Monboddo, James Burnett, Lord
MONBODDO, JAMES BURNETT, LORD (1714-1799), Scottish judge and anthropologist, was born in 1714 at Monboddo in Kincardineshire. He studied at Aberdeen, and, after passing his law examinations in Edinburgh, he quickly took a leading position at the Scottish bar, being made a Lord of Session in 1767 with the title of Lord Monboddo. Many of his eccentricities, both of conduct and opinion, appear less remarkable to us than they did to his contemporaries; moreover, he seems to have heightened the impression of them by his humorous sallies in their defence. He may have had other reasons than the practice of the ancients for dining late and performing his journeys on horseback instead of in a carriage. He is remembered more particularly for his writings on human origins. In his Antient Metaphysics (1770-1799), Monboddo conceived man as gradually elevating himself from an animal condition, in which his mind is immersed in matter, to a state in which mind acts independently of body. In his equally voluminous work, The Origin and Progress of Language (1773), he brought man under the same species as the orang-outang. He traced the gradual elevation of man to the social state, which he conceived as a natural process determined by " the necessities of human life." He looked on language (which is not " natural " to man in the sense of being necessary to his self-preservation) as a consequence of his social state. His views about the origin of society and language and the faculties by which man is distinguished from the brutes have many curious points of contact with Darwinism and neo-Kantianism. His idea of studying man as one of the animals, and of collecting facts about savage tribes to throw light on the problems of civilization, bring him into contact with the one, and his intimate knowledge of Greek philosophy with the other. In both respects Monboddo was far in advance of his neighbours. His studied abstinence from fine writing frcm " the rhetorical and poetical style fashionable among writers of the present day " on such subjects as he handled confirmed the idea of his contemporaries that he was only an eccentric concocter of supremely absurd paradoxes. He died on the 26th of May 1799.
Boswell's Life of Johnson gives an account of the lexicographer's visit to Burnett at Monboddo, and is full of references to the natural contemporary view of a man who thought that the human race could be descended from monkeys.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)