Rational piety and social reform in Glasgow: the life, philosophy and political economy of James Mylne (1757-1839)
Cowley, Stephen Graham
The philosopher James Mylne (1757-1839) vindicated the rational powers of humanity against the sceptical and “common sense” philosophies of his Scottish predecessors and earned the trust of his contemporaries for his Whig politics. He and the largely neglected philosophy and political economy classes he taught in Glasgow clearly merited closer study. My thesis thus contains a biography of Mylne and interpretative essays on his lectures on moral philosophy and political economy and his political views. James Mylne attended St Andrews University where he acquired a liberal education in the Scottish tradition and a particular knowledge of theology. He became a Deputy-Chaplain with the 83rd Regiment of Foot during the American War of Independence and his experience sheds light on his later advocacy of a militia. Thereafter he served for 14 years as a Minister in Paisley where he was exposed to the literary culture of Glasgow and the radical tinged politics of the French revolutionary era. From 1797 until his death he was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University, where he delivered effective lectures on moral philosophy and political economy. His impact of his teaching was enhanced by student exercises in essay-writing, following the method of George Jardine. He was also active and influential in the Whig politics of the day. Mylne broke with the political caution of Adam Smith, Thomas Reid (1710-96) and James Beattie. Smith’s warning of a “daring, but often dangerous spirit of innovation” in politics contrasts with the “speedy and substantial reform” advocated by Mylne, who extended the Whig thought of John Millar (1735-1801). The lectures contain material common to Scottish traditions of mental philosophy. However, Mylne’s philosophy is anchored in a tradition of “rational piety” that places individual judgements at the core of mental life and in a philosophy of history that sees intellectual progress at the heart of social, economic and political developments. In place of the scepticism of David Hume (1711-76) and the common sense of Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart (1753-1828), he proposed a constructive account of experience, developing directly from John Locke (1632-1704) and his French follower Condillac (1714-80). In two particular respects, Mylne’s thought diverges from the ‘moral sense’ and ‘common sense’ traditions associated with Francis Hutcheson and Thomas Reid in Glasgow. These are his doctrine of the external world and his account of free will and providence. Mylne draws on Condillac to argue that there is no need to draw on common sense to explain belief in an external world as this is explicable by an analysis of touch. He considers that the mind is determined to act by rational motives and the concept of freedom without motive is incoherent. As a result of these views, Mylne reinstates reason as the guiding principle of conscience and argues for utility as the predominant criterion of morality. His views of political reform and the concept of value in his political economy lectures on the emerging market economy are related loosely to these features of his philosophy. The influence of Mylne’s teaching was extensive both in Scotland and the English-speaking world. This can be documented by acknowledgements and reminiscences by his students, many of whom who went on to teach themselves and by comparison of their published works with the content of Mylne’s teaching. More distantly, I argue that Mylne had an indirect influence on the ethos of the early Idealist movement in Glasgow. Mylne’s philosophy evinces a sense of the unity of experience, drawn initially from the universal elements of sensation and judgement, but with religious overtones. His commitments to inquiry and social reform and critique of the common sense school prepared the ground for the Glasgow idealists.
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