Jack A Hill Adam Ferguson and Ethical Integrity, The Man and His Prescriptions for the Moral Life
Lexington Books, New York and London, 2017 Hardback pp 253 + xxxiv $95
In comparison with David Hume, Adam Smith and Thomas Reid, Adam Ferguson is the philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment who has attracted least attention. Despite his long life, his occupancy of what was arguably the most prestigious philosophical position in 18th century Britain, and two highly acclaimed books, for a century or more, Ferguson was a largely neglected figure. This has begun to change. In the course of the 20th century there were several major studies, beginning with Gladys Bryson’s seminal book Man and Society, published in 1945, and in the course of the 21st century a number of monographs have already appeared, alongside two collections of essays and a small but significant flow of journal articles. For the most part, though, these new studies have sought to interpret Ferguson’s historical significance – as an embodiment of the political and cultural times in which he lived, or as a founding figure in the emergence of sociology.
What marks out Jack Hill’s book, and makes it especially valuable, is the way in which it brings Ferguson to life as a philosopher, He accomplishes this in large part by a shift of emphasis. Ferguson chiefly attracted the attention and acclaim of his contemporaries with the publication, in 1767, of his Essay on the History of Civil Society. It ran to a good many editions, and has been republished in more than one modern edition. This is evidence of the fact that the Essay has retained a measure of scholarly interest. Since both its content and style now seem very dated, however, this interest has mostly related to its place in the history of ideas and of sociology in particular. By giving much greater prominence and careful attention to the two volume Principles of Moral and Political Science published in 1792, Hill persuasively shows Ferguson to be a systematic thinker whose reflections can still point us in promising directions for moral philosophy in our own day.
The Principles have been reprinted from time to time, but have never appeared in a modern edition. In part, this is because they were long overshadowed by the much more celebrated Essay, as well as Ferguson’s History of the Progress and Termination of Rome. But it may be that they were also discounted because the two volumes are less a work of original scholarship than a careful revision and resume of the lectures Ferguson gave over many years at the University of Edinburgh. Importantly, though, they differ significantly from the earlier Institutes (1769), which were basically notes for students that Ferguson issued while still teaching. Comparing the two works gives us reason to regard the Principles as the most mature and considered expression of his thought.
The moral philosophy expounded in the Principles has three important features. First, in common with his contemporaries, Ferguson engages in a version of the ‘science of man’ that aims to draw on extensive empirical observation in the service of moral reflection. Second, the purpose of this reflection is ethical or moral education – that is to say, uncovering how human beings ought to live. This purpose accords with the appointed role of the Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh, of course, and Hill makes a good case for thinking that Ferguson regarded it not merely as an occupation, but a distinctive calling. Thirdly, and most importantly, the Principles constitute a systematic moral philosophy strictly so called. That is to say, in contrast to, for instance, Hume and Reid, and to a lesser extent Smith, Ferguson’s moral philosophy pretty much eschews any interest in metaphysics, and has only a very limited concern with what we now think of as the philosophy of mind. This already marks him off as thinking differently from his contemporaries, and consequently gives his thought special interest. In fact, Hill shows that there are several other important points of difference between Ferguson and the principal philosophers of 18th century Scotland.
The central difference that makes Ferguson a strictly moral philosopher is this. Hume, from the outset of the Treatise, adopts the Cartesian assumption that human beings are first and foremost perceivers, and subsequently thinks of the self as a bundle of perceptions. Reid’s rejection of the ‘way of ideas’ leads him to think of human beings as active judges as well as passive recipients of sensation. Ferguson, however, makes human agency fundamental to our nature. The heart of his system is ‘the self as agent’. (This is an expression coined by John Macmurray, who held the same Edinburgh Chair of Moral Philosophy two hundred years after Ferguson. The Self as Agent is the title of the first volume of his Gifford Lectures, and there are interesting parallels worth exploring).
