The Scottish Enlightenment

Piet Strydom. Encyclopedia of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2005.

The Scottish Enlightenment refers to a historical event in northern Britain between approximately 1740 and 1790 that found expression in a significant body of literature embedded in changing political and economic conditions; novel institutional developments such as clubs, societies and academies; and a concurrent efflorescence of associational relations and public communication comparable to what characterised the Enlightenment elsewhere in Europe. The intellectual achievement of eighteenth-century Scotland was so considerable that it not only impressed contemporaries such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Immanuel Kant but is today still regarded as having been responsible for the remarkable distinction that Scotland attained among the countries that participated in the Enlightenment.

The vast intellectual literature containing the basic ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment was produced by different generations of authors over a 50-year period but found its most characteristic focus roughly in the third quarter of the century during which a whole series of famous titles were published by David Hume (1711-1776), William Robertson (1721-1793), Adam Smith (1723-1790), Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), John Millar (1735-1801), and others. While this literature as a whole represented virtually the full range of modern knowledge, from experimental natural science and medicine through philosophy to what Hume referred to as “the moral subjects” or “the science of man” and later after Condorcet came to be called “the social sciences,” it is interesting to note here that it is particularly the latter branch of this literature that has retained its relevance and significance. At times, it indeed seemed as though the larger part of this social theoretic literature had fallen into oblivion, yet a certain line of continuity can be observed, and somewhat unexpectedly, the second half of the twentieth century has inaugurated a veritable renaissance in Scottish Enlightenment studies.

Frameworks of Interpretation

The contemporary interest in the social theory of the Scottish Enlightenment is by no means due, as some suggest, solely to the resurgence since the late 1970s of the New Right in the guise of neoconservatism and neoliberal economics and politics. It is indeed indisputable that some authors approach the Scottish intellectual heritage from within this interpretative framework, yet there is ample evidence that other factors also have been relevant.

From a social scientific point of view, it is obvious that the demise of positivism and the growing postempiricist emphasis on the history and sociology of science have played their part in generating a heightened concern with the Scottish Enlightenment. Since the 1960s, these developments were followed by an increasing impatience with textbook disciplinary histories and a renewed desire to clarify the foundations of the social sciences. This epistemological and methodological shift in emphasis has thus sharpened the sensitivity of historically minded social scientists toward theoretical options, approaches, or traditions that are lesser known or have become marginalized, suppressed, excluded, or even eclipsed.

Perhaps the most important force behind the increased interest in the Scottish Enlightenment, however, is the recent momentous transformation of historical consciousness. Against its background, an alternative political-ideological framework of interpretation has arisen that, far from a narrow neoliberalism, somehow brings together the liberal focus on rights and the republican stress on participation with the discursive or deliberative concern with the mediation of potentially contrary values and interests under fragile conditions of existence.

The Formation of Norms and the Constitution of Normative Orders

The difference between these two contrary frameworks for the interpretation of the Scottish Enlightenment is indicative of something of theoretical importance. It concerns the question of the formation of norms and the constitution of normative orders or regimes that lies at the heart of the contribution of the Scottish authors.

According to neoliberalism, which sees its own free-market capitalist position as the culmination point of the Scottish understanding, patterns of behaviour are spontaneously generated as by-products or unintended consequences of other activities and related contingent factors that then, to the extent that they benefit a significant number, become stabilised through the self-regulative maintenance of relations between the component parts. The economist Friedrich von Hayek defended precisely this view of the Scottish Enlightenment and, on that basis, concluded that since markets emerge spontaneously, they should indefinitely be left to regulate themselves recursively, regardless of the consequences. Inspired by Hayek, Louis Schneider sought to offer a functionalist interpretation of the sociology of the Scottish authors, while Ronald Hamowy insisted that the core of the Scottish contribution to sociology is represented by their view of spontaneous order.

This functionalist perspective indeed finds a foothold in Adam Smith’s political economy in which he traced the emergence of the modern capitalist economic system, as well as more generally in the Scottish emphasis on benefit or utility over authority. Extrapolating Hume’s analysis of local trade relations into the idea of a national economy by focusing on the intelligible form of the system, Smith ([1776]1976) for instance showed in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations how supply and demand, or production and consumption, represent an autonomous and self-regulating mechanism at the core of the modern system of commerce which gives rise to the market price—a “system of natural liberty” that establishes and maintains itself “of its own accord” (IV.ix.51).

