Rousseau and the perils of public address

In December 1776, the Courrier d’Avignon reported a curious incident in Ménilmontant: a supposedly mortal collision between the famed philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and…a great dane.

‘Rousseau, qui se promène souvent seul à la campagne, a été renversé il y a quelques jours par un de ces chiens Danois qui précèdent les equipages lestes: on dit qu’il est très malade de cette chute, et on ne peut trop deplorer son sort d’avoir été écrasé par des chiens.’ (no.97, December 3, 1776, p.4).

‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau est mort des suites de sa chute. Il a vécu pauvre, il est mort misérablement; et la singularité de sa destinée  l’a accompagné jusqu’au tombeau.’ (no.102, December 20, 1776, p.4).

Jean Jacques François Le Barbier, Brusselles (éd. de Londres), 1783, ‘Rousseau apportant le manuscrit des “Dialogues” à Notre-Dame de Paris’. Illustration pour Rousseau, juge de Jean-Jacques dans Œuvres de J.-J. Rousseau.

Rousseau, as we know, died a few years later in 1778 – the event in Ménilmontant leaving him not mortally injured, but with a face bruised and beaten. The mistaken reports in the Courrier d’Avignon prompted his Rêveries critical assessment of eighteenth-century public culture and, in particular, the social and discursive mechanisms that permitted the spread of rumours, an absence of fact-checking, and sensationalism. It was hardly, however, his first diagnosis of ‘fake news’.

In the very era when the postal system and print culture brought people together in ‘imagined communities’, Rousseau worried deeply about the risks of dead letters. Although Rousseau’s colleague, Diderot, was convinced that the two most important technological developments in early modern Europe were the postal system and print culture (enthusing to his sculptor friend Falconet, ‘Il y a deux grandes inventions: la poste qui porte en six semaines une découverte de l’équateur au pôle, et l’imprimerie qui la fixe à jamais’), Rousseau was much more leery of the new information age.

A critical assessment of the Enlightenment’s faith in transparent communication must attune itself to the persistent traces of ancient modes of rhetoric: the traditions of doublespeak and dog-whistle politics. Rousseau, sensitive to the tensions between an esoteric, libertine tradition of communication and an intellectual climate of social progressivism, frames the debate in a series of vexed questions: for whom should I be writing? what is a public and what can it do? Despairing over the absence of any true ‘ami de la vérité’, Rousseau heads to Notre Dame cathedral to deposit, in a famous acte manqué, a copy of Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques on the altar of the church.

‘En entrant, mes yeux furent frappés d’une grille que je n’avois jamais remarquée et qui séparoit de la nef la partie des bas-cotés qui entoure le Chœur. Les portes de cette grille étoient fermées, de sorte que cette partie des bas-cotés dont je viens de parler étoit vuide & qu’il m’étoit impossible d’y pénétrer. Au moment où j’apperçus cette grille je fus saisi d’un vertige comme un homme qui tombe en apoplexie, et ce vertige fut suivi d’un bouleversement dans tout mon être, tel que je ne me souviens pas d’en avoir éprouvé jamais un pareil. L’Eglise me parut avoir tellement changé de face que doutant si j’étois bien dans Notre-Dame, je cherchois avec effort à me reconnoître et à mieux discerner ce que je voyois. Depuis trente six ans que je suis à Paris, j’étois venu fort souvent et en divers tems à Notre Dame; j’avois toujours vu le passage autour du Chœur ouvert et libre, et je n’y avois même jamais remarqué ni grille ni porte autant qu’il put m’en souvenir.’ (‘Histoire du précédent écrit’, Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques, OC, t.1, p. 980).

He notes that in spite of having been in the church scores of times, he had failed to notice the barrier blocking access to the altar. The unpredictability of the reading public – indeed, the plurality of publics and their occasionally indeterminate nature – makes literary reception a chancy affair. In the very loud and crowded market of ideas of the French Enlightenment, the rhetorical gesture of address underscored the vulnerability and power of the modern writer. In my study, Jean-Jacques Rousseau face au public: problèmes d’identité, I explore the vagaries of public communication during the Enlightenment and the dialectical tensions between shadow and illumination, musicality and transparency.

