Lawyer and philosopher of sorts that he was, Kames had a keen sense not only of the fact that man and his institutions have a past, but also that they are a becoming almost more than a being. And the longer he addressed himself in writing to questions of law, of manners and customs, of politics, even of morals and religion, the more he seemed to realize that no approach was more illuminating or led to a deeper understanding of these phenomena than an historical approach. It seems appropriate to the present writer, therefore, to devote a separate chapter to this subject.


Eighteenth Century Historical Approach Regular Chain Moral Skepticism Historical Bias 
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  1. 1.
    The best example, perhaps, of this change-over from the traditional political and military narrative to a more broadly social and cultural history, with some attention to continuities and to a causal nexus among events, is to be found in Robert Henry’s History of Great Britain,“Written on a New Plan” (6-volumes; London, 1771–93). The “new plan” consisted of dividing British history into ten periods, each marked off by some “revolution” or important transition, and treated in as many “books,” each uniformly divided into seven chapters under the following heads: (1) Civil and military history, (2) Religion and church affairs, (3) Constitution, government, laws and courts of justice, (4) Learning and seminaries of learning, (5) The arts, both useful and ornamental, necessary and pleasing, (6) Commerce, shipping, money, prices, and (7) The “manners, virtues, vices, remarkable customs, language, dress, and diversions of the people,” — the sub-divisions being admittedly uneven for different eras because of sparsity of data in some cases. This work, not of first rate importance in itself, was undoubtedly influenced by President Goguet’s Origin of Laws, Arts and Sciences and their Progress among the Most Ancient Nations (original French edition, Paris, 1758; English translation, partly by Henry himself, Edinburgh, 1761). See Goguet’s Preface.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Stewart, Works, vol. I, pp. 69f. In this connection see also article by Andrew Skinner, “Natural History in the Age of Adam Smith,” in Political Studies (Clarendon Press, Oxford), Vol. XV, No. 1 (Feb., 1967), pp. 32–48.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    While Stewart here rightly gives Montesquieu credit for an important role in this comparative, historical, “naturalistic” approach to law and history generally, it should nevertheless be noted that the historical element, in the sense of a developmental approach, tracing historical continuities, etc., is only slightly in evidence, at least in his Spirit of Laws. (See also infra, p. 293) Werner Stark, however, finds more of this in some of his other writings, including an unpublished manuscript. See his Montesquieu: Pioneer of the Sociology of Knowledge (Toronto, 1961).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Stewart, op. cit., vol. X, pp. 34ff. John Millar, Professor of Civil Law at the University of Glasgow from 1761 to 1801, was strongly under the influence of Kames, first of all from serving as tutor in his home for two years, but also because of a high regard for his work. See William C. Lehmann, John Millar of Glasgow (Cambridge, 1960), pp. 17f., 111, 115 and 265n. Goguet’s history also deserves mention here.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    J. B. Black, The Art of History (London, 1926), p. 14.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Letter, Hume to Strahan, Aug., 1770. See Greig, op. cit., Vol. II, Letter No. 449.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Boswell, Life of Johnson, pp. 391f. 8 See Carlyle’s “Essay on Burns.”Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Voltaire, Essai sur l’histoire generale et sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations (1756) and Siècle de Louis XII (1751). Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    See supra, p. 178, n. 1.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    Attention has been called to this Scottish “historical school” from the point of view of its relation to the Marxist tradition particularly by Roy Pascal in “Property and Society: The Scottish Historical School of the Eighteenth Century,” The Modern Quarterly, I, no. 2 (March, 1938), pp. 167–79, and by Ronald L. Meek, “The Scottish Contribution to Marxist Sociology,” in Democracy and the Labour Movement (London, 1955), reprinted with slight additions in Meek, Economics and Ideology and Other Essays (London, 1967). But this movement of thought, by whatever name, is highly significant, quite apart from any bearings, in whatever measure, on “historical materialism” so called. See Lehmann, op. cit., pp. 123–33 and 157ff. See also infra, p. 256.