George Turnbull (1698-1748)

George Turnbull was born on 11 July 1698, in Alloa, Scotland, where his father was minister. He began his studies at the University of Edinburgh 1711, but for a variety of reasons did not graduate until ten years later. While in Edinburgh, Turnbull was an active member of the Rankenian Club, founded in 1716 or 1717 by a group of young students dedicated to the writings of the English philosopher Shaftesbury, whose ideas were one of the sources from which the Scottish Enlightenment sprang.

After graduating with a Master of Arts degree from Edinburgh in 1721, Turnbull was appointed regent at Marischal College, Aberdeen, where Thomas Reid was among his students. Reid’s own work was immensely influential, and in it the influence of Turnbull can clearly be detected. Indeed, it is principally as Reid’s teacher that Turnbull is known nowadays. Yet his writings were importantly innovative in their own right, and while Regent at Marischal he introduced the study of Shaftesbury into the moral philosophy curriculum. He was also the first Scottish moralist to call for the experimental method in the investigation of morals, and to this end developed the analogy between moral inquiry and the natural sciences. This intellectual strategy became the basic methodological principle of Scottish philosophy in the 18th century, and was taken up much more famously, but considerably later, by David Hume, in the preface to his Treatise of Human Nature.

It has sometimes been suggested that George Turnbull owed his ideas to Francis Hutcheson rather than being a significant thinker in his own right. But in fact, while teaching at Aberdeen, he drew out the implications of Shaftesbury’s thought at the same time as Hutcheson was doing the same in Glasgow.

Though a disagreement with the Principal of Marischal College led him to resign his post in 1727, Turnbull was highly successful in the intellectual influence he exercised on both students and fellow academics there, and this is reflected in the fact that on his departure he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws, the first time the college had ever awarded such a degree. Thereafter, and in keeping with a certain restlessness that marked his life, he worked as a tutor accompanying young aristocrats on their continental grand tours, providing the instruction that would their tours educational, and not merely recreational. At the same time he continued to study and write on the subjects he had taught at Marischal.

In 1739 George Turnbull was ordained into the Anglican Church and over the next few years published several major books that reflected his dual interest in philosophy and education and his remarkable capacity for synthesizing diverse subjects. His Principles of Moral and Christian Philosophy was published in two large volumes in 1740, the same year he published A Treatise on Ancient Painting, and his Observations upon Liberal Education appeared in 1742, the year that he became a Rector of a small Irish parish in 1742. He died on a trip to the Netherlands in 1748 at the age of 50.

Gordon Graham, Princeton Theological Seminary