- Producing and Consuming the Scottish Enlightenment
The year 2009 marks the 250th anniversary of three key Scottish Enlightenment works: David Hume's Tudor volumes of his History of England, William Robertson's bestselling History of Scotland, and Adam Smith's highly influential Theory of Moral Sentiments. Fittingly, several new scholarly books, each making the case for the Scottish Enlightenment as both unique and relevant, have recently appeared (or reappeared, in the case of Broadie's book, which was originally published in 2001) to claim readers' attentions.
In his essay "What Is Enlightenment?" Michel Foucault asserted that the European Enlightenment opened up for people "the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do, or think (Rabinow, ed., Foucault Reader, 47). By this, I understand Foucault to mean that the Enlightenment made possible a subjectivity that was not bound by the previously unchallenged norms of tradition and authority. If so, then Foucault's statement—made specifically with regard to Kant—applies equally well to the overall message of the Scottish Enlighteners (whose [End Page 603] work of course made no small impression on the philosopher from Königsberg). As Alexander Broadie puts the case in The Scottish Enlightenment: The Historical Age of the Historical Nation: "If we do not rely on authorities to tell us what to think, what is the alternative? The one emphasized in the Enlightenment is this, that we do the thinking for ourselves" (18–19). What was different about the Scottish Enlightenment—what made it, in other words, not just generally Enlightened but also specifically Scottish—was, in Broadie's opinion, the quality of sociability that marked the Scottish Enlighteners' thinking. Eighteenth-century Scotland saw a profusion of clubs, societies, and other venues for the Scottish literati (their own term for themselves) to congregate, try out their ideas, and get feedback from each other. Edinburgh's Select Society, for instance, was founded in 1754 by Hume, Smith, and the painter Allan Ramsay; its membership eventually came to include not only the above and Robertson but also Hugh Blair, Adam Ferguson, William Cullen, Lord Kames, and Lord Dundas. As Broadie notes, moreover, these societies were primarily made up of professionals rather than aristocrats; in other words, "The Scottish Enlightenment was a triumph of the Scottish middle class" (29). Accordingly, very few literati held radical political views; almost all were supportive of the 1707 Anglo–Scottish Union, and many derived their professional identities precisely from those institutions of civil society that had been left to Scotland in the Union's wake: universities, churches, and the law.
The Scottish Enlightenment provides a very good introductory overview of its subject matter. Broadie—who currently holds the Chair of Logic and Rhetoric at the University of Glasgow once occupied by Adam Smith himself—is particularly adept in his opening chapters at identifying the two major elements that, in his opinion, gave the Scottish Enlightenment its particular character: the aforementioned emphasis on thinking for oneself, and eighteenth-century Scotland's tolerance of a plurality of ideas in the public sphere. The importance of the latter cannot be overestimated; Broadie contrasts the 1697 hanging of Edinburgh student Thomas Aikenhead for atheism (the last execution in Britain for heresy), with the relatively mild censure given only several decades later to Hume, who was allowed to write in peace despite his reputation for skepticism on matters religious as well as philosophical. Of course, even Hume was not brave (or foolish) enough to publish his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion during his lifetime; clearly, there were limits to acceptable public discourse. Nevertheless, even on the matter of ecclesiastical liberty there...