Tuesday, June 10, 2008

We Are All Scottish Now.


"How the Scots Invented the Modern World."

Writing popular history is something like a tight-rope act: lean too-much in one direction and you will plummet to oblivion. In "How the Scots Invented the Modern World", Arthur Herman attempts such a perilous act.

Herman's central thesis is far from new: "western" institutions, culture, and practices have been fundamentally shaped by "Scottish" culture. In a narrative that alternates between argumentative storytelling and meandering anectodotes, "How the Scots" is a story of Scotland and, at the same time, the story of the long eighteenth century.

Although I may joke as much when among friends: the narrative of this book does not reduce all things to "Scottish origin," in the way the dad from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" reduces everything to Greek origin. Rather, the fundamental point is that the socio-politico-economic and moral conditions in Scotland that encouraged the period of intellectual, cultural and technological advancement now recognized as the "Scottish Enlightenment". In other words, a more apt name for the book could be "How SCOTLAND invented the modern world."

This notion of a "Scottish Enlightenment" has only recently gained attention in the historical community. Most historians of philosophy and STM had long recognized the influence of a "scottish school" in the late eighteenth century, but there had not been much work that focused exclusively on it. Herman's narrative is drawn from a diverse selection of older and recent literature that does just that.

Starting with a Braudelian examination of the geography of the Scotland, the story explains how a unique landscape produced recognizably "Scottish" social and economic conditions. Conditions which ultimately produced a highly literate and, for the main part, disciplined population. Basically: the Scotch are a product of Scotland. Duh.

Yet, the story is not so simple. As the first few chapters explain, the geographic factors that produce Scottish socio-economic conditions also condemn the Scotch to inferior status with regard to their southerly neighbours: the English. In fact, not only are the Scotch inferior to their southerly neighbours, they are pretty-much inferior to the whole of Europe.

This may lead one to ask: so, the "Scottish Enlightenment" occured because of pressure to overcome a northerly inferiority complex? As the author explains, the answer is "yes and no." Yes, inferior economic and political power encouraged innvoation and new ideas. At the same time: no, because the "Scottish Enlightenment" has a quintessentially "Scotch" character.

Herman explains that conditions in Scotland produced a unique a mindset (or perhaps the better term would be epistemic mode?) that encouraged the aforementioned "enlightenment." Without making reference to any "other" cultural mindsets, the Scots are made out to be a people who are uniquely capable of reconciling progressive idealism and cynical realism. To illustrate, the first Scottish figures whom the author turns to are the "founders" of the "Scottish School:" Francis Hutcheson and Lord Kames.

In an analysis of their respective philosophies about the nature of man and modern society, Herman attempts to show that both men, though quite divergent, demonstrate the essential "Scottishness" on which the rest of the story will rely. In a pseudo-biographical analysis, Hutcheson and Kames' teaching careers and social activities are traced, to demonstrate how subsequent "waves" of Scotch intellectuals can be traced back to them.

The rest of the book covers the philosophies espoused by the giants of the eighteenth century, with David Hume and Adam Smith being the main players. The narrative does not just talk about the intellectual achievements of the Scottish, but also illustrates the social achievements of the Scottish people in their homeland and throughout the world. Unforunately, Herman tends to rely on biographical stories to such an extent that the book seems to be as much a story of the Scottish people as it is a chronological who's-who-and-did-what in the eighteenth century. Ranging from the Scots fighting in the American Revolution (on both sides), to the opium runners in the Far East, it seems as though everything is in some way Scottish.

Of course, that is the point of the book. However, it is also its failing. Herman fails to establish anything particularly "Scottish" about most of the people (men) he mentions. Yes, in many cases a particular person demonstrated a worldview that appreciated both the ideal and realist perspectives. But, as the book progresses, there is little strength in his claim that all of the Scotts he mentions belong to the same School: for instance, how can Sir John A MacDonald (Canada's first PM) and Alexander Graham Bell (telephone) belong to the same "Scottish" school? Aside from being of Scotch descent, the men had very little else in common.

Herman casts his argumentative net too far, which results in too many holes, to be able to justify that being well-educated, pragmatic, and influential are necessarily Scottish traits. There is a wealth of information to be gleamed from this book, and it is also a very enjoyable read because of the smooth-flowing prose. However, by the end of the tale, I do not believe that the thesis will stick with most readers.

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