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Philosophically speaking

From my office window here at the University of Edinburgh, I look on to the David Hume Tower. Adjoining that is the Adam Ferguson Building; to my right is the William Robertson Building. Historians and philosophers might recognise these names. Hume was one of the intellectual giants of the 18th Century; Ferguson has been called the father of sociology and Robertson, a former principal of the university, was the foremost historian of his age. These three figures (and others of whom Adam Smith is perhaps the best known) were at the heart of the intellectual movement called The Scottish Enlightenment. It’s a period I’ve been reading up on lately. Quite aside from my physical proximity to the heart of it all, I came to it in a strange sort of way, through the work of Joan Tronto, an American feminist writer. Tronto argues for care giving and receiving as a form of ethical and political activity. Caring according to Tronto is ‘a practice rather than a set of rules and principles… It involves both particular acts of caring and a ‘general habit of mind’ to care that should involve all aspects of a practitioners moral life.’ (1994 p127).

Tronto draws on the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment to support her case. She identifies the moral philosophy of the Scottish thinkers, as embracing a contextual morality, which takes into account the social, political and cultural contexts within which behaviours occur. She contrasts this with what has become the dominant morality in the West in the Modern period, a universalistic morality, based around the writing of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kantian thinking posits that there are universal markers of good and bad in human behaviour and that these can be governed by sets of rules based on reason and empiricism. Thus, something that is good in one context, will, in and of itself, be good in any other. Amidst the competing claims of the two strands of moral thought, Kantianism won out and has been central to the assumptions and workings of human society ever since. It is Kantian thinking that underpins our present-day fixation with codes of ethics, codes of conduct, codes of practice; ideas about ‘best practice,’ and evidence-led practice, as though such notions are somehow self-evident. It is based around a premise that we can identify what is universally and rationally presumed to be right and good and regulate for it.

However, questions are increasingly being asked of Kantian philosophy. It fails to take into account difference and it fails to take into account what Michel Foucault identifies as the relationship between power and knowledge. Kantian rationalism may be little more than a vehicle for the powerful to justify and maintain their power. At its most extreme, its inexorable quest for rationality and progress has been associated with the horrors of the modern period such as the holocaust.

Without wishing to sound overly parochial, the Scots got there first in identifying the flaws in Kantianism. They were particularly sceptical of any system based upon reason. Hume who was sceptical about just about everything was particularly sceptical about reason.

Common sense
One feature of the Scottish Enlightenment was the prominence of a philosophy of ‘common sense.’ This was sceptical of the empiricism and technical/rationalism associated with the wider European Enlightenment and particularly with the English thinkers of the time. Ferrier charged the empiricists with

 “treating science as an Aladdin’s lamp which could be overexploited with impunity, and which could be counted on to solve all social problems without itself giving rise to any." (Davie 1991 p.82).

 This observation seems particularly prescient in our current climate of concern over globalisation. Empiricism, according to the Scottish philosophers led to an excessive compartmentalisation and atomisation within society.

Common sense philosophy posited that knowledge wasn’t the preserve of the ivory towers. Philosophers had to argue their case in the taverns and philosophy clubs frequented by a large cross-section of the population.

"The basis of knowledge and objective science isn’t simply experimentation or observation in regard to bodies and behaviour, but the instinctive and fundamental fact of the conscious intellectual rapport between the members of a given society." (Davie 1991 p.65).

This involved the democratisation of knowledge. A dialectic was required between expert knowledge and the instinctive sense of the common man. There was little point in abstract formal knowledge that didn’t make sense to those on the ground. How true is that of so much of child and youth care, where so much of what passes for ‘best practice’ just doesn’t seem to cut it with those on the shop floor?

Another aspect of common sense philosophy was its predilection for asking awkward questions of authority. This is where academics come in. We shouldn’t merely be in the position of providing the powers that be with what Dahlberg and Moss (2005) call “a particular type of value-free knowledge – ‘policy relevant information.’ ” Universities they go on to argue should be

‘communities for provoking dissensus and crisis, for critical thinking…Academics retain a responsibility to be reflective, sceptical and critical… We have a responsibility to resist the forces seeking to reduce us to mere purveyors of information and expertise, the production of which can be costed and offered for sale in the market place. We have a responsibility to resist closure and to hold open the question of meaning.’ (p.32).

This then is my hope for the New Year; that we can recapture some of the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment and that child and youth care can become a hotbed of ideas rather than a repository of technical/rational information. This requires that we start to view the care of children and youth as a moral and political endeavour rather than a technical/rational one. After all, we’re not rational. Hume did for that conceit.



Dahlberg, G and Moss, P (2005) Ethics and Politics in Early Childhood Education. London: RoutledgeFalmer

Davie, G (1991) The Scottish Enlightenment and other essays. Edinburgh: Polygon

Tronto, J (1994) Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. London: Routledge