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What Was the Scottish Enlightenment?

The story of the Scottish Enlightenment dates to the rise of the individual in the Middle Ages. Benchmarks in the development of the idea of the individual include Peter Abelard’s insistence that moral responsibility only attaches to what an agent intends or to an act to which consent is given, and Thomas Aquinas’ rejection of Averroism, the idea that humans do not really have discrete minds distinct from one another but are only embodied variants of a unique, universal, and eternal mind (intellectus agens).

With the individual fixed as part of the ontological furniture of the world, doctrines of egoism could flourish, and did so, notably in the thought of Thomas Hobbes and Bernard Mandeville. Hobbes posited intense competition between individuals and, in light of this, Mandeville recommended knavery: best to use the establishment for your own advantage for if you don’t, others certainly will, and make a fool of you in the process. His highly influential The Fable of the Bees (1705) is full of hilarious accounts of doctors, judges, generals, and priests cheating those they ought to serve.

Thinkers in 18th century Scotland—Lord Kames, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, and Adam Ferguson, to name just the leading lights—reaffirmed natural sociality. As Kames wrote: “Nature, which designed us for society, has linked us together in an intimate manner, by the sympathetic principle, which communicates the joy and sorrow of one to many.”[1] Without abolishing the individual, the Scottish Enlightenment nonetheless made solidarity basic to human existence[2] and consciously made incursions into the scope of autonomy.

The Scottish Enlightenment was about national improvement. Great attention was given to rhetoric as these thinkers felt Scottish speech lacked the polish of English proper. Typical of 18th century gentlemen, they travelled, but all lived principally in Scotland, and all died, and are buried, there.[3] This great flourishing of ideas was also a product of the Scottish establishment; most of its leading thinkers were highly placed jurists, university professors, and clerics of the Church of Scotland. Ferguson was chaplain to the Black Watch, one of the most storied regiments of the British Army. Hume was the least entwined with Scotland’s establishment, but not from want of trying.

The objects of their studies also evince a deep interest in society. Credit is given Kames as an originator of anthropology, Ferguson sociology, and Smith economics. Hume was known principally as a philosopher, though he made himself a rich man by writing his massive but very popular History of England, writing it while serving as the librarian of the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh, with access to 30,000 books.

Abelard’s principle that moral responsibility attaches to consent and autonomous decision was a particular target of Smith’s. He affirms the justness of the idea in the abstract; but in particular, concrete cases it does not hold true. Here, Smith shows an interest in observation and in ordinary moral understanding that is typical of the Scottish Enlightenment, whose nickname after all was the School of Common Sense.

Smith points out that it is common practice to hold inanimate objects responsible for evil. You stub your toe and in revenge you kick the offending object. Delving into legal history, he finds, among numerous examples, the trial of an axe in ancient Athens. The offending object, once found guilty, was carried to the sea with great ceremony and tossed into the waves. This is a case of deodand—things malign given into the care of God. The practice survives today. The houses of serial killers are routinely bulldozed, as are school buildings where mass shootings have happened.

Smith expands this into the powerful principle that a spectator monitors social and moral interactions. All of us, and objects, too, are inescapably linked through communal judgements. Kames elaborated on this as well: “Naturally we have a strong desire to be acquainted with the history of others. We judge of their actions, approve or disapprove, condemn or acquit . . . We enter deep into their concerns, take a side.”[4]

Our moral responsibility is determined for us by others. Reid introduced this idea into his epistemology: Our sensations relay information about the world like witnesses at court holding persons to a common standard of judgement.

Smith exhaustively explores the role of the spectator: How many spectators are there assessing us, in what do they consist, and what happens if they disagree? Smith acknowledges significant variation in the judgements of the spectator but the basic structure is invariant. His teacher at Glasgow was Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson stressed the geometry of moral judgement, arguing that symmetry is basic to ethics. Smith’s formulation of this idea is that a person is moral if a spectator can role-play her situation and find proportionate the same sentiments she discloses. This harmony of sentiment is sympathy, and this is what it means to be judged ethical.

