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October 19, 2004

The Scottish Enlightenment

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The Enlightenment, eh? What a mixed legacy. On the one hand: clarity and progress. On the other: arrogance and the evaporation of meaning. Spin the Enlightenment's implications out, and you wind up in a tangle, wrapped up in the bind we're told we necessarily struggle with today: po-mo, deconstruction, the crisis of "liberalism," bizarre buildings ... And we're led to believe that all this is inevitable -- that we can't have the blessings of Reason without the curses and agonies that follow in its wake.

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. (A small joke: I love many of Breillat's 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.

Most of these men were "natural philosophers," taking on economics, science, aesthetics, psychology, politics, and philosophy itself. These weren't wacko poseurs or radical theorists. They were practical men who were respectful of everyday experience (even religion); many were in close contact with the great Scottish scientists of the era.

The Scots also maintained close connections with the French, but Scotland's Enlightenment had a very different tone than France's did. It was grounded in common sense and history, and had a modest and empirical spirit. And the Scotsmen's attitude towards Reason was very different than the froggy attitude. The Scots seemed to consider Reason to be a marvelous tool, and nothing more. Sharpen it; respect it; make much use of it -- but don't look to Reason to deliver any Final Truth. And don't expect to turn up anything of much use or interest by investigating the nature of Reason itself. What does a tool have to tell you about life? A tool's a tool. It's up to you to put it to work.

What the Scotsmen lack in radical-chic they more than make up for (IMHO) in solidity and usefulness. They keep Reason in perspective, always remembering that life itself is far more important. No surprise, then, that this was by all accounts a cheery, social, sunny-spirited, outgoing scene, one that brings to mind such convivial 18th century novels as "Tom Jones."

Bizarrely, this era began being thought of as "the Scottish Englightenment" and being studied for its own sake only 40 or so years ago. I'm by no means a scholar on the topic, but I've read a fair amount of Hume and Smith, I've sampled some of the others, and I've read (and can recommend) two good recent books about the era: this one and this one. But still I was knocked out when I learned about the era and its thinkers. Post-Enlightenment stupid-knots in my brain relaxed their grip; sensible thoughts took the place of tormented ones. I sighed with relief and wondered: "Why didn't anyone tell me about this long ago?" I wonder if other people as puzzled by our supposedly inevitable post-Enlightenment predicament might not get as healthy a kick out of a quick visit with these Scotsmen as I did.

What made me pull these few paragraphs together was running across David Denby's essay about The Scottish Enlightenment in this week's New Yorker. Some excerpts from Denby's excellent piece:

The learned Scots were remarkably unlike the French philosophes; indeed, they were unlike any other group of philosophers that ever existed....

In the Scottish group ... there was little of the bristling, charged, and exclusionary fervor of the Diderot-d’Alembert circle; or of the ruthless atmosphere found in Germany in the group that included Fichte, the Schelling brothers, and Hegel; or of the conscious glamour of the existentialists in postwar Paris. The Scots vigorously disagreed with one another, but they lacked the temperament for the high moral drama of quarrels, renunciations, and reconciliation. Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith, along with Adam Ferguson and Thomas Reid, were all widely known, but none of them were remotely cult figures in the style of Hegel, Marx, Emerson, Wittgenstein, Sartre, or Foucault. To an astonishing degree, the men supported one another’s projects and publications, which they may have debated at a club that included amateurs (say, poetry-writing doctors, or lawyers with an interest in science) or in the fumy back room of some dark Edinburgh tavern. In all, the group seems rather like an erudite version of Dickens’s chattering and benevolent Pickwick Club ...

The Scots were conservatives and radicals at the same time. They prized social order, and peace and quiet; they also sought intellectual revolution—new ways of looking at how the mind works, how morality works, and how we live in society ... They could not imagine, and did not desire, civil society without religion. But they wanted to ease God out of scientific research and out of political and social life, too. And they wanted to naturalize morality—to locate the foundations of morals somewhere else than in revelation and fear of eternal damnation ...

Wisdom, for Hume, begins with the acknowledgment of uncertainty—of the limits of what we know ... The power of reason to prove much of what we know is weak, and Hume denied that our beliefs about the world could be ascertained with anything like scientific certainty ... Hume was fascinated by what we would call consciousness, but he always leads us back to experience, which is the arena, the test, the goal ...

Sociability was what mattered, and in their writings the world, teeming yet measurable, is always with them ... The view is masculine, conservative, hedonistic: good fellows write poetry, study science and philosophy, do business, practice law, and gather at the end of the day for a drink, and let’s not have any nonsense about austerity or purity ...