As an insider of the Encyclopédie project turned outsider, Rousseau understood the complexities of the new social and ethical demands placed on the philosophes in a way that is fundamentally different from his contemporaries. By noting the unpredictability and inconsistencies of systems of public address (with readers and spectators moved alternatively by emotions, reason, flows of information, and the major works of a few key power players), Rousseau proposes alternative ways of thinking about communication and the circulation of information. He places value on economies of speech that include silence, babil (babbling), laconism, and musicality – modes of communication that contest conventional modalities of rationality and social exchange. His work is thus an invitation to consider the precarity of address within modern social life and, consequently, the politics of truth at stake in symbolic exchange.

Masano Yamashita

Isaiah Berlin and the Enlightenment

Sir Isaiah Berlin, as he eventually became, was the leading British intellectual historian of his time. He was born in 1909 in Riga, on the western edge of the Russian Empire. To avoid the Revolution, his family moved to Britain, where the young Berlin pursued a brilliant academic career in philosophy, becoming a Fellow of All Souls College in Oxford in 1932. His many later achievements included the founding of Wolfson College, also in Oxford. As a public intellectual, he was famous as a spell-binding lecturer, much in demand for talks and broadcasts.

Feeling somewhat constrained by Oxford philosophy, Berlin turned increasingly to the history of ideas. No such subject was recognized in mid-twentieth-century Britain, though it was represented in the United States by Arthur O. Lovejoy, author (among much else) of The Great Chain of Being (1933). By the time of Berlin’s death in 1998, the ‘Cambridge school’ of intellectual history, based less on discrete concepts than on the historical study of languages and vocabularies, was well established, thanks to Quentin Skinner and John Pocock. But for some decades Berlin had the field virtually to himself.

Though Berlin’s interests were many and various, he is associated especially with the Enlightenment. And here some oddities occur, which Laurence Brockliss and I sought to explore in a conference held at Wolfson in 2014 and in the resulting book, Isaiah Berlin and the Enlightenment (2016).

Sir Isaiah Berlin, by Walter Stoneman (1957), National Portrait Gallery, London.

Sir Isaiah Berlin, by Walter Stoneman (1957), National Portrait Gallery, London.

Berlin came to the Enlightenment via Karl Marx. In 1933 he was commissioned to write a small book on Marx for a general audience. It appeared in 1939 as Karl Marx: His Life and Environment. Berlin read not only Marx’s voluminous writings but also the authors who had influenced him, including the philosophes of the French Enlightenment. In exploring their work, Berlin, who knew Russian perfectly, was guided by the work of the Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov. Plekhanov’s writings directed him to the radical materialists Helvétius and d’Holbach. They were convinced that human beings came into the world with minds like blank slates (as Locke had argued), owed all their knowledge to external sensations and influences, and could therefore be shaped through education and guided towards perfection.

In all Berlin’s subsequent references to the Enlightenment, this utopian doctrine reappears. The Enlightenment stands for the hope of reshaping the world through rational education and leading humanity towards a perfect society. Naturally Berlin regarded such hopes with scepticism. While respecting the humane intentions of the philosophes, he thought that their programme would involve unacceptable coercion and would risk ironing out the rich diversity of human life into boring uniformity. Above all, it was sure to founder on what Kant, in a phrase Berlin loved to quote, called ‘the crooked timber of humanity’. Human beings were too quirky, too awkward, too cussed to fit into any utopian scheme – and that was fortunate, considering how the utopian hopes invested in the Soviet Union had turned out.

Berlin’s opposition to utopian schemes made him one of the great liberal intellectuals who were much needed during the Cold War period. He has an American counterpart in the New York critic Lionel Trilling, whose novel The Middle of the Journey (1948) culminates in a fine statement of liberal values.

