The Poirot of Economics: William Robert Scott

Composite of Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith (c) Irish Philosophy (CC)

William Robert Scott’s academic reputation rests on his economic history, particularly his mammoth three-volume work, The Constitution and Finance of English, Scottish and Irish Joint-Stock Companies (1910-12). However, before and after that work, William Robert Scott wrote on the history of philosophy, particularly on Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith.

Scott was born in Omagh Co. Tyrone on 31st August 1868, to a family of millers and landowners descended from a Robert Scott (1698-1777) who settled in Ireland in the 1720s. Educated in Belfast and Rathfarnham in Dublin, Scott then studied in Trinity College Dublin, graduating BA (1889), MA (1891) and DLitt (1902). He was also a freelance teacher and writer in Dublin until his move to the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

There he became a Research Fellow, graduating DPhil (1900), acting as assistant to the Professor of Moral Philosophy (1896-1901) and as a lecturer in Political Economy (1899-1915). In 1915 he was appointed Adam Smith Professor of Political Economy in the University of Glasgow, remaining there until his death. Throughout his time in Scotland, Scott was also been involved in numerous committees. Made chairman of the mill in Omagh in 1897, he continued to supervise the family business in Tyrone. No wonder that on his death at University Gardens, Glasgow on 3rd April 1940, his university supervisor described Scott as “quite indefatigable”.

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Truth above all things: G. G. Stokes

George Gabriel Stokes is one of three great mathematicians associated with Ireland in the 19th century. If Boole translated classical logic into algebra, while Rowan Hamilton used metaphysics as an inspiration for mathematics, Stokes took a third path. His mathematics was inspired by real life problems. As Lord Kelvin wrote in Stokes’ obituary, (memoirs, p. 317)

In pure mathematics he was recognised as a fruitful worker by the whole scientific world. But with Stokes, mathematics was the servant and assistant, not the master. His guiding star was natural philosophy. Sound, light, radiant heat, chemistry, were his fields of labour

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Borne to Dialectics

Ireland may claim the distinction of having produced three philosophers, each of whom formed an epoch in the history of thought. Johannes Scotus Eriugena, the founder of the Scholastic system—— Hutcheson, the father of the modern School of Speculative Philosophy in Scotland—— and Berkeley, the first who explicitly maintained a Theory of Absolute Idealism—— were all men of Irish birth, and were marked, in a greater or less degree, by the peculiar characteristics of Irish genius.

It has frequently been observed that the genius of the Irish people is naturally borne to dialectics. The author of Hudibras, indeed, selects ‘the Wild Irish’ as the types of that mystic learning and occult philosophy that he ridicules in Ralpho. Nor was this the mere fancy of the poet. As early as the time of Charles the Bold, the contemporary chronicler speaks of the multitude of philosophers, who, like Scotus, crossed the sea from Ireland. At a later period, Bayle speaks of the Hiberians as renouned for able logicians and metaphysicians; and Stewart describes them as distinguished in all the Continental Universities for their proficiency in the scholastic logic. And the facts justify the statement […]

The Irish logician, in fact, was as ubiquitous as the Irish soldier of fortune.

The opening sentences of The veil of Isis: a series of essays on idealism (1872) by Thomas E. Webb (1885 edition available on As well as the (Catholic) scholastics, Webb goes on to praise Trinity College Dublin and those associated with it such as Berkeley, Browne, Burke, King and Dodwell, and closes with a nod to Lecky. Born in Cornwall on 8th May 1821, he clearly became a strong advocate of both Trinity College Dublin and Irish philosophy.

Hudibras is a mock heroic poem on the Civil War by Samuel Butler. Charles the Bold is probably a typo for Charles the Bald, Bayle was a 17th century French philosopher and Stewart probably the Scottish philosopher Dugald Stewart.