Perhaps we do not have to regard the perceiver/agent distinction as exclusive. What Hill brings out so well, however, is that the centrality of agency lends Ferguson’s moral philosophy its systematic unity. Conceived primarily as agents, human beings are ‘rational artisans’, or reasoning practitioners, rather than passive observers receiving ‘impressions’ or theorists forming ‘hypotheses’ about the world. They have needs, interests and drives, that are served by virtues and thwarted by vices. This generates both the necessity and the possibility of rational reflection and moral education. At the same time, individual agents are not acting in isolation, but in social contexts and political communities whose structuring influences rational agency must take into account. Two important spheres of influence that Ferguson details are ‘politics’ and ‘commerce’, both of which generate distinctive ‘arts’.
Ferguson’s moral philosophy is a ‘science’ because it admits of systematically relating universal facts about human nature, character traits, ideas of excellence, and the apprehension of circumstances. The claim for which he is most famous – the unintended consequences of human action – has, Hill thinks, been given too much attention. The point he wishes to emphasize is this: at the heart of Ferguson’s system is the self as agent, moved to act by internal ‘force’ or ‘exertion’, directed by reason.
Hill’s elaboration of Ferguson’s philosophy is very well done, and the book is both informative and illuminating. His purpose, though, is not merely exposition. He wants to set Ferguson’s moral philosophy within a broader interpretive perspective, and to draw from it important lessons about contemporary ethics. One both these scores, as it seems to me, some doubts must arise.
Hill’s subtitle -- ‘the man and his prescriptions’ – indicates his intention of attach philosophical significance to Ferguson’s biography. Ferguson’s philosophical thought differed from that of his contemporaries, and so did his background. Does this difference in background explain the difference in thought? Hume, Reid and Smith were all Lowland Scots, whereas Ferguson was raised in village on the Highland side of the Highland/Lowland divide. He spoke Gaelic as well as English, and this indeed was his main qualification for appointment as chaplain to a regiment of Gaelic speaking soldiers. Though he spent the larger part of his life in Edinburgh, and became fully integrated into the cultural and intellectual milieu of the Scottish literati, his Highland roots gave him a familiarity, and an admiration, for the Gaels, that set him apart from the widespread Lowland suspicion of ‘barbarous’ Highland culture with its Jacobite sympathies. His thought, according to Hill reflects this twofold cultural context, and the book opens with an argument against those – chiefly the sociologist John Brewer – who think that Ferguson’s Highland identity is largely irrelevant. Hill contends, on the contrary, that Ferguson’s Highland background explains the different attitude we find to ‘primitive’ and ‘barbarous’ people in the Essay. Ferguson does not subscribe to the standard ‘stadial’ view of history that moves through set stages of social and economic development. He sees in these ‘barbarous’ people confirming evidence of the same fundamental human nature that is to be found in much more developed societies – just as his view of progress is qualified by his extensive knowledge of Roman history and the eventual ‘termination’ of one of the most impressive social and political entities that has ever existed.
Still, as it seems to me, the case for this connection between biography and philosophy is at best associational. The philosophical differences are there, certainly, but attributing them to an educational upbringing about which, as a matter of fact, the evidence is somewhat scanty, is both speculative and unnecessary. The distinctive features of Ferguson’s philosophical history are interesting in their own right and can be articulated and defended without appeals to biography. Indeed, Hill gives us material to work with in doing that, even if we abandon the dispute with Brewer.
A similar reservation might be entered with respect to Hill’s desire to connect Ferguson’s moral philosophy with contemporary ethical questions. At one level this seems to me entirely correct. Studies of Ferguson such as those of Kettler, Allan and McDaniel are primarily interested in placing him in historical context, and showing the man and his thought to be very much of their time. Refreshingly, Hill demonstrates very persuasively that Ferguson’s conception of moral philosophy and the system of thought he articulates have application to human beings and human society as such. The result is that, like the work of any enduringly significant philosopher, Ferguson’s ideas are not confined to any one time or place. On the other hand, Hill wants to make Ferguson too relevant, so to speak, to make his system apply to issues in environmental ethics, and contemporary political culture. He even refers at one point to ‘the Trump phenomenon’, a reference that will unhappily date Hill’s own book for subsequent generations of readers who would in fact have much to learn from it.
