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Second Sight in Early Modern Scotland


This dissertation examines beliefs and practices related to second sight in Scotland, with a particular focus on the period from c. 1600 to c. 1800. An influential strain of historiography has asserted that this period was characterized by “disenchantment,” a process of increasing rationalization and secularization that progressively eradicated superstition. According to conventional wisdom, this process was due to the influence of the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment movement, and the Scientific Revolution. However, this dissertation argues that the persistent relevance of “superstitious” belief systems, such as second sight, within the conversations of reformers, Enlightenment thinkers, and early modern scientists contradicts the theory of linear disenchantment in early modern Scotland. Because the term “second sight” was defined and used in various ways by early modern people, I argue that a broad and inclusive definition is necessary for understanding second sight belief. Second sight was a multivalent concept that encompassed several supernatural phenomena, such as the ability to see visions and spirits, predict the future, and access hidden knowledge. While I claim that accounts of second sight were likely rooted in physiological experiences, I emphasize the significance of culturally specific belief systems to interpreting those experiences. Though second sight was demonized by reformers during the witch trials, some Christian seers managed to reconcile second sight with their own prophetic and visionary traditions. In these ways, the Reformation involved cultural synthesis between pre-existing and reformed systems of belief. Early modern scientists and Enlightenment thinkers also engaged with second sight in order to investigate the relationship between the natural and supernatural. Scientists’ theories about second sight were heavily informed by prevailing beliefs about spirits, demonstrating the significance of religion to scientific research. This dissertation concludes that early modern people developed a variety of theories about the essential nature and causes of second sight, rendering it a malleable concept that was readily incorporated into debates about religion, science, and human knowledge. Far from being subject to disenchantment, second sight maintained relevance and utility across this period as part of a broader matrix of early modern beliefs about spirits, supernatural abilities, and the invisible world.

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