By Gordon Graham
Not so very long ago, it was quite widely accepted that Britain’s most significant contribution to the development of philosophy was ‘empiricism’ and that its great exponents were the Englishman John Locke, the Irishman George Berkeley, and the Scot David Hume. Accordingly, Hume was taken to be Scotland’s most, perhaps only, enduringly significant philosopher. In Hume’s own time, however, and for many decades afterwards, the perception would have been rather different. The center of philosophical interest and energy was not Britain, but Scotland. While the only universities in England — Oxford and Cambridge — lay in the academic doldrums, and Trinity College Dublin was an institution for the privileged Ascendancy only, the cities, presbyteries and universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow positively shone with renewed intellectual vitality. Hume was an important part of this, but only a part, and his Treatise much less highly regarded than his many other writings. Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, William Robertson, Alexander Gerard, Adam Ferguson, Lord Kames were just some of the stars in a very bright firmament. By the later 19th century, all of them had sunk into philosophical obscurity, worthy of study, if at all, by those who have a taste for the arcana of intellectual history. Meantime, as their stock fell, Hume’s rose, and he finally emerged from many decades of unwarranted neglect that had been occasioned, many thought, by an intolerant religiosity that had dismissed him as a sceptic and infidel. Even then, the study of Hume was confined, chiefly, to just one of this many works – the Treatise of Human Nature (1739).
Since the second half of the 20th century, a much richer understanding both of Hume and his times has been developing. Reid and Smith have taken their place alongside Hume as enduringly important philosophical thinkers, capable of generating and sustaining protracted study. Ferguson and Kames are winning a little attention again, while the study of Hume ranges much more widely over his other books and essays. More importantly, all these thinkers are now understood to be participants in a Scottish philosophical tradition that can be traced back before the period of the Enlightenment, and found to continue well beyond it. The philosophical ideas that animated this tradition, and the authors who contributed to it, form an extraordinarily rich field of thought and inquiry, now marked by its attractiveness to new generations of the ablest scholars.