Adam Ferguson was a member of the Scottish Enlightenment, whose other members included David Hume, Adam Smith, John Miller and Henry Home (Lord Kames), He was one of the Enlighteners who drew on societies of the New World by way of the anthropology of his day travelogues and diaries. He argued that there was no natural basis for the distinctions that were made between societies, nor was social development inevitable or fixed. His theory of civilization emphasizes contingency and reversibility, and is thus a critique of teleological versions with their images of birth, maturity and progress. Furthermore, his theory of civilization is developed as a means for critiquing the present state of affairs.

In order to highlight these two sides of Ferguson's theory of civilization, the extracts chosen have been placed in reverse order. In 'Of Supposed National Eminence, and of the Vicissitudes of Human Affairs' Ferguson argues that all societies move from rude to polished, and part of this movement is their capacity to develop distinctions between insiders and outsiders, distinctions which are usually based in ignorance. Civilizations, too, for him are in constant danger of political corruption and disintegration and it is this danger which makes them contingent and reversible. This aspect comes to the fore in the second extract published below, 'Of Rude Nations prior to the Establishment of Property'. In Ferguson's view, democracy first appears in societies that are resistant to the development of institutions and thus differentiation. In smaller and undifferentiated societies power given over to a leader can always be revoked. This problem is further pursued in his History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic (1783).