Hume is typically portrayed as a radical skeptic, an advocate of contracts and a conception of individual autonomy that are supposedly at odds with the idea of natural sociality. This is how Reid viewed Hume, but Smith thought this a significant misunderstanding of his close friend. Like Smith, Hume thought commercial life a natural state. That man is a “variable creature” is evident from Sparta, but, contends Hume, the decorative, ornamental life—and the commerce necessary to support it—is “the ordinary course” of human existence, and for this reason he thought Sparta unnatural.[5]

According to Smith, the reason commerce is a natural state is derived from Hutcheson’s insight into the place of geometry in our moral psychology. Emotions like joy and grief build symmetry between people. Smith calls these the social or musical emotions. Anger and resentment are discordant and asymmetrical, and these he classifies as the unsocial emotions. Business is about aligning products with customers. With profound insight, Smith observes that riches are complex systems that inspire “a thousand agreeable ideas.”[6]

This fantasy of a life of joy, bathing in the complex symmetries of machines—watches, cars, designer kitchens, smart phones, and robots—drives the economy: “Tis the introduction of commerce or at least of opulence which is commonly the attendent of commerce which first brings on the improvement of prose. Opulence and commerce commonly precede the improvement of arts, and refinement of every sort.”[7]

Hutcheson, Reid, and Ferguson were Protestant clergymen and one might expect them to dissent from Smith and Hume’s defense of luxury. However, it is clearly from Hutcheson that Smith derives his argument.[8]

Reid was critical, staying close to the ancient and medieval worries about luxury. Ferguson shared some of Reid’s worries. He was a Gaelic-speaker and closest to the clannish sensibility of the northern Highlanders whom he served spiritually in the 42nd  Foot. He took from the Highlanders their warrior ethos but combined it with the refinement of Scotland’s commercial cities. For Ferguson, the two came together in the ideal of the knight, a blending of ferocity and suavity. About this ideal Ferguson has much to say, and he casts the knight as the shield of natural sociality. Offering a rebuke to The Fable of the Bees, Ferguson, on the cusp of the Victorian age and the last great exponent of the Scottish Enlightenment, affirms not individual autonomy but service to others.

[1] Henry Home, Lord Kames, Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion (Liberty Fund, 2005), p. 16.

[2] The judicious role government, and principally local and provincial government, can play in confirming natural sociality is nicely seen in Smith’s discussion of toll roads. See An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Volume 2 (Liberty Fund, 1981), pp. 724-31.

[3] The exception is Hutcheson. Born in Northern Ireland to a Scottish family, he lived much of his life in Glasgow but died whilst visiting friends in Dublin. His grave is lost as the church in Dublin where he was buried is now a pub.

[4] Kames, Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, p. 17.

[5] David Hume, “Of Commerce,” in Essays Moral, Political and Literary (Liberty Fund, 1985), p.259.

[6] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Liberty Fund, 1982), pp. 182 and 35.

[7] Adam Smith, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (Liberty Fund, 1985), p. 137.

[8] Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (Liberty Fund, 2008), pp. 76-77.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on April 12, 2018 at 10:36:17 am

This bijou of an essay serves well as well as well illustrates the purpose of essay so far as "The Father of Essay" saw and wrote it in essay after essay:
Montaigne saw the reader's entertainment as his overriding purpose in writing, and, setting about that task, Montaigne sought to draw the reader into his subject by fascinating him with its intriguing aspects. The charm of Montaigne's venture lay in his use of a literary structure that was, itself, fascinating. Sometimes lightly pedagogic, sometimes loosing a flow of thought derived from empiricism or interior contemplation, Montaigne was never argumentative and never aimed at proving his superiority or superior knowledge.

Today, I've been entertained by being charmed by a writer whose aim is clearly not to impress me with his superior knowledge but rather to intrigue me with his subject matter.

Makes me want to go online now to ABE Books (never Amazon, won't give Bezos my money ) and buy Arthur Herman's "The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots Invention of the Modern World."

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timothy
on April 12, 2018 at 11:08:08 am

[…] What Was the Scottish Enlightenment? […]

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Scottish Enligthment - Veneration & Refinement: The Ethics of Fashion
on April 12, 2018 at 11:14:52 am

Timothy, wonderful reply....guarantee you will thoroughly enjoy Arthur Herman ‘s “Scottish Enlightenment”. A wonderfully readable reprise of these men, their thought and Edinburgh, celebrated as the “Athens of the North “. It is time travel at it’s best!

