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date: 03 March 2021


Abstract and Keywords

Three questions are raised: First, when did the eighteenth century in British philosophy begin and end? Secondly, is there a reason to talk in terms of British philosophy in this period, as different and distinct from English, Scottish, Welsh, and possibly also Irish and American philosophy? Thirdly, how should philosophy be defined in an eighteenth-century British context? The structure of the volume is then explained, and a brief indication given of the content of each chapter.

Keywords: philosophy, eighteenth-century philosophy, Welsh philosophy, Scottish philosophy, English philosophy, Enlightenment, moral philosophy (history), logic (history), universities (history)

In this Introduction I consider three questions: first, when did the eighteenth century in British philosophy begin and end? Secondly, is there a reason to talk in terms of British philosophy in this period, as different and distinct from English, Scottish, Welsh, and possibly also Irish and American philosophy? Thirdly, how should philosophy be defined in an eighteenth-century British context? I then explain the structure of the volume, and give a brief indication of the content of each chapter.


It is obvious, to the point of being platitudinous, that there is no very good reason why the history of philosophy should be divided up into centuries. Nothing happened in 1700 and in 1800 to demarcate that 100 years of philosophizing, in Britain or anywhere else, from what had gone before and what was to come after. ‘Eighteenth-century British philosophy’ is in fact often supposed to have begun before the seventeenth century ended, with the publication in 1690 of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Almost everything that Locke published appeared in the last decade of the seventeenth century, and, as the editors of the Thoemmes Press Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century British Philosophers remark, it is hard to imagine a history of eighteenth-century British philosophy that did not include Locke (Yolton, Price, and Stephens 1999: vii). Locke’s place at the beginning of the period is secure even when it is acknowledged that several aspects of his philosophy are indicative of an immersion in currents of thought usually thought to have dried up, or at least gone underground, by the beginning of the eighteenth century.1 Locke was generally regarded in the eighteenth century itself as (p. 2) marking a new start. Moreover, Locke’s achievement could be, and was, conjoined with that of Isaac Newton, whose Principia had been published in 1687.2 The fact that these new beginnings in the study both of mind and nature coincided with the revolution of 1688, and ensuing replacement of James II with his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange, only made more vivid the sense that Locke and Newton announced a fundamental alteration of the philosophical landscape. Many of the chapters of this Handbook take Locke as their point of departure.

Dating the conclusion of British philosophy’s eighteenth century is more difficult. The French Revolution had a dramatic impact on political thought in Britain, as on everything else, both in so far as it inspired newly confident assertions of universal civil and political rights by some, and in so far as it forced a rethinking by others of the relation between the British constitution and its past. But the debates occasioned in the 1760s and 1770s by John Wilkes and by events in America had already broken down the moderate Whig consensus and seen the formulation of radical republican criticisms of the post-1688 political order. In religion, too, things were changing significantly long before the century was out. The growing success of evangelical Christianity in Britain was altering the understanding of the nature and basis of religious belief, heralding the end of the confident latitudinarianism that might be thought characteristic of Britain in the eighteenth century. In the philosophical study of mind, on the other hand, especially in the Scottish universities where the greatest progress was supposed to have been made in these subjects, there was no sign of very significant change until the 1820s at the earliest. A distinctively nineteenth-century philosophy of mind took shape only gradually, with the slow take-up of Kant and post-Kantian German philosophy, with the equally slow separation off of ‘psychology’ from philosophy. And in philosophical ethics, it was not until the invention of ‘utilitarianism’ that the debates of the eighteenth century began to be superseded. No single end-date for the eighteenth century in British philosophy has been imposed here.


Can it be said that there was during the eighteenth century such a thing as ‘British philosophy’, as distinct from English philosophy and Scottish philosophy and Welsh philosophy? Are Irish writers on philosophical subjects to be regarded as British for the purposes of a book such as this? What about the philosophers of America? I am able to put the last of these questions to one side, because there is an Oxford Handbook of American Philosophy that begins with a chapter on ‘Jonathan Edwards and Eighteenth-Century Religious Philosophy’ (Misak 2008: 1–18). And no one has asserted that the (p. 3) fact that there were eighteenth-century Welsh philosophers—most notably Richard Price—is a reason to believe that there was then such a thing as ‘Welsh philosophy’.3

On the other hand, the existence of a tradition of Irish philosophy, beginning on one account in the seventh century of the Christian era, has certainly been affirmed (see Duddy 2002; 2004). A list of eighteenth-century Irish philosophers would include, at a minimum, William Molyneux (if Locke was an eighteenth-century philosopher, so was Molyneux), John Toland, Peter Browne, Edward Synge, William King, Robert Clayton, George Berkeley, Francis Hutcheson, Philip Skelton, and Edmund Burke. These writers, it has been argued, constitute a Hibernian tradition that was ‘largely autochthonous or indigenous’ (Berman 2005: 79).4 Ireland was nominally an independent country, with its own parliament, throughout the eighteenth century, and it might be that there should be an Oxford Handbook of Irish Philosophy in the Eighteenth Century to complement this one. On the other hand, Irish philosophers from Molyneux to Burke made important contributions to the development of philosophy in Britain in the eighteenth century, contributions arguably more important than those made by the philosophers of France or of any other European country, and so it was to be expected that philosophers from Ireland should figure prominently in several of the chapters of this volume. It needs only to be said that it should not be inferred from the fact that a philosopher from Ireland is discussed here that that philosopher is being identified as British rather than Irish.

