Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed. Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.

James Frederick Ferrier
Chapter 4 - Fierce Warres and Faithful Loves


'IF Ferrier's life should be written hereafter,' said one, who knew and valued him, just after his death,' 'let his biographer take for its motto these five words from the Faery Queen which the biographer of the Napiers has so happily chosen.' Ferrier's life was not, what it perhaps seems, looking back on its comparatively uneventful course, consistently calm and placid,—a life such as is commonly supposed to befit those who soar into lofty speculative heights, and find the 'difficult air' in which they dwell suited to their contemplative temperaments. Ferrier was intrepid and daring in his reasoning; a sort of free lance, Dr. Skelton says he was considered in orthodox philosophical circles; a High Tory in politics, yet one who did not hesitate to probe to the bottom the questions which came before him, even though the task meant changing the whole attitude of mind from which he started. And once sure of his point, Ferrier never hesitated openly to declare it. What he hated most of all was 'laborious dulness and consecrated feebleness'; commonplace orthodoxy was repugnant to him in the extreme, and possibly few things gave him more sincere pleasure than violently to combat it. The fighting instinct is proper to most men who have 'stuff' in them, and Ferrier in spite of his slight and delicately made frame was manly to the core. But, as the same writer says, 'though combative over his books and theories, his nature was singularly pure, affectionate, and tolerant. He loved his friends even better than he hated his foes. His prejudices were invincible; but, apart from his prejudices, his mind was open and receptive—prepared to welcome truth from whatever quarter it came.' Such a keen, eager nature was sure to be in the fray if battle had to be fought, and we think none the worse of him for that. Battles of intellect are not less keen than battles of physical strength, and much more daring and subtlety may be called into play in the fighting of them; and Ferrier, refined, sensitive, fastidious, as he was, had his battles to fight, and fought them with an eagerness and zeal almost too great for the object he had in view.

After his marriage in 1837, Ferrier devoted his attention almost entirely to the philosophy he loved so well. He did not succeed—did not perhaps try to succeed—at the Bar, to which he had been called. Many qualities are required by a successful advocate besides the subtle mind and acute reasoning powers which Ferrier undoubtedly possessed: possibly—we might almost say probably - these could have been cultivated had he made the effort. He had, to begin with, a fair junior counsel's practice, owing to his family connections, and this might have been easily developed; his ambition, however, did not soar in the direction of the law courts, and he did not give that whole-hearted devotion to the subject which is requisite if success is to follow the efforts of the novice. But if he was not attracted by the work at the Parliament House, he was attracted elsewhere; and to his first mistress, Philosophy, none could be more faithful. In other lines, it is true, he read much and deeply: literature in its widest sense attracted him as it would attract any educated man. Poetry, above all, he loved, in spite of the tale sometimes told against him, that he gravely proposed turning In Memoriam into prose in order to ascertain logically 'whether its merits were sustained by reason as well as by rhyme '—a proposition which is said greatly to have entertained its author, when related to him by a mutual friend. Works of imagination he delighted in—all spheres of literature appealed to him; he had the sense of form which is denied to many of his craft; he wrote in a style at once brilliant and clear, and carelessness on this score in some of the writings of his countrymen irritated him, as those sensitive to such things are irritated. He has often been spoken of as a living protest against the materialism of the age, working away in the quiet, regardless of the busy throng, without its ambitions and its cares. Sometimes, of course, he temporarily deserted the work he loved the best for regions less remote sometimes he consented to lecture on purely literary topics, and often he wrote biographies for a dictionary,

or articles or reviews for Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. As it was to this serial that Ferrier made his most important contributions, both philosophic and literary, for the next fifteen years, and as it was in its pages that the development of his system may be traced, a few words about its history may not be out of place, although it is a history with which we have every reason to be familiar now.

