Rowling and the Scottish Enlightenment

Three quick questions and answers about this telling tweet after the jump!

Is It Just the Tide Turning or Have We Turned a Corner?

It looks like the Gender Theory Extremist attempt to remake the world of men and women into a slush of identity relativism is failing. And Rowling, as one of the few public opinion leaders to have stood against these postmodern zealots eager to castrate and mutilate children irreparably and to take away safe spaces for women, is being vindicated. Check out this article in The Telegraph, JK Rowling’s brave trans stand has been vindicated:

Rowling-critics have certain things in common. They excel at presenting complex questions about child safety, free speech and competing rights as simplistic questions of virtue vs hatred. When pushed, however, they can rarely identify anything genuinely malicious or “transphobic” that Rowling has said or done.

Graham Norton gave a masterclass in this recently; after conceding that he might let Rowling come on his show to talk about her bestselling Cormoran Strike series (or, in Norton’s words, to “wang on about her crime novel”), he dismissed her views as “problematic” without explanation or corroborating evidence. Yet Rowling has never been anything less than thoughtful and humane. She acknowledges that this is a complicated debate, which poses a host of complex legal and moral issues, including for other groups that have been historically oppressed.

Among the younger Harry Potter cast members, it is ironically Tom Felton, who played arch-baddie Draco Malfoy, who has displayed a real moral compass. Interviewed this week, Felton refused to be drawn into mud-slinging, speaking instead of the “joy” Rowling had brought to millions.

The Daily Mail covers the first Potter franchise star to stand alongside Rowling besides the actors who played Hagrid and Lucius Malfoy in this article: Tom Fenton Praises J. K. Rowling. Academics as a rule — and as the Covid and “transgender” hysteria confirmed mightily — are an unthinking herd of cowards in service to the political left and the dominant narratives of postmodernity. When academics and movie stars have started to publicly side with Rowling contra the Ender Theory Extremists after years of slandering her as a “transphobe,” you know that times have changed.

Let me know when the hysterics in Harry Potter fandom begin to wake from the Confundus Charm they can claim conveniently to have been under for the past thirty months.

Rowling Is an “Alumna” of Edinburgh Academics for Academic Freedom?

If you’re like me, the claim by the EAAF that Rowling was an “alumna” left you scratching your head. “Isn’t Rowling, honorary degrees aside, only a graduate of Wyedean Comprehensive and the University of Exeter?”

I asked Nick Jeffery if the word “alumna” was used differently in the UK. He responded, “I think in UK common usage ‘alumna’ would be fine to describe a former student, whether at degree or not. Rowling gained a Post Graduate Certificate in Education at Moray House, a part of the University of Edinburgh.”

Mystery closed. Thank you, Nick! 

Rowling has a “Commitment to the Values of the Scottish Enlightenment”?

As you can see above, Rowling responded to the EAAF tweet citing the above Telegraph article by saying she stands with those academics who share her commitment to “the values of the Scottish Enlightenment.”

To which Rowling Readers are obliged, I think, to say, “Really?” 

From the Wikipedia article on the “Scottish Enlightenment:”

Sharing the humanist and rational outlook of the Western Enlightenment of the same time period, the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment asserted the importance of human reason combined with a rejection of any authority that could not be justified by reason. In Scotland, the Enlightenment was characterised by a thoroughgoing empiricism and practicality where the chief values were improvement, virtue, and practical benefit for the individual and society as a whole.

Among the fields that rapidly advanced were philosophy, political economy, engineering, architecture, medicine, geology, archaeology, botany and zoology, law, agriculture, chemistry and sociology. Among the Scottish thinkers and scientists of the period were Joseph BlackRobert BurnsWilliam CullenAdam FergusonDavid HumeFrancis HutchesonJames HuttonJohn PlayfairThomas ReidAdam Smith, and Dugald Stewart.

Curiously, Rowling’s favorite writers from that time were in defiant opposition to the empiricism of the Scottish Enlightenment and its consequent materialist “values.” From Austen to the Victorian poets who wrote the epigraphs for Ink Black Heart, theirs is a consensus resistance to “first impressions,” rationalist skepticism, and the assumption that the objective pursuit of truth is superior to the subjective prima facie. See Rodney Delasanta’sHume, Austen, and First Impressionsfor much more of this, as well as Charles Upton’s  What Poets Used to Know and Roger Sworder’s The Romantic Attack on Modern Science.

