The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 21, 2018

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Scottish Enlightenment
Ian Crowe - 09/21/11

The second interpretation focuses on the relationship between the Scottish Enlightenment and the historicism and utilitarianism of the nineteenth century. In this case, there is a temptation to discover an “inevitable” link between the movement’s rejection of “metaphysical” certitude and absolutes and its methodological emphasis on historical circumstances and empiricism with the rise of relativism or pragmatism. As a result, the cohesive aspirations and religious assumptions of many of the leading thinkers are given insufficient attention. The aim of figures such as Adam Smith and Thomas Reid was not to reduce truth and reality to the boundaries of our knowledge of the material and sensory world, the path to extreme skepticism, but reasonably to chart the limits of certainty in philosophical and scientific enquiry, thus curbing the arrogance and potential excesses of rationalism and “metaphysics,” while always acknowledging the orienting pull of a divine presence beyond our physical apprehension.

In fact, the emphasis on the natural “sociability” of man, the rejection of a priori “metaphysical” argumentation, the measured skepticism of David Hume, the moral and political implications of “common sense” thought, and the discovery of the constancy of human nature in the cumulative evidence of diverse cultures and eras have all come to form vital aspects of the conservative anti-ideological tradition of thought from Edmund Burke onwards.

Further Reading
  • Broadie, Alexander, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Stewart, M. A., ed. Studies in the Philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
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