Scottish Enlightenment: Wikis


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The Scottish Enlightenment was the period in 18th century Scotland characterised by an outpouring of intellectual and scientific accomplishments. By 1750, Scots were among the most literate citizens of Europe, with an estimated 75% level of literacy.[1]

Sharing the humanist and rationalist outlook of the European Enlightenment of the same time period, the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment asserted the fundamental importance of human reason combined with a rejection of any authority which could not be justified by reason. They held to an optimistic belief in the ability of man to effect changes for the better in society and nature, guided only by reason.

It was this latter feature which gave the Scottish Enlightenment its special flavour, distinguishing it from its continental European counterpart. In Scotland, the Enlightenment was characterised by a thoroughgoing empiricism and practicality where the chief virtues were held to be improvement, virtue, and practical benefit for both the individual and society as a whole.

Among the advances of the period were achievements in philosophy, political economy, engineering, architecture, medicine, geology, archaeology, law, agriculture, chemistry, and sociology. Among the outstanding Scottish thinkers and scientists of the period were Francis Hutcheson, Alexander Campbell, David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, Robert Burns, Adam Ferguson, John Playfair, Joseph Black and James Hutton.

The Scottish Enlightenment had effects far beyond Scotland itself, not only because of the esteem in which Scottish achievements were held in Europe and elsewhere, but also because its ideas and attitudes were carried across the Atlantic as part of the Scottish diaspora which had its beginnings in that same era. As a result, a significant proportion of technological and social development in the United States and Canada in the 18th and 19th centuries were accomplished through Scots-Americans.


After the Act of Union 1707

In the period following the Act of Union 1707, Scotland's place in the world was altered radically. Following the Reformation, many Scottish academics were teaching in great cities of mainland Europe but with the birth and rapid expansion of the new British Empire came a revival of philosophical thought in Scotland and a prodigious diversity of thinkers.

Arguably the poorest[2] country in Western Europe in 1707, Scotland was then able to turn its attentions to the wider world without the opposition of England. Scotland reaped the economic benefits of free trade within the British Empire together with the intellectual benefits of having established Europe's first public education system since classical times. Under these twin stimuli, Scottish thinkers began questioning assumptions previously taken for granted; and with Scotland's traditional connections to France, then in the throes of the Enlightenment, the Scots began developing a uniquely practical branch of humanism to the extent that Voltaire said "We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation"[3][4 ].

Empiricism and inductive reasoning

The first major philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment was Francis Hutcheson,[5] who held the Chair of Philosophy at the University of Glasgow from 1729 to 1746. A moral philosopher with alternatives to the ideas of Thomas Hobbes, one of his major contributions to world thought was the utilitarian and consequentialist principle that virtue is that which provides, in his words, "the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers".

Much of what is incorporated in the scientific method (the nature of knowledge, evidence, experience, and causation) and some modern attitudes towards the relationship between science and religion were developed by David Hume. "Like many of the learned Scots, he revered the new science of Copernicus, Bacon, Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, and Newton; he believed in the experimental method and loathed superstition"[5]. Hume stands out from the mainstream enlightenment due to his deep pessimism which is largely not shared by other humanist thinkers.

Adam Smith developed and published The Wealth of Nations, the first work in modern economics. This famous study, which had an immediate impact on British economic policy, still frames 21st century discussions on globalisation and tariffs[6].

Scottish Enlightenment thinkers developed what Hume called a 'science of man'[7] which was expressed historically in works by such as James Burnett, Adam Ferguson, John Millar, and William Robertson, all of whom merged a scientific study of how humans behave in ancient and primitive cultures with a strong awareness of the determining forces of modernity. Gathering places in Edinburgh such as The Select Society and, later, The Poker Club, were among the crucibles from which many of the ideas which distinguish the Scottish Enlightenment emerged.

The focus of the Scottish Enlightenment ranged from intellectual and economic matters to the specifically scientific as in the work of William Cullen, physician and chemist, James Anderson, a lawyer and agronomist, Joseph Black, physicist and chemist, and James Hutton, the first modern geologist[5][8].

While the Scottish Enlightenment is traditionally considered to have concluded toward the end of the 18th century[7], it is worth noting that disproportionately large Scottish contributions to British science and letters continued for another fifty years or more, thanks to such figures as James Hutton, James Watt, William Murdoch, James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin and Sir Walter Scott.

