Knowledge Rev.

Historical Timeline

Index by Topic

Return to Main Page

Country Variations

The Age of Enlightenment is a term used to describe a phase in the history of Western civilization, during the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries,  that emphasized rational thought and empirical observation. Although there were some common elements, there were also significant differences among the “enlightenments” in the different European countries. All of these movements were influenced by the scientific discoveries of the seventeenth century and the resulting confidence in human rationality.

In some  Enlightenment circles, especially in France, there was an active antagonism against Christianity. But this was not universal. In Spain, the leading intellectual of this period was Benito Feijoó (1676-1764), a Benedictine priest, and through his influence, the Spanish Enlightenment remained largely Christian. Likewise, some of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment were Presbyterian ministers.

This academic connection was an important and a unique feature of the Scottish Enlightenment.  Historian Douglas Sloan has pointed out that after the unification of England and Scotland in 1707, the Scottish universities became a vehicle for maintaining Scottish identity.[1]

University of Edinburgh  Photo Source: Wikipedia, Author: Kim Traynor

Enlightened Religion

The Scottish Enlightenment included philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), who was very critical of organized religion, but it also produced some of the best examples of enlightened Christian thought around its universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The Scottish movement included an attempt to place Christianity on a footing more consistent with contemporary thought, through alternative interpretations of some of its teachings, and a lessening of dogmatism. The tone was set by Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), generally considered to have been the foundational figure of the Scottish Enlightenment. The process was described by one of his students at Glasgow:

It was owing to Hutcheson and  him [professor of theology William Leechman] that a new school was formed in the western provinces of Scotland, where the clergy till that period were narrow and bigoted, and had never ventured to range in their mind beyond the bounds of strict orthodoxy. For though neither of these professors taught any heresy, yet they opened and enlarged the minds of the students, which soon gave them a turn for free inquiry; the result of which was, candour and liberality of sentiment.[2]

Hugh Blair (1718-1800), a professor at Edinburgh and a Presbyterian minister, expresses the clear Christian humanism of this group:

The spirit of true religion breathes gentleness and affability. It gives a native, unaffected ease to the behavior. It is social, kind, and cheerful: far removed from that gloomy and illiberal superstition which clouds the brow, sharpens the temper, dejects the spirit, and teaches men to fit themselves for another world, by neglecting the concern of this, Let your religion, on the contrary, connect preparation for heaven, with an honourable discharge of the duties of active life.[3]

Moral Philosophy

Francis Hutcheson taught moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow, from 1730 to 1746. A course on moral philosophy was often included as part of the Arts curriculum in European universities throughout their history, with Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as a popular text. Hutcheson provided an important update of the contents of this course. In addition to the classical topics, he included more political and legal material, based mostly on the thought of German jurist Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694). Hutcheson's textbooks on this subject have been highly influential. We have records, for example, of their influence at early American  colleges where the moral philosophy course was used as a sort of senior "capstone" course to help students develop a social conscience.[4] In one of his textbooks, Hutcheson defines the purpose of the course:

“The intention of Moral Philosophy is to direct men to that course of action which tends most effectually to promote their greatest happiness and perfection; as far as can be done by observations and conclusions discoverable from the constitution of nature, without any aids of supernatural revelation.[5]


Adam Ferguson taught moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh from 1764 to 1785, and he also published his textbooks which take advantage of Hutcheson's, but they are more complex. He exalts the benefits of this subject: "The highest point to which moral science conducts the mind of man, is that eminence of thought, from which he can view himself as but a part in the community of living creatures."[6]

The Common Good

The foundational concept of social morality is that of the "common good", which has long roots from both classical and Christian sources, but it was well developed by the Scottish enlightenment. In his textbooks,  Hutcheson grounds his treatment of social responsibilities on this concept:

As each individual is a part of this system, the happiness and duration of which depends on that of its part; as every one may be of some service to others in society, were it only by advice and example, if they have such dispositions as they ought to have: as we are formed by nature for the service of each other, and not each one merely for himself...[7]

