Gershom Carmichael (1672-1729)

Gershom Carmichael was born in London - the son of a Scottish Presbyterian clergyman -- but educated at the University of Edinburgh (1687-91). He taught briefly at the University of St. Andrews (1693-4) and in 1694 was appointed Regent at the University of Glasgow through the influence, partly of the family of the Duke and Duchess of Hamilton and their son (to whom he dedicated the first of his Philosophical Theses). In 1727, when the old regenting system was abandoned at the University of Glasgow in favour of the creation of a professoriate, Carmichael was appointed Professor of Moral Philosophy, the first person in Scotland to hold a professorial position in philosophy.

Carmichael was reputed to be a demanding teacher. As a regent he was responsible for teaching all parts of the philosophy curriculum – logic, metaphysics, moral philosophy, and natural philosophy (or physics). However, as can be inferred from his eventual appointment to a Professorship dedicated to just one subject, his particular speciality was moral philosophy. Carmichael inhabited an academic world that included moral philosophers and natural jurists well beyond the boundaries of Scotland and Great Britain, with many of whom he communicated. Much of his work in moral philosophy was dominated by the concept of natural rights, and the lectures he delivered at the University of Glasgow in 1702-3 made extensive use of Samuel Pufendorf’s On the Duty of Man and Citizen, views later developed into Carmichael’s own Supplements and Observations upon Samuel Pufendorf’s On the Duty of Man and Citizen according to the Law of Nature, a text expressly composed for the use of students in Universities.

The conclusions presented in the Observations resulted both from years of teaching and reflectionas well as extensive discussion, especially with Jean Barbeyrac (1672-1744) an outstanding authority on natural jurisprudence in the early 18th century. Carmichael died of cancer in 1729. He was succeeded as Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow by Francis Hutcheson, one of his own students. Hutcheson generously acknowledged his debt to Carmichael in the work he prepared for the instruction of students, A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy. In this way Carmichael’s work contributed, very fundamentally, to shaping the agenda of instruction in moral philosophy in eighteenth-century Scotland even though Hutcheson is now the much better known.

Gordon Graham, Princeton Theological Seminary