But was Berlin fair to the Enlightenment? He foregrounds thinkers who now seem minor and relatively uninteresting. He never gives extended discussion to the far more complex, more sceptical, and more talented writers Voltaire and Diderot. More curiously still, when the New American Library commissioned him in the 1950s to compile an anthology of philosophical texts, The Age of Enlightenment (1956; re-issued in 1979 by Oxford University Press), most space is given to British writers – Locke, Hume, and Berkeley; of the French, only Voltaire features, and that briefly; and we find a very incongruous writer, Johann Georg Hamann.

Johann Georg Hamann. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Johann Georg Hamann. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Hamann (1730-1788), a fellow-townsman and acquaintance of Kant and other Enlightenment luminaries, was a devout if unorthodox Christian who wrote in a perplexingly opaque style. He dwells on the inadequacy of reason, the limitations of language, the need for a constant dialogue with God who himself speaks in riddles. He represents the antithesis to the utopian optimism that Berlin ascribed to the Enlightenment. Hamann became a central figure in what Berlin called ‘the Counter-Enlightenment’. This term referred to the late-eighteenth-century reaction against Enlightenment universalism in favour of the unique particular. It rejected reason in favour of emotion, ‘progress’ in favour of pessimism; instead of affirming humanity’s basic goodness, it warned darkly of original sin.

Berlin did not share these beliefs. But, by his own account, he found the Counter-Enlightenment a salutary reminder of the insufficiency of Enlightenment values. One of Berlin’s favourite ideas was that humanity had to choose or compromise between incompatible goods. Enlightenment, reason, and liberty were excellent; but to embrace them you had to relinquish other values which were also good.

Neither Berlin’s conception of the Enlightenment, nor that of the Counter-Enlightenment, would be generally accepted now. But the tension he found between them illustrates an undeniable moral dilemma in human life. And his expression of this dilemma may well be found memorable and challenging, long after his conception of intellectual history has retreated into the past.

– Ritchie Robertson

The Scottish Enlightenment four stages theory: a (re-)introduction

There are few paradigms more tightly connected with the Scottish Enlightenment than the four stages theory. Yet it arguably remains one of the least understood.

John Millar

James Tassie, Medallion of John Millar (1767). Courtesy of the University of Glasgow Archive Services, University collection, GB 248 UP3/26/1.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, a whole host of famous Scottish thinkers – Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, William Robertson, Henry Home (Lord Kames) and John Millar – attempted to explain a range of social phenomena according to a single, universal narrative of the history of progress. The spirit of the paradigm was that the fundamental distinguishing components of societies lay not in accidents of climate, religion or race, but rather in the social, psychological, legal and cultural effects of the history of property and sustenance relations. While French thinkers such as Anne Robert Jacques Turgot used three stages to achieve similar analyses, the Scots preferred four:

  1. Hunting, where property only extended to what one could carry on one person (savagery),
  2. Pastoralism, where shepherding witnessed the development of animal property (barbarism),
  3. Agriculture, where society became settled and landed property became pivotal in the production of sustenance (civilisation),
  4. Commercial society, defined by contemporary Europe.

The paradigm has, for good reason, been widely identified as a pioneering step in the development of various disciplines of the modern social sciences. At the same time, in taking the commercial society of eighteenth-century Britain as the pinnacle of the history of liberty, postcolonial scholars have, with validity, critiqued it as a blatant example of Eurocentric world historical narration.

John Millar, the protégé of Adam Smith and Regius professor of civil law at the University of Glasgow for nearly four decades at the end of the eighteenth century, is often cited as the most systematic articulator of the four stages theory. Attention has been paid particularly to his reflections on the history of family and gender, which constitute the great bulk of his stadial theory-infused magnus opus, the Origin of the Distinction of Ranks.


