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The Scottish Enlightenment was the period in 18th century Scotlandmarker characterised by an outpouring of intellectual and scientific accomplishments. By 1750, Scots were among the most literate citizens of Europe, with an estimated 75% level of literacy.

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 affect changes for the better in society and nature, guided only by reason.

It was this latter feature which gave the Scottish Enlightenment its special flavour, distinguishing it from its continental European counterpart. In Scotland, the Enlightenment was characterised 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. Among the outstanding Scottish thinkers and scientists of the period were Francis Hutcheson, Alexander Campbell, David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, Robert Burns, Adam Ferguson, John Playfair, Joseph Black 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 Atlanticmarker as part of the Scottish diaspora which had its beginnings in that same era. As a result, a significant proportion of technological and social development in the United States and Canada in the 18th and 19th centuries were accomplished through Scots-Americans.

After the Act of Union 1707

In the period following the Act of Union 1707 , Scotland's place in the world was altered radically. Following the Reformation, many Scottish academics were teaching in great cities of mainland Europe but with the birth and rapid expansion of the new British Empire came a revival of philosophical thought in Scotland and a prodigious diversity of thinkers.

Arguably the poorest country in Western Europe in 1707, Scotland was then able to turn its attentions to the wider world without the opposition of Englandmarker. Scotland reaped the economic benefits of free trade within the British Empire together with the intellectual benefits of having established Europe's first public education system since classical times. Under these twin stimuli, Scottish thinkers began questioning assumptions previously taken for granted; and with Scotland's traditional connections to Francemarker, then in the throes of the Enlightenment, the Scots began developing a uniquely practical branch of humanism to the extent that Voltaire said "We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation".

Empiricism and inductive reasoning

The first major philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment was Francis Hutcheson, who held the Chair of Philosophy at the University of Glasgowmarker from 1729 to 1746. A moral philosopher with alternatives to the ideas of Thomas Hobbes, one of his major contributions to world thought was the utilitarian and consequentialist principle that virtue is that which provides, in his words, "the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers".

Much of what is incorporated in the scientific method (the nature of knowledge, evidence, experience, and causation) and some modern attitudes towards the relationship between science and religion were developed by David Hume. "Like many of the learned Scots, he revered the new science of Copernicus, Bacon, Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, and Newton; he believed in the experimental method and loathed superstition". Hume stands out from the mainstream enlightenment due to his deep pessimism which is largely not shared by other humanist thinkers .

Adam Smith developed and published The Wealth of Nations, the first work in modern economics. This famous study, which had an immediate impact on British economic policy, still frames 21st century discussions on globalisation and tariffs.

Scottish Enlightenment thinkers developed what Hume called a 'science of man' 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.

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.

Key figures in the Scottish Enlightenment

Plus two who visited and corresponded with Edinburgh scholars:


Further reading

  • Darwin in Scotland: Edinburgh, Evolution and Enlightenment. JF Derry.
· Whittles Publishing, 2009. Paperback: ISBN 1904445578.

  • A Hotbed of Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment 1731-1790. David Daiches, Peter Jones, Jean Jones (eds).
· Edinburgh University Press, 1986. Hardcover: ISBN 0 85224 537 8.
· Saltire Society 1996. Paperback: ISBN 0-85411-069-0.

  • Crowded With Genius: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind. James Buchan
· Harper Perennial 2004. Paperback: ISBN 006055889X, ISBN 978-0060558895.

  • The Scottish Nation: A History 1700-2000. Thomas Devine.
· Viking, 1999. Hardcover: ISBN 0670888117, ISBN 978-0670888115.
· Penguin, 2001. Paperback: ISBN 0141002344, ISBN 978-0141002347.

  • The Scottish Enlightenment: The Historical Age of the Historical Nation. Alexander Broadie.
· Birlinn 2002. Paperback: ISBN 1-84158-151-8, ISBN 978-1841581514.

  • America's Founding Secret: What the Scottish Enlightenment Taught Our Founding Fathers. Robert W. Galvin.
· Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. Hardcover: ISBN 0-7425-2280-6, ISBN 978-0742522800.

  • The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment. (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy) Alexander Broadie, ed.
· Cambridge University Press, 2003. Hardcover: ISBN 0521802733, ISBN 9780521802734. Paperback: ISBN 0521003237, ISBN 978-0521003230.

  • The Mark of the Scots: Their Astonishing Contributions to History, Science, Democracy, Literature, and the Arts. Duncan A. Bruce.
· (Publisher?) 1996. Hardcover: ISBN 1559723564, ISBN 978-1559723565.
· Citadel, Kensington Books, 2000. Paperback: ISBN 0-8065-2060-4, ISBN 978-0806520605.

  • How the Scots Made America. Michael Fry.
· Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press, 2004. Hardcover: ISBN 0-312-33876-7, ISBN 978-0312338763.

  • Scotland: A New History. Michael Lynch.
· Pimlico, Random House, 1992 (new edition). Paperback: ISBN 0-7126-9893-0, ISBN 978-0712698931.

  • Virtue, Learning and the Scottish Enlightenment: Ideas of Scholarship in Early Modern History. David Allan.
· Edinburgh University Press, 1993. ISBN 978-0748604388.

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