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Enlightenment THE THINKING OF THE SCOTTISH ENLIGHTENMENT THINKERS? The theme of the “unintended and unanticipated consequences of social action” implies that social change occurs through social action without foreseeing the outcome. Scottish Enlightenment thinkers Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson, each provide their own theory of unanticipated effects of human action. Smith’s theory is implicitly historicist; Ferguson’s by contrast, is empirical and anti-historicist(Smith, 1998:30). In Adam Smith’s, “Wealth of Nations”, private and egoistic interests are converted into collective social good by an ‘invisible hand’ which advances ‘the interest of society’ without intending or knowing it(Smith, 1998:30-31). Smith illustrates this through his discussion of the development of the commercial society. “Smith described initially the structural forces which led to the decline of the feudal society and property and the necessary evolution of trade and manufacture”(Smith, 1998:30).

This social change, in Smith’s view, was “unintended and unanticipated consequence of social action”. The key to understanding this transition, Smith argued, was the actions of two contending social groups, the rich barons whose concern was with social status and ornament led to their gradual impoverishment and more secular, and efficient merchant class whose manufactured goods brought the ruin of the great landowners(Smith, 1998:30). Thus, the social action of the merchant class brought upon the social change that was unexpected in feudal society. Therefore, this social change that Smith explains, illustrates his perspective of how social change was brought upon unintentionally by individuals serving their self-interest. Adam Ferguson viewed society functioning as a whole.

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Ferguson, in contrast to Adam Smith, developed no link between the social actions of individuals, as members of social groups, and the wider, collective historical process(Smith, 1998:30). “Man is a member of a community, ‘part of a whole’, his actions social because they are collective(Smith, 1998:30). Thus for Ferguson, social change through social action is not seen as the product of the actions of individuals alone. Instead, it is the efforts and social of the society as whole that is responsible for social change. There is nothing of Smith’s individualism in Ferguson’s concept of the unanticipated effects of social action, or the facile optimism that separated historical meaning from the human subjects which themselves constituted history(Smith, 1998:30-31).

Ferguson thus argues, in contrast to what Smith advocates, that social change is brought upon society by the social actions of the community as a whole. Ferguson does not see the social actions of individuals as responsible for social change. In his perspective, society functions as a whole, not on an individual level. Therefore, social change should be seen as something created not by individual efforts, but the collective effort of the community as a whole. The fall of communism in Eastern and Central Europe is an example of how social action led to social change. The people revolted against the corruption and economic despair, and thus led to the demise of communism. Through Smith’s perspective, one can view this social change through the social action of individuals who were seeking to serve their self-interest which resulted in the good of society.

From Ferguson’s point of view, revolt of the masses against the state can be seen as the community or society functioning as whole to invoke social change through the social action of revoltion. The thinking of Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson differs in that they view society differently. For Smith, he looks at the structures of society at the individual level. In contrast, Ferguson views society functioning as a whole collective unit. Smith argues that the efforts of individuals shape society in the form of social change, whereas, Ferguson, believes the individual is part of a community or society that effects social change through collective social action. Sociology Essays.


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