Saturday, April 29, 2006

James Hutton, Adam Smith and James Buchan

From The Scotsman 29 March:

'Adam Smith and the Pursuit of Perfect Liberty' by James Buchan, Profile Books, a review by George Kerevan:

"IF YOU WERE A REGULAR walker on the Salisbury Crags high above Edinburgh on crisp mornings during the early 1780s, you would be familiar with two earnest gentlemen whose passion was examining the geology of that ancient rocky formation. One of them was Dr James Hutton, whose excursions on the Crags would lead to a revolutionary conclusion: that the Earth was millions of years old and had not, after all, been created by God in the year 4004 BC, as was the prevailing view.

For this was the Edinburgh of the Enlightenment, when gentlemen amateurs abandoned traditional ways of thinking and created the modern world as we know it. Hutton's friend, who seldom uttered a word on these outings but trailed after his companion muttering quietly to himself, was also an Enlightenment revolutionary. His name was Adam Smith, founder of the equally subversive science of economics and, like Gordon Brown, a son of Kirkcaldy in Fife.

The novelist and noted historian of Enlightenment Edinburgh, James Buchan, has turned his attention to a new biography of Smith. At 145 pages, this is more a polemical essay than a dense life history, but it is an interesting and charming read for all that. If you want the serious historical background about the Enlightenment, try Buchan's own Capital of the Mind."

A review that concurs with my own assessment of the importance of James Buchan's new book (see previous comments in this book). Read it in full at:

What I like about Kerevan's introduction is his tagging the opening onto the name of James Hutton, a close friend of Smith and one of his literary excutors. James Hutton may be less well known but he was an important Enlightenment figure. As a geologist and farmer he brought to the early study of geology a knowledge of the land and by methodically studying Scotland's rocks he unravelled the mystery of the earth's origins, for which he has achieved posthumous fame.

I recently bought volume one of his three-volume book of Philosophy (1793) with the intention of comparing it with Smith's to see how much of it was influenced, if at all, by Smith. In a most interesting paper by Donald MacIntyre, a geologist from Edinburgh who taught at California until he retired, he explains a link between the two men in Hutton's coded stance against the orthodox religious explanation for the origins of the Earth, as expressed in Genesis. This is another thread I am following.

To find out more about James Hutton see the National Museums of Scotland publication: James Hutton: the foudner of mdoern geology by Donald McIntyre and Alan McKirdy, 1997


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