Adam Ferguson (1723-1816)

Adam Ferguson was born in Logierait, a Perthshire village on the edge of the dividing line between the English speaking Lowlands and the Gaelic speaking Highlands of Scotland. The son of a minister in the Church of Scotland, Ferguson was educated at Perth Grammar School and at the University of St Andrews, then experiencing something of a low point before undergoing major reform a few years later. Ferguson graduated in 1742 and proceeded to Edinburgh to study divinity with a view to ordination. It was there that he became acquainted with some of the leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, notably the ‘Moderate’ clergymen William Robertson, Alexander Carlyle and Hugh Blair. When the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 broke out, Ferguson had only completed three of the required six years of theological study, but he was granted a licence to serve as a minister so that his knowledge of Gaelic could be put to use as deputy chaplain of the Black Watch. There is some uncertainty about Ferguson’s precise role at the Battle of Fontenoy (1745), but he did sufficiently well to become principal chaplain in 1746, and remained with the regiment till 1754. Then, having failed to obtain a significant church appointment, he left the Presbyterian ministry to pursue a career as writer and scholar.

After living a short time in Leipzig, he obtained his first academic appointment in January 1757 when he succeeded David Hume as librarian to the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh, though shortly after he relinquished the post to become tutor to the family of the Earl of Bute. In 1759 Ferguson finally secured a university appointment as professor of natural philosophy in the University of Edinburgh. Five years later he was able to transfer to the Chair of Pneumatics (philosophy of mind) and Moral Philosophy, for which Hume had unsuccessfully applied in 1745.

In 1767 he published his most famous and important work the Essay on the History of Civil Society. Though his friend David Hume disliked it, and had advised against publication, it was well received very widely and translated into several European languages. Two years later he published Institutes of Moral Philosophy for the Use of Students in the College of Edinburgh, thereby setting a pattern followed by many of his successors in the Edinburgh Chair who also published moral philosophy text books that were widely used. Ferguson’s ran to two editions and was translated into several other languages.

Subsequent publications included an anonymous pamphlet on the American Revolution in which he argued against Richard Price's Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, and a popular History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic published in 1783. After his resignation of the Edinburgh Chair in 1785, he revised his lectures, and published them in 1792 under the title of Principles of Moral and Political Science. He was succeeded in the Chair by Dugald Stewart.

Adam Ferguson married in 1756 and had nine children, two of whom died in infancy. He traveled extensively in Europe and made a trip to the American colonies on government business. Late in his very long life, he returned to live in St Andrews, where he died at the age of ninety three.

Ferguson’s philosophical works exhibit some of the distinctive features of Scottish philosophy in interesting ways. For him moral philosophy has to combine educational purpose with intellectual inquiry, and the study of human nature is the study of essentially social beings. But in addition, Ferguson’s work has an historical dimension. The study of morality is cast within a socio-historical framework in which a process of perfection can be found at work. This contrasts with Francis Hutcheson’s account of natural sociability, which is conceived in terms of a universal natural sympathy.

It is largely on the strength of this dimension of his work that Adam Ferguson is sometimes called ‘the father of modern sociology’. It is a title that needs to be used with circumspection, however. German translations of the Essay were very influential on German social thought, and connections can be made with Hegel and Marx. But the translations were often inaccurate and gave rise to misunderstandings which make the intellectual connections with Ferguson rather more tenuous.

Gordon Graham, Princeton Theological Seminary