Scottish Enlightenment

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The Scottish Enlightenment[1] refers to a remarkable period in 18th century Scotland characterized by a great outpouring of intellectual and scientific accomplishments rivalling that of any other nation at any time in history.

Sharing the humanist and rationalist outlook of the European Enlightenment of the same time period, the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment asserted the fundamental importance of human reason combined with a rejection of any authority which could not be justified by reason. They held to an optimistic belief in the ability of man to effect changes for the better in society and nature, guided only by reason.

It was this latter feature which gave the Scottish Enlightenment its special flavor, distinguishing it from its European counterpart. In Scotland, the Enlightenment was characterized by a thoroughgoing empiricism and practicality where the chief virtues were held to be improvement, virtue, and practical benefit for both the individual and society as a whole.

Among the advances of the period were achievements in philosophy, economics, engineering, architecture, medicine, geology, archaeology, law, agriculture, chemistry, and sociology. The central figures were Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith, Robert Burns, Adam Ferguson, and James Hutton.

The Scottish Enlightenment had effects far beyond Scotland itself, not only because of the esteem in which Scottish achievements were held in Europe and elsewhere, but also because its ideas and attitudes were carried across the Atlantic as part of the Scottish diaspora which had its beginnings in that same era.

Historical context: the seedbed of the Scottish Enlightenment

In the last decade of the 17th century, Scotland was a nation in the grip of a rigid, intolerant Calvinism, set by the Church of Scotland. It was also one of the poorest nations in western Europe, and the last years of the century were marked by poor harvests and food shortages. The disastrous Darien scheme to create a colony in the New World all but bankrupted the country and many of the leading families who had invested heavily in it. On the surface it did not appear to be an auspicious place for the flowering of culture and learning which followed in the next century.

But as is often the case, the main trends in any society also contain within themselves the seeds of their own negation. In the case of Scottish society, there were several factors woven into the very fabric of that society which contributed to the Enlightenment which was to follow.

First of all, there was the Glorious Revolution, the events of 1688-89 which, while it was followed by a veritable crusade to enforce Presbyterianism and a purge of Episcopalians from the church and universities, also brought a measure of limited monarchy and the first forms of representative government, which one recent author has termed The First Revolution, a reference to the inspirational effect which the Glorious Revolution had in the next century on the American Revolution.

The Church of Scotland promoted some school expansion with the Act Anent the Settling of Schools in that very same year, leading to widespread minimal literacy. At the university level, Scotland boasted 5 universities. Scots also went abroad in great numbers to study in England or on the continent. There was in fact a lively tradition of Scottish scholarship and a long established Scottish philosophical tradition which provided the context for the Enlightenment.

Empiricism and common sense

The first major philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment was Francis Hutcheson, a kind of pan-Enlightenment figure who, from 1729 until his death in 1746, held the chair in moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow, where he broke with tradition by lecturing in English as well as Latin. Hutcheson, a frequent visitor to Edinburgh, was Adam Smith’s teacher and he encouraged Hume’s early efforts. He was suspicious of metaphysics or any claims not based on observation or experience. Empiricism and the inductive method was the clarion call of the Scottish Enlightenment.[2]

The philosophical issues of causality were explored in depth by David Hume. He revered the new science of Copernicus, Bacon, Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, and Newton; he believed in the experimental method and loathed superstition."[3]

Unlike the French or German enlightenment, the Scots were devoted to common sense. With the publication of his works in the last half of the 18th century, Thomas Reid became the leading philosopher of Scotland, founding the so-called Scottish School of Common Sense, whose members included Dugald Steward, James Beattie, and later, in the 19th century, Sir William Hamilton. For about two generations, the common sense school of philosophy dominated the English speaking world--including the young United States--and had strong admirers in France.

Adam Smith, influenced by Hume, wrote The Wealth of Nations (1776), the first work in modern economics. This famous study, which had an immediate impact on British economic policy, still frames 21st century discussions on globalization and tariffs.[4]

Scottish Enlightenment thinkers developed what Hume called a "science of man" [5] which was expressed historically in works by 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. Gathering places in Edinburgh such as The Select Society and, later, The Poker Club, were among the crucibles from which many of the ideas which distinguish the Scottish Enlightenment emerged.

The focus of the Scottish Enlightenment ranged from intellectual and economic matters to the specifically scientific as in the work of William Cullen, physician and chemist, James Anderson, a lawyer and agronomist, Joseph Black, physicist and chemist, and James Hutton, the first modern geologist.[6]

While the Scottish Enlightenment is traditionally considered to have concluded toward the 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 more, thanks to such figures as James Hutton, James Watt, William Murdoch, James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin and Sir Walter Scott.

Further reading

  • Broadie, Alexander, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment Cambridge University Press, 2003 online edition
  • Buchan, James. Crowded With Genius: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind 2003.


  1. According to T.M. Devine, the term originated in 1900 with William Robert Scott. Some research refers to the period as the Scottish Renaissance.
  2. David Denby "Northern Lights: How modern life emerged from eighteenth-century Edinburgh" The New Yorker (11 October 2004).
  3. Denby (2004)
  4. Michael Fry, ed. Adam Smith's Legacy: His Place in the Development of Modern Economics (1992).
  5. Magnussen, op. cit.
  6. Denby, op. cit. Repcheck, Jack (2003). "Chapter 7: The Athens of the North", The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of the Earth's Antiquity (in English). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basic Books, The Perseus Books Group, pp. 117-143. ISBN 0-7382-0692-X. “Onto the list should also be added two men who never lived in Edinburgh but who visited and maintained an active correspondence with the scholars there: Ben Franklin (1706-1790), the statesman and talented polymath who discovered electricity; and Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Charles Darwin's grandfather and the author of a precursor theory of evolution.”