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Aberdeen Philosophical Society [Wise Club] (act. 1758–1773) was the most important forum for the promotion of enlightened thought and values in eighteenth-century Aberdeen.

Background

Other clubs and societies formed in Aberdeen during the period were either short-lived or more specialized in scope. The papers of one of the founding members of the society, Thomas Reid, show that a philosophical club was meeting at Marischal College in 1736 that focused primarily on moral philosophy and probably survived for little more than a year. Another founding member, George Campbell, joined with two of his classmates to organize a theological club in January 1742. This club, which disbanded in the late 1740s, provided Campbell and a select group of divinity students with a venue to cultivate their knowledge of Christian theology through polite conversation. A third founding member, David Skene, was part of a medical club that convened in July 1750; little is known about this club, however, beyond its membership and list of rules. A fourth founding member, John Gregory, had earlier been involved in the formation of Aberdeen's most durable grouping, the Musical Society (act. 1748–1801), whose historical significance lies in its role in fostering an urban culture of politeness rather than in institutionalizing the ideals of enlightenment. Gregory and Reid were members too of the Gordon's Mill Farming Club (act. 1758–1765), but, like the Musical Society, the Farming Club was more narrowly conceived than the Philosophical Society, in so far as its primary aim was to further agricultural improvement in the north-east of Scotland.

Foundation

The Philosophical Society was the creation of Reid, Campbell, Skene, Gregory, and two other men, John Stewart (1711–1766) and Robert Traill. Reid was a regent at King's College, where Gregory also taught as the mediciner. Stewart was professor of mathematics at Marischal College and he was joined there by Campbell, who became principal in 1759. Skene had collaborated with Gregory in an abortive attempt to launch a medical school at King's in 1755, and later served as dean of faculty at Marischal. The only founding member not to have a university post was Traill, who was minister at Banff, the seat of James Ogilvy, Lord Deskford (c.1714–1770) (from 1764 sixth earl of Findlater and third earl of Seafield). The social profile of the membership remained much the same for the fifteen years that the society lasted; the bulk of its members were drawn from the two Aberdeen colleges, with King's and Marischal represented in equal numbers. Two months after the first meeting of the society was held on 12 January 1758, three additional members were elected: the clergyman John Farquhar; the Marischal professor of moral philosophy and logic, Alexander Gerard; and the humanist (professor of classics) at King's, Thomas Gordon. To this nucleus were added: John Ross (c.1730–c.1800) in 1758; the moralist James Beattie in 1761; the Marischal professor of natural philosophy, George Skene (1741–1803) in 1761; the King's regents William Ogilvie in 1763 and James Dunbar in 1765; Stewart's successor at Marischal, William Trail, in 1766; and William Trail's uncle James Trail (1725–1783), bishop of Down and Connor, who was made an honorary member in November 1768. From its inception, therefore, the society was an intimate, private body whose members were drawn exclusively from the learned professions, and this feature differentiated it from more open and socially inclusive societies like the Glasgow Literary Society (act. 1752–c.1802) or the Select Society of Edinburgh (act. 1754–1764).

The nine original members of the Wise Club (which was the nickname apparently given to the society in Aberdeen soon after its formation) constituted a tightly knit group centred on Thomas Reid. Reid and Gregory were kinsmen and distantly related to John Stewart, who had been Reid's close companion since their student days at Marischal College in the 1720s. Another of Reid's closest friends was David Skene, with whom he shared a wide range of philosophical and scientific interests. Reid and Gregory were also allied with Thomas Gordon in the disputes that divided King's College through the late 1750s and early 1760s. During Reid's period as minister at New Machar, from 1737 to 1751, he befriended both George Campbell and Alexander Gerard, who were then at the start of their clerical careers. Campbell and Gerard were, in turn, associates of John Farquhar, whose sermons they edited for posthumous publication in 1772. Robert Traill was linked to his Aberdeen colleagues through his patron, Lord Deskford, who himself had family connections with Gregory and Reid and who was one of Reid's most powerful supporters. Other later members of the society whom Deskford patronized were John Ross (who was a tutor in the Ogilvy household before his appointment as professor of Hebrew at King's College), Deskford's kinsman William Ogilvie, and James Dunbar. The society can therefore be seen as an embodiment of Deskford's patriotic vision of Scotland, which combined economic improvement with rational religion, moderation, polite taste, and an engagement with all aspects of the scientific and philosophical culture of the Enlightenment.

