Science in the Scottish Enlightenment
Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

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Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

1 The Enlightenment in Scotland

The Enlightenment was a programme, rather than a set of completed achievements. Enlightenment thinkers produced few theories comparable with Copernicus's or Newton's in former centuries, or with Darwin's in the next. What makes them memorable is the vigour and confidence of their conviction that the universe – from the orbits of the planets to the workings of the human mind and of human society – is explicable, regular and lawlike, and will yield to the systematic application of rational, empirical, scientific procedures.

Enlightenment thinkers attempted to extend the realm of lawlike regularities beyond the physical sciences into biology, geology, medicine, psychology, politics, economics, history. Indeed, wherever knowledge was to be gained, it had to be scientific, empirical knowledge: it was the only sort that counted. Moreover, this knowledge, however abstract, should graduate into practical schemes for human welfare – into schemes for agricultural improvement, for industry, for better surgery and midwifery, for better laws.

There was to be no mystery. The ‘unknown’ signified only that which had not yet been understood: the Enlightenment recognised no category of ‘the unknowable’. And the most potent source of light to dispel the darkness of ignorance, blind authority, and religion, was science.

The men (and one or two women) of the Enlightenment formed what one of the foremost historians of the movement has called a self-consciously cosmopolitan, European ‘philosophic family’ (Gay, 1973, vol. 1, p. 6). Inevitably, though, branches of the family took tinges of colour from the various national cultures within which they grew.

This course is concerned with science in Scotland, one of the most dynamic centres of Enlightenment thinking. Writers speak of the mid-eighteenth century as Scotland's ‘Golden Age’. In order to get the flavour of this age, it is necessary to take a very broad view of what we mean by ‘science’. If we stay within the boundaries recognised by modern science faculties, we will miss most of what is distinctive about eighteenth-century Scotland. The interconnections and cross-fertilisation between disciplines that we now regard as having little to do with each other is one of the remarkable features of the Scottish scene. Geologists associated with historians, economists with chemists, philosophers with surgeons, lawyers with farmers, church ministers with architects.

Obviously, if we stretch the term ‘science’ too far, it disintegrates, but it is worth bearing in mind that the very term ‘scientist’ was not coined until the 1830s. Half a century earlier, a meeting of a learned society in Edinburgh, or Glasgow, or Aberdeen, would have brought together representatives of all the interests listed above, and they would all have recognised that they were engaged on a single project – namely, the pursuit of natural knowledge, by the light of observational, empirical methods, which in turn would lead to ‘improvement’ in the affairs of Scotland.

The Scottish conception of science and its purpose was neatly summed up in the programme of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, or ‘Wise Club’ as it came to be known, founded in 1758: the Society aimed to investigate

every Principle of Science which may be deduced by Just and Lawfull Induction from the Phaenomena either of the human Mind or of the material World; all Observations and Experiments that may furnish Materials for such Induction; the Examination of False Schemes of Philosophy and false Methods of Philosophising; the Subserviency of Philosophy to Arts, the Principles they borrow from it and the Means of carrying them out to their Perfection.

(Chitnis, 1976, p. 200)

The summary is useful too in showing how the meaning of key words has shifted since the eighteenth century. As the name indicates, the members of the Aberdeen Society were interested in philosophy, but they used the term to signify what today would be regarded as science. The word ‘science’ in their quite typical usage meant simply ‘knowledge’. They were also interested in ‘arts’, by which they meant, not the fine arts, but skills or even trades: arts would have included activities like printing, or agriculture – it signified something close to the modern conception of technology. It is interesting to see that the practical Aberdeen Society stressed ‘the subserviency of Philosophy to Arts’, by which it meant that science provided a base for technology: science should ultimately, in their view, be in the service of technological application.

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