Sociability and the Science of Man in the Scottish Enlightenment: themes from the work of Nicholas Phillipson (1937-2018)

Playfair Library and Raeburn Room, Old College, University of Edinburgh, 1 – 2 March 2019


Friday, 1 March (Playfair Library, Old College)

10.30 – 11.00 am: Tea and Coffee

11.00 – 11.15 am: Introduction

11.15 am – 12.15 pm: Silvia Sebastiani (EHESS, Paris), ‘Lord Monboddo’s “Ugly Tail”: Orangutans in Enlightenment Sciences of Man’

The erudite James Burnet, Lord Monboddo, member of the Select Society and judge of the Court of Session in Edinburgh, wrote many pages about humans equipped with tails and orangutans as human beings. For this reason he has been labelled as “credulous”, “bizarre” and “eccentric” both by his contemporaries and by modern scholars. In this paper, I’ll try to take his argument seriously and to show that all along his work Monboddo searched for evidence. If his belief in mermaids, giants, blemmyes, daemons and oracles is far from reflecting the general attitude of the age of Enlightenment and empiricism, Monboddo deeply contributed to place the ‘science of man’ at the centre of the map of knowledge, where Nicholas Phillipson had also located it. He did this by emphasizing the variety and historicity of humankind and stressing how the mind and body changed over time and space. This paper is also an attempt to connect Monboddo’s erudite production with his position as a lawyer and a judge.

12.15 – 1.30 pm: Lunch

1.30 – 2.30 pm: Ryan Hanley (Harvard University and Marquette University), ‘The Human Good and the Science of Man’

David Hume and Adam Smith are often regarded as the leading articulators of the eighteenth-century Scottish ‘science of man’. For our understanding of Hume’s and Smith’s contributions to this project, scholars today are especially indebted to Nicholas Phillipson, who demonstrated how their science of man sought to account for social progress as the result of the human ‘love of improvement’ in the face of conditions of indigence and want. Yet there is also another side to the science of man. Smith (perhaps more than Hume) sought to account for the mechanisms of individual human development as well as the mechanisms of political, social and economic development. This contribution aims to extend Phillipson’s insights into the methodology of the Scottish science of man to show how Smith conceived of the ‘love of improvement’ not only as the engine driving society towards civilization and opulence, but also the engine driving the ethical development of the individual.

2.30 – 3.30 pm Sylvana Tomaselli (St. John’s College, Cambridge), ‘Reflections on the Art of Being in the Eighteenth Century’

Inspired by Nick Phillipson’s own art of being, this paper considers what we might take to have been seen as an enviable personality in the circles the figures Nick studied inhabited. This will inevitably take us from the Scotland of David Hume and Adam Smith to the Paris of Diderot as well as Rousseau. It will discuss what were valued character traits and manners on both sides of the Channel, and while it will endeavour to be as light in tone as possible, it will seek to be so for good reasons.

3.30 – 4 pm: Tea and Coffee

4 – 5 pm: Robert Anderson (University of Edinburgh), ‘Nicholas Phillipson and University History’

Nicholas Phillipson’s direct writing on university history dates mainly from the 1980s, but can be traced back to his fellowship at the Shelby Cullom Davis Center at Princeton in 1970-1, and beyond that to his early Cambridge training in intellectual history, which continued to influence his interpretative framework. He traced the evolution in Scotland of a distinctive and internationally influential university model. It was shaped first by the relations between urban elites, mainly in Edinburgh in the decades following the union of 1707, and later as the universities became both an institutional base for leading thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, and a channel for transmitting ideas of citizenship and polite learning to the educated classes. The paper looks at two important enterprises which he organized – the conference on Universities, Society and the Future held in 1983, and the Illustrated History of Edinburgh University published in 2003. Finally, it is suggested that Phillipson’s career itself illustrates a phase of British university history now receding into the past.


Saturday, 2 March (Raeburn Room, Old College)

10.45 – 11.15 am: Tea and Coffee

11.15 am – 12.15 pm: Nicholas Phillipson as a teacher

12.15 – 1.15 pm: Lunch

1.15 – 2.15 pm: Nicholas Phillipson’s research: scholarship and sociability

2.15 – 2.30 pm: Concluding Remarks

This event is supported by the Scottish Philosophical Association, the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, the Edinburgh Eighteenth-Century and Enlightenment Studies Network (ECENS), and the St Andrews Institute of Intellectual History.

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