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Shifting the Scottish paradigm: the discourse of morals and manners in Mary Wollstonecraft's French Revolution

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In the past decade Mary Wollstonecraft has become an increasingly important figure in the history of political thought. However, relatively few interpretations of her work exist. This piece focuses on Wollstonecraft's least-read text, An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution; and the Effect It Has Produced in Europe (1794). It provides a new interpretation of this work, one that stresses its relation to the Scottish Enlightenment. The argument is that Wollstonecraft's text can be read as a novel move initiated from within the discourse of ‘manners’ that J.G.A. Pocock, especially, has shown to be key to understanding the period in general and the Scots in particular. Wollstonecraft challenged the central claim of the Scottish four-stage historical thesis that extant European manners marked the development of a higher level of moral and civic virtue. At the same time, however, she appropriated the Scots’ underlying notion of a civilizing process. By rewriting the history of manners from a perspective that denied their necessary connection to morals, Wollstonecraft sought to explain the French Revolution's violence as a predictable consequence of moral underdevelopment, while simultaneously defending the Revolution itself as a positive moment in the evolution of civilization based on intellectual progress. This attempt to shift the Scottish Enlightenment discursive paradigm of manners in the course of articulating a ‘moral view’ of the French Revolution, I argue, constitutes the view of history held by the most important early-modern feminist.

Keywords: French Revolution; Mary Wollstonecraft; Scottish Enlightenment; democratizing the civilizing process; manners; morals; paradigm

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Dept. of Political Science, UCLA, Box 951472, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1472, USA.

Publication date: 2002-01-01

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