Scottish Enlightenment

Scottish Enlightenment in United Kingdom

British Political and Social Thought: The Scottish Enlightenment

Introduction to Scottish Enlightenment

Another group of 18th-century British thinkers, Scottish intellectuals from Glasgow, Edinburgh, and St. Andrews, offered a conception of human nature and an interpretation of history rather different from those put forward by Lockean liberalism and neoclassical republicanism. Thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith did not depict men as the independent and autonomous individuals described by Locke. Men, they insisted, are moved to community by a common moral sense that produces sociability and benevolent cooperation. These thinkers regarded the quest for a moral life as the product of a disinterested and rational perception of the common good. Moral sense provides all men with an intuitive knowledge of what is right and wrong. All men are equal in the view of this school, since they all possess the moral capacity for sociability and benevolence.

The Scottish school proposed a unique interpretation of history. Unlike the republican thinkers, Scottish writers such as Hume, Smith, Adam Ferguson, and Lord Henry Home Kames, did not see history as Bolingbroke’s repeating cycle of destructive corruption and virtuous revitalization. Nor did they see the present as an era of luxury and selfishness, falling short of the goals of republicanism. Rather, they depicted history as evolving in terms of distinct stages of development, each characterized by the primary mode of economic production. Societies move through four progressive stages: the ages of hunting, herding, agriculture, and commerce. The highest stage, commerce, produces economic abundance and a freer, more civilized social order. For Hume and Smith, modern market society, not the classical or Saxon past, produced freedom and happiness.” (1)


Notes and References

  • Information about Scottish Enlightenment in the Encarta Online Encyclopedia
  • Guide to Scottish Enlightenment