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Genealogies and the State of Nature

as if they really were. Possibly something like that might apply to some
of the situations Hume describes in The Natural History of Religion, but in
Knowledge and the State of Nature I wasn™t in that business at all. My line was,
and had to be, that the needs were real and the persons concerned would
have come, in one way or another, to satisfy them.
However, in spite of the fact that I had to be appealing to real situations,
real needs, real responses “ even if this appeal could afford to be of the indi-
rect kind characterized in the preceding paragraph “ it may be questioned
(and I am about to do so) whether the method used essentially involves any
reference to the past at all. Right at the beginning of the book I described
the procedure in these terms:

We take some prima facie plausible hypothesis about what the concept of
knowledge does for us, what its role in our life might be, and then ask what
a concept having that role would be like . . . 12
the core of the concept of knowledge is an outcome of certain very
general facts about the human situation . . . 13

The ¬rst of these remarks suggests the present, in so far as it appears to
refer to any time at all; and the second reads as if it were pretty much
indifferent which time or times we are talking about, so long as there are
human beings in it. I did, as a matter of fact, use some examples which
hinted at state-of-nature philosophy, but I could have stuck exclusively to
examples which readers would have recognized as part of their own everyday
lives. And, indeed, I had to maintain that the circumstances that favour the
formation of the concept of knowledge still exist, or did until very recently,
since otherwise I would have had no convincing answer to the obvious
question why it should have remained in use, nor any support for my thesis
that the method reveals the core of the concept as it is to be found now.
It was only in so far as I hoped to explain the presence of the concept of
knowledge “ our present everyday concept of knowledge “ in early cultures
and their languages that I needed to think in terms of historical examples
at all, and then only historical, not putatively prehistorical, examples. It is
true that in saying that the “very general facts about the human situation”

so general . . . that one cannot imagine their changing whilst anything we
can still recognize as social life persists.14

12 Craig (1990), p. 2.
13 Craig (1990), p. 10.
14 Craig (1990), p. 10.
192 Edward Craig

I effectively committed myself to the view that there must have been plenty
of prehistorical examples, as we surely don™t think that in prehistoric times
there was nothing we would have recognized as social life. But a reader who,
although ¬nding that remark too sweeping, was nevertheless prepared to
agree that the facts in question have held in every society of which we have
much knowledge would ¬nd this weakened premise no less adequate to
support the whole of my argument than the stronger version was. Reference
to mankind™s prehistory was no essential part of my argument, but so to
speak epiphenomenal to it. It was essential to Hume™s “ not because it was
essential to his method, but because of what he was using the method for:
to account for a state of affairs which we ¬nd (so he thought) at the very
beginning of detectable history, namely near-universal polytheism.


I have been looking at a number of genealogical enterprises. Some of them
(those of Hume and Nietzsche) clearly and essentially presented themselves
as real histories, though without committing themselves to times and places.
Earlier I also mentioned that of Hobbes, saying that it could well be read
as making claims about human prehistory, but that remark must now be
revisited. For one thing, the chapter of Leviathan in which “the warre of
every man against every man” makes its celebrated appearance sticks ¬rmly
to the present tense, and happily accommodates sentences like:

It may peradventure be thought, that there never was such a time, nor
condition of warre as this; and I believe it was never generally so, over all
the world: but there are many places, where they live so now.15

I won™t belabour the textual evidence, though there is plenty more of it,
because there is a decisive methodological point as well. Hobbes is making
a constitutional recommendation. What he needs to claim is that human
nature is such that without a unitary and powerful restraining agency life
will soon be “nasty, brutish and short.” The temporal range of that “is” can
be as wide as he likes “ or dares “ but it must include the present. For one
could hardly recommend absolute monarchy to one™s contemporaries just
on the grounds that once, a long time ago, men had need of it. His central
claim, to put it another way, was not about human prehistory but human
nature; though if you think that human nature is invariant, at least in respect

