It's remarkable how easily historical terms are presented in small discrete packages from which no dissent is permitted. The Scottish Enlightenment is identified with thinkers such as Adam Smith, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, Francis Hutcheson and John Millar amongst others. They made significant contributions to philosophy, natural theology, economics, social science, law, historiography, linguistics, mathematics, chemistry, engineering and geology. Yet the term "Scottish Enlightenment" was not coined until 1900, while many argue the Enlightenment was an international rather than a national movement. More recently Hugh Trevor-Roper defined the Scottish Enlightenment in terms of the social mechanism of progress and the development of the discipline of political economy to effect that progress. Contemporary debates included discussions of all disciplines, the separation of the social sciences from the natural sciences and a commitment to humanitarian values including religious toleration alongside moral and economic improvement. The main impetus for thought came from the three university cities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
While a modern readership regards David Hume as a leading philosopher of religion in eighteenth-century Scotland, he was not regarded as such by his contemporaries. In Hume's day "theology was the primary science that could dictate terms of reference to philosophy". However, it was being challenged by English and Dutch promotion "of 'rational' religion that subjected the whole framework of religious belief to the same rational critique as other forms of knowledge and belief." The Scottish Calvinist tradition did not deny natural religion as a means of understanding the nature and existence of God but its expression as deism "a system founded solely on natural reason" was regarded as atheistic denying, as it did, the revelatory nature of the Bible. Natural religion was regarded as a branch of pneumatology - the science of mind and spirit - in the study of moral philosophy. Ideas spread through the development of university libraries which stocked books by alleged atheists such as Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Servetus and Toland. The challenge of rational religion lay less in its use of reason as in the development of doctrinal and social dissent which provoked the anger of the Scottish clergy.
While Locke and Port-Royal Logic had questioned the validation of historical testimony, it was not until Hume such questions became a matter for debate. Turnbull's "Philosophical Inquiry" (1731) took biblical miracles as facts while many of his contemporaries such as Abernathy "Discourses concerning the Being and Natural Perfections of God" (1740) and Baxter, "Enquiry Into the Nature of the Human Soul" (1733) extensively considered the First Cause argument and the evidence from design as integral to doctrinal integrity. Hume questioned this, claiming the conclusions drawn from the argument from design exceeded the empirical evidence in support of It. In "The Natural History of Religion" (1757) Hume provided the fundamental framework which serves as the standard atheistic account of the development of religion. He argued religion was a non-rational response to natural phenomena, originally manifest as polytheism but later dominated by dogmatic and intolerant monotheism. He hoped religion could be removed from human thinking. Applying ideas about probability, testimony and quasi-legal criteria of sound evidence, he concluded miracles were transgressions of the laws of nature which by their nature deny the laws themselves. Hume, like many atheists, tended to see religion as a source of social evil, ignoring its political context. The "common sense" school of thought responded with vigorous critiques of Hume. Campbell in "Dissertation on Miracles" (1762) accused Hume of being slapdash in his use of resources and suggested the burden of proof lay with those contesting testimony not those defending it.
By the middle of the eighteenth century there were four different versions of scepticism, two of which were of ancient origin. Pyrrhonism claimed there was no evidence for any proposition as it may be contradicated by another proposition of equal probability. Hence judgement should be suspended. Academic sceptics argued some judgements were more probable than others and life could only be lived by making judgements. For Descartes, one's existence is true knowledge while Locke opined knowledge of some things may amount to no more than probabilities but border on near certainty and can regarded as being true. Hume claimed there was no guarantee that the same cause would always have the same effect and belief that it would was not based on reason or the process of understanding, or as the result of inherent laws of thought, but because it confirmed existing day-to-day experience. Unsurprisingly Hume's scepticism was criticised by the School of Common Sense.
Scottish philosophy had a major impact on Continental Europe. Kant claimed Hume woke him from his intellectual slumbers. Hume also found a receptive audience amongst moderate supporters of the French Revolution. However, as Gordon Graham - a specialist on the Scottish Enlightenment - points out, " while Scottish philosophy of the eighteenth century is studied to the point of being a major academic industry, Scottish philosophy in the nineteenth century is not only neglected but virtually unknown." Graham noted, Hume, Reid and Hutcheson attracted over 4000 publications in the Philosopher's Index, Hamilton, Ferrier and Bain fewer than 40. In the nineteenth century there were forty-seven identifiable figures in the Scottish philosophical tradition, of whom Reid, an opponent of Hume, was regarded as pre-eminent. The Scottish Enlightenment unravelled in part as a result of the reform and increased specialisation of the Universities, resulting in the role of philosophy being circumscribed "to the teaching of two classes (over) four years". Students were directed towards German Idealism, British Empiricism and American Pragmatism. Philosophy lost its role in the teaching of a liberal education and became a specialised subject for advanced study. This book is such an example. It's for specialists not the general reader but well worth consulting. Four stars.