Science and Medicine in the Scottish Enlightenment

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

7
William Smellie and Natural History:
Dissent and Dissemination

STEPHEN W. BROWN

The study of the book trade in eighteenth-century Scotland has been commonly neglected by scholars. Book culture was seldom discussed as an integral aspect of the Scottish Enlightenment before Warren McDougall’s seminal work on the publishing firm of Hamilton, Balfour and Neill in 1974.1 While bibliographers, book historians and reader response theorists like David Foxon, James McLaverty, Kathleen Lynch, Michael Treadwell and Robert Darnton demonstrated the compelling relationship among printers, publishers, authors and readers in the major works of John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and Jean-Jacques Rousseau,2 the sites for intellectual production in eighteenth-century Scotland were commonly thought to be situated in the universities and learned societies of the period, not the printing houses and book shops.3 This discrepancy may be explained in part by the fact that the French and the English produced and read more poetry and novels than the Scots did during the eighteenth century.4 Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen were centres of distinction in the natural sciences, medicine, moral philosophy and history, not imaginative literature. Moreover, Pope, Swift, Diderot and Rousseau were all aware of the characteristics of the book as a material artefact and took advantage of their medium to manipulate their readers; in creative fiction the medium can be the message, as Diderot and Sterne show respectively in Le Neveu de Rameau (begun in 1762) and Tristram Shandy (1759– 67).5 We are more inclined to think that the texts of natural science, medicine, philosophy and history can easily be distinguished from the books that deliver their message, that the ideas, facts and theories expressed in such disciplines are separable from the material ‘thing’ that conveys them in print.6

In some sense the culture of the Scottish Enlightenment remained an oral one, even in print, drawing as it did on lectures, sermons, debate and conversation. Certainly its chief creative artist, Robert Burns, was demonstrably more interested in the singing voice than the printed page, unlike Alexander Pope or Thomas Gray. Because the primary spaces for the exchange of ideas in Scotland were lecture halls, masonic lodges, churches, taverns and dinner tables, the printed page, in all its curious production, has seemed less crucial to our understanding of eighteenth-century Scotland than it has been to the appreciation of eighteenth-century France and England. But now that the work of Roger L. Emerson, Steven Shapin and Charles Waterston, among

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