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James Hutchison Stirling

James Hutchison Stirling was born on 22 June 1820, the fifth son of William Stirling, craftsman, of Glasgow. He first matriculated at the University of Glasgow in 1833 at the age of 13, and followed a full Arts curriculum (1833 Latin, 1834 Greek, 1835 Greek, 1836 Logic, 1837 Ethics) before continuing on to medical studies under Harry Rainy (1792-1874), who became a professor of Medical Jurisprudence in the Faculty of Medicine in 1841, and Dr Buchanan.

Early in life he showed a leaning toward philosophical studies, and in 1838 the professor of moral philosophy gave him as a subject for a thesis, St Anselm's argument in the Proslogion for the existence of God. With the fine carelessness of youth Stirling is said to have pronounced this argument a sophism, although in later life he came to regard it as "the first word of modern philosophy."' He did not obtain a degree in either Arts or Medicine from the University of Glasgow. He became a Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1842 and a Fellow in 1860. In 1843 he settled in practice at Hirwain, Glamorganshire, and later he moved to Glyn Neath. For a while he was a surgeon to the Hirwain and other iron and coal works in South Wales.

Upon the death of his father in 1851 Stirling retired from practice and went abroad. He studied firstly in Paris under Dumas, Orfilia and Milne Edwards. In 1854 he moved to Germany, where he resumed his philosophical research of Kant and Hegel. In 1857 he returned home and turned to writing books on philosophy. His publications include: The Secret of Hegel: being the Hegelian system in origin, principle, form, and matter, 1865; Materialism in relation to the study of medicine: an address to medical students, 1868; Lectures on the philosophy of law, 1873; Text-book to Kant: the critique of pure reason : aesthetic, categories, schematism: translation, reproduction, commentary, index, with biographical sketch, 1881; Darwinianism: workmen and work, 1894; and What is thought?: or, The problem of philosophy by way of a general conclusion so far, 1900.

He was a Foreign Member of the Philosophical Society of Berlin and delivered the first Gifford Lecture Series at the University of Edinburgh on Philosophy and Theology in 1888-1890. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Law from the University of Edinburgh in 1867, and one from the University of Glasgow in 1901. James Hutchison Stirling died at the age of 89 on the 19th March 1909. He left an estate of c £10,000 to his four daughters, Jessie Jane Armstrong, wife of the Rev Robert Armstrong of Glasgow, and Amelia, Florence and Lucy, who were all three living at the parental home in Edinburgh. Edinburgh University still awards an annual James Hutchison Stirling Prize to the best student studying for the degree of MA with Honours in Philosophy who has attended a second course in Philosophy, but who is not yet in his or her final year.

Sources: Glasgow University Archives student records, Medical Directory 1898, The Lancet, March 27 1909, p.248, Calendars of Confirmation.


It is my privilege to have been invited to write a few lines of preface to the life of one whom I knew well and admired greatly. James Hutchison Stirling was a man of genius, rugged and uncontrollable, yet genius that could not be mistaken for anything less. I knew him first when I was a student at the University, and I saw him from time to time until nearly the period of his death. The man is mirrored in his books, and above all in the greatest of his books, “The Secret of Hegel.” To come under the sway of the “Secret” one must have oneself worked hard. Stirling made the meaning as plain as that meaning could be made. But to penetrate into the inmost significance of Reality can under no circumstances be possible without the severest effort at concentration, and this the book demands. But when the effort has been made, and, it may be after several struggles, success has come, the reward follows. I doubt whether a more remarkable piece of exposition has ever been accomplished in our language. It is marvellous that, working at the time he did, without the help of a single worker in the English language who had thrown light on what Hegel really taught, Stirling should have produced the book he did. No one since his time has got further, possibly no one as far. He penetrated into the inmost essence of the Hegelian system as none but a man of genius could have done, and his work remains unrivalled to this day. His exposition is charged with meaning, and its flow is that of a torrent. No wonder that he held Carlyle in reverence. In different forms the two men applied to different subject-matters the same gift. Both were expositors, but expositors of a genius that made their teaching new and original. “ Sartor Resartus ” and “ The Secret of Hegel ” may both be fairly said to have been epoch-making books. Carlyle wrote for the many, Stirling for the very few, and that was the main difference between them. The concentrated work which each bestowed on what he produced was of the order that is colossal.

It is only by grappling with “The Secret of Hegel ” that one can realise the extent of its author’s power and penetration. Through long years of study he mastered the meaning of that most difficult and most rewarding of modern writers on philosophy. At the end the result he had reached was returned in a torrent; in language the force and picturesqueness of which were only matched by the conviction every sentence breathed forth. The book embodies a result which is likely to be enduring. It will hardly be superseded, for it has the quality of the work of genius. Along the road it has travelled one cannot get any further.

Haldane of Cloan.

London, 3ra November 1911

Author's Note

In one of Stirling’s articles on Kant, to which allusion is made in the following pages, this remark occurs: “If the key has been found for the casket of Hegel, and its contents described, it is quite certain that the public has never yet seriously set itself to apply this key or examine these contents. Something to stimulate or assist seems still to be wanting.” In the present volume it is hoped that at least a step has been taken towards supplying what is wanting. It has been sought to “ stimulate ” by laying before the public the record of a life-long devotion to the study and development of the Hegelian philosophy, a life-long conviction of its profound value to humanity. It has been attempted to “ assist ” by showing that, though it is only the earnest student of philosophy who can ever hope to penetrate to the centre of the Hegelian system, Hegel has yet something to offer to every thoughtful reader. Throughout the later portion of the present book—especially in Chapter VIII., and in those chapters which deal with Stirling’s various works—attempts have been made to indicate, in terms intelligible to a technically uninitiated reader, Stirling’s general philosophical position, and the nature of the service which he and thinkers such as he have rendered to mankind.

It is impossible to let these pages go to press without tendering thanks to those who, in various ways, have helped in the task of preparing them— to Mr Alexander Carlyle and Mr Walter Copeland Jerrold for kind permission to make use of valuable letters from Thomas Carlyle and Douglas Jerrold respectively; to Mr W. Hale-White, Mr Holcomb Ingleby, the Rev. John Snaith, Emeritus Professor Campbell Fraser, and the family of the late Professor S. S. Laurie, for kindly lending important letters written by the subject of this memoir, and to Mr Murdoch for the excellent photograph of the philosophers study, from which one of the illustrations has been taken. Lastly, special thanks are due to Lord Haldane, who, in the midst of the innumerable public claims upon him, has shown that his interest in the higher philosophy is as deep as ever by writing the appreciative and vivid estimate of Stirling which forms the Preface to the present book.

A. H. S.
Edinburgh, November 1911.

Section 1

Section 2

Section 3

Section 4

Section 5

Final Section

Philosophy and Theology
His 20 lecture series

The Secret of Hegel
Being the Hegelian System in Origin, Principle Form and Matter

The Categories

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