That there was in the eighteenth century a Scottish philosophy different and distinct from English philosophy was first asserted, in a distinctly hostile manner, by Joseph Priestley in his 1774 Examination of works by Reid, Beattie, and Oswald. These Scottish writers, Priestley claimed, had betrayed the Lockean philosophy, as would be obvious when their works were criticized using the principles Priestley had imbibed from Hartley. Where Hartley had established ‘a new and most extensive science’, the common sense philosophers of Scotland postulated a chaos of supposedly original instincts that explained nothing, and apparently sought to explain nothing (Priestley 1774: xix–xxi).

Forty years later, in two ‘Dissertations’ written for the Encyclopædia Britannica in 1815 and 1821, Dugald Stewart turned Priestley’s argument on its head. What distinguished Scottish ‘metaphysics’, according to Stewart, was indeed the fact that it refrained from making ‘gratuitous and wild conjectures’ such as characterized the work of Hartley, Bonnet, and their followers (Stewart 1854: Vol. 1, 434). But this was to their credit. Stewart depicted Hume, Reid, Campbell, and Smith as having learned the lessons of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding better than almost of all of ‘Mr. Locke’s English disciples’ (Stewart 1854: Vol. 1, 473). At the end of the nineteenth century a series of writers proclaimed anew the virtues of ‘the Scottish school’, distinguished and (p. 4) differentiated not only from English philosophy but also from German (e.g., Seth 1885; Graham 1901; Laurie 1902). They had been preceded by the Scottish American James McCosh, in a study of the ‘peculiar philosophy’ of Scotland ‘in its relation to the national character’. ‘The Scottish philosophy’, McCosh claimed, ‘possesses a unity, not only in the circumstances that its expounders have been Scotchmen, but also, and more specially in its method, its doctrines, and its spirit’. Its method, ‘professedly and really’, was that of ‘observation’; ‘It employs self-consciousness as the instrument of observation’; and ‘By the observations of consciousness, principles are reached which are prior to and independent of experience’ (McCosh 1875: 2–6).

In the twentieth century the idea of a Scottish school of philosophy was given a political inflection, principally by the work of George Elder Davie. Davie saw the decline of a distinctively Scottish philosophy in the nineteenth century as part of the process whereby Scotland was assimilated into an increasingly centralized British state, a process by the end of which Scots were right to think of themselves as inhabitants of a province, not a country. The ‘continuity’ of Scottish thought from Hutcheson and Hume to Stewart and beyond, so Davie argued in The Democratic Intellect, ‘depended to a large extent on the peculiar condition of Scotland as a country in the process of being assimilated to the British way of life, but which still retained a certain national feeling for the values of French culture’ (Davie 1961: 272; see also Davie 2001). It mattered, in other words, that Scotland’s way of doing philosophy took more from the Continent than it did from the English. Davie’s work set the scene for historical work on the Scottish Enlightenment, and on Scottish philosophy more generally, that finds in its development no role of any importance for English writers.5

