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James Burnett (1714-99) - Philosopher

He was born on 25th October 1714 on the family estate of Monboddo in Kincardineshire. He was educated at the parish school in Laurencekirk and at King's College, Aberdeen, leaving in 1732 to study law in Edinburgh and at Groeningen between 1733 and 1736. Called to the Scottish Bar in February 1737, Burnett rose steadily through the legal hierarchy. He became Sheriff of Kincardine in 1760 and was made a Lord of Session in 1767, taking the title Lord Monboddo. Edinburgh's social and intellectual life also claimed him: he was a supporter of the theatre, a member of the social and debating club the Select Society, and, through his 'learned suppers', a friend of the leading literati of the period. James Boswell was for many years an especial friend and confidant. Burnett's first work, Of the Origin and Progress of Language, was published in six volumes between 1773 and 1792. When the first volume appeared it caused a sensation because of the author's claims that men in the Nicobar Islands had tails and that the orang-outan was a class of the human species, lacking only speech. The later volumes dealt with the natural history of language, which Monboddo claimed had its origins in necessity and was not a gift of God. His Ancient Metaphysics (1779-99), also in 6 volumes, advanced a general  theory that the sciences and philosophy had to co-exist in harmony for the proper advancement of culture. In volume 4 he returned to his argument that the orang-outan stands at the beginning of man's history. Although his views were attacked in Scotland, particularly by his rival James Beattie of Aberdeen, Burnett enjoyed considerable prestige in London, which he visited once a year, travelling on horseback until he was 80. One of the great learned eccentrics of the Scottish Enlightenment in Edinburgh, he died on 25 May 1799 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Greyfriars' Churchyard.

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