Turnbull, George (1698–1748)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB066-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

Article Summary

George Turnbull was an early champion of the use of empirical methods in the moral sciences. Involved in contemporary religious debate, he favoured religious toleration and the use of rational argument in defence of Christian belief. He also made contributions to educational theory and practice.

Born in Alloa, Scotland, on 11 July 1698, George Turnbull studied at the University of Edinburgh, where he was an early member of the Rankenian Club. Like his fellow Rankenians, Turnbull was interested in contemporary religious debates, and in 1718 he tried to initiate a correspondence with the deist John Toland (1670–1722) (see Deism; Toland, J.). During the late 1710s he also composed a manuscript treatise on civil religion which remained unpublished because of the controversial nature of his argument in favour of religious toleration. After graduating with his MA from Edinburgh in April 1721, he became a regent at Marischal College, Aberdeen, and taught there until he resigned in 1727.

Although Turnbull had a chequered career in Aberdeen, he played a major part in the transformation of Marischal’s philosophy curriculum. He helped to popularize the writings of the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, and he joined with other regents to promote the study of natural jurisprudence and history. Along with some of his colleagues, Turnbull expounded the political views of Old Whigs like Lord Molesworth (1656–1725), with whom he corresponded about education and religion. He also mobilized Newtonian natural philosophy in the service of religion, and developed a rational form of Christianity designed to counter the attacks of deists and atheists. But perhaps his most important contribution was his proposed methodological reformation of moral philosophy. Although he may have been indebted to his teachers at Edinburgh for the initial idea, Turnbull was the first Scottish moralist to advocate in print the use of the experimental method to investigate moral questions, and his advocacy of a scientistic approach to morals left a permanent mark on eighteenth-century Scottish philosophy, especially through the influence of his pupil Thomas Reid.

After such an auspicious start, Turnbull’s subsequent career was something of a prolonged anticlimax. Following his departure from Aberdeen, he worked as a tutor to young aristocrats on the Grand Tour until he settled in London in the mid-1730s. During his travels he published two tracts on the rational basis of Christian belief (1731, 1732), and he addressed this topic again in 1740 in his most substantial publication, The Principles of Moral Philosophy. Turnbull here reiterated his call for the use of the experimental method in the moral sciences, and elaborated upon this theme in a dissertation appended to his translation of Heineccius’ work on natural law (1741). 1740 also saw the appearance of his Treatise on Ancient Painting, wherein he expanded upon the basic elements of Shaftesbury’s aesthetics in the context of a historical review of the development of painting and sculpture among the ancients. In addition, the Treatise considered the role of the fine arts in education, and issues of pedagogy were the primary focus of his last significant book, the Observations upon Liberal Education (1742), which despite its derivativeness makes a persuasive case for the structural unity of all branches of human learning. Turnbull’s feverish literary activity points to his continuing search for settled employment and, having been ordained in 1739, he sought preferment in the Anglican Church. He was eventually rewarded with a minor position in Ireland, and he died in relative obscurity in the Hague on 31 January 1748.

Citing this article:
Wood, Paul. Turnbull, George (1698–1748), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB066-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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