An English visitor to Edinburgh during the heyday of the Scottish Enlightenment remarked: "Here I stand at what is called the Cross of Edinburgh, and can, in a few minutes, take 50 men of genius and learning by the hand". It is a striking summation of the outburst of pioneering intellectual activity that occurred in Scotland in the second half of the 18th century.

They were a closely knit group: most knew one another; many were close friends; some were related by marriage. All were politically conservative but intellectually radical (Unionists and progressives to a man), courteous, friendly and accessible. They were stimulated by enormous curiosity, optimism about human progress and a dissatisfaction with age-old theological disputes. Together they created a cultural golden age.

Magnus Magnusson, New Statesman[7]        

Key figures in the Scottish Enlightenment

Plus two who visited and corresponded with Edinburgh scholars[8]:

The learned Scots were remarkably unlike the French philosophes; indeed, they were unlike any other group of philosophers that ever existed. In a gigantic study, “The Sociology of Philosophies,” published in 1998, Randall Collins assembled structural portraits of the seminal moments in philosophy, both Western and Eastern. Typically, the most important figures in a given cluster of thinkers (perhaps three or four men) would jockey for centrality while cultivating alliances with other thinkers or students on the margins.

In the Scottish group, however, there was little of the bristling, charged, and exclusionary fervour of the Diderot-d’Alembert circle; or of the ruthless atmosphere found in Germany in the group that included Fichte, the Schelling brothers, and Hegel; or of the conscious glamour of the existentialists in postwar Paris. The Scots vigorously disagreed with one another, but they lacked the temperament for the high moral drama of quarrels, renunciations, and reconciliation. Hutcheson, Hume and Smith, along with Adam Ferguson and Thomas Reid, were all widely known, but none of them were remotely cult figures in the style of Hegel, Marx, Emerson, Wittgenstein, Sartre, or Foucault.

To an astonishing degree, the men supported one another’s projects and publications, which they may have debated at a club that included amateurs (say, poetry-writing doctors, or lawyers with an interest in science) or in the fumy back room of some dark Edinburgh tavern. In all, the group seems rather like an erudite version of Dickens’s chattering and benevolent Pickwick Club.

David Denby, The New Yorker[5]        


  1. ^ Herman, Arthur (2003). The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots' Invention of the Modern World. 4th Estate, Limited. ISBN 1841152765.  
  2. ^ Herman, Arthur (2001). How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It (Hardcover: ISBN 978-0609606353, Paperback: ISBN 978-0609809990 ed.). Crown Publishing Group.  
  3. ^ José Manuel Barroso, 11th President of the European Commission (28 November 2006). "The Scottish enlightenment and the challenges for Europe in the 21st century; climate change and energy" (html). Enlightenment Lecture Series, Edinburgh University. "I will try to show why Voltaire was right when he said: 'Nous nous tournons vers l’Écosse pour trouver toutes nos idées sur la civilisation' [we look to Scotland for all our ideas on civilisation]."  
  4. ^ "Visiting The Royal Society of Edinburgh…" (html). Royal Society of Edinburgh. First published in The Scotsman Saturday 4 June 2005. "Scotland has a proud heritage of science, research, invention and innovation, and can lay claim to some of the greatest minds and greatest discoveries since Voltaire wrote those words 250 years ago."  
  5. ^ a b c d David Denby (11 October 2004). "Northern Lights: How modern life emerged from eighteenth-century Edinburgh" (html). The New Yorker. Review of James Buchan's Crowded With Genius: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind (Capital of the Mind: Edinburgh in the UK) HarperCollins, 2003. Hardcover: ISBN 0-06-055888-1, ISBN 978-0060558888. "The fountainhead was Francis Hutcheson, a kind of pan-Enlightenment figure who, from 1729 until his death in 1746, held the chair in moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow, where he broke with tradition by lecturing in English in addition to the common lecturing language of the time, Latin. Hutcheson, a frequent visitor to Edinburgh, was Adam Smith’s teacher and he encouraged Hume’s early efforts. He was suspicious of metaphysics or any claims not based on observation or experience. Empiricism and the inductive method was the clarion call of the Scottish Enlightenment.
    The intellectual break with the past was drastic and seemingly irreversible. In recent years, scholars have traced the rudiments of modern psychology, anthropology, the earth sciences, and theories of civil society and liberal education to eighteenth-century Scotland."
  6. ^ Fry, Michael (1992). Adam Smith's Legacy: His Place in the Development of Modern Economics. Paul Samuelson, Lawrence Klein, Franco Modigliani, James M. Buchanan, Maurice Allais, Theodore Schultz, Richard Stone, James Tobin, Wassily Leontief, Jan Tinbergen. Routledge. ISBN 978-0415061643. "Adam Smith's Legacy brings together ten Nobel Laureates in Economics, the greatest number since the prize was instituted in 1969. They explore themes as diverse as Smith's use of data, his attitude towards human capital, and his views on economic policy. Heirs to Smith and leaders of the discipline, the contributors also reflect upon the current state of economics, assessing the extent to which it measures up to the benchmark established by its founder."  
  7. ^ a b c d Magnus Magnusson (10 November 2003). "Northern lights" (html). New Statesman. Review of James Buchan's Capital of the Mind: Edinburgh (Crowded With Genius: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind in the U.S.) London: John Murray ISBN 0719554462.  
  8. ^ a b c Repcheck, Jack (2003). "Chapter 7: The Athens of the North" (in English). The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of the Earth's Antiquity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basic Books, The Perseus Books Group. pp. 117–143. ISBN 0-7382-0692-X. "Onto the list should also be added two men who never lived in Edinburgh but who visited and maintained an active correspondence with the scholars there: Ben Franklin (1706-1790), the statesman and talented polymath who discovered electricity; and Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Charles Darwin's grandfather and the author of a precursor theory of evolution."  
  9. ^ a b Phillip Manning (28 December 2003). "A Toast To Times Past" (html). Chapel Hill News. "Burns penned the song [Auld Lang Syne] in 1788 during the intellectual flowering known as the Scottish Enlightenment. Burns was part of a convivial group in Edinburgh whose writing and thinking produced the Enlightenment. One of the most original thinkers in that group, the man whose work would stimulate Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution, was a well-to-do gentleman farmer named James Hutton. He discovered the immensity of our past, the days gone by that Burns wrote about so eloquently."  
  10. ^ Cambridge University Press. "Andrew Fletcher: Political Works".  
  11. ^ Dr David Allan. "A Hotbed of Genius: Culture and Society in the Scottish Enlightenment" (html). University of St Andrews.  

