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Introduction and Scope

The Scottish Enlightenment is a fairly extensive subject. To keep this website manageable, a limited set of subtopics have been selected for treatment, mostly guided by the personal interest of the author. The individuals included are first Francis Hutcheson, acknowledged to be the foundational figure, and professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Then there is philosopher and economist Adam Smith, a student of Hutcheson at Glasgow and his successor at this faculty. There is also a group of  friends who lived in Edinburgh: William Robertson, Hugh Blair, Alexander Carlyle, David Hume, and Adam Ferguson. Robertson, Blair and Ferguson were members of the faculty or administration at the University of Edinburgh. Robertson, Blair and Carlyle were also prominent Presbyterian preachers. Philosopher David Hume struck some discordant notes, but he was nevertheless an integral member of the Edinburgh group. Although Adam Smith lived in Glasgow, he traveled often to visit Edinburgh, and should also be considered a member of this circle. Another thread follows George Turnbull through Thomas Reid, his student at Marischal College and ending back at Glasgow, where Reid replaced Adam Smith at the Moral Philosophy chair.  It should be noted that the material is selected and organized by topic rather than by author. As a result, the complex thought of some authors such as Hume or Reid is covered in a very limited way.  Hutcheson and Ferguson are emphasized, again as a result of the personal interest of the author.

The Age of Enlightenment is a term used to describe a phase in the history of Western civilization, during the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries,  that emphasized rational thought and empirical observation. Although there were some common elements, there were also significant differences among the “enlightenments” in the different European countries. All of these movements were influenced by the scientific discoveries of the seventeenth century and the resulting confidence in human rationality. There was some interaction;  for example, Adam Smith and David Hume visited some of the leading figures of the French enlightenment and Ferguson was influenced by Montesquieu. The contention of this website, however, is that the Scottish Enlightenment was primarily an original development, spearheaded by Hutcheson, whose first major work (1725) anteceded those of most of the other European “lights” such as Voltaire (1733) and Rousseau (1736), and who was influenced by such diverse thinkers as Lord Shaftesbury (1671-1713) and Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694), as well as the mainstream classical and medieval traditions.

Government and Society

After several wars, Scotland was able to establish its political independence from England in the fourteenth century. Then in 1603, James VI, king of Scotland, inherited the crown of England, and his family ruled both kingdoms independently until 1707, when they were united into the Kingdom of Great Britain. The parliaments of both countries were then integrated into a single entity based in London. This was approved by the parliaments of both countries, although it did not have much popular support in Scotland. A source of friction was the difference in the established religions, Anglicanism in England and Presbyterianism in Scotland. Each region maintained its state religion, but to hold parliamentary office, which was now in London, Scottish officials had to participate in the Anglican sacraments. Catholics were not allowed to hold office anywhere in the Kingdom. Economically, Scotland benefited from unification due to increased commerce. Glasgow, as an Atlantic port, benefitted particularly from the trading with the American colonies.

An Academic Enlightenment

One unique feature of the Scottish Enlightenment was its academic connection, primarily centered on the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Historian Douglas Sloan has pointed out that after the unification of England and Scotland in 1707, the Scottish universities became a vehicle for maintaining Scottish identity.[1]


The development at Glasgow occurred earlier, lead by Hutcheson: "By his own example and by exerting a gentle pressure on his colleagues, Hutcheson became a driving force behind curriculum reform at Glasgow... He helped to appoint  other reform-minded  colleagues to important chairs. Glasgow University soon gained a reputation for academic excellence and learning."[2] In the words of Alexander Carlyle, who studied there in the 1740's, "the fame of Mr. Hutcheson had filled the college with students of philosophy..."[3] Robert Simson (1687-1768), a professor of mathematics at Glasgow during this period, was a distinguished mathematician, and he brought additional recognition to the university.


During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, The University of Leyden in Holland had the best medical school in Europe, and it included several Scotsmen in its faculty. When Edinburgh established a medical school in 1726, several of these returned to Scotland to join this faculty. By the second half of the eighteenth century, Edinburgh had surpassed Leyden in medical prestige, attracting numerous students for the whole continent and from America.[4] The rise of the medical school helped stimulate the rise of other related scientific disciplines.[5] The further development of the University of Edinburgh during the eighteenth century was a result of the accomplishments of what historian Richard Sher calls the "Moderate literati" circle headed by William Robertson, who was elected principal in 1762:

They were intimate friends who settled in the Edinburgh vicinity during the 1740s and the 1750s. They were affiliated with the moderate party in ecclesiastical affairs. They secured positions of prestige and authority in the Church of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh. They played decisive roles in the intellectual and cultural life of Scotland during the second half of the eighteenth century, both as ecclesiastical politicians and academic administrators and as men of letters in their own right... William Robertson and the 'little band of earnest men' who founded the Moderate party were conspicuous for their commitment to such polite, enlightened values as genteel manners, religious moderation and tolerance, and high esteem for scientific and literary accomplishments.[6]

Cultural Societies

Intellectual discussion groups are a fixture at most universities, often centered on popular faculty members. Alexander Carlyle describes several such groups from his student days at Glasgow.[7] But at Edinburgh, cultural societies or clubs became a central component of the Enlightenment movement and they extended beyond the university. The Select Society was founded in 1754, and it in the words of member Carlyle :

[It] improved and gave a name to the literati of this country, then beginning to distinguish themselves... The conversation at these convivial meetings frequently improved the members more by free conversation than the speeches in the Society. It was those meetings in particular that rubbed off all corners, as we call it, by collision, and made the literati of Edinburgh less captius and pedantic than they were elsewhere.[8]

Hume, Ferguson, Robertson, Blair, Carlyle, and Adam Smith were members of the Select Society, along with most intellectuals of Edinburgh and surroundings. Adam Smith, for example, commuted to the meetings from Glasgow. As the Select Society dwindled, most of the same people formed the Poker Club in 1762, and it lasted until the 1780s. The meetings at these clubs had a strong social element, with food and drink, and they were often held at taverns. The Poker name was not about the game, but about its purpose of "poking" at important issues.[9]

[1] Douglas Sloan, The Scottish Universities in the Enlightenment (New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1971), 14.

[2] Arthur Herman. How the Scots Invented the Modern World (New York: Crown Publishers, 2001), 68.

[3] Alexander Carlyle, Autobiography of the Rev. Dr Carlyle, Second Edition (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1860), 82.

[4] Douglas Sloan, The Scottish Universities in the Enlightenment, 27, 187.

[5] Ibid., 27.

[6] Richard B. Sher, Church and University in the Scottish Enlightenment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 14, 57.

[7] Alexander Carlyle, Autobiography of the Rev. Dr Carlyle, 76-77.

[8] Ibid., 297-298.

[9] Ibid., 419-420.