‘Mutual receptivities: Scotland and France during the Enlightenment’

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On 30th September 2014, the Centre welcomed Prof. Alexander Broadie to discuss ‘Mutual receptivities: Scotland and France during the Enlightenment’. This launched the ‘Scotland and Europe’ series convened by Dr Martin MacGregor and Dr Steven Reid. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

In this period, the Huguenot movement in France, in desperate need of pastors for their new Academies, recruited many Scots as teachers, for a multitude of reasons. Scots were trusted doctrinally by Geneva, held a good reputation across Europe as Protestant theologians, and most were well-versed in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. Scottish students followed their teachers to the continent, providing a distinctly Scottish flavour to many of the Academies. Already a symbiotic relationship between Scotland and France is evident – this was not recipient Scots receiving an education in Europe.

Pierre Daniel Huet, Bishop of Avranches (1630-1721), promoted a form of extreme philosophical scepticism, arguing that the human faculties were incapable of perceiving truth. For example, we have no way of knowing if the human retina corrupts the image of a corporeal object. His position was often misrepresented as purely Cartesian–advocating the non-existence of truth–but in reality he claims that truth may exist but humans, using mere reason, are not capable of comprehending it. Only the ‘movement of will’ allows humans to arrive at truth.

Huet was self-aware enough to realise his ideas may be controversial to the church establishment and never published his book, ‘Traité philosophique de la faiblesse de l’esprit humain’ (‘Treatise on the Feebleness of the Human Mind’). Two years after his death however, it was released posthumously, to a predictably negative reception, being denounced by the Jesuits as heretical. Yet in an ‘act of Christian charity’, the work was declared a forgery, through the rationale that because Huet was a good Christian he could not have produced such a vilified work. According to Prof. Broadie, it has since been largely forgotten by historians. Despite this reaction, Huet’s position was arguably not incompatible with Christianity, and in fact, his conception of faith was consistent with many orthodox thinkers in the Jesuit church.

Pierre Daniel Huet (1630-1721) and David Hume (1711-1776)
Pierre Daniel Huet (1630-1721) and David Hume (1711-1776)

From one great thinker to the next, and from France to Scotland, Prof. Broadie explored the links between Huet and David Hume. Infamously called the ‘great infidel’ by James Boswell, Hume’s philosophy, specifically his ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’, was denounced by contemporaries, much like Huet’s earlier work. Clearly influenced by the Bishop of Avranches, Hume spent many years in France, and came close to taking French citizenship. To his detractors, his most egregious sin was in declaring that God did not exist. However, according to Prof. Broadie, it is clear he was no infidel or atheist. In an unsigned document entitled ‘Letter from a Gentleman to a Friend in Edinburgh’, Hume praised Huet for his ‘good Christianity’, and argued that their form of scepticism was not incompatible with religion. Furthermore, in his ‘Treatise’, Hume never actually declares ‘God does (or does not) exist’, but instead: ‘Can we prove God exists?’. And the answer, for Hume, is that our human reason is not proof enough. Prof. Broadie suggested that Hume’s view would be: ‘Who’s to say God does (or does not) exist?’, and this is manifestly different from definitively declaring God’s non-existence.

By invoking Huet, Hume was displaying the intellectual links between Scotland and France at the very start of the Scottish Enlightenment. Unity between the two countries was evident, much more so than Scotland and England. By drawing the links between Hume and Huet, Prof. Broadie hoped he had shone a bright light through a largely unread text, while illuminating the symbiotic relationship of Scotland and France.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our weekly series continues next Tuesday 7 October with Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh’s ‘Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte and his Gaelic Interests’. This will be held in Room 202, 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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