I wrote that “Really?” is the appropriate response to Rowling’s assuming the cloak of the Scottish philosophes because her discussion of what is “real” in her work — the pivotal scenes of Harry talking with Dumbledore at the noetic King’s Cross, Robin teasing Strike about astrology in Troubled Blood, and the Blue Bunny’s sacrifice at the gates of The City of the Missed — all point to an otherworldly and greater Reality than our visible time and space that is much more akin to that of traditional Christianity, Estecean epistemology and cosmology, and panentheist Platonism than to empiricist materialism working for the Greater Good.

Rowling is one conflicted person in her thinking if she imagines herself as a champion of the Scottish Enlightenment, the heroes of whom were the avant garde of Modernity and the intellectual Mordor that brought us the “transgender” confusion. I’m just going to assume she meant here only that she is on ‘Team Rational’ contra the Gender Theory Extremists and is willing to link arms with others in this cause, so long as they pass her feminist ideological litmus strip tests (Not you, Matt Walsh!).

A fascinating tweet, no? Let me know what you think!


  1. Brian Basore says

    Maybe she’s saying to the Edinburgh Academics, “I’m glad you do, even if I don’t.”

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    I have a sadly insufficiently clear sense of the Scottish tradition, but turning to Gordon Graham’s article, “Scottish Philosophy in the 19th Century”, in the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy online I find such observations as Sir William Hamilton in 1829 looking to “the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense which showed that there are mental phenomena that cannot be interpreted as any form of sensation and that ‘intelligence supposes principles, which, as conditions of its activity, cannot be the results of its operation'”, and James McCosh in The Scottish Philosophy, Biographical, Expository, Critical, from Hutcheson to Hamilton (1874) attending to “the combination of Realism and Theism which underlay the Scottish philosophical enterprise from Hutcheson to Hamilton”. If this is in any sense arguably part of ‘the Scottish Enlightenment’, then I suspect we need more explicit detail from JKR. I wonder where Lewis’s character McPhee in That Hideous Strength might fit into ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ tradition, in good as well as bad ways?

  3. D.L. Dodds,

    Thank you for bringing up the “Common Sense Tradition” in Scottish thought and letters. Allow me to go further and add a link between this – is it really that obscure now in the Isles? I can understand if no one in America has ever heard of it, as it’s one of those traditions that doesn’t seem to have been imported to these shores, even with the influx of Scots immigrants. If that’s the case, then some first (re)introductions are in order. Contrary to any claims of materialism, the Common-Sense approach in Scottish religious thought was close to something I read about in a work of apologetics by Arthur James Balfour. In his book, “Theism and Humanism”, Balfour speaks of “the plain man’s point of view” when it comes to questions of faith and belief. He was speaking of the accumulated wisdom of tradition that ordinary believers, whether in the pews, or in the streets and fields would know of, rely on, and above all, seek to understand as well as their own human lights could permit. Indeed, one of the core tenants of the Common-Sense Tradition is that it insisted on the ability of humans to reach the truth. This was, or could be done through what might also be termed as “plain, Hobbit sense”.

    Here’s where one of the names on the Wikipedia list, and C.S. Lewis’s self-described “Master” come into play. I’d run across the name Thomas Reid once before, in the aftermath of Michael Ward’s “Planet Narnia”. As a result of that paradigm shift text, I’d been looking for any reliable source I could find on the philosophy and theology of Bishop George Berkely. I found it, for what it’s worth, in the work and scholarship of Alexander Campbell Fraser. He’s an academic name that’s slipped through the cracks of time. He’s also the one authority I would point to (outside of C.S. Lewis) for anyone who wants a proper understanding of what Berkeley stood for and meant in all of his writings, and sermons. Hint: turns out it’s not and never has been as far out as his detractors have held, and a good alternate term for Berkeley’s philosophy is that of Spiritual Realism. The real point, though, is that it was while pouring over Fraser’s scholarship that I first encountered the name of Thomas Reid, and his Common Sense.

    Long story short, I’d urge you to trust the extended academic work of Fraser over a digital snippet on a Wiki page. Far from being a materialist, Tom Reid was the closest thing to a Scottish Christian Idealist, like the Bishop of Cloyne. Like Berkely, Reid was a religious Idealist in the same vein as Plato, or the later Coleridge. Furthermore, there is possible proof that Reid’s Idealism influenced a familiar face.

    In his recent study, “Reimagining Apologetics: The Beauty of Faith in a Secular Age”, Justin Ariel Bailey helps probably clear the hidden sentiment behind Rowling’s tweet up when he mentions the influence that Common Sense Theology had on none other than George MacDonald. Bailey writes as follows:

    “We can also see in MacDonald shades of Thomas Reid’s common-sense realism, which was dominant in the Scottish educational system for much of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Reid argued for the reliability of our creaturely faculties: “There are many things which it concerns us to know, for which we can have no other evidence. The Wise Author of nature has planted in the human mind a propensity to rely on this evidence before we can give a reason for doing so.” In MacDonald, Reid’s philosophy takes on a more poetic sensibility; indeed, one of his earliest biographers describes MacDonald as a “common-sense mystic (123)”.

