civic virtue from the resonant liberal themes found especially in his later writings but which appear prominently in all his texts. Gellner's rendition is better. It recognizes the animating tension between the liberal and republican elements at the heart of Ferguson's oeuvre by according a place of privilege to his recurring anxieties. Yet Gellner is partial in his treatment, in this case with respect to the market, by representing Ferguson as believing the market to be a force behind the corruption and decay of civic virtue. This representation is a mistake. It fails to acknowledge Ferguson's more complex engagement with commercial society. In fact, he thought commerce to be the handmaiden of civilized progress, understanding market relations as a key hallmark of modernity.(8)
Lisa Hill's erudite study of Ferguson's contribution to modem social thought sheds light on the origins of his conceptual innovations, including spontaneous order, habit, conflict, and corruption, and she foregrounds Ferguson's effort "to nudge a space between classical civic humanism, on one hand, and emergent liberalism, on the other."(9) She argues that the significance of Ferguson lies in his innovative and idiosyncratic deployment of classical themes, especially drawn from Christian stoic theology, to make sense of the dilemmas and challenges of commercial society. Notwithstanding, her consideration stops short of providing a unified or consistent reading. Treating each of his conceptual innovations separately, she leaves unaccounted the internal relations of these parts. Furthermore, by choosing to focus on the social aspects of Ferguson's thought, she downplays his political thinking and, thus, its invigorating significance for liberal thought today.(10)
Kettler's reading is superior. He is aware of the challenging project at the heart of all of Ferguson's writings. He unearths Ferguson's persistent quest to reconcile two distinctive traditions--the republican and the liberal(11)--arguing that from his early to late writings, Ferguson sought to discover the conceptual and institutional means to adjust and attune the relationship of liberalism and republicanism. Kettler thus succeeds in organizing the frequently unsystematic qualities of Ferguson by placing this rapprochement at the center of his reading.(12) This is the most important achievement of Kettler's exposition, for he maintains an unvarying gaze on this pivotal axis of Ferguson's writings.(13) Kettler's contribution, however, is restricted by his intent, which is limited to textual interpretation, not conceptual reconstruction. Despite his recondite reading, Kettler ultimately leaves us almost as directionless as Oz-Sulzberger, Gellner, and Hill with regard to the relevance that Ferguson's political thought has for liberal thought today.
These scholars clearly wish to retrieve Ferguson from the confinement in which he has been placed by conventional histories of political thought, but they do not succeed. Standing on their shoulders, we renew their enterprise. We focus on the theoretical distinctiveness of elements central to Ferguson's attempted resolutions of the republican-liberal tension. By revisiting Ferguson, we believe, we might recover forgotten, perhaps repressed, features and aspects of early modem liberalism. Our reconstructive reading of Ferguson is developed in three steps.
First, beginning with Ferguson's Reflections Previous to the Establishment of a Militia (1756) through An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) and concluding with Principles of Moral and Political Science (1792),(14) we present a new interpretation of the tension between liberalism and republicanism as heralding an awareness of the stressed relations linking public and private autonomy. This rendition is attuned not only to the ambitious and prescient qualities of Ferguson's program but to his limitations, which we trace mainly to his approach to democracy as inherently premodern and to his surprising neglect of the democratic and revolutionary upheavals under way in the United States and France when he published Principles, his most mature and modem book. Second, we underscore and elaborate Ferguson's conceptual and analytical contributions. These include his recognition of the inescapable fact of plurality, an elucidation of conflict as constitutive of political order (including the development of the friend/enemy distinction), and a fresh treatment of the positional role of institutions combining normative and strategic elements as the locus for pluralist bargaining and the adjudication of antagonisms within a framework marked by liberal values. Third, based on our reading, we argue that Ferguson provides the elements of a conceptual apparatus that combines normative awareness with sociological realism, a provision independent of Ferguson's own theoretical objectives. By retrieving these long-covered layers, we can return liberalism to its own more politically engaged, sociologically anchored past. In so doing, we might help revive this tradition by initiating a dialogue among the liberalisms of our time--including the agnostic (Isaiah Berlin), the deontological (John Rawls), the substantive (Joseph Raz), and the pragmatic liberalism of empirical political science--concerning their common, fertile, and promising patrimony. In Ferguson's thought, these versions met conjuncturally to produce a provocative but, alas, underdeveloped and forgotten hybrid. On this interpretation, Ferguson can help us create a self-confident, robust, polemical liberalism unafraid to risk political decisions, affirm the value of conflict, and defend its distinctive project against political adversaries.
