James Beattie, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the character of Common Sense philosophy
History of European Ideas
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Professor of Moral Philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen, James Beattie (1735–1803) was one of the most prominent literary figures of late eighteenth-century Britain. His major works, An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth (1770) and the two-canto poem The Minstrel (1771–1774), were two of the best-sellers of the Scottish Enlightenment and were key to Beattie’s role in the emergence of both the ‘Scottish School’ of Common Sense Philosophy and British Romanticism. Intellectual history scholarship on the Scottish Enlightenment has tended to discuss Beattie in terms of his relationship to his fellow Aberdonian Thomas Read. While clearly important, his link with Reid does not exhaust our potential interest in Beattie. This article explores his extensive engagement with the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). In the process, it is argued that the Genevan’s works–especially the Confession of the Savoyard Vicar in Emile (1762)–played an important though little noticed role in both Beattie’s rhetoric and anti-scepticism in both the Essay and Minstrel. Moreover, Beattie’s initially praising stance on Rousseau as a potential friend to true religion indicates the complexity of the reception of the Genevan’s works in late eighteenth-century Britain.
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