Is it proper to look also for a distinctively English philosophy in the eighteenth century? Leslie Stephen published his two-volume History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century in 1876, but the book’s title is, at best, no more than a particularly flagrant example of perennial English carelessness when it comes to the meaning of the word ‘England’ and its cognates. By ‘English’ Stephen meant ‘British’. So did William Sorley in his History of English Philosophy (1920). So far as I know, no one has sought to present a systematic, as distinct from a polemical (as with Priestley), characterization of an eighteenth-century ‘English school’ of philosophy, where by ‘English’ would be meant ‘not Scottish—or Welsh, or Irish, or American’. What has been looked for, though, and found, is an English version of the Enlightenment. When historians grew sceptical of the confidence shown in some quarters that the Enlightenment was by definition anti-authoritarian and anti-clerical in its politics, materialist and deterministic in its metaphysics, pagan if not atheistic in its religion—in a word, French—interest (p. 5) grew in the idea that different ‘national contexts’ begot different Enlightenments. It then appeared that England had as a good a claim to have had an Enlightenment as did France, Germany, Scotland, America, and the rest. In an early survey of the terrain, Roy Porter defined ‘pragmatism’ as a key characteristic of Enlightenment in England, a pragmatism that was ‘a philosophy of expediency, the art of living well’, a pursuit of happiness and of the consumer society that happiness amounted to—but a pragmatism that at the same time acknowledged the need for a stable solidarity that would keep self-destructive anarchy at bay (Porter 1981: 8–9; see also Porter 2000). This, obviously enough, was to define the English Enlightenment as a societal project, rather than as something more conventionally the business of philosophers. John Pocock has also argued that Enlightenment in England cannot be characterized using a notion of Enlightenment as by definition the work of radical philosophes. He takes it as obvious that an English Enlightenment was ‘intimately bound up with the special, indeed unique character of the Church of England’ (Pocock 1999: 8). Enlightenment, that is to say, was pursued within the Church, and also, in the case of Dissenters, outwith it. Either way, it was ‘both clerical and conservative—meaning by the last term not a defence of tradition against criticism, but the maintenance of church and state against the aftershocks of the civil wars’ (Pocock 1999: 298). The vigour and longevity of debates between different kinds of Christian kept England an ecclesiastical society, its public sphere constituted by ecclesiastical and sometimes theological dispute, and not by disaffected, irreligious intellectuals. On this interpretation of England in the eighteenth century, men like Bentham and Godwin, and women like Wollstonecraft, announced the end of the Enlightenment and the beginning of something else. For Brian Young, the paradigmatic Enlightenment figure in England was William Warburton, author of The Divine Legation of Moses Demonstrated (1738–41), whose career in the Church of England culminated in his being made Bishop of Gloucester in 1760 (Young 1998: ch. 5).

The present volume may be taken as a manifestation of the conviction of its editor that it remains legitimate to think in terms of British philosophy in an eighteenth-century context. I do not think that it would be appropriate for a putative Oxford Handbook of Irish Philosophy in the Eighteenth Century to be joined by Oxford Handbooks of Scottish and of English philosophy of the same period. Given the nature of philosophizing in Scotland and in England during the eighteenth century, and no matter how long that century is taken to be, it makes sense, I believe, to resist the fragmentation of Great Britain into its constituent parts. The title of Leslie Stephen’s book on the period’s thought might be objectionable, but its lack of regard to borders is true to the spirit of the age in philosophy that began with Locke and ended, let us say, with Dugald Stewart. To take only the most famous example of this insouciance as to origins, Hume in the introduction to A Treatise of Human Nature portrayed himself as pursuing a project outlined before him by ‘some late philosophers in England, who have begun to put the science of man on a new footing’, and then, in a footnote, identified those philosophers as ‘Mr. Locke, my Lord Shaftsbury, Dr. Mandeville, Mr. Hutchinson, Dr. Butler, &c.’ (Hume 1978: xxi). Locke was an inspiration and an opponent for English and Scots alike, for Hartley and for Reid, for James Harris and for Stewart. The desire to refute Mandeville, (p. 6) or to answer Hume on miracles, or to find the right definition of liberty of agency, likewise joined Scots and Englishmen, and Irishmen and sometimes Welshmen too, in a British philosophical debate. Philosophers at this time appear to have regarded themselves as British before they regarded themselves as English or Scottish.

The border that mattered, it often seems, was the one that divided Britain from the rest of Europe. It is striking how insular philosophical debate in Britain was, how seldom writers from Continental Europe impinged upon it. There was, for example, no serious engagement with Leibniz aside from Samuel Clarke’s. Nor was there—with, perhaps, the exception of Monboddo in On the Origin and Progress of Language—any serious engagement with Rousseau. Rousseau was mentioned, usually critically, by many writers, but his writings were not subject to careful and extended examination. Condillac made no substantial impact, nor did Vico, and nor did Kant. The one obvious exception to this trend, Montesquieu, perhaps only proves the rule, in so far as he was himself so focused on the, as he saw it, wholly remarkable case of Britain.


So much for eighteenth-century and for British. What of philosophy? What was it in Britain during the period this Handbook covers? Definitions of ‘philosophy’ in dictionaries and encyclopædias of the time suggest that it would not be wise to take it for granted that nothing has changed over the past two or three centuries when it comes to the understanding of what the tasks of philosophy are and how those tasks should be prosecuted. In his Cyclopædia (first edn. 1728), for example, Ephraim Chambers defined ‘Philosophy’ as ‘the knowledge or study of nature and morality, founded on reason and experience’. ‘Philosophy may be divided into two branches, or consider’d under two habitudes’, Chambers claimed, ‘theoretical and practical’. ‘Theoretical, or speculative philosophy,’ he continued, ‘is that employ’d in mere contemplation, and which terminates therein. Such is physicks, which is a bare contemplation of nature, and natural things’; and ‘Theoretical philosophy, again, is usually subdivided into three, viz. pneumaticks; physicks, or somaticks; and metaphysicks, or ontologia.’ Practical philosophy, on the other hand, ‘is that which lays down the rules of vertuous and happy life; and excites us to the practice thereof’. Practical philosophy ‘is properly ethicks alone, or the method of leading a virtuous and happy life: Yet, most authors divide it into two, answerably to the two sorts of human actions to be directed thereby, viz. logicks, which govern the operations of the understanding…and ethicks properly so call’d, which direct those of the will’ (Chambers 1728: Vol. 2, 803). The first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (1768–71) followed Chambers’s lead, defining philosophy as ‘the knowledge or study of nature and morality, founded on reason and experience’. It added: ‘See Mechanics, Optics, Astronomy, Logic, Morals, &c.’ (Smellie 1768–71: Vol. 3, 477). Samuel Johnson (1755) gave four definitions of ‘Philosophy’: ‘1. Knowledge natural or moral….2. Hypothesis or system upon which natural effects are explained….3. Reasoning; argumentation….4. The course (p. 7) of sciences read in the schools….’. Thomas Sheridan in his Complete Dictionary of the English Language (1790) followed Johnson to the letter.

