Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Vol. 10, no. 1; Spring 2004

A Wollstonecraft Revival

Mary Wollstonecraft: Diritti umani e Rivoluzione francese [Mary Wollstonecraft: Human Rights and the French Revolution]. By Roberta A. Modugno. Rubbettino, 2002. 256 pgs.

Roberta Modugno’s excellent book is a fundamental contribution to  our understanding of the history of classical liberalism. She complicates in a remarkable way an argument advanced by Friedrich Hayek. In a famous essay, "Individualism: True and False," Hayek distinguished two traditions of individualist thought. Those whom Hayek termed "true" individualists realized that major social institutions arise, not as the result of conscious planning, but as unintended outcomes of human action. This was no accident: social institutions of necessity come about as the result of spontaneous processes. The vast amount of information, much of which is "tacit knowledge," required to operate social institutions far exceeds the capacity of anyone to hold in mind.

On this view, an important consequence for social reform at once follows. If social institutions cannot be constructed through deliberate design, should not all attempts at social reform be gradual? To attempt radical reform is precisely to fall into the constructivist fallacy: social institutions, to reiterate, cannot be planned.1

Edmund Burke argued in just this way in his great work of 1790, Reflections on the Revolution in France. He contrasted the abstract schemes of the French "sophisters and calculators" with the slow growth of ordered liberty in England. As Modugno rightly notes, Burke’s account of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 played a crucial role in his argument. For Burke, support of the 1688 Revolution was entirely consistent with opposition to radical change. Far from being a radical, constructivist project, the overthrow of James II "aimed to safeguard the liberty of the British kingdom, which had been endangered by the absolutist tendencies of the ruling dynasty" (p. 79, translation mine).

Against this sort of individualism, Hayek distinguished a false, Cartesian variety. Descartes subjected all claims to knowledge to radical doubt. Only clear and distinct ideas that withstood rigid scrutiny were to be accepted: tradition and custom, in philosophy, counted for nothing. False individualists applied this notion to political thought. Self-evident principles, and deductions from them, established what was morally right, and all institutions, however sanctified by custom, which failed to meet the requirements of these principles were to be cast aside.2

The colorful English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft at first sight is a perfect case of Hayek’s false individualism. She rejected the customs of English law: these stemmed, she held, from feudal exactions on the common people. Instead, England should be governed by strict adherence to individuals’ rights. These rights, broadly speaking, were of a Lockean sort. As Modugno makes clear, Wollstonecraft by no means opposed private property. Quite the contrary, she championed it; but, as she saw matters, many of the property claims of the nobility rested on violations of true property rights. The English game laws, for example, allowed wealthy hunters to destroy at will the property of small farmers.

Wollstonecraft replied to Burke’s Reflections in A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1792). Like Burke, she supported the Glorious Revolution; but the promise of that revolution had in her view not yet been fulfilled. Human beings possess, according to her "theory of imprescriptible rights" (p. 90), the authority to resist illegitimate government. To her Irish antagonist’s stress on the "British constitutional structure as inherited from the past," Wollstonecraft "contraposed abstract human rights, derived from man’s essence, the same in all times and places" (p. 91).

Wollstonecraft so far appears a perfect false individualist, in Hayek’s sense; but Modugno convincingly shows that matters are not so simple. Wollstonecraft’s firsthand knowledge of the French Revolution, acquired during her residence in Paris, turned her into a veritable Hayekian. In An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (1795), she denounced the revolutionaries, whose cause she had once ardently supported. The French radicals acted like "a race of monsters"; they "made a mockery of justice" (p. 210).

Her change of heart reflected more than an emotionally driven abhorrence of the revolutionaries’ atrocities. Anticipating Hayek, she argued that institutions could not be created out of nothing: they must grow through gradual evolution. To destroy existing institutions because they do not conform to a preconceived scheme is to be guilty of "fatal presumption." Modugno notes that Wollstonecraft’s phrase, rendered in Italian, is "incredibly," the exact title used for the Italian translation of Hayek’s the Fatal Conceit, his final assault on the abuse of reason by Cartesian social reformers (p. 215).

If Modugno is right, Wollstonecraft shifted from false to true individualism. No doubt this is an important fact in her biography and for the history of the idea of spontaneous order; but why is this significant for the history of classical liberalism? After all, Wordsworth and many others shifted from initial enthusiasm for the French Revolution to bitter opposition to its excesses: why is one further example of this pattern significant?