About 1816 the Edinburgh Review reigned supreme in literature. What was most strange, however, was that the Conservative party, so strong in politics, had no literary organ of their own—and this at a time when the line of demarcation between the rival sides in politics was so fixed that no virtue could be recognised in an opponent or in an opponent's views, even though they were held regarding matters quite remote from politics. The Whig party, though in a minority politically and socially, represented a minority of tremendous power, and possessed latent capabilities which soon broke forth into action. At this time, for instance, they had literary ability of a singularly marked description; they were not bound down by traditions as were their opponents, and were consequently much more free to strike out lines of their own, always of course under the guidance of that past - master in criticism, Francis Jeffrey. Although his words were received as oracular by his friends, this dictatorship in matters of literary taste was naturally extremely distasteful to those who differed from him, especially as the influence it exerted was not a local or national influence alone, but one which affected the opinion of the whole United Kingdom. For a time, no doubt, the party was so strong that the matter was not taken as serious, but it soon became evident that a strenuous effort must be made if affairs were to be placed on a better footing, and if a protest were to be raised against the cynical criticism in which the Reviewers indulged. Consequently, in April 1817, a literary periodical called the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine was started by two gentlemen of some experience in literary matters, with the assistance of Mr. William Blackwood, an enterprising Edinburgh publisher, whose reputation had grown of recent years to considerable dimensions. This magazine was not a great success: the editors and publisher did not agree, and finally Mr. Blackwood purchased the formers' share in it, took over the magazine himself, and, to make matters clear, gave it his name ; thus in October of the same year the first number of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine appeared. From a quiet and unobtrusive 'Miscellany' the magazine developed into a strongly partisan periodical, with a brilliant array of young contributors, determined to oppose the Edinburgh Review régime with all its might, and not afraid to speak its mind respecting the literary gods of the day. Every month some one came under the lash; Coleridge, Leigh Hunt, and many others were dealt with in terms unmeasured in their severity, and in the very first number appeared the famous 'Chaldee Manuscript' which made the hair of Edinburgh society stand on end with horror. In spite of the immoderate expression of its opinions, the magazine flourished—it was fresh and novel, and much genius was enlisted in writing for its pages. The editor's identity was always matter for conjecture; but though the contributors included a number of distinguished men, such as Mackenzie, De Quincey, Hogg, Fraser Tytler, and Jameson, there were two names which were always associated with the periodical -those of John Gibson Lockhart and Ferrier's uncle and father-in-law, John Wilson. The latter in particular was often held to be the real editor whom everyone was so anxious to discover, but this belief has been emphatically denied. Although the management might appear to be in the control of a triumvirate, Blackwood himself kept the supreme power in his hands, whatever he might at times find it politic to lead outsiders to infer.

When Ferrier began to write for it in 1838, Blackwood's Magazine was not of course the same fiery publication of twenty years before; nor were Ferrier's articles for the most part of a nature such as to appeal strongly to an excitable and partisan public. Things had changed much since 1817: the Reform Bill had passed; the politics of the country were very different; the Toryism of Ferrier and his friends was quite unlike the Toryism of the early part of the century: it more resembled the Conservatism or Traditionalism of a yet later date, which objected to violent changes only owing to their violence, and by no means to reform, if gradually carried out. This policy was reflected in Maga's pages, to which Ferrier would naturally turn when he wished to reach the public ear, both from family association and hereditary politics. His first contribution was certainly not light in character; nor did it resemble the 'bright, racy' articles which are supposed to be the requisite for modern serial publications. The subject was 'An Introduction to the Philosophy of Consciousness,' and it consisted of a series of papers contributed during two successive years (1838 and 1839), which really embodied the result of the work in which Ferrier had during the past few years been engaged, and signified a complete divergence from the accepted manner of regarding consciousness, and a protest against the 'faith-philosophy' which it became Ferrier's special mission to combat. Perhaps it is only in Scotland that a public could be found sufficiently interested in speculative questions to make them the subject of interest to a fairly wide and general circle, such as would be likely to peruse the pages of a monthly magazine like Blackwood's. But of this interesting contribution to metaphysical speculation, in which Ferrier commenced his philosophical career by grappling with the deepest and most fundamental questions in a manner, as Hamilton acknowledges, hitherto unattempted in the humbler speculations of this country, we shall speak later on, as also of his further contributions to the magazine.