At some point after the end of the eighteenth century, obviously enough, philosophy became something different and distinct from the knowledge or study of nature. That is, it became something different from what we now call science, with the result that what the eighteenth century called ‘natural philosophy’ is now studied by historians of science. But this is not to say that what we call ‘philosophy’ can be straightforwardly identified with what the eighteenth century called ‘moral philosophy’. Another way of arriving at a definition of philosophy is to look beyond dictionaries and encyclopædias and to consider instead what teachers of philosophy taught in the eighteenth century. This is a topic in need of further study,6 but it is obvious, first, that there was more to what was taught as philosophy than what went on in the classrooms of professors of moral philosophy (there was in addition what went on in the classrooms of professors of logic and metaphysics, and of professors of logic and rhetoric), and, secondly, that a good deal of what professors of moral philosophy taught is not taught by academic philosophers now (as is suggested by, for example, the student lecture notes that have been published as Adam Smith’s Lectures on Jurisprudence and Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres). There is, in addition, the fact that, as Chambers’s entry on ‘Philosophy’ makes clear, the eighteenth century understood the subject to be as much practical as theoretical. A professor of moral philosophy conceived of that part of his syllabus which dealt with ethics as being in large part a matter of teaching the duties we owe to God, to others, and to ourselves. The ‘speculative’ component of ethics was, as Thomas Reid put it, ‘subservient’ to the practical (Reid 2007: 10–12). ‘Moral philosophy’, so Adam Ferguson told his students at Edinburgh, ‘is the knowledge of what ought to be, or the application of rules that ought to determine the choice of voluntary agents’ (Ferguson 1769: 9). Logic, too, was in important respects a practical discipline. In a text that was widely used in eighteenth-century logic classrooms, Isaac Watts defined logic as ‘the art of using our reason well in our enquiries after truth, and the communication of it to others’, an art ‘not only necessary in order to attain any competent knowledge in the sciences, or the affairs of learning, but to govern both the greater and meaner actions of life’ (Watts 1725: 1–2).

In eighteenth-century Britain it could not possibly have been said, as it could be now with some plausibility, that philosophy is in essence what salaried professionals teach and publish. A significant number of the period’s most important writers on philosophical topics were not, or were not for very long, university or academy teachers. These included Locke, Shaftesbury, Clarke, Mandeville, Butler, Hume, Warburton, Hartley, Price, Harris, Priestley, Burke, and Wollstonecraft. There is in this respect, it must be said, something of a divide between North and South Britain. Scottish philosophy in the eighteenth century was largely a university business. Even so, Hume was not alone in writing philosophy outside of the academy in Scotland. There were also (p. 8) philosopher-lawyers such as Kames and Monboddo, philosophical medics such as George Cheyne and William Cullen, and philosophical divines such as Robert Wallace and James Oswald. Nor, obviously enough, were the readers of books of philosophy all academics and students. Joseph Addison’s Mr. Spectator famously declared that, as it was said of Socrates that he brought philosophy from the heavens down to Earth, ‘I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffee-houses’ (Addison 1965: Vol. 1, 44). Readers—consumers—of philosophy were in large part ordinary men of the middle classes. They were doctors and lawyers and clergymen, merchants and traders, country gentlemen and city financiers. Philosophy was for them a part of what it was to have a civilized mind and a cultivated taste. It was an element of the conversation of the sociable and, to use Johnson’s term, the clubbable. Even university philosophers sometimes wrote with this in mind, as is obvious from the difference between, on the one hand, Hutcheson’s pedagogical texts, and on the other, his Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue and his Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions. These last were in part exercises in politeness. They were, to that extent, contributions to a philosophical discourse that had a place for women as well as for men. Universities were not open to women in the eighteenth century, but philosophy was, as the examples of Damaris Masham, Mary Astell, Elizabeth Montagu, Catherine Macaulay, Catherine Cockburn, and Mary Wollstonecraft show.7

