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James Frederick Ferrier
Chapter 5 - Development of Scottish Philosophy, The Old and the New, Ferrier as a Correspondent

IT is probably in the main a wise rule for defeated candidates to keep silence about the cause of their defeat. But every rule has its exception, and there are times in which we honour a man none the less because —contrary to the dictates of worldly wisdom—he gives voice to the sense of injustice that is rankling in his mind. Ferrier had been disappointed in 1852 in not obtaining the Chair of Moral Philosophy for which he was a candidate; but then he had not published the work which has made his name famous, and his claims were therefore not what afterwards they became. But when in 1856, after the Institutes had been two years before the public, and just after the book had reached a second edition, another defeat followed on the first, Ferrier ascribed the result to the opposition to, and misrepresentation of, his system, and claimed with some degree of justice that it was not his merits that were taken into account, but the supposed orthodoxy, or want of orthodoxy, of his views. For this reason he issued a 'Statement' in pamphlet form, entitled Scottish Philosophy, the Old and the New, dealing with the matter at length.

In Ferrier's view, a serious crisis had been arrived at in the history of the University of Edinburgh, and one which might lead to yet further evil were not something done to place matters on a better footing. Had the Town Council, the electing body, been affected simply by personal or sectarian feelings, it would not so much have mattered; but when Ferrier was forced to the conclusion that what they did must end in the curtailment of all liberty in regard to philosophical opinion, so far as the University was concerned, he felt the time had come to speak. For a quarter of a century he had devoted the best part of his life and energies to the study of philosophy, and he held he had a duty to discharge to it as one of the public instructors of the land. What cause, he asked, had a body like the Council to say originality was to be proscribed and independence utterly forbidden? Through their liberalism tests had been practically abolished: was another test, far more exacting than the last, to be substituted in their place? A candidate for a philosopher's chair need not be a believer in Christ or a member of the Established Church; but he must, it would appear, believe in Dr. Reid and the Hamiltonian system of philosophy.

The 'common-sense' school, against which Ferrier's attacks were mainly directed, too often found its satisfaction in commonplace statements of obvious facts, and we cannot wonder that Ferrier should ask why Scottish students should be required to pay for 'bottled air' while the whole atmosphere is 'floating with liquid balm that could be had for nothing?'—a question, indeed, which cannot fail to strike whoever tries to wade through certain tedious dissertations of the time, all expressing truths which seem incontrovertible in their nature, but all of which are also inexpressibly uninteresting. Philosophy to Ferrier is not the elementary science that it would appear from these discourses: loose ways of thinking which we ordinarily adopt must, he considers, be rectified and not confirmed. And yet he disclaims the accusation that he has conjured with 'the portentous name of Hegel,' or derived his system from German soil. Hegel, he constantly confesses, is frequently to him inexplicable, and his system is Scottish to the core.

A warm debt of gratitude to Hamilton, Ferrier, it is true, acknowledges even while he differs from his views —a debt to one whose 'soul could travel on eagles' wings,' and from whom he had learned so much—whom, indeed, he had loved so warmly. Hamilton had not agreed with Ferrier; he had thought him wrong, and told him so, and Ferrier was the last to resent this action, or think the less of him for not recanting at his word the conclusions of a lifetime's labour. Provocation, the younger man acknowledges, he had often given him, and 'never was such rough provocation retaliated with such gentle spleen.'

But what most roused Ferrier's ire was, not the criticisms of men like Hamilton, but such as were contained in a pamphlet published by the Rev. Mr. Cairns of Berwick, afterwards Principal Cairns of the United Presbyterian College—a pamphlet which he believed had biassed the judgment of the electors in making their decision. We now know that indirectly they had requested Mr. Cairns's advice, and he, considering that orthodoxy was being seriously threatened by German rationalistic views, had formulated his indictment against Ferrier in the strongest possible terms. He believed that in Ferrier's writings there was an attempt to substitute formal demonstration of real existence for 'belief,' thereby making faith of no effect; also that he denied the separate existence of the material world and the mind, and that (and probably this is the most serious count in the charge) the substantiality of the mind was subverted, and consequently belief in personal identity rendered impossible. He further said that by Ferrier absolute existence is reduced to a mere relation, and finally, that his conception of a Deity is inadequate, and metaphysics and natural theology are divorced.

