Aberdeen Philosophical Society

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

Article Summary

The Aberdeen Philosophical Society (1758–73) played a formative role in the genesis of Scottish common sense philosophy. Its founder members included the philosopher Thomas Reid and the theologian George Campbell. Its discussions favoured the natural and human sciences, particularly the science of the mind, and one of its central concerns was the refutation of the work of David Hume.

Popularly known as the ‘Wise Club’, the Aberdeen Philosophical Society was founded in January 1758 by a core group of six men that included the philosopher Thomas Reid and the theologian George Campbell. The Society initially brought together individuals who were either associated with the two Aberdeen colleges or connected with the local political magnate, Lord Deskford. During the next decade, figures such as Alexander Gerard and James Beattie joined the club, and the Society became a respected body within the European republic of letters because of the growing reputation its leading members had achieved through their publications. However, by the late 1760s the Society was in decline, and it finally dissolved in 1773 due to internal divisions caused by college politics.

Unlike other prominent Scottish groups of the period, the Wise Club carefully circumscribed the scope of its proceedings. According to its constitution the Society was to exclude the discussion of the traditional scholarly fields of grammar, philology and history, and limit itself to ‘philosophical’ subjects. Under this rubric the founding members included reports on matters of fact, inductive generalizations concerning the phenomena of the material and mental realms, disquistions on false theoretical systems and erroneous methods of philosophizing, and the exploration of the relations between philosophy and the practical arts. Consequently, the Society focused largely on topics drawn from the natural and human sciences, and rarely touched on the literary and artistic questions which interested many of the other polite clubs of the Scottish Enlightenment (see Enlightenment, Scottish). The most popular subject for discussion was the anatomy of the mind, particularly as it related to morals. Other areas canvassed at meetings included politics, education, political economy, mathematics, natural philosophy, natural history and agricultural improvement. Thus, like most provincial clubs of the eighteenth century, the Aberdeen Philosophical Society covered a broad spectrum of topics, but the scientistic approach to moral philosophy which it espoused was rooted in the local philosophical tradition initiated by the moralist George Turnbull.

Although their debates ranged widely, the members of the Society were centrally concerned with the refutation of the writings of David Hume. One of the club’s founders, Robert Trail, had earlier criticized Hume in a sermon published in 1755, and his fellow members subsequently took up the charge. Alexander Gerard and George Campbell attacked Hume’s critique of religion; while Thomas Reid, John Farquhar and James Beattie among others challenged various aspects of his epistemology. The Society therefore functioned as a forum for the articulation of a common-sense reponse to Humean scepticism, and Thomas Reid did not exaggerate when he wrote to Hume in 1763 that ’If you write no more in morals, politics, or metaphysics, I am afraid we [that is, the Wise Club] shall be at a loss for subjects’ (Ulman 1990: 57).

Citing this article:
Wood, Paul. Aberdeen Philosophical Society, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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