In the 18th Century, Scotland was a land without a leader. James VI of Scotland had become James I of England. The country was Crippled by debt and blighted by poverty. Scotland was a country without a parliament.

Yet out of this small country emerged a ferocious movement of innovative thinking; The Scottish Enlightenment.

Dennis C Rasmussen, the author of The Infidel and The Professorcharting the friendship of Adam Smith and David Hume, poses the question;

“How did a nation that began the eighteenth century as a poor, backward outpost on the fringe of Europe manage to become such an intellectual powerhouse by the middle of the century?”

Dennis C Rasmussen

Rasmussen has theories, as does Alexander Broadie, author of The Scottish Enlightenment, an Anthology. The latter works give a comprehensive treatment of all of the players of the Scottish Enlightenment.

The movement was like its European counterpart a period of exceptional rational thinking and evolutionary discoveries in subjects like philosophy, economics, society, science, and religion.

“We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilization.”

— Voltaire

In this article, I share the ideas of three major players from the enlightenment: David Hume, Adam Smith, and Francis Hutcheson, and three of their ideas that could help us think like a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher today.

The Enlightenment Mantra

Have the courage to use your own reason,’ is the Enlightenment mantra penned by Immanuel Kant, or ‘dare to know,’ as it is paraphrased in Broadie’s anthology.

In Scotland, Enlightenment ideas about liberty, humanity, and progress were pushed further by insisting that human reasoning was a principle of the highest order. They believed that they were duty-bound to reject any authority that could not be justified by reason.

In our age of fake news, social media influencers, and a constant digital sensory assault it is a mantra that could serve those looking for a free-thinking existence away from the clamor, as Hume would have said.

The Scottish enlightenment players were a part of a vibrant society; not standoffish recluses hidden away with their books and philosophies.

“The Scottish “ literati, “ as they were often dubbed, were not disaffected intellectuals at war with the establishment and the elite of their society, as their counterparts in France so often were, but rather widely admired and deeply engaged members of their communities.”

— Rasmussen, p8.

Below I look at the three players and select an idea from each that could lead us to live a more philosophical existence today.

1. David Hume (1711–1776)

On Ideas and Impressions

David Hume was a jolly, and controversial fellow; his view were always angering the Kirk (Scottish church) and the clergy.

His writing challenged some of the core principles of the church. Mainly that morality was something that existed within the individual, separate from the church. His most scathing attack on religion was the publication of a section on miracles in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748).

His conclusion: that the lack of evidence of miracles indicates soundly that they do not exist. The church, with its reliance on a system of non-empirical and faith-based beliefs, never forgave him.

I imagine he would be a leading voice on fake news and instant media impressions these days.

With the church’s omnipotence in 18th Century Scotland, and the surrounding countries, Hume’s war of rationality raged with everyone. Though the Enlightenment’s very spirit was a search for truth through rational thinking, the Kirk still wielded significant power, and most philosophers were scant brave enough to upset the clergy.

Hume was blacklisted from Edinburgh and Glasgow’s official academic chairs, despite his fame at home and abroad. He was also very nearly ex-communicated, which would have been a major inconvenience, even to him.

In the lead up to his death, men of the Kirk and clergy started twitching. Would this infidel suffer the death of an unbeliever?

“…everyone wanted to know whether Hume would persist in his scepticism to the very end — and if so, whether he would experience the anguish and despair that was assumed to attend the death of the unrepentant”

— Rasmussen, p199.

To the disappointment of many, the answer was that he passed out of his life in precisely the way he had lived it — as a man of reason and a true Scottish Enlightenment thinker.

One of my favorite philosophies of David Hume is his Theory of Ideas (Broadie, p71.)

Hume argues all ideas start out as impressions; an impression being a perception which is a sensation that involves a sensation; such as touch, sound, sight, feel, taste, etc.

This deviates from older philosophers who thought of an idea as something pre-existing within our spiritual minds. So what? It sounds pretty simple. I thought so at first too, but it breaks down walls and preconceptions about the process of generating ideas.

It opens up the ideation space beyond traditional leaders, CEOs, academics, or influencers. It also gives us the option of controlling our thoughts or lack thereof through the impressions that we build into our lives.

Shall we spend an hour on Facebook dulling our senses and clicking the ultimate empty gestures of a like or a heart? Or shall we seek out genuine impressions through interactions with the outside world — a chat with the postman, a real conversation, touching a flower or glass, engaging with another idea via Zoom or on a platform?

It wasn’t sitting at his desk that Archimedes found his Eureka moment.

Dare to create your own ideas by seeking impressions. Don’t assume that what is spoken is correct. Don’t take on ideas without an impression. Be a Scottish Enlightenment philosopher by feeding your impressions with others, with nature.

2. Adam Smith (1723–1790)

On engagement and mental stimulation

While Adam Smith’s life-defining work The Wealth Of Nations is regularly used to excuse greed and the excesses of capitalism under the misrepresented expression ‘The Invisible Hand’ he was throughout his life, mostly concerned with moral philosophy and living a good life.

