Hamilton, Sir William Stirling, baronet

(1788-1856), philosopher

by A. Ryan

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Hamilton, Sir William Stirling, baronet (1788-1856), philosopher, was born on 8 March 1788 in the College of Glasgow, the son of William Hamilton (1758-1790), professor of anatomy in the University of Glasgow, and Elizabeth, née Stirling (d. 1827), the daughter of a Glasgow merchant. Thomas Hamilton (1789-1842) was his brother. His father died in 1790, of a long drawn-out illness brought on by overwork, leaving his widow to bring up Hamilton and his brother. Elizabeth Hamilton was entirely equal to the task; there is no evidence that the family ever felt either financial anxiety or the absence of a father's hand.

Education and legal career
William was energetic and precociously intelligent; he attended schools in both Scotland and England, among them the Glasgow grammar school at the age of nine, and the University of Glasgow's junior classes in Greek and Latin at twelve. Before he was eighteen, he was taking the senior classes in logic and moral philosophy at the university. In 1806-7 he studied medicine in Edinburgh, and in 1807 gained a Snell exhibition to study at Balliol College, Oxford. Snell exhibitioners, of whom Adam Smith is the most famous, brought to Balliol from their native Scotland an intellectual energy and ambition that was not yet common in the college. They also inspired a degree of ambivalence in their southern fellows, who admired the talents of their Scottish colleagues but did not wish to see the college fall into their hands.

As an undergraduate, Hamilton was largely left to his own devices; his subsequent contempt for the Oxford tutorial system was no doubt partly inspired by the neglect he suffered from his own tutor, as well as from his belief that the Scottish universities had been right to abandon the 'regenting' system centuries earlier. His voracious appetite for work stood him in good stead, and although he had less literary flair than some of his contemporaries, he 'sent up'--that is, offered himself for examination in--an astonishing number of classical texts; they were said to be at least four times as many as any other student presented. He was awarded a first class in literae humaniores in the Michaelmas term of 1810; according to his biographer John Veitch, the examiners were so astonished at his erudition that they kept a list of what they had examined him on. He graduated BA in 1811 and proceeded MA in 1814. At that time the Oxford colleges offered more fellowships than there were holders of first-class degrees to fill them; none the less, Hamilton was not elected to one. His fellow Scot and close friend J. G. Lockhart thought that this was the result of prejudice against the Scots, and suggested that 'no Scots need apply' might be added to the advertisement of a fellowship. One can imagine other explanations; on the personal side, Hamilton was aggressive and opinionated in discussion, and in a university that took the literary qualities of the classics more seriously than their philosophical qualities, his erudition may have seemed more awkward than attractive.

Although he had intended to become a physician, and had done some work in medicine during his time at Oxford, Hamilton abandoned the idea after graduation, and in 1813 was admitted as an advocate at the Edinburgh bar. He remained in Edinburgh for the rest of his life, his mother moving there to be with him from 1815 onwards. He did not develop a large or prosperous practice as an advocate; he enjoyed reading historical cases, but had no great talent for public speaking, and was apparently not sufficiently interested in the minute details on which legal success depends. Perhaps his greatest triumph came in 1816, when he persuaded an Edinburgh court that he was 'heir male in general' to Sir Robert Hamilton of Preston. The object of so doing was to establish his claim to the baronetcy that had been granted to the elder brother of Sir Robert. Sir William Hamilton had been created a baronet of Nova Scotia in 1673, the title to descend to his 'heirs-male in general'. Thereafter, Hamilton styled himself Sir William Hamilton of Preston and Fingalton, baronet. It may have been at this point and it was certainly after 1807 that he abandoned Stirling as a component of his name. His politics were perhaps an even greater obstacle to a successful career than were his antiquarian tastes. He was a whig at a time of the tory ascendancy, and could therefore look to none of the usual forms of preferment open to lawyers. In 1832, however, he was appointed to a minor office, 'the solicitorship of the teinds'.

