Adam Ferguson Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

0111206545-Ferguson_A.jpg Adam Ferguson (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Ferguson was a leading figure of the eighteenth century Scottish Enlightenment. He was not simply the contemporary of David Hume and Adam Smith but also esteemed as their peer. Widely regarded as the founder of modern sociology, he was the forerunner of, and a significant influence upon, such later thinkers as Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and even Karl Marx.

Early Life

Adam Ferguson was born on June 20, 1723, at the village of Logierait, Perthshire, in the foothills of the Scottish Highlands. His father, also named Adam, was the local Presbyterian (Church of Scotland) minister; his mother, the former Mary Gordon, was a farmer’s daughter. After attending the local parish school and a grammar school in Perth, Ferguson won in 1738 a competitive examination for a bursary at Saint Andrews University. He received the master of arts degree in 1842, and at his father’s behest went on to study divinity first at Saint Andrews and then at the University of Edinburgh. His father owed his post to the patronage of the Duke of Athole, and that link was responsible for Ferguson’s appointment in 1745 to a chaplaincy with the newly formed “Black Watch” regiment and for his obtaining a special dispensation from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland allowing his ordination as a minister, despite his having completed only the first two of the regular four-year divinity course. In 1754, when the regiment was transferred to America, Ferguson resigned his commission, left the ministry, and moved to Edinburgh to try his fortunes there as a man of letters.

For the next five years, Ferguson eked out a living through a series of makeshift jobs. In 1759, thanks to the support of influential friends led by the philosopher David Hume, he was elected professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. Although he had no prior qualifications for teaching the natural sciences, he proved a successful and popular lecturer. In 1764, he won election to the chair of moral philosophy—his primary interest. His lectures attracted not simply a large student audience but also leading figures from Edinburgh and even London society. Yet his status as “court philosopher” to the establishment resulted primarily from his growing list of publications. His first book, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), was a pioneering exercise in comparative history that traced the process of social evolution through the three stages of savagery, barbarism, and civilization. During the next fifty years, the volume would go through nine English editions and reprintings and be translated into French and German. Two years later, he published an expanded version of his lectures under the title Institutes of Moral Philosophy (1769), a work that further added to his reputation. In 1783, he brought out the massive History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic, covering the period from the beginning of the First Punic War through the end of the reign of Augustus. His best-known though least popularly successful work, Principles of Moral and Political Science, appeared in 1792.

Life’s Work

Ferguson was not a systematically consistent thinker. Not simply did his views undergo change over time, but also there were tensions and contradictions in individual works. There was, however, a reasonably well-defined general tendency in his opinions. In accord with the dominant spirit of his time, he was optimistic about the potential for human improvement. He was sufficiently influenced by the Calvinist tradition in which he had been reared to acknowledge the baneful influence of man’s “evil passions.” He averred that “perfection is no where to be found short of the infinite mind” of God, nor did he look ahead to any millennium when mankind would live in blissful harmony. Conflict among individuals and among nations was natural, even beneficent. Competition between individuals stimulated ambition and enterprise; war between nations fostered social cohesion. Yet Ferguson affirmed that “progression is the gift of God to all his intelligent creatures and is within the competence of the lowest of mankind.” Such progress was not inevitable. Adverse geographical and climatic conditions could result in stagnation. Similarly, nations could and did decay when unwise policies were followed “that crush [man’s] spirit; that debase his sentiments, and disqualify his mind for affairs.” The thrust of human nature, however, was progressive, with men “perpetually busied in reformations.” “Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood,” Ferguson summed up, “but the species itself from rudeness to civilization.”

Linked with this optimism about human potentialities was the Newtonian vision of a law-governed universe. Although reaffirming that “every circumstance or event in the order of nature” served “to manifest, and to extol the supreme wisdom and goodness of God,” Ferguson emphasized that this “wise providence” operated by the “fixed and determinate laws” of nature. Just as Sir Isaac Newton had revealed the laws governing the physical world, Ferguson aspired to discover the laws governing the social world. His aim, in short, was to rest moral philosophy upon a similarly empirical basis. As he wrote, “Before we can ascertain the rules of morality for mankind, the history of man’s nature, his dispositions, his specific enjoyments and sufferings, his conditions and future prospects, should be known.” The most important fact that Ferguson discovered about man is that he was a social animal. “It appears from the history of mankind that men have always acted in troops and companies. . . . [W]hile they practice arts, each for his own preservation, they institute political forms and unite their forces for common safety.” Thus, he denied the existence of any hypothetical state of nature in which men lived without social bonds.

From society are derived not only the force, but the very existence of man’s happiest emotions; not only the better part, but almost the whole of his rational character. Send him to the desert alone, he is a plant torn from its roots; the form indeed may remain, but every faculty droops and withers; the human personage and the human character cease to exist.

The corollary was that “most of the opinions, habits, and pursuits of men, result from the state of their society.” The proper study of mankind, therefore, was the study of groups rather than individuals. More...

(The entire section is 2695 words.)