Questions and discourses

The society's meetings typically combined conviviality with serious intellectual exchange. Although the society's rules prescribed a rigid structure for its meetings, the surviving minutes show that in practice these were rarely followed. The members would usually listen to, and then discuss, a formal discourse read by one of their number, and conclude with a debate on a question that had been proposed for consideration. The discourses delivered in the society were impressive for both their range and their quality. Of the 133 papers given, there were thirty-four on criticism and rhetoric, twenty-seven on epistemology, seventeen on natural history, eight on natural religion, seven on language, five on natural philosophy, four on medicine, four on morals, three on mathematics, two on history, three on politics and social theory, one on education, one on a miscellaneous topic, and seventeen whose subject was unrecorded. Many of these discourses formed the basis of books subsequently published, including Reid's An Inquiry into the Human Mind, on the Principles of Common Sense (1764), Gregory's A Comparative View of the State and Faculties of Man with those of the Animal World (1765), Beattie's An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, in Opposition to Sophistry and Scepticism (1770), Gerard's An Essay on Genius (1774), Campbell's The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776), and Dunbar's Essays on the History of Mankind in Rude and Cultivated Ages (1780). A number of the discourses that remained unpublished also stand out as being noteworthy historically. Perhaps the most important group of papers that never found its way into print was David Skene's series of twelve discourses on natural history, in which he outlined a highly original approach to the natural history of humankind and defended the use of systematic classification schemes in botany and other branches of natural history against critics such as Buffon. Enlightenment debates over the philosophical significance of the history of language were addressed in Gordon's six discourses on ‘The philosophy of language and grammar’ read between 1761 and 1767, which collectively form one of the most significant discussions of the topic produced in eighteenth-century Scotland. Moreover, Robert Traill's commentary on Rousseau's Discours sur l'origine de l'inégalité given in April 1758 illustrates both the interest in Rousseau displayed by the members of the society and the rapidity with which the Scottish literati assimilated his ideas, while Reid's voluntary discourse on Euclid's definitions and axioms delivered in January 1762 documents not only Reid's preoccupation with securing the conceptual foundations of Euclidean geometry but also the critical reaction among Scottish mathematicians to Robert Simson's edition of Euclid's Elements, which had been published by the Foulis Press in 1756.

The questions canvassed by the society were even more wide-ranging and, because there was greater flexibility involved in their proposal and treatment, they also dealt with highly topical issues. Of the 127 questions set, there were eighteen on morals, thirteen on law and social theory, thirteen on education, twelve on natural philosophy, eleven on natural history, ten on political economy, nine on criticism and rhetoric, eight on politics, seven on language, seven on logic and epistemology, five on natural religion, four on history, four on miscellaneous subjects, two on medicine, one on mathematics, and three whose topic was not specified. Rousseau again figured in the questions discussed, with at least two explicitly directed to themes found in the second Discours. But many of the questions posed dealt with practical matters like educational reform, which was an issue of pressing concern to the members of the society in the wake of the changes to the curriculum instituted at both Aberdeen colleges in 1753. One of the leading reformers, Alexander Gerard, asked ‘In what manner the general course of education may be conducted, so as it may answer best as a preparation for the different businesses of life?’, whereas Thomas Gordon framed a more fundamental question, namely ‘Whether there be not in the very nature of our teaching societies, a tendency to stop farther advancement in those branches of learning which they profess? And if it is so, what is the best remedy?’, which the society considered at length over the course of two meetings. Agricultural improvement was another popular subject of conversation, as were the law and politics, including an exchange in March 1769 regarding the constitutional implications of John Wilkes's election as one of the MPs for Middlesex the previous year that was prompted by David Skene's question, ‘Whether the late proceedings with respect to a favourite of the mob, be an evidence of the corruption, or the improvement of our constitution?’. At least some of the society's members were probably sympathetic to Wilkes, in so far as Ogilvie was an associate of the earl of Buchan, who was a Wilkes supporter, while Dunbar later corresponded with Richard Price and the reformer Christopher Wyvill. Political economy also generated much discussion, which encompassed theoretical issues like those involved in Robert Traill's query, ‘What is the Agrarian law which will conduce most to the populousness of a nation? or, What is the maximum of estates fittest for that purpose’, as well as matters of public policy like those touched on in John Gregory's question, ‘What are the good and bad effects of the provisions for the poor by poors rates, infirmarys, hospitals and the like?’.

