Luhmann is forever talking about the second half of the 18th century as the pivotal era in the transition to modern society. More specifically, he mentions the early 1760s, and the year 1763 is mentioned by various authors. So what was going at this time? It’s not enough just to talk about great books or Enlightenment thinkers. We need to consider lots of stuff, much of which might seem uninteresting or insignificant by itself. Below are some key events, not necessarily in chronological order. I haven’t yet researched this in detail.
England became wealthy thanks to its expanding empire, which began with the chartering of the East India Company in the year 1600. This new wealth led to better living standards and literacy. There were also the Dutch and French East India Companies. British exploitation of the East Indies started in 1627. In 1763, at the close of the Seven Years War (1756-63), Barbados, as the most well established of Britain’s Caribbean colonies, was placed in charge of new colonies acquired in the war.
I648, The treaties of Westphalia, or The Peace of Westphalia, ended the 30 Years War. Scholars have identified Westphalia as the beginning of the modern international system, based on the concept of Westphalian sovereignty.
1757, John Campbell invented the sextant, an improved navigational device that enables sailors to measure latitude. This had to have contributed to European colonialism.
The atmospheric engine was invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, and is often referred to simply as a Newcomen engine. In the late 1750s, a few scientists worked on improving the Newcomen engine, and in 1763, James Watt joined the project. In 1776, the first steam engines were installed and working in commercial enterprises.
In 1753, hydropower got a boost when French engineer Bernard Forest de Bélidor published Architecture Hydraulique, which described vertical- and horizontal-axis hydraulic machines. Hydropower was a very important element in the Industrial Revolution.
In agriculture, the years between 1760-1820 are the years of wholesale enclosure in which rights to common land were lost. This led to intensive farming and contributed to the creation of a new, landless working class.
1762, Rousseau publishes The Social Contract.
European postal systems improved greatly in the 18th century.
The Scottish Enlightenment played a key role in this story. On this subject,
Arthur Hermann’s 2001 book, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, is enlightening. Hermann writes,
What makes the Scottish Enlightenment so important? When you mention the Enlightenment to most people, it conjures up images of glittering aristocratic salons lit by scores of candles, of scandalous wit and cultivated laughter, of bewigged philosophers and critics pressing their progressive ideas on various European autocrats. Voltaire visiting Frederick the Great at Sans Souci; Denis Diderot editing the Encyclopédie and urging Catherine the Great of Russia to outlaw the use of torture and the knout; Jean-Jacques Rousseau scandalizing polite society in the years leading to the French Revolution. Indeed, the famous names of the French Enlightenment seem to dominate almost every discussion of culture in the eighteenth century.
This is a mistake. The Scottish Enlightenment may have been less glamorous, but it was in many ways more robust and original. More important, it was at least as influential. In fact, if one were to draw up a list of the books that dominated the thinking of Europeans in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the Scottish names stand out. Adam Smith’s A Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations. David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature and Essays Political, Literary, and Moral. William Robertson’s History of Scotland and History of the Reign of Charles V. Adam Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society. John Millar’s The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks. Thomas Reid’s Inquiry into the Human Mind. And at the top of the page, Francis Hutcheson’s System of Moral Philosophy and Lord Kames’s Sketches of the History of Man.
It is an impressive list. If one had to identify two themes that most of these works share, they would be “history” and “human nature.” Indeed, it is the Scots who first linked them together. The Scottish Enlightenment presented man as the product of history. Our most fundamental character as human beings, they argued, even our moral character, is constantly evolving and developing, shaped by a variety of forces over which we as individuals have little or no control. We are ultimately creatures of our environment: that was the great discovery that the “Scottish school,” as it came to be known, brought to the modern world.
At the same time, they also insisted that these changes are not arbitrary or chaotic. They rest on certain fundamental principles and discernible patterns. The study of man is ultimately a scientific study. The Scots are the true inventors of what we today call the social sciences: anthropology, ethnography, sociology, psychology, history, and, as mention of the name Adam Smith makes us realize, economics. But their interests went beyond that.
The Scottish Enlightenment embarked on nothing less than a massive reordering of human knowledge. It sought to transform every branch of learning—literature and the arts; the social sciences; biology, chemistry, geology, and the other physical and natural sciences—into a series of organized disciplines that could be taught and passed on to posterity. The great figures of the Scottish Enlightenment never lost sight of their educational mission. Most were teachers or university professors; others were clergymen, who used their pulpits and sermons for the same purpose. Some, like Hutcheson, Ferguson, and Thomas Reid, were both. In every case, the goal of intellectual life was to understand in order to teach others, to enable the next generation to learn what you yourself have mastered and build on it. From the Scots’ point of view, the advancement of human understanding was an essential part of the ascent of man in history.
This attitude produced one great achievement that would live on long after the Scottish Enlightenment itself had all but departed from the scene. In fact, to this day most of us have it on our bookshelves or on our computer disks. We and our children use it almost daily. It is called the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the first volume of which appeared in Edinburgh in 1768. Its editors intended it to be a complete summary of scientific and human knowledge, incorporating the latest discoveries as part of a coherent and graspable whole. It worked. While the French Enlightenment’s version, Diderot’s Encyclopédie, is today merely a historical curiosity, the Encyclopaedia Britannica has continued to grow, develop, and change over two centuries—just as its first editors had intended.
Herman, Arthur. How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It (pp. 62-64). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.