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Let me cast my mind back a few weeks to when I was reading The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow. I persist in thinking that this is a fine and important book, despite the comment my post attracted (which I deleted) from some right-wing troll whose main beef with the book seemed to be that Graeber had written an article saying that the pandemic should be the springboard for a major change in society. Yes, well, I happen to agree with Graeber on that, and I remain unutterably sad and angry at the speed with which our serially incompetent politicians set the new normal as being exactly like the old normal, except worse.

Anyway, that aside, I said at the time that the book was at its best when it was raising doubts and questions and hesitations, and at its worst when it was being every bit as dogmatic as the people it criticised. One of the problems I couldn’t articulate came right at the start of the book, their particular origin story, if you like. They started with European Enlightenment ideas about the origins of society building on the ideas of Thomas Hobbes (“nasty, brutish, and short”) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (“noble savage”). These ideas became a fixed view of how society developed that continue to plague theoretical work in anthropology and archaeology to this day.

Now, that last part may well be true, and the legacy of Hobbesian and Rousseauvian thought may be as toxic as they say. But I felt dissatisfied with their characterisation of Hobbes and Rousseau and their contemporaries without quite being able to put my finger on why.

However, I am currently reading Witcraft by Jonathan Rée. This is a big, marvellous, contextualizing history of philosophy in Britain from Bacon to Wittgenstein, and I really wish I had had the book 50 years ago when I was trying to study philosophy, it would have made a lot of sense of a lot of things. I will be writing about the book at greater length at some point, but that may be some months away; I’m only 200 pages into the book and I feel like I’ve barely begun.

The point is that I am currently revisiting a period in philosophy that was at the core of one of the first courses I took: the period from John Locke through George Berkley to David Hume and Adam Smith, essentially the period when British epistemology really took shape. One of the things that Rée makes clear is the historical perspective in this new philosophy that began with Bacon. There is a consistent quest to get to the origin of everything. It is there in Descarte’s cogito ergo sum, the attempt to strip away everything to get to the origin of our being; Locke was building on a similar idea with his tabula rasa, the proposal that our mind is a blank slate until experience starts to give us the wherewithal from which to build ideas.

Reading this, revisiting these ideas, I suddenly realized why I had been discontent with the first chapter of The Dawn of Everything. In anthropological and archaeological terms it may have been a perfectly fair reading, not so much of Hobbes and Rousseau but of the aftermath of their work. But in philosophical terms it was wide of the mark. What they were doing was part of the philosophical movement of the time. The quest for the origin of human identity, marked by the cogito and the tabula rasa, but common to most philosophical writers throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, was commonly extended to all aspects of human life. In his Two Treatises on Government, Locke effectively extended the idea of the tabula rasa, the blank starting point upon which everything learned has to be written, to human society. Hobbes was doing the same; his “nasty, brutish and short” characterization of early humanity is like the Cartesian cogito: stripping back all the accretions of modern life in order to identify what, at base, is human society. The images of early human society – hunter-gatherer becoming herder becoming farmer becoming city dweller – that you find in Hume and Smith as well as Hobbes and Rousseau, was a thought experiment. It wasn’t, this is how things started, so much as, this is what you are left with when you strip away what we know as civilization. Just as, for Descartes and for Locke, the mind is empty until it is filled, so society is empty until it is filled.

This is what Hobbes and Rousseau were writing about. They were not laying out a plan for how the evolution of society had to happen, they were presenting a schema for examining what lay under the political nature of their contemporary English and French society. If subsequent anthropologists and archaeologists took this as a plan for how the past actually worked, they were wrong; and if Graeber and Wengrow thought this was what Hobbes and Rousseau thought they were doing, then they were wrong also.