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The Scottish
Enlightenment of the
eighteenth century
Classroom Only
From the vantage point of the early
eighteenth century, Scotland would
appear to be one of the most unlikely
places in Europe to become a centre
of intellectual innovation. The hold of
the Catholic Church had been broken
in the sixteenth century but only to
be replaced by one of the most
narrow and bigoted forms of
in the mid-eighteenth century, the
mists of ignorance cleared and
Scotland vaulted from being one of
the most backward countries of
Europe to one of its most civilized –
indeed, the leader, for a period, in
the developments that have led
historians to call the eighteenth
century the Age of Enlightenment.
These developments were perhaps
due in part to the closer ties with
England that followed the Act of
Union in 1707, made final by the
failure of the Jacobite Rebellion of
1745; and undoubtedly, the
economic changes that invigorated
Scottish industry in the latter half of
the eighteenth century had some
By ‘literature’ Hume meant
intellectual productions of all kinds;
Scotland was distinguished in the
sciences as well as in philosophy and
the arts. The University of
Edinburgh's medical school was so
renowned that students flocked to it
from all over, including America.
The Scottish thinkers in whom we
are especially interested are those
who contributed to the social
The leading figures were Francis
Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, Thomas
Reid, Dugald Stewart, Lord Kames
(Henry Home), Lord Monboddo
(James Burnet), David Hume, and
Adam Smith. The last two are the
ones of outstanding permanent
significance .
Classroom Only
To the modern reader the term
‘moral philosophy’ denotes the
branch of philosophy that deals with
ethics: a relatively small part of only
one of the many departmental units
in the modern university's curriculum.
Historians have often drawn
attention to the fact that the social
sciences developed from subjects
that were previously included in
moral philosophy, and it is
sometimes inferred from this that
the fountainhead of modern social
science was ethics.
In fact the main source of inspiration
for the eighteenth-century thinkers
was the accomplishments of the
natural sciences.
When an eighteenth-century writer
describes a proposition as
“unphilosophical” he means that it
lacks what we today would call
‘scientific’ foundations. The modem
usage of the term ‘science’ stems
from the early nineteenth century.
There was much talk during the
eighteenth century of extending the
application of “philosophical
principles” to the field of human
behaviour. This, roughly speaking, is
what the term ‘moral philosophy’
came to denote.
By ‘experimental method’ Hume did
not mean laboratory experiments but,
more broadly, the general approach
of the sciences, which contrasted
sharply with the arid a priori
methods of scholastic philosophy. In
Hume's view, the counterpart of the
laboratory, experiment in social
phenomena is history, which
furnishes empirical data.
How did the Scottish moral
philosophers regard ‘human nature’?
The first point that should be noted
is that they did not view man in
religious or theological terms.
The most fundamental philosophical
question of theology is the
foundation of one's belief - in
particular points of doctrine or,
indeed, in the very existence of a
supreme being.
This approach to theology, which was
called ‘Natural Religion’ or ‘Deism’.
So the Christian did not have to
become a sceptic in order to adopt
the view that the way to advance
‘moral philosophy’ was to study the
characteristics of man as natural
Regarding man as a natural
phenomenon is, however, not
sufficient to provide foundations for
social science. If one hopes to
construct general laws as the other
sciences do, there must be sufficient
uniformity of human nature to
sustain the validity of general
The Scottish moral philosophers, by
contrast, emphasized the uniformity
of human nature.
Adam Smith's adoption of this view
became the foundation o economic
theory, as we shall see. It is worth
noting here that it also became the
basis normative economics in that
when Smith investigated ‘The Nature
and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’,
he meant to include all inhabitants
inhabitants within the term ‘nation’,
which led him immediately to the
judgement (which some of his
contemporaries found surprising)
that a nation cannot be considered
rich if its lower classes (who
compose the greatest number) are
The Scottish moral philosophers were
primarily interested in the social
behavior of man.
Adam Smith’s great contribution was
to show that the power of an
absolute sovereign is not the only
means by which social order may be
achieved in a world of self-interested
but his first book, The Theory of
Sentiments (1759), was devoted to a
study of social psychology in terms
of man's propensity to desire the
welfare of others.
David Hume, in the Treatise of
Human Nature, suggested that
everyone considers the welfare of
other persons but does not give it as
much weight as his own.
Concerning the one area of social
science that had undergone
significant development prior to the
era of the Scottish Enlightenment political theory - the Scottish
moralists strongly rejected the
accepted methodology
This view of the contract theory of
society and government became
general during the nineteenth
century. Though Locke was still
regarded with respect, because of his
empirical philosophy of knowledge
and the liberal thrust of his political
theory, the contract approach fell out
of favour.
As political science developed, its
emphasis was upon the evolution of
political institutions and their
functional roles in social organization.
In recent years has there been a
revival of contract theory,
in the area of ethical philosophy by
John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice
(1971), and in the analysis of
collective institutions initiated by J. M.
Buchanan and Gordon Tullock’s The
Calculus of Consent (1962).
Classroom Only
Hume’s from being appointed to a
university post, which he would have
liked. Hume’s strongest attack on
religion was published only after his
death, though it was written twentyfive years earlier (Dialogues
Concerning Natural Religion, 1779).
The problem focuses upon the issue
of egoism versus benevolence in
man's nature.
Hume rejected Hobbes's view as
failing to recognize that society is
part of man's nature.
Hume followed other Scottish
philosophers in arguing that man is
egoistic in the sense that he values
his own welfare above that .of others,
but not to the degree that he values
the welfare of others at zero.
His main objective in this connection,
however, was not to undermine our
moral judgements but to question
the arguments made for them; just
as in his examination of religion he
did not attack the specific doctrines
of Christianity, or any other religion,
but the ‘demonstrations’ that
religionists offer in claiming the
doctrines to be true.
