Historical Law-Tracts is one of the earliest contributions to the Scottish Enlightenment project of a historical science of society. Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696–1782), was an influential Scottish judge, a prolific man of letters, and one of the leading figures of the Enlightenment in Scotland, and his goal in this work is to show the study of law as a genuinely scientific inquiry and not a mere collection of facts for the lawyer to memorize. He deployed a large range of ancient, medieval, and early-modern sources to trace the development of law and to explain that development in terms of interactions between principles of human nature and political, economic, and social circumstance. He applied this method in substantial and influential treatments of criminal law and the law of property and also to a diverse range of issues, specifically in Scots law. One of Kames’s principal objectives was to expose and discredit the continuing influence of feudal principles in eighteenth-century Scots law and, as such, Historical Law-Tracts can be read as a manifesto for a modern, commercial, Scotland. The work found an international readership as well, especially in America, where it was read as an object lesson in understanding the role of law in a free society.
Divided into three books, Kames’s Sketches of the History of Man draws together the concerns of many of his earlier works. The first book considers man in the private sphere, while the second explores man in the public sphere. The final book is an account of progress in the sciences of logic, morals, and theology. Throughout the entire work, Kames expounds on his fundamental hypothesis that, at the beginning of the history of the human race, savagery was ubiquitous and that the human story is one of an emergence out of barbarism and toward maturity.
Henry Home, Lord Kames, was the complete “Enlightenment man,” concerned with the full spectrum of human knowledge and its social use. However, as a lawyer and, after 1752, as a judge on the Court of Session in Edinburgh, he made many of his most distinctive contributions through his works on the nature of law and legal development.
The Essays is commonly considered Kames’s most important philosophical work. In the first part, he sets forth the principles and foundations of morality and justice, attacking Hume’s moral skepticism and addressing the controversial issue of the freedom of human will. In the second part, Kames focuses on questions of metaphysics and epistemology to offer a natural theology in which the authority of the external senses is an important basis for belief in the Deity.
Elements of Criticism is Kames’s most influential work. When it first appeared, in 1762, it was the most comprehensive philosophical work on “criticism” in English, and it was published in five editions during Kames’s lifetime and another forty editions over the next century. In America, Elements of Criticism served as a standard text for college students of English.