The Speculative Society

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The Speculative Society is a Scottish Enlightenment society dedicated to public speaking and literary composition, founded in 1764.[1] It was mainly, but not exclusively, an Edinburgh University student organisation. The formal purpose of the Society is as a place for social interchange and for practising of professional competency in rhetoric, argument, and the presentation of papers among fellow members. While continuing to meet in its rooms in the University's Old College, it has no formal links to the University.


The founding group, in November 1764, consisted of John Bonar, the younger, John Bruce, William Creech, Henry Mackenzie, and a Mr Belches of Invermay. They were encouraged by William Robertson.[2][3]

A split occurred in the Society in 1794, when Francis Jeffrey and Walter Scott urged the inclusion of contemporary politics in the scope of permitted debating topics.[4] At this period, of political repression, the Society was a venue appreciated by young Whigs.[5] They included Henry Brougham and Francis Horner.[6]

Halls in Old College[edit]

The Society continues to meet in the rooms set aside for it when Edinburgh University's Old College was built.[7] The A-listed rooms were designed by Robert Adam and fitted out by William Henry Playfair.[8]


The Edinburgh Review (second series) was founded in 1802 by a group of essayists who knew each other first in the milieu of the Speculative Society.[9]

The University of Cambridge had a Speculative Society in the early years of the 19th century; it was one of the clubs that merged to form the Cambridge Union Society.[10] Around 1825 Utilitarians and Owenites in London engaged in debates, and a formal Debating Society consciously modelled on the Speculative Society of Edinburgh was set up by John Stuart Mill. It was ambitious, but proved short-lived.[11]


Past members of the Speculative Society of Edinburgh include:


  1. ^ Alex Benchimol (10 April 2010). Intellectual Politics and Cultural Conflict in the Romantic Period: Scottish Whigs, English Radicals and the Making of the British Public Sphere. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 56. ISBN 978-0-7546-6446-8. Retrieved 9 December 2012. 
  2. ^ Macleod, Emma Vincent. "Bonar, John". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/2817.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. ^ Fry, Michael. "Bruce, John". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/3739.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ Marvin B. Becker (1994). The Emergence of Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century: A Privileged Moment in the History of England, Scotland, and France. Indiana University Press. p. 149 note 15. ISBN 978-0-253-31129-0. Retrieved 9 December 2012. 
  5. ^ Boyd Hilton (16 February 2006). A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? : England 1783-1846: England 1783-1846. Oxford University Press. p. 349. ISBN 978-0-19-160682-3. Retrieved 9 December 2012. 
  6. ^ Thorne, Roland. "Horner, Francis". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/13802.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  7. ^ a b c d e f g The history of the Speculative society, 1764-1904, Speculative Society of Edinburgh, Edinburgh 1905
  8. ^ "Edinburgh, South Bridge, University Of Edinburgh, Old College, Rooms Of The Speculative Society - Canmore". 
  9. ^ Barton Swaim (31 March 2009). Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere, 1802-1834. Associated University Presse. p. 94. ISBN 978-0-8387-5716-1. Retrieved 9 December 2012. 
  10. ^ Ward, W. R. "Sumner, Charles Richard". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/26784.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  11. ^ Bruce Mazlish (1 November 1988). James and John Stuart Mill: Father and Son in the 19th Century. Transaction Publishers. p. 200. ISBN 978-0-88738-727-2. Retrieved 9 December 2012. 
  12. ^