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Gordon S. Wood

WithJoyce Appleby, Elizabeth Covington, David Hoyt, Michael Latham, Allison Sneider

A professor of history at Brown University and an authority on the American Revolution, Cordon S. Wood focuses this article on the question of how Enlightenment thinkers conceived of causality. Attributing political and social events to the actions of individuals, many living in the eighteenth century found meaning in concepts of conspiracy. By the end of that century, however, ideas of complex social processes and unintended consequences began to fill the intellectual gap formerly occupied by understandings of specific, personal responsibility. As writers like Adam Smith produced new models of causality, new ways of interpreting reality emerged. That attempt to understand society in terms of larger principles and processes rather than individuals would gain even more significance through the intellectual and popular understandings produced by nineteenth-century thinkers like Marx and Tocqueville.