'Francis Hutcheson, Philosophical Writings' (edited by Robin Downie and published by John Donald)
First published in 1994, this selection from the works of the major Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) contains essays on ethics, aesthetics, politics, economics, and laughter. Its reissue by Birlinn in 2019 is evidence of today's increasing sense of the importance of the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century.
However, before returning to the book, I have a confession to make. I have never found philosophy easy to read. Confronting a page by say David Hume, and concentrating fiercely, the outcome is always the same. As the sentences unroll, just what they mean seems to slip away. I may have grasped the opening assertion but as the qualifications, refinements, counter arguments, and the rest unfold, I find myself out of my depth, just losing the point – whatever it may be. Reading Hutcheson is no different. Here too, despite my best efforts, I struggle over the finer points of his analysis of beauty on the one hand or of the moral sense on the other.
Of course the fault is entirely mine, not the philosophers' – even if there are others who share my problem. Perhaps Hutcheson on laughter – an unusual topic for philosophy – hints at the source of my difficulty. The pages in question I read and understand with little or no difficulty. Laughter is a physical phenomenon. Philosophy normally remains in the world of abstraction. Concepts such as ethics or aesthetics involve abstract ideas above all – perhaps mine is the kind of brain that finds that level of abstraction hard to deal with. In any event, none of this means any failure on my part to recognise the real importance of philosophical thinking and analysis.
With considerable justification, Hutcheson has often been described as the father of the Scottish Enlightenment. Born in Northern Ireland, most of his major works were written and published by the end of the 1720s, when he was teaching in a dissenting academy in Dublin. Their success was such that he was appointed to the Chair of Moral Philosophy in Glasgow University – where he had studied as an undergraduate – in 1730. The appointment was a highly significant one as Hutcheson proved an influential teacher who, delivering his lectures in English, did much to modernise the university.
He also was a key figure in resisting attempts by hard-line Calvinists in the Church of Scotland to require that students were taught only their brand of theology. To the contrary, Hutcheson encouraged what we would call the teaching of a liberal university education.
Crucially, there was a powerful liberal dimension to the thrust of Hutcheson's philosophy in general. Thus, he can be seen as setting the tone of much of the Scottish Enlightenment thinking that was to follow. His influence on David Hume may have been limited, but the sources of Adam Smith's economic and philosophical ideas can often be identified in his work. Smith had been Hutcheson's pupil and always retained his admiration for his teacher.
In suggesting that Hutcheson set the tone of the Scottish Enlightenment, what I have in mind is its focus on man in society. Hutcheson bitterly opposed the view of Thomas Hobbes and his followers that human nature is fundamentally selfish and anti-social, and that self-interest determines all human activity. Hutcheson rejected such ideas, arguing for the existence of a moral sense in all of us that makes it natural to show concern and sympathise with others. Social reality is as important as individual reality. Such a focus on man in society strikes me as the central building block of much of Scottish Enlightenment thinking and helps to explain what I see as its commitment to a broadly progressive, liberal, view of the development of human society.
Whether such a view is correct or not, what is not in doubt is Hutcheson's own liberalism. In his A System of Moral Philosophy,
he is long years ahead of his time in being prepared to stand up for animal rights. Animals, he says, have a 'right' to happiness and 'a right that no useless pain or misery be inflicted on them'.
Given such a view it is no surprise that Hutcheson was also an opponent of slavery – and is frequently cited as such by the earliest American abolitionists. He writes:
As to the notions of slavery which obtained among the Grecians and Romans, and other nations of old, they are horribly unjust. No damage done or crime committed can change a rational creature into a piece of goods void of all rights, and incapable of acquiring any…
Remember, he is writing in the early 18th century – long before the existence of slavery became a major moral issue.
Equally, or even more important – in that they are much more fully developed – are Hutcheson's political views. He is a firm democrat, prepared to argue that people can only be ruled with their consent:
No man can justly assume to himself power over others upon any persuasion of his own superior wisdom or goodness, unless the body of the people are also persuaded of it, or consent to be subjected to such power, upon some reasonable security given them, that the power entrusted shall not be abused to their destruction.
Hutcheson is equally clear on the people's right to resist those he calls 'vicious rulers'. He goes on to write wonderfully about the 'tenets of the rights of resistance' and of how all too often they have not been maintained:
There is no hope of making a peaceful world or country, by means of such tenets as the unlimited powers of governors, and the unlawfulness of all resistance... Mankind have generally been a great deal too tame and tractable; and hence so many wretched forms of power have always enslaved nine-tenths of the nations of the world, where they have the fullest rights to make all efforts for a change.
It is easy to see why, in their dispute with the mother-country, so many American colonists heard the words of the Ulster Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson ring like music in their ears. He has every right to be regarded as a putative founding father of the USA.
A collection of Andrew Hook's writing, 'From Mount Hooly to Princeton: A Scottish-American Medley', (published by Kennedy & Boyd), is available to buy now.