Adam Ferguson

Adam Ferguson books and biography


Adam Ferguson


Adam Ferguson, also known as Ferguson of Raith (June 20, 1723 (O.S.) - February 22, 1816) was a philosopher and historian of the Scottish Enlightenment.



Born at Logierait in Perthshire, Scotland, he received his education at Perth grammar school and at the University of St Andrews. In 1745, owing to his knowledge of Gaelic, he gained appointment as deputy chaplain of the 43rd (afterwards the 42nd) regiment (the Black Watch), the licence to preach being granted him by special dispensation, although he had not completed the required six years of theological study.

It remains a matter of debate as to whether, at the Battle of Fontenoy (1745), Ferguson fought in the ranks throughout the day, and refused to leave the field, though ordered to do so by his colonel. Nevertheless, he certainly did well, becoming principal chaplain in 1746. He continued attached to the regiment till 1754, when, disappointed at not obtaining a living, he left the clergy and resolved to devote himself to literary pursuits.

After residing in Leipzig for a time, he returned to Edinburgh where in January 1757 he succeeded David Hume as librarian to the Faculty of Advocates (see Advocates' Library), but soon relinquished this office on becoming tutor in the family of the Earl of Bute. In 1759 Ferguson became professor of natural philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, and in 1764 transferred to the chair of "pneumatics" (mental philosophy) "and moral philosophy."

In 1767, against David Hume's advice, he published his Essay on the History of Civil Society, which was well received and translated into several European languages. In the mid 1770s he travelled again to the Continent and met Voltaire. His membership of The Poker Club is recorded in its Minute Book of 1776.

In 1776 appeared his (anonymous) pamphlet on the American Revolution in opposition to Dr Richard Price's Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, in which he sympathised with the views of the British legislature. In 1778 Ferguson was appointed secretary to the Carlisle commission which endeavoured, but without success, to negotiate an arrangement with the revolted colonies.

In 1783 appeared his History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic; it became very popular, and went through several editions. Ferguson believed that the history of the Roman Republic during the period of their greatness formed a practical illustration of those ethical and political doctrines which he studied especially. The history reads well and impartially, and displays conscientious use of sources. The influence of the author's military experience shows itself in certain portions of the narrative. Tired of teaching, he resigned his professorship in 1785, and devoted himself to the revision of his lectures, which he published (1792) under the title of Principles of Moral and Political Science.

In his seventieth year, Ferguson, intending to prepare a new edition of the history, visited Italy and some of the principal cities of Europe, where he was received with honour by learned societies. From 1795 he resided successively at the old castle of Neidpath near Peebles, at Hallyards on Manor Water and at St Andrews, where he died on February 22, 1816.


In his ethical system Ferguson treats man as a social being, illustrating his doctrines by political examples. As a believer in the progression of the human race, he placed the principle of moral approbation in the attainment of perfection. Victor Cousin criticised Ferguson's speculations (see his Cours d'histoire de la philosophie morale an dix-huitième siècle, pt. II., 1839-1840):

"We find in his method the wisdom and circumspection of the Scottish school, with something more masculine and decisive in the results. The principle of perfection is a new one, at once more rational and comprehensive than benevolence and sympathy, which in our view places Ferguson as a moralist above all his predecessors."

By this principle Ferguson attempted to reconcile all moral systems. With Thomas Hobbes and Hume he admits the power of self-interest or utility, and makes it enter into morals as the law of self-preservation. Francis Hutcheson's theory of universal benevolence and Adam Smith's idea of sympathy he combines under the law of society. But, as these laws appear as the means rather than the end of human destiny, they remain subordinate to a supreme end, and the supreme end of perfection.

In the political part of his system Ferguson follows Montesquieu, and pleads the cause of well-regulated liberty and free government. His contemporaries, with the exception of Hume, regarded his writings as of great importance, but he made minimal original contributions. (see Sir Leslie Stephen, English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, x. 89-90). His work was especially influential for German writers, such as Hegel and Marx.

Main works by Adam Ferguson

  • An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767)
  • The History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic (1783)
  • Principles of Moral and Political Science; being chiefly a retrospect of lectures delivered in the College of Edinburgh (1792)
  • Institutes of Moral Philosophy (1769)
  • Reflections Previous to the Establishment of a Militia (1756)


Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
Adam Ferguson
  • Biographical Sketch by John Small (1864)
  • Public Characters (1799-1800); Gentleman's Magazine, i. (1816 supp.)
  • W. & R. Chambers's Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen
  • memoir by Principal Lee in early editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica
  • J McCosh, The Scottish Philosophy (1875)
  • articles in Dictionary of National Biography
  • Edinburgh Review (January 1867)
  • Lord Henry Cockburn, Memorials of his Time (1856).

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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