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The Scottish Enlightenment

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The Scottish Enlightenment refers to the period of intellectual ferment in Scotland, between roughly the 1740s and 1790s.  During this period, Scottish academicians and intellectuals distinguished themselves for numerous breakthroughs philosophy, ethics, history, jurisprudence, sociology, political science and, of course, economics.  Its best known protagonists are probably David Hume and Adam Smith.

Scotland on the Eve

Scotland's connection to England began officially in 1603, when King James VI of Scotland inherited the English crown and became also King James I of England. The kingdoms were still theoretically distinct, both crowns just happened to sit on the same head.  This remained the case until the 1707 Act of Union, which united the kingdoms of England and Scotland into a single "United Kingdom of Great Britain".

Before 1707, there had been surprisingly little contact or even less good feeling between the two nations. As the historian, G.M. Trevelyan, has noted, "The Scot was either a Jacobite or a Presbyterian, and in either capacity he alienated four fifths of English sympathy."  Few Scotsmen traveled south and even fewer Englishmen traveled north.  Scotland's traditional ally, France, was England's traditional enemy. Scottish scholars and clergymen looked to the universities and seminaries of Continental Europe, rather than England, to further their educations and garner intellectual inspiration.  

The internal structure of Scotland was also quite different from England.  The Edinburgh parliament was an incredibly corrupt and unrepresentative institution dominated by "gangs" of noblemen, so its disappearance in 1707 was not that keenly felt . The interlocking system of assemblies of elders of the Presbyterian Kirk of Scotland had long served as the real government - the parish-level Kirk sessions, where the voices of the laity were heard, were the only real local government in Scotland, and Kirk's general assembly was more of a national parliament than the official Edinburgh Parliament had ever been.  

The Scottish economy was also quite poor, agrarian and stagnant.  Scottish agriculture was semi-feudal and unproductive, run via the "run-rig" system in unenclosed fields with peculiarly short tenancies.   On the upside, compared to their English counterparts, the Scottish lords were decidedly more paternalistic, their lifestyle and culture much closer to that of their tenants -- which did wonders for social relations.  And then, of course, there were the mysterious and impenetrable Highlands, run by the "barbarous" clans, whose social, cultural, political and economic structures were a thousand years behind anything else in Britain.

Before 1707, economic interaction between the two nations was virtually nil, even on the borderlands (where the degree of animosity between the populations was perhaps the greatest). English Mercantilist policies ensured that Scots were barred access to English markets and colonies.  Scottish commercial cities -- which, almost always, just meant Glasgow -- were little more than provincial entrepôts.  Scotland's attempts to muscle in on colonial commerce started -- and ended -- with the ill-fated "Darien scheme" to set up a Scottish colony in Central America in 1698.   

The 1707 Act of Union did not change all this overnight.  The marriage was a painful one that took over a century to work itself through. At least three bloody Jacobite rebellions -- in 1690, 1715 and 1745 -- rocked Scotland to its very foundations. The Kirk of Scotland barely withstood the strain of their new episcopalian relations, and eventually broke apart in a schism. In the aftermath of  "the '45", the Scottish nobility lost their remaining feudal powers and the Highlands were conquered and subdued.  In the grip of English leather gloves, Scotland was dragged, kicking and screaming, into modernity.  


The main worry of 18th Century Scots, particularly after '45, was how the poor, backward and stagnant Scotland would fare when thrown into a common market and destiny with England's world-class dynamic economy. The Glasgow merchants welcomed the lifting of trade barriers and access to colonies (they were quick to hone in on the tobacco trade), but they also realized that they had nowhere near the experience, financing and political clout of their English competitors.  As the agricultural and industrial revolutions advanced in England, the Scottish gentry and peasantry alike wondered nervously about how much time they had left before English-style capitalism transformed the Scottish countryside into "factories of corn and beef".  Would Scotland become prosperous like England, or would it descend into dependent pauperism like Ireland?  And how would the new self-seeking capitalist ethos bode on the stern morals and traditional values of the Scottish people? 

These questions were foremost on the minds of the Scottish philosophers of the 18th Century.  As so many times before, they looked to their French counterparts for answers.  France was then enjoying its age of Enlightenment and, quickly enough, the intellectual fire spread to Scotland.  Although sharing the French speculative-rationalist spirit, the work of the Scottish philosophers was tempered with doses of skepticism and a more pronounced form of empiricism and utilitarianism.  Also, unlike the French, the Scottish thinkers were particularly concerned with change  - notably,  economic growth and development, the consequences of international trade and the mechanics of an emerging urban, commercial, bourgeois society -- concerns reflecting the reality of post-1707 Scotland.  Furthermore, without a State to call their own, the Scots were much less concerned than their Continental counterparts with government reforms.

