This piece was written in 1994, and reflects the crisis of a library remodel. I later found reference to two sources that actually treated with the specific issue I started with, Highland influences on Ferguson's thought. "Adam Ferguson and the Idea of Community" in Edinburgh in the Age of Reason (40-47) and an eleven page article in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature. Unfortunately, I was not able to access them before deadline.
Should you know of better treatments of the areas I ran into brickwalls with, please e-mail me with titles. Try not to laugh too hard, this was an independent project.
I came to a consideration of the Scottish Enlightenment after a history of geology presented me with James Hutton as the central figure of that science. While the fact that Hutton was part of an intellectual circle in Scotland was not especially pertinent to that study, I was intrigued by a new line of inquiry to pursue with reference to Scotland: the Scottish Enlightenment.
The subject being rather broad, I tried to use Adam Ferguson, the only Gaelic-speaker among the philosophes, as a limiting factor; how was his work influenced by this connection with the Scottish Highlands? However, as I dug through various sources and search routines, I found a problem. Adam Ferguson was missing. Often he was to be found only as a name in a list of other figures. Occasionally referred to in a paragraph here and there, Adam Ferguson was a shadowy presence felt primarily by his absence. Outside of materials such as dissertations and foreign journal articles, he could be tracked down most in either primary works or specialized treatments of some one of his many areas of study.1
The two main English language biographies are Kettler's The Social and Political Thought of Adam Ferguson (1965) and Lehmann's Adam Ferguson and the Beginnings of Modern Sociology (1930). The latter I have not perused, having hoped to find something more current and more directly relevant, as I ultimately was not interested in how Ferguson fathered sociology. Kettler's book I have read and frankly was disappointed, it primarily covering his moral philosophy. While seemingly possessing forty-one pages of biography, actually only twenty-five are spent thus, with something of the same number providing the context into which Ferguson came. The value of this picture of eighteenth-century Scotland is damaged by the uncritical acceptance of the Improvements and the Highland Clearances.2
Adam Ferguson seems, at least in American research, to have had a brief spotlight in the mid and late 1960s, more or less disappearing back into the woodwork. What my materials suggest is that Adam Ferguson differed from some of his contemporaries in holding that peoples at different "levels" have their appropriate virtues and vices.3 That 'barbarians', while not holding various benefits of 'progress' such as regular government, were much more capable of heroism and communal spirit, than 'civilized' folk damaged by excessive division of labor. It is possible being a Gaelic speaker made him more disposed to think of Highlanders favorably, despite his feelings about the '45.4 Additionally, Ferguson, as the only Gaelic-speaker was heavily involved in the Ossian controversy, both via funding James Macpherson, and attesting to the beauty of idiom.5 Beyond this, it is hard to say how he differed from other members of the Scottish Enlightenment because of his Gaelic fluency.6
History often swallows individuals who stood too close to 'giants'. David Hume and Adam Smith cast dark shadows across their various colleagues, with Thomas Reid taking most of the remaining light. So, what was the nature of the Scottish Enlightenment? That seems to have been obscured as well.
The very term is a point of contention, and has been since its coining.7 It has had to compete with various other terms including the inapt "Scottish Renaissance", and has been defined in multiple contradictory ways. Additionally, much of the research, particularly that up into the fifties and at least one example in the sixties, have been colored by shamelessly uncritical stances toward the basic preceding milieu, including such important factors as the nature of intellectual life and the meaning of various historical changes, including the Act of Union and the Jacobite Rebellions.8 While there was a brief spurt of materials published in the mid-eighties, this was in conjunction with a major fete. Its tone remained firmly within the compartmentalization mode. Peter Jones in the introduction of the collection Philosophy and Science in the Scottish Enlightenment, states that no overarching arguments will be made, as the new studies on lesser known figures have not yet been weighed. This book, the articles now nearly ten years old, was the most recent source I found. As best as I can tell, the Scottish Enlightenment has retreated back into journal articles and fragmented specialty works.
So, we are left with a historical period that no one will define; with figures no one will talk about; except in terms of how they made our present world, safely scattered across multiple fields including: economics, philosophy, political science, and sociology. Sher, in the introduction of his revised dissertation, makes a stab at bringing some sense of order to this madness. He takes the Scottish Enlightenment to be "the culture of the literati of eighteenth-century Scotland."9 This is in contrast to the "standard" definition, "that efflorescence of intellectual vitality that became obvious after the defeat of the last Jacobite rebellion in 1745" lasting for forty or fifty years.10 These two characterizations need to be considered carefully.
Sher's definition depends on a number of specific usages, the most important focusing on "literati". By this he refers to persons who held, in common with both American and Continental philosophes, certain "enlightened" beliefs, including dedication to learning, stability, improvement, reason and science, virtue and freedom of expression. Opposed to slavery, religious superstition, and other hindrances to humane and humanist life, these "literati" included more than just those in fields now seen as the social sciences. The eighteenth-century is mostly the second half, with a formative period of twenty to thirty years. Culture is used in a very broad way, in keeping with studies of the Enlightenment in France.
