James Burnett, Lord Monboddo

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Lord Monboddo

James Burnett, Lord Monboddo (baptised 25 October 1714, died 26 May 1799) was a Scottish judge, scholar of linguistic evolution, philosopher and deist. He is most famous today as a founder of modern comparative historical linguistics. Monboddo was one of a number of scholars involved at the time in development of early concepts of evolution.


  • Though I think that man has from nature the capacity of living, either by prey, or upon the fruits of the earth; it appears to me, that by nature, and in his original state, he is a frugivorous animal, and that he only becomes an animal of prey by acquired habit.
    • Of the Origin and Progress of Language (Edinburgh and London: J. Balfour and T. Cadell, 2nd ed., 1774), Vol. I, Book II, Ch. II, pp. 224-225.
  • As to Duration, I still think it is absolutely impossible to conceive it without something that exists, and continues to exist, i.e. to endure. But how it should be a property of the thing existing is to me inconceivable. One thing... is absolutely certain, viz. that if eternal Duration be a property of the Supreme Being, Duration limited must be a property of inferior beings; so that we have here some common property.
    I find you agree with Dr Clarke, in considering Time and Duration as the same. But this is an error that Dr Clarke has fallen into, by not being learned in the Ancient Metaphysics; for there he would have learned that time is only the measure of motion. It therefore could not exist, but with the material world; so that, if we could suppose nothing existing but the Supreme Mind, which is immoveable, there would in that case be Duration, or αίών,—as the Greek Philosophers call it—but not χρόνος, or Time. And the Doctor should not have rejected the common distinction, made by all Philosophers and Divines before him, betwixt Time and Eternity, without assigning better reasons than he has done.

Quotes about Lord Monboddo[edit]

  • My lord and Dr Johnson disputed a little, whether the savage or the London shopkeeper had the best existence; his lordship, as usual, preferring the savage.
    • James Boswell, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1785), 21 August 1773.
  • It may be safely asserted, and yet without implying any direct participation in the Monboddo doctrine touching the probability of the human race having once been monkeys, that men do play very strange and extraordinary tricks.
  • The rise of every man he loved to trace,
    Up to the very pod O!
    And, in baboons, our parent race
    Was found by old Monboddo.
    Their A, B, C, he made them speak,
    And learn their qui, quæ, quod, O!
    Till Hebrew, Latin, Welsh, and Greek
    They knew as well's Monboddo!
    • Ballad in Blackwood's Magazine referring to the originator of the monkey theory, Lord Monboddo; reported in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), pp. 241-242.

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