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Commerce and Enlightenment

journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-08, 09:58 authored by Knud Haakonssen, Richard Whatmore
How distinctive was the eighteenth century with respect to intellectual history? Contemporary Europeans were increasingly convinced that their century was unique, in the sense of facing new problems which had not been addressed in the past as this was described by classical authority or Christian tradition. Historians have long debated whether they were correct in making such an assumption and whether such change can be encapsulated by the term ‘enlightenment’. Both Istvan Hont and John Robertson approach these issues through the reconstruction of David Hume’s intellectual world, thereby trying to recapture the strategies of major and minor figures for maintaining particular states and securing civilization globally. The Case for Enlightenment and Jealousy of Trade are iconoclastic books, intended to overturn established scholarly orthodoxies. For Robertson, the historiographical opposition comprises lower-case, plural, or national definitions of enlightenment. Hont seeks to redirect political theory by persuading his audience ‘to retreat from Marx’ but ‘not as far back as Hobbes’, and to break with ‘the favourite trope of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the economic determination of politics’ (2–3). Both books are remarkable for their range, depth of learning, and argumentative vigour. They are models of properly contextualized intellectual history. As such, they share the goal of recovering the work of important figures who were greatly influential in their day, but who were afterwards largely forgotten, and whose complex thoughts have generally been underestimated by historians. Hont and Robertson have a great deal to say about Scottish intellectual history, especially Smith in addition to Hume. They overlap also in showing the significance to contemporaries of François Fénelon, Jean-François Melon, Ferdinando Galiani, and the physiocrats led by François Quesnay and Victor-Riqueti de Mirabeau. Robertson additionally provides a new perspective on the political and economic writings of Francesco d’Andrea, Paolo Mattia Doria, Antonio Genovesi, Mario Francesco Pagano, Gaetano Filangieri, and others, and he revises current assumptions about the writings of now better-known figures, including Vico, Mandeville, and Andrew Fletcher. Hont is similarly concerned with neglected figures, in his case from Nicholas Barbon to Camille Desmoulins. An additional strength of his essays lies in their reassessment of Pufendorf, Fénelon, Montesquieu, Hume, Smith, and Sieyès. With such shared subject matter the two books together make a formidable case for the emergence of a new theory of sociability, namely that of commerce, as the dominant form of social and political thought in the early modern period; yet they go about it in so profoundly different a manner that they have to be dealt with separately in order to do them justice.


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  • Published


Intellectual History Review




Taylor & Francis





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  • History Publications

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