In this lesson, we discuss several leading thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, including its two giants, the philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith.
What do you do with your close friends? Perhaps you like to go out to restaurants and eat good food, or perhaps your crew plays soccer or video games together. Whatever activities your group does, you likely get better and better at them and help each other, right? Well, the exact same thing occurred in Scotland during the Enlightenment. Early Scottish intellectuals hung out, wrote, read, and criticized with each other, and as a result the relatively small country produced some of the greatest minds of the Enlightenment era.
David Hume was arguably the Scottish Enlightenment's most powerful mind. Born near Edinburgh in 1711, by age 11 he was enrolled at the University of Edinburgh. Hume began life as a devoutly religious adolescent, though by his university years, his notes show he spent a profound amount of time questioning the existence of God and almost certainly spent most of his adult life as a secret atheist. Indeed, in the 1740s, he was denied the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh because the town council felt his writings were too controversial and anti-religious.
Hume spent most of his adult life working as a librarian in Glasgow, though his main pursuit was his philosophical and historical writing. His first work, the three-volume Treatise of Human Nature, was poorly received in its time. Today, it's considered a philosophical masterpiece, where Hume explores free will, causality, time, and the existence of God.
Philosophically, Hume was a firm believer in both skepticism and empiricism. Hume believed the only things that could be considered truths in this world were things that could be measured and observed. However, while Hume believed in the importance of empiricism, he denied the existence of any knowledge that didn't place the human experience at the center of reality.
He argued that a person's personal experiences are as close as one can hope to get to the true reality of existence. Hume consistently took this extreme skepticism and human perception-centered empiricism to its theoretical limit, at one point claiming that objects themselves did not exist: the only thing that existed was the bundle of properties that humans could perceive. In other words, according to Hume, a new baseball is hard, white, and leathery, but the baseball itself doesn't exist.
Hume is far more highly regarded now than he was in his time, likely due to his highly controversial philosophical conclusions. Indeed, his contemporaries across Europe often went to great lengths to attack his philosophy and works. One such scholar, Daniel MacQueen, exhausted 300 pages attacking Hume's views on Christianity that Hume espoused in his History of England! Hume died in 1776 at the age of 65, and several writings he was working on at the time were published posthumously.
One of Hume's closest friends in Scotland was another intellectual giant of the period, the far more well-received Adam Smith. Born in 1723 in Kirkcaldy, Smith went to Glasgow College at the age of 13 before attending Oxford University. Smith read Hume's works while at Oxford, and after Smith's graduation the two became close friends. It's likely Hume even helped Smith get his first teaching position as the Chair of Logic at Glasgow University.
Though Smith's greatest impact on the modern world was in economic theory, Smith was more than just an economist. Smith's philosophical writings encompassed everything, from the nature of humanity to epistemology. His first work, for example, A Theory of Moral Sentiments, discussed the nature of knowledge and the importance of empiricism. Indeed, Smith largely shared his friend Hume's penchant for empiricism. Smith believed that the only way humans could know something with certainty was through seeing, measuring, or experiencing it themselves. However, he was not nearly as skeptical as Hume.
Smith's philosophical views provided the framework from which he built logically sound political and economic theories, which would eventually change the way most of the Western world viewed commercial exchanges. Smith laid all this out in his 1776 work, The Wealth of Nations. In it, Smith attacks many of the existing practices in the 18th-century English economy. He considered both the guild systems and mercantile systems, prevalent in England and Europe, to be unduly restraining on the economy.
Instead, Smith argued for the importance of self-interested commercial exchanges. In addition, he claimed that through dividing labor amongst men, things could be produced at a far quicker rate. For example, rather than having 50 men making 50 chairs, you could make hundreds of chairs by taking each of these men and giving them one task to do in the production of chairs. What Smith was essentially describing was the modern assembly line.
Once the production of goods was highly efficient, Smith argued that the government should interfere as little as possible with these fledgling businesses. The government had a part to play in ensuring that workers were treated fairly or paid decent wages, but those minor protections were the government's only suitable role. The market, according to Smith, would flourish once free of these restrictions and regulate itself as prices for labor, goods, and services rose and fell according to both supply and demand. Smith's views encouraged classical liberals across the continent as it still does today. Smith died in 1790.
As enormous figures as Hume and Smith were, they were not the only men of the Scottish Enlightenment. Indeed, perhaps more than in any other country, the members of the Scottish Enlightenment were a close-knit group who often read and critiqued each other's work. For example, Francis Hutcheson, a well-respected philosopher and minister in his own right, taught Adam Smith at Glasgow before returning to his home country of Ireland.
The Scottish Enlightenment was more than just philosophy and economics. For example, James Hutton, a Scottish naturalist from Edinburgh, was the first to recognize that Earth was likely far older than the six thousand years that the Bible claimed. Indeed, Hutton realized that the Earth's features were shaped by long processes such as wind and erosion. Many consider him one of the founding fathers of modern geology.
The Scottish Enlightenment was remarkable for the quality of philosophy and writing it produced from a relatively small community in a small country. David Hume was perhaps its greatest mind, even though Adam Smith was easily the most influential. In Smith's landmark work, The Wealth of Nations, we find so many of the modern economic practices that are inherent in businesses everywhere today.
Regardless, Hume should not be belittled - many of his well-reasoned theories concerning reality, causality, and Christian religion cannot be easily disproved. The quality of this work and the work of others, like Hutton and Hutcheson, likely had something to do with the excellent academic climate the thinkers in Scotland fostered as they read, critiqued, and commented on each other's work.
When this lesson is over, you should be able to:
- Discuss the life and beliefs of David Hume
- Identify works of Adam Smith
- Recall who Francis Hutcheson and James Hutton were