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The Philosophical Anarchism of William Godwin

The Philosophical Anarchism of William Godwin

JOHN P. CLARK
Copyright Date: 1977
Pages: 360
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x0qnj
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  • Book Info
    The Philosophical Anarchism of William Godwin
    Book Description:

    This comprehensive study of Godwin's philosophy establishes the central importance of his ideas to modern social and political thought, correcting in the process certain widespread misinterpretations. Professor Clark reassesses Godwin's determinism, his doctrine of perfectibility, his utilitarianism, his theory of rights, his view of political action, and other important topics.

    The book begins with a discussion of the metaphysical and epistemological bases of Godwin's philosophy and then analyzes the nature of his ethical theory and the application of his philosophical principles to social and political issues. In a concluding section, his place in the history of anarchist theory is clarified. The author draws on all of Godwin's writings, including both strictly philosophical works and literary and historical essays, taking an approach to them that is expository, analytical, and critical.

    Originally published in 1977.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6775-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 3-8)

    William Godwin was, for a short time in the 1790s, one of the most influential and controversial social and political theorists in England. His most famous work, theEnquiry Concerning Political Justice, was widely looked upon as the foremost theoretical justification of the movement for social change which manifested itself in England in the struggle for parliamentary reform and expansion of individual freedom, and on the Continent most notably in the French Revolution. The warm reception given to Godwin’s ideas during this period is described (and no doubt exaggerated considerably) in Hazlitt’s well-known passage from hisSpirit of the Age:...

  5. Part One: First Principles

    • CHAPTER I The Supremacy of Reason
      (pp. 11-39)

      The starting point for Godwin’s theory of knowledge is the reduction of all experience to a succession of ideas. He maintains that the only certain knowledge which one can ever have is apprehension of the appearance of ideas as objects of his own consciousness. We begin with, and in a sense, we never transcend, the contents of our own minds. The mind itself is, in fact, absorbed into the flow of experience. “If there be any one thing that we know more certainly than another, it is the existence of our own thoughts, ideas, perceptions or sensations (by whatever term...

    • CHAPTER II The Doctrine of Necessity
      (pp. 40-59)

      It has been seen that Godwin asserts that all that we can observe of causality is the existence of certain regularities. Yet, he believes that science has succeeded in explaining a great deal about these regularities. The growth of scientific knowledge has continually expanded our ability to use the appearance of antecedents to predict the appearance of consequents. Thus, while we can never observe anything more than constant conjunction, and while we must always remain within the sphere of the calculation of probabilities, it becomes increasingly more reasonable and useful to make the assumption that all the events in the...

    • CHAPTER III Human Nature
      (pp. 60-85)

      Godwin’s social and political theory and his moral philosophy rely heavily, as should be expected, on his distinctive view of human nature. In order for topics such as the character of beneficial social institutions or the nature of moral obligation to be discussed, a concept of human nature must exist. This chapter will deal with five important topics concerning human nature which are discussed by Godwin. The first concerns the extent to which people are motivated by self-interest, and whether, in fact, they can ever act unselfishly. The second raises the question of the degree to which human beings are...

    • Summary of Part One
      (pp. 86-90)

      Godwin’s epistemological position presents a basis for his theory of social reform. He begins with a reduction of all experience to a succession of ideas, and he defines knowledge in terms of a calculation of probabilities. He specifies two faculties of the mind: sensation, which receives impressions, and understanding, which connects these ideas according to the law of association. Reason is seen as involving the ability to form generalizations based on observation of particulars. It entails a process of reception of ideas, formation of general truths, and reinterpretation of experience in the light of these truths. True understanding requires extensive...

  6. Part Two: Ethics

    • CHAPTER IV Utility
      (pp. 93-126)

      At the beginning ofPolitical Justice, Godwin states that the purposes of the work are first, to discover what form of social organization is most conducive to the general wellbeing, and, second, to investigate the problem of how to preserve individuality and private judgment. It will be argued here that the first purpose is his fundamental one, and that the latter values are treated as means toward the overriding concern of “general improvement and happiness.”¹

      Godwin’s ethical, social, and political philosophy are grounded in a form of hedonistic utilitarianism. According to this utilitarian view, morality is defined as the “system...

    • CHAPTER V Rights and Duties
      (pp. 127-147)

      Human beings are, according to Godwin, morally bound in all their actions to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. All things which one possesses, including one’s life, liberty, abilities, time, and possessions, are to be considered resources at the disposal of justice. As he explains inPolitical Justice, “We have in reality nothing that is strictly speaking our own. We have nothing that has not a destination proscribed to it by the immutable voice of reason and justice, and respecting which, if we supersede that distinction, we do not entail upon ourselves a certain portion of guilt.”¹ Human...

