Symposium Introduction

Years ago, when I first began studying eighteenth-century Scottish philosophy, I read an author who pointed to Adam Ferguson (1723–1816) as the person most deserving of the title “The Father of Modern Sociology.” When I asked a sociologist friend of mine about the accuracy of this claim, the first words out of his mouth were, “Adam who?”

The history of sociology aside, it is most certainly a shame that the philosophical accomplishments of Ferguson are not nearly as appreciated today as they were in his time, and, indeed, as they were for several decades after his death. Jack Hill’s superb intellectual biography, Adam Ferguson and Ethical Integrity: The Man and His Prescriptions for the Moral Life, will hopefully help to rectify this neglect and bring Ferguson’s thought to a wider audience, for he is most certainly deserving of greater attention.

Moreover, Hill’s book is an excellent introduction for those unfamiliar with Ferguson’s thought, and a reader cannot come away from it without getting a very strong sense of why Ferguson’s work merits serious philosophical consideration today. For Hill, Ferguson was not a philosopher who merely contemplated the notion of “ethical integrity” in the abstract, but one who dedicated himself to teaching others how to achieve it for themselves. In the documenting of this endeavor, it is hard to imagine that Ferguson could have a greater champion than Hill; as one contributor puts it, he “manages to capture the very essence of Ferguson’s philosophical project.”

Given that most of the particulars of Hill’s account of Ferguson’s life and thought are so well described in the essays that follow, I won’t repeat here what they say, but do let me say a few words about the contributions themselves. For this Syndicate Philosophy symposium, four scholars of Scottish thought have been invited to offer their reflections on Hill’s important book. First, C. B. Bow asks about both the influence of Ferguson’s “project of ‘ethical inquiry’” on his students, and the reaction among the British and American readers to Ferguson’s concept of “progress.” He also wonders about any effects Ferguson’s years of living among the literati of Edinburgh had on the “Highlander ethos” that Hill emphasizes as central to Ferguson’s thought. And he agrees with Hill on the importance of Ferguson’s thought (and worries) for us today.

Next, Glen Doris’s contribution neatly summarizes the main principles Hill sees at work in Ferguson’s prescription for ethical integrity. However, in contrast to both Jack and Mike Hill (see below for the latter), Doris claims that Ferguson did not have much interaction with his own society, having written little on either the French revolution or slavery, for example. Despite Hill’s insistence of the contemporary relevance of Ferguson’s ethical project, Doris writes that “Ferguson’s own example appears to condone inaction.”

Following this, Anna Plassart, like Bow, makes note of Hill’s stress on the importance of Ferguson’s Highland identity, though she raises the question of whether it was as significant a factor in Ferguson’s thought as Hill argues that it was. Though she speculates whether Ferguson’s originality as a philosopher is overplayed, she does maintain that “there is much to learn from Hill’s wide-ranging analysis of Ferguson’s writings, and his rereading of Ferguson as an ethical philosopher is entirely convincing.”

Finally, Mike Hill highlights Ferguson’s concern for those left out of the traditional “happy” Enlightenment story, specifically the women and children, the servant and the slaves, and he urges us not to forget Ferguson’s sensitivity to the plight of “the rest.” He expresses admiration for Hill’s “rare frankness in making sure that we understand the specific form of Enlightenment that Ferguson did have in mind,” and like the other contributors, he calls attention to Hill’s appeal for an appreciation of Ferguson’s relevance for today.

In all, these four readers have given us engaging reflections on a rich and important biography. Enjoy the discussions!

C. Bradford Bow


Questioning the Historical and Modern Limits of Ferguson’s “Ethical Integrity”

The field of eighteenth-century Scottish studies has greatly benefited from a series of recent intellectual biographies of prominent Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, such as Jeffrey Smitten’s The Life of William Robertson (2017), James Harris’s Hume (2015), Robert Zaretsky’s Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), Nicholas Phillipson’s Adam Smith (2012), and Ian Simpson Ross’s The Life of Adam Smith (2010, 2nd ed.). Just as there were competing philosophical systems among the Scottish literati, this genre envelops a wide range of methodological approaches to the analysis of eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment philosophy and exposés of the intellectual culture in which it appeared. Whereas the various types of intellectual biography necessarily draw from methods of intellectual history, this genre is not confined to the historical contextualisation of ideas. More nuanced ways of interpreting what the Scottish Enlightenment meant emerge from the field’s emphatic movement toward an interdisciplinary perspective of Enlightenment thought. The book under review in this Syndicate symposium is an example par excellence of this trend. For the purposes of this symposium, I shall attempt to sponsor further discussion through a series of questions that might arise from argumentative lines developed throughout this book. I hope that my arrangement of discussion questions in the contexts of a partial review alerts potential readers to the considerable value of this book while allowing the author and symposium contributors to discuss areas of research that did not appear in this intellectual biography of Adam Ferguson.

