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“Necessity, the mother of invention” Conjectural History and Malthus’ views on Population, Poverty and Progress

Lange Jérôme, PHARE Université Paris 1

While the inspiration that 18th century conjectural history presented for T. R. Malthus has recently been given some attention (Dzelzainis 2006 ; Rutherford 2007 ; Bashford & Chaplin 2016), the link between the theoretical structure of this intellectual tradition and Malthus’ work remains largely unknown. Those who studied the theodicy contained in the final two chapters of Malthus’ 1798 Essay (Pullen 1981 ; Santurri 1982 ; Harvey-Phillips 1984 ; Denis 2006) uncovered the argument therein that the misery induced by population growth was necessary for the progress of society; but they too failed to link this argument to the account of the progress of society in conjectural history, where this idea was widespread. Malthus in fact adopted both the stadial typology and the major theoretical argument from this intellectual tradition. He differed from it merely in making social and economic inequality a timeless feature of human existence, which necessitated introducing some contrivance, while stadial theories of progress started with a classless society and explained the emergence of social classes themselves by the “population principle” invoked by Malthus.


Keywords: Malthus, population, conjectural history, four stages theory, inequality

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