Part and parcel of this impossibility of defining eighteenth-century British philosophy in purely academic terms is the way individual texts can seem, to the twenty-first century reader, in some respects ‘philosophical’ and in other respects not ‘philosophical’ at all. Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks is a case in point. Readers today, looking for a clear presentation of Shaftesbury’s arguments, are apt to pay attention only to the ‘Inquiry concerning virtue’, and to be tempted to dismiss the rest of the book as so much window-dressing and verbiage. To give in to that temptation would be to renounce the task of understanding how Shaftesbury himself conceived of the nature of philosophy. Cultivation of a capacity for ‘soliloquy’, of the sense of humour, and of an ability to see oneself as an element of a much larger whole were, for Shaftesbury, all essential elements of the philosophical project. The Characteristicks was written in a way designed to help its reader with such forms of self-cultivation. Butler’s Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel is another example of a text to which violence is done when ‘content’ is separated out from ‘form’. It matters, in other words, that they are sermons. The fact that they are commentaries on particular biblical passages, written to address a particular audience in a particular place, is vital to their interpretation.

Eighteenth-century philosophy did not always come neatly packaged in the form of a treatise or an enquiry or a dissertation. Reflection on the human condition, on our capacities and duties, on our relations with our fellows, with our creator, with ourselves, was to be found in essays and novels and poems as well. That is, essays and novels and (p. 9) poems—works by Addison and Johnson, or Richardson and Fielding, or Pope and Thomson—were read by eighteenth-century men and women as, in part at least, works of philosophy. They were called ‘philosophical’, and they were seen as having a place on the same intellectual spectrum as treatises and enquiries and dissertations. Hume’s Political Discourses was intended to show that writing on commerce could aspire to the condition of philosophy. It was judged to have been a success in this regard, just as Hume’s History of England was applauded as genuinely ‘philosophical’ history. A large part of the reason why Hume’s History met with near universal acclaim, or at least near universal readership, was the fact that here was a new kind of treatment of a subject that had hitherto been distorted by political and religious partisanship. Looked at from the eighteenth-century point of view, the ‘philosophical’ dimension of the History is not a matter of the way it uses principles taken from the Treatise or the Enquiries. The History is not, as it were, a historical exemplification of ‘Hume’s philosophy’. It is in itself philosophical, in the way it treats its subject matter, in its prose style, in the historical judgments that it makes. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is, or was judged to be, philosophical for much the same reasons.

The database Eighteenth-Century Collections Online lists over 1,500 works published in English in the eighteenth-century with the word ‘philosophical’ in their title. Of them, 154 are collected under the heading ‘History and geography’; 9 under ‘Fine arts’; 146 under ‘Social sciences’; 201 under ‘Literature and languages’; 401 under ‘Religion and philosophy’; 2 under ‘Law’; 50 under ‘General reference’; and 558 under ‘Medicine, science and technology’. It would be, to put it mildly, unreasonable to expect ‘philosophical’ to mean the same thing in every case. All in all, it is difficult to know in eighteenth-century Britain when ‘philosophy’ is a subject matter, or several subject matters, defined along the lines of Chambers’s Cyclopædia or of the Encyclopædia Britannica, and when it is what might be termed, very roughly, a style of thinking and of writing, a frame of mind, an attitude, a way of treating a question, whether that question be one in trade or in perception, in chemistry or in ethics. What attention to the texture and detail of eighteenth-century British letters suggests is that we need to be wary of unreflectively taking it for granted that philosophy is a timeless, ahistorical category, the same thing in all times and all places. We need to be alert to the dangers of assuming that we can decide that such-and-such a text, or such-and-such an aspect or part of a text, is not philosophical, just because it would not count as such today. We need to take care in considering how the word ‘philosophy’ is used in different times and places.8

(p. 10) IV

This Oxford Handbook of British Philosophy in the Eighteenth Century takes its definition of philosophy from a work that was in many respects very far from being of the mainstream, but which was nonetheless thoroughly of its time in so far as it intended to put on a new and ‘experimental’ footing a wide range of ‘moral subjects’ that had only recently been rescued from the pedantry and obscurantism of scholasticism. Hume’s Treatise was an extraordinarily ambitious attempt to reshape the entire philosophical landscape. It was supposed to be a work of five volumes, the first two on the understanding and the passions, to be followed by three more, on morals, criticism, and politics (see Hume 1978: xi). The volumes on the understanding and the passions do not seem to have been, from their author’s point of view, more important than the rest. They presented a core theory of human nature such as would be the foundation for study of some of the most important domains of human experience. Hume took it as obvious that primary among the things that define us as human beings are the complex and contradictory passion we are subject to, the moral feelings that inspire and inhibit our actions, the pleasure we take in the arts, and the fact that we live in societies structured by custom and law. There was much more to the human condition, in other words, than the fact of our subservience to God and to the brute reality of political power. Hume was of course not the first to understand the human situation in such a way. This was the received wisdom of the new age that had been announced by The Spectator, by Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks, by Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes. The aim of this Oxford Handbook is to be true to this conception of philosophy, and to do so by giving equal space to questions concerning the understanding, concerning the passions, concerning morals, concerning criticism, and concerning politics.