Smith was born in Scotland and entered university at the age of 14, only four years older than Hume was when he started his education.

A few years later he was awarded a scholarship place at Oxford University; where he endured the anti-Scottish sentiment for six years before leaving in disgust.

“and he was also clearly thinking of Oxford when he wrote that the best endowed universities often served as “sanctuaries in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices found shelter and protection, after they had been hunted out of every other corner of the world”

— Rasmussen, p38.

Even within the text that neo-liberal economists hold up as a bible for de-regulation and leaving the market alone to continue to reward the wealthy Smith argues against the exploitation of the worker’s mind.

In The Wealth of Nations, Smith sees the squalid conditions that came out of the industrial revolution as unacceptable and something that should have been foreseen and prevented by economists — not accepted.

He recognized the mental dangers associated with repetitive, mindless tasks that labor specialization could enable and proposed a solution to engage and provide education for all workers. Smith encouraged educational provision to correct the damage done by the systematic application of an economic principle.

It was his view that, generally, morality and economics go hand in hand, at least to the extent that maltreatment of the workforce is not only lousy morality but also bad economics.

The importance to Smith of mental stimulation for the workforce was immense. As a polymath and lifelong teacher and writer, he knew how to apply this advice to his own life, but he saw a dichotomy between economic growth based on the specialization of labor and worker wellbeing.

“the hideous deterioration in working conditions and living conditions that were introduced into commercial society as a byproduct of the industrial revolution is just the kind of morally unacceptable outcome that should be foreseen by economists, and having foreseen it, they should work out how to avert it, providing, therefore, an economic response to a moral problem.”

– Broadie, p26

This was in response to an industrialized workforce, but the sentiment stands for people today in any role that doesn’t challenge their thinking.

Smith described a depressed and disgruntled underclass that would emerge from a group whose education was neglected.

The importance of engagement and mental clarity for individuals in any society hasn’t changed in the 250 years since Smith’s time.

In The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek reports that Apple provides benefits such as educational provision for all their entire workforce, not just the developers or executives but also the retail staff. In recognition that all humans need to develop their intellectual capital to grow and survive, the imperative for humans to continue learning is essential for success and happiness.

Whether you’re an individual or an employer, you can add to the harmony by engaging in and promoting cross-subject pollination. Forget the niche, now and again, remember that we all can learn and improve. Old beliefs about fixed capabilities are as ripe for rethinking as Smith or Hume’s philosophies.

We all need mental stimulation; whether you’re already a great thinker like Smith or you’d like to be. Dare to engage.

Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746)

Beyond self-interest

Born in Ireland to Scottish parents Francis Hutcheson was a Presbyterian minister and philosopher.

Hutcheson was a teacher and mentor to Adam Smith and David Hume, and is widely considered the father of the Scottish Enlightenment.

His works undoubtedly influenced his students’ careers, and he was also cited by Thomas Reid and Immanuel Kant in their published works. Hutcheson had excellent oratory skills and remained well thought of among his pupils.

By the time he took up the position of chair of Moral Philosophy in Glasgow, he had published a large stack of papers, many anonymous, however, upon taking the role he had discovered that his authorship was a poorly kept secret.

His thoughts and works on moral philosophy and ethics set up a direct challenge to Thomas Hobbes’s beliefs, as articulated in Leviathan on self-interest or self-love being the primary motivation of human behavior.

If you’ve ever met a narcissist, you’ll see Hobbes in action. Still, Hutcheson argued against Hobbes’s self-belief theory by analyzing the human perception of moral excellence, the reaction, and the natural tendency to move towards it.

“That some actions have to mean an immediate goodness; or, that by a superior sense, which I call a moral one, we approve the actions of others, and perceive them to be their perfection and dignity, and are determined to love the agent; alike perception we have in reflecting on such actions of our own, without any view of natural advantage from them.”

— Broadie, 137.

Self-interest is a theory that exists today as a counter to change. Of course, it does exist. In a society that celebrates power and business narratives that incentivize financial disasters like the human-made 2008 banking crisis, we might feel surrounded by the ethos.

But in many other quarters are movements that relegate self-interest to pursue a better planet, improved conditions for animals, community, human welfare, education, truth, and the list goes on.

As Hutcheson argued; there are other forces at work beyond self-interest; no matter what big business may say.

Dare to challenge the narrative about pure self-interest; dare to think differently.

So it is with the enlightenment mantra ‘dare to know’ and the simple ideas from these three Scottish Enlightenment thinkers that we can take to turn ourselves into philosophers and create and navigate a better world.

The Takeaway

David Hume: Ideas come from expressions; and our interaction with physical senses; they’re not something you’re born with, that are endowed on you or come from outer space.

Adam Smith: Mental engagement is essential for learning and self-development. We knew this already but now you’ve heard it from Adam Smith.

Francis Hutcheson: Forces for good are more than acts of self-love or self-interest. In business, creativity, and life there are options to pursue quarters that think beyond greed and selfishness.

Thanks for reading.