Dr. Adam Ferguson, Enlightenment philosopher and historian, was born on the 20th of June, 1723.
Dr. Adam Ferguson was an influential guy. Not only was he a prominent contemporary of fellow Scottish philosophers, Thomas Reid and David Hume, he was acquainted with Voltiare and the likes of Robert Burns and an as then un-knighted, Walter Scott. And Ferguson’s later works are confidently believed to have influenced philosophers such as Marx and Hegel. As Chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University, Ferguson was a significant proponent of Thomas Reid’s so-called ‘common-sense’ school of philosophy and is widely regarded as one of the ‘founding fathers’ of sociology. Among Ferguson’s other main contributions were the ideas of ‘division of labour’ and of ‘spontaneous order’ related to economics, which had a big influence on Adam Smith and latterly, Friedrich Hayek.
Ferguson is best known for his ‘Essay on Civil Society’, which was a masterpiece of natural history on the progress of mankind, along the lines of other Enlightenment philosophers, particularly David Hume, and an early example of sociological method. Ferguson used the lessons of history to inform his moral thinking and in some ways his approach to the origins of human nature is echoed in that of Darwin’s ‘Origin of species’. Ferguson argued that societal institutions emerge spontaneously from human interaction, and evolve in a variety of ways through diversity and conflict. Just like the descent of man and according to Ferguson, “Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future.”
Adam Ferguson was born in Logierait, in Perthshire, and was educated in Perth and at St. Andrews University, before completing a BA Degree in Divinity in Edinburgh. He served as an Army Chaplain with the Black Watch and was present, in 1745, at the Battle of Fontenoy, in Belgium. Like any half decent philosopher, Ferguson gradually lost his faith in religion. He succeeded his contemporary, David Hume, in 1757, as Keeper of the Faculty of Advocates Library in Edinburgh. Ferguson later held successive chairs at the University of Edinburgh, first in Natural Philosophy, from 1759 until 1764, then in Moral Philosophy and Pneumatics, between 1764 and 1785.
In the early 1770s, Ferguson took time out from his duties in Edinburgh and spent at lot of time travelling on the Continent as tutor to the young Earl of Chesterfield. During that time he got to know some of the French ‘philosophes’ – guys like Voltaire – however, his protracted absence from Edinburgh resulted in a legal challenge, which he managed to fend off, before returning to his University obligations in 1775. Ferguson also travelled to Philadelphia, in 1778, as part of a commission that was sent to mediate between the American colonies and the British government, and became somewhat involved in the War of Independence.
In 1767, Ferguson published ‘An Essay on the History of Civil Society’. It received a mixed reception at the time. David Hume, who once claimed that Ferguson had “more genius than the rest,” was a critic, regarding it as “superficial.” Of course, that didn’t deter Ferguson – criticism from your peers is usually valued, if not necessarily overtly welcome. Ferguson’s main concern was with detailing the reality and consequences of human nature. He maintained that the forces of society are derived from an obscure and distant origin, proposing that they “arise before the date of philosophy, from the instincts, not the speculations of men.”
Ferguson argued that human behaviour is driven, not only by the peaceful pursuit of pleasure, but also, and indeed primarily, by a will to power (a theme also explored by Nietzsche), as well as aggressiveness, animosity and an instinctive desire for conflict and a susceptibility to corruption. Sounds to me like our human race. No matter how universal human attributes and instincts might be, the outcome of social interaction is by no means uniformity and harmony. The outcome might be conformity, yes, to an extent and for a time, but ultimately it leads inevitably to diversity and conflict.
Here is Ferguson at his best on the subject:
“To overawe or intimidate or, when we cannot persuade with reason, to resist with fortitude, are the occupations which give its most animating exercise, and its greatest triumphs, to a vigorous mind; and he who has never struggled with his fellow-creatures, is a stranger to half the sentiments of mankind.”
His contribution of the idea of the division of labour, which directly influenced Adam Smith, stemmed from his musings on the progress of society, which, in the century preceding the industrial revolution, are revolutionary in themselves. He saw progress as being generated by the expansion of commerce and driven by greater productivity, which was in essence fuelled by the novel division, amongst the workforce, of the mechanical tasks of production. Such methods led to reduced costs and increased profits, voilà!
His ideas were the antithesis of communism and he was a realist where capitalism was concerned. That of division of labour inevitably resulted in inequality as he argued, “In every commercial state, notwithstanding any pretension to equal rights, the exaltation of a few must depress the many.” He also realised, astutely, that this also extended to political power.
Ferguson was a member of the Edinburgh Royal Society, which he helped to found, in 1783, and an honorary member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences. His fame as an historian rests on the 1783 publication of his narrative history of Rome, ‘History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic’. As its title perhaps indicates, it was designed as a kind of introductory supplement to Edward Gibbon’s masterpiece. Later, in 1792, Ferguson published his collected lectures, entitled ‘Principles of Moral and Political Science’. In those two volumes, Ferguson advanced his idea of stoical ‘perfection’ and attempted to reconcile self-interest and universal benevolence.
Ferguson is also famous by association, as it was at his house, in 1787, that a chance meeting occurred between two Scots literary giants, Robert Burns and a young, starry-eyed Walter Scott. Despite suffering a stroke in 1780, Adam Ferguson lived to a grand old age and died in St. Andrews, on the 22nd of February, 1816.