If we look at Trevor-Roper's definition, several questions present themselves. What does "intellectual vitality" mean? How is the '45 related? Who is and isn't included? When can the period be said to end? Clearly, this "standard" definition can be so expansive as to be meaningless, depending on the way "intellectual vitality" is used. It could mean stretching the period from one "dark age" to another; this may be why dates have been extended back as far as 1707 and forward as much as the 1830's. Additionally, it can either declare people not "intellectually vital" or include people working at cross-purposes to the Scottish Enlightenment. Typically, the way out of this is to restrict "the conceptual field to a particular type of intellectual inquiry and to the relatively few authors deemed responsible."11 This can perhaps explain how figures such as Hume and Smith dominate research, being sure to get on just about everybody's list. It also allows figures to be skipped because of their supposed "camp-follower" status or as a result of not working in one of the right fields, which are heavily weighted towards the social sciences.
It must be noted that a number of serious problems come out of this. Firstly, regardless of where we now pigeon-hole the works of Enlightenment figures, they were a rather tight-knit group, all involved in controversies that might or might not be technically within "their fields" but then considered to all be part of the same project. Often related as cousins or brother's-in-law, they frequently played second-fiddle to each other, writing their biographies and explications of their work.12 If we consider just James Hutton, John Playfair was long considered his Boswell; yet it is through Playfair's writings and other activities that Hutton's theories were made understandable.13 Secondly, it is to distort the period greatly, both by denying the role science played in everyone's thought, and by taking figures such as Hume, known to disagree with just about everyone on one point or another, as representative.
So, the question is whether Sher's definition of the Scottish Enlightenment as a eighteenth-century cultural movement of people partaking of a general "Enlightenment" program, produces a more suitable data set. Can it define who are, and are not, Scottish Enlightenment figures? Chronologically, it meshes well with the notion that basically three generations, overlapping and closely related, make up the Scottish Enlightenment.14 It allows one to separate out figures such as Robert Burns and Thomas Ruddiman, without dismissing them, while including James Hutton, Joseph Black and Robert Adam.15 Additionally, it provides a basic identity with other Enlightenment figures, the first generation being contemporaries of Voltaire, the second of Diederot and Kant, with the third falling in with Gibbon, Goethe, and Jefferson.
Using this as a basis, what was the Scottish Enlightenment? The Scottish Enlightenment partook of many of the same trends and issues as the Enlightenment in France and other countries. However, the particulars of the Scottish situation influenced the way Scottish philosophes participated. With a few exceptions, the Scottish literati were professional men, working in medicine, law, the universities and the established church. Neither oppressed intellectuals scraping by as hack writers, bureaucratic cogs burdened with pushing through reforms, nor wealthy rogues free to be shocking, the Scottish Enlightenment can be seen as firmly in the hands of a rather polite and moderate group, who relaxed through debates at drinking clubs.16
Unlike the French philosophes in Paris, the literati of the Scottish Enlightenment were living in provincial centers far distant from the political seat of power. Yet London was only the governmental and economic center of the recently formed Britain; Edinburgh, in combination with other Scottish cities, was the actual hotbed of learning. As such, the Scottish philosophes were in the awkward position of being the uncouth cousins of their less intellectual kin. This shows itself in their scramble to write in "polite English" as opposed to their Broad Scots, and in their converse attempts to produce a "Scottish" Shakespeare, Homer, etc.17 The Ossian controversy comes out of this need to shore up a Scottish identity while trying to become British, which was seen largely in terms of English precedent.
All of this raises the question of why I couldn't find more, on Adam Ferguson specifically, or the Enlightenment in general. Some of the difficulty can be ascribed to a belief that everything has been done, yet one would have thought the post-modernists would have produced an article or two, considering how they go through everything else. Part of the problem is the way Scotland and the Scots are caught between two academic camps, Third-World supremes and DWM canonists, neither claiming them, the one because they are 'white', the other because they are 'outside' the main flow.18
Yet I think there is a more substantial reason, one particular to the Enlightenment itself. It is during this period that many of our modern academic divisions were being born. The seeds of the social sciences are here, still close to the tree of conjectural history. The natural sciences are jelling into geology, physics, zoology, chemistry and so forth, and just becoming studied at University. The Humanities are still vital and largely whole. It is a vision of an intellectual world so different from our own, yet strangely seductive in that we can sort of understand it, unlike either the Renaissance or the Scholastics.19 It poses an implicit criticism of the modern academy; the extreme compartmentalization and the suzerainty of cash value.
I posit that the real reason the Scottish Enlightenment is studied primarily through departments of economics, political science and sociology is because these fields need the Scottish Enlightenment as a ground to find their origins and desire to hide the connection between themselves and with other academic areas. It is a nearly blatant Freudian syndrome; they want to kill the fathers (the humanities), possess the mothers (various literati), fear the mothers (least they castrate, reassimilate them), and distrust the siblings (any of the other social sciences, and especially the "hard" sciences.)*
It should be clear why the Scottish Enlightenment is not studied historically; equally clear is why it should be studied historically. The Question, is whether it will be studied historically.