Millar, John

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Millar, John (1735-1801): Scottish, Philosopher.

A leading figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, James Millar was professor of law at the University of Glasgow for forty years and a significant early sociologist. Millar was born in 1735 in Shotts, Scotland into a family of ministers. He studied at the University of Glasgow from age eleven, attending Smith, Adam’s first lectures. Moving to Edinburgh to study law, he was employed tutoring the son of Henry Home, Kames, Henry Home, Lord. There he became friends with Hume, David and James Watt. He was appointed Glasgow’s professor of civil law in 1761 due to the influence of Kames and Smith. A remarkably engaging teacher, he attracted students from as far away as Russia. Millar and Reid, Thomas, a fellow Glasgow professor, were personally friendly but intellectually combative.

Millar trained and inspired a whole generation of Scottish and English lawyers and politicians. A Whig in politics, he supported both the American and French revolutions and abolition of the slave trade. His The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks (1771) was a critical contribution to sociology in the speculative-historical tradition. Influenced by Smith’s four-stage theory (that societies evolved through four stages: hunting, pastoral, agricultural and commercial), it develops an economic/sociological account of human social relationships, emphasizing the gradual improvement of women’s rights. Millar’s liberal Historical View of the English Government (1787) was partly a response to Hume’s Tory History of England (1752-62).

Further Reading:

W. C. Lehmann, John Millar of Glasgow, 1960.

Nicholas Hunt-Bull

Southern New Hampshire University