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The Scottish Enlightenment: Essays in Reinterpretation (review)

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 40, Number 3, July 2002
pp. 404-405 | 10.1353/hph.2002.0045

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Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.3 (2002) 404-405

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Book Review

The Scottish Enlightenment:
Essays in Reinterpretation

Paul Wood, editor. The Scottish Enlightenment: Essays in Reinterpretation. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2000. Pp. xi + 399. Cloth, $75.00.

This significant new collection of essays divides into three categories. The first, comprising essays by John Robertson, Charles Withers, and Richard Sher, addresses the continuing controversy over the nature of the Scottish Enlightenment. The second—essays by Anita Guerrini, Fiona MacDonald, and John Wright—are more empirical, but all revolve around questions of medicine and science in the period. The third—essays by James Moore, M. A. Stewart, Christopher Berry, Ian Simpson Ross, and Alexander Broadie—are studies of some main thinkers and themes. Paul Wood's introduction shows how these questions and controversies continue to reflect the legacy of Dugald Stewart's histories of the Scottish Enlightenment.

The first set of essays present three different approaches to the nature of the Scottish Enlightenment. Robertson argues for the centrality of social science and political economy, and so for understanding the period along these lines. Sher argues that the intellectual developments need to be situated within broader Scottish cultural currents, and illustrates the point with a detailed account of the development of scientific and medical publishing in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Withers seeks to provide an intellectual geography both more fine-grained and more porous than that provided by the territorial boundaries of Scotland. His geographer's perspective does not imply a standard of what is to count as evidence of the Enlightenment; in practice, however, one would expect such enquiries to focus on broad, readily measurable criteria, and so to tend in the direction of Sher's cultural account.

These essays all offer sketches of alternative positions, so there is some degree of repetition. More important, though, is that there is no representative of the view, championed in particular by Roger Emerson, and also by Wood himself, that it is natural science that lies at the core of the Scottish Enlightenment. This absence is regrettable, for it seems to me, contra Robertson, that the period is inexplicable unless the scientific revolution is kept firmly in view. The point is not that the Scottish Enlightenment should be seen as a period of medical and scientific, rather than sociological or economic, progress, but that the developments in sociology and economics owed their inspiration to the new natural philosophy. This is explicit in (for example) Hume, and Smith's History of Astronomy; it is no less explicit in Adam Ferguson's inspiration, Montesquieu. The optimistic view that Scottish backwardness could be overcome seems scarcely explicable without the sense of enhanced possibilities unleashed by the new science. The related sense of escape from ignorance also underpins speaking of an age of enlightenment, rather than merely of improvement. Much the same can be pressed against cultural explanations. An explosion in the book trade is certainly a significant development, but it is not in itself a knowledge explosion. In our day in particular, the distinction between information and enlightenment should be plain. The Internet is a genuine revolution in information access and delivery, but it is not a new Enlightenment.

Space prevents a full account of the excellent essays in the succeeding parts of this collection. The essays by Moore and Wright are further developments of their essays in M. A. Stewart, editor, Studies in the Philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, and help to make this collection something of a sequel to that one. Moore argues that Hutcheson's later works are characterized by a concern with theodicy missing from the earlier treatises, but is rather too quick to dismiss Stoic sources for this shift. Wright draws attention to the lingering influence of theories of the life soul in physiological treatises; unfortunately, he does not [End Page 404] address the question of whether this is, in any self-conscious sense, lingering Aristotelianism. Berry's essay on "Rude Religion" throws considerable light on the development of natural or conjectural histories of society, especially...