Scottish Enlightenment

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The Scottish Enlightenment was a period of intellectual ferment in Scotland, running from approximately 1730 to 1800.

In the period following the Act of Union 1707 Scotland's place in the world 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 country in western Europe in 1707, it was now 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."

The first major figure of the Scottish Enlightenment was Francis Hutcheson, 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, he founded one of the major branches of Scottish thinking, and opposed Hobbes' disciple David Hume. Hutcheson's major contribution to world thought was the utilitarian and consequentialist principle that virtue is that which brought the greatest good to the most people.

Hume himself is arguably the most important thinker in the Scottish Enlightenment; his moral philosophy eventually triumphed over Hutcheson's, and his investigations into political economy inspired his friend Adam Smith to more detailed work. Hume was largely responsible for giving the Scottish Enlightenment its practical hue, for he was concerned with the nature of knowledge, and developed ideas related to evidence, experience, and causation. Much of that is incorporated in the scientific method, and many modern attitudes towards the relationship between science and religion, were developed by him.

If Hume was primarily concerned with philosophy and worked less in economics, his ideas nevertheless led to important work in the latter field. Following Hume's impassioned defense of free trade, Adam Smith developed the concept and in 1776 published what is arguably the first work of modern economics -- The Wealth of Nations. This famous study had an immediate impact on British economic policy, and it still forms 21st century discussions on globalization and tariffs.

The Scottish Enlightenment thinkers developed a "science of man", which built upon Hume's work in the field of moral philosophy and his studies of human nature. This was expressed historically in works by major Scottish thinkers 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. A crucible from which emerged many ideas that distinguish the Scottish Enlightenment was The Poker Club of Edinburgh.

The Scottish Enlightenment shifted focus from intellectual and economic matters to those specifically scientific. One harbinger of this shift was James Anderson, a lawyer with an abiding interest in agronomy. While the Scottish Enlightenment is traditionally considered to have ended with this change (which occurred at the tail end of the 18th century), it is worth noting that disproportionately large Scottish contributions to British science and letters continued for another fifty years or so, thanks to such figures as James Hutton, James Watt, William Murdoch, James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin and Sir Walter Scott.

[edit] List of Scottish Enlightenment thinkers

Plus two who, although they did not live in Edinburgh, visited and had active correspondence with Edinburgh scholars:

[edit] Further reading

  • The Scottish Enlightenment: 1731 - 1790 A Hotbed of Genius - David Daiches, Peter Jones, Jean Jones (eds). The University of Edinburgh, 1986. In paperback, The Saltire Society, 1996, ISBN 0-85411-069-0
  • The Scottish Nation: A History 1700-2000 - T. M. Devine, 1999.
  • How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It - Arthur Herman, 2001. ISBN 0-609-80999-7
  • The Scottish Enlightenment: The Historical Age of the Historical Nation - Alexander Broadie, 2001. ISBN 1-84158-151-8
  • America's Founding Secret: What the Scottish Enlightenment Taught Our Founding Fathers - Robert W. Galvin, 2002. ISBN 0-7425-2280-6
  • Crowded with Genius : The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind - James Buchan, 2003. ISBN 0-06-055888-1
  • The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy) - Alexander Broadie, ISBN 0-521-00323-7
  • The Mark of the Scots: Their Astonishing Contributions to History, Science, Democracy, Literature, and the Arts - Duncan A. Bruce, ISBN 0-8065-2060-4
  • How the Scots Made America - Michael Fry, ISBN 0-312-33876-7
  • Scotland: A New History - Michael Lynch, ISBN 0-7126-9893-0

[edit] External links

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