Scottish Enlightenment

An intense period of intellectual endeavour and activity that took place among the social and cultural élite of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Scotland. It included such expressions as painting (Allan Ramsay, Henry Raeburn, and others), architecture (Robert Adam and his brothers John and William), literature (Robert Burns, Walter Scott, and others), and engineering (James Watt, Thomas Telford, John Rennie, and other builders of steam-engines, canals, and bridges). One prominent strand of thought concerned the study of people as social and sociable beings. This was the central interest of the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, such as David Hume , Adam Smith , William Robertson, Adam Ferguson , and John Millar . These were the five leading literati of what may fairly be said to be a distinct eighteenth-century Scottish School of social philosophy that constitutes an important source of sociological thinking (see, ‘Origins of Sociology: The Case of the Scottish Enlightenment’ British Journal of Sociology, 1970).
The Scots were characterized by a common disagreement with the Hobbesian premiss that society arose out of a social contract made by individuals as a means of self-preservation against each other's otherwise selfish passions. By contrast, they took it as axiomatic that people were naturally social, that their capacities were meaningless outside a social context, and that societies were the natural state of humanity. This view was underpinned by an evolutionism , which saw humankind as having progressed from a ‘rude’ to a ‘refined’ condition, although they also offered the (rather sophisticated) view that this temporal movement did not necessarily imply betterment. A third characteristic of the Scottish School was its insistence that the study of society should be totalizing, dealing with ‘all that people did in societies’, from the holding of private property to the practice of music. Where the various luminaries disagreed with each other was in the attempt they then made to identify the few general principles by which one could order and systematize history.
It is generally recognized that the Scottish philosophers made an important independent contribution to the economic thought of the nineteenth century, to Marxist political economy, and to the development of the concept of the bourgeoisie and its place in the capitalist order. Ferguson was undoubtedly a forerunner of modern conflict theory.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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