Post-Enlightenment Philosophy

The Advent of Idealism in post enlightenment philosophy

The dominance of the 'School of Common sense' inevitably led to a reaction. This was first evident in lectures given by Thomas Brown (1778-1820) and published posthumously. Brown succeeded Dugald Stewart in the prestigious Chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh, but somewhat to Stewart's dismay, he rejected Reid's criticism of Hume, with whom he ended to side. The school of common sense was further cast into a wider perspective by an increasing knowledge of Kant and the development of German Idealism, ironically initiated by Sir William Hamilton (1788-1856). Hamilton himself remained loyal to the legacy of Thomas Reid, whose Collected Works he edited and published in 1848, but he had spent time in Germany, and annotations in the books of his extensive library show that he had read Kant in the original and understood its importance. Hamilton's own 'philosophy of the unconditioned' was subjected to a devastating 'Examination' by John Stuart Mill, published in 1865, but in his own time Hamilton was regarded as a major intellectual figure of international renown. More important, perhaps, was the fact that he was the revered and influential teacher of a subsequent generation of figures of post enlightenment philosophy, including notably James Frederick Ferrier (1808-1864), John Veitch and Alexander Campbell Fraser, who subsequently held Chairs at St Andrews, Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively (Fraser as Hamilton's immediate successor). Ferrier, though unsuccessful in his application to succeed Hamilton, was Hamilton's protégé, and it was his position in this regard that enabled him to put pen to paper in profound dissatisfaction with the tradition of Reid. His own philosophical endeavours set off in a quite different direction for which he nevertheless claimed the title 'Scottish', and with some justice since he continued to regard its educational role as central to normative moral philosophy.

Ferrier sought to reinstate some of the insights of George Berkeley. He was to this degree an Idealist, and though something of an isolated figure, he presaged the rise of Scottish Idealism. Its leading figure was Edward Caird (1835-1908), Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow, and subsequently Master of Balliol. Caird was powerfully influenced by Kant and Hegel, on whom he wrote acclaimed books. Though it is correct to think of the Scottish philosophical tradition hitherto as avowedly Realist, there are important elements of continuity in his philosophy with the older tradition in which he was educated. His first set of Gifford Lectures on the subject The Evolution of Religion demonstrated an understanding of evolution importantly different to the Darwinian conception that came to dominate the 19th and 20th centuries.

A new generation of Scottish post enlightenment philosophers followed in his wake. These included Sir Henry Jones (1852-1922), David Ritchie (1853-1903) and Andrew Seth, later A S Pringle Pattison (1856-1931) who published works of considerable originality.Ritchie's comparison of Darwin and Hegel in particular showed how the concept of evolution might be appropriated in fruitful ways that were not subject to advances in the biological sciences. Although it is the philosophers of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment who now attract most attention, there is a good case to made for thinking that Scottish philosophy reached its zenith in the second half of the 19th century. It is in this period that philosophers of distinction are to be found at all the Scottish universities, including St Andrews which figured hardly at all in the 18th century, and it coincided with greater self-consciousness on the part of an identifiable Scottish tradition, as evidenced by the publication (in 1875) of not only James McCosh's well known book, The Scottish Philosophy, but Ferrier's earlier (now very rare) short work Scottish Philosophy, the old and the new, as well as A S Pringle Pattison's Balfour lectures Scottish Philosophy. Alongside the emergence of a new philosophical trend -- Idealism – the period was also noteworthy for a development more indebted to Hume and associationist psychology, namely the psychology of Alexander Bain, a graduate of Marischal College, friend and collaborator of John Stuart Mill and, from 1860 to 1880, Regius Professor of Logic at the University of Aberdeen, the newly created amalgamation of Marischal and Kings. The influence of the Scottish Idealists was considerable but relatively short lived. Bain's empirical psychology, by contrast, while undoubtedly a genuine intellectual development of the Scottish philosophy of eighteenth century, set an agenda of lasting significance for the study of psychology in the 20th century.

In the closing decades of the century, the philosophers of Scotland were given a further sense of collective enterprise by the creation of the Gifford Lectures. In 1885, a Scottish judge Adam Lord Gifford, bequeathed £80,000 (over £6m in 2007 values) to be divided between the four Scottish universities (the two colleges in Aberdeen having been united in 1860). This was for the establishment of a series of lectures dealing with the topic of natural religion. Gifford wanted lectures that were both scholarly and able to reach a large general audience, and hoped they would be published in an inexpensive format. Over time the Gifford Lectures came to be highly distinguished and have been delivered by a wide variety of thinkers drawn from across the world. But initially they were more closely focussed on philosophical topics and mostly given by Scottish philosophers at universities other than their own, a practice that lasted well into the 20th century. Combined with the continuing tradition of students succeeding their teachers in professorial positions, this gave an uncommon sense of community among the Scottish philosophers, something that found institutional expression in the formation of the Scots Philosophical Club in 1901.

Post Enlightenment Philosophy - The Dissolution of the Scottish Philosophical Tradition

The Scottish Idealists fell victim to the demise of philosophical Idealism in general which dropped out of favour early in the 20th century. Empirical psychology of the sort pioneered by Bain, along with the social sciences to which Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson and Dugald Stewart had made significant contribution, combined with Idealism victorious rival – logical positivism – and found an ally in British empiricism. This led to a renewed interest in David Hume, one of its major figures. This renewed interest in Hume, however, treated him not as an exponent of sceptical positions waiting to be refuted so much as a thinker from whom much was to be learned. It thus gave him a quite different status to that which he had had in the context of Scottish philosophy.

This signalled a change. As Hume rose to prominence, after almost a century in the ascendant, 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 work of Norman Kemp Smith is of singular importance here. A graduate of St Andrews, subsequently a Professor at Princeton before succeeding A S Pringle-Pattison in the Chair of Logic and Metaphysics at Edinburgh, Kemp Smith was a product of the Scottish philosophical tradition par excellence. Yet with his definitive translation of Kant's first Critique, and two hugely influential articles in Mind on the interpretation of David Hume, Kemp Smith raised Hume to the status of Kant's great equal. He thus established a rivalry between Hume and Kant in which the tradition of Reid could play little part.

In the first half of the 20th century, the solitary figure of John Macmurray (1891-1976) was regarded (by some) as the last torch bearer of the old tradition. Ironically the publication in 1961 of George Davie's The Democratic Intellect, which not only explored but celebrated the tradition of Scottish philosophy, proved to be its obituary rather than the resurrection of Scottish philosophy that some people hoped for.

In any case, the dramatic, government led and funded, expansion of universities into a much larger UK wide system put an end to the distinctive institutions of higher education upon which the identity and continuity of Scottish philosophy had relied.