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  • A History of Scottish Philosophy
  • C. Jan Swearingen
A History of Scottish Philosophy by Alexander Broadie Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009. 400 pp. $120.00, cloth; $45.00, paper.

Alexander Broadie’s prolific work on Scottish philosophy, particularly the Scottish Enlightenment’s roots in much earlier Scottish thought, deserves to be better known outside of Britain. While its relevance to rhetoric is more indirect than direct, A History of Scottish Philosophy illuminates several strands in Scottish philosophies of the mind and will, doctrines of freedom and liberty, and assessments of moral sense and reason, culminating in a masterful appraisal of the commonsense philosophy that in the eighteenth century became widely associated with prominent Scottish thinkers who were also philosophers of rhetoric, among them Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, and Thomas Reid. The innovative senior-level course in rhetoric and moral philosophy created by these thinkers crossed the Atlantic and had a profound influence, still much debated, on the rhetoric, language, and thought of the American founding era. Many Americans are unaware of the sensitivity within Britain that is still attached to the very notion of a Scottish Enlightenment, a fraught context Broadie addresses in his introduction, beginning with elegantly calm descriptions of the Scottishness of Scottish philosophy and the distinctive figures and ideas that converged in the Scottish Enlightenment. Contesting the commonly held view that the [End Page 186] Scottish Enlightenment fizzled out at the end of the eighteenth century, supplanted by a cultural decline into tartan kitsch and maudlin recherché romanticism, Broadie provides solid evidence of ongoing developments in Scottish moral philosophy and theology and of continued Scottish responses to post-Kantian German idealism.

Because Kant rebuked Hume’s philosophy, later Scottish responses to Kant were part of a family of ideas that, Broadie explains, continued in conversation with their predecessors and with the influential German philosophers of the nineteenth century. Although Kant sees himself as refuting Hume’s skepticism, Broadie finds in Kant’s thinking a more sophisticated version of Hume’s ideas. He notes commonsense philosopher Thomas Reid’s view that a theory of ideas, the model of mental representations, always ends in skepticism, a view that led Reid and other commonsense philosophers to focus on commonsense perception and liberty: “an account of the relation between the knower and the known, a relationship between a cognitively active subject and an object located in the real world” (319). It need not be said how much these issues of language and mind relationships continue to be debated in philosophical and rhetorical theory. Today’s skepticism, like that of the eighteenth century, defends a profound doubt about the possibility of knowledge, the perception of reality by individuals and groups, the possibility of any communication or rhetorical interactions that are not “always already” spoken. Revisiting these debates in eighteenth-century Scottish thought, Broadie’s commentary provides a number of illuminating recognition scenes.

Broadie’s larger point throughout the book is that the idea that liberty is simultaneously intellectual, volitional, moral, and political—that it represents a capacity for intellectual freedom as well as a civic duty to promote liberty—recurs in Scottish philosophy, self-consciously understood as such, from the time of Duns Scotus to the present. Broadie’s meticulous exposition of the self-understood Scottishness of Scottish philosophy and philosophers is a major achievement of the book. American readers will find particularly interesting the discussions of John Witherspoon in the eighteenth century and James McCosh in the nineteenth, who came from Scotland to become presidents of the College of New Jersey/Princeton. I would add to Broadie’s account that Witherspoon’s influence on the American founding era and his role as the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence is substantially rhetorical. Alongside many other Scottish clergy professors in the colonies, he disseminated the Scottish [End Page 187] curriculum in rhetoric and moral philosophy and followed the practice of holding weekly moots and a senior-year matriculation oration that trained students in the practical arts of oral rhetorical composition. James Madison was a protégé among many others and sought Witherspoon’s as well as the Aberdonian James Wilson’s counsel while working on the much-debated...


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