The philosopher Francis Hutcheson is widely regarded as one of the early father figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, the blaze of talent and intellect that swept Scotland in the 18th and early 19th Centuries. He was born on August 8th, 1694, and died on the same day 50 years later. Although hugely influential in Scotland, where he made much of his career, he was in fact an Ulsterman, and was born there and died in Ireland.
Hutcheson was hugely influential on Adam Smith and David Hume, and other Enlightenment figures, many of whom attended his philosophy lectures in Glasgow, where he was the first professor to lecture in English instead of Latin.
He was not a systems-builder, like both Smith and Hume, but his influence can clearly be seen in their subsequent thought. Hutcheson himself was influenced by Locke, from whom he took much of his empirical approach. He thought that there were no ‘innate’ ideas, but that the five physical senses were the sources of the information that we processed.
However, he also listed six non-physical ‘senses,’ referring to things we felt, including consciousness itself and a sense of beauty. His third one he called a “public sense,” which is "a determination to be pleased with the happiness of others and to be uneasy at their misery." This immediately stands out as what Smith called “sympathy” (and we would call “empathy”), and which lies at the core of Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” (1759). This was the magisterial work of philosophy that made Smith famous many years before his “Wealth of Nations” was published in 1776.
The sixth of Hutcheson’s ‘senses’ was what he called “a sense of honour,” and it is that by which we seek to earn approval and to avoid blame. He said it is that "which makes the approbation or gratitude of others the necessary occasion of pleasure, and their dislike, condemnation or resentment of injuries done by us the occasion of that uneasy sensation called shame." Again, there is a clear thread running from that thought to Smith’s “impartial observer” that we construct in our minds to tell us how our behaviour will look to others.
Although Hutcheson published his essays anonymously, his authorship was widely known, and there were rumblings against him in the Church of Scotland. In 1738 the Glasgow presbytery challenged his belief that people can have a knowledge of good and evil without, and prior to, a knowledge of God. Hutcheson probably would not have faced the death penalty, since the last person to be so punished had been a 20-year-old student, Thomas Aikenhead, executed for heresy 43 years earlier, but he could have been sacked from his academic role had not influential friends supported him.
The Scottish Enlightenment was a remarkable phenomenon, which might have had its seeds in the 1707 Treaty of Union that gave Scots access to the British Empire and its economic possibilities. It might have been the defeat of the ‘15 and ’45 Jacobite rebellions that confirmed to Scots that they were not going back to a mediaeval world of kinship and kingship, but could embrace the new individualism that was sweeping the intelligentsia of Europe.
Wherever the roots of it might lie, Francis Hutcheson was one of the thinkers who laid its foundations and contributed to an intellectual heritage that is respected worldwide, and has greatly impacted upon modern thinking. Ironically, this tradition is one barely acknowledged, if it is at all, by Scotland’s current intellectual and political leaders.