This argument of Hume's opened a
discussion that has persisted down to
the present day, known in the
philosophical literature as the ‘isought’ or the ‘fact-value’ dichotomy.
But man, though inferior to other
animals as an individual, is able to
increase his power by social
Thus, in Hume's view, man was not
given dominion over the earth by
God, nor was he endowed by nature
with the physical capacity to contest
it with other animals, but he had
acquired dominion nevertheless,
through social organization.
Hume’s argument can be set out as
Other countries
Increase in money
Rise in prices
Increase in
Decrease in
Outflow of money
Increase in
Decrease in
Inflow of money
Classroom Only
Adam Smith is best known today as
the father of economics, hut he
made wider contributions to social
science that we cannot neglect.
The Moral Sentiments was an
important book in the history of
social science, whether one views it
generally, or specifically in terms of
the development of sociology and
social psychology. It was neglected
for a while by historians mainly
because of the greater significance of
the same author's Wealth of Nations.
1. Philosophy of science
Adam Smith was no exception to this
conception of social science; indeed,
he was one of its important
Smith adopted the views that
Hobbes had advanced a century
earlier: that there is a common
human nature; that it is
ascertainable by introspection; and
that a scientific study of social
phenomena can be built upon this
empirical base.
Adam Smith was to discover,
however, as social scientists have
repeatedly science, that modeling a
society is not as easy as modelling a
solar system.
2. The nature of man
The counterpart of Newton's principle
of gravitational attraction in the
modelling of social phenomena, so
Adam Smith would appear to believe,
is some universal property of human
In the Wealth of Nations, however,
the Newtonian property is man's selfinterest. There appears to be an
inconsistency here: ‘the Adam Smith
problem’, it is sometimes called.
The determinants of human
behaviour, we now realize, are very
complex. Adam Smith simplified, as
all scientists do, for heuristic
purposes; that is to say, he adopted
the notion that man is a rational
animal for methodological reasons:
it enabled him to proceed with the
analysis of social phenomena by
construing them as springing from
the purposive behaviour of rational
individuals that one observes by
introspection and by regarding
others as homologous to oneself.
According to Adam Smith, man's
main goal is to ‘better his condition’.
Though this passage in the Wealth of
Nations refers specifically to man's
propensity to save in order to
accumulate wealth, it can be read
more generally as expressing Smith's
view that man is the dissatisfied
animal, always desiring improvement.
3.Moral sentiments
Smith believed, one might be able to
go on to consider the ethical problem
of what constitutes morally good
sentiments and their practical
implications in concrete cases.
The determination of what ought to
be cannot be derived from the
investigation of what is, but the
philosophy of empirical science tells
us that the study of what is so in fact
is the proper place to begin.
God - would formulate moral
judgements but how a very
imperfect being - man - is able to do
so. He rejects the idea that man is
furnished with an innate moral sense
which tells him what is right and
what is wrong.
4. Division of labour
The opening sentence of An Inquiry
into the Nature and Causes of the
Wealth of Nations discloses what the
author considers to be the chief
cause of that wealth:
The great improvement in the
productive powers of labour, and the
greater part of the skill, dexterity,
and judgement with which it is
anywhere directed, or applied, seem
to have been the effects of the
division of labour.
Man is, according to Smith, endowed
with a ‘propensity to truck and
barter’, so he has the requisite
natural characteristics for the
development of markets. Smith
clearly appreciated that this raises a
very basic scientific question:
how do markets function as a means
by which the differentiated activities
of many individual producers are coordinated?
5. Value
In order to operate successfully a
firm must consider what it can obtain
in revenue by selling a product and
what it will have to pay to obtain the
labour, raw materials, and other
factors necessary to produce it.
These revenues and costs are
determined in part by the prices of
products and the prices of production
factors. The general theory of
economic organization through
markets explains how movements in
these prices adjust the production of
commodities and the demands for
them to one another.
The distribution of income in a
specialized economy is also bound up
with prices, since what each person
receives as income depends not only
on the quantity of factors he sells but
also on the per-unit price received
for them. The income that a labourer
receives, for example, depends not
only on the number of hours he
works but on the wage rate per hour.
Smith focused the investigation of
the determinants of value strictly on
the conditions of production, or
supply; demand factors were
considered relevant only to
fluctuations in the day-to-day prices
of commodities, not to their ‘natural
6. The ‘invisible hand’
The concept of an ‘invisible hand’ in
the Wealth of Nations is simply the
idea that there are governing laws
controlling economic processes just
as there are laws governing natural
The buying and selling that goes on
in a market economy is an orderly
system: while each participant in the
market intends only to serve his own
interest, in the process of doing so
he ‘is led by an invisible hand to
promote an end which was no part of
his intention’ - that is, to play his
part in a co-ordinated, well
functioning economic system.
Smith's own investigation of the
market mechanism did not lead him
to conclude that it could work as
an order-producing system all by
itself. Individual activities cohere into
a co-ordinated whole only where
there is a general framework of
custom or law that establishes rules
of justice.
For this a government is necessary,
but the proper functions of
government are not confined to the
maintenance of national defence and
the administration of internal justice.
Smith had a great deal of confidence
in the market mechanism but he did
not regard it as working perfectly.
Smith's main objective was to
improve the economic policy of the
state by providing a sound
foundation of economic analysis. His
conclusion was that a great deal of
improvement could be brought about
by dismantling much of the
apparatus of state intervention that
had grown up in England piece by
piece since Tudor times.
7. The economic conception of
historical stages
In the Wealth of Nations there is a
great deal of historical material,
which would probably have
established Adam Smith's reputation
as a historian.
It is possible that Smith's interest in
economics developed from his early
view that economic factors are the
real determinants of history.