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Sir William Bruce

Tobias George Smollett

Adam Smith

James Watt

James Hutton


The Age of Enlightenment

During the latter half of the eighteenth century and for part of the early nineteenth there was a remarkable surge in culture. Though confined to the urban middle class and the aristocracy, it embraced education, philosophy, art, architecture and literature. There were also significant developments in science and technology, and notable contributions to the new social sciences, especially economics. The Scottish experience was much in line with the European, though the Scots certainly made a forceful contribution to the advance of Reason. This brief account is in three sections which (i) examine something of the origins of the Scottish Enlightenment; (ii) chart the main developments in each sphere; and, (iii) make some assessment of the impact of Enlightenment ideas on eighteenth-century Scotland.

(i) According to one historian of the Enlightenment Chitnis, Scotland provided a particularly sympathetic environment in which the new ideas of 'Reason' became established. His view is that the roots of the movement lay deep in the nation's history - especially in the law, the educational system in schools and universities, and in the Church - all institutions that had developed along Continental rather than English lines. Scottish law was grounded in social law and social philosophy; and the legal profession was dominant in politics and economic affairs. In education -an extremely important influence on Enlightenment ideas - the arts were again distinctly philosophical. Medicine was concerned as much with research and teaching, as with caring and curing; while in science the concentration was on the physical and natural, with an emphasis on the application of ideas. The new "social sciences" economics, history, politics, and sociology - sprang from the same philosophical tradition that prevailed in the arts. The Church dominated the social affairs of the nation, yet at the same time (as Chitnis shows) theology was probably the original "social science", paving the way for the secular sciences of the eighteenth century. Many churchmen were distinguished men of letters, and this remained so well into the nineteenth century.

(ii) Scotland in the eighteenth century saw significant developments in the sciences, social sciences and culture generally. We only have space here to note the main features, but these can be followed up in greater detail in the cross-references and bibliography. Firstly, science made great strides and Scottish practitioners were essentially applied scientists, marrying research and teaching with practical application. Science had obvious links to technology and industry in the work of chemists and engineers.

Outstanding were James Hutton (1726-97) in geology, David Gregory (1661-1708) in mathematics, Joseph Black (1728-99) in chemistry and physics, and James Watt (1736-1819) in engineering.

Secondly, in philosophy the major figure was, of course, David Hume (1711-1776), author of A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-1740) and Essays, Moral and Political (1741-2). Hume was greatly influenced by the European philosophy of the age, as were his near contemporaries Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), Thomas Reid (1710-96), George Campbell (1719-96), and Dugald Stewart (1753-1828), who together represented an important school of Scottish philosophy.

Thirdly, the leading social scientists had a sound grounding in the arts, philosophy or theology, notably Adam Smith (1723-90), Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), John Millar (173 5-180 1), and William Robertson (1721-93). Smith's outstanding contribution, The Wealth of Nations (1776), established political economy as one of the leading social sciences. Lastly, there were many important developments in culture. In literature the poets Allan Ramsay (1686-1758) made notable contributions, James Thomson (1700-48), Robert Fergusson (1750-74), and Robert Burns (1759-96), while Tobias Smollett (1721-71), and others worked in the novel genre. Literary styles changed greatly in the period, from the Classical, through transitional, to Romantic - the last seen at its best in the vernacular poems of Burns. Art and architecture also reflected the styles of the age.

Art was dominated by Classicism - reflected in both portraiture and landscapes - produced, for example, by Allan Ramsay Jr (1713-84), Henry Raeburn (1796-1823), David Allan (1744-96), Alexander (1758-1840) and Patrick(1787-1831) Nasmyth, and Gavin Hamilton (1730-97). The Scottish contribution to architecture was perhaps more significant - seen at best in the works of Sir William Bruce (d.1710), Colin Campbell (d.1729), James Gibbs (1682-1754), Robert MyIne (1734-1811), and, above all, William (d.1748) and Robert (1728-92) Adam. In urban planning remarkable strides were made - from the grandeur of Edinburgh's planned New Town to the modest estate villages built all over the Lowlands.

(iii) Several historians - including those cited here - have their own assessment of the Scottish Enlightenment, but they mostly agree that the advances in science and culture can hardly be seen in isolation from general social and economic change. Some have argued that Enlightenment culture was essentially elitist, but while this might be true of art and architecture, it was hardly the case in the sciences, which contributed much to technology and industry. Scottish education - while hardly respected at every level of society imbued with a so-called democratic tradition - nevertheless reinforced its position as a leading national institution, with schools and universities more committed to applied (or 'useful') arts and sciences than their English counterparts. Enlightenment ideas of Reason and Order fitted in well with the new efficiency in agriculture and industry, and hence contributed in some measure to economic growth during the eighteenth century, notably to the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. Pressure for political reform also owed much to Enlightenment ideas combined with ripples from the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Finally, many major figures of Scottish life and letters during the first hall of the nineteenth century were educated in the philosophy and outlook of the Scottish Enlightenment, which thus had a long-term impact on cultural, social, economic and political developments.

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