Sir William Hamilton (1788-1856)

Sir William Hamilton was born in Glasgow. His father, also William Hamilton, was Regius Professor of Anatomy and Botany at the University of Glasgow. He died when Hamilton was only two years old, leaving him to be brought up by his mother, along with his younger brother Thomas. Hamilton was educated in Scotland and in England, where he attended private school near London for two years. In 1803 he matriculated at the University of Glasgow and took classes in Logic with Professor George Jardine, noted for his student centered educational methods, and in Moral Philosophy with Professor James Mylne, who had succeeded Thomas Reid in the Chair of Moral Philosophy. Hamilton rapidly proved intellectually gifted (as well as remarkably handsome) and, by the votes of his fellow students, was awarded honors in both classes. Over the course of the next two years, Hamilton studied mathematics, natural science and medicine. In the winter of 1806 he undertook further studies in medicine at Edinburgh University. It was during his student days in Glasgow that Hamilton began his lifelong acquisition of books that later comprised a large and valuable personal library.

In 1807 William Hamilton’s outstanding academic record at Glasgow enabled him to follow in the footsteps of Adam Smith by winning a Snell Exhibitioner at Balliol College, Oxford. These scholarships, founded in 1677 and reserved for Scottish students, were intented to enable gifted Glaswegians to continue their studies as a more advanced level, though Smith and Hamilton found that intellectual life in Oxford compared poorly with Edinburgh and Glasgow. Hamilton graduated from Oxford with a first class arts degree in 1811, and shortly after abandoned his intention to enter the medical profession, taking up law instead and becoming a member of the Scottish bar in 1813. It was in 1816 that his legal investigations enabled him to claim the baronetcy of the ancient family of Hamilton of Preston, which had been in abeyance since the death of Sir Robert Hamilton of Preston in 1701. Hamilton became the 9th Baron and was thereafter always referred to as Sir William.

In 1817 and 1820 Hamilton made two key visits to Germany. He became fluent in German and this made him the first Scottish (and British) philosopher of any consequence to encounter the immensely influential German philosophical movement that Kant had inaugurated. Hamilton’s unique combination – an education in the Common Sense philosophy of Reid combined with a detailed textual knowledge of German philosophy – was to prove critical in the development of the Scottish philosophical tradition in the 19th century.

Hamilton’s enthusiasm for philosophy greatly exceeded his interest in the law, and accordingly in 1820 he applied for the Chair of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh that had become vacant on the unexpected death of Thomas Brown. His application was unsuccessful, but a year later he was appointed to the Chair of Civil History. This was a peculiar position. No students were required to attend his lectures on history and literature, and the salary (which relied on a local beer tax), was discontinued after a time, at which point Hamilton relinquished his professorship. But he continued his intellectual work and his best known essay, the "Philosophy of the Unconditioned" appeared in the Edinburgh Review in this period. It was the first of a series of articles (reprinted with additions in 1852-1853 as Discussions In Philosophy, Literature and Education) that constituted the basis of a successful application for the Chair of Logic and Metaphysics at Edinburgh, to which he was appointed in 1836. He held the Chair for the next twenty years, and exercised an enormous intellectual influence of several generations of Scottish intellectuals. His edition of the Collected Works of Thomas Reid appeared in 1846. By this time, paralysis had seriously crippled him, though it left his mind wholly unimpaired. With the help of his wife he completed a nine volume edition of the Collected Works of Dugald Stewart, published in 1854-5, and was able to continue teaching until very shortly before his death in 1856.

The academic prestige and intellectual admiration William Hamilton enjoyed during his lifetime, and retained for a short period after his death, contrasts very sharply with his subsequent relegation to the status of a minor philosophical figure. Thomas Carlyle, who knew him before he obtained a university post, speaks of him in glowing terms. Alexander Campbell Fraser studied under him and succeeded him in the Edinburgh Chair of Logic. He describes William Hamilton as ‘perhaps the most learned Scot that ever lived’, and rated his intellectual debt to Hamilton above any other. John Veitch, also a student who subsequently held philosophy Chairs at St Andrews and Glasgow, hailed Hamilton’s early work as the means by which ‘the regard and the admiration of the thinkers of continental Europe was drawn to poor and far away Scotland, and its almost solitary philosophical scholar’. Further evidence of international acclaim is to be found in the very wide following he attracted amongst teachers of philosophy in the United States. At the same time, even Veitch, who contributed a Blackwood’s Philosophical Classics volume on Hamilton (alongside volumes on Descartes, Leibniz, Hume and Kant) reached the rather careful conclusion that on what ‘might be called the constructive side of the philosophy of Hamilton, he cannot be said fully to have explained his views’.

In truth, Hamilton’s accomplishment is difficult to assess. His contemporary philosophical reputation rested largely upon the Edinburgh Review essays in which he strove to occupy the middle ground between Reid’s Common Sense and Kant’s transcendental Idealism. Like many via media, they proved unconvincing and attracted vigorous critics on both sides. The most famous of these was John Stuart Mill, whose empiricist Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy did much to remove his star from the ascendant. Less well known (now) was Hutcheson Stirling’s equally vigorous Idealist attack in William Hamilton’s Philosophy of Perception (1865). Together these books created a prevailing view that Hamilton had nothing much to contribute to the central debates of philosophy.

Perhaps, though, it is wiser to look elsewhere. Hamilton inspired a remarkable new generation of Scottish philosophers– A C Fraser, John Veitch, William Spalding, and J F Ferrier. All of them admired him greatly and thought he had revitalized philosophy in Scotland from the deadly condition into which it had largely fallen in the first decades of the 19th century. They all went on to occupy Chairs of philosophy at the ancient Scottish universities, and to make substantial scholarly and philosophical contributions to British intellectual life. Ferrier especially proved to be a philosopher of considerable originality.

Then there is Hamilton’s own scholarly work, in particular his edition of Reid’s Collected Works. Although his heavy handed and intrusive editorial style now tends to invite disdain, the fact is that he provided the world with the only collected edition of Reid for over 100 years. Thirdly, there is renewed recognition of his importance in the development of logic. Hamilton published a discussion of Whately’s Elements in 1833. In it he defended a conception of logic as a purely formal study, and sketched lines of thought that Mansel, Spalding and others were able to build upon. In his Scottish Philosophy (1875) James McCosh identified William Hamilton with the final flowering of the tradition. He judged that with respect to ‘his logical power’ Hamilton could indeed be placed alongside Aristotle, Descartes, Kant and Hegel, and McCosh’s little book An Examination of J S Mill’s Philosophy whilst acknowledging radical weaknesses in Hamilton's metaphysics exposes Mill's serious misinterpretations of Hamilton. Elsewhere in the United States Hamilton was highly regarded until late in the 19th century – by Noah Porter at Yale, for example, and Francis Bowen in Harvard. There is some ground for believing, therefore, that Mill’s assessment has been accepted too readily, and that Hamilton’s philosophical accomplishments are due for re-appraisal.

Gordon Graham, Princeton Theological Seminary