At the beginning of his famous Treatise of Human Nature the philosopher David Hume declared, boldly, that “‘[t]is evident that all the sciences have a relation, greater or less, to human nature; and that however wide any of them may seem to run from it, they still return back by one passage or another.” This “Science of Man”, as Hume described it (women were comprehended in his term), involved the study of human life in all its various aspects. Built on the empirical methods of inquiry that underpinned the Enlightenment, it was expected to provide the key to understanding central questions of human existence, from personal identity to the foundations of morality and of civil society, to the long-term patterns underlying the historical evolution of human culture, manners, and government. Not only Hume, but many other Scottish theorists – Adam Smith, John Millar, Thomas Reid, and Dugald Stewart, to name only a few – committed themselves to formulating an overarching science which became one of the central and distinctive intellectual concerns of the Scottish Enlightenment in the second half of the eighteenth century.
The belief that questions about morality, society, and history could be addressed by an empirical analysis of human nature was not self-evident, whatever Hume might claim. The aim of our research project on the “Science of Man” has been to reconstruct the grounds on which these writers argued that this science was so important, and to investigate what it actually involved, in terms of the methods and paradigms that they developed, and which contributed to establish a new range of disciplines in the human sciences, from psychology and sociology to anthropology. To this end, we assembled a “primary group” of experts from around the world: philosophers, historians, literary scholars, linguists, social scientists and historians of science, whose common point of interest was the Scottish Enlightenment.
Detailed information is published on the project website: www.scienceofman.ed.ac.uk