1902 Encyclopedia > James Frederick Ferrier

James Frederick Ferrier
Scottish metaphysician

JAMES FREDERICK FERRIER, (1808-1864), metaphysi-cian, was born in Edinburgh on 16th June 1808. His father was a writer to the signet, and his grandfather was an intimate friend of Sir Walter Scott. His mother was sister of Professor John Wilson. In his early youth he lived in the family of the Rev. Dr Duncan, in the manse of Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire, and under Dr Duncan's tuition he acquired a strong liking for the Latin poets, which remained with him all his days. After attending Edinburgh High School he studied under Dr Burney at Greenwich, and was a student of Edinburgh University in sessions 1825-26 and 1826-27. He took the B.A. degree at Oxford in 1831. In 1832 he passed as an advocate at Edinburgh. Probably it was his metaphysical tastes which led him to Heidelberg in 1834. These tastes were fostered by his intercourse with Sir William Hamilton, which was always most cordial, not-withstanding their wide differences of opinion. Ferrier himself has recorded the warm friendship which subsisted | between himself and Hamilton. "For years together," he I wrote, " scarcely a day passed in which I was not in his I company for hours, and never on this earth may I expect to live such happy hours again." His admiration for his uncle, John Wilson, whose daughter he married, was unbounded, and he had many opportunities of meeting politi-cal and literary celebrities in Wilson's house. In 1842 he was appointed professor of civil history in Edinburgh University. In session 1844-45 he acted as Sir William Hamilton's substitute in the chair of logic and metaphysics, and in 1845 he was elected professor of moral philosophy and political economy at St Andrews. He was twice an unsuc-cessful candidate for chairs in Edinburgh, for that of moral philosophy on the resignation of Professor Wilson in 1852, and for that of logic and metaphysics in 1856, after Hamil-ton's death. As a professor Ferrier had immense influence over his students, had an attack of angina pectoris in November 1861, from the effects of which he never recovered. He died on 11th June 1864.

Ferrier made his debut as a metaphysician in a series of articles in Blackwood in the years 1838-39, bearing the title " An Introduction to the Philosophy of Consciousness." In these articles he condemns previous philosophers for ignoring in their psychological investigations the fact of consciousness, which is the distinctive feature of man, and confining their observation to the so-called " states of the mind." By doing so, he says, they allowed freedom, will, morality, and all man's peculiar attributes to crumble away. It is wrong to apply the method of physical re-search to the problems of psychology, for the psychologist must act or create the great phenomenon which he has to observe. Consciousness only comes into manifestation when the man has used the word " I" with full knowledge of what it means. This notion he must originate within himself. Consciousness cannot spring from the states which are its object, for it is in antagonism to them. It originates in the will, which iu the act of consciousness puts the "I" in the place of our sensations. Morality, conscience, and responsibility are necessary results of consciousness.

A number of articles on philosophical subjects intervened between the above and the publication of the Institutes. The " Crisis of Modern Speculation," contributed in 1841, is a decided advance upon his earlier articles, and evinces a more correct appreciation of the particular element in thought. He there states the problem of philosophy to be the nature of the connexion between the mind of man and the external universe, and he solves the question, not by giving it a positive answer, but by changing its aspect. The question as formerly put becomes under his hands meaningless, for mind and universe, subject and object, are shown to be not two, but merely moments in one reality. Think the object, and it becomes subject-object. Think the subject, and it becomes subject-object. So that the question really asked is, " What is the connexion between the subjective subject-object and the objective subjective-object ?" "What is the connexion between one thing which thought cannot con-strue as really two ?" As results of this mode of stating the question, to which the mere thinking it necessarily leads, perception is rer&cved from the sphere of cause and effect, and the grounds of dogmatic realism and dogmatic idealism are subverted. " Berkeley and Idealism" (1842) is a further exposition of absolute idealism, and contains some foresbadowings of the later teaching of the Institutes on the subject of " Agnoiology."

