Saturday, August 17, 2013

Crowded with Genius. The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind by James Buchan.

Crowded with Genius is James Buchan’s well-documented study of the Scottish Enlightenment. This book presents a sober account of the economic, political and cultural conditions in Edinburgh, that permitted an intellectual flowering between 1745 and 1789. It does an admirable job of balancing these environmental conditions with short biographies of the major players at this time. In addition, Buchan has an excellent grasp of the key components to philosophers’ thoughts, scientists’ discoveries, and writers’ styles of this period. His writing is lucid and his presentation of concepts is understandable.

There is a provincial bias of which one must be aware when reading Crowded with Genius. The opening sentence of the prologue states “For a period of nearly half a century, from about the time of the Highland rebellion of 1745 until the French Revolution of 1789, the small city of Edinburgh ruled the Western intellect.” (Buchan, p. 1). There are many cities that could claim they “ruled” during the Enlightenment: The intellectual centers of London and Paris, the publishing centers in Geneva and Leiden, the scientific and education centers of the German territories, could each claim to have influenced all of Europe.

While the opening sentence is a transparent over-sell of Edinburgh, there are ways by simply examining Buchan's text to determine which of the cities had the most influence. When looking at advertisements on television, one can determine the best automobile in a given class by seeing to whom the advertiser is comparing their product. If Ford is comparing itself to Honda, you’re probably better-off purchasing a Honda. So, when James Buchan discusses how Edinburg came to “rival Paris” (Buchan, p. 3), quotes Stevenson saying that Edinburg “is what Paris ought to be” (Buchan, p. 204), or finally admits “of course, Edinburg was not Paris” (Buchan, p. 242), you know what city Buchan himself thinks of as the center of the Enlightenment. Paris is a spectre that looms behind each of the author’s boasts.

And boast he does: “David Hume, Adam Smith, William Robertson Adam Ferguson and Hugh Blair were the first intellectual celebrities of the modern world” (Buchan, p. 2). London could make an argument for Newton. Paris could make an argument for Voltaire. Rotterdam could make an argument for Bayle. All of the aforementioned cities had a number of stunning intellects in residence. “Edinburg became the most celebrated centre for medical education in the world” (Buchan, p. 273). Bologna, Cologne, Leipzig and Lund are all older, highly prestigious, and could make such a claim. Leiden could make that claim and follow it with the information that they were the parent institution to the medical school in Edinburg. The question is not really who has the best intellectuals, the best medical schools or the best city. Concepts like “best” do little to illuminate history. Instead, this provincial bias undermines the reputation of the author for accuracy and distorts the history of Edinburg.

Some of the bias even extends to the individuals profiled in Crowded with Genius: “The picture of Adam Smith as the apostle of amoral modern capitalism has been under attack in Scotland for some years, and is indeed unhistorical” (Buchan, p. 120). But Buchan virulently criticizes a rival political philosopher, Karl Marx, who has been subjected to the same kinds of partisan analyses as Smith. He showers ad hominem attacks on Marx for everything from his “habitual Caliban sneer” (Buchan, p. 239) to his responsibility for “the Leftist nightmare of an atomized state and ‘alienated’ personality” (Buchan, p. 222). Objecting to Adam Smith’s detractors, while attacking Marx appears politically facile. Smith is just as responsible for, or innocent of, abuses committed in his name as Marx is for abuses committed in his name. This “Capitalist Good; Communist Bad” analysis belongs on a 20th Century pick-up truck bumper sticker, next to a Confederate flag decal; not in a book on the 18th Century Enlightenment. Such a prejudicial set of simplistic political ideas is beneath a writer who is capable of elucidating the intricacies of Hume’s skepticism.

In Chapter Nine, “The Art of Dancing,” Buchan returns to a truly nuanced study of history. He covers the changing social relations between men and women. Buchan includes a sensitive class aspect to his observations: working women “were not too ‘delicate’ to labor in the bleach-fields, collieries and cotton and flax mills” (Buchan, p. 245). This is where the author shines. Buchan does an excellent job of presenting Scottish culture and society, as well as the thoughts and lives of individual figures therein. When he is discussing how new ideas changed the culture, and how culture affected individuals, he is at his most insightful. This is not a flawless work. If one chooses to undertake this book, I recommend that the reader to be aware of Buchan’s incautious claims. If one is cognizant of the bias, one will benefit from his otherwise able representation.

Buchan, James. Crowded with Genius. The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2003.