Andrew Seth Pringle Pattison (1856-1931)

Andrew Seth (who later changed his name to Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison to fulfill the terms of a bequest), was born in Edinburgh on December 20th 1856. By education, history and philosophical orientation, he represents, arguably, the culmination of the Scottish philosophical tradition, and was the first philosopher to give sustained critical scrutiny to that tradition under the label ‘Scottish Philosophy’.

Seth attended the Royal High School in Edinburgh, where Walter Scott had been educated, and where he was taught Latin by James Donaldson, a future Principal of St Andrews University. At the age of 16 he matriculated in Edinburgh University where he graduated five years later with the rare distinction of First Class Honours in Classics and Philosophy. Both the University and the City of Edinburgh at that time were intellectually vibrant. Thomas Carlyle had been elected Rector of the University in 1865, and though this was largely an honorary position, the intellectual breadth and seriousness of thought that Carlyle represented became the model for students. (Seth wrote The Scotsman obituary at the time of Carlyle’s death in 1881.) The university student Philosophical Society which Seth joined had several key members who became important contributors to philosophical thought in Scotland in later years – Robert Adamson, R B Haldane, D G Ritchie and W R Sorley (as well as Seth’s younger brother, James Seth).The university itself had undergone important reforms as a result of the Act of 1858, and was recovering the reputation for academic excellence that it had had a century earlier partly because a remarkable group of professors had been appointed to Chairs. Of these, the greatest influence on Andrew Seth was Alexander Campbell Fraser, another striking example of the Scottish philosophical tradition in its maturity.

During Andrew Seth’s student days, the brilliant doctor/philosopher J Hutcheson Stirling, who had published the first book on Hegel in English in 1865, was living in Edinburgh. His philosophical acumen greatly impressed Seth, and after graduation, he spent two years studying in Germany (where he met his future wife). This enabled him to explore more fully the contrast between German Idealism and Scottish realism that subsequently became the subject of his first set of Balfour Lectures, as well as the increasingly important philosophical psychology of Lotze. On returning to Scotland, Seth became Logic Assistant to A C Fraser, and won the much prized Ferguson Philosophical Fellowship. To earn some essential extra income, he took up journalism, first in the form of book reviews, and then leading articles on politics, international relations and ecclesiastical affairs.

In 1883 Andrew Seth obtained a full time academic post, as the first Professor of Philosophy at the newly founded University of South Wales at Cardiff. While still at Edinburgh he had read a book by A J Balfour – a wealthy aristocrat who combined serious philosophical interests with a successful political career, eventually becoming Prime Minister in 1902. On the strength of his book, Seth invited Balfour to give a paper to the Philosophical Society at Edinburgh. A long friendship was formed, and Balfour established a special lectureship whose sole purpose was to bring Seth from Cardiff to Edinburgh from time to time. He gave three sets of Balfour Lectures. The first of these was published in 1885. Entitled Scottish Philosophy: a comparison of the German and Scottish answers to Hume, it was dedicated, appropriately, to A C Fraser, and notwithstanding James McCosh's volume on The Scottish Philosophy published a decade earlier, it comprises the first and in many way finest self-conscious reflection on the philosophical tradition in which Seth had been so well educated.

Andrew Seth remained in Cardiff for four years before returning to Scotland to take the Chair of Logic and Metaphysics at St Andrews in succession to Spencer Baynes, editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The holder of the Chair of Logic at that time was also required to teach English Literature. Seth had shown both an interest and a talent for the subject since his schooldays. He taught it with enthusiasm, and like a previous occupant of the Chair – John Veitch – even wrote some poems himself. At that time, the University year lasted only six months (October to March) and there were no afternoon classes, so there was plenty of time for extended philosophical reflection and personal study. It was during this period that he gave the third set of Balfour Lectures on Realism, subsequently published in the Philosophical Review.

In 1891, Andrew Seth finally returned to Edinburgh as successor in the Logic Chair to his teacher Fraser, to whom he pays fulsome tribute in his inaugural lecture. His other philosophy teacher from undergraduate days - Henry Calderwood - still occupied the companion Chair of Moral Philosophy, but five years later, James Seth, Andrew’s younger brother, was appointed Calderwood’s successor. The two brothers remained in post together until their retirements. In 1896, Andrew Seth made his one trip to North America when he was invited to attend the 150th anniversary of the College of New Jersey, the occasion on which it assumed the title Princeton University. He thereby confirmed, and to some extent renewed, the connection between Princeton and Scottish philosophy that had been a notable feature since the days of Witherspoon in the 18th century and then James McCosh a hundred years later. The Two Lectures on Theism that he gave as part of the celebrations were published the next year, and summarize one aspect of his mature philosophical views. In the same year he published a collection of essays Man’s Place in the Cosmos. These essays reveal the extent to which his philosophical inquiries were deeply intertwined with important questions of history and culture. A second edition, which appeared in 1902, is notable for a long and sophisticated examination of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose philosophical importance Seth recognized at a time when Nietzsche was virtually unknown to most of the English speaking world.

In 1898, by a strange combination of circumstances, a distant cousin with whom he had had little connection bequeathed him her estate, including a large house in the Scottish Borders, all on condition that he took the name Pringle-Pattison – which he did – the name that appears on his publications after that date. A S Pringle-Pattison (as he became) held the Chair of Logic and Metaphysics at Edinburgh until 1919, when he was succeeded by a former student (from St Andrews days) – Norman Kemp Smith – who resigned from his Chair in Princeton to return to Scotland. Following his retirement Pringle-Pattison remained philosophically active. Having given Gifford Lectures on The Idea of God in the Light of Recent Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen in 1911-12, Edinburgh invited him to give the Gifford Lectures there in 1922 for which he chose a corresponding subject The Idea of Immortality.

Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison was no stranger to human suffering. His first child – a daughter – died in infancy, and a son was killed in the Battle of the Somme. He was predeceased by his wife of forty four years, and by his younger brother (and philosophical colleague) James. His last publications – which appeared in the Proceedings of the British Academy – were extended appreciations of the work of philosophical friends who had also predeceased him, notably R B Haldane and A J Balfour.

A student at St Andrews recalled that Seth distinguished between two kinds of speculative metaphysics – one essentially intellectual, the other essentially ethical. His own philosophical endeavors were of the second kind – not moral philosophy as this is generally understood, so much as normative metaphysics. The title of his collection of essays – Man’s Place in the Cosmos – (also the title of the opening essay) gives a clear indication of its character. His philosophical work was deeply informed by his early appreciation of the competition between British empiricism and German Idealism, and the relation of the issues around which they contend to recurrent questions concerning the significance of human life. In striving to secure the integrity of individual selves against some varieties of Hegelianism, while at the same time avoiding the solipcism inherent in Humean empiricism, Seth Pringle-Pattison increasingly sought the solution in a version of theism. He described the published version of his first Gifford Lecture -- The Idea of God in the Light of Recent Philosophy -- as bringing together ‘the reflections of many years’. The normative metaphysics that emerges from these reflections offers a philosophical equilibrium that both Idealists and empiricists find unstable. There is some reason to think, however, that it influenced anti-Hegelian thinkers in the United States in particular and especially William James’s rejection of the Idealism espoused by his Harvard college Josiah Royce.

A S Pringle-Pattison’s work are out of print, though they ran through so many printings that used copies are widely available. His criticisms of Hegelianism can be found in an extract in The Scottish Idealists: selected philosophical writings ed. David Boucher.

Gordon Graham, Princeton Theological Seminary