James Frederick Ferrier (1808-1884)

James Frederick Ferrier was born on 16 June 1808 to a prominent Edinburgh family – his aunt was the novelist Susan Ferrier, and under the alias ‘Christopher North’ his uncle, Professor John Wilson, was one of 19th century Britain’s leading men of letters.

Ferrier was educated at the High School of Edinburgh and Greenwich School outside London. In 1825 he enrolled at the University of Edinburgh where he studied for two years before becoming a Fellow Commoner at Magdalen College, Oxford from which he graduated in 1832. It was during his last year there that he met Sir William Hamilton.

Ferrier returned to Edinburgh, entered the ‘Faculty of Advocates’ and began work as a lawyer in 1833, but having little interest in a legal career, he continued his philosophical studies, and in 1837 published his first article in Blackwood’s Magazine. This article – ‘An Introduction to the Philosophy of Consciousness’ – appeared in instalments over seven issues and established Ferrier as a contributor to philosophical discussion in Scotland.

In 1841 Ferrier was appointed Professor of Civil History at the University of Edinburgh where he developed a close intellectual and personal relationship with Sir William Hamilton on whose recommendation he was appointed Professor of Moral Philosophy and Political Economy at the University of St Andrews. In 1854 he published his major work the Institutes of Metaphysic.

In 1853 Ferrier applied to Edinburgh University for the Chair of Moral Philosophy and then again in 1856, when Sir William Hamilton died, for the Chair of Logic and Metaphysics. Neither application was successful, partly because of the mixed reception the Institutes had received. The second competition was acrimonious and prompted Ferrier to publish a short work Scottish Philosophy: the Old and the New, in which he defended his philosophy as properly Scottish despite his express rejection of the School of Common Sense.

James Frederick Ferrier spent his final years revising his lectures on Greek philosophy, which were published after his death. From 1857 onward Ferrier’s health declined and he died in St Andrews on 11 June 1864. His collected works were published in three volumes in 1875.

Ferrier’s essay on Berkeley was regarded in his own lifetime as possibly his best piece of work. In it he rejects an idea fundamental to Reid’s Inquiry, that the philosophy of mind was led off course by assumptions Berkeley had made widespread. Instead, Ferrier argues for a return to Berkeley but at the same time insists that this is in accord with the principles of common sense. In this way he gives a new turn to the Scottish philosophical tradition.

Gordon Graham, Princeton Theological Seminary