Gross distortion and simplification would be the result of allowing a book such as this to be dominated by topics in (what we now call) epistemology and metaphysics, and of giving single chapters to the passions, to ethics, to aesthetics, and to political philosophy. It is not that epistemology and metaphysics were unimportant to philosophical writers in Britain in the eighteenth century. Answering scepticism as to the possibility of knowledge was a concern of many philosophers of the period, and, while metaphysics changed in an age insistent on grounding theories of all kinds in experience rather than in a priori reasoning, it certainly did not disappear altogether. The point, rather, is that the passions, morals, criticism, and politics mattered just as much as, if not more than, epistemology and metaphysics. There is, as we have seen, more than one way of arriving at a definition of what philosophy was in eighteenth-century Britain, but any useful definition would have to make room for the fact that those who wrote philosophy were principally concerned with understanding the world outside their studies. That is, they were concerned with understanding themselves and their fellows, with understanding what mattered to human beings in general, and with understanding why it mattered in the ways that it did. Empirical—what Hume termed ‘experimental’—study of human nature was taken to be the key to all such questions.

(p. 11) Part 1 of this volume outlines three related discursive contexts in which to understand the chapters contained in Parts 2 to 7. In his book on ‘English’ thought in the eighteenth century, Leslie Stephen declared that Locke was the ‘intellectual ruler’ of the period (Stephen 1876: Vol. 1, 86). But this did not mean that Locke’s views were accepted without argument. Locke could not be ignored, but his conclusions were constantly, and vigorously, disputed. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the Lockean theories that mattered most to eighteenth-century philosophers, and then gives an indication of the centrality of argument about those theories to subsequent developments. To a large number of British philosophers of the period, Newton’s achievement in the Principia and the Opticks was an inspiration. It raised the question of whether something of comparable significance could be achieved in what Hume termed ‘the science of Man’ (Hume 1978: xv). But Newton’s legacy was complex and contested, as is shown in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 gives a summary account of a number of different eighteenth-century interpretations of what a ‘scientific’ approach to human nature might look like. One of the things that this chapter shows is that Lockeanism and Newtonianism were not all there was to the idea of a science of man. There was also ‘natural history’, itself a term with a number of different meanings. In Chapter 4 the focus switches to theorizations of the language in which philosophical argument—indeed, any kind of argument—needed to be made, and to the larger question of what ‘eloquence’ consisted in and how it was best achieved. The chapter shows that there were important differences between the way these issues were explored in England, Ireland, and Scotland.

The first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica declared that logic ‘may be defined the science or history of the human mind, inasmuch as it traces the progress of our knowledge from our first and most simple ideas through all their different combinations, and conceptions, and all those numerous deductions that result from variously comparing them one with another’ (Smellie 1768–71: Vol. 2, 984). This was an extensive terrain, and Part 2 covers only its most notable features. Chapter 5 describes important contributions to the theory of perception and the question of how sensory experience served to stock the mind with ideas, giving particular attention to Berkeley and Reid, the most acute critics of the simple representationalism apparently expounded by Locke. Philosophers after Locke thought that before an analysis of the understanding had to come an elucidation of the relation between the simple ideas given in sense perception and the abstract and general concepts deployed in sophisticated ratiocination. Did generality exist only in language, or could ideas themselves properly be called general, or ‘abstract’? Eighteenth-century answers to that question are surveyed in in Chapter 6. In Chapter 7 we are moved on to the way in which the mind forms ‘deductions’ by comparing one idea with another, that is, to models of how the faculty of understanding, or reason, functions, and also to the closely related question of what the limits of our cognitive faculties might be. Chapter 8 provides evidence that general acceptance of the Lockean claim that we have no insight (p. 12) into the ‘real essences’ of things did not entail that metaphysical discussion simply ground to a halt. Locke himself noted in Book IV of the Essay that our ignorance as to the fundamental constitution of the mind entailed that, for all we know, thought could be a property ‘superadded’ to matter. This generated a long-running and sophisticated debate about the metaphysics of the mind, the lineaments of which this chapter traces.