Here's a brief Wikipedia overview. Here's The Adam Smith Institute. Here's The International Adam Smith Society. Here's The Hume Society; the Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy's entry on Hume is a good one. Here's The Adam Ferguson Society; here's a good intro to Ferguson. Here's a good quick online intro to the Scottish Enlightenment generally.

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. So I also recommend a new essay by Sam Fleischacker for the Library of Economics and Liberty. In it, Fleischacker argues that Adam Smith is misunderstood when he's made out to be Mr. Johnny One-Note on the subject of self-interest:

Far more important to Smith's work is the belief that ordinary people normally understand their own interests without help from politicians or professional philosophers. The distinctive mark of Smith's thought is his view of human cognition, not of human motivation: he is far more willing than practically any of his contemporaries to endorse the ability of ordinary people to know what they need to know in life.

Why do we tend to overvalue French thought? And why do we tend to undervalue the thoughts of sensible people like this Scottish crowd? Is it the glamor factor? Radical posturing of the froggy sort often does have a certain elegance and chic. But maybe our profs and intellectuals genuinely believe that art, beauty, and decent political reform simply can't arise out of a well-grounded consciousness.



posted by Michael at October 19, 2004


Ye Jacobites By Name
--Robert Burns 1791

Ye Jacobites by name, give an ear, give an
Ye Jacobites by name, give an ear,
Ye Jacobites by name,
Your fautes I will proclaim,
Your doctrines I maun blame, you shall hear.

What is Right, and What is Wrang, by the law,
by the law?
What is Right and What is Wrang by the law?
What is Right, and What is Wrang?
A short sword, and a lang,
A weak arm and a strang, for to draw.

What makes heroic strife, famed afar, famed
What makes heroic strife famed afar?
What makes heroic strife?
To whet th' assassin's knife,
Or hunt a Parent's life, wi' bluidy war?

Then let your schemes alone, in the state, in
the state,
Then let your schemes alone in the state,
Then let your schemes alone,
Adore the rising sun,
And leave a man undone, to his fate.

Posted by: ricpic on October 19, 2004 12:30 PM

Why do intellectuals overvalue the French Enlightenment? Partially from its immense flattery of the intellectual ego--Reason can solve all problems, and if you possess a greater share of Reason than the hoi polloi, you are superior to them. The Scottish Englightenment, on the other hand, doesn't make such grandiose claims about Reason's power and recognizes that most people have enough Reason to solve their problems passably well.

Also, intellectuals suffer from the same psychological flaws evolution has built into all of us. Specifically:

(1) a moral busybody streak. In the philosophes' utopia, society would be so understood and engineered that everyone (else) does exactly what the intellectual wants. There's an evo-psych benefit to making other people's behavior predictable--it means I have to think less about how to manage and manipulate them. "Predictable," though, can still mean "not what I want." Even better is if everyone behaves the way I want them to--this gives me the further egoboo (and lighter cognitive load) of knowing I'm right and I don't have to rethink what I want.

The Scots and their philosophical descendants--Hayek, Popper, small-l libertarians, et al.--recognized most of what is good about social living is self-organized, and were highly doubtful that grandiose social engineering projects could work. If one is looking for an intellectual justification for one's moral busybodydom, the Scots don't provide it.

(2) the urge to dissolve one's ego in a collective. The philosophes presented a vision of a transcendent collective--the utopia to come after "the last king was strangled with the entrails of the last priest"--as well as a temporal collective--the salons and cafes--where one had to labor to bring the transcendent collective to fruition. (The religious analogy is intended: think of the New Jerusalem the early Christians would see if they remained faithful to their oppressed churches). Such a vision is seductive, both in traditional religions and in modern, "secular" ones like Marxism/Communism, Fascism, architectural modernism, avant-gardeism in arts and letters, environmentalism, etc.

The Scots only provided the temporal collective--pubs where people could debate and agree to disagree. The transcendent collective is off the table; if it even exists, we won't know until we get there, and what it is may surprise us.

Posted by: Raymund on October 19, 2004 01:49 PM

Alan Charles Kors did not do enough about the Scottish Enlightenment for his, otherwise, fabulous lectures for the Teaching Company. If anyone has any clout with Kors, badger him into doing a series on it ASAP!

Posted by: Michael Serafin on October 19, 2004 02:09 PM

Ricpic -- I didn't know that poem, or at least didn't remember it. Pretty much sums things up, though, doesn't it? Thanks for passing it along.

