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Review: The Scottish Enlightenment

30 October 2012

Given that Alexander Broadie is Professor of Logic and Rhetoric at the University of Glasgow, a chair once occupied by Adam Smith, it seems not inappropriate that he has penned a history of the Scottish Enlightenment. Refreshingly, Broadie does not present either a chronology of the movement or a hagiography of its great minds. Rather, he examines, in no readily apparent order, the ideas and trends of the movement through a series of interesting themes, each of which brings to light a different, often under-commented on, aspect of the diverse historical moment. While the usual ideas from the usual thinkers, such as Smith on moral sentiments and Hume on religion, were heard, so too were less well-known thinkers and thoughts, such as George Turnbull on aesthetics and the story of George Hutton’s early geological research and ground-breaking early formulation of deep time.

An unusual and, to my eyes, pleasant (if not extraordinarily important) change of pace  is Broadie’s explicit calling attention to the contributions of Aberdeen. The third city of the Scottish Enlightenment (take that, St Andrew’s!) is given equal billing with Glasgow and Edinburgh, the so-called ‘Athens of the North.’ George Turnbull’s time at Marischal College and Thomas Reid’s period at King’s College (now both part of the University of Aberdeen) are highlighted at length. Also mentioned are Aberdeen’s important contributions to the sciences. The repeated reminders that St Andrew’s, for whatever reason, contributed little if at all to the movement suggest, to this Aberdonian, at least, that Broadie did not study at the oldest university in Scotland.

While the work styles itself as an introduction to the principles ideas, themes, and thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, a more appropriate genre descriptor might be ‘apologia,’ in the most classical literary sense: Broadie engages not so much in explaining the  Scottish Enlightenment as in justifying and glorifying it. This was most jarringly apparent in the multi-page exposition on why the contemporary idiom for what is now known as ’empiricism,’ which to its Enlightenment-era proponents was known as ‘experimental philosophy,’ could rightly be termed ‘experimental’ by the modern scientific understanding of that term. While this was an interesting exercise in-and-of itself  it did little to help the reader understand the Scottish Enlightenment on its own terms. Also present is a slight undercurrent of self-congratulation running through the course of the book: much of Broadie’s rhetorical intent would be seem to be the argument that Scotland was and is to this day an ‘Enlightened’ country. He defines ‘enlightenment’  by the public embracing of values such as tolerance and the free exchange of ideas. That these are commonplaces of Western self-identity and features, to greater or lesser extent, of most every liberal democracy may be said to detract from this self-glorification somewhat but oughtn’t distract from Broadie’s legitimate point that Scotland was among the places where these values first became mainstream.

Perhaps more problematic an issue, at least from the perspective of fellow historian interested in the communication of Western intellectual history to interested laypersons, is the lack of recognition of the less savoury realities of the Scottish Enlightenment. That all the great luminaries of the movement were men is mentioned once or twice, and the first such mention is accompanied by a brief account of the inequitous social conditions that meant that women had little if any opportunity to participate in a major intellectual moment. That the great men of the period liked it this way is not mentioned. Neither are problems of the Scottish Enlightenment’s contributions to the ideology and practice of empire, from racist ethnography to slave-ownership in the name of ‘progress.’ These and other important and unfortunate realities are surely worthy of mention when introducing someone to so important a period.

For its flaws, The Scottish Enlightenment remains a readable and accessible introduction to an important period in Western intellectual history. It is also easy to find online and in both major and local bookstores. The thematic take on the ideas of the period is a refreshingly different one and the absence of hagiography of  major figures such as Hutcheson, Hume, and Reid is always welcome. I would recommend it to anyone searching for a brief and relatively exhaustive introduction to some major themes of the movement with the caveat that the work is decidedly apologetic in tone and its failure to make mention of the negative realities of the period under discussion should not be taken to mean that there were none.

Alexander Broadie, The Scottish Enlightenment, Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2007.

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