The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 18, 2017

Scottish Enlightenment
Ian Crowe - 09/21/11

It is hard to offer a concise definition of the Scottish Enlightenment that does justice to the variety of ideas and themes that come legitimately within its scope, although (together with pretty much everything else in the academic world) the term has been rendered virtually meaningless in recent years by a kaleidoscope of postmodern de-constructions.

What can be stated, generally but fairly, is that Scotland and its universities experienced an extraordinarily vibrant intellectual discourse in the century after 1730, fuelled largely by the following social, economic, and political factors: the political union with England in 1707; the rapid commercial and economic expansion that occurred in the wake of the union; and the development of intellectual, social, and commercial ties with the American colonies. This intellectual discourse had, broadly, three areas of focus: moral philosophy; “philosophical history,” or the exploration of progress in the history of civilizations and societies; and political economy. The questions raised reflected the wider tension between continuity and change affecting Scottish society as a whole: What was the source, or place, of “civic virtue” in a rapidly changing and increasingly market-driven society? How could the conflicting human impulses of sociability and self-interest be reconciled rationally to provide an authoritative basis for order in society? What is understood by “progress” in history, what drives it, and did a fast-expanding knowledge of scientific and historical “laws” leave room any longer for the providential working of God in human society?

The changes that affected Scottish society in the eighteenth century exacerbated existing social and political divisions—including those between Highland and Lowland communities, for example, between Whigs and Jacobites, and between high churchmen and radical Protestants. The vast (Lowland) majority of Scottish Enlightenment thinkers were loyal to the Hanoverian settlement and embraced the changes occurring around them as sources of cultural, social, and material enrichment. Such a state of rapid social and intellectual transition has powerful echoes today, as conservatives (in particular) grapple with the implications of technological progress and global commercial activity for virtue, spiritual life, and the cohesiveness of local communities. Whether, however, conservatives should view the writings of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers as a source of comfort (“We have been through this before, and survived”) or as a warning (“The only solutions these thinkers found opened the door to utilitarianism, relativism and historicism”) remains a hotly debated point.

In 1727, Francis Hutcheson arrived from Dublin as professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Hutcheson, sympathetic to Shaftesbury’s critique of the philosophical foundations of classical republicanism, challenged Bernard Mandeville’s rejection of a socially cohesive, innate benevolence in human nature and argued that men possess a “moral sense” by which they may perceive virtue and vice as real ideas, independent of an enforced political and legal system of punishment and reward. This theory of the “moral sense” placed universal human passions, appropriately directed by reason, education, and manners, at the heart of civilization and social progress. In so doing, it also downplayed the significance of high politics and law in the promotion of order and liberty in society.

This shift in the identification of the sources of social cohesion and progress—from the exemplary virtues of great men and lawgivers to the “invisible hand” of common human feelings—underpins much of the work of those thinkers, in various disciplines, who followed Hutcheson, although each of these extended the theme in somewhat different directions and jettisoned key aspects of the original position, including the idea of a “moral sense” itself. There is, for example, David Hume’s (more skeptical) understanding of the importance of custom and approbation in moral education, Adam Smith’s (more Stoical) application of the concept of “sympathy” in the exercise of civic virtue, and Thomas Reid’s (more complex) focus on “common sense” rather than “moral sense” in the apprehension of reality and first principles.

Similarly, Adam Ferguson (Essay on the History of Civil Society, 1767, and History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic, 1783), Adam Smith (Lectures on Jurisprudence, 1762–66), and William Robertson (History of Charles V, 1769, and History of America, 1777), among others, broadened the scope of historical method by developing an understanding of the “progress” and “decline” of civilizations through distinct stages of social arrangement. They imputed the distinctiveness of each stage to the complex interaction of a variety of natural, social forces, ranging from the advancement of manufacture and commerce to the awakening of curiosity in natural phenomena and the consequent expansion of scientific knowledge. Likewise, commerce, morality, and history were tightly combined in the works of political economy. Smith is, of course, the preeminent figure here, and it is instructive that his treatment of the subject in his Wealth of Nations (1776) effectively produced a sea change in thinking, from high-political or law-driven economic and commercial policy to an understanding of material prosperity rooted in the underlying coherence of spontaneous human impulses and moral affections.

The broader historical significance of the Scottish Enlightenment has generally been interpreted in two ways. First, many historians have attempted to trace the influence of thinkers such as Hutcheson, Lord Kames, and Dugald Stewart on prominent members of the founding generation in America, most notably Thomas Jefferson. There is much of value to be discovered here, not least a corrective to the simplistic connections often drawn between the American Revolution and Lockean contractual theory. However, the exercise can also give rise to an impression of the Scottish Enlightenment that is too homogeneous. For example, the “common sense” and “self-evident truths” of Jefferson and Paine had precious little in common with the “common sense” school of Thomas Reid or James Beattie. Indeed, the differences among Scottish Enlightenment thinkers ought to attract more attention than they do. Beattie, for example, was highly critical of Hume’s philosophy, and Adam Ferguson’s interpretation of the dominant aspects of human nature differed in important respects from that of Hutcheson.

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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