The wonders of Scotland

John Haldane examines the remarkable intellectual impact of the Scottish enlightenment

David Hume

David Hume

What is the legacy of the Scottish enlightenment? To answer that, I think one first needs to ask “the legacy for whom?” and also to get clear about the scope of that enlightenment in its own day, and its influence on following generations of Scots thinkers.

There is a tendency for present day philosophers to view the Scottish enlightenment though their understanding of the ideas of Hume. Seen in that way it represents the displacement of traditional metaphysical and theological systems with a form of sceptical naturalism. Gone were the assumptions of the rational structure of reality, its divine origin and providential governance; gone the idea that world and mind are made for one another; gone the assumption that ethics is a matter of conformity with principles of natural law, or with the deliverances of God-informed conscience. In their places were put elements of naturalistic, empiricist humanism, central to which is the idea that in so far as philosophy has anything to say about human nature and conduct it is in the form of a description of human habits of thought, feeling and action.

Certainly these are recognisably Humean themes, and Hume was perhaps the greatest thinker of the Scottish enlightenment, but the cultural movement to which he belonged was much larger and more varied. For one thing it was not restricted to philosophy even in an extended sense of the term that might embrace economic theory and law. It involved fundamental and applied sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, geology and geography; and it also involved theology, not as something to be rejected but as a subject to be reworked. Beyond Hume, the familiar names are those of Frances Hutcheson, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, and Dugald Stewart; and less familiar are those of Anderson, Beattie, Black, Campbell, Ferguson, Hutton, Kames, Millar, Monboddo, Steuart and Wallace.

For a country that was then the poorest in western Europe it is amazing that in the second half of the eighteenth century Scotland produced so many great figures. Part of the explanation of how that was possible lies in the fact that notwithstanding its poverty Scotland contained the third, fourth, fifth and sixth oldest universities in the English-speaking world: St Andrews (1411), Glasgow (1451), Aberdeen (1495) and Edinburgh (1582).

Within the human sphere, the main area of interest was personal and social values and principles, and their history and development; the core idea was that these are able to be reasoned about with a view to the common good. That interest and idea continued to inform Scottish thought in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, though under the influence of German philosophical idealism and Christian socialism it took a more communitarian and even collectivist turn.

The legacy of the Scottish enlightenment in the world of ideas consists in an interest in Hume’s philosophical naturalism, in Smith’s reconciliation of personal interest and social utility; and in Reid’s defence of common sense principles deployed in the service of realism. But here there is disagreement about the meaning and value of these projects. For some, Hume is to be seen as a subversive radical, for others as a conservative quietist. To some Smith is a free-market liberal; to others he is a social welfarist. For some Reid is an uncompromising direct realist; for others he is a kind of Kantian idealist. Added to these interpretative differences are ones of attitude: either celebrating or criticising one or another figure as they are seen in one or another guise.

While the interest of contemporary philosophers in these figures, and their concern to provide analytical and evaluative verdicts on their philosophies, are significant for assessing the enduring influence of the Scottish enlightenment, they are only one aspect of its legacy. More extensive is its influence on societies and on their reflective discourses. It is now commonplace to observe that the Scottish enlightenment had an effect on the political and educational institutions of North America, including the Constitution of the United States and early colleges such as Princeton. Less well known is its influence on reforming movements in continental Europe, particularly in France and Spain. Today world economists invoke the name of Smith in support of proposed policies, and commentators cite Hume as having established the distinction between facts and values.

Within Scotland itself the legacy of the national enlightenment is complex, being mediated by various other religious and social movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Even so it is possible to discern several distinctive ideas. First, there is the emphasis on education as something that should be available to all without compromising intellectual standards. This carries over into the universities, which, particularly in Glasgow and to a lesser degree in Aberdeen and Edinburgh, are animated by notions of intellectual democracy. Second, there is the idea of society as something real over and above the sum of its members. Though often associated with socialism, this has also been a theme of paternalistic Scottish conservatism, and of rural Scottish liberalism. Third is the ideal of society as a community, with its implication that social goods arise within and are best protected by relatively small political units that are united by common history and shared values. Aspects of this may be found in Hume, Smith and Ferguson, and they are central to twentieth century social philosophers such as John MacMurray. Alasdair MacIntyre and Neil MacCormick.

This leads to the thought that in looking for the legacy of the Scottish enlightenment within Scotland one should attend to the nationalist movement which, as well as proclaiming a general political philosophy of communitarianism, has focussed its policy priorities on the provision of free university education, free medical prescriptions, free care for the elderly, and the replacement of council tax with local income tax. Whatever one thinks of these policies, they represent a certain unified vision of the goods of knowledge and of the value of society that were certainly dominant themes of the Scottish enlightenment. Arguably, then, its main legacy in Scotland is less in the field of speculative than in that of practical philosophy, an outcome with which. I suspect, Hume, Smith and Reid would have been quite content.

John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Ethics Philosophy and Public Affairs in the University of St Andrews and author Seeking Meaning and Making Sense (Imprint Academic)

  1. Nice post. Certainly it is very heartwarming if a certain person spend time to appreciate his own mother nation.

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