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Kjetil Korslund
Kjetil Korslund
Historian of ideas and critic.
William Godwin. A Political Life
Forfatter: Richard Gough Thomas
Forlag: Pluto Press (Storbritannia)
THE THINKER / William Godwin was one of the most important thinkers of his time, but today he is almost forgotten.


Godwin, however, has made important contributions to the critical philosophy of authority: People must find the morally correct action themselves, the task cannot be left to the authorities or to persons of power.

It's a widespread notion that the distinction between "The Two Cultures" that CP Snow is talking about originated in the romance. It is not true. For the English philosopher and author William Godwin (1756 – 1836), technological advances and the improvement of the human race were two forces that pulled in the same direction. At the end of the 1700 century, Godwin was the leading radical thinker in England, and he fortified this position with the publication of his great work An Inquiry Concerning Political Justice in 1793. Here, Godwin poses negatively to governing powers of all kinds, and states that human reason makes all laws and powers superfluous. Godwin is also negative for larger assemblies and meetings, as these will be dominated by the most loud or rhetorical participants. The ideal situation for the exchange of ideas is for Godwin a reflected conversation between two individuals: Here there is no audience to pay attention to, and one can therefore concentrate on the exchange of ideas. In such a conversation one can try out different arguments in the same way as in the literature: Both will help us to understand how things could have been different. For it is about looking beyond the existing system that has influenced everything and everyone's consciousness.


At Godwin, what is true is also correct. When we act wrong, it's because we haven't had enough insight into the facts we relate to. The only thing we commit ourselves to is to follow our own beliefs. This task can never be left to the authorities or governing authorities. We are under no obligation to follow laws other than those that are morally self-evident. Authorities can only execute their policies through (threats of) coercion and are therefore illegitimate, Godwin believes.

Godwin is an important figure for what we can today call "philosophical anarchism" through his ability to question all authorities

The best action is the one that brings the greatest happiness and doesn't hurt anyone. Here, there is an obvious relationship with utilitarian thinking. The maximization of happiness or benefit could give quite a rigid impact, for example in the so-called Fénelon dilemma, described by Godwin: If a house burns and you only manage to save one of two people, you should (always) choose Fénelon over his maid because of the contributions to the advancement of humanity that the author stands for. This also applies if you are related to the maid. Most people found such cold pragmatism alien.

For Godwin, a reasoning was never thought of or ended, and he made changes to it as well Enquiry gradually. Influenced by his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, he realized how actual emotions are what make us want to act morally: It is natural that we care more about our loved ones than others, and this incentive is closest to the engine that makes us to act morally.


Godwin was also famous as a fiction writer. Among his most famous works are Things As They Are (Caleb Williams) (1794) St. Leon (1799) and Fleetwood (1805). It is common to say that in these works he only dramatizes his political and moral doctrines Enquiry, but he also problematizes them: The main characters in the novels are confronted with situations that make it difficult for the kind of reasoning Godwin argues theoretically.


Godwin was the leader of "The English Radicals" who sympathized with the revolution in France. When the terror began in 1793, his star was rapidly declining, and Godwin eventually got into major financial problems. He therefore borrowed constantly new loans that brought him into a financial handicap he never got out of. He also met himself at the door: Percy Shelley was one of his great followers, but when he joined Godwin's daughter Mary (who later wrote Frankenstein), he would not accept the relationship, partly because Shelley was already married. After both Godwin and Wollstonecraft condemned the marriage and compared it to slavery and prostitution, the young lovers found this behavior inexplicable. But even though Godwin would not be with Percy Shelley, he would gladly borrow money from him. This was money Shelley did not have, but which he could borrow via very expensive so-called post obit loans because he was noble. It is not festive to read how the ever-more pressing Godwin demands that others solve his problems.


The book is part of the series 'Revolutionary Lives', which consists of short, critical biographies of radical figures in history. The attitude is sympathetic, but not nosy. Richard Gough Thomas shows how Godwin is an important figure for what we today call "philosophical anarchism" through his ability to question all authorities and associations. We are all our own legislature. At the same time, Thomas shows how Godwin got into trouble living his own philosophy, especially after his large circle of friends became smaller and the specific circumstances he found himself in made difficult considerations ideal.

The book provides a good introduction to Godwin's life, philosophy and authorship and can be read without prior knowledge.

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