Social Theory of the Scottish Enlightenment

Social Theory of the Scottish Enlightenment

Social Theory of the Scottish Enlightenment

Social Theory of the Scottish Enlightenment


David Hume, Adam Smith, William Robertson, Adam Ferguson, Lord Kames, John Millar, James Dunbar and Gilbert Stuart were at the heart of Scottish Enlightenment thought. This introductory survey offers the student a clear, accessible interpretation and synthesis of the social thought of these historically significant thinkers. Organised thematically, it takes the student through their accounts of social institutions, their critique of individualism, their methodology, their views of progress and of moral and cultural values. By taking human sociality as their premise, the book shows how they produced important analyses of historical change, politics and morality, together with an assessment of their own commercial society.


When asked the standard academics' question, '. . . and what are you working on?' I replied, 'I'm writing a "new Bryson"'. I was alluding to Gladys Bryson Man and Society:
the Scottish Inquiry of the Eighteenth Century
. This book was published in 1945 and has remained the only general book on the social thought of the Scottish Enlightenment. But this is not because the topic has remained moribund. On the contrary, interest has burgeoned and at an increasing rate of productivity. While Bryson's book is still not redundant, this increased interest, coupled with the fact that inevitably foci shift and scholarship accumulates, makes another overview opportune. This book attempts that task.

As an 'overview' it is designedly a synoptic volume rather than a detailed monograph on some particular theme. Any synopsis presumes judgements as to what is important but, consistent with that presumption and thus also with my offering a reading of my own, I am consciously taking stock. While I hope that specialists will find something of value, my main target audience is the less specialist reader -- students as well as academics. In line with this, I've thought it appropriate to confine my exposition to printed sources and not quarry the rich seams of unpublished material. (I break this rule on a couple of occasions in some notes where the material is particularly perspicuous and where it has already been quoted in academic commentary.)

A Preface justifies its existence by enabling the author to set out his or her stall and attempt (often in vain) to forestall some predicted criticisms. Nothing if not conventional I want to use it similarly. The best place to begin is the beginning. My title comes in two parts and each requires a gloss. By 'Scottish Enlightenment' I do not mean to be making any substantial point. There has been considerable debate as to what the term signifies -- which I touch on in Chapter 8 -- but I have decided that to make that an 'issue' would ill serve my purposes. In the broadest of senses I am using the term to refer to the intellectual literature written in Scotland between approximately 1740 (the date of the third volume of Hume Treatise of Human Nature) and 1790 (the date of the sixth and final edition of Smith Theory of Moral Sentiments) with the third quarter of the century representing its core. Of course there is an element of arbitrariness about my parameters, and I do discuss works written before 1740, but since there is no agreed definition then it would court unnecessary controversy to insist on a hard and fast definition of my own.

The phrase 'social theory' in my title is indicative rather than definitive. I can best outline its scope by stating what I take it to exclude as well as include. I am (relatively speaking) excluding philosophical issues in the narrow sense. What this means in practice is that, with the exception of his treatment of causality (see . . .

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