The key point of Modugno’s contribution, rather, is this. Although Wollstonecraft abandoned her belief in immediate radical change, she did not alter her commitment to individual rights. And her new position displayed no obvious inconsistency. In emphasizing this fact about Wollstonecraft, Modugno has complicated Hayek’s classification in a most valuable way. One can adhere to a strong view of rights, deduced from human nature, and at the same time reject constructivism. Contrary to what many take to be Hayek’s message, supporters of natural rights need not reject spontaneous order and custom.

But a new objection arises. Even if Wollstonecraft’s later position is logically consistent, has she not in practice abandoned rights? If radical reform is to be rejected as a "fatal presumption," then in what sense are natural rights a guide to practice? Do they not become, on the gradualist view, mere ideals without effect in the real world?

Modugno contends that for Wollstonecraft, rights were still relevant. But reform should be gradual rather than sudden and far-reaching. Gradual change that aims to adjust social institutions to fit better with natural rights will not upset the order that history has established. Our author finds that Wollstonecraft here anticipates a principal theme in the thought of Karl Popper. Since we lack infallible and comprehensive knowledge of how society works, Popper argued, efforts at social reform should be piecemeal and experimental. New measures, if introduced on a small scale, could be quickly withdrawn if they did not work. "Piecemeal social engineering" in Popper’s view could avoid the dangers of Cartesian constructivism (p. 217).3

Modugno has thus compelled us to make an important revision of Hayek’s dichotomy. She contributes, in addition, to another vital enterprise of historical revision. Recently, a new historical school, centering on the work of J.G.A. Pocock, has challenged the view that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English radicalism was predominantly individualist in character. Instead, the new school argues, many of the radicals embraced the values of classical republicanism. Rather than appealing to individual rights, the radicals influenced by republicanism followed "an Aristotelian tradition of man as a political animal and regarded participation in political life as valuable for individual fulfillment" (p. 109).

Modugno locates in the more extreme claims of the new historians a fatal flaw. It does not follow from the fact that a radical embraced republican values that he rejected individual rights. Why cannot someone embrace both rights and republicanism? No doubt in some cases, individualist and republican beliefs can conflict. Some, but not all republicans, e.g., supported a military draft; and this is obviously inconsistent with a robust belief in self-ownership. But this is a special case: there seems no general inconsistency between the two sets of values.

Wollstonecraft, our author shows, was both a republican and a radical. Her adherence to natural rights did not at all impede her vigorous defense of civic virtue. Perhaps oddly for a feminist, she praised republics as virile and masculine, contrasting them with effeminate aristocracies (pp. 117–18; Modugno notes that Wollstonecraft by speaking in these terms did not abandon feminism. She merely adopted the prevailing language of her time). Once more Modugno has undermined a dichotomy. Just as Wollstonecraft could be both a defender of rights and a proponent of gradualism, so she could also be both a republican and an individualist.4

Modugno’s thoughtful analysis leads to a question that Rothbardians need to answer. Rothbard rejected Hayek’s claim that reform must be gradual: "true" individualism, for Rothbard, entailed a much more radical posture than Hayek countenanced. Does this mean that Rothbard was a constructivist who abused reason in Cartesian fashion?

I think that Rothbard could accept much of Hayek’s argument, while retaining his radicalism. He might plausibly say that the radical changes he favors are those that remove coercive restraints. His libertarianism does not impose a Cartesian plan on society: it instead, through its forthright rejection of coercion, allows individuals to form the spontaneous orders that Hayek has described.

1I wonder whether this really does follow. Cannot one consistently hold that a social institution must arise through a spontaneous process but, once in being, can be radically modified in a planned way? Perhaps doing so does not require an unacceptably high level of conscious knowledge.

2Hayek’s analysis was an instance of a popular trend among European philosophers to blame the ills of the modern world on what the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple called "the Cartesian faux pas." Among distinguished exponents of this line of thought were Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers. Ernst Cassirer protested that the anti-Cartesian view was a distortion. In politics, at any rate, Descartes was not a Cartesian in the pejorative sense; he favored a conservative adherence to custom.

3For a criticism of Popper’s piecemeal engineering, see Rush Rhees, Without Answers (Routledge, 1969).

4Modugno’s contention that one can be both an individualist and a republican parallels the argument of Ronald Hamowy that Trenchard and Gordon’s Cato’s Letters is both republican and radically Lockean. See Ronald Hamowy, "Cato’s Letters, John Locke, and the Republican Paradigm," History of Political Thought XI (1990): 273–94.


Close Window