In the year 182 I, Sir William Hamilton had been a candidate for the Chair of Moral Philosophy along with John Wilson, Ferrier's future father-in-law. In spite of Wilson's literary gifts, there is probably no question that of the two his opponent was best qualified to teach the subject, owing to the greatness of his philosophical attainments and the profundity of his learning. But in the temper of the time the merits of the candidates could not be calmly weighed by the Town Council, the electing body; and Hamilton was a Whig, and a Whig contributor to that atheistical and Jacobin Edinburgh Review, and was therefore on no account to be elected. The disappointment to Hamilton was great; but it was Slightly salved by his subsequent election—to their credit be it said, for Whig principles were far from popular among them—by the Faculty of Advocates to a chair rendered vacant in 1821 by the resignation of Professor Fraser Tytler—the Chair of Civil History. In 1836, however, Sir William's merits at length received their reward, and he became the Professor of Logic and Metaphysics. When Ferrier probably felt the need of some more lucrative form of employment, he applied for the Chair of History once occupied by Hamilton, and rendered vacant by the resignation of Professor Skene; he obtained the appointment in 1842, and held it for four years subsequently. Large remuneration it certainly did not bring with it, but the duties were comparatively and correspondingly light.' Indeed, as attendance was not required of students studying for the degrees in Arts, or for any of the professions, the difficulty was to form a regular class at all. The salary paid to Sir William was £100 a year, and even this small sum was apparently only to be obtained with difficulty. The main advantage of holding the chair at all was the prospect it held out of succeeding later on to some more important office. Of Ferrier's class-work at this time we know but little. The reading requisite for the post was likely to prove useful in later days, and could not have been uncongenial; but probably in a class sometimes formed—if tradition speak aright—of one solitary student, the work of preparation would not be taken very seriously. Anyhow, there was plenty of time left to pursue his philosophic studies; and in 1844-45, when Sir William Hamilton came so near to death, Ferrier acted as his substitute, and carried on his classes with zeal and with success—a success which was warmly acknowledged by the Professor. Of course, though he conducted the examinations and other class- work, Ferrier merely read the lectures written by Hamilton; else there might, one would fancy, be found to be a lack of continuity between the deliverances of the two staunch friends but uncompromising opponents. Any differences of opinion made, however, no difference in their friendship. The distress of Ferrier on his friend's sudden paralytic seizure has already been described; to his affectionate nature it was no small thing that one for whom he had so deep a regard came so very near death's door. Every Sunday while in Edinburgh, he spent the afternoon in walking with his friend and in talking of the subjects which most interested both.

Of these early days Professor Fraser writes :-' My personal intercourse with Ferrier was very infrequent, but very delightful when it did occur. He was surely the most picturesque figure among the Scottish philosophers —easy, graceful, humorous, eminently subtle, and with a fine literary faculty—qualities not conspicuous in most of them. When I was a private member of Sir W. Hamilton's advanced class in metaphysics in 1838-39, and for some years after, I was often at Sir William's house, and Ferrier was sometimes of the party on these occasions. I remember his kindly familiarity with us students, the interest and sympathy with which he entered into metaphysical discussion, his help and co-operation in a metaphysical society which we were endeavouring to organise. His essays on the Philosophy of Consciousness were then being issued in Blackwood, and were felt to open questions strange at a time when speculation was almost dead in Scotland—Reid at a discount, Brown found empty, and Hamilton, with Kant, only struggling into ascendency.

'In these days, if I remember right, Ferrier lived in Carlton Street, Stockbridge—an advocate whose interest was all in letters and philosophy, a student of simple habits, fond of German, not a conspicuous talker, of easy polished manners and fond of a joke, with a scientific interest in all sorts of facts and their meanings, and perhaps a disposition to paradox. I remember the interest he took in phenomena of "mesmeric sleep," as it was called. An eminent student was sometimes induced for experiment to submit himself to mesmeric influence at these now far-off evening gatherings at Sir William's. To Ferrier the phenomena suggested curious speculation, but I think without scientific result.' The subject was one on which Ferrier afterwards wrote in Blackwood, and it was a subject which always had the deepest interest for him. It, however, as he believed, cost him the friendship of Professor Cairns, a frequent subject at these informal seances, and one whom Ferrier rashly twitted for what he evidently regarded as a weakness, his easily accomplished subjection to the application of mesmeric power.

In 1845 the Chair of Moral Philosophy in the University of St. Andrews, then occupied by Dr. Cook, and once held by Dr. Chalmers, became vacant by the former's death, and Ferrier entered as a candidate. Highly recommended as he was by Hamilton and others, Ferrier was the successful applicant, and St. Andrews became his home for nineteen years thereafter, or until his death in 1864.

