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07 April 2011 @ 04:30 pm
The Scottish Englightenment  
I'm going to poke gentle fun at The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots' Invention of the Modern World by Arthur Herman so I feel I should start by saying that I actually think it is an excellent book. Having read a number of history textbooks on the Enlightenment period recently I think I can, hand-on-heart, say that from a layman's point of view this is the most accessible of the books which is attempting to push a distinct thesis, rather than simply providing an entertaining popular history narrative. I suspect, for the professional historian, it probably spends too many words rehashing the basic framework of history for the uninitiated: one wonders, for instance, if a blow-by-blow account of the '45 was really necessary when its aftermath is far more relevant to the argument than the events themselves. As a lay historian, however, I was grateful for its inclusion.

It must be said, however, that the book's argument is largely that the Scottish are responsible for pretty much everything that occurred between, more or less, the Act of Union and the death of Queen Victoria, except for the winning of the American War of Independence and the invention of the Department Store (these being allowed to the French). Voltaire, it would seem, once made a complementary mark about Adam Smith ('We have nothing to compare with him, and I am embarrassed for my compatriots'), thus settling the question entirely. In the preface Arthur Herman is anxious to assure the reader that he has no Scottish connections whatsoever and therefore brings an entirely unbiased eye to the proceedings (methinks he doth protest too much).

However, aside from this tendency to list inventions, movements and events and follow with "the Scots did that", the book is an impressive account of both Scottish and American history with a focus on the history of ideas, covering not just the Enlightenment but also the romantic and early industrial era. If you are prepared to be amused, rather than irritated, by the chauvinism then it is well worth reading.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/38629.html.
philmophlegm: NewWorldOrderphilmophlegm on April 7th, 2011 03:45 pm (UTC)
"...except for the winning of the American War of Independence"

Since anyone who is anyone knows that was all a Freemason plot, the Scots could lay claim to that too...
louisedennislouisedennis on April 7th, 2011 03:47 pm (UTC)
They get the credit for starting it, and notable victories on both sides. I expect they don't want to appear too greedy...
philmophlegm: adamsmithphilmophlegm on April 7th, 2011 03:47 pm (UTC)
In all seriousness though, the Scottish enlightenment does seem to get downplayed south of the border in much the same way as the Arab enlightenment of the turn of the first millenium does.
louisedennislouisedennis on April 7th, 2011 03:52 pm (UTC)
To be honest I didn't have much issue with most of the genuinely Scottish stuff, especially when it was talking about the legacy of Hume and Smith, though I got a little doubtful when it progressed into the 19th Century.

However given the size and timing of the Scottish diaspora (and considering the book considers Ulster Scots to be Scots as well) I did feel the American chapters were over-doing it somewhat. I'd have been quite surprised to find any major American businessman or inventor of that period who didn't have at least one Scottish or Ulster Scottish parent or grandparent and claiming them all for Scotland and the Scottish ethos as a result seemed to me to over-state the case.
philmophlegm: Tarkin (animated)philmophlegm on April 7th, 2011 04:21 pm (UTC)
Not too different from the city of Liverpool claiming in a tourist leaflet that Dr Martin Luther King wrote the "I have a dream..." speech at the Adelphi...

(Incidentally, our online magazine at work today featured an interview with JOLF's Head of People, Michelle Quest, who you may be interested to know studied Maths & Philosophy at Liverpool.)
parrot_knight: PitWheelWoodhornparrot_knight on April 7th, 2011 04:30 pm (UTC)
Northumbrian chauvinism alert.
The department store, I must insist, originated in Newcastle. Bon Marché and the rest copied what they observed from Bainbridges and other stores which sprung up in the English provinces in the 1830s and 1840s; typical of London only to notice once the department store had reached Paris. ;P
louisedennislouisedennis on April 7th, 2011 04:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Northumbrian chauvinism alert.
Yes, I noticed that wikipedia credited Newcastle with the department story, however Herman describes it as a "largely french" invention...
Elaine of Astolatladyofastolat on April 7th, 2011 05:13 pm (UTC)
Now I'm envisaging a Scottish version of the Goodness Gracious Me "Everything comes from India" sketch...
louisedennislouisedennis on April 7th, 2011 05:20 pm (UTC)
I must confess to thinking of it while I was reading.