I began research for my book John Millar and the Scottish Enlightenment: family life and world history with the intention of revealing how Millar managed his oft-celebrated cohesion. In fact, I was quickly confronted with lacunae, gaps and contradictions with Millar’s stadial analysis. Digging deeper, I realised that these arose from his difficulties in overcoming a complex intellectual web of competing analytical frameworks using evidence and existing scholarship that defied any easy organisation. Moreover, it became clear that his intention was much less to innovate any coherent science of stage-based analysis than to set out his convictions about politics, the family and the nature of authority.

Too often, Millar’s lack of full coherence in his use of stadial analysis has been attributed to intellectual underperformance. In my book, I take a different approach, viewing Millar as a guide to the history of knowledge underpinning the pursuit of stadial history, with a particular focus on gender and the family. Millar used the stadial model as only one of several intersecting paradigms. His deployment and innovation of classic natural law structures, such as the history of household authority relations and the tripartite division of marriage struggle, reveals the importance of his professional setting as a professor of law in Glasgow. Additionally, in his retention of religion as a critical means for explaining differences in marriage practices, we see that even Millar had doubts about stadial analysis as a fully convincing alternative to paradigms such as sacred history.

The deeper we probe into Miller’s complex work, the more we discover his Enlightenment spirit of speculative curiosity. His legacy to modern disciplines of sociology and anthropology [1] lies not so much in the rigidity of his conviction in any single analytical framework, but rather his thirst for cross-cultural comparison and analysis. His extended discussion of topics ranging from matriarchal familial forms and the Amazon legend to national character and polygamy was not intended to tie up loose threads in stadial analysis, but rather to be an ambitious attempt at historicising all dimensions of authority.

– Nicholas B. Miller, University of Lisbon

[1] William Lehmann, John Millar of Glasgow 1735-1801: his life and thought and his contributions to sociological analysis (Cambridge, 1960).


On translating the hasty writing of encyclopedia articles


Translating French and Spanish encyclopedia articles from the Enlightenment into English is not easy. There are, of course, the typical problems that one encounters when doing any translation, such as negotiating between surface meanings and deep meanings, dealing with false cognates, contending with idiomatic expressions, and deciding whether to go with a literal or an idiomatic translation. However, when dealing with encyclopedia articles that were written at a furious pace for the gargantuan compilations that were the Encyclopédie méthodique and its Spanish translation, the Encyclopedia metódica, there emerges the problem of translating hurried and at times careless writing that was possibly never proof-read, and certainly never corrected. Knowing that eighteenth-century encyclopedists worked under stringent publication deadlines, the vexed but somewhat amused translator could hardly blame them for suffering the all-too-common professional flaw of careless writing.

A Scholar in His Study (‘Faust’) Artist: Rembrandt

A Scholar in His Study (‘Faust’) (Rembrandt, ca. 1652; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

This is what my co-translator, Clorinda Donato, and I encountered when preparing our volume, Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, for which we translated and annotated the articles ‘Espagne’ (from the Méthodique) and ‘España’ (from the Metódica). Although the articles are generally well written, there are nevertheless moments when authors Nicolas Masson de Morvilliers and Julián de Velasco felt the urgency of their task and careened their way through long, convoluted sentences without ever looking back. That a pronoun lost track of its referent, or that a verb strayed so far from its subject that it forgot whether it should be singular or plural mattered little when the encyclopedia mill had to keep grinding. Reading these articles I also find passages where the zeal to badmouth Spain’s backwardness or defend its misunderstood Enlightenment overrode any respect for the conventions of grammar. The passions aroused by Enlightenment debate were just too strong to obey the strictures of the Académie Française and the Real Academia. Indeed, these are the moments when Masson and Velasco are most fun to read.