    It may still be possible to claim that a man like Reid is still something like a pure fool of the highest order. This argument can be sustained so long as one rule is agreed on. The critic may slander Reid in as many ways as come to mind. However, whatever invective gets hurled his way, this one mistake must be avoided. It is possible to dismiss Thomas Reid as a bad influence. The one thing he must not be mistaken for, however, is that he is guilty of the crime of being a heretic. Far from being unorthodox, Reid’s genuine offense is that of being ordinary. A genuine heretic is the one who revels in startling contradictions. It is the mere common-sense Christian, meanwhile, who is comfortable with little more than the normative order of things. I think that’s the real explanation behind Rowling’s tweet. I’m going to play Magi’s advocate here, and say this is a case of her asking readers “Are you paying attention”? Joanne McGonagall’s class is in session, and the lesson title is spot the cleverly hidden shout outs to some of the greatest, yet unjustly forgotten thinkers in the history of Scots/English Christianity.

    And let’s face it, most of the Big Names come from the Middle Ages, and most of them from Rome/Italy. Everyone has a passing notice of Dante. Who on earth can remember a name like Thomas Reid? Either way, the case remains as stated. The quotation from Reid that Bailey gives above is one of the starting points for George Berkeley. It’s also one of the key lessons that any reader of Lewis’s “Miracles” will have drummed into them, if they make it past the opening chapters. I think it’s all just Rowling’s way of signaling to close readers where her true intellectual and religious debts lie in the pages of history.

  4. Brian Basore says

    ChrisC, thank you for this. I’ve read books about English History and English Literature that go into this, but who wants to read books about English History? I was lucky to find them.

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says


    Yes, many thanks for this! My groggy wits were introduced to the Scottish “Common Sense Tradition” by Terry Barker, born in England but brought up in Canada, who was active in the Oxford Lewis Society: together we started a George Grant Society to complement the Lewis one, but sadly, unlike the Lewis Society, it did not outlast our time.

    I was just thinking of Lewis’s Miracles and what strikes me as his superb critique there of David Hume – though I have not yet looked it up to reread it.

  6. D.L. Dodds, Prof. Basore,

    Thank you both for these kinds replies (and also apologies for the lateness of mine, as well).

    If I may take things a step further, it gets more interesting when you filter in the actual, historical scope of MacDonald and the Common-Sense strand of Christian thought on the then future of English Fantasy.

    This is something I learned about through the efforts of Prof. Kirsten Jeffrey Johnson. She’s a MacDonald scholar who had an opportunity, not too long ago, to give a brief history lesson in how the modern form of Mythopoeia as we know it came to be. The real surprise of her work is the revelation of just how great of a determining factor was the Scottish influence on what is conventionally believed to be the quintessential English literary mode. It all has to do with the actual knowledge that the populace of the Isles had about the content of their own history and folklore. What I (and apparently MacDonald) was amazed to discover was just how little understanding or interest the Victorians had about the past.

    This is how Johnson describes the sequence of events that lead MacDonald (and her) to this realization:

    “(MacDonald, sic) goes off to university in Aberdeen, is actually passionate about mathematics, physics. That’s really what he wants to become, () a scientist. But his family can’t afford to send him. So, he goes down to London, to do some tutoring. Kind of at loose ends, and somebody says “Well, why don’t you go off to seminary”? But he starts going to the lectures of a man named (Alexander John “A.J.” Scott. This is the crucial bit, the one that might just connect the ACTUAL Scottish Enlightenment to the history of Mythopoeia as the Inklings and Rowling know it, sic).

    “And A.J. Scott is a Scottish minister who has come down to London as a preacher, but was really shocked at how “un-storied” the urban Londonites around him were. We are storied people, and particularly for him, theologically, it was very important that we know our stories. Not just our Bible stories, but our stories all the way through – who we are, etc. There were two universities at that time, Oxford, and Cambridge; that was it. Literature was not taught in the universities, and Scott was discovering that – not only the uneducated people around him, in his church, in his congregation, but also his educated friends – they had no clue who Beowulf was. They’d never read Chaucer. They’d never read Shakespeare. The Arthurian story, medieval stories, people had forgotten those. And so (A.J Scott, sic) become very passionate about “re-storying” London.

