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The Spirit of the Age William Godwin, By William Hazlitt

William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries, Vol. 1 by C. Kegan Paul. Henry S. King and Co., London, 1876.

William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries, Vol. 2 by C. Kegan Paul. Henry S. King and Co., London, 1876.

Herbert Read on Godwin

J. Steven Kreis, An Uneasy Affair: William Godwin and English Radicalism, 1793-1797

Godwin's Place in the Anarchist Tradition - a Bicentennial Tribute

    Willliam Godwin: An Intellectual History*
    By Dana Ward

     Although he never applied the label to himself, William Godwin is considered the first anarchist. In his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice And Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, published in 1793, Godwin laid out the main themes which subsequent anarchists adherred to and developed. For a brief period, Godwin was the most celebrated political theorist in England, but as one biographer noted, "within Godwin's own lifetime he had so completely lost the interest of the public that even the fact of his existence was not widely known." (Clark, 1977, p. 4.) Many later anarchists were either unaware or unfamiliar with the themes Godwin developed. Indeed, Kropotkin was the first among the classic anarchists to have actually read Godwin and recognized his pioneering work as central to anarchist theory. In the 1790's, however, Godwin was a giant among English intellectuals and his influence spread to France and the United States. Of particular note, Godwin's wife was none other than the founding mother of modern feminist thought, Mary Wollstonecraft. Their daughter authored the classic Frankenstein, and their son-in-law, of course, was the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, upon whom Godwin had the profoundest impact. Godwin did not limit his intellectual efforts to political philosophy, but wrote novels, a play, biographies, numerous essays, and literary criticisms. In short, he was a man of wide talent who moved in the most progressive circles of his time.

     Godwin has come down to us with the epithet of the "man of reason" attached to his name, for his faith in reason is at the core of his philosophy. Like many thinkers of his day, Godwin believed that one could not really ever know the essence of things, for we must always depend upon our own sensations for our knowledge. Consequently, our knowledge will always be limited, and there can be no absolute truths. As for mathematical and scientific facts, or "immutable truths", he argued that these do "nothing more than predict with greater or less probability." (e.a.) Despite the fact that all knowledge is only probable, not certain, indeed, because that is the case, we must rely on reason in order to insure that our predictions will have the greatest probability of being correct. "He notes that the greater the care taken in the exercise of reason, and the wider the evidence used in that exercise, the greater will be our ability to explain and predict our experience." (ibid, p. 12)

     Like Locke, Godwin held that the mind at birth is a "tabula rasa", with no innate ideas or knowledge. All knowledge is built up out of experience through impressions, memory and association. He goes beyond the Lockeian epistemology, however in "distinguishing between two faculties of perception, sensation and understanding, the latter of which has qualities which are not derivable from experience." (ibid, p. 13) This moves him into a stream of thought fundamentally different from the Lockeian epistemology, and more in keeping with the Kantian philosophy and 20th century psychology associated with Jean Piaget. To Godwin, like Piaget, the mind takes an active role in organizing experience. Indeed, the mind organizes experience such that conceptions conform to certain laws. For Godwin, these were the laws of association, but these associations are different from those in Locke's view. There are innate processes of understanding associated with reason which allow us to make sense of the world. Ideas can be brought to life either through external stimulus as in the Lockean epistemology, or internally through active processes of construction as in the Piagetian epistemology. Godwin certainly had no full blown epistemology identical to Piaget's, but it is significant that Godwin anticipated by roughly a century and a half some of the ideas which would ultimately be confirmed by scientific inquiry and for that reason alone, his is a more adequate epistemology than that associated with liberal thinkers such as Locke and those who followed in that tradition.

     Godwin described the process by which we move from experience to understanding as one in which "we detach ourselves from the immediate impressions of sense, and proceed to generalities." These generalities, or abstract categories are then employed, through reason, in order to bring an increasingly wider portion of our experience under rational explanation and control. That is, through reason, we can understand and control our experience. Here is a key to his anarchist philosophy. Only reason allows us to understand and control our actions and therefore it is to reason, not authority, that we owe allegiance. Furthermore, he argued that "When reason leads us to a conclusion, and other considerations are not present to the mind, its force is irresistible." (Ibid, p. 19) That is, reason's conclusions are irresitable. To support that contention, he must disprove the idea that actions and dispositions are caused by innate principles of judgment, antenatal impressions or corporeal structure, and he must show that internal irrationalities will not prevent people from being reshaped by an improved external environment. So, while certain processes of understanding may be innate, the principles of judgment are not. They grow out of experience in the environment, and therefore social structures can improve or degrade the human capacity to reason. Reason integrates our knowledge, judges its relevance, and applies it to particular cases. To Godwin, "The perfection of the human character consists in approaching as nearly as possible to the perfectly voluntary state." In that state, reason, and therefore justice, will prevail.

