- The Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century British Philosophers
Good dictionaries are like good maps of a city: they indicate the main and minor quarters, give you an impression of its internal developments, and they indicate to where its highways eventually lead. In philosophy, comprehensive subject dictionaries have a long history, and they do seem to experience a revival these days. To be sure, the lives and works of the leading figures of the history of ideas are generally well explored and documented. We even know which French dishes Hume liked to cook or which types of wine Kant preferred. But the lives and works of lesser known philosophers and men of letters still seem to be more or less neglected. The Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century British Philosophers fills this gap for the period and the subject it covers. It comprises entries on almost six hundred persons as well as a number of entries on anonymous works. The work of close to a hundred scholars from several countries, it is unique in its attempt to bring together in two extensive volumes all minor and major British philosophers of the period between John Locke and Dugald Stewart. Since "British" is to be understood in a broad sense meaning authors who lived under British rule, it also includes Americans writing before 1776, Irish philosophers (like George Berkeley) and the French thinker Pierre Desmaizeaux, who lived and worked for a long period in Britain. Nor is the Dictionary restricted to philosophers in today's sense of the word, comprising entries on people who made in one way or the other a contribution to the history of ideas, even if their contributions are of marginal importance. Besides historians, poets, translators, mathematicians and physicists, dissenting ministers and physicians are well represented.
In almost all cases, the selection makes sense. The boundaries between philosophy and, say, natural sciences were not as nicely drawn in the eighteenth century as they are today. But there are a few entries where one might wonder whether the subject's work had any specific philosophical importance or influence at all, as for example: Charles Burnet, author of a history of music; John Ellicott, who wrote on Electricity, and Thomas Innes, who published in 1729 a book on "Ancient Inhabitants on the Northern Parts of Britain or Scotland." One might also wonder if Gaelic scholar Beg Eolach Moidhach would appreciate being remembered today as a British philosopher.
The length of the entries varies from several lines to up to seven pages. Generally, each entry gives the details of the life and work of the person covered, provides a bibliography of his or her main works, references to "other relevant works," and a section of "further reading." While the larger entries are naturally devoted to the better known figures, most of the authors dealt with in the minor sections cannot complain either. In many cases, information about the life and work of these minor authors is scarce and the entries are useful for this reason alone. But unfortunately, there are also cases in which essential references to "classical" biographical accounts are not listed in the bibliography, like Williams Smellie´s account of James Gregory or George Skene Keith´s biography of John Campbell.
The entries on Lord Kames and George Turnbull lay, as far as their length is [End Page 282] concerned, somewhere in the middle between the shorter and longer contributions. They nevertheless are highly informative, densely argued, and are good reading. Knud Haakonssen sees in Kames "perhaps the most complete 'Enlightenment man' among the eighteenth-century Scottish thinkers´" because he covers like no other author "the whole spectrum of human knowledge and its applicability to his society" (503). The most philosophical work of Kames is his Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion (1751). According to Haakonssen, it is important because in it Kames "turns the previous moral-sense criticism of moral scepticism into a refutation of general epistemological scepticism" (504). By arguing that our...