Kames, Henry Home, Lord

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Kames, Henry Home, Lord (1696-1782). Scottish, Philosophy.

Henry Home, Lord Kames, was a leader and sponsor of the Scottish Enlightenment and one of the founders of the Scottish “common sense” or “moral sense” school of philosophy. He was born on his father’s estate in Scotland, a few miles from the English border and educated by private tutors before studying law in Edinburgh. He was admitted to the Bar as an advocate in 1723 and served as Curator of the Library of the Faculty of Advocates in 1737-42. Despite some suspicions about his family’s connections with the Jacobites, Kames received a royal appointment in 1752 as a Lord Ordinary of the Court of Session, a judge responsible for hearing civil cases. In 1763 he was also named one of the Lords of Justiciary, circuit judges who presided over criminal cases. As a justice Kames had a reputation for severity.

Kames was active in the scientific and philosophic clubs, such as the Edinburgh Philosophical Society, where new ideas were discussed and debated. He mentored a number of young Scottish thinkers and writers, including his cousin Hume, David as well as Smith, Adam, Reid, Thomas, and Boswell, James. He authored sixteen major books on subjects ranging from metaphysics to education and scientific farming. His three compilations of decisions from the Court of Session did much to systematize Scottish law, and his Dictionary (1741) was a valuable reference work for lawyers. In Essays . . . concerning British Antiquities (1747), Historical Law-Tracts (1760), and Elucidations (1777) Kames analyzed the evolution of Scottish jurisprudence from historical, psychological, and sociological perspectives.

His Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion (1751) was a response to Hume’s skepticism and one of the first great creations of the Scottish Enlightenment, establishing the basic tenets of “common sense” philosophy. In this work Kames argued human beings are born with an innate moral sense which, when nurtured, indicates a duty to control disruptive passions thereby rendering society possible. He also created a stir by asserting a benevolent deity controls the universe totally, permitting humans only the illusion of free will. Even Edwards, Jonathan objected to this theory of a deceptive deity.

Kames’ Elements of Criticism (1762), an effort to base standards of good taste, literary critique, and rhetoric on a scientific study of human nature, enjoyed popularity in Britain and abroad; it was the basic text on aesthetics for Americans at least until the Civil War. The final summation of his principles was his Sketches on the History of Man (1774), directed toward a middle class audience, especially women. Here he traced the development of mankind out of savagery into civilization as moral sense and taste became refined, warning that overrefinement would foster decadence and lead back into barbarism.

Further Reading:

Ian Simpson Ross, Lord Kames and the Scotland of His Day (1972).

Robert Luehrs

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