After Pufendorf: Natural law and the passions in Germany and Scotland

Venue: Parliament Hall, 66 South Street, St Andrews KY16 9JU


By the middle of the eighteenth century, a number of authors who taught and wrote about natural law saw themselves as being engaged in a very different intellectual and academic activity than that of the natural lawyers of earlier generations. While staying within the mode of natural law, the deep-going revision that they understood themselves to be undertaking – each in their separate way – was to shift the idea of natural law as something that human nature needed somehow to have imposed upon it to the idea of natural law as in some sense inherent in human nature itself. Furthermore, they saw the relevant aspects of human nature to be the emotions or passions that drove people in their active lives. This development in natural law thinking has been referred to as an anthropological approach, as a turn from law to moral philosophy, as the formulation of a ‘Recht des Gefühls’, as a sentimental natural law, etc.

It was a line of argument that took several different forms and was articulated in quite different contexts, yet it is recognizable in thinkers as different as Johann Jacob Schmauss in Göttingen and Adam Smith in Glasgow. It was, however, a development that had started much earlier as part of the intense debates at the turn of the century about the nature and validity of Samuel Pufendorf’s natural law. Philosophers, legal theorists and theologians associated with the new university in Halle were the leading disputants, and a particularly important turning point in the debates about Pufendorf was Christian Thomasius’ abnegation during the early years of the new century of the deeply Pufendorfian ideas of natural law that he had been propagating with great impact previously.

Only a few years later, we see a reaction against Pufendorf in Scotland that has a number of strikingly similar features to that in Germany. Here the leading figure was Francis Hutcheson who had a broad influence on the intellectual culture that we now refer to as the Scottish Enlightenment and among whose students was Adam Smith. Across deep differences in philosophical, theological, legal and political contexts in Germany and Scotland the similarities in thoughts about natural law are striking, not only because of the idea of the passionate foundations for natural law, but also because these ideas in both cultural spheres led to some of the sharpest formulations of rights theories and to a historicisation of morality and law that pointed towards the dissolution of the natural law language. While acknowledging the many differences between the German and the Scottish thinkers, similarities such as these are so intriguing that they warrant joint consideration in a conference.

Programme organisers: Frank Grunert (Halle); Knud Haakonssen (St. Andrews/Erfurt)

Local organisers: James Harris and Richard Whatmore (St. Andrews)

Download the conference programme.

For more information or to attend the conference, please contact Elsie Johnstone.