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Scottish Enlightenment

From Academic Kids

The Scottish Enlightenment was a period of intellectual ferment in Scotland, running from approximately 1740 to 1800.

In the period following the Act of Union 1707, Scotland's place in the world changed radically. Arguably the poorest country in western Europe in 1707, it began to reap the economic benefits of free trade with the British Empire in tandem with the intellectual benefits of Europe's first public education system since classical times. Under these twin stimuli, Scottish thinkers began questioning everything; 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.

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 what 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 defence 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 informs 21st century discussions on globalization and tariffs.

The Scottish Enlightenment shifted focus from intellectual and economic matters to those specifically scientific. The harbinger of this shift was James Anderson, a doctor 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, James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin and Sir Walter Scott.

Further reading

  • The Scottish Nation: A History 1700-2000 - T. M. Devine, 1999.
  • How the Scots invented the modern world and everything in it - Arthur Herman, 2001.
  • Crowded with Genius : The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind By James Buchan, 2003.

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