Rational Piety and Social Reform in Glasgow: The Life, Philosophy, and Political Economy of James Mylne (1757-1839)
(Eugene OR, Wipf and Stock, 2015) pb 303
In 1952 Glasgow University celebrated the 500th anniversary of its founding, and to mark the occasion, the university published Fortuna Domus, a collection of lectures in which the (then) current holders of long established Chairs reflected on the history of their subject. C A Campbell, Professor of Logic, gave the lecture on Philosophy. In it observed he observed that the period from 1796 to 1866 in Moral Philosophy [is] not among the most illustrious in Glasgow’s philosophic history. The Professors seem to have been, without exception, good and godly men, and by no means lacking in talents. But it is not always easy to discern what were the strictly philosophical qualifications which weighed with the electors in making appointments to [the] Chair. Certainly the contribution to the advancement of philosophic thought made by this particular series of incumbents can hardly be underestimated. With the arrival, however, of John Veitch (1864-95) and Edward Caird (1866-94) the character and standing of Glasgow philosophy take an abrupt and remarkable change for the better. (115-6)
Campbell’s assessment pretty much echoes James McCosh’s in The Scottish Philosophy (1875). McCosh had personal knowledge of the times, having been a student at Glasgow in the 1820s, and if his autobiographical account of the philosophical climate that prevailed is to be believed, it was decidedly uninspiring. Amongst historians of philosophy, this period has not generated much interest. George Davie’s Democratic Intellect dwelt at some length on the educational aims and methods of George Jardine, who held the Logic chair from 1774 to 1827, but even Davie makes only one brief reference to Thomas Reid’s successor as Professor of Moral Philosophy, James Mylne, who held the Moral Philosophy Chair from 1797 to 1837. Stephen Cowley’s book is expressly intended not merely to challenge, but to refute Campbell’s assessment, at least with respect to Mylne. He contends that Mylne was a philosopher of independent mind and thought, in whose thinking it is possible to identify a novel philosophical bridge between the ‘common sense’ school of Reid that preceded him and the Idealism of Caird that eventually followed.
This is a bold claim, and potentially very interesting since, if true, it would call for serious reconsideration of the philosophical trajectory that Scottish philosophy followed in the nineteenth century. Substantiating it, however, is a rather tall order. Chiefly, this is because, though he occupied the Chair of Moral Philosophy for over forty years, Mylne published no philosophical work whatever, not even the occasional paper. Moreover, unlike Brown and Hamilton in Edinburgh, his lectures were not published posthumously, and if full manuscript versions ever existed, they have been lost. Nor is there much literary residue from the other aspects of his life. Cowley’s book, therefore, which began as a PhD thesis, is the outcome of prodigious amounts of original research. A key result of his research is the transcription of student notes of Mylne’s lectures, a brief selection from them being included in an appendix to this volume. These notes give some indication of what Mylne thought and taught, and Cowley aims to amplify this source by uncovering the cultural and philosophical context in which Mylne was educated and within which he worked, first as a minister and then as a professor. To this end he has also searched far and wide in newspapers, periodicals, library records, church and university archives, as well as philosophical works from the period. No effort has been spared, no stone unturned, and nothing of any potential consequence has been overlooked or omitted. As a result, the book has many interesting historical nuggets to offer. Mylne remains a somewhat shadowy figure, it seems to me, but there are plenty of other intriguing ministers and professors who are brought more sharply into focus.
If archival research alone were sufficient to establish Cowley’s thesis, there would be little doubt about its truth. Unfortunately, the outcome of all this research falls considerably short of its goal. Furthermore, the shortfall is philosophical as well as evidential. Since the new material Cowley uncovers is extensive, the evidential shortfall is not quantitative; it is inferential. Cowley is compelled, time and again, to speculate. He speaks of being able to ‘glean’ something from the evidence he produces. He spends a lot of time on Mylne’s colleagues and connections and then surmises that his views would have been much the same as theirs. His biography of Mylne is like most biographies of Adam Smith; since there is so little directly relevant material to work on, a great deal of reliance has to be placed on inference from the social and cultural context about which a lot more can be known. Since the account of Mylne’s life in the church, the university and the city constitutes about one half of the book, this is a serious limitation.
Still, the crucial issue is not biographical. It concerns the content of Mylne’s philosophy. Cowley thinks that we can find Mylne rejecting appeals to ‘common sense’ and thereby significantly distancing himself from the Reidian orthodoxy which had prevailed hitherto. Moreover, Mylne’s view that reason in some sense underlies and unifies the faculties of judgment, memory and sensation is a first step in the direction of the more comprehensive rationalism that is a mark of Caird’s Idealism. To make this case convincingly, it is not enough to cite Mylne via lecture notes, even if these were much more substantial than they are. (The appendix runs to only six pages, and does not seem to me to contain anything very novel). We also need a clear account of what Reid’s reliance on ‘common sense’ truly amounted too, and precisely how the relevant elements in Caird’s Idealism are to be extracted from the hugely influential Hegelian framework within which he worked, and about which Mylne could have known nothing. The material drawn from student notes, even if it were more interesting than I suggest, cannot sustain this ‘bridging’ claim on its own.
One question that Cowley does not address is this. Just why was nothing of Mylne’s philosophical work published, if not by him by others? Students (or some of them) spoke highly of his teaching, and they included a number who went on to be distinguished intellectuals themselves, most notably Sir William Hamilton, James McCosh, John Wilson and John McLeod Campbell. Others among his students, who were less intellectually gifted, came to occupy chairs of philosophy in Glasgow, Belfast and London. Yet none of them seems to have made any effort to have Mylne’s lectures published, and few sought to build in any way upon what they had learned from him. The most obvious conclusion to be drawn, as it seems to me, is that Mylne was a conscientious and often effective teacher, but not a thinker of originality or note. Certainly, he did not put Reid on a pedestal and he drew on Condillac more than many. This distinguishes him to some degree from several of his contemporaries, but just how much? Alexander Campbell Fraser, another 19th century Scottish philosopher of distinction, became a student at Glasgow in 1833 before transferring to Edinburgh after one year. In his memoir Biographia Philosophica he recalls watching Mylne on winter mornings, and remarks that at that time Mylne was ‘probably the most independent thinker in the Scottish philosophical professoriate’. ‘Probably’ signals a qualification, and of course ‘most’ is a relative term. I am inclined to the view that, despite Cowley’s best efforts and extraordinary industry, Campbell Fraser said all that can be said.