Enlightenment, Scottish

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB026-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 14, 2020, from

2. Social theory

Perhaps the most characteristic aspect of the Scottish Enlightenment was its social theory and it is upon that aspect that this entry focuses, taking the term to include historical and moral theory.

The Scots took human sociality to be an evidentially warranted fact. A common explanation of it was that humans possessed a social instinct or appetite. This was seen as ‘social’ rather than simply familial, and Kames (1774), among others, undertook a detailed comparison between human and animal association. Despite some similarities, the distinctiveness of human sociality was insisted upon especially in the form of non-instrumental social ties such as friendship and loyalty. Part of the significance of this commitment to evidence was the deliberate rejection, most notably by Hume (see Hume, D. §§4–5), of the conceptions of a state of nature and a social contract.

Not only were these notions fanciful but they over-emphasized the role of purposive rationality. Here the Scots’ views differed from those typical of the French Enlightenment and of English thinkers like Priestley. For these latter thinkers Lockean epistemology (see Locke, J.) had laid the foundations for an essentially optimistic ‘perfectibilist’ philosophy. Since to mould experience is to mould human character, then, informed by the findings of reason, it becomes possible to set humans irrevocably on the right track. Accordingly, the more rational society becomes, the more rational will be the experience that it passes on to the next generation. For the Scots this was simplistic. In practice, the scope of reason was circumscribed by habit and social convention; social norms, for example, were the product of socialization not rational insight. In the case of government this meant that although they all had their origin in violence, ’time by degrees… accustoms the nation to regard as their lawful or native princes, that family which at first they considered as usurpers’ (Hume [1741–77] 1987: 474–5). Legitimacy in practice was the work of sentiments over time rather than the correspondence (or not) to some rational principle, like consent.

This link between social experience and normative judgments was the linchpin of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1757). To Smith the effects of social intercourse teach what behaviour is acceptable and in due course individuals internalise these social judgments as conscience, viewing their own actions and motives as an ‘impartial well-informed spectator’ would (see Smith, A. §3). The assumptions in Smith’s moral philosophy were widely shared. Following the lead of Francis Hutcheson they sought on the one hand to dismiss ‘rationalist’ accounts of morality (it was ‘more properly felt than judg’d of’ (Hume 1739–40: III.1.2)) and, most especially, on the other to undermine the egocentric assimilation of ‘morality’ to self-interest as in the work of Thomas Hobbes and Bernard Mandeville. Against the pretended naturalism of Hobbes and Mandeville, all the Scots insisted on a true naturalism, the facts of human nature testifying in their view to the presence of truly moral experience, a disinterested concern for the wellbeing of others. Hutcheson invoked a special ‘moral sense’ (as did, though not identically, Kames (1751) to explain this concern, while both Hume and Smith (without being in total agreement) rejected this recourse to a direct sense, referring instead to a concurrence of sentiments by means of a principle of sympathy (see Hume, D. §3; Smith, A. §2).

This sensitivity to socialization also meant the Scots were sceptical of the supposed achievements of Great Legislators like Lycurgus in moulding social institutions. Instead the Scots drew attention to the accidental and gradual formation of these institutions; in a phrase of Adam Ferguson’s, co-opted by later critics of rationalism like, for example, Hayek (1960), ‘nations stumble upon establishments which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design’ (Ferguson 1767); see Ferguson, A.). This is an exemplification of the ‘law of unintended consequences’, of which the other classic formulation in the Scottish Enlightenment was Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, whereby pursuit of self-interest by individuals furthered the public interest. While this has a clear bearing on the operation of markets, it was also used more generally – by John Millar, for example (1787, volume 1), to account for the development of the jury system.

This diminution of the role of rationalistic individualism was part of the Scots’ endeavour to explain social institutions as the effects of correspondingly social causes. They sought to go beyond the mere cataloguing of facts and provision of indiscriminate historical narrative to the tracing of the chain of causes and effects (see the Preface to Kames (1758)). This was typically executed by writing ‘natural histories’ (as in Hume (1757)). The key assumption was that human nature was constant and uniform in its principles and operations (see Human nature, science of in the 18th century). From that premise the theorists traced the development of key institutions, such as property, government, ranks, the status of women and religion, from simplicity to complexity or from rudeness to civilization. As a means of organizing this development, emphasis was laid, as Robertson said, on different ‘modes of subsistence’ (1777: Book 4). With Smith’s account seemingly seminal, social development was seen to fall into four stages – hunting, herding, farming and exchanging (see Smith, A. §4). In outlining this development, evidence from contemporary ethnography and classical history was combined in a deliberate utilization of the comparative method. Such comparisons, as well as being a way of checking the validity of any particular report, enabled them both to sift out ‘chance’ or random associations from truly causal conjunctions and to supply the missing links in the causal chain. This permitted them self-consciously to write universal histories. The title of James Dunbar’s Essays on the History of Mankind in Rude and Cultivated Ages (1780) captured what was typical of this general enterprise. The overall aim of these inquiries was to render the ‘amazing diversity’ (as Millar termed it (1779: 3rd edition, Introduction) of social life explicable. While later philosophers like Collingwood (see Collingwood 1961) have heavily criticized this view of the past, for the Scots of the Enlightenment, history was (in Hume’s phrase) a branch of the ‘science of man’. It was also openly evaluative.

Citing this article:
Berry, Christopher J.. Social theory. Enlightenment, Scottish, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB026-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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