Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Review of an "Agreeable Connexion"

Alexander Broadie. 2012. “Agreeable Connexions: Scottish Enlightenment links with France”. Edinburgh: John Donald, Birlinn Ltd. ISBN 978 1 906566 51 7. £25.
This is a most agreeable book for scholars and those interested in the Scottish Enlightenment from which so much of the modern world evolved.   The revolution in philosophical thinking about human society indirectly influenced, and was every bit as important, for the re-emergence of the market economies in the evolution of the modern world.   Both changes in philosophy and economics also changed everything else, not by any means perfectly. Lingering remnants of the old world in philosophy and in economics continued alongside the new.  What Smith called “pusillanimous superstition” continues among some philosophers (and physicists) as did the economics and magnitude of the state’s role.
Alexander Broadie is a most agreeable author, far more so than many academic philosophers and economists writing in related fields.  I found his “Agreeable Connexions” most enjoyable and informative.  But then I was expecting nothing less, having conversed with him on several occasions. He once ensured the wrapt attention of a discriminating David Hume Institute meeting by opening his remarks with a simple statement that he held Adam Smith’s former (1751) Chair of Logic at Glasgow University. Since then, we have conversed at meetings of the Scottish Philosophy Forum (organised by St. Andrews University). I found him a most amiable, informative, and most unpretentious authority, without a whiff of the competitive academic arrogance sometimes displayed by academics.  Hence, I looked forward to reading his new book.  I was not disappointed.  Reading histories of philosophy, like much of the history and practice of modern economics, can sometimes weary the most diligent of informed readers.
Broadie’s thesis is that what became known as the Scottish Enlightenment has its roots in a long history of connections between Scottish intellectuals from the medieval period onwards, primarily with their French opposite numbers, despite their different theological traditions, particularly after the Reformation (largely inspired from Luther’s Germany).  Enlightened thinkers thought for themselves; unenlightened thinkers were tied to the unchanging thoughts of past, mainly theological, authorities. Where there is argument and debate without political repression, or at least passivity, Enlightenment may follow.  Broadie’s account of this background is enlightening itself.  He points to the judicial execution of a theology student, Thomas Aikenhead, on dubious charges of blasphemy in 1697, as a tipping point in Scotland.  The moral authority of Protestant Church power slowly ebbed away thereafter.
France, in direct contrast to Scotland, took its own, quite different, course to the spread of Enlightenment thinking.  The Catholic Church’s monolithic grip of the French universities remained secure, ensuring that well-educated French exponents of Enlightenment remained outside them.  Remarkably however, Scottish intellectuals played an active role in French universities from the 14th century (17 Scots were rectors of the University of Paris by 1600). Their intellectual work was theological, aided by their fluency in Latin and French. Their presence among the French academic elite over the centuries continued through to connections between Scots and French enlightened thinkers. The Reformation did not break the academic links between Scotland and France, despite the non-catholic affiliations of 16th-18th century Scots and the rigid Catholicism of the French universities. There was also a flurry of independent Protestant institutions, ‘universities’ in all but name.  Both Protestant Scottish students and Professors mixed with French, including Catholic and Protestant, students and academics as they continued to move between the two countries.
Fusion and infusion of radical ideas set the scene throughout the 16th and 17th centuries for the 18th century Enlightenment.  Broadie traces these complex developments with commendable clarity.  The role of David Hume in visits France in his 20s and of French influence on David Hume is revealing.  Hume went to France to continue his studies in the libraries of resident Scottish contacts and to study the ideas of French sceptics to whom he was introduced.  He made a second visit to France, staying in retreat in the Jesuit convent at La Fleche, where he completed his Treatise, of which he was to famously and sadly remark that it “fell still-born from the press’. However, it has never been out of print since.  It is standard reading with his other major works today.