Raymund -- You packed as much punch into your handful of paragraphs as Denby did into his piece. "Immense flattery of the intellectual ego" -- that's really good. I'll be stealing, er borrowing, your ideas and insights. Thanks in advance.

Michael -- I was a little bugged too by the way Kors seemed overentranced by the French, but like you thought the series was great anyway. You're right: someone should urge Kors and the Teaching Company to get on the Scottish Enlightenment bandwagon soon -- or else the Portable Professors will get there first.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 19, 2004 04:30 PM

A couple of additional points: According to Bernard Bailyn's "Ideological Origins of the American Revolution," the Scottish Enlightenment played a huge role among American thinkers in 1776 and 1787, especially more obscure figures like Hutcheson.

Also, Darwinism, Britain's greatest intellectual contribution of the the next century, is clearly a 19th Century outgrowth of the Scottish Enlightenment and its counterparts in northern England. Darwin formulated his theory of natural selection shortly after reading Adam Smith and the economist Thomas Malthus. Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently discovered the theory of natural selection in 1857, did so immediately after awakening from a Malaria fever dream about Malthus' ideas, which he had been reading when he fell asleep.

Both JM Keynes and SG Gould have remarked on Darwinism as an outgrowth of the Smith tradition in economics.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on October 19, 2004 05:18 PM

Thought you had been reading Gertrude Himmelfarb's "The Road to Modernity", when I saw your title "Englightenment". I may have missed a comment on the book.I think she gives a wider view of the British Enlightenment. Pete

Posted by: peter on October 20, 2004 07:16 AM

How come we English get squeezed out? Ever heard of Newton, Locke, Priestley, Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Defoe, Pope, Paine? See Roy Porter's book "The Creation of the Modern World: The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment".

Posted by: Mick H on October 20, 2004 08:25 AM

The Scottish Enlightenment is underrated because it celebrated bourgeois values. Modern intellectuals want radicalism and activism, and have been that way ever since the French Revolution.

In their sobriety and reasonableness, Smith and Hume are a constant rebuke to the search for romantic intellectualism that has characterized the bohemians of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Posted by: jn on October 20, 2004 11:59 AM

Steve -- Thanks, I've always wondered whether I should give the Bailyn a try. Now I know I should.

Peter, Mick H -- I don't know why but the Brit Englightenment never hit me as hard as the Scottish, though I suppose it'd have behooved me to mention that. Maybe the Scots seemed more ... I dunno, earthy or something. A nicer antidote to the French. And, hey, I skipped the German Enlightenment too.

JN -- That's well-put, tks, and the emphasis on the bourgeois is important. I wonder if there's any way to balance what's of worth in what bohemia has to offer (mainly certain kinds of beauty) with a wariness about buying the entire silly package. I hope so.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 20, 2004 12:47 PM

The Scots (and Brits and subsequently Americans) emphasized process over theory. An approach that works, but doesn't resonate like the mellow soundings of the philosophes.

In "An Anglosphere Primer" (via Chicago Boyz), James C. Bennett extols strong civil society as the glue holding together Anglosphere democracy. French intellectuals mouthed the democratic words without the music.

"These intellectuals called this thing democracy, but they subsequently focused attention on their model (and its misunderstandings) rather than the essence of the thing they actually admired."

Steve - In the early eighties, in a French lit course at UC Santa Cruz, our prof opened by asking who were the three most influential thinkers of the modern era. She - arms crossed and confident in her judgment - was sitting in the catbird seat with the Goods. Who did we think was tops? I - anglophile Scots-American bourgeois - essayed a guess: Darwin.

To her credit, that one made her think. Her choices, though, were Freud, Marx and Nietzsche.

Posted by: Robert Bruce on October 20, 2004 03:02 PM

". . . Hume adopts Berkeley's arguments showing our inability to access some external world behind our perceptions." (

"He dismissed standard accounts of causality and argued that our conceptions of cause/effect relations are grounded in habits of thinking, rather than in the perception of causal forces in the external world itself." (

Without calling it so, Hume concluded that there is a problem of induction, which, ever since, has been a problem for philosophers of science: the “[p]roblem of justifying the inductive inference from the observed to the unobserved.”
(; you can find Karl Popper on it here:

