Scotland’s Intellectual Heritage: The Democratic Intellect – Richard Gunn and Murdo MacDonald


Scotland has always had a distinctive approach to higher education. From the inauguration of its first universities, the accent has been on first principles. This unified the approach to knowledge – even of mathematics and science – through a broad, philosophical interpretation.
This generalist tradition, contrasting with the specialism of the two English universities, Oxford and Cambridge, stood Scotland in good stead.


It characterised its intellectual life, even into the nineteenth century, when economic, social and political pressures enforced an increasing conformity to English models. George Davie’s account of the history of these movements, and of the great personalities involved, has proved seminal in restoring to Scotland a sense of cultural identity.


Originally published in 1961, The Democratic Intellect has had a marked – and acknowledged – influence on the thinking of those in power in higher education, and indeed upon the subsequent planning of several of the new universities, not only in Scotland. Professor David Daiches called it “timely and provocative”. So it remains today.

In this book, Davie deals with the struggle during the 19th century in Scotland to maintain a generalist form of education which is not only philosophical but also scientific, humanistic and democratic. The book has been described as “a thesis about liberal education – pursued by a micro-historical investigation of the culture and academic politics of Scotland’s universities in the 19th century. More than 40 years on, the book’s discussions of the restriction of academic independence by centralisation, inter-university competition for prestige, research versus teaching and even versus scholarship, notions of abandoning moral discourse for ill-examined claims regarding scientific advance, are still relevant.”


George Elder Davie on left


Davie’s somewhat prolix style of writing is exemplified here:

“It is possible to confirm still further the importance which this ideal of a philosophical education had for the Scots if we turn from the achieved pattern of national pedagogy to the plans which were being mooted for its development. What these plans reveal – until well on in the nineteenth century – is the remarkable hold on the country of the belief in the possibility of general education through philosophy.

Not that the Scots had any dislike of professional accomplishment; on the contrary, they admired it even to excess, and were eager for the introduction into their educational system of training centres for higher education and specialisation in the new subjects. But the distinctive mark of their thinking about these matters and of the organised projects it inspired was that they wanted to retain philosophy as a compulsory part of what we would now call secondary education (fifteen to nineteen), and that admission to the specialist schools – though it was to be granted early – nevertheless would require, as a preliminary, philosophical education in the old style.”

This is a podcast of the launch of the new edition of The Democratic Intellect where Richard Gunn and Murdo MacDonald talk about the ideas found in the book.  In the new edition, Richard Gunn writes an introduction to guide people through some of the key concepts.  Richard Gunn gave a talk on Common Sense in the Ragged University and started a project of writing a book with Steve Tilley and Alex Dunedin on this subject.