In an article on the publication of Hamilton's edition of Reid (1847), which contains a vigorous attack on the philo-sophy of common sense, the perception of matter is pro-nounced to be the ne plus ultra of thought, and Beid, for presuming to analyse it, is declared to be a representationist in fact, although he professed to be an intuitionist. A dis-tinction is made between the " perception of matter " and " our apprehension of the perception of matter." Psycho-logy vainly tries to analyse the former. Metaphysic shows the latter alone to be analysable, and separates the subjective element, " our apprehension, " from the objective element, " the perception of matter,"—not matter per se, but the perception of matter is the existence independent of the individual's thought. It cannot, however, be independent of thought. It must belong to some mind, and is therefore the property of the Divine Mind. There, he thinks, is an indestructible foundation for the a priori argument for the existence of God.

Ferrier's matured philosophical doctrines find expression in the Institutes of Metaphysics. Therein he claims to have met the twofold obligation resting on every system of philosophy, that it should be reasoned and true. His method is that of Spinoza, strict demonstration, or at least an attempt at it. All the errors of natural thinking and psychology must fall under one or other of three topics :— Knowing and the Known, Ignorance, and Being. These are all-comprehensive, and are therefore the departments into which philosophy is divided ; for the sole end of philo-sophy is to correct the inadvertencies of ordinary thinking. Hence it must be polemical.

The problems of knowing and the known are treated in the " Epistemology or Theory of Knowing," under a series of twenty-two propositions and counter-propositions. Each proposition contains a philosophic truth, and the correspond-ing counter-proposition expresses the error of ordinary thinking regarding it. The truth that along with whatever amy intelligence knows it must, as the ground or condition of its knowledge, have some cognizance of itself is the basis of the whole philosophical system; and, variously stated through a series of propositions, it leads to the conclusion that the only independent universe which any mind can think of is the universe in synthesis with some other mind or ego.

The leading contradiction which is corrected in the " Agnoiology or Theory of Ignorance" is this, that there can be an ignorance of that of which there can be no knowledge. Ignorance is a defect. But there is no defect in not know-ing what cannot be known by any intelligence, and there-fore there can be an ignorance only of that of which there can be a knowledge, i.e., of some-object-yfes-some-subject. Ferrier lays special claim to originality for this division of the Institutes.

The " Ontology or Theory of Being " forms the third and final division of the Institutes. It contains a discussion of the origin of knowledge, in which Ferrier traces all the per-plexities and errors of philosophers to the assumption of the absolute existence of matter. The conclusion arrived at is that the only true real and independent existences are minds-together-with-that-which-they-apprehend, and that the one strictly necessary absolute existence is a supreme and infinite and everlasting mind in synthesis with all things.
Ferrier's works are perhaps the best propaedeutic to the study of metaphysics in the English language. He has Berkeley's charm of style, while he surveys philosophical questions from a more advanced standpoint. His philosophic insight was true from the first. Notwithstanding his disavowal of any indebtedness to the German philoso-phers, his writings are imbued with the spirit of German metaphysics ; and he has the merit of being the first to question the right of Dr Reid and his school to dominate the thought of Scotland. Others have arisen more potent than he to read the riddle of the great German he admired so much; yet those who seek a knowledge of the philo-sophy of the absolute will do wisely not to neglect the works of Ferrier.

A collected edition of Ferrier's philosophical works, edited by his son-in-law Sir Alexander Grant, and Professor E. L. Lushington, was published in 1866. This edition contains Ferrier's earlier con- tributions to Blackivood, a few miscellaneous lectures, the biographies of Schelling and Hegel contributed to the Imp>erial Dictionary of Universal Biography, some papers supplementary to the Institutes of Metaphysics, and the lectures in Greek philosophy which he de- livered to his class. In 1875 there was brought out a three-volume edition of Ferrier's philosophical works, including, along with the above, the Institutes of Metaphysics, of which two editions had been published in the author's lifetime one in 1854, and a second in 1856. (D. B.)

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