Students of philosophy will appreciate Broadie’s masterly account of Hume’s Philosophy and his scepticism, as they will his discussions of the Scottish counter-response of Thomas Reid and the Scottish “common sense” philosophy school that momentarily pushed Hume (and Adam Smith’s ‘Moral Sentiments’) aside.  But a philosophy anchored in theological certainties only temporarily stemmed the sceptical tide. For Hume the real world exists in the form of “impressions of it” as ideas of it in a “sustained act of imagination”.  The “common sense” school rejected Hume’s projection of his theory of the mind, largely I would suggest because the so-called “common sense” stance emanated from those bound to theological precepts that made room for the existence of the “soul” on which their philosophy and their religion were anchored.
Broadie’s presentation of “morality and sentiment” encompasses the contributions of Adam Smith’s ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ (1759).  He discusses Smith’s contributions in the context of their reception by French activists, especially Sophie de Grouchy, Marquise de Condorcet, who wrote as the French Enlightenment came to the whimper and end in “horrendously tumultuous times, of Revolution and Terror, of cabals and conspiracies, secret denunciations and summary executions”. She became prominent after Smith had died in 1790.
Broadie’s account of Smith and his contributions as background to those of the French philosophers is masterly. Students and teachers would gain from reading Broadie on Smith’s moral philosophy and the links he highlights in Smith’s ideas in relation to Hume’s.   His account (pp. 134-40) of how Smith’s “sympathy” has an important relevance for “conflict resolution” is among the very best I have seen from a philosopher. I am an economist not a philosopher, so I was happy to read that Broadie’s account confirms my very rudimentary applications of the “harmonising influences” of Smith’s moral sentiments in Smithian “exchange” (bargaining) transactions (Kennedy, 2010 Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy, pp 30-34. Palgrave-Macmillan).  
However, also as an economist I have a small quibble with Broadie on page 137, where he mentions Smith’s reference to “truck, barter and exchange”.  “Truck” had nothing to do with modern “trucking” or “taking goods to market”; it refers to the 18th-century practice of employers’ paying wages in kind not money, a procedure much abused by employers (company stores, etc.,) [1] and made illegal in 1831, while barter, despite popular usage, was a negotiation to exchange goods for goods.
Broadie’s coverage of Adam Ferguson shows the Scottish Enlightenment was not a one-way traffic from Scotland to France.  Montesquieu in ‘Spirit of the Laws’ (1748) influenced the Stadial theories of Adam Smith, and Montesquieu was also admired by David Hume and many others.  Ferguson’s “Essay on the History of Civil Society” (1767) shows Montesquieu’s influence throughout.  Broadie develops the themes of republican virtue, the meaning of liberty (doing what the law permits, but not otherwise) and the separation of powers in the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary.  This covers much of what Adam Smith outlined in his “Lectures On Jurisprudence” (1763) and “Wealth Of Nations” (1776).  It also explains the understated role of Adam Ferguson in Scottish Enlightenment thinking.
Broadie’s concluding chapter reveals the author’s theme of what “Agreeable Connexion” is about (always an author’s privilege).  I would recommend readers to read these last 5 pages first.  They are helpful as anchor points to Broadie’s argument. 
In summary, I consider Alexander Broadie has established his thesis that the centuries long links between France and Scotland were foundational in what became the Scottish Enlightenment in the unpromising circumstances of each country, one dominated by an all embracing rigid Calvinism and the other by a monolithic Catholic Church, yet feeding each other intellectually in the prelude of the transformation of one world to another.  The broad consequence was an historical, unintentional, unplanned transformation of average incomes from under $1 to over $100 a day in less than 3 centuries.   For those hundreds of millions living through that transformation, very few will have heard of many of the Enlightenment thinkers mentioned in “Agreeable Connexions”.  I hope thousands read Broadie’s book and appreciate what Enlightenment thinking achieved in the longer run.

[1] Think of the 1950s US pop song: “16 tons”: “St. Peter don’t you call me/ for I can’t go/ I owe my soul to the company store”.


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