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Edinburgh - ‘birthplace’ of the Scottish Enlightenment

Portrait of John Playfair

Edinburgh is considered to be the ‘birthplace’ of the Scottish Enlightenment; a period of 18th century Scottish history which was characterised by the outpouring of new intellectual and scientific ideas.

Scotland, indeed Edinburgh, provided a very particular setting for the development of Enlightenment thought. As many of the Scottish upper classes relocated to London after the 1707 Union of the Parliaments, the middle class professions – lawyers, professors, architects, engineers, scientists and medical men - were left to dominate intellectually north of the border.

Edinburgh as a ‘hotbed of genius’

Another factor of great significance was the economic growth experienced in 18th century Scotland. This, together with the growing importance placed in developing the country’s education system, resulted in significant investment in Scotland’s education institutions. A cluster of universities, museums, and libraries formed in Edinburgh, and concurrently, a growing amount of intellectuals: so much so that Edinburgh was referred to as a ‘hotbed of genius’ during this time. Such genius included the likes of philosopher, David Hume; the father of modern economics, Adam Smith; the lawyer and author, James Boswell; the architect, Robert Adam; the founder of sociology, Adam Ferguson; and the scientist and mathematician, John Playfair.

In the taverns, clubs and societies which proliferated throughout the Old Town, the key thinkers of the time (the so-called Scottish literati) met to debate and interrogate ideas across all fields of knowledge: from architecture to literature; from maths to medicine. The Scottish literati refused to accept concepts previously recognised as fact, demanding a body of evidence in order to substantiate and rationalise all theories. Their ultimate goal was to instigate improvements across all areas of knowledge to ensure benefit for the individual and society as a whole.

Significance of the Scottish Enlightenment

The effects of Enlightenment thinking extended far beyond Scotland; throughout the British Empire and then onwards, to the continent. Significantly, political ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment period were thought was deemed to have influenced the Founding Fathers of the USA and thus the American Revolution.

Studying the Scottish Enlightenment in Edinburgh

Studying the Scottish Enlightenment in Edinburgh is a tremendous opportunity. Not only do you have the chance to be a student at the University of Edinburgh – one of the keystone institutions of the Enlightenment – but also to experience first-hand some of the locations around the city which influenced the Scottish Enlightenment period or were a product of Enlightenment thinking.

Culture and Society in the Scottish Enlightenment and The Scottish Enlightenment in Context are two courses offered by the Summer School which provide students with the opportunity to explore the subject area. Though both courses cover broadly the same topics, the latter course is a 4-week credit bearing version engages with all issues in much more detail than its alternative; a 2-week non-credit bearing course.

Both courses provide students with the opportunity to retract the steps of the influential thinkers of the Enlightenment period, including trips to some of the city’s museums and galleries. A philosophical walking tour of the city will provide you with the opportunity to familiarise yourself with the city, including the New Town which - with its rational grid plan and wide, classically styled streets – is an expression of the way in which architecture and urban design can reflect Enlightenment thinking.