How to write a history of philosophy? The case of eighteenth-century Britain

James A. Harris*

*Corresponding author for this work

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This paper raises the question of how a history of the philosophy of eighteenth-century Britain should be written. First, it describes the usual answer to this question, which divides the period into what happened before Hume, then Hume, then responses to Hume. It notes that this answer does not correspond well with how the period saw itself. It then considers how ‘philosophy’ is defined in Britain in the eighteenth century, taking into account dictionary definitions, book titles, and university syllabi. Obvious differences between eighteenth-century and twenty-first-century philosophy are explored, including the idea that ‘natural philosophy’ is as much part of philosophy as moral philosophy, metaphysics, and logic, and the difficulty of making a distinction between philosophy and what we now call psychology. In the final section of the paper some difficulties are raised regarding the hypothesis that ‘enlightenment’ might provide an organizing concept for a more historically sensitive account of eighteenth-century British philosophy.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages20
JournalBritish Journal for the History of Philosophy
VolumeLatest Articles
Early online date20 Sept 2022
Publication statusPublished - 20 Sept 2022


  • Jistory of philosophy
  • Natural philosophy
  • Enlightenment
  • Leslie Stephen
  • David Hume


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