Academic appointment
In any case, Hamilton's interests lay in philosophy and the history of philosophy, and he soon began to be well known in literary circles. In spite of his politics, however, he did not form any connection with the Edinburgh Review in its heyday under Francis Jeffrey's editorship. In 1817 he visited Germany on behalf of the Faculty of Advocates, and he did so again in 1820 on legal business. It was after this that he systematically learned German and joined an Edinburgh society that subscribed to German periodicals. On the death of Thomas Brown (1778-1820) he stood for the professorship of moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He was supported by the other, and more distinguished, professor of philosophy at Edinburgh, Dugald Stewart, as well as by Jeffrey. His opponent was John Wilson, and the election turned on frankly political considerations; the appointment to professorships at the University of Edinburgh lay at that time with the town council, a body of notorious touchiness on political and theological matters. Hamilton refused to canvass, and ignored hints that it would be politic to announce that he was not active in whig politics. He lost by twenty-one votes to eleven, but did not begrudge his friend's victory, and did not moderate his expressions of distaste for the system whereby professors were appointed by town councillors and for political reasons.

Hamilton was elected a year later to a professorship of 'civil history', for which a rather different electoral system was involved; the Faculty of Advocates nominated two candidates for the council to elect. Hamilton and the previous occupant of the chair, William Fraser Tytler, were duly elected. The chair paid poorly and eventually paid nothing; initially the salary was £100 per annum, the income to pay which was secured on a local duty on beer, but this figure declined to nothing over several years. Initially Hamilton had a reasonable audience, but that, too, dropped away, and when the salary ceased, he stopped lecturing.

During the second half of the 1820s, when phrenology was in vogue, Hamilton spent much of his spare time engaged in anatomical research that, as he thought, thoroughly discredited phrenology. He gave papers to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1826 and 1827 on the subject, and kept up a vigorous controversy with George Combe, the leading phrenologist of the day.

Hamilton's mother died in January 1827. He had been devoted to her, and she to him; the shock of her death was evidently considerable. Fourteen months later, however, he married his cousin Janet Marshall (d. 1877), daughter of Hubert Marshall. She had lived in the household with Mrs Hamilton and her son for the previous ten years; as Lady Hamilton she evidently saved her husband from a lonely and disorganized existence. She managed the household, acted as his amanuensis, and gently pressed him to finish some of the innumerable projects that he embarked on but had great difficulty in bringing to completion. The couple had a daughter, Elizabeth Hamilton, who contributed the article on her father to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and three sons of whom the eldest succeeded his father in the baronetcy. Lady Hamilton's greatest service to her husband came some sixteen years after their marriage, when Hamilton had a stroke that enfeebled him for the last dozen years of his life. She supported him unflaggingly through what would otherwise have been a desperate time.

The Edinburgh Review
Hamilton first came to notice as a philosopher in 1829, when he was prevailed upon by Macvey Napier to write an essay on the French philosopher Victor Cousin. Napier had succeeded Jeffrey as editor of the Edinburgh Review early in 1829, and very much wanted Hamilton to raise the intellectual level of the Review. Jeffrey, on the other hand, thought the idea of recruiting Hamilton preposterous, and denounced the article when it appeared as 'the most unreadable thing that ever appeared in the review' (M. Napier, Selections from the Correspondence of ... Macvey Napier, 1879, 79). The importance of Hamilton's essay, however, did not lie in its literary qualities or lack of them. Rather, it marked the first time that a British writer of acknowledged philosophical capacity had embarked on a serious discussion of the philosophy of Kant and of the work of his interpreters and successors such as Cousin. It was thoroughly critical of Cousin's attachment to the absolute idealism of Kant's successors, and long after the event it retains a certain interest as evidence of the way German idealism struck philosophically informed British readers. Coleridge and Carlyle had already done something to make their British readers aware of the existence of German idealism, but not in the context of what later generations would have thought of as the central philosophical issues of logic, metaphysics, and the theory of knowledge. As a literary and intellectual event in Hamilton's own career, the essay on Victor Cousin made something of a spluttering start; it was delivered late, it was twice as long as the editor had hoped, and it was pitched at a level far above that of most of the readers of the Review. The essay was received rapturously by Victor Cousin himself, even though the criticism of his views was as uninhibited as Hamilton's criticism usually was. Over the next several years Hamilton contributed several more essays to the Review, on 'The philosophy of the conditioned', 'Perception', and 'Logic'. These articles at once made Hamilton's reputation. Many were translated into French and German, and they achieved a wide readership in America. He also published in the Review a splendid attack on the collegiate arrangements of the University of Oxford. The last took the form of five articles published between June 1831 and January 1835 (reprinted in his Discussions, 1852; 2nd edn, 1853; with a preface of further comment on Oxford reform). True to his enthusiasm for German philosophy, Hamilton thought that the German university provided a model of a community of scholars and researchers in a way the somnolent colleges of Oxford could not: Oxford was 'of all academical institutions at once the most imperfect and the most perfectible' (Edinburgh Review, 52, June 1831, 384).