The "Scottish Enlightenment" stretched roughly from 1740 to 1790.  Unlike in France, many of its protagonists were academics.  Francis Hutcheson,  Adam Smith,  Thomas Reid and John Millar were professors at the University of Glasgow.  Adam Ferguson, Dugald Stewart and William Robertson were at the University of Edinburgh.  The universities of Aberdeen and St. Andrews were dominated by their students.  But there were also important figures outside the academy who influenced the course of the dialogue, including Lord Kames, Robert Wallace, Sir James Steuart, Dr. James Anderson and, above everybody else, the towering figure of David Hume.

The three major areas of concern for Scottish philosophers were moral philosophy, history and economics.  In all three, David Hume blazed the way, with the other Scottish philosophers following him in support or in criticism.  

In moral philosophy, the main question was whether the acquisitive ethics of capitalism could be made compatible with traditional virtues of sociability, sympathy and justice.  The issue had been provoked by Bernard de Mandeville in his famous thesis that "private vices" lead to substantial "public benefits", whereas virtuous behavior does very little good at all.  The Scottish philosophers wanted to show that the choice between private virtue and public good was a false one.  The scandalous resolution forwarded by David Hume (1739-40) was that moral values and judgments were social constructions anyway.  Anything that is pleasurable, Hume argued, people will judge "virtuous" and anything that is painful, they will call "vice".  Consequently, we need not worry about the corruption of morals by capitalism.  Private moral judgments will evolve with it.  

Hume's hedonistic solution was turned upside down by Francis Hutcheson (1725, 1755), who argued that virtue yields pleasure because it conforms to our natural and innate "moral sense", while vice yields pain because it is unnatural.  As a result, Hutcheson came up with the utilitarian ethical precepts that the height of virtue was achieving the "greatest good for the greatest number". Adam Smith (1759) attempted to reconcile the Hume and Hutcheson positions via the artifice of "natural sympathy" and the "impartial spectator".  

In history, the Scots had a tendency to come up with meta-sociological accounts of the "natural progress" of civilization. This "natural history" or "conjectural history" approach  was initiated by Lord Kames and his protege David Hume (1757). Conjectural history took a distinct "stages" form in the hands of Adam Ferguson (1767), John Millar (1771) and Adam Smith (1776) .  The Scottish approach initiated by Kames envisaged history as progressing through four economic stages, attended by political and social structures: a hunting and gathering stage, a pastoral and nomadic stage, a agricultural and feudalist stage and the final commerce and manufacturing stage (which Scotland was now entering).   Like Ferguson, Smith regarded the division of labor and the expansion of commerce as the fundamental driver of historical evolution.  The efforts of the Scottish school led Voltaire to note that  "we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilization". 

A decidedly different form of history  -- the "narrative" history -- was also pursued by the Scottish scholars.  In this, David Hume (who else?) led the way with his controversial History of England (1754-1762).  With varying degrees of success, great narrative histories were also advanced by other Scottish scholars, such as Robertson (1759, 1769) and Ferguson (1783).  This historical style was taken up in England by Edward Gibbon in his famous 1776 account of the decline and fall of Rome.

On political economy, David Hume (1752) initiated a different approach.  Instead of embedding economics in a social and historical context, as he had morals and religion, Hume decided instead to let the laws of economics stand on their own, externally and eternally.  Rejecting both the Mercantilist doctrines which fetishized money and the French approach which emphasized the primacy of agriculture, Hume identified commerce as the main engine of economic growth, with jealousy of trade and the misuse of money and credit as its main obstacles.  Ferguson's (1767) division of labor added another dimension.  

Against Hume, Robert Wallace (1758) and Sir James Steuart (1767) attempted to revive the Mercantilist orthodoxy (albeit in more liberal dress).  But Steuart's work, in turn, provoked the great thesis of Adam Smith -- The Wealth of Nations (1776) -- which placed industry and manufacturing in the position of honor.  

Although the achievements of the Scottish scholars were toasted in France, they did not have an immediate impact south of the border.  While their northern cousins were asking hard questions about mankind, English intellectuals, with some exceptions, wallowed in the shallow self-congratulations of the barren age of Dr. Johnson.  As Hume asked Smith, shortly before the latter published an English edition of his work, "How can you so much as entertain a thought of publishing a Book, full of Reason, Sense, and Learning, to those wicked, abandoned Madmen?"

