“Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.” -- John Milton, Areopagitica (1644)

The Scottish Enlightenment

The Scottish Enlightenment - Alexander Broadie image

Alexander Broadie is Professor of Logic and Rhetoric at the University of Glasgow, a chair once occupied by Adam Smith. It only seems appropriate that he has penned a history of the Scottish Enlightenment.

While this book styles itself as an introduction to the achievements of the Scottish Enlightenment in science, philosophy, history, economics, etc., it actually reads more like an "apologia," in the most classical literary sense: The author spends less time explaining the Scottish Enlightenment than justifying and glorifying it.

I also detected a slight undercurrent of self-congratulation running through the text: A bulk of the author's rhetorical intent seems to be the argument that Scotland was and is to this day an "Enlightened" country. He defines "enlightenment" by the public embracing of values such as tolerance and the free exchange of ideas. The author makes a legitimate point that Scotland was among the places where these values first became mainstream, even though such values are commonplaces of Western self-identity and features, to greater or lesser extent, of most every liberal democracy.

A greater concern is the lack of recognition of the dark realities of the Scottish Enlightenment, which makes this work unbalanced in voice and limited in scope. The author leaves out two important facts:
1) that all the great luminaries of the Enlightenment were men -- the first such mention of which is accompanied by a brief account of the iniquitous social conditions of women who had few if any opportunities to participate in a major intellectual moment; and
2) that the great men of the era liked it this way -- which is not mentioned at all.

Both facts are unfortunate implications of the Scottish Enlightenment’s augmentation of the imperial ideology and practice, i.e., racist ethnography and slave-ownership in the name of "progress". Both certainly deserve a mention, if not an in-depth investigation, when introducing the general reader to such an important historical era.

Despite its flaws, this work remains a readable and accessible introduction to the Enlightenment era in Western intellectual history. The thematic take on the ideas of this period is refreshingly different (exemplified by the absence of hagiography of major figures such as Hutcheson, Hume, and Reid).

One caveat -- this work is decidedly apologetic in tone and fails to note the unsavory realities of the Enlightenment.

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