Characteristically, Hamilton's assault upon the state of intellectual life in Oxford took the form of an elaborate historical account of the way in which the colleges of Oxford had arrogated to themselves the powers that had once belonged to the university. A simpler argument would have contented itself, as the earlier assault by the Edinburgh Review on Oxford had done, with pointing out the deficiencies of Oxford education; its inaccessibility to dissenters, Catholics, and Jews; and the gap between its scholarly aspirations and those of universities in Germany. This last was a slightly dangerous argument; by the time Hamilton came to criticize Oxford, the German universities were well known for sheltering unorthodox biblical critics such as Ludwig Feuerbach and David Strauss. To criticize the home of conservative Anglicanism from the perspective of Jena or Bonn or Berlin was likely to strengthen the determination of the defenders of the old order. Hamilton favoured the admission of dissenters to the ancient universities, of course, and put his weight behind one of the many abortive attempts at reform that preceded the abolition of religious tests a decade and a half after his death.

Professor of logic and metaphysics
In 1836 Hamilton's political allegiances again came into question when David Ritchie resigned from the Edinburgh chair of logic and metaphysics, and Hamilton stood as a candidate for the vacant professorship. He was attacked for obscurity, pedantry, and religious unorthodoxy. However, he was energetically recommended by Cousin, Jeffrey, and Wilson, and was elected by eighteen votes to fourteen on 15 July 1836. He gave his inaugural lecture on 21 November 1836, and thereafter gave two courses of lectures a year, one on psychology and philosophy, and the other on logic. His lecturing habits were not calculated to improve his temper or sustain good health. He deferred the preparation of his text until the night before the lecture, and would frequently go to bed at dawn, leaving his wife to get the text ready for delivery. His strikingly handsome appearance, and an air of dignity and earnestness, made him an impressive lecturer, but reports on his lectures suggest that students were more puzzled than enlightened by them. Students with a real passion for philosophy, however, enjoyed them and a surprising number went on to become philosophers, including J. F. Ferrier and T. S. Baynes. With almost all his students he appears to have had very friendly relations; he was genuinely interested in pedagogical issues, and was evidently fond of the company of young people. Whatever his shortcomings as a lecturer, he was an effective interlocutor in small groups. He experimented with an honours examination, and with ways of giving students a more active role in their instruction. His relations with the university were not smooth, however; he quarrelled with his employers about his right to charge an extra fee for an advanced lecture course, and later quarrelled again over the conduct of examinations. His active career was sadly brief. In 1844 he had a paralytic stroke, with no warning symptoms. It did not affect his ability to think or do philosophy, but it affected his eyesight, and left him with slurred speech and difficulty in walking. After a short break, he was able to supervise the courses that he had earlier given, but he worked at a much diminished pace.

The work for which Hamilton was best-known in his own day was his edition of The Works of Thomas Reid (1846). The publication process was as acrimonious as many of Hamilton's professional dealings turned out to be. He was approached by the Edinburgh bookseller William Tait, with a proposal for an edition of Reid; it is clear that what was wanted was an edition of Reid's work with a short preface by Hamilton. Hamilton took offence at the financial arrangements proposed by Tait; since Hamilton intended to produce an edition in which his own notes and commentary occupied as much space as Reid's original work, it is easy to see that he might have thought himself underpaid, while Tait might equally have thought it unjust to expect him to pay for erudition he did not want. In the end, Hamilton published the edition in a somewhat incomplete form and at his own expense, and one of his admirers, H. L. Mansel, made a tidier production of it after Hamilton's death. Together with the volume of Discussions (1852) that collected his contributions to the Edinburgh Review, the 'Dissertations' that Hamilton attached to the edition were during his lifetime the most adequate expression of his philosophical views. His edition of Dugald Stewart's Works appeared in 1853, but in the autumn of that year he suffered a bad fall, followed by a severe illness in the winter. He became steadily feebler, and died at his home in Great King Street, Edinburgh, on 6 May 1856. Lady Hamilton survived him by twenty-one years.

