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Arne Kušej: On William Petty's Political Arithmetic

The lecture will focus on the relationship between knowledge and power in the life and social thought of William Petty. As a member of the Hartlib Circle and later the Royal Society, Petty was a follower of Francis Bacon whose alchemically-inspired natural philosophy proposed a new epistemological ideal of knowledge wedded to power. In line with this Baconian ideal, what Petty called “political arithmetic” was not a disinterested theory of social reality, but a means of political intervention. It was designed as a science of government, gathering and using numerical data to show how lands and populations may be manipulated in order to ensure economic improvement and political stability.

Petty’s interest in designing a science of government stemmed from his involvement in the Cromwellian colonisation of Ireland. Petty was the lead architect of the Down Survey, which provided relatively accurate measurements of Irish land and facilitated both land-seizure and population transfer. In the decades following the survey, Petty was continually interested in shaping Ireland to fit English interests. One of his more interesting political-arithmetical schemes proposed “the transmutation of the Irish into English” by transferring English women into Irish households. Relying on the work of Petty scholar Ted McCormick, the lecture will show how Petty’s proposal for manipulating the Irish population ties back to the alchemical basis of Bacon’s natural philosophy. Arne Kušej is a student of philosophy pursuing his Master’s degree at the Faculty of Arts in Ljubljana. He is a member of The Institute for Labour Studies and a writer for Radio Student. His research currently focuses on 17th and 18th-century economic thought.

The lecture will be held in English and will be moderated by Svit Komel, a member of the ILS programme committee. It will be streamed on YouTube.