The political theory of the Scottish Enlightenment

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Scotland's singular voice within the polyphony of the European Enlightenment has attracted a great deal of debate. As historians attempt to weigh local varieties of Enlightenment, informed by disparate religious, political and cultural settings, against the transnational concerns and cosmopolitan aspirations of 'the' Enlightenment, Scotland posits a remarkable case in point. Scotland's European contexts have often been overlooked; by the same token, its distinct features can only be mapped against the contours of the European Enlightenment. David Hume, Adam Smith, William Robertson, John Millar and Adam Ferguson were subtle disciples of European intellectual traditions, and conversant with a range of Enlightenment cultures. At the same time, their writings convey a powerful sense of Scotland's incomparable position as a kingdom within the British union, set apart by its church and jurisprudence, and by its singular decision to trade sovereignty for empire. Nowhere is this apparent tension more pronounced than in the field of political theory. POLITICS AND THE SCOTS: Taken as a field of enquiry, politics is a conjuncture of mind-sets responding to contemporary political issues, critical perusals of intellectual traditions and cross-fermentation with other sciences. The balance between these elements may differ according to era and culture; but eighteenth-century Scottish thinkers were able to draw vigorously on all three sources of inspiration. Their political thought was accordingly shaped by three sets of problems: Scotland’s voluntary loss of sovereignty in an age when statehood and statecraft steadily gained importance; the need for a viable modern theory of politics amid clashing idioms of the good life and the good polity; and the tall order set by the natural sciences for standards of certainty, regularity and predictability in the study of human affairs.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9780511998638
ISBN (Print)9780521802734
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2003

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Cambridge University Press 2003.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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