Annotating these translations also revealed an interesting consequence of such hasty writing. While citing, copying, and paraphrasing was a regular practice among eighteenth-century scholars, the verification of information was not. If a scholar cites a source that is based on a citation that is based on another citation that is based on another citation and so on, that scholar will likely have in his hands a cumulative error, a product of distortions and embellishments. This is what we find in Masson’s negative portrayal of Spain and the Inquisition. Where he cites sources that have been embellished, he enters the fray by adding yet another layer of gleeful embellishment. Indeed, it would not be entirely wrong to say that the polemic emerging out of Masson’s infamous question ‘What does Europe owe Spain?’ is in large measure the result of an Enlightenment version of the game of telephone (or Chinese whispers).


A Scene in a Library (photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot, ca.1844; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

But if haphazard writing and cumulative error are endemic to encyclopedia culture, then how can Enlightenment discourse ever safeguard itself from the vagaries and flighty opinions of scholars such as Masson? This is precisely the question that our volume seeks to answer. By translating and juxtaposing Masson’s and Velasco’s articles on Spain, we see how the Spaniards object to being the butt of the joke running down the telephone chain of French philosophie, and how they insist that the discourse of Enlightenment return to its more noble purpose of advancing civility and rational exchange.

– Ricardo López

Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, edited by Clorinda Donato and Ricardo López. Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, November 2015, ISBN 978-0-7294-1170-7, 336 pages, 2 ills


East meets West: Crossing boundaries in the Enlightenment


Sometime in the 1730s, the Russian administrator and historian Vasilii Nikitich Tatishchev fixed the dividing line between Europe and Asia along an axis connecting the Urals to the Caspian, rather than Ptolemy’s more westerly north-south axis that terminated in the Sea of Azov. European Russia was, well, quite clearly ‘European’ along with the mighty empires of Germany, France and Britain. Indeed, much of the history of southern and eastern Europe seems to be about boundaries. Where should we draw the line? Who in the eighteenth century embodies an Enlightenment world view, and who doesn’t make the cut?

If, however, we frequently discuss dividing lines between worlds, we shouldn’t overlook those people who crossed them. Merchants, migrants, technicians and artists. Peripatetic scholars and clerics such as the polymaths Dosithei Obradovich and Eugenios Voulgaris who travelled west before wandering between one educational or ecclesiastical institution and another in search of patronage for their work. And others like Paisy Velichkovsky, born in Polatava in Ukraine, who spent so much of his life in monastic communities located between Mount Athos and Moldova. Indeed, Velichkovsky is an interesting case: instrumental in translating the Philokalia, a collection of texts on the contemplative life, into Slavonic, he is a prime example of many unsung advocates of Orthodox culture. His translation, the Dobrotoliubie as it was called, contributed to a revival of hesychast monasticism, its many monks being dispersed between Orthodox ecclesiastical centres of the time.

Japanese Philocalia, published 2012.

Japanese Philocalia, published 2012.

It is commonly believed that the importance of the Philokalia in Orthodox thought in the eighteenth century was, for a long time, underappreciated. That is when the work was compiled and translated, of course, but it was assumed not to have been widely distributed at the time. Such views now seem misplaced, an underestimation of the capacities of wondering monks to disseminate a world-view even without a printing press. Furthermore, any attempt to fit the Philokalia into other developments in the history of thought requires caution: should this return to patristic texts be interpreted as a component part of an Orthodox, religious Enlightenment? A reaction to it, a kind of anti-Enlightenment? Or perhaps as both?

This question and many others are explored in our book Enlightenment and religion in the Orthodox world. But to a considerable extent this is in essence a book about people like Paisy Velichkovsky, who cannot easily be categorised or even fitted into any one side. These individuals synthesised and syncretised a range of outside influences as they probed the encounter of Orthodox tradition with the European Enlightenment – and hence with modernisation. Undoubtedly this was, often, a tortured process, but at times it also proved extremely enriching.