Such is a bald statement of the facts of what would seem a singularly uneventful life. Life divided between the study, library, and classroom, there was little room for incident outside the ordinary incidents of domestic and academic routine. Yet Ferrier never sank into the conventionality which life in a small University town might induce. His interests were always fresh; he was constantly engaged in writing and rewriting his lectures, which, unlike some of his calling, he was not content to read and re-read from year to year unaltered. His thoughts were constantly on his subject and on his students, planning how best to communicate to them the knowledge that he was endeavouring to convey—a life which came as near the ideal of philosophic devotion as is perhaps possible in this nineteenth century of turmoil and unrest. Still, gentleman and man of culture as he was, Ferrier had a fighting side as well, and that side was once or twice aroused in all the vehemence of its native strength.

Twice Ferrier made application for a philosophical chair in the town of his birth and boyhood. In 1852, when his father-in-law, John Wilson, retired, he became a candidate for the professorship of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh; and then again, in 1856, he offered himself as a successor to Sir William Hamilton as Professor of Logic and Metaphysics. On neither occasion was he successful, and on both occasions he suffered much from calumnious statements respecting his 'German' and unorthodox views - a kind of calumny which is more than likely to arise and carry weight when the judges are men of honourable character but of little education, men to whom a shibboleth is everything and real progress in learning nothing. On the first occasion there were several candidates who submitted their applications, but on Professor M'Cosh's retiring from the combat, the two who were 'in the running' were Professor Ferrier of St. Andrews and Professor Macdougall of the Free Church College in Edinburgh. It is curious, as instancing the strange change which had come over the politics of Scotland since the Reform Act had passed, that the very influences that told in favour of John Wilson in applying for a professorship in 1821 should thirty years later tell as strongly against his son-in-law. In 1852, nine years after the Disruption, so greatly had matters altered, that the Free Church liberal party carried all before it in the Corporation. And although the liberal journals of the earlier date were never tired of maintaining liberty of thought and action, yet when circumstances changed, the liberty appeared in a somewhat different light; and the qualification of being a Whig was added to a considerable number of appointments both in the Church and in the State. Professor Macdougall, Ferrier's opponent, had held his professorship in the Free Church College, lately established for the teaching of theology and preparation of candidates for the ministry. On the establishment of the College, the subject of Moral Philosophy was considered to be one which should be taught elsewhere than in an 'Erastian' University, and accordingly it was thought necessary to institute the chair occupied by Professor Macdougall. In the first instance the class was eminently successful in point of numbers, and the corresponding class in the University proportionately suffered; but as time went on the attendance in the Free Church class dwindled, and it was considered that this chair need not be continued, but that students might be permitted to attend at the University. When Professor Macdougall now offered himself as candidate for the University chair, there was of course an immediate outcry of a 'job." Rightly or wrongly it was said, 'Let the Free Church have a Professor of her own body and opinions if she will, but why force him upon the Established Church as well; are her country and ministers to be indoctrinated with Voluntary principles?' There might not have been much force in the argument had the status of the two candidates been the same, but it was evident to all unprejudiced observers that this was far from being the case. And it could hardly be pleaded in justification of the Council's action that they formed their judgment upon the testimonials laid before them; for Ferrier's far exceeded his rival's in weight, if not in strength of expression, and included in their number communications from such men as Sir William Hamilton, De Quincey, Buiwer, Alison, and Lockhart—men the most distinguished of the age. De Quincey's opinion of Ferrier is worth quoting. He says that he regards him as 'the metaphysician of greatest promise among his contemporaries either in England or in Scotland,' and the testimonial which at this time he accorded Ferrier is as remarkable a document as is often produced on such occasions, when commonplace would usually appear to be the object aimed at. It is several pages in length, and goes fully into the question not only of what Ferrier was, but also of what a candidate ought to be. De Quincey speaks warmly of Ferrier's services in respect of the English rendering of Faust before alluded to, and points out the benefit there is in having had an education which has run along two separate paths—paths differing from one another in nature, doubtless, but integrating likewise—the one being that resulting from his intercourse with Wilson and his literary coterie, the other that of the course of study he had pursued on German lines. He sums up Ferrier's philosophic qualities by saying, 'Out of Germany, and comparing him with the men of his own generation, such at least as I had any means of estimating, Mr. Ferrier was the only man who exhibited much of true metaphysical subtlety, as contrasted with mere dialectical acuteness.' For this testimonial, we may incidentally mention, Ferrier writes a most interesting letter of thanks, which is published in his Remains. As a return for the kindness done him, he 'sets forth a slight chart of the speculative latitudes ' he had reached, and which he 'expects to navigate without being wrecked'—really an admirably clear epitome in so short a space of the argument of the Institutes.

