Friday, February 01, 2008

Scottish Philosophers Aim to Go Beyond the Enlightenment

The Scotsman , Edinburgh, 1 February, (full text here) publishes a most important article, 'Enlightened thinking on great philosophical legacy of Scots' by John Haldane (professor of philosophy at the University of St Andrews and editor of Scottish Philosophy, The Monist):

"It is time for new curiosity on the movement that has become a shorthand for academic legacy, says John Haldane.

In a lecture delivered a decade ago in Glasgow, the late Donald Dewar said the creation of Scotland's first parliament for 300 years would lay the foundation for a future in which, "as in the Scottish Enlightenment", our education should be a world leader.

Two years ago, as part of the Tartan Day promotion of Scotland in the United States, the then first minister, Jack McConnell, gave a speech at Princeton University, whose past presidents have included two Scots – John Witherspoon in the 18th century and James McCosh in the 19th. McConnell's title was "Scottish Values, Ideas and Ambitions: from Witherspoon to Today", and he spoke of "Scotland's most influential period – the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century (whose] enlightened values; philosophies and sciences were used by Witherspoon and others to lay down the foundations of the new America, and helped create the modern world too".

Invited in 2007 by the Wall Street Journal to name his five best Scottish writings, Alex Salmond [First Minister in the Scottish Government] gave as No 1 Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776), writing that "with its espousal of freedom, industry and self-determination, the Wealth of Nations is considered a founding document of the Scottish Enlightenment, which deeply influenced the great political and philosophical movements of the modern era".

Then there have been the books: Arthur Herman's The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots' Invention of the Modern World, James Buchan's Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment, Alexander Broadie's The Scottish Enlightenment and his edited anthology of the same title.

A certain theme emerges: the great Scottish Enlightenment, its international influence and its enduring example. This is certainly worth celebrating, but there is a danger that over-repetition of the phrase may substitute for engagement with the substance of the thought of that age and blind us to the philosophical ideas of other periods in Scotland's history.

"Scottish philosophy? of course, the Enlightenment!" – and on we go to something else.

Two-and-a-half centuries before the Enlightenment, the Scots philosopher John Mair had developed radical sets of ideas about Church governance, political authority and the rights of indigenous peoples, and transformed history from poetic mythology to serious study. Favouring the authority of councils and representative bodies over sovereigns, he also developed the idea of the natural rights of liberty and property.

Increasingly, Mair's ideas are coming to be recognised as having provided part of the foundations for modern theories of democracy and universal human rights.

Another two-and-a-half centuries back and we meet Duns Scotus, one of the great thinkers of the medieval West. Among his contributions is a powerful understanding of human freedom and its centrality to morality, and thus to what it is that makes us distinctive beings.

Moving to the 19th century, in which for the first time the idea of "Scottish philosophy" is developed and discussed, we find Sir William Hamilton, regarded in his own day as one of the great intellectuals of Europe and some of whose most important writings were published in the Edinburgh Review. A generation later comes James Ferrier, again a brilliant figure whose reputation was made through revolutionary ideas about human consciousness published in Black-wood's Magazine. The story continues through a line of major figures mostly in Glasgow and Edinburgh and more often influenced by continental European philosophy than by what was going on south of the Border.

In the 20th century, professional academics, such as John Anderson, John MacMurray and Alastair MacIntyre, maintained styles of thought that drew on earlier Scottish philosophy, but that was in part because it was for them a formative tradition. Now, by contrast, the tendency is to confine it to the glorious period of the 18th century, treating it as a museum piece to be kept highly polished and on display for periodic visits, and to be referred to whenever the occasion calls for dignity or celebration.

The other day I took part in a meeting with colleagues from St Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen to discuss how the study of Scottish philosophy in its broadest sense might be developed both at the level of academic study and more widely; and how it might be introduced into the service of thinking about contemporary issues in Scotland. The result was the establishment of the Forum for Scottish Philosophy. Barely just conceived, it is uncertain how it will develop, but I hope in due course it will flourish and that one consequence might be that in a few years' time the answer to the question "Scottish philosophy?" might be not "of course, the Enlightenment!" but "good, where would you like to start?".

One particular sentence caught my eye:

how within a century many of its ideas and values had actually been lost sight of – or rejected.’

This is certainly true in the case of Adam Smith. His legacy from Wealth Of Nations has been pillaged and turned on its head in many cases.

The news that a ‘Forum for Scottish Philosophy’ has been set up is most encouraging, not that Adam Smith would dominate it alone. David Hume has never left centre-stage as Scotland’s, and one of Britain’s, greatest philosophers. But the Forum aims to do more; it aims to look at the contribution of Scottish philosophy before and beyond the Enlightenment.

I think we should all look forward to the work of the ‘Forum for Scottish Philosophy’ across the centuries before and after the high-tide of the Enlightenment.

It was my original intention after working on Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy (2005) to begin research for a work on exactly where and by whom Adam Smith’s legacy was transmuted into its modern Chicago version, but the invitation to write on Adam Smith for the Great Thinkers in Economics series diverted my attention through 2006-8.

Now that this work is completed, I think I shall return to that project, starting with the editorial spoilage conducted by William Playfair, as ‘editor’ of the 7th edition of Wealth of Nations, and proceeding on through the 19th and 20th centuries.

Meanwhile, I wish the philosophers in the Forum for Scottish Philosophy (some of whom I know) well in their work. I am sure their perspectives are correct.


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