Scottish Philosophy: a brief history

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Before The Scottish Enlightenment

The earliest major philosopher with a clear Scottish connection was Duns Scotus (1266-1308) – not a name, but a description "the Scot from Duns". Like every other Scot seeking an education, Scotus had to travel to Cambridge, Oxford and Paris because there were no universities in Scotland. This changed early in the 15th century when between 1411 and 1495 three universities – at St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen were founded. In the next century, two more were established. - one in Edinburgh in 1582 and at a second 'College' at Aberdeen in 1593.

Amongst the earliest philosophers who have a clear institutional connection with Scotland are John Mair (14? - 1550) and George Lokert (14?-1547). Both men studied and taught in Paris, and held academic positions in Scotland. Mair was a prolific writer and led a 'team' of philosophical logicians which included Lokert.

Mair's students at St Andrews included John Knox, the most famous of Scotland's Protestant reformers. The Reformation diminished the educational importance of philosophy, though in the end it laid a foundation on which moral philosophy could be restored.

The Enlightenment Period

Gershom Carmichael was appointed to teach philosophy at Glasgow late in the 17th century. During his time, the University was reorganized and specialist pPofessors took the place of generalist Regents. Carmichael was appointed Scotland's first Professor of Moral Philosophy in 1726, but died soon after. His successor, also his pupil, was Francis Hutcheson, an Ulster Scot. Commonly hailed as the 'Father' of the Scottish Enlightenment, universally acknowledged as a cultural phenomenon of international significance because of its brilliant array of philosophers and thinkers. Chief among these, after Hutcheson, were George Turnbull, George Campbell, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, Adam Ferguson, Hugh Blair, William Robertson and David Hume.

It was the aim of all these thinkers to make advances in the human sciences equivalent to those that had been made in the natural sciences, and to do so by deploying the very same methods. David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature was the first psychological study of this kind, but it resulted in scepticism about the very possibility of scientific knowledge. In reply Thomas Reid published an Inquiry into the Human Mind upon the Principles of Common Sense, widely regarded as the single most effective answer to Hume’s scepticism. As a result, mainstream Scottish philosophy became identified with a ‘School of Common Sense’ enthusiastically expounded by a subsequent generation of philosophers, and highly influential in North America.

Other Scottish philosophers of the period studied human nature in a broader social context. Adam Smith (1723-90) published The Wealth of Nations, Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) was author of An Essay on the History of Civil Society, and Hume wrote an important History of Natural Religion.

After the Enlightenment

The dominance of the ‘School of Common sense’ inevitably led to a reaction which gained further important stimulus from a growing knowledge of German philosophy. Sir William Hamilton (1788-1856) was instrumental in this. His protégé James Frederick Ferrier (1808-1864) expressed profound dissatisfaction with the tradition of Reid, and set off in a quite different intellectual direction for which he nevertheless claimed the title ‘Scottish’. This presaged the rise of Scottish Idealism. Its leading figure was Edward Caird (1835-1908), Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow. A new generation of Scottish philosophers followed in his wake.

Philosophical Idealism dropped out of favour early in the 20th century, and interest in Hume revived. As Hume rose to prominence, Reid receded into obscurity, Hutcheson became a minor figure in the history of ideas, and Smith was heralded as an economist rather than a philosopher. The publication in 1961 of George Davie’s The Democratic Intellect proved to be the obituary rather than the resurrection of Scottish philosophy that some people hoped for.