From his very early writings, Ferguson defined his task as overcoming the tension between the tradition of civic humanism and modern, liberal, commercial society. The first pages of Militia announce the main task of political philosophy: "to mix the military spirit with a civil and commercial Policy."(15) For Ferguson, Scotland, a modem Western society, had been transformed "into a Nation of Manufacturers, [in] which each is confined to a particular branch and sunk into the Habits and Peculiarities of his Trade. In this we consult the success of good Work; but slight the Honours of human Nature: We furnish good Work; but educate men, gross, sordid, void of sentiments and Manners."(16) Facing this conundrum, he sought to harmonize the "Degree of Civil Liberty" attained by modem societies with the "Cultivation of Moral Characters" and the realization of "National Greatness."(17) This concern informed Ferguson's whole intellectual career.
Over the course of his life, Ferguson's terminology became more conceptual. In the Essay, he suggests that private wealth and public virtue "are opposed to one another but only by mistake,"(18) and that one should focus on the institutional mechanisms, political decisions, and cultural changes that might prevent such a mistake. In the Principles (1792), the formulation is strikingly modem: the irreducibility of law to morality, of the right to the good. But the tension remained. If the state should never enforce a specific moral code, he could nonetheless write that the magistrate should shut "the door to disorder and vice, to endeavour to stifle the ill dispositions of men; ... to facilitate and encourage the choice of virtue, and to give scope to the best dispositions which nature has furnished."(19)
To carry out his program, Ferguson devoted his intellectual energy to the study of the antinomical structures of modern societies, examining the historical character, socioeconomic origins, and political consequences of the imbrication of a liberal, commercial society with republican values.(20) This investigation required a fresh vision generating a historically sensitive political sociology deployed to analyze the relations among the differentiated and novel economic, political, and symbolic structures of modern societies. It also initiated debates about the tense relationship between civic virtue and private self-interest.
The originality of Ferguson's thought, however, is not its attempt to fuse the republican and the liberal political traditions but its reinscription of the terms and conditions of their encounter. What was distinctive in his thought--a point missed by scholars who have studied Ferguson--is that he reinterpreted the tension between republicanism and liberalism as a conflict between political and individual autonomy and rights. For Ferguson, the principles of republicanism are democratic legitimation and popular sovereignty, and commercial market society denotes private property and economic self-interest.
Ferguson's approach to political autonomy incorporates and transcends traditional republicanism. He understood political autonomy to be a principle of legitimation of political authority, thus a criterion of validity for distinguishing between just and unjust governments. Pragmatic and normative, Ferguson treated political authority as the power of the state to monopolize the use of violence. He regarded a democratic regime as providing the method to transform force into a legitimate practice, a right "so long as the bulk of the people agree in opinion with their rulers, and think that the force of the state is properly applied."(21) Ferguson understood commercial society in terms of individual autonomy, defined by "the principle of private interest, and with a view to private gain."(22) This approach to individual autonomy presaged later understandings of economic liberalism, in which "the materials of commerce may continue to be accumulated without any determinate limit."(23) Here lies an original aspect of Ferguson's thought. Deploying a surprisingly modem discourse, Ferguson convened a debate between two different types of rights. Whereas political rights "bestow on [the citizen] a certain share in the government of his country,"(24) individual rights "in every particular instance, must …