The British Journal for the History of Science

Research Article

The Philosophical Society of Edinburgh 1768–1783

Roger L. Emersona1

a1 The University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada N6A 5C2.

The Philosophical Society of Edinburgh Throughout the years 1768–1783 looked to the outside world like a flourishing and important body. By 1771 it had sponsored the publication of five volumes of papers which had gone through several printings and translations. It had a distinguished foreign membership which assured its recognition abroad as one of the important academic bodies in the cosmopolitan Republic of Letters. From its foundation in 1737 until his death in 1768, its President had been the Earl of Morton, better known as the President of the Royal Society of London and as an astronomer who had been active in the practical work of the London society. Another member, Sir John Pringle, became President of the Royal Society in 1772. It was also known abroad that among the Edinburgh philosophers were to be found the most important professors of the town's university, not only those of its distinguished medical faculty but also men like William Robertson, Adam Ferguson and later John Robison. David Hume had been at one time a Secretary of the Society and probably remained a member to the end of his life in 1776. In the British colonies, the Society could point to members in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Jamaica and other West Indian islands and it had contacts in a far-flung network reaching from China and Siberia in the east to places less remote in Europe and America. Within Britain, the Society had members in London and in provincial towns of whom William Brownrigg was the most important. From these men and from others scattered in Scotland, the Society drew information and projected its image as a successful learned society. These appearances, however, are far clearer than the Society's record of accomplishment during its last years. It is not accidental that so little pertaining to its work survives. The Society in reality had a career far from brilliant and by 1778 hardly deserved the reputation it had acquired. During its last five years it revived but even then it probably did not reach the level of activity seen in the early and mid 1750s.