Essays On The Scottish Enlightenment

Lynne Kiesling

Over at Two Blowhards, Michael has a really nice and informative post on the Scottish Enlightenment, and its contrast with the French Enlightenment:

My hunch about why we feel the post-Enlightenment pinch as acutely as we do is that the Enlightenment most of us know is the French Enlightenment. And those French, forever pushing things to absurd extremes. A Frenchman is apparently incapable of saying, “Hey, cool: Reason!” and then adding it to his repertory. No, he has to believe in it, make a substitute religion of it, live it out to its logical conclusions … And what does Reason lead to when it’s pushed fanatically out as far as it can go? Barrenness, cafe existentialism, suicide, bizarre buildings, Catherine Breillat movies. (Little joke, given that I love many of her movies.)

But there was another Enlightenment altogether, one that had its feet well-planted on the ground — the Scottish Englightenment. In 50ish years, from circa 1700 to the mid-1700s, Edinburgh transformed itself from a religion-oppressed backwater into one of the happening-ist cities in Europe. Giants walked Edinburgh’s streets: Thomas Reid, Frances Hutcheson, Adam Smith, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, many others.

The post is full of good thoughts and incredibly useful links. His inspiration was this David Denby article from the New Yorker, which was itself largely inspired by a reading of James Buchan’s Crowded With Genius. I can’t do the Denby article justice by excerpting it; it’s very good and thought-provoking, and worth a full read.

I plan to go read all of these sources, to bolster my understanding of the two different Enlightenment experiences. My simple-minded notion of them is that they had very different conceptions of reason and rationality: the French notion was very Cartesian and constructivist, the Scottish notion more organic and evolutionary. Perhaps that’s why, as Michael at Two Blowhards says,

Reading Adam Smith himself, I was struck by what a respectful, trenchant, and complex thinker he was — anything but the simple-minded apostle for corporatism and greed that he’s sometimes taken to be today. Passages in his works anticipate Hayek and chaos theory; other passages anticipate Marx in their vision of how deadening division-of-labor-style labor can be.


4 thoughts on “Essays On The Scottish Enlightenment

  1. Well, yes, Lynne, but I have to point out that the great majority of Scottish Enlightenment figures would have thought any assertion that their former backwater was “religion-oppressed” very strange indeed.

    Those of a historic bent might well have seen in Scotland’s rennaissance a product of Scotland’s having distanced itself from the stultifying influence of the Roman Church over the last century and a half or so. But what replaced Catholicism was Calvinist Protestantism, less dominated by ritual and the institutional interests of the Church than Catholicism but if anything more fervent and evangelical.

    Had the French taken a similar path — had they maintained an independent foreign policy starting in the 1500s but embraced Calvinism in the way the Scottish did — the French Enlightenment might have turned out more like that of the Scottish. And all of Europe would probably be speaking French today.

  2. Also remember that Scotland had one of the most advanced education systems in Europe by the latter part of the 18th century. It had five Universities to England’s two, and had an almost universal primary school system. Most of Scotland’s enlightenment “greats” came to public prominence by publishing their university lectures, or in some cases having their lectures published by keen students. In addition, Scotland’s retention of her own legal system and the prosperity brought about by Empire created the conditions for the flourishing of debating and discussion clubs where lawyers, merchants and others could meet and chew over the latest publications, thus helping to spread “enlightenment thinking” to a much wider audience in a much shorter time.
    Interestingly, I was reviewing a list of items sent by a Scottish mother to her 16 year old son who had taken up a position as a clerk with the East India Company in Calcutta in the 1780s. Every six months she would parcel up a set of books, mainly first editions of Smith, Hume and others, and have them shipped out to him. This must have been repeated across Scotland among families separated by Empire. Now we just email, or send DVDs.

  3. Lynn:
    “How the Scots Invented the Modern World” by historian Arthur Herman, is an excellent telling of the Scottish Enlightenment, and then some.

  4. Lynne,

    “The American Revolution as a Successful Revolution” by Irving Kristol discusses many of these themes. Kristol puts the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment into practice by contratsting it to the French Revolution.

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