15 Hobbes (1651/1996), Bk. I ch. 13 “Of the Naturall Condition of Mankind.”
Genealogies and the State of Nature

of those particular features of it needed for your theory, the central claim
will have implications about a prehistoric state of nature as well.
Our fourth example (the present writer™s own) turned out to be in a
somewhat similar position. Whereas Hobbes wanted to recommend a cer-
tain political constitution to his contemporaries, I wanted to explain some-
thing about our contemporary conceptual equipment. So I needed to make
claims about contemporary (or at least near-contemporary) facts, and any
implied reference to a state of nature was a nonloadbearing frill rendered
harmless by the basic character of the particular facts in question. That
suggests, I suppose, that my claim to membership of the state-of-nature
tradition was spurious; but then again, how could it be spurious if I am in
such good company as that of Hobbes, on whose membership I have just
cast exactly the same slur? Perhaps the de¬ning feature of the tradition is
not an argumentative strategy but a literary device, that of presenting a
generalisation about the human condition as a sketchy description of the
early life of the race. In that case we misrepresent it if we see it as a type
of genealogy, namely that in which the facts appealed to are prehistorical
(and hence likely to be so conjectural that we might be inclined to use the
word “¬ction”). The truth is that it is not essentially historical at all, and
if it appears so then only because of its tendency to stick to generalisations
so general that they don™t sound absurd if occasionally applied to cavemen.
Williams tells us that the state of nature is not the Pleistocene.16 Indeed
not. The question “when?” just doesn™t apply to it. When it does apply, as
for instance to some of the things Hume wrote in The Natural History of
Religion, that is not because of the state-of-nature method per se, but because
of the particular phenomena it is being used to illuminate.
State-of-nature theories are “imaginary” then, at most in the sense that
they weave ¬ctions around factual claims about human nature. If those
claims are false so is the theory; it is not just an unusually ¬ctitious piece
of ¬ction, as a novel might be whose author was conducting a far-¬‚ung
thought-experiment. Such hyper¬ction might have philosophical uses, like
persuading us of the value, or warning us of the dangers, of trying to develop
psychological traits we do not at present possess, but state-of-nature theory
it is not.
The depth of factual obligation incurred by a state-of-nature theory
depends on its aims. It will be greatest when its intentions are explanatory,
to account for the existence of the target phenomenon, whether or not
they are at the same time vindicatory or subversive. If the explanandum is

16 Williams (2002), p. 27 ff.
194 Edward Craig

real, the explanation must appeal to real explananda. (Many combinations
are possible. Hume™s in The Natural History of Religion was explanatory and
subversive. Williams™ is explanatory and vindicatory, as was mine. Hume™s
state-of-nature doctrine about justice was certainly vindicatory; the extent
to which it was also intended to be explanatory is a delicate interpretative
question.17 That of Hobbes, with much greater certainty, was vindicatory
only “ or perhaps “commendatory” is a better word.)
To account for the existence of an institution it is not enough to point out
its advantages, and say or imply that it has arisen because human beings came
to perceive them; we need in addition to be able to see how its advantages
could have become visible to people who hadn™t yet got it. That condition
can be a real barrier. The bene¬ts of a good education, for instance, may be
visible only to those who have already had one or are well on the way to it. In
such a case, describing the bene¬ts falls a long way short of explaining why
the relevant good exists, or has been achieved. Hume knew the problem:18
But in order to form society, ™tis requisite not only that it be advantageous,
but also that men be sensible of its advantages; and ™tis impossible, in their
wild uncultivated state, that by study and re¬‚exion alone, they should ever
be able to attain this knowledge.19

And that is not all. Just because, although not yet enjoying a certain good,
I am in a position to see its value to me, it does not follow that I am in a
position to obtain it or even to take the smallest step toward it. We may,
for instance, wonder how, if there ever were a Hobbesian state of nature,
men managed to set up the ¬rst contract with the stability needed for it
to be a contract at all. How, being used to a situation of constant self-
seeking aggression, presumably larded with the deceit that such a situation
would be full of in so far as people communicated with each other at all,
did they summon up enough trust in their fellows to risk performing their
own part of the agreement, or even to believe that anything worth calling
an agreement had been arrived at? It is not merely better in tune with his
text and his purposes, but altogether more sympathetic too, to hear Hobbes™

17 Hume did say that “ . . . the suppos™d state of nature . . . never had, and never cou™d have, any
reality.” See Hume, (1978) p. 493, which speaks against any straightforwardly explanatory
intent. But there are contrary indications “ see n. 18.
18 And in the case of Justice, which is his subject here, he also had an answer (to be found in
the sentence immediately following the quoted passage): circumstances naturally arising
within the family display the bene¬ts of certain social arrangements, so human beings are
not in the position of having to foresee these bene¬ts without any prior experience of them.
It is the presence in his text of thoughts like this that causes doubt as to whether Hume™s
project is vindicatory only, or explanatory as well.
19 Hume (1978) Bk. III Pt. II Sect. II, p. 486.
Genealogies and the State of Nature

