The Idea of Commercial Society in the Scottish Enlightenment

The Idea of Commercial Society in the Scottish Enlightenment

Christopher J. Berry
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 256
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt5hh2nm
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  • Book Info
    The Idea of Commercial Society in the Scottish Enlightenment
    Book Description:

    The most arresting aspect of the Scottish Enlightenment is its conception of commercial society as a distinct and distinctive social formation. Christopher Berry explains why Enlightenment thinkers considered commercial society to be wealthier and freer than earlier forms, and charts the contemporary debates and tensions between Enlightenment thinkers that this idea raised. The book analyses the full range of literature on the subject, from key works like Adam Smith's ‘Wealth of Nations’, David Hume's ‘Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects’ and Adam Ferguson's ‘Essay on the History of Civil Society’ to lesser-known works such as Robert Wallace’s ‘Dissertation on Numbers of Mankind’.

    eISBN: 978-0-7486-4533-6
    Subjects: Philosophy, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vi-vii)
    Chris Berry
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. viii-xii)
  5. 1. Scotland, Improvement and Enlightenment
    (pp. 1-31)

    The Scottish Enlightenment is both a set of institutions and a set of ideas. As such they represent two differing facets of a complex whole. It is bad metaphysics to give one some sort of explanatory priority over the other – the argument that ‘luxury’ corrupts is just as ‘real’ as the number of diamond buckles for sale in the market. Given that the title of this book contains the word ‘idea’ then it is the latter set that will be the main focus. However, in acknowledgment (albeit in practice token) of complexity, this opening chapter provides, in Part I,...

  6. 2. Commerce, Stages and the Natural History of Society
    (pp. 32-65)

    One of the ideas for which the Scots are best known is their notion of the four stages (hunting, herding, farming, commerce). However, ‘best known’ is not the same as ‘best understood’. The argument here is that the ‘four stages’ is best interpreted as an instance of ‘natural history’, as presented in Dugald Stewart’s summary characterisation of that enterprise. The third section of this chapter will discuss in some detail the Scots’ explanation of the break-up of feudalism (third stage) and the establishment of commerce as a way of life. This establishes the ‘distinctiveness’ of commerce and situates it within...

  7. 3. Prosperity and Poverty
    (pp. 66-89)

    A key distinguishing feature of a commercial society is that, compared to earlier ‘stages’, it is richer in the crucial sense that its inhabitants are better fed, clothed and housed. The institution at the heart of this amelioration is the division of labour. It is not just that the division of labour produces ‘opulence’ but that this is a ‘good thing’. This judgment reveals what Ryan Hanley (2009a: 6, 93) in his discussion of Smith terms a ‘commitment to normativity’. Albeit Smith is very much the focus of attention in this chapter, this commitment is not his alone; there is...

  8. 4. Markets, Law and Politics
    (pp. 90-123)

    There is more to a commercial society than a better material standard of living, than simply the blessing of opulence (vitally important and significant though that is). This type of society also enjoys the blessing of liberty. That second blessing is the focus of Chapter 5, although admitting the division is somewhat artificial, this chapter considers the framework (so to speak) that facilitates liberty as well as other commercial virtues. At the heart of the ‘idea’ of a commercial society is a series of connected conceptual relations. This chapter explores these and comes in three parts. The first examines the...

  9. 5. Liberty and the Virtues of Commerce
    (pp. 124-149)

    This chapter takes up the postponed topic of liberty. Smith, as we have seen, called it a ‘blessing’ and the same accolade had previously been bestowed by Hume (E-CP494), Kames (1766: 5),Wallace (CGB117) as well as Turnbull in his commentary on Heineccius (MCL245). George Berkeley, in hisEssay towards Preventing the Ruin of Great Britain(1721, 1752) is another who employs it to characterise the greatest possession of a ‘virtuous man’ and ‘good Christian’. He then proceeds to say that in ‘the present age’, ‘injudicious patrons of liberty’ have not distinguished between it and licentiousness (1953: VI,...

  10. 6. The Dangers of Commerce
    (pp. 150-193)

    James Moore has remarked that the ‘distinguishing feature’ of the Scottish Enlightenment was ‘intellectual disagreement’ (2009: 180). While this point is well-taken it is something of an overstatement. That the Scots did not always see eye to eye is nowhere more apparent than in their shared realisation that commercial society had its drawbacks or flaws. The character and remediability of those deficiencies produced lively debate and is the chief focus of this chapter.

    We can start by picking up the claim made in Chapter 5 that two strains in ancient liberty could be identified. One discussed in that chapter dealt...

  11. 7. The Idea of a Commercial Society
    (pp. 194-210)

    My aim in this concluding chapter is to identify what the Scots understand by ‘commercial society’ and what is distinctive about it. This exercise will also serve to highlight particular episodes in the story told in the preceding chapters.

    The core of the idea of a commercial society is that it is a ‘society’, not a polity or a clan, even though it contains governments and families. These latter two are component parts of the interlocking set of institutions, behaviours and values that constitute a ‘society’. This integration is as true of the Iroquois, the Tartars, feudal Europe and city-states...

  12. References
    (pp. 211-238)
  13. Index
    (pp. 239-244)