Jack Hill’s Adam Ferguson and Ethical Integrity (2017) provides a most welcomed contribution to the limited literature on a lesser-known Scottish Enlightenment thinker, Adam Ferguson (1723–1816), by identifying his pedagogical “project” of “ethical integrity” and its contemporary utility as “a primer for the reader’s own quest for living a life which is emblematic of ethical integrity” (xi). Of these two distinct objectives, the first sheds new light on Ferguson’s moral philosophy with a focus on what Hill identifies as an overarching ambition to instruct “ethical integrity.” Coining a new term to define Ferguson’s philosophical system departs from the recent scholarship by Iain McDaniel’s Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment (2013) and David Allan’s Adam Ferguson (2007). And yet, Hill develops convincing reasons why Ferguson’s “ethical integrity” merits serious attention, which will certainly enhance future studies on the subject. Akin to Ferguson’s fear in the late eighteenth century that “we were losing who we are and who we ought to be,” Hill identifies a modern ethical crisis “in the US and the West as a whole” (xiii). With clear caveats that Ferguson was a historical figure living in a historic age, Hill argues that Ferguson’s instruction of “ethical integrity” could be usefully applied in the twenty-first century. Hill achieves these distinct objectives through a skilful accounting of the life and philosophical writings of Ferguson and a probing analysis of how Ferguson’s “hallmarks” of “ethical integrity” might be taught and applied in modern contexts.

Beyond these intended objectives, it would be interesting to know more about the reception of Ferguson’s project of “ethical integrity” among his students at Edinburgh University, subscribers to his Principles, and among the Scottish literati. Ferguson’s former student and successor to the chair of moral philosophy at Edinburgh, Dugald Stewart (1753–1828), drew heavily from Ferguson’s lectures between 1785 and 1790 before launching his own version of Scottish common sense philosophy in 1792. Apart from Stewart, did Ferguson’s programme of “ethical integrity” inspire a following of intellectual disciples? If so, who were they and in what ways did they apply “ethical integrity” in public life? This line of questioning about the reception of Ferguson’s “ethical integrity” is not a criticism of Hill’s primary focus on its conception. But a more in-depth examination of how Ferguson’s notion of “ethical integrity” impacted the age in which he lived might strengthen or weaken the case for its modern application.

This book thoughtfully flows from the ways in which Ferguson’s upbringing (chapter 1) informed the source of his ethical integrity (chapter 2) on “knowledge of the self and society (chapter 3) [as] foundational for knowledge of the good (chapter 4), and hence for knowledge of applications of the good (chapters 5 & 6)” (52). In chapter 1, “Born in the Heart of Scotland,” Hill argues that Ferguson’s contributions to Scottish Enlightenment moral philosophy symbolically reflected his inheritance of a “Highlander ethos.” Challenging John Brewer’s portrayal of Ferguson’s moral philosophy as removed from the influences of his youthful years in the Scottish Highlands, Hill illustrates the lifelong importance of Ferguson’s “hybrid” identity that harmonised colliding cultural conventions. Hill suggests that “Ferguson’s upbringing in a largely Gaelic-speaking Logierait and his role with Gaelic troops [as Chaplin to the Black Watch] consumed most of the initial thirty-two years of his life, the question is not ‘Did Ferguson have a Highlander identity?’ The question is, ‘How could someone with such a background so rapidly integrate into the urbane social circles of the Edinburgh literati?’” (5–6). Hill threads Ferguson’s lifetime attachment to this “Highlander ethos” as indispensible in the development of his project of ethical integrity as a resident of Edinburgh. The originality of this argumentative line is unmistakable in light of the considerable attention Hill devotes to situating the nuanced parts of Ferguson’s project within the established literature. In doing so, Hill does not shy away from challenging competing views on Ferguson.

Jack Hill’s recovery of Ferguson’s “Highlander ethos” is entertaining and instructive. Ferguson’s striking ability to thrive in culturally different environments animates an example of his “ethical integrity” as adaptable to new circumstances without being prescriptive about cultural expectations. Perhaps the environment in which he lived shaped his identity during different seasons of his life, which would explain the reactive nature of his philosophical writings in responding to timely concerns. Although Ferguson’s embrace of a “Highlander ethos” informed his worldview later in life, I am curious if his encounter with war and membership of Edinburgh literary and philosophical societies changed his belief system. Could a change in Ferguson’s religious convictions after the Jacobite Rising of 1745, for example, be interpreted as a transformation of his identity? Is there evidence that Ferguson resisted the corruption of his “Highlander ethos” during his residence in Edinburgh? Beyond being treated as a novelty, did the Scottish literati of Edinburgh challenge Ferguson’s identity in any way?