We should always repute it as our business in the world, the end and purpose of our being, our duty to our kind, the natural use of the powers we enjoy, and the most suitable testimony of our gratitude to our Maker the parent of all good, to contribute something to the general good, to the common fund of happiness to our species.[8]

The Purpose of Knowledge and The Professions

Hutcheson dwells on the social purpose of knowledge in a civilized society:

The culture of our minds principally  consists in forming opinions about our duty; and in procuring a large store of valuable knowledge about the most important subjects: as indeed all branches of knowledge have some use, and contribute in some measure to happiness, either by the immediate pleasure, or by discovering more fully to us the divine perfections, or enabling us better to know and discharge our duty... All therefore who have abilities and proper opportunities, ought to apply themselves to improve their minds with an extensive knowledge of nature in the sciences...[9]

Knowledge and skills are put into practice for the benefit of society through the profession or occupation that each individual is called into:

First, each one is obliged to cultivate his own powers of body and mind so as to fit himself for what offices of goodness and humanity his station may allow... 'Tis also the duty of each individual toward mankind, as well as toward his peculiar friends or relations, to follow some profession or business subservient to some common good.[10]

Hutcheson then provides a detailed treatment of the branches of knowledge and their social functions:

Legislators, magistrates, administrators of justice, or such whose business it is to protect innocence against fraud and oppression, have honourable offices, both as they are exceedingly useful, and require great abilities... On the fame accounts the professions of the arts and sciences which afford sublime pleasures in theory, and great use in the practice, are justly honourable; such as mathematics, natural philosophy and history, medicine, and others. The arts of sculpture, painting, drawing, music, and elegant and magnificent architecture; tho' they are not subservient to the necessities of life, yet have always been reputable in civilized nations for the refined pleasures they afford, and the elegant genius requisite in the artist. [11]

Progress and Civilization

All of the thinkers of the Enlightenment subscribed to the principles of scientific evidence following Francis Bacon, and they tried to base their thinking on their experiences, but Adam Ferguson did serious analysis on his observations on human behavior and on historical records. In this process, he made some foundational contributions to the science of sociology. Ferguson's writings emphasize human progress and civilization, and it is on this subject  that his legacy has been most significant. He begins his discussion of progress with a celebration of the achievements of human civilization:

His vestige on the earth is marked with continual efforts of peculiar design, to which the form which material subjects had previously assumed, is ever made to give way. His favorite plants and animals are propagated. Whatever is noxious or unserviceable to him, his rivals and his enemies, are suppressed. The superfluous forest is cleared; marshes are drained; or ways are opened for stagnating waters to reach the sea. His property is set apart: His field is cultivated: Cities are built: He himself, or the productions of his art, every where crowd on the view, and become the principal object of the scene. He is even met on the trackless ocean, and employs the currents of air and of water to aid him in the movements which he is disposed to perform.[12]

He then emphasizes the universal nature of progress, specially in scientific subjects:

Although science is most profitable to those who obtain it by their own efforts, and who, together with knowledge, acquire habits of observation, sagacity, penetration and memory; yet it is communicable to others by mere information... The suggestions of individuals pervade entire societies of men; spread over nations, and descend to subsequent ages however remote. The lights of science, even in subjects the most abstruse, are in some measure diffused into every corner of a prosperous society. They direct the hand of the artist in his work-shop. They are made a part in the course of every liberal education. They furnish the methods of thought and comprehension to those who deliberate on affairs, and, by entering into the ordinary conversations of men, become familiar in the commerce of life.  [13]

Ferguson has been particularly inspiring in his celebration of human progress and the cumulative nature of the knowledge heritage:

Man’s specific talent for expression and communication, also, notwithstanding the diversity of tongues… serves, upon the whole, to reunite the efforts of mankind to one common purpose of advancement in the progress of intelligence. The lights of science are communicated, from the parts in which they sprang up, to the remotest corners of the inhabitable world. The works of singular genius are a common benefit to mankind; and the whole species, on every quarter, in every nation, and in every age, cooperates together for one common end of information, invention, science, and art.[14]

