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Philosophy and Theology in Mid-Eighteenth Century Scotland

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe History of Scottish Theology
Subtitle of host publicationThe Early Enlightenment to the Mid-Nineteenth Century
EditorsDavid Fergusson, Mark W. Elliott
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2018


The most famous author in mid-eighteenth century Scotland to comment on the relationship between philosophy and theology was probably David Hume. Near the end of his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding he declared that the ‘best and most solid foundation’ of divinity and theology was ‘faith and divine revelation’. Philosophy, founded on natural reason and empirical evidence, was of no use in matters of religion. Many other passages can be found where Hume uses similar, broadly fideist arguments to criticise the application of philosophical reason to religious questions. The question I address in this chapter is how Hume’s criticism of the use of philosophy in religious and theological argument compares to the beliefs of his contemporaries on the same subject. In particular, I examine his intellectual relationship with the two main groups within the mid-eighteenth century Presbyterian kirk, the ‘Orthodox’ and the ‘Moderates’. The fideist language used by Hume was not as similar to the position of orthodox Presbyterians as has sometimes been suggested. I also discuss Hume’s relationship to Moderate Presbyterianism, as represented by Francis Hutcheson and William Leechman in Glasgow, but also by later, Edinburgh-based literati such as the clergyman and historian William Robertson and the clergyman and first professor of rhetoric and belles-lettres at the University, Hugh Blair, who were key figures in the Moderate party from the early 1750s onwards. Hume’s sceptical, fideist arguments about philosophy and religion were closer to the beliefs of these Moderates than has often been realised, though they and Hume also differed significantly in at least one respect: this was their respective explanations for the emergence of religious belief in human societies.

    Research areas

  • philosophy, providence, theodicy, afterlife, immortality of the soul, natural history of religion, Moderatism, moderates, Popular Party, Orthodoxy, fideism, scepticism, religious Enlightenment, Enlightenment, natural religion

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