It has for some time been a truism that, far from being ‘the age of reason’, the eighteenth century was deeply interested in the passionate or emotional side of human nature, and in the contribution made by the passions or emotions to all aspects of human life, from religion to economics. Chapter 9 opens Part 3 with an account of the complex matter of how the passions—or emotions—or sentiments—or affects—were to be named and classified. There follow two chapters about the relation between the passions and other important faculties of the mind. Chapter 10 considers the relationship between the passions and the faculty of reason, giving special attention to Hutcheson and to Reid. Chapter 11 considers the relationship between the passions and the faculty of the will, and the closely connected questions of, first, whether the obvious and undoubted influence of the passions on our choices and actions is such as to justify the claim that our choices and actions are necessitated, and, secondly, whether, if they are, they can be said to be free. Emphasis is placed in this chapter on the fact that these issues are discussed in the eighteenth century as if they were empirical, or, ‘experimental’, in character. Interest in the passions at this time was not, even so, purely speculative. On the contrary, the period was obsessed with ensuring that the passions were properly managed, and it was one of the tasks of philosophy, as it had been in antiquity, to teach ways of governing the passions. Chapter 12 summarizes strategies recommended by philosophical writers as means, not of extirpating the passions, but of bringing them into balance and harmony with each other.

One of the things that called for new taxonomies of the passions in the eighteenth century was a growing confidence that human beings are not fundamentally self-interested in all of their actions. The selfish hypothesis had significant implications for moral philosophy, and, as the hypothesis grew less popular, writers on ethics developed new theories of the basis of social life for human beings. Some of the most notable of those theories are described in the first chapter of Part 4, Chapter 13. The question of whether or not we are thoroughly selfish creatures was, however, asked more often at the century’s beginning than it was fifty years later. Smith neatly summarized the principal preoccupations of later philosophers when he distinguished between two questions: ‘First, wherein does virtue consist? Or what is the tone of temper, and tenour of conduct, which constitutes the excellent and praise-worthy character, the character which is the natural object of esteem, honour, and approbation? And, secondly, by what power or faculty in the mind is it, that this character, whatever it be, is recommended to us?’ (Smith 1984: 265 [VII.i.2]). Chapter 14 discusses answers to the first question, Chapter 15 answers to the second. These are (p. 13) questions in, to use the terminology from Thomas Reid introduced above, ‘speculative’ ethics. To most eighteenth-century writers on moral philosophy it was obvious that the practical task of instilling virtue, in the form of respect for the duties human beings had to God, their fellows, and themselves, was a more important matter. A number of systems of practical ethics are summarized in Chapter 16.

‘Genuine criticism’, according to Alexander Gerard in An Essay on Taste, ‘is justly esteemed a faithful transcript of nature. For it investigates those qualities in its objects, which, from the invariable principles of human nature, must always please or displease; describes and distinguishes the sentiments, which they in fact produce; and impartially regulates its most general conclusions according to real phænomena’ (Gerard 1759: 186). In The Universal Magazine in 1787 it was asserted that criticism ‘is an art founded wholly on experience; on the observation of such beauties as have approached nearest the standard of taste; that is, of such beauties as have been found to please mankind most generally’ (Vol. 81: 3). The first two chapters of Part 5 spell out in detail some aspects of criticism so understood. Chapter 17 considers a variety of accounts of what it is that excites approval in the faculty of taste. The chapter makes clear that it was not always beauty that taste was supposed to be engaged by. There was also the sublime, the humorous, and, according to some theorists, imitation as such. Chapter 18 turns from the objects of taste to taste itself, considered as a faculty or power of the mind, and examines three important analyses of that faculty or power. Some treated taste as a special ‘internal sense’; others treated taste as a function of the imagination; still others understood taste in terms of principles of the association of ideas. The subject of Chapter 19 is one to which Gerard himself made a substantial contribution: the nature and causes of artistic genius. This is sometimes said to be a distinctively ‘Romantic’ sort of preoccupation, but the chapter shows that there was a substantial British discourse concerning genius, one that began, along with so much else, with essays by Addison in The Spectator.

Part 6 makes it clear that the philosophy of politics was, in the eighteenth century, a very wide-ranging business indeed. The new, Protestant, natural jurisprudence of the seventeenth century had provided a set of analytical tools with which to consider the conditions of political society as such and determine the laws absolutely fundamental to peaceful social coexistence. Chapter 21 examines some eighteenth-century uses of those tools in enquiry into the origins of civil society. British writers were especially, even obsessively, concerned with the character and special virtues of the way of governing and regulating the affairs of a state arrived at in the constitutional settlement that had followed the 1688 Revolution. A number of different approaches to the British constitution are described in Chapter 22, where it is also shown how interpretations of the constitution changed during the century, sometimes as a response to international developments. By the end of our period, it was being argued that in fact the constitution was not the guarantor of liberty that it had so long been supposed to be. Those who made such arguments were impressed by the political achievements of the revolutions in America (p. 14) and in France. But of course the orthodox view was that Britain had already had its revolution, a peaceful one that was in truth not so much a matter of radical change but of the restoration of an ancient order of things, and that it did not need another one. Chapter 23 charts the century’s discussion of revolution, and of what it might mean for the British to talk, as most of them continued to do, in terms of a right to resist illegitimate authority. Philosophical politics, however, interested itself just as much in the question of how a state might increase its wealth as in how a people might maintain their liberties. Indeed, a state’s wealth and its people’s liberties were increasingly supposed to depend upon each other. Chapter 24 describes the emergence of the new science of ‘political economy’, and how it was meant to supplant the theory that the strength of a state depended upon the martial vigour and political activity of its citizens.