The Scottish Enlightenment came gradually to an end in the early 1800s, after the death of its leading protagonists and the rise of Christian pietism in Scotland reacted against the "refined paganism" and Whiggery of the Scottish philosophers. Nonetheless, from his perch at the University of Edinburgh, Dugald Stewart preserved the flame of Adam Smith, and educated a generation of scholars and statesmen that would transform the British intellectual and political landscape in the 19th Century.

The values and ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment were carried south of the border by the former students of Dugald  Stewart.  Critical in this process was The Edinburgh Review, founded in 1802 by Sydney Smith, Francis Jeffrey, Francis Horner and Henry Brougham.  Consciously named after the Adam Smith's 1755 journal, the new Edinburgh Review delivered the Scottish philosophy and doctrines to the English reading public, and had a formative impact on national opinion, helping revitalize the Whig Party and endowing it with a liberal platform.  Both James Mill and John Ramsay McCulloch, the leaders of the Classical Ricardian School in the early 19th Century, were trained in the Scottish Enlightenment tradition, found London a suitable perch to continue its work.  The Scottish Enlightenment had effectively graduated out of its provincial academic chairs to become a national phenomenon that would dominate a good part of the 19th Century - the classical school in economics and classical liberalism in politics.



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Resources on the Scottish Enlightenment

