Science and Medicine in the Scottish Enlightenment

By Charles W. J. Withers; Paul Wood | Go to book overview

12
Afterword: New Directions?

CHARLES W. J. WITHERS AND PAUL WOOD

Understanding the importance of science and medicine in the Enlightenment will depend upon what and who is studied: a particular subject or person; national and international exchanges of books, instruments and ideas; or local practices and institutional differences. It will depend, too, upon why and how we look at Enlightenment science, for Scotland and elsewhere. For contemporaries, the unity of the sciences was a guiding belief of Enlightenment thinkers in Scotland. In one sense, they saw this unity in terms of the exchange of ideas between individual sciences. Dugald Stewart observed that ‘the modern discoveries in astronomy and in pure mathematics, have contributed to bring the art of navigation to a degree of perfection formerly unknown. The rapid progress which has been lately made in astronomy, anatomy and botany, has been chiefly owing to the aid which these sciences have received from the art of the optician’.1 In another, and perhaps deeper, sense they followed David Hume in seeing this unity as rooted in the study of human nature: ‘Even Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Natural Religion, are in some measure dependent on the science of MAN; since they lie under the cognizance of men, and are judg’d of by their powers and faculties’. As Hume further noted, ‘There is no question of importance, whose decision is not compriz’d in the science of man; and there is none, which can be decided with any certainty, before we become acquainted with that science’.2

This book has documented something of what Hume and Stewart would have recognised as science, including medicine, in the Scottish Enlightenment. The essays collected here have paid attention to what particular sciences were understood to do, to what individual men of science did and to the specifics of scientific conduct and exchange. It is our hope, moreover, that the essays have affirmed rather than diminished the claims of contemporaries as to the importance of natural knowledge in the Enlightenment, and that they have done so by enriching our understanding of what science and medicine were and what they meant for their various audiences. Our general intention has been neither to privilege science and medicine above and beyond the social and intellectual worlds of which they were part, nor to assume that the essays offered here provide an exhaustive treatment of our topic. We have, however, sought to build upon and extend established work in the conviction that the study of science and medicine ought to form a part of the analysis of the Enlightenment, in Scotland and elsewhere.

What emerges from these essays, then, is not a single definitive answer to the

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