– Iannis Carras

Une réflexion d’Helvétius, à propos des récents événements qui ont ensanglanté la France et le monde

Dans son livre De l’esprit paru en 1758, Helvétius s’efforce de montrer, au chapitre 25 du discours III, que la force des passions est proportionnelle à la grandeur des récompenses qu’on leur propose pour objet. Pour prouver la vérité de ce rapport, il cite d’abord l’exemple des conquistadors espagnols et des flibustiers, «échauffés de la soif de l’or», puis passe aux anciens Germains, «animés de l’espoir d’une récompense imaginaire, mais la plus grande de toutes, lorsque la crédulité la réalise», et enfin aux Sarrasins qui, persuadés par Mahomet «que le Très-Haut leur a livré la terre, qu’il fera marcher devant eux la terreur et la désolation», se lancent avec ferveur dans le jihad:

«Frappés de ces récits, les Sarrasins prêtent aux discours de Mahomet une oreille d’autant plus crédule, qu’il leur fait des descriptions plus voluptueuses du séjour céleste destiné aux hommes vaillants. Intéressés par les plaisirs des sens à l’existence de ces beaux lieux, je les vois, échauffés de la plus vive croyance et soupirant sans cesse après les houris, fondre avec fureur sur leurs ennemis. Guerriers, s’écrie dans le combat un de leurs généraux, nommé Ikrimah, je les vois ces belles filles aux yeux noirs; elles sont quatre-vingt. Si l’une d’elles apparaissait sur la terre, tous les rois descendraient de leur trône pour la suivre. Mais, que vois-je? C’en est une qui s’avance; elle a un cothurne d’or pour chaussure; d’une main elle tient un mouchoir de soie verte, et de l’autre une coupe de topaze; elle me fait signe de la tête, en me disant: Venez ici, mon bien-aimé… Attendez-moi, divine houri; je me précipite dans les bataillons infidèles, je donne, je reçois la mort et vous rejoins.

Tant que les yeux crédules des Sarrasins virent aussi distinctement les houris, la passion des conquêtes, proportionnée en eux à la grandeur des récompenses qu’ils attendaient, les anima d’un courage supérieur à celui qu’inspire l’amour de la patrie: aussi produisit-il de plus grands effets, et les vit-on, en moins d’un siècle, soumettre plus de nations que les Romains n’en avaient subjugué en six cents ans.

Aussi les Grecs, supérieurs aux Arabes, en nombre, en discipline, en armures et en machines de guerre, fuyaient-ils devant eux, comme des colombes à la vue de l’épervier. Toutes les nations liguées ne leur auraient alors opposé que d’impuissantes barrières.

Bataille de Poitiers

Bataille de Poitiers en octobre 732, par Charles de Steuben (1830s).

Pour leur résister, il eût fallu armer les chrétiens du même esprit dont la loi de Mahomet animait les musulmans; promettre le Ciel et la palme du martyre, comme saint Bernard la promit du temps des croisades, à tout guerrier qui mourrait en combattant les infidèles: proposition que l’empereur Nicéphore fit aux évêques assemblés, qui, moins habiles que saint Bernard, la rejetèrent d’une commune voix. Ils ne s’aperçurent point que ce refus décourageait les Grecs, favorisait l’extinction du christianisme et les progrès des Sarrasins, auxquels on ne pouvait opposer que la digue d’un zèle égal à leur fanatisme. Ces évêques continuèrent donc d’attribuer aux crimes de la nation les calamités qui désolaient l’Empire, et dont un œil éclairé eût cherché et découvert la cause dans l’aveuglement de ces mêmes prélats, qui, dans de pareilles conjonctures, pouvaient être regardés comme les verges dont le Ciel se servait pour frapper l’Empire, et comme la plaie dont il l’affligeait.


Charles Adrien Helvétius, par Louis Michel van Loo, 1755.