Contrary to the neoliberal interpretation, however, Smith ([1776]1976) went considerably further than this systemic logic of self-regulation. Over and above an autonomous economic system, Smith considered also the possibility of economic and social crisis and the concomitant need for intervention in the self-regulative mechanism of the economy in order to secure the “natural price” (I.vii.7) in the sense of the socially and ethically minimum wage consistent with a developed economy. In this case, he invoked the collective normative standard of what he called “common humanity” (I.viii.24) rather than simply insisting on individual benefit or utility. Under certain circumstances, then, the systemic logic of self-regulation calls for interruption by the social logic of self-organisation. In this latter respect, Adam Ferguson and John Millar went far beyond Smith and thus, by implication, drew a line between economics and sociology.

From “Commercial Society” To “Civil Society”

Although Smith ([1776]1976) effectively refused to conceive of “commercial society” (, I.vii., IV.i) strictly in systems theoretical terms, his focus nevertheless remained fixed on the economic system and its environment. The limits of his position were defined by the fact that he was fundamentally tied to John Locke’s (1632-1704) economic or “mercantile” (Smith [1776]1976:IV.i.3) model of society and, hence, belonged to the Lockean tradition in the conceptualisation of society or the “L-stream,” as Charles Taylor called it. Ferguson and Millar differed from Smith in that they took the social route much more emphatically. In fact, many regard them as the first authors to have recognised social reality as such and to have dealt with it in its own right. That this sociological concern with the historically variable “state of society” had been prefigured by Hume, who exhibited an interest in the “moral subjects” since his first book A Treatise of Human Nature ([1739-1740]1964) and continued to ask moral philosophical questions about society, by no means detracts from the achievement of these authors.

While ascribing a socially significant self-reflective capacity to the individual under such titles as “sympathy” and “impartial spectator” (Smith [1759]1982:I.i.1, I.i.5.8), Smith consistently kept to the English individualist tradition that, at least since Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), saw the individual as self-loving, egoistic and self-interested. Ferguson and Millar, by contrast, not only followed their Scottish predecessors such as Francis Hutcheson who took a social turn beyond the Earl of Shaftesbury but also adopted more specifically the view of their French example, Montesquieu, that human beings are social by nature. To this they added one of their most characteristic insights: that human beings are capable of both learning and the development of their latent capacities within the social structures into which they were incorporated. Although being vehemently against the Hobbesian “selfish system,” Ferguson and Millar nevertheless did not allow this opposition to mislead them into accepting a collectivism that reduces or obliterates the individual, as for instance Auguste Comte would do in the nineteenth century. For them, the individual as active agent and bearer of rights retained importance, but they incorporated it into a genuinely sociological concept of society.

Rather than equating social reality or society simply with Smith’s “commercial society,” Ferguson and Millar drew in addition also on Montesquieu’s sociopolitical model put forward in 1748 in The Spirit of the Laws with its characteristic emphasis on politically mediated cultural and social differences, inequalities, conflicts, and power balances. To conceive sociologically of society as “civil society,” as Ferguson ([1767]1966) famously called it, they thus creatively combined the “L-stream” and the “M-stream.” For Ferguson and Millar, therefore, modern society was by no means exclusively a prepolitical economic complex that regulated itself recursively, but more fully a dynamic set of social relations, characterised by cultural, social, and power difference and inequalities leading to tensions, contradictions, ambiguities, and conflicts that those involved were required to organise themselves. A logic of self-regulation carried by an autonomous system was embedded in and complemented by a logic of self-organisation for which the rights-bearing, active members of society took responsibility. Ferguson and Millar’s understanding of both history and of the study of society reflects their twofold Lockean-Montesquieuian conception of civil society.

Theoretical History of the “Natural History” of Civil Society

The most striking feature of the social theory of the Scottish Enlightenment is its historical orientation. Ferguson’s An Essay on the History of Civil Society ([1767]1966) gives paradigmatic expression to this Scottish sensibility and program, but it receives even more explicit elaboration in the writings of Millar, from his The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks ([1771]1806) to his An Historical View of the English Government ([1787]1803). Not only did they regard society as having its own history, what they called its “natural history,” but they also put forward their own characteristic type of social scientific study of that history, what they called “theoretical history.”

