Thomas Brown (1778-1820)

Thomas Brown was born at Kirkmabreck, Kirkcudbrightshire in the south west of Scotland on 9 January 1778 and died in London on 2 April 1820. He entered the University of Edinburgh in 1792, at the age of 14, quite usual at that time. During the summer vacation of 1793, he read the first volume of Dugald Stewart's Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind, and this led him to attend Stewart’s lectures the following winter. Even though, under Stewart’s influence, Brown acquired a deep interest in philosophy and literature, he opted for a career in medicine, graduating MD in 1803 and thereafter going into practice. Five years later Stewart fell ill. This drew Brown back to philosophy, who was appointed to assist in the teaching of moral philosophy at Edinburgh. Then, in 1810, technically Stewart’s colleague but effectively his successor, he was appointed to the Chair of Moral Philosophy. Like Stewart, he quickly gained a reputation for brilliant and inspiring teaching.

Thomas Brown published his first work, Observations on the Zoonomia of Erasmus Darwin, M.D., at the extraordinarily young age of 20. This work sets out his understanding of philosophical method. His next publication, An Inquiry into the Relation of Cause and Effect, appeared in 1818, and in its own time was much better known. But his major work, Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind was published posthumously in 1820, because of his sudden death at the age of 42. The book proved immensely popular. It ran to no fewer than twenty editions, the last edition being published forty years after its first publication.

Throughout his writings, Thomas Brown argues against the notion that there are efficient causes in nature, or anywhere else, hidden from view. In the Inquiry he concurs with Hume in arguing that neither reason nor experience can ground the belief in the uniformity of nature that makes induction possible. To this extent Brown was unusual in being a philosopher clearly in the Scottish tradition who argued with rather than against Hume, though his admiration for Hume was not uncritical.

Though Stewart was Brown’s inspiration and mentor, he harshly criticized Brown’s works as ‘radically deficient’, no doubt because of their sympathy for Hume. Sir William Hamilton, who assumed the Chair of Logic and Metaphysics not long after Brown’s death, declared his philosophy to be riddled with ‘radical inconsistencies’ and ‘frequent misrepresentations of other philosophers’. Nonetheless, he had a considerable influence on later Scottish philosophers, notably Alexander Bain, Professor of Logic at Aberdeen from 1860-80, and a founding figure in modern psychology. Another admirer was John Stuart Mill who declared that ‘no better introduction to Positivism than the early part of his Lectures has yet been produced’. Despite this endorsement form an impeccable source, Brown’s works were never republished and are now scarcely known. In recent history, only George Davie’s The Scotch Metaphysics (London, 2001) offers an extended discussion of his views.

Gordon Graham, Princeton Theological Seminary