Scottish Enlightenment vs. Irish Enlightenment

The Scottish Enlightenment seems like a real enlightenment to most observers, the 18th century Irish Enlightenment (Swift, Berkeley, Burke, toss in James Barry too) does not.  In my admittedly unorthodox view, I think the Irish Enlightenment simply had different concerns but was no less of an enlightenment.  Much of the Scottish Enlightenment was concerned with the following:

1. Increasing market size and division of labor

2. Martial virtue and security against foreign enemies

3. Sympathy

That all makes broad sense when you realize that Britain was indeed building the world’s largest economic market, and furthermore had to worry about its enemies on the Continent.  Regular social interactions were becoming normal enough that one could ask basic questions about sympathy, and assume that some degree of sympathy was present.

None of those conditions held true for Ireland.  Market size was small, and external market relations typically were controlled by the British.  As for military issues, Britain could dominate you in any case, so martial virtue was of secondary import, at least until later civil wars.  And sympathy was not to be assumed at all, for reasons of religious, political, and class prejudice.

My “standing on one foot” version of the Irish Enlightenment would be a concern with:

1. Is toleration at all possible?  Toleration needed before sympathy!

2. Can we expect there to be progress at all?  James Barry argues for the universality of progress, but Swift doubts whether moral progress is likely.  Burke wishes to take progress in baby steps.  Berkeley is skeptical altogether.  If you are ruled by the Brits, the richest society to date, but they are still bastards to you, maybe you will be more skeptical about moral progress.

3. A sense of terror from difference, as mirrored both in Burke’s aesthetics of the sublime and the voyages in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  Everyone is running around deeply afraid of “the other,” and this concern surfaces also in Burke’s fears for the French aristocrats.  The enthusiasms of the French revolutionaries reminded Burke all too much of the earlier Irish civil wars and rebellions and massacres, even though in both cases he knew the privileges of the nobles were not deserved.  Swift is consistently asking whether one culture can understand the other at all.

I view the two Enlightenments as embodying different kinds of skepticism.  The Scots, such as Hume and Smith, hold a deep epistemic skepticism, which led them to recipes for decentralization and mechanism design.  The Irish had a more practical skepticism, doubting whether moral progress in human beings was all that likely.

The Irish and Scottish Enlightenments perhaps clashed most directly when Burke took issue with David Hume’s accounts of the Catholic 1641 “massacres” in Ireland, arguing that a more nuanced understanding of Irish history was needed.  Burke considered writing his own history of Ireland.

Burke, like Swift, understood the point of view of “the settled” fairly well, arguably better than the Scots did:

Beyond Irish affairs, Burke also began the impeachment of Warren Hastings over his actions as governor-general of India. The fourteen-year impeachment clearly displayed his obsessive nature, but it also finds him arguing against the imposition of British laws and manners on India. Instead, he defends the native civilisations, their institutions and religious beliefs.

Bishop Berkeley is a more complicated fit in this story, and might require a blog post of his own.  But think of him as telling everyone that everything they think they know is wrong, and they actually exist in a simulation in the mind of God.  A prospect to strike terror into the hearts of many!  Even the supposed truths of mathematics and the calculus melt away on close examination.  As for politics, Berkeley worried a great deal about corruption and factions, and he favored extensive government interventions, both social and economic, to make life stable again and human beings virtuous.  He feared that perhaps progress was not possible, as growing wealth would lead to luxurious and corrupted tastes.

Overall, the Irish Enlightenment wasn’t nearly as optimistic as its Scottish counterpart.  But it was far more mindful of the perspective of the victim, presaging more modern developments.  And later in the 19th century, the Irish Enlightenment turned its attention to themes of depopulation and excessively high land rents, both extremely relevant to current times as well…

The Irish Enlightenment is, dare I say, underrated?


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