     Of course, he recognized that many important forces compete with reason for guidance of human thought and action, including self-deceptions, habits, customs and prejudice, none of which he regards as insurmountable. But his abiding faith was that knowing the good leads to willing it, and the passion necessary to will the good is on the whole desireable. Indeed, he saw reason and emotion not as antagonists, but partners. Without feeling or passion, action can not take place and the direction of action is dependent upon the balance of different feelings attached to different courses of action. Life, then, is not a question of cold rationality, but of the integration of reason and emotion.

     Godwin makes a number of assumptions which are extemely questionable form the modern standpoint. For example, he dismisses the effects of environment on the development of character during the first five years of life, a position that could hardly be upheld today. Also, he adhered to the doctrine of necessity, or determinism, which holds that the probability that chance exists in the universe is increasingly less as a greater number of events are found to occur according to law. Today, the uncertainty principle and chaos theory render such a position difficult to accept, but nevertheless, Godwin's theory remains fairly coherent and remarkably modern. But there are two points which are rather strange: 1) his attempt to refute the concept of free will, and 2) his antagonism to all forms of cooperation. Later anarchists rest much of their arguments upon the concept of free will and hold up cooperation as the highest form of human association. The free will point is less of a contradiction once it is examined. In essence, he says that "it is impossible for one to perceive that an end is good, and yet fail to desire it." In that case, we are not free to chose good or evil and therefore free will does not exist. Thus, when we make judgments, the outcome is based on all the events and experiences which preceeded it and the outcome will not vary unless the antecendants change. Hence the importance of attending to the social conditions which enhance or inhibit the ability to reason. Furthermore, if there is free will, then there can not be motivation and emotion, neither of which he is willing to dispense with, since if one is free to ignore motives, they are superfluous. The mind cannot first choose to be influenced by a motive, and afterwards submit to its operation, for in that case the preference would belong wholly to this previous volition. In the long run, Godwin's defense of determinism and attack on free will end up sounding remarkably like an argument for free will.

     Godwin "believes that reason demands that the welfare of each person should be looked upon as equivalent in importance to that of any other." (ibid) A simple doctrine of self-interest, then, is inadequate to produce justice in Godwin's view, although as we shall soon see he was indeed a utilitarian. To Godwin, simple self-interest is too close to egoism which all too easily results in oppression, violence, and injustice. Furthermore, Godwin believed that there is ample evidence that people are motivated by truth and truth, which is essentially justice, will lead to actions which are contrary to self interest. In this sense, he comes close to the concept of self-interest rightly understood, which takes into consideration a broader array of interests and a longer time span than the immediate situation.

     Godwin believed in the perfectability of human beings. He was quite aware of the evil and cruelty found in all societies, but he argued this evil was the result of lack of insight brought about chiefly by social conditions. Chief among those conditions is inequality. Godwin had a profound sense of egalitarianism and viewed the differences among individuals as being the product of different social circumstances, not of inherent differences in people's abilities. He clearly saw that some differences were the result of inheritance, but strongly believed that proper environmental structuring could overcome any inherent inequalities. This point leads to his concept of human perfectability. He believed humans are perfectable, but will never be perfect because as each new adjustment is made toward perfection, new relations and consequently new problems are created. But over the course of social development it is possible to achieve a closer and closer approximation of perfection in which humans would naturally pursue the good. Thus, natural goodness, equality and perfectablity are three essential components of his vision of human nature.

     In Political Justice, Godwin endevours to negate theories which imply or state that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That is, society contra Rousseau, is not superior to the sum of individual wills. For Godwin, society is "nothing more than an aggregation of individuals. Its claims and duties must be aggregate of their claims and duties, the one no more precarious and arbitrary than the others." (ibid, p. 81) "Efforts for improvement of society must therefore be aimed at the improvement of each individual in it. Until each individual is made more rational, and therefore more moral, social insitutions will not become more just." (ibid, p. 82.) It is here that he begins to attack all forms of cooperation.

     The guiding principle of his entire moral philosophy is utility. For Godwin, political justice is equivalent in meaning to social utility. Pleasure and pain, happiness and misery, constitute the subject of moral inquiry. "He asserts that the highest value is happiness, followed by virtue, knowledge, and finally, liberty. He makes it clear that these are not all ultimate values and that only happiness, which he uses synonymously with pleasure, is absolute. Each is a means toward that which precedes it." (ibid, p.95) The greatest happiness for all can only be achieved through impartiality. "The goal is therefore the elimination... of selfish interest and subjectivity in one's dealings with others. The needs of each person, including oneself are to be accorded equal value in deciding a course of action." (ibid, p.99)


*The current version closely follows Clark, 1977.


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