1902 Encyclopedia > Dugald Stewart

Dugald Stewart
Scottish philosopher

DUGALD STEWART, (1753-1828), one of the most influential of the Scottish philosophers, was born at Edinburgh on the 22d of November 1753. His father, Matthew Stewart (1715-85), was professor of mathematics in the university of Edinburgh from 1747 till 1772, and was an eminent investigator in his own department, applying the geometrical methods of Simson, who had been his teacher in Glasgow. Dugald Stewart's early years were passed partly in Edinburgh and partly at Catrine in Ayrshire, where his father had a small property, to which the family removed every summer on the close of the academical session. Burns was an occasional visitor at Catrine, which is only a few miles from Mossgiel; and the philosopher and the poet had various meetings as well as some slight correspondence in later years, Dugald Stewart was educated at the high school and university of his native town. At school he laid the foundation of the classical knowledge and literary taste which are conspicuous in his works, and which lent a charm to his prelections. At the university his chief subjects were the mathematical sciences—in which he attained great proficiency—and philosophy. Adam Ferguson, the historian of the Roman republic, was then professor of moral philosophy in Edinburgh, and his bracing ideal of ethical and political virtue commended itself highly to Stewart. In 1771, having thoughts of entering the English Church, Stewart proceeded to Glasgow with a view to the Snell exhibitions tenable by Glasgow students at Oxford. Here he listened to the lectures of Reid, whose Inquiry, pub-lished seven years before, had laid the effective foundation of what is called distinctively the Scottish philosophy. Reid became Stewart's acknowledged master and also his friend, while Stewart's academic eloquence and powers of elegant exposition gained for their common doctrines a much wider acceptance than they could have secured in the clumsier and less attractive presentation of Reid himself. In Glasgow Stewart boarded in the same house with Archibald Alison, afterwards author of the Essay on Taste, and a close friendship sprang up between them, which remained unbroken through life. After no more than a single session in Glasgow, Dugald Stewart was summoned by his father, whose health was beginning to fail, to conduct the mathematical classes in the university of Edinburgh. Though only nineteen years of age he discharged his duties with marked ability and success; and after acting three years as his father's substitute he was elected professor of mathematics in conjunction with him in 1775. Three years later Adam Ferguson was appointed secretary to the commissioners sent out to the American colonies, and at his urgent request Stewart lectured as his substitute. Thus during the session 1778-79, in addition to his mathematical work, he delivered an original course of lectures on morals. "To this season," says his son, "he always referred as the most laborious of his life; and such was the exhaustion of the body from the intense and continued stretch of the mind that on his departure for London at the close of the academical session it was necessary to lift him into the carriage." In 1783 Stewart married Helen Bannatyne, who died in 1787, leaving an only son, Colonel Matthew Stewart, from whose short memoir of his father the above is a quotation.

In 1785, on the resignation of Ferguson, he was transferred to the chair of moral philosophy, which he filled for a quarter of a century and made a notable centre of intellectual and moral influence. Young men of rank and of parts were attracted by his reputation from England, and even from the Continent and America. A very large number of men who afterwards rose to eminence in literature or in the service of the state were thus among his students. Sir Walter Scott, Jeffrey, Cockburn, Francis Horner, Sydney Smith, Lord Brougham, Dr Thomas Brown, James Mill, Sir James Mackintosh, and Sir Archibald Alison may be mentioned among others. There is a unanimous testimony to the attractive eloquence of Stewart's lectures and the moral elevation of his teaching. "Dugald Stewart," says Lord Cockburn, "was one of the greatest of didactic orators. Had he lived in ancient times, his memory would have descended to us as that of one of the finest of the old eloquent sages. No intelligent pupil of his ever ceased to respect philosophy, or was ever false to his principles, without feeling the crime aggravated by the recollection of the morality that Stewart had taught him." Dr John Thomson, afterwards medical professor in Edinburgh, was accustomed to say that the two things by which he had been most impressed in the course of his life were the acting of Mrs Siddons and the oratory of Dugald Stewart. Lord Cockburn, in his Memorials, has left an interesting portraiture of Stewart's appearance and manner:— "Stewart was about the middle size, weakly-limbed, and with an appearance of feebleness which gave an air of delicacy to his gait and structure. His forehead was large and bald, his eyebrows bushy, his eyes grey and intelligent, and capable of conveying any emotion from indignation to pity, from serene sense to hearty humour, in which they were powerfully aided by his lips, which, though rather large perhaps, were flexible and expressive. The voice was singularly pleasing ; and, as he managed it, a slight burr only made its tones softer. His ear, both for music and for speech, was exquisite; and he was the finest reader I have ever heard. His gesture was simple and elegant, though not free from a tinge of professional formality; and his whole manner was that of an academical gentleman, .... calm and expository, but rising into greatness or softening into tenderness whenever his subject required it." The course on moral philosophy embraced, besides ethics proper, lectures on political philosophy or the theory of government, and from 1800 onwards a separate course of lectures was delivered on political economy. These last were extremely important in spreading a knowledge of the fundamental principles of the science at a time when they were still almost unknown to the general public. Stewart's enlightened political teaching was sufficient, in the times of reaction succeeding the French Revolution, to draw upon him the undeserved suspicion of disaffection to the constitution.

