This panel draws upon Enlightenment ideas of a human history tending toward perfection through the virtuous action of individual persons and intervention into social institutions. We ask how these ideas continue to affect anthropological work on institutionalised agendas for human perfectibility.
This panel takes its inspiration from the socio-history of Adam Ferguson, and more specifically the notion that human nature is not only social in its originary form, but tending toward perfectibility through the cultivation of virtuous action. We find echoes of this idea in many of the ideas alive in the global ecumene today: for example, that societies are improvable through the development of educational, religious, medical and legal modes of action. In turn, by asking what perfection is we want to invigorate another inspirational moment of Ferguson's work, namely anthropology's ambition to address questions about the condition(s) of humanity. Indeed, the notion of perfection strongly resonates with longstanding questions about relations between society and individual, freedom and obligation, and the legitimation of action more generally. We invite paper-givers to ask, how are such notions informed by a particular concept of history as having an inherent tendency toward improvement and ultimately perfection? If this will happen 'anyway', why do states, NGOs, religious and other institutions so earnestly try to intervene, and what forms do these interventions take? We also invite consideration that interventions made through purely 'physical' means, such as public health and media initiatives, also have at their core the idea that society is improvable by cultivating enlightened self-interest, and vice versa.