There is an excellent compendium of the thought of those mentioned in the essay “The Scottish Enlightenment, an Anthology “ edited and introduced by Alexander Broadie. (1997) Canongate Books, Edinburgh.

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BTG
on April 12, 2018 at 11:41:26 am

The probable instigation of the "Scottish Enlightenment" may be seen as the beginning of the intersection of individual liberty and "Law."

The "Law" on point was the "heresy" of Thomas Aikenhead - executed 1697.

While we observe the thread of commonality of Christian convictions amongst those early "enlightenment" thinkers most often cited, it is observed as personal and individual - a basis for, but not a prescription of, Law; and therefore setting a relation of the individual and liberty to Law; not the prescription of liberty by "laws."

It can be noted that we may be moving "back" into something like heresy, as a "legal" offense in conduct, with legislated Rules of Policy (given the status of "laws") on qualifications of characteristics of speech. This would be heresy in a "new" prescription of "orthodoxy." Which might remind us that there can be no heresy without hierarchy.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on April 12, 2018 at 11:53:26 am

" Which might remind us that there can be no heresy without hierarchy."

Absotively luvv'd it!!!!!!

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gabe
on April 12, 2018 at 12:35:50 pm

Hmmm! "No heresy without hierarchy." Sounds catchy and profound, but is it true and if it is so what?
Without hierarchy no heresy, maybe, but without hierarchy for sure there can be no...... you name it, most of it invaluable.

In Athenian democracy and in the abstract equality of Marx's classless society there was no hierarchy, but there was lots of heresy. Socrates' and Stalin's show trails showed that.

So, I would say a) that hierarchy is a virtue the polar opposite of which is the vice of chaos of varying types (e.g. legal, political intellectual, moral, religious) and degrees ranging from instability to anarchy, b) that maintaining the virtue and preserving the benefits of hierarchy depend on orthodoxy and orthopraxy, which invite heresy because they require a clerisy to define and enforce (e.g. the College of Cardinals, the House Rules Committee or Ethics Committee, the faculty senate at a university) and c) that while hierarchy is conducive to heresy so is anarchy (the mob has its rules, as both the Reign of Terror and the Comintern showed.).

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timothy
on April 12, 2018 at 12:37:44 pm

I'm sorry to have to point out that ABE is an amazon subsidiary...

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Jason Monaghan
on April 12, 2018 at 14:19:02 pm

Let me quibble with you here:

1) There was a hierarchy in the Marxist paradise of the 20th (and 21st) centuries, although a hierarchy steadfastly denied by the nomenclature.
2) Hey, does this remind you of somewhere else? The academy and the media of 21st century America where adherence to the norms of both orthodoxy and orthopraxy are rigorously enforced by a clique disavowing any special privilege or hierarchical status? Indeed, this clique at times may be mistaken for a "Robespieerean" mob smashing windows, overturning statuary and otherwise generating all manner of malicious mischief.
3) Then again, it is not the College of Cardinals one should be concerned with; rather it is the current Pope who in a determined, yet ultimately futile, effort to appear relevant is working steadfastly to change the orthopraxic expectations of his own flock.

Ahhh! what a world. I am reminded (by Mark Pulliam at his Misrule of Law blog (check it out)) of a song “Looking Forward to the Past”: "This modern world is so out of order/I don’t know just how long it can last/But I’m looking forward to the past/I’m looking forward to the past."

And I don;t need nobody really to tell me I long for a myth!

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gabe
on April 12, 2018 at 16:50:39 pm

No "quibble" on your part there.
One so thoughtful, high principled and well-motivated neither quibbles (raises objections about a trivial matter) nor niggles (finds fault in a petty way.)

Had Polonius advised Laertes succinctly and wisely, say,"Neither a quibbler nor a niggler be" or "Trust but verify," rather than burdened the poor lad with sesquipedalian aphorisms (as from a bloviating Al Gore) Laertes might have escaped his unknowing role as pawn in Claudius' murder conspiracy.

