Carmichael, Gershom (1672–1729)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB015-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

Article Summary

Gershom Carmichael was a teacher and writer of pivotal importance for the Scottish Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. He was the first Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, predecessor of Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith and Thomas Reid. Carmichael introduced the natural law tradition of Grotius, Pufendorf and Locke to the moral philosophy courses he taught at the University of Glasgow (1694–1729). His commentaries on Samuel Pufendorf’s work on the duty of man and citizen (1718 and 1724) made his teaching available to a wider readership in Great Britain and in Europe. He also composed an introduction to logic, Breviuscula Introductio ad Logicam, (1720 and 1722) and a brief system of natural theology, Synopsis Theologiae Naturalis (1729).

Gershom Carmichael began his teaching career at St Andrews University in 1693; he was appointed to the University of Glasgow in 1694, and became the first Professor of Moral Philosophy at that university in 1727. His moral philosophy is remarkable particularly for the manner in which he justified the natural rights of individuals. Those rights included self-defence, property and the natural right to services contracted for with others. He also argued that slavery is incompatible with the rights of men and citizens, and that subjects have a right to resist rulers who exceed the limits of their powers. His arguments for natural rights derived from his understanding of the divine or natural law that lasting happiness or beatitude may be found only in reverence for God. One may signify reverence or veneration directly; but reverence for God may also be signified indirectly, by reverence or respect for his creatures, and specifically by respect for mankind. The most evident manner in which the latter may be signified is by acknowledging the natural rights of all human beings. By such acknowledgement one signifies observance of the divine or natural law, and one finds, in such observance, beatitude or lasting happiness.

Carmichael’s theory that rights derive from a universal longing for beatitude was consistent with the Reformed scholastic theology that was taught in Scottish universities in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. His theory of moral motivation presented a problem, however, for his successors. Was it possible for an action or a character to be moral or right or good if it was inspired by some motive other than veneration of God? Hutcheson, Smith and Reid found in benevolence, in sympathy with others and in conscience, moral inspiration which they judged to be more consistent with experience than Carmichael’s moral psychology. But, in their disagreements with Carmichael and with one another, they generated those fruitful speculations concerning the moral life of mankind that we have come to call the Scottish Enlightenment (see Enlightenment, Scottish). Carmichael’s importance as a moral philosopher turns, then, not only upon his distinctive contribution to the natural rights tradition of Grotius, Pufendorf and Locke; nor upon his redirection of Reformed or Presbyterian scholastic ethics to speculation on the divine inspiration for human rights and obligations; it was, above all, perhaps the manner in which he helped to shape the agenda of moral philosophy in eighteenth-century Scotland that makes him a figure worthy of attention in the history of philosophy.

Citing this article:
Moore, James and Michael Silverthorne. Carmichael, Gershom (1672–1729), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB015-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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