In the concluding Part 7 the question of the relation between philosophy and religion in the eighteenth century is canvassed from three points of view. Chapter 25 considers the legacy in the first part of the century of Hobbesian scepticism about some traditional religious principles, examining first Clarke’s and Berkeley’s attempts to put religion back on a rational footing, and then turning to Hume’s revival of Hobbes’s irreligion. The chapter concludes by suggesting that the divide between theists and atheists, and between kinds of theists and kinds of atheists, is a better way of schematizing the philosophy of the period than is the old distinction between ‘empiricists’ and ‘rationalists’. In Chapter 26 we move from natural religion to revealed religion, to Locke’s attempted vindication of the rationality of belief in revelation, Hume’s scepticism in ‘Of Miracles’, and George Campbell’s reply to Hume. The debate between Hume and Campbell, it is claimed, provides one way into the issue of what, exactly, ‘Enlightenment’ means in an eighteenth-century British context. Chapter 27, on the connection between religious belief and virtue, goes some distance toward explaining why religion was such an important issue for philosophical writers on the mind and its powers. For it was generally supposed at this time that it is very hard, if not impossible, to retain a secure commitment to one’s station in life and its duties without belief in, at least, the doctrines of life after death and eternal punishment and reward. The volume thus ends with a return to the concern for practical matters that is an essential characteristic of almost all philosophical writing in Britain in the eighteenth century.

In some cases, the topics discussed in different chapters are not easily distinguished and separated from each other, and this has occasionally led to a certain amount overlap between chapters. Some texts, and even some passages from those texts, feature in several of the chapters. There has been no attempt on the part of the editor to enforce a single reading of any passage, text, or author. Variety in interpretation is inevitable in a book such as this. None of the chapters should be taken to be the last word on its subject. Nor does any chapter embody the ‘state of the art’. Each one is best read as a single move in an on-going interpretative debate.

(p. 15) V

It will be obvious this Handbook does not provide an account of everything that went by the name of philosophy in eighteenth-century Britain. It will be equally obvious that the content of the book has not been determined solely by what goes by the name of philosophy today. A survey of everything that was called, or called itself, philosophy in Britain in the eighteenth century would not be very different from a survey of all of the period’s intellectual activity. On the other hand, a portrait of philosophy in the age from Locke to Stewart that limited itself to describing issues that philosophers of the early twenty-first century also concern themselves with would be so incomplete as to be historically useless. It is a peculiarity of philosophy that its history has usually been, and mostly still is, written by philosophers. Most of the contributors to the present volume are philosophers, but, even so, the editor’s hope is that the book goes some way toward indicating what a historical account of eighteenth-century British philosophy might look like.


I am grateful for advice on this Introduction to Alexander Broadie, Knud Haakonssen, Tom Jones, M. A. Stewart, and Paul Wood.


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(1) See Nuovo (2011), esp. ch. 7, which explores Locke’s religious (as distinct from philosophical) Platonism, and challenges the idea that he is to be read as a ‘precursor to modernity’.

(2) See Buchdahl (1961) for a brief exploration of ways in which the eighteenth century conceived of itself as the age of Newton and Locke.

(3) The Continuum Encyclopedia of British Philosophy has an entry on ‘Welsh Philosophy’, which begins: ‘Although it makes sense to speak of Scottish philosophy, there has been no equivalent philosophical identity in Wales, besides perhaps that brand of Wittgensteinianism based in the Swansea philosophy department in the latter part of the twentieth century’ (Belsey 2006: 3378).

(4) For a collection of texts of Irish enlightenment and ‘counter-enlightenment’ philosophy, see Berman and O’Riordan (2002).

(5) A distinguished recent example of this trend is Broadie (2009). ‘Scottish philosophy’, Broadie says, ‘is a unitary thing, but not in the sense of a school of philosophy with its set of doctrines to which all in the school subscribed; instead the unity derives from the circumstances of the philosophical activity, of people standing in the relation of friend to friend, of colleague to colleague, of teacher to pupil; they were influenced by the national church (and were in many cases officiants in it), lived under the same legal system, were brought up in the same educational system’ (6).

(7) That said, available modes of engagement for women in the philosophical part of the world of letters were no more straightforward than they were in other parts; for a recent account, see O’Brien (2009).

(8) Cp. Haakonssen (2006), esp. 21: ‘In writing the history of philosophy in general and that of the early modern period in particular, we have a choice. We can begin with a more or less fixed notion of what philosophy is…and proceed to find historical instantiations of and approximations to it. Or we can let the concept of philosophy itself be part of the object for historical investigation.’