But I digress.
My point is, "We agree completely."

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timothy
on April 12, 2018 at 17:00:16 pm

Yipes!!!

We are doomed. the bald guy WILL take over the world!

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on April 12, 2018 at 17:01:09 pm

OMG!!!

I've been sleeping with the enemy for 8 years and didn't even know it.
Thanks: truth as news, disillusionment and conundrum.

Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and nowhere to buy used books.

What to do now?

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timothy
on April 12, 2018 at 20:37:40 pm

Well what was it that jerry Rubin said "Don't buy this book - STEAL IT!!!! - or something like that!

And this coming from a "press and Brewery" guy!

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on April 12, 2018 at 20:42:33 pm

funny
hard to steal used books since they're in people's libraries or basements, unless they're being sold on ABE Books.
also SOOO Democrat to steal what you want. Can't stoop so low, even for books.

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timothy
on April 12, 2018 at 21:26:15 pm

". . .so what . . ." seems to be the apogee of the mid to late 1960s academic contributions.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on April 12, 2018 at 21:45:15 pm

I think that we three, you Gabe and I are on the same page, but that I failed to make my points clearly: 1) I agree that orthodoxy is an inevitable structural concomitant of hierarchy, but so is it also a phenomenon of social and political structures that publically profess to abjure hierarchy like communism and democracy (which in fact DO have hidden or crypto-hierarchy) and anarchy (which maintains orthodoxy and orthopraxy while expressly denying hierarchy) and 2) Hierarchy is necessary for any valuable institution (social, government, religious, educational) to function, so that one cannot render blanket condemnation of hierarchy on the grounds that it produces orthodoxy. The essential issue is not whether hierarchy exists but how is the hierarchy established and altered, what are its orthodoxies, how are they established and altered, how are they enforced and how is dissension handled? Closed vs open systems of hierarchy and orthodoxy is the real issue, not hierarchy vs no hierarchy.

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timothy
on April 12, 2018 at 21:46:43 pm

More to the point here (Law & Liberty) would be consideration of the position of hierarchies **under** the LAW and thus their limitations in constraints of various sorts (such as heresies) on individual liberty.

We have the Trial of Socrates (even by I.F. Stone-which I took to students in Italy back in the mid-80s).

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R Richard Schweitzer
on April 12, 2018 at 21:55:00 pm

Currently, on hierarches (along with their presumed oppositions - networks) there is "The Square and the Tower" by the historian Niall Ferguson. Lots of stuff on that on YouTube.

Happy reading !

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R Richard Schweitzer
on April 12, 2018 at 22:37:07 pm

Thanks; I've read a couple of reviews and am dubious about the social/political significance of "networks" sans structure for organization and administration, which invariably turns out to be hierarchical. I note also that Fergusson considers hierarchy a form of network, a matter I can't debate from theory but which seems to be a tautology and to avoid the questions of whether networks are the same or different or better or worse at some things than hierarchies.
I am more interested in networks as communication structures, both in nature (I'm a career and soi-disant "environmentalist" from back in the day when that was not a pejorative term) and of information, where, matters of hierarchical organization and implementation aside, networks are of enormous significance in creating, inciting, shaping, transferring, channeling and controlling group thinking and behavior, for better or worse. In man, the volatile psychology of group behavior greatly compounds the significance of networks as engines of information creation and communication.

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timothy
on April 13, 2018 at 10:23:54 am

Those "interested" in the organization of social groupings might consider (if they have not already)becoming familiar with Robert Michels' work and "The Iron Law of Oligarchy."

Oligarchic structures tend to develop internal hierarchies which take on (or give priority to) functions for their own (and their members) objectives. And, of course, most readers of Mosca and Pareto, et al., know the theories of "elites" among hierarchies.

A word of caution: while "communication" (often garbled and misunderstood) is part of relationships, it may not be wise to disregard the concept of "networks" in terms of relationships, principally, rather than one of "information" sources and transfers.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on April 13, 2018 at 13:41:43 pm

Re your cautionary note of thinking principally of networks as relationships rather than information structures: It seems that by definition networks are relationships, but I take your point as something less obvious about networks, that their relational characteristics and functions may be more important than their informational characteristics and functions. Yet, logically it would seem to me (and I know nothing about this subject) that the informational aspects of networks are part and parcel of their relational qualities, that most (all?) characteristics of networks and most (all?) of the functions they serve (including but not limited to their informational functions and qualities) are a consequence of their inherent relational nature.
Just sayin.