In spite of his irritability and his pugnaciousness in controversy, Hamilton was extraordinarily happy in his domestic life. His energy and high spirits made him a good friend to his children, and the ponderousness of his literary style was strikingly at odds with his enjoyment of light literature, fairy tales, and Gothic novels. He was mechanically adept, and to his taste for anatomy he added the hobby of bookbinding, appropriately enough for the owner of a library of some 10,000 volumes--which was purchased after his death for presentation to the University of Glasgow. His own philosophical writings had an unfortunate fate, partly in their being scattered among his notes to Reid, but also because his habit of writing up his lectures at the last minute meant that it was only in 1859 that his Lectures on Metaphysics made a posthumous appearance, to be followed in 1861 by his Lectures on Logic. Since they represented hastily written drafts for oral delivery, and had hardly been touched after Hamilton prepared them soon after his election to his chair in 1836, Hamilton's admirers thought them inferior to the Discussions and the 'Dissertations' on Reid.

Hamilton was best-known as the originator of 'the philosophy of the conditioned', a philosophical perspective that combined, or in the eyes of critics inevitably failed to combine, the insights of Thomas Reid with those of Immanuel Kant. What Hamilton wished to argue was defensible enough: that human beings do perceive an external world, do have knowledge of an objective reality, but do not and cannot have any acquaintance with the Absolute or with 'things in themselves'. He sided with Reid against David Hume in order to repudiate scepticism; and he sided with Kant against Schelling and other absolute idealists who claimed that knowledge of the Absolute was to be had. The mixture was unstable inasmuch as Kant had absorbed Hume's scepticism and had attempted to transcend it in its own terms, while Reid had resisted 'the way of ideas' from the outset. Similarly, Hamilton went far beyond Reid in insisting on what he termed 'the relativity of knowledge', a thesis that at its weakest meant only that human beings experience the world as they do because they have the physical and psychological constitutions they happen to have, but at its strongest came closer to the Kantian claim that we have knowledge only of phenomena, which are the manifestation to us of a noumenal world beyond our knowledge or even of our understanding. Yet Hamilton did not go so far as to accept Kant's own conclusions, either on this, or on the conclusions to be drawn from the famous 'antinomies of reason'. Kant had argued that we are irresistibly drawn to believe both that space and time are infinite and that they are finite; and from this he had concluded that space and time were 'forms of intuition', or ways in which the human mind organized its experience. This has never been an easy view to understand, but one natural interpretation is that it simply makes no sense to ask what space and time are 'really' like. Hamilton, in contrast, concluded that we were impelled by a mental necessity to choose one horn of the dilemma and thus to believe that space and time are infinite.

Underlying Hamilton's misuse of Kant was a religious motivation that was subsequently brought out more clearly by James McCosh and H. L. Mansel. In essence Hamilton held that even though the human mind lost itself in contradiction when addressing such issues as free will, immortality, and the existence of God, it was compelled to believe that we possess free will, that the soul is immortal, and that God exists. It was this defence of the supposed necessity of belief that drove John Stuart Mill to assail Hamilton's every last error in his Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (1865); and it was McCosh and Mansel's sense that conceding victory to Mill would concede victory to materialism and agnosticism that drove them to respond, as Mill put it, with the fury of men fighting pro aris et focis. McCosh, in fact, was a whole-hearted defender of intuitionism, but only a half-hearted defender of Hamilton, as his discussion in Scottish Philosophy shows. McCosh wished that Hamilton had remained a disciple of Thomas Reid, and had not confused the issue by involving himself with Kant.