But to come back to the contest: in spite of testimonials, the fact remained that Ferrier had studied German philosophy, and might have imbibed some German infidelity, while his opponent made no professions of being acquainted either with the German philosophy or language, besides having the advantage of being a Liberal and Free Churchman; and he was consequently appointed to the chair. Of course, there was an outcry. The election was put forward as an argument against the abolition of 'rests, though in this case Ferrier, as an Episcopalian, might be said to be a Dissenter equally with his opponent. It was argued that the election should be set aside unless the necessary subscription were made before the Presbytery of the bounds. For a century back such tests had not been exacted as far as the Moral Philosophy chair was concerned, nor would they probably have been so had Ferrier himself been nominated. But though the Presbytery concerned was in this case prepared to go all lengths, it appeared that it was not in its members that the initiative was vested, the practice being to take the oath before the Lord Provost or other authorised magistrate. Consequently, indignant at discovering their impotence, the members of the body retaliated by declaring that they would divert past the new Professor's class the students who should afterwards come within their jurisdiction, and thus, by their foolish action, they probably did their best to bring about the result they deprecated so much—the abolition of Tests in their entirety.

Ecclesiastical feeling ran high at the time, and things were said and done on both sides which were far from being wise or prudent. But the effect on a sensitive nature like Ferrier's is easy to imagine. This was the first blow lie had met with, and being the first he did not take it quite so seriously to heart. But when it was followed years later by yet another repulse, signifying to his view an attitude of mind in orthodox Scotland opposed to any liberty of thought amongst its teachers, Ferrier felt the day for silence was ended, and, wisely or unwisely, he published a hot defence of his position in a pamphlet entitled Scottish Philosophy, the Old and the iV'zv. On this occasion the question had risen above the mere discussion of Church and Tests; the whole future of philosophy in Scotland was, he believed, at stake; it was time, he felt, that someone should speak out his mind, and who more suitable than the leader of the modern movement and the one, as he considered it, who had suffered most by his opinions?

Without having lived through the time or seen something of its effects, it would be difficult to realise how narrow were the bounds allowed to speculative thought some forty years ago in Scotland. Since the old days of Moderatism and apathy there had, indeed, been a great revival of interest in such matters as concerned Belief. Alen's convictions were intense and sincere; and what had once been a subject of convention and common usage, had now become the one important topic of their lives. So far the change was all for the good; it promoted many important virtues; it made men serious about serious things; it made them realise their responsibilities as human beings. But as those who lived through it, or saw the results it brought about, must also know, it had another side. A certain spiritual self- assurance sprang into existence, which, though it was bred of intense reality of conviction, brought with it consequences of a specially trying kind to those who did not altogether share in it. As so often happens when a new light dawns, men thought that to them at length all truth had been revealed, and acted in accordance with this belief. They formulated their systems—hide-bound almost as before—and decided in their minds that in them they had the standards for judging of their fellows. But Truth is a strange will-o'-the-wisp after all,—when we think we have reached her, she has eluded our grasp, —and so when those rose up who said the end of the matter was not yet, a storm of indignation fell upon their heads. This is what happened with Ferrier and the orthodox Edinburgh world. There might, it was said by the latter, be men lax enough to listen to reasonings such as his, and even to agree with them, but for those who knew the truth as it was in its reality, such pandering to latitudinarian doctrines was unpardonable. And as at this time the Town Council of Edinburgh was seriously inclined (some of the members, in the second instance, were the same as those who had adjudicated in the former contest), Ferrier's fate was, he considered, sealed before the question really came before them. Whether the matter was quite as serious as Ferrier thought, it is perhaps unnecessary to say. At anyrate, there was a considerable element of truth in the view he took of it, and he was justified in much—if not in all--of what he said in his defence. The Institutes, first published in 1854, had just reached a second edition, so that his views were fairly before the world. What caused the tremendous outburst of opposition we must take another chapter to consider; and then we must try to trace the course of Ferrier's development from the time at which he first began to write on philosophic subjects, and when he openly broke with the Scottish School of Philosophy.


Return to Book Index Page