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    Kames’s Sketches of the History of Man, first published in two folio-volumes in 1774 and in a revised 4-volume edition in 1778 — but some thirty years in the making, he tells us — is a remarkable work at once for the range of its subject matter, for the wealth of historical materials that went into its writing and for the general approach brought to bear upon these materials. Its author considered it his “magnum opus” and fondly spoke of it as “the child of his grey hairs,” as we have previously noted. These “sketches,” as he calls them, are arranged in three books, Book I dealing with what he calls “The Progress of Man Independent of Society,” Book II with “The Progress of Man in Society,” and Book III with “The Progress of Science.” The whole is prefaced by an 82-page (4-vol. ed.) “Preliminary Discourse Concerning the Origin of Men and of Languages” and there is an appendix containing three “sketches”: 1. “Scotch Entails Considered in Moral and Political Views”; 2. “Government of Boroughs in Scotland”; and 3. “Plans for Improving and Preserving in Order the Highways in Scotland.”Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    In Book I there are sketches on “progress of food and population,” “progress of property,” “origin and progress of commerce,” “origin and progress of arts” — both useful and fine — “progress of manners,” “progress of the female sex,” and “progress and effects of luxury.” Book II includes a “sketch” on the “origin of national societies,” sketches on the nature and forms of government, large and small states, war and peace, the rise and fall of patriotism, and a 115-page sketch, under seven heads, on “Finances” or principles of taxation, and several other topics. Book III treats of “The Principles and Progress of Reason,” “The Principles and Progress of Morality” and the “Principles and Progress of Theology” or religion, each with several sub-sections, For the sketch on the “Progress of Reason,” in Book III, Kames called on the aid of his friend, Professor Reid of Glasgow, who contributed a 130-page essay on Aristotle’s Logic.Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    As the continual use of the term “progress” indicates, Kames’s approach is, in intention at least, and in the main in execution, too, genetic or developmental, or as we today would call it, evolutionistic; and while the materials are largely historical, Kames himself admits that the argument is often “conjectural” or a matter of “probable reasoning.” His aim is broadly educational. He pretends to “a natural history of man,” but he fulfills this promise only by giving sketches rather than providing a work of critical historical scholarship. As a book these Sketches are uneven, and in some other ways also unsatisfactory. Yet as a pioneering effort in the application of a point of view, resting on broad scholarship, they are an interesting and thoroughly worth-while study. No wonder the reviewers in the Edinburgh Magazine and Review should have observed, in a 42-page review in five instalments: “… There is not perhaps in the English language a book which furnishes so great a variety of materials, and so much ingenious remark and conjecture, as the work before us. The philosopher, the statesman, the man of taste, the naturalist, will here find views and observations of the highest importance to their several departments… No persons will pretend to treat of human nature who have not bestowed great attention upon the economy and instincts of brute creation; we may venture to prophesy that many discoveries will be made in the knowledge of mankind, a science of all the most important and delightful.” (Edinburgh Magazine and Review, vol. II, pp. 430f. Entire review, Vol. I, pp. 310–28, 376–86; II, pp. 430–37, 494–99 and 555–57).Google Scholar
  14. 29.
    The principal passages or “pieces” in Kames’s Sketches in which his general notion of historical pessimism or moral skepticism finds expression are the following: Vol. I, pp. 112–115 (luxury and depopulation); 396–416 (opulence and manners); vol. II, pp. 109–151 (luxury); pp. 289–311 (“War and Peace”); pp. 326–340 (decline of patriotism); vol. III, pp. 116–133 (effect of great cities); and IV, pp. 162–180 (hoarding and decadence).Google Scholar
  15. 30.
    This element of pessimism or moral skepticism is clearly in evidence not only in many passages in Kames, but also in many other writers. Examples are Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (Edinburgh, 1767), Parts V and VI, and also parts of his Roman Republic (London, 1783); Monboddo in various places in his Antient Metaphysics and vol. I, Book II and elsewhere in his Origin and Progress of Language, and also an unpublished manuscript on “The Degeneracy of Man in the State of Society” (See Gladys Bryson, Man and Society: The Scottish Inquiry in the Eighteenth Century (Princeton, 1945), p. 259, n. 35). It is evident not only in the very title of Gibbon’s famous history, but particularly in the closing paragraphs of Ch. II of the first book of his history. It is less evident but not absent in Adam Smith. How far this reflects their reading of Roman history in its rise from rustic simplicity to opulence and luxury and then its decline and final decadence, and of the Roman moralists; how far merely a protest by Scottish moralists against a rising “commercial spirit”; how far a mere survival of cyclical theories of the rise and fall of civilizations — it would be difficult to say. The fact itself is obvious enough. Kames was, in this respect, but a child of his time and country. The Scots, of course, did not have a monopoly on such thinking. (See Henry Vyverberg, Historical Pessimism in the French Enlightenment (Cambridge, Mass., 1958).Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1971

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  • William C. Lehmann

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