We cannot, of course, deal in detail with Ferrier's energetic repudiation of the accusation brought so specifically against him. The heat with which he wrote seems scarcely justified now that we look back on it from the standpoint of more than forty years ahead. But we do not realise how much such accusations meant at the time at which they were made—how they affected not a man's personal advancement only, but also the opinion in which he was held by those for whose opinion he cared the most. The greater toleration of the present day may mean corresponding lack of zeal or interest, but surely it also means a recognition of the fact that men may choose their own methods in the search for truth without thereby endangering the object held in view. Mr. Cairns's attack—without intention, for he was an honourable man and able scholar—was unjust. Ferrier does not claim to prove existence—he accepts it, and only reasons as to what it is; as to the material world, he acknowledges not a mere material world, but one along with which intelligence is and must be known; the separate existence of mind he likewise denies only in so far as to assert that mind without thought is nonsense. The substantiality of the mind he maintains as the one great permanent existence amid all fluctuations and contingencies, and without personal identity, he tells us, there can be no continued consciousness amid the changes of the unfluctuating existence called the 'I '—though in this regard one feels that something is left to say in criticism, from the orthodox point of view. Absolute existence is indeed reduced into relations, but into relations together constituting the truth, if contradictory in themselves; that is, a concrete, as distinguished from an abstract truth. As to the final accusation of the insufficiency of Ferrier's view of the Deity, it is true he states that the Deity is not independent of His creative powers, revelation and manifestation; but surely this is a worthier conception than the old one of the Unknown God, which tells us to worship we know not what.

The pity is that in this publication, and another on very similar lines,' Ferrier allowed himself to turn from philosophical to personal criticism, and to say what he must afterwards have regretted. In the second edition of his first pamphlet these references were modified, and in any case they must be ascribed to the quick temper with which he was naturally endowed, and which led him to express his feelings more strongly than he should, rather than to deliberate judgment. No one was more sensible than he of the danger to which he was subject of allowing himself to be carried off his feet in the heat of argument. This is very clearly shown by a letter to a friend quoted in the Remains: 'One thing I would recommend, not to be too sharp in your criticism of others. No one has committed this fault oftener, or is more disposed to commit it than myself; but I am certain that it is not pleasing to the reader, and after an interval it is displeasing to oneself. In the heat and hurry of writing a lecture I often hit a brother philosopher as I think cleverly enough, but on coming to it coolly next year I very seldom repeat the passage.' An admission and acknowledgment which does a proud man like Ferrier credit.

One cannot help speculating on the effect of the mass of criticism and counter-criticism (for there were others who took up the cudgels on either side, once the controversy was fairly started) upon the unfortunate Town Councillors of Edinburgh, to whom they were directed: one would imagine them to wish their powers curtailed if they were to involve their mastering several conflicting theories of existence, and forming a just judgment regarding their respective merits. The exercise of patronage is always a difficult and thankless task, but surely in no case could it have been more difficult than in this, and we can hardly wonder now that the electors simply took the advice of those they deemed most worthy to bestow it; certainly the candidate finally selected was one who did everything in the occupation of his chair to disarm the criticism then brought to bear upon the appointment. In cooler moments probably none would have been readier to admit this than was Ferrier; but when he wrote he was smarting under the sense of having failed to receive a fair consideration of his claims, and he undoubtedly spoke more strongly than the case required.

After this controversy was over, Ferrier's interest in polemical philosophy in great degree waned; and in the quiet of the old University town of St. Andrews—the town which provides so rich a fund of historic interest combined with the academic calm of University life —Ferrier passed the remainder of his days working at his favourite subjects. Sometimes these were varied by incursions into literature, in which his interest grew ever keener; and economics, which was one of the subjects he was bound to teach. His life was uneventful; it was varied little by expeditions into the outer world, much as these would have been appreciated by his friends. His whole interest was centred in his work and in the University in which he taught, and whose well-being was so dear to him. Of his letters, few, unfortunately, have been preserved; and this is the more unfortunate that he had the gift, now comparatively so rare, of expressing himself with ease, and in bright, well-chosen language. Of his correspondents one only seems to have preserved the letters written to him, Mr. George Makgill of Kern- back, a neighbouring laird in Fife and advocate in Edinburgh, whose similarity in tastes drew him towards the St. Andrews Philosophy Professor.

