British Philosopher, 1694 - 1746


Francis Hutcheson was one of the most important figures in the Scottish Enlightenment, the intellectual flourishing in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the mid-18th century whose leading lights included Adam Smith, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, and Thomas Reid. Hutcheson was a philosopher who did significant work in the fields of ethics and aesthetics, and he influenced British thought on these subjects for many years.

He was born on August 8, 1694 near Saintfield in County Down, Ireland, the son and grandson of presbyterian ministers from a family which had emigrated from Scotland. Hutcheson began studying moral philosophy and jurisprudence at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, in 1710 or 1711, taking his M.A. in 1712 and obtaining a licence to preach in 1716.

Facing anti-Irish prejudice and suspicion over his association with controversial theologian John Simson, he returned to Ireland in 1718 to lecture in Dublin, the city where he wrote two of his most important works, An Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725), and An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, with Illustrations on the Moral Sense (1728). Around the same time he also wrote for Dublin periodicals essays including Thoughts on Laughter, against Thomas Hobbes, and Observations on the Fable of the Bees, contra Bernard Mandeville's The Grumbling Hive.

Though they were all published anonymously, these led to his appointment in 1729 as Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University, and Hutcheson began work there in 1930. His students included Adam Smith and Thomas Reid; he made the university a major intellectual centre of the Enlightenment, as well as being one of the earliest academics to lecture in English not Latin. In the 1730s and 1740s he corresponded with David Hume, each offering criticisms of the other's work; however they differed on many topics due to Hume's radical ideas on morality and epistemology. In 1738 Hutcheson was brought before the Glasgow presbytery, a church court, for teaching false and dangerous ideas in stating that moral knowledge was possible without God, but no action was taken against him.

His later works included the Latin texts Philosophiae moralis institutio compendiaria (1742), commonly known as The Compend, and Metaphysicae synopsis (1742), the latter republished as Synopsis metaphysicae. The Compend was published in an English translation in 1747.

Hutcheson died in 1746 while visiting Dublin. He left behind a major unpublished work, A System of Moral Philosophy, which Hutcheson had largely completed by 1737 but had hesitated to distribute beyond his circle of friends. It was finally published in 1755 thanks to the efforts of his son and with the sponsorship of Hume, Reid, Ferguson, Henry Home (Lord Kames), and others.

His son, also called Francis Hutcheson (c. 1722-1773), sometimes known as Francis Ireland, was a popular songwriter whose compositions included As Cohn one evening, Jolly Bacchus, and Where Weeping Yews. The younger Francis was also a physician, having studied medicine at the University of Dublin and University of Glasgow.


Hutcheson's theory of epistemology and mental philosophy is based on the principle that human beings have a number of senses. For Hutcheson, a sense is a faculty that lets us receive ideas which bring us pain or pleasure and which do not depend on the will. As well as the ordinary five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell), he also considered the following to be senses: consciousness; moral sense; the sense of beauty; public sense (sensus communis) which leads us to rejoice in the happiness of others and be upset by their sorrow; a sense of honour which makes us enjoy praise and dislike blame; and a sense of the ridiculous.

He was an empiricist in the tradition of John Locke, believing that all our ideas had to come through our senses, either directly as with the objects of external senses (the five traditional senses), or by reflection on ideas obtained from the senses; the latter was the case for the internal (reflex) senses e.g. consciousness and the aesthetic sense. He largely followed Locke's representationalist theory of perception, including the distinction between primary and secondary qualities.

In ethics, Hutcheson was an intuitionist, i.e. he believed that human beings have a moral sense which allows them to perceive what is good and what is bad independently of reason; this moral sense also ensures we take pleasure in what is good and vice versa. This moral sense works together with the public sense and sense of honour to guide us to moral behaviour. He denied the egoism of Thomas Hobbes and believed that people are essentially good (the "benevolent theory of morals") and take delight in goodness (the opposite view to Hume, who believed that pleasure was prior to morality). Like much of Hutcheson's thought, his moral philosophy was influenced by Lord Shaftsbury, who first used the term "moral sense".

He opposed ethical rationalism, such as the doctrines of Samuel Clarke and William Wollaston, who believed that moral truths could be deduced by reason. Hutcheson objected to this on two grounds. Firstly he believed that reason in itself was not sufficient to spur people to action, i.e. reason does not provide moral motivation. In addition, he denied that reason was sufficient to provide the basis for moral judgment, independently of whether or not it provided motivation: it was not evident that reason can tell us what goals or ends we should pursue. However, his thought also incorporated utilitarian and more generally consequentialist ideas in holding that the greater the good effects of an action are, the more morally good it is, and he coined the phrase "the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers". His moral theory was an important influence, in terminology and areas of inquiry if not always in conclusions, on the British ethicists Joseph Butler and Richard Price, and possibly on Hume.

Hutcheson was one of the first modern philosophers to write on aesthetics, although again he drew on Shaftsbury's ideas. Hutcheson theorised that we perceive beauty where an object lies at the right point on the continuum between uniformity and variety: too uniform and it is bland, too various and it is confused and disorderly. His ideas on beauty were based around the existence of an aesthetic sense, which is an internal sense: it acts on the sense data obtained through sight, hearing, etc, but it can also perceive beauty, harmony and proportion in ideas. This means that the aesthetic sense allows us to see beauty in moral behaviour and in truth. Hutcheson believed that this aesthetic sense, like the other senses, was innate.

Other ideas of Hutcheson's included arguments in favour of animal rights and progressive ideas about marriage; he denied the essential inferiority of women and called for shared property rights over a married couple's possessions.

Main Sources:

  • Alexander Broadie. "Scottish Philosophy in the 18th Century". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2001.
  • Daniel Carey. "A System of Moral Philosophy - Francis Hutcheson". Thoemmes Continuum. 2000.
  • "Francis Hutcheson (theologian)". 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. 1911.
  • "Francis Hutcheson, 1694-1746". The History of Economic Thought website.

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