Anyway, apropo your cautionary note, part of an article I read in today's WSJ briefly discusses a 1996 book I have not read, "The Rise of Christianity" which seems to make your point. It attributes to networking significant (but certainly not exclusive) influence on the dramatic expansion of the early Christian population from mere tens of thousands when Nero sought to exterminate them after the Great Fire to tens of millions within many decades thereafter (and without Facebook and Twitter.) Their networking was fostered by and attendant to the theology and the demands of their faith: the church as a community of sinners sharing the duties of love, charity and assistance for themselves and ALL others faced with disease, hunger and adversity; love of their enemies (unique in history and a source of tremendous appeal to pagans,) proselytization and the community-strengthening/enhancing/expanding effects of Christian worship, ritual, doctrine and practice.

So I see your point.
That may be the most salient, most successful and most influential example of networking in world history.

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timothy
on April 13, 2018 at 15:18:39 pm

Networks may take various forms and be comprised of various elements.

Taking the terms of timothy's first paragraph (from the 1:41 pm post), we may observe that the *purely* informational network, or primarily informational one, may engender a network of crony capitalism or "insider trading", etc. Recall also the ancient Egyptian bureaucracy was a network of extended family members and their factotems organized for personal / political gain. Other types may have arisen.

Paragraph two, with its specific mention of early Christian networking reveals, and this is something that R. Richard and I have debated (as it were) that absent an understanding of the *purposive* intent of the network, we are unable to predict both its eventual form and behaviors. Clearly, the purpose of the early Christian sects differed markedly from the stock traders network, the lobbyists and the Egyptian bureaucracy.

I suspect, but only to a certain extent, that the same may be (properly?) said for hierarchy. Without a sense of the hierarchy's purpose, without a rationale, corrupt, as is our present elite hierarchies, or noble, as was the early Christian sects, we may only belatedly learn / observe it's functions and effects; and this, perhaps, only after those functions, those methods and attributes have become institutionalized.

Have we observed any hierarchies that remain both effective and "good" or moral?

I suspect (from R. Richard's teaching) that once *institutionalized*, both hierarchies AND networks assume ambitions, goals and functions other than their originating goals. They, i.e., the humans populating those institutions, conceive of and advance goals that are more SELF sustaining than their originating myth / purpose would otherwise recognize and allow.

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gabe
on April 16, 2018 at 21:01:34 pm

Re "networks" vs. "hierarchies" and "relational vs. informational power I watched Niall Ferguson on CSPAN last night discuss The Square and the Tower. The interview was inadequate in that it did not delve into theory but it did raise a couple of curiosities for me: 1) Ferguson pretty much considers networks as elitist "old boy clubs" whose major purpose is to advance the well-being and influence of their members while protecting the exclusivity of membership. In that regard networks are, indeed, ''relational" but in character little more than any fraternity (say, the "Skull and Bones at Yale,) social club (say the Union Club) or political group (say, the Trilateral commission;) 2) Ferguson says networks exert great influence but not much power, an assertion which seems counter-intuitive if not contradictory, but which if true would be a function of their lack of hierarchy and 3) the US government is history's most hierarchical organization, an amazing assertion that is flatly wrong, ignores the separation of powers and federal structure of the US government and recent history such as that of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Red China under Mao and now.

Except for social media, the informational aspects of networks was not touched on, and I continue to believe that is politically and economically the most important function and power of networks.

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timothy
on February 06, 2019 at 06:02:10 am

[…] requires both types of justice. As an economist, one expects Smith to talk about contracts, but in an earlier piece, I showed that a collective concern of the Scottish Enlightenment was to articulate a vision of […]

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Image of Contracts and Solemnities in Adam Smith’s Sacred Anthropology
Contracts and Solemnities in Adam Smith’s Sacred Anthropology

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.