Further reading

  • Darwin in Scotland: Edinburgh, Evolution and Enlightenment. JF Derry.
· Whittles Publishing, 2009. Paperback: ISBN 1904445578.
  • A Hotbed of Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment 1731-1790. David Daiches, Peter Jones, Jean Jones (eds).
· Edinburgh University Press, 1986. Hardcover: ISBN 0 85224 537 8.
· Saltire Society 1996. Paperback: ISBN 0-85411-069-0.
  • Crowded With Genius: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind. James Buchan
· Harper Perennial 2004. Paperback: ISBN 006055889X, ISBN 978-0060558895.
  • The Scottish Nation: A History 1700-2000. Thomas Devine.
· Viking, 1999. Hardcover: ISBN 0670888117, ISBN 978-0670888115.
· Penguin, 2001. Paperback: ISBN 0141002344, ISBN 978-0141002347.
  • The Scottish Enlightenment: The Historical Age of the Historical Nation. Alexander Broadie.
· Birlinn 2002. Paperback: ISBN 1-84158-151-8, ISBN 978-1841581514.
  • America's Founding Secret: What the Scottish Enlightenment Taught Our Founding Fathers. Robert W. Galvin.
· Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. Hardcover: ISBN 0-7425-2280-6, ISBN 978-0742522800.
  • The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment. (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy) Alexander Broadie, ed.
· Cambridge University Press, 2003. Hardcover: ISBN 0521802733, ISBN 9780521802734. Paperback: ISBN 0521003237, ISBN 978-0521003230.
  • The Mark of the Scots: Their Astonishing Contributions to History, Science, Democracy, Literature, and the Arts. Duncan A. Bruce.
· (Publisher?) 1996. Hardcover: ISBN 1559723564, ISBN 978-1559723565.
· Citadel, Kensington Books, 2000. Paperback: ISBN 0-8065-2060-4, ISBN 978-0806520605.
  • How the Scots Made America. Michael Fry.
· Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press, 2004. Hardcover: ISBN 0-312-33876-7, ISBN 978-0312338763.
  • Scotland: A New History. Michael Lynch.
· Pimlico, Random House, 1992 (new edition). Paperback: ISBN 0-7126-9893-0, ISBN 978-0712698931.
  • Virtue, Learning and the Scottish Enlightenment: Ideas of Scholarship in Early Modern History. David Allan.
· Edinburgh University Press, 1993. ISBN 978-0748604388.

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