Alexander Campbell Fraser (1819-1914)

Alexander Campbell Fraser was born at Ardchattan, Argyll, in the west of Scotland, the son of a Church of Scotland minister and the eldest of twelve children. Fraser’s unusually long life meant that he lived under no fewer than five British sovereigns, but it was the long reign of Queen Victoria that encompassed virtually all his active adult life. He graduated in 1837, the year of her accession, was at height of his academic career when he was presented to her at her Jubilee in 1887, and published his retrospective Biographia Philosophica in 1904, just three years after her death.

Fraser’s philosophical career began in a narrow university world that knew little besides Reid, the Edinburgh University that Thomas Carlyle deplored as a student. It ended just as the Absolute Idealism which had come to dominate that world was itself beginning to yield to another phase of empiricism. Alexander Campbell Fraser himself was responsible for enlarging the relatively narrow bounds of Scottish philosophy by recovering and restoring the philosophical fortunes of Bishop Berkeley. Yet his express admiration for Sir William Hamilton and his biography of Reid reveal a deep sympathy with the Scottish philosophical tradition that he successfully transmitted to a new generation of philosophers.

In 1819 the manse at Ardchattan in the Land of Lorne was extremely isolated, surrounded on three sides by water. Up to the age of seven Campbell was educated by his mother, a devout evangelical woman with family connections to the ‘Clapham sect’ of William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner. Fraser attended the parish school briefly, but illness confined him to lessons from the local schoolmaster at home, where he had the use of his father’s considerable library. At the early, but then customary age of fourteen, he went to Glasgow University.

Life in the slum ridden city of Glasgow was dramatically different from the beauty and solitude of Lorne. The eccentric James Mylne, successor to Thomas Reid, was Professor of Moral Philosophy. After one, rather unhappy, session Fraser transferred to the University of Edinburgh, at that time a three day journey from Lorne. In Edinburgh he was lectured in logic by the aging David Ritchie, clerical father of the more distinguished D G Ritchie. David Ritchie senior taught undiluted Reid. On his own initiative Alexander Campbell Fraser studied Thomas Brown, which led him to read David Hume. After completing his MA, Fraser turned to theology. One of his less inspiring teachers was David Welsh, a church historian best known for his biography of Thomas Brown. The commanding presence was Thomas Chalmers, Professor of Theology at Edinburgh since 1828 and before that Professor of Moral Philosophy at St Andrews. Chalmers was a charismatic figure of colossal intellectual energy, a gifted preacher and (a few years later) leader of the Free Church movement. His own philosophical accomplishments were slight, but his influence on philosophy in Scotland was nonetheless considerable. More importantly, Fraser at this time encountered Sir William Hamilton who had been appointed to the Edinburgh Chair of Logic and Metaphysics in 1836. He attended Hamilton’s lectures as a private student, as well as the celebrated evening discussions when Hamilton welcomed students to his home in Manor Place. It was there that Fraser first made acquaintance with the brilliant James Frederick Ferrier, subsequently his competitor in the succession to Hamilton. ‘I owe more to Hamilton than any other influence’ Fraser wrote long years after in his Biographia Philosophica of 1904, ‘perhaps the most learned Scot who ever lived’.

Alexander Campbell Fraser was ordained into the Presbyterian ministry and became the Minister of Cramond, a parish not far from Edinburgh on the shores of the Firth of Forth. In the Disruption of 1843 which spilt the Established Church of Scotland, he sided with Chalmers and the Free Church party. A rival university – New College – was established and in 1846 Fraser became its first professor of Logic. He remained in this post for 10 years, but prompted by the failure of the new university to become much more than a school of divinity, and freed by the ending of certain legal ‘tests’, Fraser successfully applied to succeed Sir William Hamilton as professor of Logic and Metaphysics at Edinburgh University.

The year 1858 saw the Universities of Scotland Act pass into law. Fraser saw this as the means by which ‘a great Free University’ for the people of Scotland, such as had once been the vision for New College, had at last come into existence. In 1859 his colleagues elected him Dean of the Faculty of Arts, a position he retained for over thirty years. In this position, and in cooperation with Principal Grant, whose appointment he had been instrumental in securing, he steered Edinburgh University through a period of expansion and acclaim that restored to it the kind of reputation its medical school had acquired for it in the previous century. The culmination came in the Tercentenary Festival that marked the 300th anniversary of the University’s founding in 1585.

Alongside this important and valuable administrative activity, Fraser proved an influential teacher of a new generation of philosophers, most notably perhaps Andrew Seth, who succeeded him in 1891. In his own Inaugural Lecture in the Logic Chair, Seth recalls Fraser’s remarkable ability to awaken students intellectually, so that they were ‘induced to ask the world-old questions, and to ponder the possible answers’, with a clear sense that what the Professor offered was ‘not merely information’ but ‘the recurring subjects of his deepest meditation’. In addition, Fraser undertook the editing of a definitive edition of the Complete Works of Berkeley, published by the Clarendon Press, and wrote an accompanying volume on Berkeley for the Blackwood’s Philosophical Classics series.

This editorial work gave Fraser occasion to travel. He went frequently to London where he was elected a member of the Metaphysical Society, a group of some of the most distinguished intellectuals of the time. Being based in Edinburgh Fraser was able to attend only a few of their monthly meetings, but while in London he was also able to visit J S Mill, Herbert Spencer and Thomas Carlyle in their homes.

Alexander Campbell Fraser retired from the Chair of Logic in 1891, but he still had twenty years of active philosophical work ahead of him. Philosophical biographies of Locke and Reid joined the earlier book on Berkeley, and a long delayed edition of Locke’s Essay was completed for the Clarendon Press in 1894. In that same year he was elected to give the Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh, subsequently published as The Philosophy of Theism. This is his most distinctive work. Like many others at the time, it revolves around the intensifying rivalry between traditional religion and empirical science. Fraser argues in favor of the view that the existence of Active Divine Will is a necessary presupposition of the idea of causality that makes science possible.

Alexander Campbell Fraser’s Biographia Philosophica : a retrospect which he published in 1904, is a remarkably fine work. It opens with the observation that’ perplexities of religious thought have at all times been the springs of metaphysical reflection’ and the pages that follow recount the events of his long life in the context of his philosophical grappling with these perplexities. It combines elegant writing with historical interest and philosophical insight. At the age of 91 Fraser was still able to work on corrections for a sixth edition of his Selections from Berkeley. He died in 1914 in his 96th year.

Gordon Graham, Princeton Theological Seminary