The Burke-Wollstonecraft Debate

The Burke-Wollstonecraft Debate: Savagery, Civilization, and Democracy

DANIEL I. O’NEILL
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 304
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/j.ctt7v2w9
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  • Book Info
    The Burke-Wollstonecraft Debate
    Book Description:

    Many modern conservatives and feminists trace the roots of their ideologies, respectively, to Edmund Burke (1729–1797) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), and a proper understanding of these two thinkers is therefore important as a framework for political debates today.According to Daniel O’Neill, Burke is misconstrued if viewed as mainly providing a warning about the dangers of attempting to turn utopian visions into political reality, while Wollstonecraft is far more than just a proponent of extending the public sphere rights of man to include women. Rather, at the heart of their differences lies a dispute over democracy as a force tending toward savagery (Burke) or toward civilization (Wollstonecraft). Their debate over the meaning of the French Revolution is the place where these differences are elucidated, but the real key to understanding what this debate is about is its relation to the intellectual tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment, whose language of politics provided the discursive framework within and against which Burke and Wollstonecraft developed their own unique ideas about what was involved in the civilizing process.

    eISBN: 978-0-271-05473-5
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-20)

    For more than two centuries, conservatism and feminism have been driving ideological forces in Western political thought. What concerns initially animated these two powerful modern theoretical perspectives? That is the fundamental question at the heart of this book. It is one that has proved very easy to ask and profoundly difficult to answer. This is not because I am the first to ask the question, of course; there has been no lack of discussion of these ideologies. Indeed, early on in the project I found that shelf upon shelf of anthologies, general histories, and textbooks were filled with ready responses...

  5. 1 THE SCOTTISH ENLIGHTENMENT, THE MORAL SENSE, AND THE CIVILIZING PROCESS
    (pp. 21-50)

    In the past thirty years, a number of scholars have demonstrated the unique intellectual contribution made by a group of like-minded eighteenth-century Scots who were closely affiliated, both personally and professionally, and self-consciously unified around an identifiable theoretical project. The basic goal of the Scottish Enlightenment was to establish what David Hume, one of its leading lights, termed a “Science of Man” applicable to the increasingly complex commercial societies of Europe. The Scots sought a scientific understanding of individual ideas and beliefs as the key to understanding their social world and its historical development.¹ They aimed, that is, to provide...

  6. 2 BURKE AND THE SCOTTISH ENLIGHTENMENT
    (pp. 51-88)

    When it comes to reading Edmund Burke, there are an astonishing number of preexisting theoretical frameworks in the secondary literature. There is, to be sure, a good deal to be learned from all of these readings. We have had Burke as a liberal of the nineteenth-century utilitarian¹ and antiimperial² variety, Burke as a prophet of modernity’s perils,³ Burke as a republican,⁴ Burke as a proto-romantic,⁵ and Burke as a bourgeois ideologue.⁶ Some scholars have been interested in extracting from Burke’s work a general theory of political representation,⁷ political parties and statesmanship,⁸ or radicalism and revolution,⁹ while others have focused more...

  7. 3 WOLLSTONECRAFT AND THE SCOTTISH ENLIGHTENMENT
    (pp. 89-124)

    Jane Rendall, in particular, has demonstrated that the theoretical status of women was central to Scottish Enlightenment moral philosophy and historiography, and that the Scots articulated a unique and influential understanding of women’s changing role and social position over time.¹ Thinkers like John Millar, William Robertson, and Lord Kames discussed the development of the human family, and the evolving place of women within it, as a central aspect of history’s four stages. These thinkers stressed the progress made by women in the growth of commercial society. As Robertson wrote in hisHistory of America, “that women are indebted to the...

  8. 4 “THE MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL REVOLUTIONS”
    (pp. 125-156)

    One of the most remarkable aspects of Edmund Burke’s interpretation of the French Revolution was the early date at which he became passionately and irrevocably opposed to it. TheReflectionsappeared in 1790, years before Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the other members of the royal family were executed, before Robespierre, Marat, the Terror, and French military expansionism, the figures and events generally associated with revolutionary excess. Yet, as early as 1789, before theReflectionswas even published, Burke’s letters to his political and personal intimates provided an extraordinarily extreme assessment of the Revolution’s significance. In early October of that...

  9. 5 VINDICATING A REVOLUTION IN MORALS AND MANNERS
    (pp. 157-194)

    Mary Wollstonecraft’sA Vindication of the Rights of Menwas the first published reply to Burke’sReflections on the Revolution in France. She wrote it hastily. Burke’s work appeared on the first of November 1790, and her answer, initially anonymous, was in print by the end of the month. In December a second edition, bearing her name on the title page, appeared.¹ In this chapter I argue that we can best understand Wollstonecraft’s direct contribution to the Revolution controversy as a critique of Burke’s moral theory and the historical narrative used to defend it, seen through the lens of her...

  10. 6 BURKE ON DEMOCRACY AS THE DEATH OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION
    (pp. 195-226)

    Burke claimed never to have read Wollstonecraft’s reply to him, despite its having been sent directly to his home.¹ Nevertheless, it is clear from his letter to Mrs. John Crewe, quoted above, that he counted Wollstonecraft as one of a new brand of politically active women who were ingenious and evil supporters of the French Revolution, and whose very names ought to be made the objects of hatred to future generations. For Burke, Wollstonecraft was a British Jacobin bent on joining the French revolutionaries in their democratic project of destroying Western civilization. We have already seen how Burke framed the...

  11. 7 WOLLSTONECRAFT ON DEMOCRACY AS THE BIRTH OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION
    (pp. 227-256)

    In this final chapter, I take up Mary Wollstonecraft’s least-read work, her history of the French Revolution. My argument is that Wollstonecraft’s text can be interpreted as the third installment of a response to Burke’s narrative of the Revolution as the death of Western civilization and its devolution into democratic savagery. While starting with many of the same theoretical presuppositions as the historians of the Scottish Enlightenment whom she had read in such depth, Wollstonecraft transformed the Scots’ language of politics into a democratic defense of the Revolution, thereby powerfully challenging Burke’s depiction of the event. Wollstonecraft denied the central...

  12. CONCLUSION
    (pp. 257-262)

    The broad question at the heart of this book was how two of the canonical figures of modern conservatism and feminism interpreted the foundational event of political modernity, the French Revolution. I conclude that we misunderstand Burke if we see his writings as a cautious antidote to the type of grandiose political scheming that sometimes leads to violence, whether articulated in the language of natural law or any other. So, too, we misunderstand Wollstonecraft if we think of her writings merely as an attempt to extend the public rights enjoyed by men to women, and thus as inaugurating a project...

  13. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 263-276)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 277-292)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 293-293)