story not as explanatory but as a memorable way of recommending absolute
monarchy “ recommending it to us, without saying anything about whether
it recommended itself to our forbears or, if it did, how they ever managed
to follow the recommendation. In a particular case it may be obvious that
these two conditions, call them motive and opportunity, are satis¬able, even
obvious enough for an author permissibly to leave it unsaid. But that should
not blind us to the fact that they do have to be satis¬ed, or to the fact that
sometimes it isn™t obvious at all.
Let us therefore turn to vindicatory genealogies, and consider a schematic
and wholly imaginary story. Once upon a time, there were beings who lived
without much political organization at all. Then they realized that life would
be nicer if they did A, so they agreed to do it, and once they had done it
they saw that life would be nicer still if they did B as well, so in due course
they did that, too. Then a few of them spotted that C would be a further
improvement, and with a little effort they soon convinced everyone else. So
they did C, and then they had a secular liberal democratic constitution, and
they all lived happily ever after. Now provided only that all this is realistic
in one respect, namely that what these beings prefer, what they regard as
constitutive of welfare and would welcome in any social arrangements which
promoted them, are the sort of things which produce the same reaction in
us, this little just-so story can serve as a recommendation of secular liberal
democracy, which it portrays as conferring the bene¬ts of A, B, and C. For
that modest purpose, nothing else about the story need be true. It need not
even be plausible that the community would in practice have managed the
transitions between the stages, so long as the “genealogist” doesn™t claim
to be telling us how secular liberal democracies have actually come about,
or could be brought about “ for which further strands of realism will be
Now some genealogists may like to avail themselves of this route, even
though it involves admitting that the genealogical element in their proce-
dure was ¬gurative or rhetorical “ just a technique for highlighting the ways
in which a certain practice is bene¬cial. But I can hardly join them. I didn™t
just want to show that the use of the concept of knowledge is bene¬cial in
certain speci¬c ways, but in addition that it has the very shape it would have
if designed with these bene¬ts in view. These are two very different things.
A tomato may bring us certain bene¬ts which a nutritionist could specify;
it is a far more controversial thing (and surely false?) to suggest that if a
designer set out with just those bene¬ts in view, and the power to execute
their design, they would end up with a tomato. Vests have the advantage
that when they get too old to wear you can use them as dusters, but there is
196 Edward Craig

no reason why anyone designing something that could be used as a duster
should come up with a vest.
But even those who can and do regard their story as no more than a story
may be tempted to let their ambitions snowball, and so may their readers
on their behalf. The ¬rst, imaginary narrative may do more than merely
recommend secular liberal democracy as offering certain speci¬c bene¬ts. It
may imply, depending upon its detail, that the search for just these bene¬ts,
if successfully pursued, would lead to just that political system. It does not
suggest that there is no other way of getting there, so it does not necessarily
suggest that that is how we actually got there (assuming that we have), nor
does it even necessarily suggest that we could get there, or could have got
there, like that. But it may do so. And it inevitably will be taken to do so if
the beings it describes are pretty much like us in their needs and capacities,
and the steps it describes them as taking are ones that we think it would be
quite easy for human beings to bring off, especially so long as we have no
other story in our repertoire in which the agents land up in the same place
by a different route.
Once we start thinking of the story in these terms, however, we will no
longer quite be treating it as a commendatory ¬ction, but will be well on the
way to treating it as an hypothesis to explain the existence of secular liberal
democracies. (Or possibly as a plan for bringing them about “ although the
fact that our story, the particular one of my example, began from a condition
of near-zero political organization, whereas we don™t, may pose a problem
for this application of it.) When we are dealing with a real piece of writing
in the state-of-nature tradition it may well be unclear, even indeterminate,
what selection of these purposes the author had in mind.
Be that as it may, avowedly imaginary histories may be capable of some
limited effectiveness of a vindicatory kind. But the distinction between state-
of-nature theory and genealogy is not one between the imaginary and the
real; nor is it one between doing very early history on barely any evidence
and later history on rather more; it is more like that between starting from
what we know about human beings and their situation quite generally, and
starting from what history tells us about them at a particular time and place.
One can see why the second and third of these distinctions should have been
run together: it is an attractive device to couch one™s presumed knowledge of
human beings in general in terms of a prehistorical scene. One can see how
the ¬rst and second could merge in the mind: the state-of-nature theorist
seems to offer no evidence, and so can appear just to be making up a story,
which indeed in a sense he is. One can also see why the distinction does
not feel razor sharp. An emboldened state-of-nature theorist who knows
Genealogies and the State of Nature


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