As David Stove has pointed out ". . . the influence of Hume on 20th-century philosophy of science in general is in fact so great that it is scarcely possible to exaggerate it. He looms like a colossus over both of the main tendencies in philosophy of science in the present century: the logical positivist one, and the irrationalist one. His empiricism, his insistence on the fallibility of induction, and on the thesis which follows from those two, of the permanent possibility of the falsity of any scientific theory, are fundamental planks in the platform of both of these schools of thought. Where the two schools separate is that the irrationalists further accept, while the logical positivists reject, Hume's further, sceptical, thesis about induction: that the premise of an inductive argument is no reason to believe its conclusion. This is why the logical positivists, in the 1940's and '50's set about constructing what they called `confirmation-theory', `non-deductive logic', `the theory of logical probability', or `inductive logic': a branch of logic which, while being consistent with empiricism and inductive fallibilism, would allow scientific theories to be objects of rational belief without being certain. The irrationalists, on the other hand, being Humean sceptics and not merely fallibilists about induction, deny the possibility of any such theory . . . ."

“In the sharpest possible contrast to all this, the influence of Hume on philosophy of science in the 19th century was but slight. For this extraordinary reversal in the importance attached to Hume's philosophy of science, the historical reason is obvious enough, at least in broad terms. The crucial event was that one which for almost two hundred years had been felt to be impossible, but which nevertheless took place near the start of this century: the fall of the Newtonian empire in physics. This catastrophe, and the period of extreme turbulence in physics it inaugurated, changed the entire climate of philosophy of science. Almost all philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries, it was now clear, has enormously exaggerated the certainty and the extent of scientific knowledge. What was needed, evidently, was a far less optimistic philosophy of science, a rigorously fallibilist philosophy, which would ensure that such fearful hubris as had been incurred in connection with Newtonian physics should never be incurred again. Well, the very thing needed was lying at hand, though long neglected; and Hume, 150 years after his death, finally and fully came into his own.

“Thus the revival of Hume's philosophy of science in this century was a movement of retreat from that confidence in science which was so high, and constantly rising, in the two preceding centuries, and which had proved to be misplaced precisely where it was highest. This retreat was general, all empiricist philosophers taking part in it. [Karl] Popper and his followers are simply those with whom the retreat turned into a rout. They fell back all the way to Hume: not just to his fallibilism but to his scepticism about induction; and hence (since they were empiricists) to his scepticism in general about the unobserved.

“Their only object was, and has remained, to ensure that no scientific theory should ever again become the object of over-confident belief; since only in that way can it be guaranteed that such a fall as overtook Newtonian pride will never be repeated. Now, it was the belief that a scientific theory can be certain, which had made that fall possible. So it must be re-affirmed, with Hume, that a scientific theory is never deducible from the observational evidence for it.”

After Hume had reached these conclusions about our knowledge of the external world, the nature of cause and effect, and the problem of induction, among others, he wrote:

"The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. []" (

However, “[m]ost fortunately it happens that, since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation and lively impression of my senses which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of back-gammon, I converse and I am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold and strain'd, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any further. (Treatise, Book I, Part IV, Section VII, p. 269 in the Selby-Bigge edition)”


Dave Lull

Posted by: Dave Lull on October 20, 2004 03:23 PM

Superb essays on the ethical theories of the Scottish Enlightenment appear in Alasdair MacIntyre's _Whose Justice? Which Rationality?_ (1988). See especially ch. XII, "The Augustinian and Aristotelian Background to the Scottish Enlightenment" and ch. XIV, "Hutcheson on Justice and Practical Responsibility."

Posted by: Francis Morrone on October 20, 2004 03:25 PM

"Steve - In the early eighties, in a French lit course at UC Santa Cruz, our prof opened by asking who were the three most influential thinkers of the modern era... Her choices, though, were Freud, Marx and Nietzsche."

If she asked, "Who were the most _right_ thinkers?" then it would be hard to beat Hume, Smith, and Darwin.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on October 20, 2004 08:05 PM

Michael -

You should definitely give the Bailyn a try. I'm a simple man, I don't know much, but I do know that.

Especially since we now live in a pamphleteering age very similar to the one he distills in his first few chapters.

Also, his distinction between power and liberty parallels yours between "the political class" and "the rest of us".

A fine book.

Posted by: Brian on October 20, 2004 10:05 PM

Thanks to all for tips, info, thoughts, etc. I'm just a dabbler and a fan, so it's great to go on learning.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 21, 2004 12:17 AM

Thank you for the Buchan recommendation -- I hadn't realized that he had a new book out. Have you read Frozen Desire, his book about money? Worth giving a try.

Posted by: Steve Casburn on November 1, 2004 03:52 AM

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