    And so, he begins to give lectures down on the docks, to the dockworkers. He gives lectures in the lecturing halls to the upper classes. And starts telling them about “Beowulf”, and about King Alfred translating works into English, so the English could read their own stories. This is a Scot, re-storying the English, and the people love it. MacDonald starts attending these lectures. He decides this is what he wants to do himself”.

    Johnson herself can be seen discussing this subject more in-depth from her interviews for the documentary, “The Fantasy Makers”, which chronicles the efforts of Tolkien, Lewis, and MacDonald. It also has the services of Malcolm Guite, and Michael Ward. The documentary can be seen in full here:

    What I’d like to focus on here, though, is the way in which the Christian Common-Sense Enlightenment as outlined already above, exerted itself on the same system of thought that A.J. Scott passed onto MacDonald. This can be seen most clearly through the work of J. Phillip Newall, who so far remains the single scholar to devote any extensive coverage of Scott, along with his thought and teachings. In his available, online thesis, “A.J. Scott and His Circle”, Newall notes how, in a proposal for a teaching position at the University of Edinburgh, Scott’s sponsor flat-out states that “memories of the ‘high philosophy and imposing eloquence of Dugald Stewart’, the great Scottish philosopher of common sense would be recalled (374)”. The other source for MacDonald’s “Enlightenment” influences comes straight from Kirsten Johnson’s monograph, Rooted In All Its Story. There she notes a hitherto unremarked upon network of acquaintances and influences that MacDonald made or ran across in his formative years:

    “Yet before MacDonald was to meet the radical Alexander John Scott, let alone Erskine or Maurice, he was to spend several years in an electric Aberdeen. He was sixteen when he began his October to Easter terms at Aberdeen, and Erskine, Scott, and Chalmers were all subjects of conversation in the university town, as events escalated up to the Disruption in 1846. MacDonald’s focus in studies, akin to Chalmers, was mathematics and chemistry. The interdisciplinary nature of the Aberdeen program encouraged the young scholar – as had Chalmers – to continue to see the interrelation of science with other subjects. Hindmarsh has made note of the importance of the “Common Sense Realism” philosophy then dominant at the university – again, herein was the emphasis that comprehension of the world was not an exclusive of the academically educated, and that Nature reflects eternal truths (60)”.

    So if you put all these scattered and fragmented pieces together, what you get is roughly the Scots equivalent of the kind of networking and influence sharing that is talked about in Diana Glyer’s “The Company They Keep”. The difference and problem here is that neither MacDonald, nor the Christian Common-Sense Idealism he espoused are household words on the level of Tolkien or Lewis. The result leaves us with a mixed bag. It is now possible, thanks to Fraser, Newall, and Johnson to draw a line of descent from Thomas Reid, to Dugald Stewart, and from there to A.J. Scott, and last to the man and writer a few still regard as “The Father of the Inklings”. This is all well and good. It’s also obscure as hell.

    There’s simply logical no way an immediate majority will ever be aware of all this history that has slipped through the cracks. It would take several generations for this to even begin to make a dent in the scholarly consciousness. Hence, we’re left in confusion about terms such as “The Scottish Enlightenment” because we lack the proper context to understand just what such a word means. The irony in all this is that it really does boil down to something J.K. Rowling wrote in the words of Hermione Granger. “When in doubt, go to the library”. The trouble is that’s easier said than done, especially if the necessary texts are more obscure than the origin of the Sphinx. Still, I can’t and prefer not to shake the conviction that it is MacDonald’s Common-Sense heritage that she is flagging in her tweet.

    Also, for the record, Prof. Johnson now has her own website which can be found here:

    If I had to summarize what her efforts amount to, then it would have to be the same thing that Michael Ward and Holly Ordway have been up to with Lewis and Tolkien respectively. Ward, with his Planetary Thesis, and Ordway’s “Tolkien’s Modern Reading” seem to be reshaping the ground of Inkling studies. They’re going on to prove that neither of the two major Oxford fantasists were anything like, as has been said here before, “Evangelical Dinosaurs”, and instead count as more profound artists and thinkers whose Classical, Medieval, Elizabethan, and Romantic influences shape a great deal of their work. All that Johnson seems to have done is to add MacDonald’s name to this ongoing paradigm shift. It makes for a very interesting time in the history of Inkling studies. Perhaps the most fascinating part to me is Johnson’s assertion that it was the Common Sense Scots who taught the English the art of Mythopoeia.

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says


    Fascinating – many thanks! I see that the Internet Archive has scans of Scott’s Notes of Four Lectures on the Literature and Philosophy of the Middle Ages (1857) and Discourses (1866) – largely things noted down by others attending his lectures!

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