Proceeding from certain assumptions about the nature of human beings, both Ferguson and Millar regarded society as acquiring structural and institutional features through a process of historical development that unfolds and accumulates largely of its own accord. Due to lack of imagination, inadequate anticipation of the future, unconscious adaptation to circumstances, individual actions having incalculable social ramifications, and involuntary production of unintended outcomes and consequences, society has a “natural history” (Millar [1771]1806:11) that runs its course with a minimum of purposiveness and without a script. Government, parliamentary procedure, civil laws, and institutions in general, all arose in this manner in the historical process, mediated by “custom,” conflicting “projects and schemes,” and the given “circumstances” (Ferguson [1767]1966:122-23). Millar agreed fully with Ferguson’s ([1767]1966) observation that societies “stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design” (p. 122). In spite of such imputation of low rationality to history and high complexity to society, however, both Ferguson and Millar nevertheless emphasised the importance of public opinion, active participation in public life, and deliberate action in politics—with Millar, for instance, supporting the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. Whereas this twofold emphasis led Schneider to the discovery of an unresolved tension in the Scottish contribution, Habermas more acutely appreciated that the sociology of the Scottish Enlightenment had both a conservative and a critical side. In fact, this duality was a characteristic feature of their theoretical history. While assuming the achievements of the natural history of society, both Ferguson and Millar insisted on the possibility of, and need for, the critique of modern society, including existing institutions and authorities. Their critical focus was trained in particular on the division of labour and its negative social consequences, as in the case of Ferguson, and on ecclesiastical institutions and private and public abuses of power made possible by the class structure, as in the case of Millar. A clear distinction has to be drawn, therefore, between the Scottish authors’ understanding of the natural history of society, on one hand, and their view of how to study that history and for what purpose, on the other.

The Scots’ characteristic concern was a type of social scientific investigation for which they did not yet have an appropriate name. Millar had a clear idea of what was intended when he referred to himself as a “philosophical historian” (cited in Lehmann 1960:135). What he had in mind was in the first instance a social theorist who seeks to discover a pattern in, and thus to account for, the facts made available by the historian. In addition, he was convinced that this theoretical activity should be discharged in a critical and public way so as to provide the educator, the politician, and the public with some basis for the determination of the desired direction of development. In want of a fitting name, Dugald Stewart (1854) therefore proposed to call it provisionally “Theoretical or Conjectural History” (p. 34).

The social science of the Scottish Enlightenment presupposed the indigenous British traditions of empirical science, as represented by Bacon, Newton, and Hume, and of moral philosophy and civil jurisprudence, as put forward by Cumberland, Shaftesbury, Carmichael, Hutcheson, Berkeley, and Hume. The most conspicuous influence on their “theoretical history,” however, was Montesquieu, the most widely read French Enlightenment thinker, whom they regarded as the Bacon of their own science. Montesquieu himself can be regarded as an early theoretical historian—or sociologist, as Raymond Aron suggests—in the sense of an author who explicitly sought to make history theoretically intelligible. Ferguson freely admitted that not only his point of view but much of his information also depended directly on the Frenchman. And Millar identified the latter unambiguously as the fountainhead of the program of the Scottish Enlightenment, which Smith, Ferguson, and he himself were pursuing:

Upon this subject he [Smith] followed the plan that seems to be suggested by Montesquieu; endeavouring to trace the gradual progress of jurisprudence, both public and private, from the rudest to the most refined ages, and to point out the effects of those arts which contribute to subsistence, and to the accumulation of property, in producing correspondent improvements or alterations in law and government. (Stewart 1854:12)

This passage outlining the Scottish program of social theory could be taken as paradigmatic reference point of a range of more or less prominent conflicting twentieth-century interpretations of its direction and value.


It is generally accepted that the Scottish Enlightenment is one of a number of events that marked the historical moment when modern society emerged, which implies that there is an intrinsic relation between social theory and modernity. Given this connection, the different commentators’ interpretations of the social theory of the Scottish Enlightenment obviously correlate with their respective periodizations and theories of modernity.

The most widely accepted interpretation in the history of social theory, generally speaking, links modernity with what Eric Hobsbawm called the “dual revolution”—that is, the political dispensation inaugurated by the French Revolution and the rise of industrial capitalism in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Since the Scottish Enlightenment had occurred largely prior to the culmination of the great transition in the dual revolution, however, the defining moment in Scottish history, the Union of Parliaments of 1707, became the reference point for contrary interpretations.

Starting from the deep unpopularity of the Union in Scotland itself and drawing on classical republicanism, many authors have interpreted the Scottish Enlightenment as a defence of the independent, virtuous Scottish citizen against the modern Whig order resting on the pillars of patronage, office, and credit that was imposed from London. In opposition to this perspective drawn from political theory in the sense of classical republicanism stressing “virtue,” others have sought instead to present Scottish social theory from an economic angle stressing “wealth” instead. From this point of view, it was either part of the attempt to overcome the barbarous and parochial nature of Scottish life by associating with the socioeconomic order introduced by the Whig oligarchy or an ideological articulation and justification of the commercial capitalism of the British bourgeoisie. As against these alternatives, a third interpretative paradigm has been put forward according to which the continental tradition of civil jurisprudence or modernized natural law was central to Scottish social theory in a way that distinguished it sharply from English thought. Instead of virtue or wealth, the predominant semantics in this case was shaped by law and included not only words such as rights, liberty, and constitution but also politeness and taste, which give the distinction between the rude and the polished a completely different sense than in the case of the earlier commercial-liberal interpretation. Rather than either a political or an economic theory of the emergence of modernity, Eriksson put forward a cultural-intellectual theory, but instead of law, his focus is on science. To make sense of the social theory of the Scottish Enlightenment, therefore, he traces modernity back to the line of development leading from Galileo through Bacon and Descartes to Newton. According to this scientistic interpretation, the latter’s theory of gravity led Smith, followed by Ferguson and Millar, to transpose “subsistence” into the core conceptual category of social theory.