    • Summary of Part Two
      (pp. 148-150)

      In ethics Godwin is a hedonistic utilitarian. He believes pleasure or happiness to be the only intrinsic good, but he makes a qualitative distinction between various classes of pleasures. He claims the pleasures of the intellect and of benevolence to be highest; however, he fails to show why this must be true in the experience of others. The principle of impartiality is fundamental to his position. This principle demands that one act in all cases in whatever way will contribute most to the general good, in which the welfare of each individual counts equally. Virtue is correspondingly defined in terms...

  7. Part Three: Social and Political Theory

    • CHAPTER VI The Nature of Government
      (pp. 153-174)

      For Godwin, politics is a branch of ethics. It is the application of the fundamental principles of morality to certain issues of broad social concern. To answer questions such as the nature and extent of political obligation, the relationship between freedom and order, the desirability of various forms of government, and so forth, one must have recourse in all cases to the principle of utility. Since all human actions are subject to judgment by that standard, those activities which are called “political” must be included. As Godwin has argued, all rights and duties can be deduced from the utilitarian principle...

    • CHAPTER VII Forms of Government
      (pp. 175-202)

      Much of Godwin’s discussion of forms of government (which is found primarily in Book V ofPolitical Justice) is concerned with an attack on monarchy as the least desirable political system. It might seem that his polemic against monarchy would be of limited interest today, since there have not been many significant examples of this type of constitution in recent years. However, an examination of the principles which he develops in the course of his discussion shows his remarks on the subject to be vitally relevant to the contemporary situation. For in attacking monarchy, Godwin seeks to point out the...

    • CHAPTER VIII Freedom of Thought and Expression
      (pp. 203-222)

      Godwin believes that governmental interference with the actions of the individual involves in all cases considerable evil. However, he is not indiscriminate in his condemnation of the use of organized coercion. Using utility as his standard, he distinguishes between certain areas of individual liberty which are most essential to the general welfare, and which can in almost no cases be abridged without serious damage to the public good, and other domains which can with less injury be restricted in exceptional cases. A realm of personal freedom which he places in the former category is the liberty of thought and expression....

    • CHAPTER IX Punishment and Law
      (pp. 223-247)

      In the preceding chapters, it has been found that Godwin proposes a social order in which power would be decentralized, in which the small-scale, voluntary community would replace the nation-state as the primary unit of social organization, and in which individual autonomy and private judgment would be largely preserved. In the course of his discussion of the requirements for the achievement of such a libertarian society, Godwin confronts a problem which has always been thought to present special difficulties for the philosophical anarchist. This is the question of the possible need for the use of coercion against individuals for their...

    • CHAPTER X Property
      (pp. 248-273)

      The subject of property is central to Godwin’s social and political thought. He contends that the existing system of property is the great barrier to the institution of political justice, and that a more equitable system is necessary if that goal is to be achieved. Erroneous ideas of property rights, he says, “distort ourjudgmentandopinion.”¹ They create a false system of values and lead to actions which produce conflict and disorder in society. The abolition of present property relations is necessary if people are to become virtuous, if all are to be given an opportunity to realize their...

    • CHAPTER XI Social Change
      (pp. 274-295)

      Godwin sees a number of obstacles in the path of progress toward justice and equality. He believes that, in particular, change must come in two vital areas. The first of these is the realm of political institutions. He considers government in its then existing form to be a tool in the hands of the privileged. The rich are, he says, “directly or indirectly the legislators of the state.”¹ Legislation is designed to favor their interest and to entrench their position of superiority in society. He mentions numerous classes of laws, most notably monopolies and patents, which contribute to this end....

    • Summary of Part Three
      (pp. 296-300)

      The great threat to private judgment, and thus to rationality and virtue, is seen by Godwin to be government. He attacks theories like the social contract, which would justify government by looking to the source of its authority. He shows that in all its forms contract theory bases authority on something less than true consent. Government, he concludes, must be judged on utility alone. He believes that it can have a positive value if limited sufficiently. Thus, it sometimes performs the useful services of maintaining order and protecting people. In unusual cases it can perform further functions without its benefits...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 301-320)

    While many of the conclusions of this essay have been mentioned in the summaries of the three parts, it might be useful at this point to make a few general comments about Godwin’s philosophy and the interpretation given to it here, and, more importantly, to discuss in a bit more detail its significance in the development of modern thought. Throughout this work, I have taken issue with a great many previous critics of Godwin’s thought. It is desirable first, therefore, to reiterate the interpretive position taken here and the ways in which the present work has sought to rectify misinterpretations...

  9. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 321-334)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 335-343)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 344-344)