So that the most retired student of nature, in extending the limits of knowledge, works for his community; separate communities mutually work for one another, for ages to come, and for mankind. And attainments in this branch, perhaps more than in any other, may be considered, not as local advantages gained to any particular society of men, but as steps in the progress of the human species itself.[15] 


Ferguson reflects on the importance of education in maintaining and facilitating the growth of the knowledge heritage:

So long as the son continues to be taught what the father knew, or the pupil begins where the tutor has ended, and is equally bent on advancement; to every generation the state of the arts and accommodations already in use serves but as ground work for new invention and successive improvement...[16]

In the quotation below from Hutcheson inaugural address to the student body on his installation at Glasgow, he captures the cental theme of this website:

Go forward, then, in virtue, beloved young men, the hope of this generation and the glory, I trust, of the generation to come. Take nature and God as your guide, apply your minds to liberal studies, and lay down a varied store of useful knowledge which you may bring forth one day in all honorable, temperate, modest, and courageous service to our country and the human race.[17]

Applied Science

Xavier María de Munibe (1723-1785), Count of Peñaflorida was born in the Basque region of Spain. He studied in the Jesuit school at Toulouse, France, where he concentrated his studies in experimental physics and mathematics.[18]  Peñaflorida, an admirer of Feijoó, dedicated himself to the application of the sciences to economic development. In 1763, with a few of his friends, he founded the Royal Basque Society of Friends of the Nation. The society concentrated on improving agricultural and industrial practices through studies, publications, and contests.[19] Similar societies were established in the rest of the country and in the Spanish colonies, some of which are still functioning.[20]

The faculties at the Scottish universities had a strong tradition of being conscious of community needs.[21] The University of Edinburgh achieved recognition as a medical school during the eighteenth century. The rise of this medical school stimulated the development of related scientific disciplines such as chemistry and botany.[22] In 1790 Edinburgh established what was probably the first chair of agriculture at a university.[23]

[1] Douglas Sloan, The Scottish Universities in the Enlightenment (New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1971), 14.

[2] Alexander Carlyle, Autobiography of the Rev. Dr Carlyle, Second edition (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1860), 84.

[3] Hugh Blair, Sermons, Vol. I (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1818), 179.

[4] Frederick Rudolph, Curriculum: A History of the American Course of Study since 1636 (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1987), pp. 40-41.

[5] Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy (Glasgow: A Foulis, 1755), Vol. 1, 1.

[6] Adam Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science (Edinburgh: W. Creech, 1792),Vol. I, 313.

[7] Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy (Glasgow: A Foulis, 1755), Vol. 2, 105.

[8] Ibid., Vol. 2, 116.

[9] Hutcheson, A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy (Glasgow: Robert and Andrew Foulis, 1753), 81.

[10] Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy, Vol. 2, 111-113.

[11] Ibid., Vol. 2, 114-115.

[12] Adam Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science (Edinburgh: W. Creech, 1792), Vol. 1, 174.

[13] Ibid., Vol. 1, 281.

[14] Adam Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science (Edinburgh: W. Creech, 1792),Vol. 1, 36.

[15] Ibid., Vol. 1, 281.

[16] Adam Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science Vol. 1, 194.

[17] Francis Hutcheson, "On the Natural Sociability of Mankind: Inaugural Oration" in Logic, Metaphysics, and the Natural Sociability of Mankind, ed. James Moore and Michael Silverthorne, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006). The Online Library of Liberty

[18] Joaquín Iriarte, S.J., El Conde de Peñaflorda y la Real Sociedad Bascongada de los Amigos del País (Donostia-San Sebastián: Colección Ilustración Vasca, 1991),  46.

[19 José de Aralar, El Conde de Peñaflorida y los Caballeritos de Azkoitia ( Buenos Aires: Editoral Vasca Ekin, 1942),  91-95.

[20] Robert Jones Shafer, The Economic Societies in the Spanish World (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1958), 48-52.

[21] Douglas Sloan, The Scottish Universities in the Enlightenment (New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1971), 13, 23.

[22] Ibid., 22, 27.

[23] Ibid., 207.