The Aberdeen Philosophical Society and David Hume

A disproportionately large number of the discourses and questions considered by the society addressed the philosophical writings of David Hume, and this aspect of the society's proceedings is captured in Reid's ironic remark to Hume that ‘If you write no more in morals politicks or metaphysicks, I am affraid we shall be at a loss for Subjects’ (Wood, 31). Prior to the formation of the society Hume's works had been attacked by Reid and Gerard in their lectures, and by Robert Traill in a sermon preached before the presbytery of Aberdeen in April 1755 and printed later that year as The Qualifications and Decorum of a Teacher of Christianity Considered. Once the society began to meet, its members scrutinized Hume's anatomy of human nature and his critique of Christianity, and their private discussions prompted further public salvos against him. Like Traill, Gerard criticized Hume's essay ‘Of national characters’ in a sermon given to the presbytery of Aberdeen in April 1760, and this too was published, as The Influence of the Pastoral Office on the Character Examined. The next member of the society to respond to Hume in print was Campbell, whose A Dissertation on Miracles (1762) originated in a sermon delivered to the synod of Aberdeen. The focus of the society's reply to Hume then turned from his criticisms of religion to the sceptical consequences of his epistemology with the appearance of Reid's Inquiry and Beattie's Essay on Truth, which popularized the common-sense philosophy initially developed by Reid in England and on the continent. Unlike other contemporary opponents of Hume affiliated with the evangelical wing of the kirk, the members of the society formulated a response to Hume that was both philosophically rigorous and compatible with the brand of rational Christianity that they and their fellow moderates in the Church of Scotland espoused. But despite their opposition to most of Hume's ideas, almost all of the members of the society respected their adversary. Campbell and Reid sought Hume's comments on their writings against him and, in a letter to Hume dating from 1763, Reid went so far as to declare himself Hume's ‘Disciple in Metaphysicks’ (ibid.). Beattie, however, did not share his colleagues' regard for Hume's merits as a philosopher. While he grudgingly acknowledged Hume's abilities as a historian and a political theorist, he expressed nothing but contempt for Hume's philosophy, and the vehemence with which he attacked Hume's philosophical works in the Essay introduced an element of personal hostility that was conspicuously absent from the polemics of Campbell, Reid, and the other members of the society.

Among the many societies that existed in Enlightenment Scotland the Aberdeen Philosophical Society was unique in its critical stance towards Hume. The society was also distinctive in its decision to restrict the discourses and questions to what were regarded as genuinely ‘philosophical’ subjects. Whereas groups like the Select Society or the Glasgow Literary Society welcomed contributions on all branches of human knowledge, the Philosophical Society excluded the discussion of grammatical, historical, and philological topics. Although the society eventually broadened the scope of its transactions to include history and language, the rules initially adopted by the founding members defined ‘Philosophical Matters’ as encompassing
Every Principle of Science which may be deduced by Just and Lawfull Induction from the Phænomena either of the human Mind or of the material World; All Observations & Experiments that may furnish Materials for such Induction; The Examination of False Schemes of Philosophy & false Methods of Philosophizing; The Subserviency of Philosophy to Arts, the Principles they borrow from it and the Means of carrying them to their Perfection. (Ulman, 78)
The society therefore adopted an explicitly Baconian agenda, and in doing so self-consciously differentiated itself from other learned societies active in the period.

Decline and dissolution

By the mid-1760s the enthusiasm of the society's members had begun to fade, despite the continued active participation of Campbell and Gerard. The disruptive impact of the departures of Robert Traill (1761), Reid (1764), and Gregory (1764), as well as the deaths of Stewart (1766), Farquhar (1768), and David Skene (1770), left a rump of members that was less cohesive socially and intellectually than the group that had founded the society. Moreover, divisions between those who remained began to emerge. The once friendly rivalry between Campbell and Gerard had apparently turned sour, and the revival of schemes to unite King's and Marischal in 1770 renewed tensions between the two colleges. Beattie was also increasingly unsettled in Aberdeen, and looked to his patrons and friends in London for moral support. Attempts to revitalize the club in early 1773 failed, and the society disbanded after its last recorded meeting on 9 March of that year, leaving a published legacy that made its mark on enlightened culture throughout the Atlantic world.

Paul Wood

Sources  

D. Skene, papers, U. Aberdeen, MSS 37, 475, 480, 540 · Aberdeen Philosophical Society, minutes, 1758–1773, U. Aberdeen, MS 539/1–2 · T. Reid, papers, U. Aberdeen, MS 2131/1–8; MS 3061/1–26 · T. Gordon and R. E. Scott, papers, U. Aberdeen, MS 3107/1–9 · S. A. Conrad, Citizenship and common sense: the problem of authority in the social background and social philosophy of the Wise Club of Aberdeen (1987) · B. Fabian, ‘David Skene and the Aberdeen Philosophical Society’, The Bibliotheck, 5 (1967–70), 81–99 · W. R. Humphries, ‘The first Aberdeen Philosophical Society’, Transactions of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, 5 (1938), 203–38 · J. Lough, ‘The relations of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society (1758–73) with France’, Aberdeen University Review, 30 (1942–4), 144–50 · H. Lewis Ulman, ed., The minutes of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, 1758–1773 (1990) · H. Lewis Ulman and D. Quon, ‘Semiotics in eighteenth-century Aberdeen: Thomas Gordon's contributions to the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, 1761–1763’, Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century, 317 (1994), 57–115 · J. Valentine, ‘A society of Aberdeen philosophers one hundred years ago’, Macmillans Magazine, 8 (1863), 436–44 · P. Wood, ed., The correspondence of Thomas Reid (2002)