The Reading Room
OLL’s August Birthday: Francis Hutcheson (August 8, 1694- August 8, 1746)
August’s OLL Birthday Essay is in honor of Francis Hutcheson. Considered by some to be the Father of the Scottish Enlightenment, he influenced such famous figures as David Hume, Thomas Reid, and Adam Smith. His work was tremendously influential in Great Britain, Ireland, the American Colonies, and on the continent of Europe.
Despite his close connections to the Scottish Enlightenment, Hutcheson was born, and lived most of his life, in Ireland (though his father’s family was originally from Scotland). He was born on August 8, 1694, in Drumalig, County Down, near Saintfield, in northern Ireland. His father, the Reverend John Hutcheson, was a pastor in the Presbyterian Church. Unlike the situation in Scotland, the Presbyterians in Ireland were considered Dissenters and occupied a precarious legal and social position. After studying at schools in Saintsfield and the Killyleagh, he moved in 1710 to Glasgow where he enrolled in the university, studying philosophy, literature, and theology. He received his degree in 1712, but his association with figures in the “New Light” movement in the Presbyterian Church, and his Irish background, both raised suspicion among the Scottish Presbyterian community, and his attempts to enter the ministry failed. He returned to Ireland in 1716, where his quest for a ministerial position was more promising,. He abruptly changed his mind and in 1719 founded, with his friend, the reformist Presbyterian minister Thomas Drennan, a private school in Dublin, the Dissenting Academy, where he taught for ten years. While in Dublin he cultivated friendships with most of the respected intellectual figures of the day and had cordial relations with the clergy of the established Church of Ireland.
While at the Academy, he published his first major work, An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, in 1725. Heavily influenced by the ideas of Anthony Ashley Cooper, Lord Shaftesbury, it is largely a refutation of Bernard Mandeville’s Parable of the Bees. Hutcheson argues that besides our physical, external, senses (such as taste, vision, etc.), humans have “internal senses” as well, namely honor, morality, beauty, and a sense of the ridiculous. Humans thus have a natural sense of The Beautiful, and are also imbued with a “moral sense” that allows us to distinguish between virtue and vice and to act according to “moral love” or “benevolence.” Hutcheson thus argued that virtue emerges not (only) as a result of our self-interest, but out of a disinterested, inherent moral sensibility. These views were in opposition to not only ethical rationalists, but also to the Calvinism of the Presbyterian Church, which held that fallen Mankind was incapable of a coherent moral sense. Importantly, Hutcheson also anticipated Jeremy Bentham by arguing that the conditions of a moral judgement are, in his words, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” The book made a big impact and went through four editions during Hutcheson’s lifetime.
The same year as the publication of An Inquiry he married his cousin, Mary Wilson, who brought with her a number of properties in County Longford (greatly helping the financial situation of the young couple). They had a happy marriage, though only one child, also named Francis (1721-1784), survived to adulthood. The younger Francis became a physician and accomplished musician (who published his compositions under the pseudonym “Francis Ireland”), and also published A System of Moral Philosophy, based on his late father’s notes, in 1755.
While at the Academy, besides An Inquiry Hutcheson also published An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, with Illustrations on the Moral Sense (1728), as well as a series of essays (including critiques of Hobbes and Mandeville) in the Dublin Weekly journal (also known as Hibernicus’ Letters). These writings, especially his two books, are considered his most important works published during his lifetime. Even though they were all published anonymously or under pseudonyms, it seems as though Hutcheson was widely known to be their author.
In 1729 Hutcheson was back at the University of Glasgow where he was offered the Chair of Moral Philosophy, which he was to hold until his death. While there, he established a reputation as a brilliant and highly charismatic lecturer (and the first at the university to lecture in English instead of Latin), and became well known and highly regarded not only by his students and colleagues, but by the people of Glasgow in general. It has been speculated that his training in the ministry imbued his lectures with a particular power and passion. One of his most famous students, Adam Smith, referred to him in his writings as the “Never to be forgotten Hutcheson.”
Indeed, Hutcheson’s contribution to the history of British philosophy can hardly be overstated. His work on the “internal senses” (especially the moral sense) and aesthetics, were foundational to Scottish Enlightenment philosophers like Hume and Smith and were basic to the broader perspective of philosophical moral sentimentalism. His views that the moral sense was tied to a concern for the “general welfare” was taken up by later philosophers, most notably the Utilitarians.
Hutcheson died after coming down with a fever in 1746 during one his frequent visits to Dublin. He was buried in the cemetery of St. Mary’s Church. The exact location of his grave has been lost, an ironic resting place for the “never to be forgotten Hutcheson.”