Scottish Enlightenment

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Scottish Enlightenment. A relatively new term, said to have been invented in 1909 when W. R. Scott described Francis Hutcheson as the father of the Scottish Enlightenment. It became fashionable in the 1960s when social scientists began exploring the history of their disciplines, and is now used generally and imprecisely to describe the intellectual, material, and moral culture of Scotland during the long 18th cent. It is a culture associated with the middling ranks of Scottish society, with the Scottish universities, and with the clubs, societies, and salons of Edinburgh. Ideologically it was a culture concerned with the defence of the revolution settlement, the Hanoverian succession, the Act of Union, and the presbyterian establishment. It was concerned with the civilizing functions of commerce and culture and with the problems of developing the institutions and manners appropriate to the preservation of a free commercial polity. Intellectually, the Scots owed important debts to the Dutch, the French, and the English as well as to their own intellectual traditions. Philosophers like Hutcheson, Hume, Smith, Ferguson, and Reid were interested in the principles of human nature, the meaning of sociability, and the truths of natural religion. Their conclusions made possible the development of a remarkable theory of progress which was instrumental in shaping the political economy of Smith, the histories of Hume and Robertson, and the historical fiction of Scott. Scottish medical professors developed a model for explaining the physical constitution of man which was particularly sensitive to the nervous system and to environmental determinants of health. Joseph Black's research into the properties of heat made possible James Hutton's revolutionary theory of the earth. Poets like Ramsay, Ferguson, Burns, and Scott reactivated the resources of vernacular literature with the new aesthetics developed by the philosophes and historians. It is sometimes argued that the architecture and town-planning of the Adam family and the portraiture of Allan Ramsay and Sir Henry Raeburn needs to be viewed in the same way. Perhaps the most lasting monument to the Scottish Enlightenment is the New Town of Edinburgh, a vast project which would testify to the civilizing power of commerce by turning Edinburgh into a modern Athens. It bankrupted the city.

Nicholas Phillipson

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Scottish Enlightenment An intense period of intellectual endeavour and activity that took place among the social and cultural élite of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Scotland. It included such expressions as painting ( Allan Ramsay, Henry Raeburn, and others), architecture ( Robert Adam and his brothers John and William), literature ( Robert Burns, Walter Scott, and others), and engineering ( James Watt, Thomas Telford, John Rennie, and other builders of steam-engines, canals, and bridges). One prominent strand of thought concerned the study of people as social and sociable beings. This was the central interest of the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, such as David Hume, Adam Smith, William Robertson, Adam Ferguson, and John Millar. These were the five leading literati of what may fairly be said to be a distinct eighteenth-century Scottish School of social philosophy that constitutes an important source of sociological thinking (see A. Swingewood , ‘Origins of Sociology: The Case of the Scottish Enlightenment’ British Journal of Sociology, 1970

The Scots were characterized by a common disagreement with the Hobbesian premiss that society arose out of a social contract made by individuals as a means of self-preservation against each other's otherwise selfish passions. By contrast, they took it as axiomatic that people were naturally social, that their capacities were meaningless outside a social context, and that societies were the natural state of humanity. This view was underpinned by an evolutionism, which saw humankind as having progressed from a ‘rude’ to a ‘refined’ condition, although they also offered the (rather sophisticated) view that this temporal movement did not necessarily imply betterment. A third characteristic of the Scottish School was its insistence that the study of society should be totalizing, dealing with ‘all that people did in societies’, from the holding of private property to the practice of music. Where the various luminaries disagreed with each other was in the attempt they then made to identify the few general principles by which one could order and systematize history.

It is generally recognized that the Scottish philosophers made an important independent contribution to the economic thought of the nineteenth century, to Marxist political economy, and to the development of the concept of the bourgeoisie and its place in the capitalist order. Ferguson was undoubtedly a forerunner of modern conflict theory.