1902 Encyclopedia > Evolution > Evolution in Philosophy: English Writers in the 18th Century: Hume; Priestley; Monboddo.

(Part 16)


English Writers of the 18th Century—Hume.—The theological discussions which make up so large a part of the English speculation of the last century cannot detain us here. There is, however, one writer who sets forth so clearly the alternative suppositions respecting the origin of the world that he claims a brief notice. We refer to David Home. In his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion he puts forwards tentatively, in the person of one of his interlocutors, the ancient hypothesis that since the world resemble animal or vegetal organism rather than a machine, it might more easily be accounted for by a process of generation then by an act of creation. Later on he develops the materialistic view of Epicurus, only modifying it so far as to conceive of matter as finite. Since a finite number of particles is only susceptible of finite transpositions, it must happen (he says), in an eternal duration that every possible order or position will be tried an infinite number of times, and hence this world is to be regarded number of times, and hence this world is to be regarded (as the Stoics maintained) as an exact reproduction of previous worlds. The speaker seeks to make intelligible the appearance of art and contrivance in the world as a result of a natural settlement of the universe (which passes through a succession of chaotic conditions) into a stable condition, having a constancy in its forms, yet without its several parts losing their motion and fluctuation.

Priestley.—The English materialists of the latter part of the century did little to work out the idea of evolution. Priestley needs to be mentioned here only by reason of his clear recognition of human progress.

Monboddo.—Of other British writers of the period, Lord Monboddo must be named on account of his curious speculations respecting the origin of man. In his Ancient Metaphysics (vol.iii), Monboddo conceives man as gradually elevating himself from an animal condition, in which his mind is immersed in matter, to a state in which mind acts independent of body. In his equally voluminous work. The Origin and Progress of Language, Monboddo brings man under the same species as the orang-outang. He traces the gradual elevation of man to the social state, which he conceives as a natural process determined by "the necessities of human life." He looks on language (which is not "natural" to man in the same of being necessary to his self-preservation) as a consequence of his social state.

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