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Linné on line arrow The History of Ideas arrow The notion of utility

The notion of utility

It is difficult to do justice to a historical era when trying to sum it up in a single word, but if a term had to be applied to the Age of Liberty, it would have to be ‘utility.’ The notion of utility permeated the economic and scientific debates of the 18th century. It was seen as a matter of the greatest urgency to have new theories applied in practical action. Linnaeus was not the only one who asked: “Cui bono?” (“To what good?”).

This ideology of utility powered the rapid developments in Swedish natural science. It was hoped, of course, that the new technological, mathematic, and mechanical knowledge would help build up manufactures, the simple industries of the day, which was a project especially dear to the Hat Party. See Mercantilismen, The Age of Liberty – Linnaeus’ day. A major forum for utilitarian thinking was the Royal Academy of Sciences, founded in 1739. Later on the Patriotic Society was formed (Patriotiska sällskapet, 1766), with a similar purpose.

What characterized utilitarian thinking was that no distinction was made between things great or small, everything was equally important. People spoke about public husbandry and private husbandry, meaning the economy of the nation and that of individuals, respectively. Both were important since the economic progress of individual farmers and craftsmen in the aggregate also improved the welfare of the nation. Husbandry was a word that was used in the 18th century as a synonym for economy, the Greek word with the same meaning.

But utilitarian thinking did not involve practical matters alone. Through so-called physicotheology utilitarian thinking could also be transferred to the realm of religion, see Linnaeus’ view of nature. New scientific discoveries, which in the best of cases could also be applied in practice, were seen as further evidence of the greatness of the Creator.

Karin Johannisson, Det mätbara samhället: Statistik och samhällsdröm i 1700-talets Sverige (1988)

Sven-Eric Liedman, Den synliga handen: Anders Berch och ekonomämnena vid 1700-talets svenska universitet (1986)

Sten Lindroth, Svensk lärdomshistoria: Frihetstiden (1978)