Aaron Garrett & James A. Harris (eds.),
Scottish Philosophy in the Eighteenth Century, Volume I: Morals, Politics, Art, Religion
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), hb pp 482, £60, ISBN 9780199560677.
Edited collections such as these are frequently unsatisfactory affairs: perhaps especially when the contributors are all established academics, whose essays tend to rehash in condensed and rather tired form arguments made at greater length in previous monographs. As editors and publishers alike recognise, most readers will dip in and out of such volumes to find those essays that best suit their needs and interests. Only reviewers can be expected to read them cover to cover; consequently, their overall intellectual coherence and unity of purpose is not always set at a premium.
None of this holds true for the volume under review, which is offered as part of a broader ‘History of Scottish Philosophy’ series under the general editorship of Gordon Graham. This collection fully meets the standards set by Scottish Philosophy in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, published earlier this year, and enters into dialogue with it at various points. The contributors are, without exception, established scholars in their respective fields; and yet their essays reveal a shared determination to approach their subjects from a fresh perspective. Scottish Philosophy in the Eighteenth Century offers a conspectus of recent scholarship on the Scottish Enlightenment which does full justice to its richness and complexity. Yet it also teases out, rather than occludes the tensions and disagreements within the existing scholarly literature, and identifies avenues for future inquiry. It follows that it would do a disservice to the work to garland it with the usual platitudes bestowed by reviewers. This volume—when supplemented by the volume to come (on natural science, psychology and epistemology), if of a comparable quality—may well be the most comprehensive, scholarly and accessible treatment of the philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment currently available. Yet its editors and contributors alike would doubtless be disappointed were it to be described as ‘definitive’ or ‘exhaustive’. Its success in capturing the vibrancy of eighteenth-century Scottish philosophy reflects, in part, their collective conviction that much exciting work remains to be done. In this respect it invites a new generation of scholars to build upon—or, indeed, to challenge—the stimulating interpretations it offers. By displaying the sheer breadth, as well as depth, of the literature on the eighteenth century, however, it also casts into relief the relative poverty of our understanding of earlier developments. There is a consensus that this earlier period cannot adequately be characterised as an ‘age of darkness’ (p. 4)—the Scottish Enlightenment was not parentless—and a volume on post-Reformation Scottish philosophy in this same series, happily, is already well under way.
The structure of the volume admirably reflects one of the fundamental insights it seeks to convey. The Scottish Enlightenment, it suggests, is best understood dialogically, as an ongoing conversation between philosophers who addressed shared questions from differing perspectives. This was a conversation that took place in the lecture theatre, classroom, church and philosophical society, as well as in print. So, too, the essays in the collection speak to one another: whilst they can profitably be read in isolation, they are not presented as self-sufficient. Four essays focus on the usual individuals—Hutcheson, Hume, Smith and Reid—but approach these figures from perspectives which cast genuinely fresh light on their intellectual development, philosophical projects, and their reception in Scotland. The remaining seven chapters are thematic, and deal with broad subjects of particular concern to eighteenth-century Scottish thinkers: moral philosophy, aesthetics, religion, anthropology, historiography and political philosophy. Collectively the essays show that this was a conversation to which many individuals, who are no longer considered part of the philosophical canon, contributed meaningfully and influentially: figures neglected in much of the scholarly literature such as Gershom Carmichael, David Fordyce, George Turnbull and Gilbert Stuart. Mathematics, metaphysics, medicine and natural philosophy (to be treated at greater length in Volume 2) were as much a part of this conversation as morals, politics, art and religion; and the understood relations between what we now consider to be these discrete disciplines were intimate. All were part of what was broadly termed the ‘science of man’: a science dependent upon an experimental methodology pioneered in natural philosophy by Newton and Bacon, with the potential meaningfully to enrich human life and to further human happiness through a better understanding of both human nature and the natural world.
In this regard, the essays in this volume are united by a further shared theme: Hume’s definition of the ‘science of man’ was idiosyncratic, and in many respects considerably narrower than that of his contemporaries such as Turnbull (and, later, his pupil Thomas Reid). As the editors observe in their Introduction, the most exciting scholarship in recent decades has resulted from a determination to ‘look beyond and behind the giant figure of David Hume’ (p. 1). Hume is both at the heart of this volume, and marginal to it: a liminal position captured in the nuanced essay on Hume (Ch. 5) by James Harris and Mikko Tolonen, which explores the extent (and limits) of the Scottish contexts for his writings. This reflects a general determination to recast the topography of the history of eighteenth-century Scottish philosophy in a way which better captures its fundamental animating concerns—a number of which Hume did not share, or at least not to the same degree as his compatriots. As a result to define the Scottish Enlightenment in narrowly Humean terms is to exclude most Scots from it, or to cast them in an unfavourable light. With the exception of Hume, almost all of the leading philosophers in this period were embedded within the institutions which structured post-Union Scottish civic life: notably the Kirk and the universities but also, in the case of Lord Kames, the law courts. Far from being purely descriptive and analytical in focus, the Scottish science of society was understood to be a practical science with a strongly pedagogical dimension. It could teach men (and to a lesser extent, women) how to lead useful, virtuous and public-spirited lives; and it offered the best means of illustrating the essential truth of the Christian God’s wisdom, love and providential care for His creation and His creatures (in this life and the next).
Here Hume’s outlook was significantly different to that of most of his compatriots, even including Adam Smith: a point of tension very successfully teased out throughout the volume. If Hume’s Treatise (1739-40) was written by a rather intense young man in relative isolation (and mostly in France), it was the exception that proves the rule that almost all of the most famous philosophical works of the Scottish Enlightenment first took the form of lecture series or sermons. The practical concerns of the prelector and preacher informed, rather than necessarily constrained their speculative inquiries across the full range of subjects they explored: a point developed most compellingly in the chapters on Hutcheson (Ch. 2), Smith (Ch. 7) and Reid (Ch. 11, by Paul Wood: for my money, the most stimulating essay in the collection). By discarding a Hume-centric approach, our understanding of, and appreciation for the intellectual achievements of both Hume and his contemporaries is complicated, enriched and deepened. Hume’s was merely one (very important and provocative) voice among many; and whilst philosophical developments in Scotland from mid-century cannot properly be understood without him, they cannot satisfactorily be explained merely as extensions of (or responses to) insights he had offered.
As this volume reminds us, Scotland was (and is) famous for pioneering a form of history—the stadial or conjectural history of society and civilisation—which Hume himself did not write; and in doing so, Kames, Robertson, Smith, Millar and others (such as Gilbert Stuart) drew from sources and addressed concerns which Hume had neglected or impugned. Similarly the Scottish ‘school’ of philosophy associated most closely with Reid—a nineteenth-century reification, which is historicised by Wood in Ch. 11—offered to reconcile duty and virtue in ways which owed more to Butler than to either Locke or Hume, and represented a challenge to the epistemological foundations of Hume’s own moral science. It is the considerable achievement of this volume to allow, once again, for the plurality of voices in eighteenth-century Scotland to be heard, and for the dissonance as well as harmony between them to be appreciated. Bring on Volume 2.
Tim Stuart-Buttle, University of Cambridge