Of these letters there are some of sufficient interest to bear quotation. One of the first is written in October 181 from St Andrews, and plunges into the deepest topics without much preface. Ferrier says :-

What is the Beginning of Philosophy? Philosophy must have have the same Beginning that all other things have, otherwise there would be something peculiar or anomalous or sectarian in its origin, which would destroy its claims to genuineness and catholicity. What, then, is the Beginning of all things and consequently the Beginning of Philosophy?


'Want is the Beginning of Philosophy because it is the Beginning of all things. Is the Beginning of Philosophy a bodily want? No. Why not? Because nothing that may be given to the Body has any effect in appeasing the want. The Beginning of Philosophy, then, must be an intellectual want—a Hunger of the Soul.

'But all wants have their objects in which they seek and find their gratification. What then is the object of the hunger of the soul?


'Philosophy is a Hunger of the Soul after Knowledge. What is Knowledge ?—reduced through various intermediate stages to question, what is the common and essential quality in all knowledge—the quality which makes knowledge knowledge? Answer approached by raising question : What is the essential quality in all food—the quality which makes food food? This is obviously its physically nutritive quality. Whatever has the nutritive property is food; whatever has it not is not food, however like excellent beef and mutton it may be. So in regard to knowledge, its common and essential quality—the quality in virtue of which knowledge is knowledge—is its nutritive quality. Whatever nourishes and satisfies the mind is knowledge, as whatever nourishes and satisfies the body is food. The intellectually nutritive Property in knowledge is the common and essential property in knowledge. What is the nutritive quality in knowledge? Answer (without beating about the bush)—TRUTH.

'What is TRUTH? Answer—Truth is whatever is supported by Evidence.

'What is EVIDENCE? Evidence is whatever is supported by Experience. What is EXPERIENCE? Here we stop; we can only divide Experience into its kinds, which are two, Experience of Fad and Experience of Pure Reason. Observe the maneuvre in the last line by which you knaves of the anti-metaphysical school are outwitted. You oppose Pure Reason to Experience, and philosophers generally assent to the distinction. This at once gives your school the advantage, for the world will always cleave to experience in preference to anything else, leaving us metaphysicians, who are supposed to abandon experience, hanging as it were in baskets in the clouds. But I do not abandon experience as the ultimate foundation of all knowledge; only I maintain that there are two kinds of experience, both of which are equally experience, the experience of Fact and the experience of Pure Reason. You are thus deprived of your advantage. I am as much a man of experience as you are.'

Evidently it had been a question with Ferrier whether he should use the expression Experience, so well known to us now, or substitute for it Consciousness, which, as a matter of fact, he afterwards did: 'Why is it so grievous and fatal an error to confound Experience and Consciousness? Is not a man's experience the whole developed contents of his consciousness? I cannot see how this can be denied. And therefore, before you wrote, I was swilkering (and am so still) whether I should not make consciousness the basis of the whole superstructure—the raw material of the article which in its finished state is knowledge. After all, the dispute, I suspect, is mainly verbal.'

There are many evidences in these letters that Ferrier was not neglecting German Philosophy, for taking Experience as his basis he shows how it may be divided into Wesen (an sick), Seyn (fur sick), and the Begriff (anundfürsick) on the lines of German metaphysics. As to the 'Common-Sense' Philosophy, he expresses himself in no measured terms: 'I am glad we agree in opinion as to the merits of the Common- Sense Philosophy. Considered in its details and accessories, it certainly contains many good things ; but, viewed as a whole and in essentialibus, it is about the greatest humbug that ever was palmed off upon an unwary world. As an instance among many which might be adduced, of the ambiguity of the word, and of the vacillation of the members of this school, it may be remarked that while Reid made the essence of commonsense to consist in this, that its judgments are not conclusions obtained by ratiocination (Works, Sir W. Hamilton's edition, P. 425), Stewart, on the contrary, holds that these judgments are "the result of a train of reasoning so rapid as to escape notice" (Elements, vol. ii. P. 103). Sir \V.'s one hundred and six witnesses are a most conglomerate set, and a little cross-examination would try their mettle severely.'

