Radical Bodies: The Political Biology of the Enlightenment and Contemporary Political Theory


(The following is a summary of a talk presented at the Midwest Political Science Association Annual Conference on April 5, 2018. Copies of the full-length (draft) paper are available here)

According to the Radical Enlightenment thesis, while the Enlightenment thinkers most celebrated today (Locke, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Kant, etc.) professed revolutionary values, in theory and in practice they ultimately reverted to authoritarian and superstitious constructs. Instead, the truly revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment—e.g., religious toleration, true democracy, racial equality, sexual emancipation, and the universal right to knowledge—actually came out of a Radical intellectual lineage that ran through Benedict Spinoza. In this paper, I propose a novel test of the Radical Enlightenment thesis through an examination of the understanding of human biology of the Radical and the Moderate Enlightenments. To the extent there are these differences in the understanding of biology, this would also demonstrate an important link between political philosophy and the underlying understanding of biology, suggesting the need for increased attention to explicit and implicit conceptions of biology in contemporary political theory.

The Epipolitics Model and Political Biology

Elsewhere I have proposed what I call the epipolitics model as a demonstration of the live significance of this connection between political theory and biology.[1]

Epigenetic Model 2.0

How we understand our physical origins and our biological development necessarily informs how we theorize about ourselves and our connections with our environments and with each other. This physical and metaphysical concept of the self in turn necessarily informs our ethics, as what is good or bad for us—and therefore what is right or wrong behavior—depends upon how we are perceived to be constituted and how we are perceived to relate to each other and to our environments. These prevailing ethics then provide the expectations for our politics as the goals of political actions and the standards against which political outcomes are compared. In this way, this prevailing understanding of human biology can also be seen to set the limits of the metaphysical concept of the individual self which is at the center of modern liberalism.

The Epipolitics Model and the Enlightenment

In this paper, I extend my previous work to the history of political theory, focusing on differences in conceptions of the body during the Enlightenment associated with different strains of political theory. In particular, I suggest that the political theory which ultimately emerged from the Enlightenment to become the contemporary mainstream political theory of today was actually only one of many lines of Enlightenment thought—specifically, what is called the Moderate Enlightenment.

The Moderate Enlightenment has gained such singular importance in our contemporary intellectual tradition that the story of the Enlightenment is usually understood as the story of the Moderate Enlightenment. However, recent scholarship has contrasted this Moderate Enlightenment with what is called the Radical Enlightenment, the political theory of which is actually much more revolutionary and egalitarian and emancipatory than that of the Moderate Enlightenment. Although the political theory of the Moderate Enlightenment is often described in quite radical terms, the Radical Enlightenment thesis asserts that the Moderate Enlightenment was actually quite modest in its challenges to the status quo, especially in comparison with the political theory of the Radical Enlightenment.

In this paper, I suggest that one primary distinguishing characteristic between these two strains of the Enlightenment will be in their differing conceptions of the human body. Per the epipolitics model, if there are in fact substantial differences between the political theories of the Moderate and Radical Enlightenments, these theoretical differences will actually have originated from differences in their underlying conceptions of the human body. I also suggest in this paper that the conception of the human body promoted by the more Radical Enlightenment thinkers is actually much more congruent with emerging scientific conceptions of the human body today, and thus contemporary political theory could benefit substantially from paying more attention to the political theories that came out of the Radical Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment and the body

One example of the broader social and political implications of these changes in the understanding of bodies linked to sex and gender is found in the concept of “maternal imagination.” This is the belief that because women’s bodies were more porous than men’s bodies, the exposure of expectant mothers to frightening or disturbing images such as public executions would result in their birthing “monsters,” as grotesquely malformed human infants and even as hideous mixes of other animal species. Notably, similar concerns are now being raised again by the prospect of the epigenetic inheritance of the effects of environmental influences experienced by the mother, sometimes years before conception of the embryo, being passed on to developing fetuses.[2]

Maternal imagination notably played a central role in one of the earliest religious and political controversies of the new Massachusetts Bay colony, now known as the Antinomian or Free Grace controversy. Anne Hutchinson, a practicing midwife, was also an outspoken advocate of a ‘covenant of grace’ as opposed to the ‘covenant of works’ preached by the colony’s most prominent ministers, and she openly criticized these male leaders for their position. Hutchinson was supported by other free grace advocates, including then-Governor Henry Vane. Vane lost the subsequent gubernatorial election to John Winthrop and Hutchinson was subsequently placed on a civil and then a church trial, after which she was not only banished from the colony but excommunicated from the church.