  • The Institutions of the Law of Scotland, deduced from its originals, and collated with the civil, canon, and feudal laws, and with the customs of neighboring nations, in four books by James Dalrymple, Viscount of Stair, 1693 [2nd ed]
  • Gershom Carmichael's annotated edition of Samuel Pufendorf's De Officio Hominis et Civis juxta Legem Naturalem, c.1720 [1724 2nd ed]
  • The Edinburgh Review for 1755 (1818 ed),
  • Jan-Jul, Jul-Jan, incl.
  • Table of Contents for the Monthly Review, v.1 through v.70 (1749-1784)
  • Annals of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland Vol. 1 (1739-1752), Vol 2 (1753-1766) (cases against Hume and Kames: 1755, 1756(H), 1756 (K))
  • History of Moral Science by Robert Blakey, 1833, v.1, v.2
  • The Scottish Philosophy: biographical, expository, critical, from Hutcheson to Hamilton, by James McCosh, 1875 [bk, bk, av], (copy at Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  • The four traditional Scottish universities:
  • G. Veitch "Philosophy in the Scottish Universities, Pt.1, Pt.2", 1877, Mind
  • G. Croom-Robertson "Seth's Scottish Philosophy", 1886, Mind
  • The Book of Scotsmen, eminent for achievements, by Joseph Irving, 1881 [bk]
  • "Scotland" in Kibble's Cyclopedia of Education, 1883
  • "The Scottish Philosophy as Contrasted with the German", by James McCosh 1882, Princeton Review (at Michigan)
  • John Hill Burton:
    • Introduction to the Study of the Works of Jeremy Bentham, 1843 [bk]
    • Life and Correspondence of David Hume, 1846, v.1, v.2
    • Manual of the Law of Scotland, 1847 [bk]
    • Lives of Simon Lord Lovat, and Duncan Forbes, of Culloden, 1847 [bk]
    • Political and Social Economy, 1849 [bk]
    • "Emigration in its Practical Application", 1851, in Emigrants' Manual [bk]
    • Narratives from Criminal Trials in Scotland, 1852, v.1, v.2
    • The Book Hunter, etc, 1862 [bk], [1863 2nd ed, 1882 new ed] - on the universities, p.244
    • History of Scotland, from the Revolution to to the extinction of the last Jacobite insurrection, 1689-1748, 1853: v.1, v.2
    • The Scot Abroad, by John Hill Burton, 1864, v.1, v.2 [1881 ed]
    • History of Scotland, from Agricola's invasion to the Revolution of 1688, 1867-70, v.1 (80-1100),  v.2 (1100-1329),  v.3 (1329-1554), v.4 (1554-1567), 1870:  v.5 (1567-1585),  v.6 (1585-1638), v.7 (1639-1688)
    • History of Scotland,  from Agricola's invasion to the extinction of the last Jacobite rebellion, 2nd ed. (1873), v.1 (80 to 1174), v.2 (1174-1461), v.3 (1461-1560), ,v.4 (1560-1569), v.5 (1569-1603), v.6 (1603-1641), v.7  (1641-1699),  v.8 (1697-1745), v.9 (idx)
    • NY ed. 1875  v.1, v.2, v.3, v.4, v.5, v.6,.v.7, v.8
    • History of Reign of Queen Anne, 1880, v.1, v.2, v.3 [1882 ed]
    • New edition (1898-1905?, just reprint of 1873): v.1, v.2, v.3, v.4, v.5, v.8
    • Memoir of J.H. Burton, by his Widow, 1882, Book-Hunter, p.1
  • Scottish Philosophy:  A comparison of the Scottish and German answers to David Hume, by Andrew Seth, 1885 [bk, av] [1899 3rd ed, av]
  • The Law of Nature and Nations in Scotland by William G. Miller, 1896 [bk]
  • The History of Education and the old Parish Schools of Scotland, by Alexander Wright, 1898 [bk] - ["Ch. 6 - Rise of the Universities", p.65; ch.15 - Universities relations to schools, p.179]
  • The Social Life of Scotland in the Eighteenth Century, by Henry Grey Graham, 1899, v.1, v.2 [1900 2nd ed, v.1, v.2], [1901 ed, av]
  • Scottish Men of Letters in the Eighteenth Century, by Henry Grey Graham, 1901 [bk, av] [electric]
  • Scottish Philosophy in Its National Development by Henry Laurie, 1902 [bk, av]
  • The Religious Controversies in Scotland, by Henry F. Henderson, 1905 [bk, av]
  • "Aspects of the Influence of Francis Hutcheson on Adam Smith" by Enzo Pesciarelli, 1999, HOPE 
  • John Robertson's "The Scottish Contribution to the Enlightenment"
  • Bibliography on the Scottish Enlightenment - secondary references.
  • The four traditional Scottish universities:
  • Man and Society: The Scottish Inquiry of the Eighteenth Century by Gladys Bryson, 1945
  • The Story of Scottish Philosophy, edited by D.S. Robinson, 1961 [av]
  • "Francis Hutcheson: The man and his work" by Noah Porter, 1961, in D.S. Robinson, ed,.Story of Scottish Philosophy, p.29 [av]
  • "David Hume: The man and his work" by M.A. Mikkelsen, 1961, in D.S. Robinson, ed,.Story of Scottish Philosophy, p.54 [av]
  • "Adam Smith: The man and his work" by Noah Porter, 1961, in D.S. Robinson, ed,.Story of Scottish Philosophy, p.79 [av]
  • "Thomas Reid: The man and his work" by Noah Porter, 1961, in D.S. Robinson, ed,.Story of Scottish Philosophy, p.118 [av]
  • "Dugald Stewart: The man and his work" by Noah Porter, 1961, in D.S. Robinson, ed,.Story of Scottish Philosophy, p.151 [av]
  • The Origins of the Scottish Enlightenment, 1707-1776 by Jane Rendall, 1978
  • The Scottish Enlightenment and Hegel's account of "civil society" by Norbert Wasczek, 1988
  • Natural Law and Moral Philosophy, from Grotius to the Scottish Enlightenment, by Knud Haakonssen, 1996
  • Social Theory of the Scottish Enlightenment by Christopher J. Berry, 1997
  • The Reception of the Scottish Enlightenment in Germany, six significant translation, 1755-1782 edited by Heiner P. Klemme, 2000
  • The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots' invention of the modern world by Arthur Herman, 2002
  • Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh's moment of the mind by James Buchan, 2003
  • The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment, edited by Alexander Broadie, 2003
  • The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish authors and their publishers in Eighteenth Century Britain, Ireland and America by R.B. Sher, 2006 - extensive bibliographic tables of some 115 Scottish authors
  • Academic Patronage in the Scottish Enlightenment by James Hogg, 2008
  • Making British Culture: English Readers and the Scottish Enlightenment by David Allan, 2008
  • A History of Scottish Philosophy by Alexander Broadie, 2009
  • Reading the Scottish Enlightenment: Books and their readers in provincial Scotland, 1750-1820, by Mark Towsey, 2010
  • The Idea of Commercial Society in the Scottish Enlightenment by Christopher J. Berry, 2013
  • International Association for Scottish Philosophy
  • A peculiar perspective on Scottish Enlightenment
  • Scottish Economic History Database
  • Scottish banking
  • Gazetteer for Scotland
  • Some Scottish folks


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