Science in the Scottish Enlightenment
Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

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Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

2.4 The economy

Turning lastly to the late seventeenth-century economy, a similar pattern of historical revision is revealed. Accounts stressing desperate poverty and backwardness have given way to accounts which indicate a more prosperous, vigorous state of affairs. In a survey of the Scottish merchant community, Devine has concluded that although the nation had not fully insulated itself against the calamity of bad harvests, its merchants were forward-looking and ready to innovate. They were not locked into conservative social hierarchies which inhibited commercial ventures. Sons of lairds became merchants: merchants bought land – it was an ‘open’ society. Here is Devine's conclusion:

The business classes possessed the sophistication crucial to later advance. The merchant class made little intellectual contribution to the early Enlightenment; their function was more indirect, to help to provide, with the professional and landed classes, a social and material environment which was not resistant to change, whether in the cultural or economic spheres.

(Devine, 1982, p. 37)

It is from this background of mercantile openness that works like Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776), the foundation text in the new social science of economics, came. From the same background, it is important to note, came the harsh industrial regimes of the early factories: enlightenment could sometimes be exploitation dressed up in new clothes.

No matter whether it is the supposed ‘trauma’ of the Act of Union, or longer, indigenous traditions which command historians' attention in their quest for the origins of the Scottish Enlightenment, there is no dispute about the general characteristics of the movement once it was underway.


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