Following her trials and verdicts, the 47-year old Hutchinson went into labor with her 16th child, and delivered what the attending doctor described as a handful of transparent grapes.[3] One of her followers, Mary Dyer, also suffered the premature stillbirth of a severely deformed infant around this time. John Winthrop, in his account of the Antinomian Controversy, which was widely circulated at the time and now constitutes the prevailing account of the affair, took these ‘monstrous’ births as additional evidence of the wickedness of the free grace advocates:

Mistress Hutchinson being big with child, and growing toward the time of her labor…brought forth not one (as Mistress Dyer did) but (which was more strange to amazement) thirty monstrous births or thereabouts, at once; some of them bigger, some lesser, some of one shape, some of another; few of any perfect shape, none at all of them (as far as I could ever learn) of human shape.  These things are so strange that I am almost loath to be the reporter of them, lest I should seem to feign…But see how the wisdom of God fitted this judgment to her sin every way, for look—as she had vented misshapen opinions, so she must bring forth deformed monsters. And as [there were] about thirty opinions in number, so many monsters. And as those were public, and not in a corner mentioned, so this is now come to be known and famous over all these churches, and a great part of the world.[4]

The most important point to be made in the context of this paper, though, is the way that all of this demonstrates what Siena calls the “moral biology” of the era. By this is meant that the medico-scientific understanding of the body that was developing at this time coevolved with both prevailing ethical constructions and political theories, each informing the development of the others, as depicted in the epipolitics model: “Doctors writing on what made a body prone to sickness inevitably inscribed values onto that body,” writes Siena, “Perhaps nowhere were the physical and the moral so intimately bound; doctors describing people, places, or lifestyles prone to disease wrote profound moral claims onto a body that was very much a blank slate awaiting their handiwork.”[5]

Radical and Moderate Enlightenments?

Jonathan Israel is the most prominent proponent of the Radical Enlightenment thesis, which he expounds in a number of works, but most particularly in his three volume, three thousand page series on the history of the Enlightenment, The Radical Enlightenment (2002), Enlightenment Contested (2009), and Democratic Enlightenment (2013).

In particular, Israel identifies the Portuguese-Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza as the key figure of the Radical Enlightenment, both as the source of the ideas which characterized the Radical Enlightenment, and as the primary foil against whom the most prominent thinkers of the Moderate Enlightenment focused their energies. While in most mainstream philosophy and political theory departments Spinoza may be considered—if at all—as at most an interesting but relatively minor historical figure, across these three volumes Israel marshals an overwhelming amount of primary evidence in support of his contention that during this era Spinoza was widely reviled as one of the most dangerous intellectual figure of his time, and that Spinozism as articulated by Spinoza and as promoted by other thinkers after him was regarded as not only subversive of existing institutions but as literally dangerous to social and political stability.

Radical Bodies?

The concluding section of this brief paper is obviously not the place to map out the broad scope of these differences in prevailing conceptions of the human body between Moderate and Radical Enlightenment thought. However, I can at least point to different areas in which critical differences in conceptions of human biology are more likely to be found.

Radically equal bodies

One substantial difference in bodies also pertains to the main criteria identified by Israel, as the emphasis on true and full equality. The social and political implications of this difference from the Moderate mainstream are profound. The difficulty in this case, though, is that calls for equality are much more prone to misinterpretation and subtle qualification than monism versus dualism. For example, Moderates such as Locke and Voltaire made radical-sounding statements about equality and toleration and the freedom to philosophize that scandalized their contemporaries and even evoked the ire of the powers-that-be in the process, but the actual content of their conceptions of toleration and freedom are actually substantially limited and circumscribed (e.g., in his famous Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke is ambiguous regarding the toleration of Catholicism in England, and explicitly excludes non-Christians—particularly Muslims—and atheists from toleration).