The most important part of Ferrier's system was his working out of the 'Theory of Ignorance,' in which, indeed, he might congratulate himself in having in great measure broken open new ground. He says of it: 'Hurrah, pija, I have discovered the Law of ignorance—and if I had a hecatomb of kain hens at my command I would sacrifice them instanter to the propitious patron of metaphysics. Look you here. The Law of Knowledge is this, that, in order to know any one thing we must always know two things; hoc cum alio —object plus subject - thing + me. This is the unit of knowledge. Analogously, only inversely, in order to be ignorant of any one thing we must be ignorant of two things - hujus cum alio—object plus subject - thing + me. This is the unit of ignorance.' Apparently, in spite of full explanation of his newly-discovered view, Ferrier's correspondent had failed to take it in, and consequently he gently rails at him for 'sticking at the axiom,' and wishes him to help him to a name for what he calls the 'Agnoiology' for want of something better. He goes on: 'I take it that I have caught you in my net, and that wallop about as you will I shall land you at last. I have now little fear that I shall succeed in convincing you, or at anyrate less hardened sinners, that the knowledge of object-subject is a self-contradiction, and that therefore object-subject, or matter jter se, is not a thing of which we can with any sense or propriety be said to be ignorant. Be this as it may, you must at anyrate recognise in this doctrine a very great novelty in philosophy. The more incogitable a thing becomes, the more ignorant of it do we become--that is the natural supposition. Is it not then a bold and original stroke to show that when a thing passes into absolute incogitability we cease that instant to be ignorant of it? I believe that doctrine to be right and true, but I am certain that, obvious as it is, it has been nowhere anticipated or even hinted at in the bygone career of speculation. I claim this as my discovery. In the doctrine of Ignorance I believe that I have absolutely no precursor. What think you?'

Nr. Makgill had accused Ferrier of anthropomorphism in his system, and he replies as follows :-' You cannot charge me with anthropomorphism without being guilty of it yourself. Don't you see that "the Beyond" all human thought and knowledge is itself a category of human thought? There is much naiveté in the procedure of you cautious gentry who would keep scrupulously within the length of your tether: as if the conception of a without that tether was not a mode of thinking. 'Will you tell me why you and Kant and others don't make existence a category of human thought? This has always puzzled me.

'Surely the man who made extension and time mere forms of human knowledge need have made no bones of existence. Meanwhile, as the post is just starting, I beg you to consider this, that the anthropomorphist and the anti-anthropornorphists are both of necessity anthropornorphists, and for my part I maintain that the anti-man is the bigger anthropomorphist of the two.' This criticism of the 'Beyond' and its unknowableness, while yet it was acknowledged, is as much to the point in the present day as it was in those, and its statement brings forcibly before our minds the truth of Goethe's well- known saying: ' Der Mensclz begrezft nienzals wie anthropornorphisclz er 1st.'

The doctrine of Ignorance, so essential to Ferrier's system, he found it hard to make clear to others :-' I am astonished at your not seeing the use, indeed the absolute necessity, of a true doctrine of ignorance. This blindness of yours shows me what I may expect from the public; and how careful I must be, if I would go down at all, to render myself perfectly clear and explicit. Don't you see that a correct doctrine of ignorance is necessary for two reasons—first, on account of the false doctrine of ignorance universally prevalent, one which has hitherto rendered, and must ever render, anything like a scientific ontology impossible; and, secondly, because this correct theory of ignorance follows inevitably from my doctrine of knowledge? This, which I consider a very strong recommendation, an indispensable condition of the theory of ignorance, is the very ground on which you object to it. Surely you would not have me establish a doctrine of ignorance which was not consistent with my doctrine of knowledge. Surely I am entitled to deduce all that is logically deducible from my principles. Your meaning I presume is that my doctrine of ignorance flows so manifestly from my doctrine of knowledge that it is unnecessary to develop and parade it. There I differ from you. It flows inevitably, but I cannot think that it flows obviously. Else why was it never hit upon until now? . . . Don't tell me, then, that my conclusions that matter ter se, Ding an sic/I, is what it is impossible for us to be ignorant of, just because it is absolutely unknowable (and for no other reason). Don't tell me that this conclusion is so obvious as not to require to be put down in black and white, when we find Kant and every other philosopher drawing, but most erroneously, the directly opposite conclusion from the same premises. Matter per Se, Ding an sic/i, was of all things that of which we were most ignorant!! and the ruin of metaphysics was the consequence of their infatuated blindness. Your objection, then, to my doctrine of ignorance, viz., that it is fixed in the very fixing of the doctrine of knowledge, and therefore does not require explication or elucidation, I cannot regard as a good objection. It is true that the one of these fixes the other; but it requires some amount of explanation and demonstration to make this palpable to the understandings even of the most acute, and I am not sure that even you (yes, put on your best pair of spectacles, you will need them) yet see how impossible it is for us to be ignorant of matter per se, or of anything which is absolutely unknowable.'