Les succès étonnants des Sarrasins dépendaient tellement de la force de leurs passions, et la force de leurs passions des moyens dont on se servait pour les allumer en eux; que ces mêmes Arabes, ces guerriers si redoutables, devant lesquels la terre tremblait et les armées grecques fuyaient dispersées comme la poussière devant les aquilons, frémissaient eux-mêmes à l’aspect d’une secte de musulmans nommés les Safriens [Sufrites]. Échauffés, comme tous réformateurs, d’un orgueil plus féroce et d’une croyance plus ferme, ces sectaires voyaient, d’une vue plus distincte, les plaisirs célestes que l’espérance ne présentait aux autres musulmans que dans un lointain plus confus. Aussi ces furieux Safriens voulaient-ils purger la terre de ses erreurs, éclairer ou exterminer les nations, qui, disaient-ils, à leur aspect, devaient, frappées de terreur ou de lumière, se détacher de leurs préjugés ou de leurs opinions aussi promptement que la flèche se détache de l’arc dont elle est décochée.

Ce que je dis des Arabes et des Safriens peut s’appliquer à toutes les nations mues par le ressort des religions; c’est en ce genre l’égal degré de crédulité, qui, chez tous les peuples, produit l’équilibre de leur passion et de leur courage.»

– Gerhardt Stenger

Enlightenment Scotland still burning brightly

View of Edinburgh and the Castle (Wikimedia Commons).

View of Edinburgh and the Castle.

Scotland has been making headlines. In the past year, it held a referendum on independence and the Scottish Nationalist Party made unprecedented gains in this year’s general election, claiming almost every constituency north of the border and becoming a vocal force in the Commons. However, Scotland has been shaking things up and radically challenging assumptions long before our century, and not only on the backbenches.

As the contributors to The Enlightenment in Scotland: national and international perspectives illustrate, Edinburgh’s affectionate nickname ‘Auld Reekie’ may mean ‘Old Smoky’, but the stars of Scotland’s intellectual firmament have always burned bright through any perceived haze.

In the eighteenth century, independent thinking, rather than independence, was the battle cry. In fields as diverse as politics, philosophy, economics, history, social theory, agriculture, science and technology, Scots forged new paths, forming dense and fruitful networks of friendships, collaborations, and institutions (including the Scottish universities which are still academic heavyweights today). Thinkers and scientists challenged the status quo, paving the way for revolts of all kinds through their theories and practical inventions, from the agrarian and industrial revolutions which shaped modern society, to the American Revolution which established one of today’s dominant global powers, the United States.

King's College, University of Aberdeen. Taken by Nick in exilio and published on Flickr.

King’s College, University of Aberdeen. (Taken by Nick in exilio and published on Flickr.)

In this constellation of exceptional minds, two names tend to epitomize the achievements of the Scottish Enlightenment: Adam Smith and David Hume, thinkers whose writings on politics, economics, and philosophy continue to influence policymakers today. However, ‘the Enlightenment’ is a nebulous concept, an umbrella term which can sometimes mask the complexities and heterogeneity of this momentous period of global transformation, and the Scottish Enlightenment was more than two individual thinkers. Indeed, the Scottish Enlightenment is a fascinating historiographical conundrum, which raises the question of the delicate symbiotic exchange of influences between Enlightenment thinkers in other countries and thinkers in Scotland.

Adam Smith, 1790, engraving attributed to John Kay (Wikimedia Commons).

Adam Smith, 1790, engraving attributed to John Kay.

This collective volume focuses on the specificity of the Enlightenment in Scotland, while also integrating it into a wider global narrative. The diversity of approaches, origins, and influences reflected in the studies included – from microcosmic case studies of opposition to the Enlightenment in the Scottish counties of Ayrshire and Renfrewshire to examinations of reception of Scottish ideas and theories in France, Germany, and America – has a scope commensurate with the ambition and vision of the Scots.

In Scottish politics, 2014-2015 has been a year about borders and boundaries, those of nations and of parliamentary constituencies – but the stars of Scottish Enlightenment defied borders and limitations to shed their light far beyond this island’s shores, onto the international stage.

– Madeleine Chalmers


The Enlightenment in Scotland: national and international perspectives

Edited by Jean-François Dunyach and Ann Thomson

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, August 2015

ISBN-13: 978-0-7294-1166-0, 260 pages