My reservation about Hill’s attempt to extract contemporary relevance from Ferguson might be stated like this. Much modern moral philosophy has little normative relevance and seems to the uninitiated to be the product of an academic discipline as highly specialized as any other. This is what has given rise to ‘applied ethics’, which aims to recover the social relevance of philosophy, though it too has become rather professionalized. Hill’s interpretation of Ferguson shows that moral philosophy properly so called can have normative relevance. That demonstration stands without any additional need to connect it with ‘applied ethics’. Indeed, the attempt to make this ‘ethical’ connection may deflect attention from where Ferguson’s enduring relevance lies.
There is one further interesting issue raised by Hill’s book. In what way, if any, can religion be fitted into Ferguson’s moral system? This question arises because the explicit treatment of God that Ferguson included in the Institutes is dropped from the Principles that constitute his mature reflection. This is one reason for Hill to devote a chapter to the topic of Ferguson’s attitude to and appeal to religion. Once again, he wants to illuminate the issue with biographical material. As a young man, Ferguson served as a Chaplain. Later he professed to relinquish his clerical role entirely, and in all his writings, he barely mentions any recognizably Christian doctrines. At the same time, he remained active in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, though there is not much evidence that he attended worship regularly. So how convinced a Christian was Ferguson as his life wore on? It is an interesting question, but even more so than in the matter of Ferguson’s Highland identity, there just is not enough evidence to answer it. Trying to establish the connection between Ferguson’s system and his view of religion by means of his personal beliefs is not any more promising than similar attempts that have been made to say something about Adam Smith’s religious beliefs. Both authors were largely silent on the subject.
So that leaves us with Hill’s other approach, namely treating Ferguson’s relation to religion as a philosophical question. Do theological ideas or presuppositions underlie and/or sustain Ferguson’s thought? On this score, Hill endorses the view held by others – that Ferguson assumes a conception of Providence without which his system would lack coherence. I am inclined to doubt this myself, but I will not discuss the matter here. Hill then goes on to consider a rather different dimension that he finds reflected in some thoughts to which Ferguson gives expression rather later in life. In a letter to Joseph Black, he refers to God as a ‘principle of existence’, one that provides the frame against which we come to apprehend the limitations of our individual ‘Period of Being’.
If Hill is right, though the claim about Providence is important, it is with respect to this last dimension that we are likely to find the deepest connection between ethical integrity and religious belief in Ferguson’s thought. To my mind, however, the resulting conception is too contemplative, too passive, and leaves us asking how, if at all, religion is to be fitted into Ferguson’s system. A number of interesting questions suggest themselves. How does religious practice relate to the life of the ‘rational artisan’? Do the religious practices of a society fall with the political arts, the commercial arts, or somewhere else? In what kind of religious activity, if any, can the ‘force’ or ‘exertion’ that drives human beings be given adequate expression?
In almost the same words as Hume, Ferguson refers to the corruption of religion as powerfully destructive, and like Hume, he is aware of the regular recurrence of religious sentiments. But whereas Hume in the Natural History of Religion is for the most part content to describe the phenomenon of religious sentiment, Ferguson is a normative moral philosopher. The aim of his system is to illuminate the best ways in which human beings, given their nature, should live, and to identify the dangers that stand in the way of their doing so. Ferguson’s ‘moral and political science’, accordingly, presents a philosophical framework within which the place of religion is to be understood. I incline to the view, however, that since he himself says so little about it, we will have to forge that understanding for ourselves.
Whatever the substance of my reservations, Adam Ferguson and Ethical Integrity is to be warmly welcomed as a major contribution to the interpretation of Ferguson and the first full length study likely to awaken real philosophical interest in him. If others take up the subject as Hill has done, this might lead to a modern edition of the Principles, something that Hill’s book now shows to be long overdue.