This matter of the Ding an sic/i Ferrier felt to be the crucial point in his system: 'You talk glibly of CC existence per se," as maids of fifteen do of puppy dogs. This shows that, like a carpet knight, you have never smelt the real smoke of metaphysical battle, but at most have taken part in the sham fights and listened to the shotless popguns of the martinet of Königsberg. You will find existence per se a tougher customer than you imagine.'

As to the Institutes, then on the verge of publication, the author says: 'I am inclined to follow your advice, so far, in regard to the title of the work, and to call it the "Theory of Knowing and Being," leaving out ignorance. But why an introduction to metaphysics? If this be an introduction to metaphysics, pray, Mr. Pundit, what and where are metaphysics themselves? No, sir, it shall be called a text-book of metaphysics, meaning thereby, that it is a complete body (and soul) of metaphysics. You are an uncommonly modest fellow in so far as the protestations of your friends are concerned!'

This correspondence appears to have continued regularly for some years, and to have dealt almost entirely with metaphysical and economic subjects—the subjects which were constantly in Ferrier's mind, as he taught them in the University and tried to work them out in his study. Doubtless it was of the greatest use to him to be able to write about them as he would, had opportunity served, have spoken; and this opportunity was afforded by his friendship with his correspondent, whose interest in philosophy was keen, and whose critical faculties were exceptionally acute, although he never accomplished any original work on philosophical lines.

Of other letters few have been preserved. Absence from home did not make a reason for writing, for Ferrier's journeyings were but few. In 1859, however, he made an expedition to England to see his newly- married daughter, Lady Grant, start for India with her husband, Sir Alexander Grant, after his appointment to the Chancellorship of the University of Bombay. From Southampton he made his way to the scene of his schooldays at Greenwich, from which place he writes to one of the Sons of Dr. Bruce of Ruthwell, with whom he spent a happy childhood: ' One of our fetes was a sumptuous fish dinner at Greenwich. I call it sumptuous, but in truth the fish was utter trash, the best of them not comparable to Loch Fyne herring. Whitebait is the greatest humbug of the age, though it may be heresy to say so in your neighbourhood.' This journey was concluded by a visit to Oxford and to the Lake country, with both of which Ferrier's associations were so many and so agreeable.

The following is a letter, dated 21st March 1862, to Professor Lushington, his friend and biographer:-' I have been very remiss in not acknowledging your photograph, which came safe, and is much admired by all who have seen it. I must get a book for its reception and that of some other worthies, otherwise my children will appropriate it for their collections, with which the house is swarming. ...The ego is an infinite and active capacity of never being any/king in particular. I will uphold that definition against the world. Did you never feel how much you revolted from being fixed and determined? Depend upon it, that is the true nature of a spirit—never to be any determinate existence. This is our real immutability—for death can get hold only of that which has a determinate being. We stand loose from all determinations. That is our chance of escaping his clutches."

This expresses Ferrier's views and hopes for an after life: he looked forward to an immortality in which the particular and determinate should disappear and only the absolute element remain—in which death should mean only the rising from the individual into a true and universal life. It is a matter to which he frequently refers, and always in terms of a very similar nature. We shall see how, when the end was coming near, his views remained the same, and he was able to face the inevitable without a qualm or shadow of complaint.

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