Book Review: The Opinion of Mankind: Sociability and Theories of the State from Hobbes to Smith, by Paul Sagar

Published date01 June 2019
Date01 June 2019
Subject MatterBook Reviews
/tmp/tmp-182is0m2GnFcIl/input 781821PTXXXX10.1177/0090591718781821Political TheoryBook Reviews
Book Reviews
Political Theory
2019, Vol. 47(3) 409 –444
Book Reviews
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
The Opinion of Mankind: Sociability and Theories of the State from Hobbes to Smith, by
Paul Sagar. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018, 280 pp.
Reviewed by: Clifton Mark, Center for Ethics, University of Toronto, Totonto, ON, Canada
DOI: 10.1177/0090591718781821
David Hume and Adam Smith are familiar names in intellectual history, but
neither have achieved canonical status as specifically political thinkers. The
primary aim of Paul Sagar’s The Opinion of Mankind is to correct this error by
showing that Hume and Smith developed a genuine alternative to Hobbesian
thinking in which governmental power is grounded in “the opinion of man-
kind” rather than any philosophical conception of sovereign authority.
Following Bernard Williams’s distinction, Sagar sees himself as doing
“history of philosophy,” for which the primary objects of interest are philo-
sophical arguments. This approach is premissed on the idea that the point of
studying historical thinkers is that we might be able to learn something from
their arguments, if we can come to understand them. “History of philoosphy”
is framed in contrast to the “history of ideas,” which is history before it is
philosophy, and is more concerned with how ideas have moved, developed,
or changed across times or places. Although his primary focus is to under-
stand and explain the philosophical arguments contained in historical texts,
Sagar takes on board a full cargo of Cantabrigian caveats regarding context,
interpretation, and the danger of anachronism. In his section on methodology,
Sagar orients his work primarily vis-à-vis members of the “Cambridge
School.” The result is a book that reads with a great sense of urgency while
remaining a careful work of intellectual history.
Sagar’s attention to the argumentative context in which his subjects wrote
explains the character of the book, and the slightly misleading nature of its
title. “Sociability and Theory of the State from Hobbes to Smith” suggests an
overarching story about early modern political theory. Such a story is present,
but David Hume’s political thought is the undisputed narrative focus. Other
players in the tale—Hobbes, Shaftesbury, Locke, Rousseau, et alia—are
there primarily as context for the story of how Hume, and Smith following
him, blazed a theoretical trail that has subsequently gone mostly untrod.

Political Theory 47(3)
The first three chapters are devoted to explaining Hume’s political thought
in relation to the debate on sociability and the state set off by Hobbes. For
Hobbes, the fundamental problem that politics is meant to solve is human-
kind’s unsociability. Driven...

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