In 1790 Stewart married a second time. Miss Cranstoun, who became his wife, was a lady of birth and accomplishments, and he was in the habit of submitting to her criticism whatever he wrote. A son and a daughter were the issue of this marriage. The death of the former in 1809 was a severe blow to the failing health of his father, and was the immediate cause of his retirement from the active duties of his chair. Before that, however, Stewart had not been idle as an author. In 1792 he published the first volume of the Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind; the second volume appeared in 1814, and the third not till 1827. In 1793 he printed a text-book, Outlines of Moral Philosophy, which went through many editions; and in the same year he read before the Royal Society of Edinburgh his account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith. Similar memoirs of Robertson the historian and of Reid were afterwards read before the same body and appear in his published works. In 1805 Stewart took an active part in what was known as the Leslie case, that is to say, the public controversy arising out of the appointment of Mr (afterwards Sir John) Leslie to the chair of mathematics in the university of Edinburgh. Leslie was attacked by the presbytery of Edinburgh, ostensibly on account of his views on the nature of causal connexion, which were said to approximate to Hume's. In two pamphlets Stewart defended Leslie's doctrine as philosophically tenable and theologically innocuous. In 1806 he received in lieu of a pension the nominal office of the writership of the Edinburgh Gazette, with a salary of £300. When the shock of his son's death incapacitated him from lecturing during the session of 1809-10, his place was taken, at his own request, by Dr Thomas Brown, who in 1810 was appointed conjoint professor. On the death of Brown in 1820, Stewart, who had taken no further active part in lecturing, retired altogether from the professorship, which was conferred upon John Wilson, better known as "Christopher North." From 1809 onwards Stewart lived mainly at Kinneil House, Linlithgowshire, which was placed at his disposal by the duke of Hamilton. From this retirement he continued to send forth a succession of works. In 1810 appeared Philosophical Essays, in 1814 the second volume of the Elements, in 1815 the first part and in 1821 the second part of the "Dissertation" written for the Encyclopaedia Britannica "Supplement," entitled "A General View of the Progress of Metaphysical, Ethical, and Political Philosophy since the Revival of Letters." In 1822 he was struck with paralysis, but recovered a fair degree of health, sufficient to enable him to resume his studies. In 1827 he published the third volume of the Elements, and in 1828, a few weeks before his death, The Philosophy of the Active and Moral Powers. He died in Edinburgh after a short illness on the 11th of June 1828. A monument to his memory was erected on the Calton Hill by his friends and admirers.

An edition of his Collected Works, in eleven volumes (1854-58), was edited by Sir William Hamilton, on whose death in 1856 it was carried to completion and furnished with a memoir of Stewart by Prof. Veitch. Stewart was an elegant writer rather than a profound or original thinker, and he cannot be said to have added much to the philosophy of Reid (see REID), though he contributed very largely to its dissemination. His psychological observations, however, are acute and varied, and his general powers of mind contributed largely to elevate the study of philosophy in the United Kingdom. His reputation rests more upon the tradition of his inspiring and elevating eloquence than upon any definite achievements within the province of philosophy proper. (A. SE.)

The above article was written by: Prof. Andrew Seth.

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