Adam Ferguson - Encyclopedia

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ADAM FERGUSON (1723-1816), Scottish philosopher and historian, was born on the 20th of June 1723, at Logierait, Perthshire. He was educated at Perth grammar school and the university of St Andrews. In 1745, owing to his knowledge of Gaelic, he was appointed deputy chaplain of the 43rd (afterwards the 42nd) regiment (the Black Watch), the licence to preach being granted him by special dispensation, although he had not completed the required six years of theological study. At the battle of Fontenoy (1745) Ferguson fought in the ranks throughout the day, and refused to leave the field, though ordered to do so by his colonel. He continued attached to the regiment till 1 754, when, disappointed at not obtaining a living, he abandoned the clerical profession and resolved to devote himself to literary pursuits. In January 1757 he succeeded David Hume as librarian to the faculty of advocates, but soon relinquished this office on becoming tutor in the family of Lord Bute.

In 1759 Ferguson was appointed professor of natural philosophy in the university of Edinburgh, and in 1764 was transferred to the chair of "pneumatics" (mental philosophy) "and moral philosophy." In 1767, against Hume's advice, he published his Essay on the History of Civil Society, which was well received and translated into several European languages. In 1776 appeared his (anonymous) pamphlet on the American revolution in opposition to Dr Price's Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, in which he sympathized with the views of the British legislature. In 1778 Ferguson was appointed secretary to the commission which endeavoured, but without success, to negotiate an arrangement with the revolted colonies. In 1783 appeared his History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic; it was very popular, and went through several editions. Ferguson was led to undertake this work from a conviction that the history of the Romans during the period of their greatness was a practical illustration of those ethical and political doctrines which were the object of his special study. The history is written in an agreeable style and a spirit of impartiality, and gives evidence of a conscientious use of authorities. The influence of the author's military experience shows itself in certain portions of the narrative. Finding himself unequal to the labour of teaching, he resigned his professorship in 1785, and devoted himself to the revision of his lectures, which he published (1792) under the title of Principles of Moral and Political Science. When in his seventieth year, Ferguson, intending to prepare a new edition of the history, visited Italy and some of the principal cities of Europe, where he was received with honour by learned societies. From 1795 he resided successively at the old castle of Neidpath near Peebles, at Hallyards on Manor Water and at St Andrews, where he died on the 22nd of February 1816.

In his ethical system Ferguson treats man throughout as a social being, and illustrates his doctrines by political examples. As a believer in the progression of the human race, he placed the principle of moral approbation in the attainment of perfection. His speculations were carefully criticized by Cousin (see his Cours d'histoire de la philosophie morale au dix-huitieme siecle, pt. ii., 1839-1840): - "We find in his method the wisdom and circumspection of the Scottish school, with something more masculine and decisive in the results. The principle of perfection is a new one, at once more rational and comprehensive than benevolence and sympathy, which in our view places Ferguson as a moralist above all his predecessors." By this principle Ferguson endeavours to reconcile all moral systems. With Hobbes and Hume he admits the power of self-interest or utility, and makes it enter into morals as the law of self-preservation. Hutcheson's theory of universal benevolence and Smith's idea of sympathy he combines under the law of society. But, as these laws are the means rather than the end of human destiny, they are subordinate to a supreme end, and this supreme end is perfection. In the political part of his system Ferguson follows Montesquieu, and pleads the cause of well-regulated liberty and free government. His contemporaries, with the exception of Hume, regarded his writings as of great importance; in point of fact they are superficial. The facility of their style and the frequent occurrence of would-be weighty epigrams blinded his critics to the fact that, in spite of his recognition of the importance of observation, he made no real contribution to political theory (see Sir Leslie Stephen, English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, x. 89-90).

The chief authority for Ferguson's life is the Biographical Sketch by John Small 0864); see also Public Characters (1799-1800); Gentleman's Magazine, i. (1816 supp.); W. R. Chambers's Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen; memoir by Principal Lee in early editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica; J. McCosh, The Scottish Philosophy (1875); articles in Dictionary of National Biography and Edinburgh Review (January 1867); Lord Henry Cockburn, Memorials of his Time (1856).

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