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2 - When Was the Scottish Enlightenment?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 September 2020

Cairns Craig
Affiliation:
University of Aberdeen
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Summary

I Finding Enlightenment

In the ‘Introduction’ to their Origins and Nature of the Scottish Enlightenment, published in 1982, R. H. Campbell and Andrew Skinner note that ‘interest in the Scottish Enlightenment is comparatively recent’, and they date the inauguration of that interest to W. C. Lehmann's Adam Ferguson and Modern Sociology, published in 1930, and to Gladys Bryson's Man and Society: The Scottish Enquiry of the Eighteenth Century, which appeared in 1945. The interest of both these writers was in establishing that ‘social scientists of the twentieth century may properly regard them [the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers] as forerunners in the effort in which we are engaged’, and, therefore, as defining influences on the development of contemporary social science. Bryson, however, does not see her topic as an analysis of an event called ‘The Scottish Enlightenment’ but rather as an analysis of Scottish thinkers who ‘were at home in the intellectual climate of the late Enlightenment when secular interest once again commanded attention’. Her interest, in other words, is in the case of ‘Enlightenment in Scotland’ rather than ‘Scottish Enlightenment’, one in which Adam Ferguson, for instance, is seen as ‘a central figure in the Scottish group of [the] “enlightened”,’ as though that group was quite cut off from its surrounding – and presumably unenlightened – society.

More recently, John Robertson has assigned the commencement of the concept of the Scottish Enlightenment to the work of Duncan Forbes and Hugh Trevor-Roper in the 1960s, and particularly to the course on ‘Hume, Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment’ run by Forbes at Cambridge, and attended by many of the influential participants in Enlightenment studies in the following thirty or forty years – most notably, perhaps, by Nicholas Phillipson and Quentin Skinner. The emphasis in Forbes's account shifts from the ‘enlightened’ to the process of ‘enlightenment’ as a European social phenomenon: ‘As the title of the course indicates, Forbes's Scottish Enlightenment was an intellectual movement to which others besides Hume and Smith had made important contributions, and which had concentrated upon the understanding of society and its development; it was also a cosmopolitan movement, whose frame of reference extended well beyond Britain’; while in Trevor-Roper's case the emphasis is on ‘enlightenment’ as the product of ‘the country's experience of unusually rapid economic and social development’.

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Chapter
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Intending Scotland
Explorations in Scottish Culture since the Enlightenment
, pp. 77 - 144
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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