Scottish Enlightenment

Scottish Enlightenment

The Scottish Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that gathered momentum in Scotland during the second half of the 18th century, and is often viewed as Scotland’s Golden Age.

The period saw some of Scotland’s greatest thinkers, including David Hume (1711 – 1776), Adam Smith (1723 – 1790) and James Hutton (1726 – 1797), seek to improve the world through innovative ideas about both the human and natural worlds.

In philosophy, the movement questioned perceived ideas surrounding rationalism (as put forward by René Descartes and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz), the terms of sentiment and sense, and created a drive towards empirical methods of inquiry. David Hume’s well-known A Treatise of Human Nature embodies the era’s central tenets and the ideas presented in the book are still regarded today as a cornerstone of economic and sociological thought.

Adam Smith was influenced by Hume and became a figurehead in Scottish economic thought, best known for his work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Both men have statues commemorating their life and work situated on the Royal Mile, a reminder of the far-reaching influence of their work.

Known as the ‘father of modern geology’, James Hutton was born and educated in Edinburgh and is best-known for penning the Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe. The book is significant because it marked Hutton as the first scientist to theorise and find evidence for the Earth being made of layers of rock with a molten core, inspired by Hutton’s studies of the extinct volcano in the centre of Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat and the adjacent Salisbury Crags. Today a prominent part of the crags is known as ‘Hutton’s Section’.

The extent of the Scottish Enlightenment also reached architecture, chemistry, geology, engineering, medicine and history, shaping the Scotland that exists and is familiar to us today.