As discussed in some detail before, one substantial component of Moderate Enlightenment thought is the conception of physical differences of bodies depending upon class, race, gender, and so on. The perception of women’s bodies as more prone to influences from the environment than male bodies was used to justify their insulation in the home and away from the hurly burly of economic and political life. Likewise, the perception of non-European bodies as more susceptible than European bodies to climate, etc., also played an important role in the justification of imperial expansion and resource appropriation.

The Radicals, though, are distinguished from the Moderates by their calls for full equality. Per the epipolitics model, these calls for political equality—assuming they are in fact substantially distinct from those of the Moderates—must also necessarily be premised upon a substantially different conception of the human bodies of the persons which are assumed to be fundamentally equal.

For example, according to Israel, while many of the revolutionary implications of radical thought in the Europe of the 1600-1700s could only be faintly glimpsed until the mid-eighteenth century, this was not the case with Radical conceptions of sexuality, eroticism, and the place of women in society. “Here,” Israel observes, “the unsettling ramifications of philosophical naturalism and Spinozism, as well as Bayle’s radical separation of morality from religion, became apparent at an early stage.”[6] Not only did this radical view of women “erode traditional notions of virtue, family, and social roles, crucially challenging woman’s existing subordinate status…it raised issues of sexuality, male and female, in a way which disturbed not only traditionalists but also those committed to a moderate form of Enlightenment.”[7]


Again, my basic assertion is that all of these differences in social and political thought are necessarily premised upon a substantially distinct conception of the human body between the more mainstream or Moderate Enlightenment and this other more Radical wing. I have only been able to trace out the bare outlines for this project in this paper, but the preliminary evidence supports this assertion. The next step is to develop more specific details regarding different perceptions of the body during this era, and to see if these correlate with either Moderate or Radical Enlightenment political thought. If so, in addition to adding additional layers of nuance to the analysis of these historical theories from a novel perspective, this project would provide additional support for the Radical Enlightenment thesis.

However, given how this history demonstrates that as our understanding of the body changes so also change our political theories, recent work being done in areas like epigenetics suggests that our political theories need to be updated even more substantially to reflect the magnitude of these more recent modifications of our understanding of the depth of the connections between each other and our environments.[8] Per the epipolitics model, these kinds of changes must inevitably occur, however gradually this process of adjustment takes. That said, the awareness of this close link between our understanding of our bodies and our political theories also suggests the opportunity to intentionally update our political theories to include this evolving understanding of the body, thereby contributing to the ongoing relevance of political theory as a discipline.

[1] Robison, Shea K. (2018). Epigenetics and Public Policy: The Tangled Web of Science and Politics. Praeger

[2] In addition, these concerns about “mother-blaming” are exacerbated by the potential for the transgenerational inheritance of such effects via epigenetic processes, or that these effects are passed on to third and fourth generations who were not exposed to the original environmental influences (See the section in my book, Robison (2018), “Epigenetics and the Expansion of the Developmental Environment” (pp. 212-214); See also, Metzl, J. (2014). The new science of blaming moms. MSNBC.com. Retrieved 14 August 2017, from http://www.msnbc.com/melissa-harris-perry/the-new-science-blaming-moms; Richardson, S. S., Daniels, C. R., Gillman, M. W., Golden, J., Kukla, R., Kuzawa, C., & Rich-Edwards, J. (2014). Society: Don’t blame the mothers. Nature, 512, 131-132). That said, the ‘good news’ in this regard is that the work being done in epigenetics is also identifying the possibility of the effects of environmental influences experienced by the fathers, again sometimes years before conception of the embryo, are also potentially being passed on to embryos during insemination, raising the possibility for ‘father blaming’ as well (See Robison (2018), pp. 54-64 and pp. 214-218).

[3] Contemporary medical analysis of this account identifies this as likely the result of a molar pregnancy, in which a non-viable fertilized egg implants in the uterus but fails to come to term, and as a hydatidiform mole in particular, which condition occurs most often in women over 45.

[4] Quoted in Marshall, J. (2006). John Locke, toleration and early Enlightenment culture. Cambridge University Press, p. 298

[5] Siena, K. (2010). Pliable Bodies: The Moral Biology of Health and Disease. In C. Reeves (Ed.), A Cultural History of the Human Body, vol. 4. Oxford, UK: Berg, p. 34.

[6] Israel, Radical Enlightenment (2002), p. 82.

[7] Ibid, p. 83.

[8] Robison (2018).


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