Many philosophers at the close of the twentieth century recall Hamilton precisely because of Mill's savage and devastating attack on his philosophical views, but Mill's Examination is one of his least-read works: modern readers confine their attention to Mill's phenomenalist account of the external world and his views on the nature of personal identity. His victim's writings are read not at all. In the middle of the nineteenth century, however, Hamilton was, with Mill, one of a very small handful of British philosophers that a European philosopher might have read. In the latter half of the century he had a posthumous career, in part as the result of the writings of James McCosh and mostly in the United States, where his work remained the basis of the intuitionism taught in many colleges until students' mounting sense that intuitionism appealed to their professors because of its comforting moral and religious qualities rather than for any intellectual credibility irreparably damaged its standing. Hamilton's name is today best remembered by historians of formal logic, and perhaps by them alone. He was one of a handful of thinkers who more or less simultaneously announced their discovery of 'the quantification of the predicate'. It was an old observation that Aristotelian logic could not show that syllogisms of the form [most cats howl; most cats are furry: so some creatures are both furry and howl] were valid. Hamilton offered a way to prove the validity of such arguments by elaborately reformulating the premises; in the process he reorganized the traditional Aristotelian scheme for showing the validity of syllogisms, an innovation on which he prided himself a good deal. But he had missed the tide. The work of Augustus De Morgan, George Boole, and John Venn, of whom the two last were much younger than Hamilton, advanced the analysis of sets and classes in ways of which Hamilton had no inkling. Hamilton denounced De Morgan as a plagiarist, a charge that was preposterous and would have been wounding to anyone with a less equable nature than De Morgan. He took some pleasure in the assaults of his critic, knowing no doubt that his own work was incomparably more important in the eyes of mathematicians and logicians. Hamilton suffered the worst of all fates; critics such as Mill and McCosh, who were as committed as he to the traditional logic, thought his innovations a waste of time and an unnecessary complication, while the true innovators in the discipline moved on and ignored his work.

When John Stuart Mill published his Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy in 1865, an enthusiastic reviewer, Mark Pattison, commented

The effect of Mr. Mill's review is the absolute annihilation of all Sir W. Hamilton's doctrines, opinions, of all he has written or taught. Nor of himself only, but all his followers, pupils, copyists, are involved in the common ruin. The whole fabric of the Hamiltonian philosophy is not only demolished, but its very stones are ground to powder. Where once stood Sebastopol bidding proud defiance to rival systems is now a coast barren and blue: sandheaps behind and sandhills before. (The Reader, 20 May 1865, 562)
In spite of the pious efforts of Hamilton's biographer John Veitch and the ferocious counter-attacks of Mansel and McCosh, Pattison's verdict is not far from the truth. Hamilton's reputation as a philosopher is unlikely to revive; his ponderous and pedantic literary style deters the casual reader, while his attempt to marry the insights of Thomas Reid with those of Immanuel Kant carries no more conviction with philosophers late in the twentieth century than it did with commentators in the nineteenth. As a minor figure in the cultural, educational, and philosophical history of Britain, and by extension the United States, he remains, however, perennially interesting. Perhaps we should not mourn Hamilton's fate. Even in his own day, and even in the eyes of friendly commentators, his passion for overloading his philosophical essays with antiquarian references seemed astonishing. That he should himself have become interesting only to philosophers of essentially antiquarian tastes is no more than historical justice.


A. Ryan, introduction, in J. S. Mill, An examination of Sir William Hamilton's philosophy, ed. J. M. Robson (1979), vol. 9 of The collected works of John Stuart Mill, ed. J. M. Robson and others (1963-91)
J. Veitch, Memoir of Sir William Hamilton, bart. (1869)
S. W. Rasmussen, The philosophy of Sir William Hamilton: a study (1925)
Foster, Alum. Oxon.
Burke, Peerage (1879)
Hist. U. Oxf. 6: 19th-cent. Oxf.

NL Scot., lecture notes
U. Edin. L., lecture notes
U. Glas. L., MSS collection |  BL, corresp. with William Wordsworth, RP307 [copies]
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, corresp. with William Wordsworth
NL Scot., letters, probably to John Cairns
NL Scot., corresp. with John Combe
NL Scot., corresp. with John Lee
U. Edin. L., letters to David Ramsey Hay
U. Edin. L., letters to David Laing

H. J. Stewart, watercolour, 1845, Scot. NPG
J. C. Armytage, engraving (after J. Archer), repro. in Veitch, Memoir, frontispiece [see illus.]
J. Ballantyne, oils, Scot. NPG
W. Brodie, bust, U. Edin.

Wealth at death  
£4549 11s. 4d.: confirmation, NA Scot. (1856)

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