Hutcheson, Francis

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Hutcheson, Francis (1694-1746): Scottish Philosopher.

Francis Hutcheson was a Scottish philosopher and a leading figure of the Scottish Enlightenment. He was a key proponent of Moral Sense ethical theory and an early aesthetician.

Hutcheson was born, 8 August 1694, in Drumalig, northern Ireland. The son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers, he was educated at the local dissenting academy and at the University of Glasgow. He studied in Glasgow from 1711, advancing to the study of theology in 1713. Graduating in 1717, he returned to Ireland where, after an inauspicious beginning as a minister—his entire congregation walked out to protest his liberal views—he opened an academy of his own in Dublin. His first publications were a series of letters to the Dublin Weekly Journal attacking the egoistic theories of Thomas Hobbes and Mandeville, Bernard.

In 1725, Hutcheson published two related essays as, An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue. The (much) longer original title of this work made clear Hutcheson’s intention to defend the ideas of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of, against criticisms by Mandeville. The first Inquiry (on beauty) introduced Hutcheson’s aesthetic theory, which posits that we have an internal sense of beauty, since any beautiful or “harmonious” object naturally produces a distinct pleasure in us. Further, Hutcheson famously argued that beauty rests in “uniformity amidst variety.” The second Inquiry (on virtue) focuses on moral rather than aesthetic value. Rejecting the egoism of Hobbes and Mandeville, Hutcheson argued that all people have a faculty, the “moral sense,” which approves of virtue and disapproves of vice. Because this sense associates pleasure (or pain) with our judgments of virtue (or vice), it can, unlike the intuitions of the Rationalists, motivate us to act virtuously. Hutcheson expanded and clarified his views in two further essays, published as An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections. With Illustrations On the Moral Sense (1728).

The next year Hutcheson was invited to assume the chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Hutcheson was a great success as a teacher, partly because he dropped the tradition of lecturing in Latin for the friendlier practice of using English. The most notable of Hutcheson’s students was Smith, Adam, who studied at Glasgow before winning a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. Hutcheson’s growing prestige made the chair of Moral Philosophy the dominant post at most of the Scottish universities. Hutcheson encouraged liberal Presbyterianism in Glasgow’s theological training, and survived several attempts to remove him for insufficient orthodoxy.

Hume, David, a younger contemporary of Hutcheson, corresponded with him on philosophical matters. Hume asked Hutcheson for help in avoiding offending religious sensibilities, while Hutcheson urged Hume to be more enthusiastic in promoting virtue. Hume’s well known distinction between philosopher as “painter” and philosopher as “anatomist” was first used in a letter to Hutcheson. Hume explained that he only wanted to be the latter, while Hutcheson was more like a painter, since he wanted not merely to describe virtue, but also to make it attractive.

Hutcheson gave regular public lectures on Natural Religion, and believed that the promotion of Christianity was part of his role as a Professor of Moral Philosophy. He thus became uncomfortably involved in the controversy surrounding David Hume’s nomination for Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh. Having been offered the position and declined it, Hutcheson opposed Hume’s candidacy because he saw Hume as too unorthodox. As Hume’s posthumous Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) makes clear, Hutcheson was right that Hume would have been incapable of professing empirical evidence for Christian doctrines.

While teaching at Glasgow, Hutcheson published three textbooks in Latin on moral philosophy, metaphysics, and logic. The first of them was translated into English as A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy (1747). A posthumous collection, A System of Moral Philosophy, appeared in 1755.

Hutcheson survived the occupation of Glasgow by Jacobite rebels in 1745, and may have used his influence with Lord Kilmarnock, a leader of the rebellion and a former student, to protect the University from looting. Hutcheson died in 1746, and was succeeded in his Chair by such distinguished philosophers as Adam Smith and Reid, Thomas. He is buried in Dublin.

As a leader of the sentimentalist ethical tradition, Hutcheson’s influence is obvious in the moral works of both David Hume and Adam Smith. He was the main target of Price, Richard’s Review of the Principle Questions of Morals (1757) which developed the Rationalist counter-attack begun in Hutcheson’s lifetime by Gilbert Burnet and John Balguy. He was also the first person to use the phrase “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” later used by Bentham, Jeremy to define Utilitarianism.

Further Reading:

J. Bishop, “Moral Motivation and the Development of Francis Hutcheson’s Philosophy,” Journal of the History of Ideas 57.2 (1996): 277-295.

M. Strasser, Francis Hutcheson’s Moral Philosophy: Its Form and Utility, 1990


Nicholas Hunt-Bull

Southern New Hampshire University

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