From a contemporary perspective, it is apparent that the preceding political, economic, cultural-jurisprudential, and cultural-scientific interpretations each indeed strikes on a plausible dimension of the social theory of the Scottish Enlightenment, yet represents a one-sided reading because it rests on a single-factor theory of modernity. To do justice to the multidimensional nature of the work of the Scottish authors, by contrast, it has become clear that it is necessary to see early modernity in its integrity. The different dimensions must be seen in their dialectical interrelation. An increasingly accepted way of doing this is to see the Scottish Enlightenment as having formed part of and having been an outgrowth of the Europe-wide practical discourse of the time about how the survival of society could be secured and social solidarity created through rights in the face of the domination, violence, and disorder emanating from a range of forces. Among the latter were the dissolution of the religious worldview and fragmentation of its institutional underpinnings and communal basis, the process of state formation, the differentiation of civil society from the state, the emergence of capitalism, and the development of technology and science. Taking into account the interplay of these dynamic forces, particularly the contradiction of capitalism and democracy within civil society, both Ferguson and Millar regarded society as becoming visible in the tensions, ambiguities, contradictions, and conflicts that emerge from the struggle against dominating and depleting forces, on one hand, and for the realization of freedom and inclusion, on the other. For them, society was the “scene in which the parties contend for power, privilege and equality” (Ferguson [1767]1966:135), yet one in which a more equitable and just arrangement and a more complete existence could be achieved through law, the distribution of rights, constitutionalism, and, hence, active participation, public spiritedness, and public opinion (Ferguson [1767]1966:136, 154-67, 190-91, 261-72; Millar [1771]1806:230-42).

Contemporary Relevance

A standard feature of scholarship on the Scottish Enlightenment, which is also present in the majority of the above interpretations, is the assumption that a stage theory of the progress of society from a savage or rude to a civil or polished state forms a core component of the social theory of Smith, Ferguson, and Millar. Although it has under the influence of Ronald Meek come to be called the “four stages theory,” this does not apply to Ferguson, who identified only three stages, and applies only with difficulty to Millar, who worked with a flexible three-to four-stage concept. As is apparent today, however, the major problem with twentieth-century interpreters is that they read Scottish social theory from a nineteenth-century liberal, socialist, and evolutionary point of view, thus imputing to it not merely an inappropriately strong concept of progress but indeed the untenable assumptions of the philosophy of history. The prerevolutionary Enlightenment, including the stage theorists, did not yet dispose over a concept of universal history and progress transposed into a temporal utopia projected into the future but, rather, assumed a dualistic and cyclical viewpoint and entertained nearly as much cultural pessimism as optimism. The Scottish authors, particularly the leading social theorists Ferguson and Millar, therefore combined a deep-seated sense of the possibility of decline and decay of societies with the conviction that the pursuit of public good and happiness was nevertheless worthwhile. Considering society in a historically grounded and politically informed way, they were sensitive to the unavoidability of contingency, openness, and uncertainty. Far from progress being a foregone conclusion, it was a question of how society dealt with both ineliminable internal class and status differences and external political, economic, and other exigencies.

It is precisely in the particular historical consciousness of authors such as Ferguson and Millar that the contemporary relevance of the social theory of the Scottish Enlightenment is to be found. Beyond the historical consciousness of universality of the past two centuries with its emphasis on unmitigated notions of development, progress, evolution, and the realization of universality, our newfound late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century consciousness of generality or globality, marked as it is by its stress on the simultaneity and connectedness of different forms of life under fragile conditions of existence, reproduces, albeit in its own particular form, the consciousness of generality characteristic of the late eighteenth-century Scottish authors. Their awareness of the vicissitudes and fragility of society and our forced acknowledgement of, for instance, the ecology crisis, the hollowing out of the nation-state, the privatisation of violence, and the vulnerability of the world financial system at the end of high modernity, are bringing us together in such a way that we are compelled to recognise today that we need to be much more modest and, hence, sensitive to differences, contradictions, and ambiguities under conditions of an open history, contingency, and uncertainty than our predecessors had been during the past 200 years.