Home, Henry (Lord Kames) (1696–1782)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB046-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

Article Summary

Henry Home (better known as Lord Kames, his title as a Scottish judge of the Courts of Session and Justiciary) was an important promoter of and contributor to the Scottish Enlightenment. His philosophy was a search for causes which could serve as the bases of policies to improve most aspects of Scottish life and thought. His writings, like his involvements in clubs, government bodies and improving economic activities, were all means to enlightened and improving ends. Kames was perhaps the most typical thinker of the Scottish Enlightenment, uniting interests in philosophy, science, belles lettres, history, education and practical improvements of every sort.

Born in Eccles, Berwickshire, Henry Home, Lord Kames’ parentage related him to the Jacobite and Whig gentry but also to the professional classes. Unfortunately, gentility did not confer wealth. Kames’ notable interests in improvements were made necessary by his relative poverty which lasted until circa 1766 when his wife, Agatha Drummond, inherited the Blair Drummond estate in Stirlingshire. By the end of his career he had been honoured by societies or academies in Manchester, Philadelphia and Berne; he had also been attacked by Voltaire. At home his philosophic views seemed to many overly naturalistic and secular, even atheistic in their tendencies. Such conclusions were relatively easy to draw because Kames tended to deny free will, criticized Newtonian physics (the great prop to design arguments for the existence of God) (see Newton, I.) and extended the scope of sense and reason beyond what the religious were prepared to accept. He never produced a system based on the methods and views of his favourite philosophers – Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, John Locke, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury and Joseph Butler – but in his works he laid out views which foreshadowed Scottish Common Sense philosophy (see Common Sense School).

Kames, like David Hume, Thomas Reid and other Scots, thought that all knowledge and belief had to be related to human nature, that is the structure and capacities of the mind. His clearest statements of this belief are found in Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion (1751, revised 1758 and 1779), but they are not lacking in other works. Kames found his great guides in sense and feeling. Belief comes from a simple, unanalysable feeling not identical with Hume’s ‘vivacity of perception’ or other modes of awareness. If we have the feeling, we are caused and determined to believe in what we have perceived or remembered or what the critically evaluated testimony of others induces us to believe. Experience shows us a world in which causation is perceived – in ourselves as we will and act, in matter as objects at rest or in motion collide or move in determinable ways apparent to our senses of touch and sight. We do not know why or how objects move, but motion, rest, power, cause and effect are simple ideas derived from our experiences and requisite to the establishment of both morality and physics.

Kames differed from Newtonians in believing matter to be active and self-moving but bound by God to rules of motion which Newton’s physics defined. Surveying nature revealed a lawful and designed world, a beautiful system of related causes and effects. Taken as a whole, it was an effect which led irresistibly to a belief in a creative and benevolent God. Sensations and feelings may mislead us but they do not regularly do so when inductions are carefully made. Moreover, we find in them signs of the substances whose qualities sensations reveal and of which they are correlatives. Through the external senses we perceive external objects; through the external and internal senses we know ourselves and others as enduring and identical persons.

The internal senses are important to Kames’ morals and aesthetics. Morality, he thought, rests on instincts, feelings of pleasure and pain and sensations of right or wrong, propriety and impropriety, all of which are produced because we possess moral senses, ‘the voice of God within us’ (Essays, 1751: 63) (see Moral sense theories). This view owes more to Joseph Butler than to the Earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson or George Turnbull. Kames may well have developed it independently, and prior to the publication of David Hume’s earlier works.

Kames extended these views to law. Criminal laws rest on a sense of impropriety, upon the perception of the improper actor as guilty and one whose actions we resent and try to punish. Sympathy allows us to participate in the feelings of revenge raised in other injured parties. Laws in the various stages of society express all this in ways which depend upon levels of civility. Civil law rests in like manner upon changing notions of property, contract, society and of the wrongness of their violation. The laws of all peoples will, Kames believed, eventually converge, which led him to hope for a more perfect union between England and Scotland.

Kames developed his views of aesthetics in a somewhat similar fashion. A work of art evokes in our internal sense feelings of beauty, sublimity, grandeur, novelty and propriety. Understanding how this comes about and judging the means to their production are the functions of aesthetics and criticism. Kames did this so well that his Elements of Criticism (1767) remained a useful textbook in America until the mid-nineteenth century.

Kames’ views were unacceptable to many. John Stewart, the pious Edinburgh Newtonian, attacked his science and metaphysics because it allowed for a Godless, self-acting, self-designing world of mere matter. Kames’ denial of free will (1751) was condemned by Church courts in 1757 – an event which showed some of the limits to Scottish enlightened thought. His views on law were severely criticized by utilitarians, although the historicism with which they were associated survived (see Historicism). Indeed, his historical views resonated well into the nineteenth century, touching many fields such as sociology and anthropology and contributing to more general views of progress. In philosophy his work set out strategies pursued by the Scottish Common Sense philosophers, who more skilfully defended views he had held. When Lord Kames died many Scots mourned the man who, for contemporaries, was Scotland’s most notable philosopher.

Citing this article:
Emerson, Roger L.. Home, Henry (Lord Kames) (1696–1782), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB046-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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