The following chapter, “Reading Ferguson as an Ethicist,” fleshes out sources of Ferguson’s “ethical integrity.” Of Ferguson’s philosophical writings, Hill identifies that his unpublished lecture notes, Analysis of Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy (1766), Institutes of Moral Philosophy (1769), Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), and Principles of Moral and Political Science (1792) best represented what “ethical integrity” meant and sought to achieve. By demonstrating Ferguson’s continuity of thought, Hill’s analysis of the differences between Analysis and Principles as bookends to Ferguson’s “project” is particularly remarkable and will certainly sponsor further study in the field. “Although he did not specifically articulate one unified, systematic account of his approach, . . . it is difficult not to make some connection between Ferguson’s affinities for a Highlander ethos and his methodological conviction about the scientific need to incorporate information from those deemed ‘primitive,’ ‘barbarian,’ or ‘savage’ by the Scottish literati of his day,” according to Hill (59). In chapter 3, “Elements of Human Nature,” Hill turns to Ferguson’s empirical treatment of the conjectural “progress” of the human condition in different “stages” of civil society. Hill argues that Ferguson’s view of progress balanced “two trajectories in constant tension: the sense in which humans as intelligent beings are destined to grow in perfection, and the sense in which they are vulnerable to precipitous decline and imperfection” (92). This fundamental belief in the contingent or conditional “progress” of human improvement or corruption of civil society famously distinguished Ferguson’s use of philosophical history from contemporary views on the inevitability of “progressive” human and societal movements. In light of these competing views, some scholars generally treat Ferguson as a counter-Enlightenment thinker in the historiography. According to Hill, Ferguson’s “most seminal” principle in depicting human nature was “expressed in twin dispositions (self-preservation and association), situated in modes of social life (family, clan, tribe, nation, empire), manifest in powers of choice (moral, aesthetic and rational), spurred by ambition (laws of progress), shaped by habits, honed by accessions of power and perfected in arts or callings” (99). This succinct portrayal of Ferguson’s complex comprehension of human nature in his Analysis, Essay, and Principles turns to a thorough contextualisation of “probity” (i.e., veracity of social, moral agents) as the “highest expression of ethical integrity” in the following chapter, “Elements of the Virtuous and Happy Life” (129). Ferguson’s principle of “probity” instructed the exercise of ethical conduct as a resource for navigating revolutionary changes to the commercial, social, and political landscape in which he lived. The question of the extent to which Ferguson’s view on human and societal “progress” was exceptional among the Scottish literati is worth discussing. How did British men of letters and participants in the Scottish Agricultural Revolution respond to Ferguson’s treatment of “progress”? It would also be interesting to discuss the early American reception of Ferguson’s view of civic virtue and its potential significance as a founding principle of the early republic. An examination of the ways in which Thomas Jefferson’s promotion of Yeomen farmers and views on a standing army resembled Ferguson’s philosophical writings would serve Hill’s argument.

In chapter 5, “The Commercial Arts and Ethical Integrity,” Hill explores how Ferguson responded to the consequences of the British commercial revolution by focusing on who we ought to be. Hill emphasises that “Ferguson was troubled that man, in the eighteenth century, was mistakenly reducing the modus operandi of the arts—ambition—to matters of rank, wealth or political power” (147). Ferguson countered the individualistic pursuit of financial gain by appealing to sources that encouraged patriotic civic virtue and fostered the natural inclination toward safeguarding civic welfare. Ferguson’s support of local militia in the Poker Club and well-documented criticisms of a standing army are very well understood in the literature. His response to the commercialisation of society and professionalization of the military, for Hill, registers with modern American concerns of income inequality and waging war for financial profit. With these considerations in mind, Hill entertains a solution in the same vein as Ferguson that “perhaps something akin to a re-introduction of a military draft, as a substitute for standing professional armed forces should be seriously considered in the public sector” (156). The sense of urgency in this proposal to encourage civic virtue and, in particular, who we ought to be as active members of a civil society is not merely a provocative tongue-in-cheek consideration of a bygone Enlightenment concept. Ferguson, of course, did not persuade the British government to abandon their standing army, and he did not live to witness the moral consequences of a large-scale military expansion throughout the British world during Pax Britannica. Nevertheless, I share Hill’s belief that Ferguson’s project of “ethical integrity” should be revisited in discussing viable solutions to an American loss of civic virtue. Perhaps establishing a programme for American civil service that drew from earlier precedents, such as the Corps of Engineers’ infrastructure projects that followed WWII, would be a good way to realise Ferguson’s project. If introduced as a relevant source, how might we counter the abuse of Ferguson’s support of a militia, which could be used as justification by fringe American factions to forcefully defend local interests at the cost of national unity?

The question of how revealed and natural religion factored into Ferguson’s project of ethical integrity is addressed in the sixth and final chapter, “Ethical Integrity and Religion.” Hill charts how Ferguson “developed a religious anthropology from below, rather than a revealed theology from above” (163). This view of religion is best understood as a humanistic deism in light of Ferguson’s criticisms of religious institutions, use of natural religion, and silence on preaching revealed religion after 1745. Although Ferguson acknowledged that evil factored into the natural order of life, Hill masterfully explains precisely why he rejected the doctrine of sin in the first full-scale explanation of Ferguson’s religiously unorthodox belief system. According to Hill, “the heart of Ferguson’s belief system concerns a moral anthropology … [that evaluates] whether or not man has the will to play his part as a mini-Designer—to learn from his mistakes, run and not be weary, and renew his strength in the process” (182). That Ferguson served as a ruling elder of the Church of Scotland, Hill argues, suggests his engagement with the ecclesiastical, secular, and social politics of Enlightened Edinburgh rather than an enduring commitment to the Kirk. This critical point is strengthened by Hill’s convincing portrayal of Ferguson as thriving in between cultural and religious worlds.

This book concludes with a thoughtful discussion about the ways in which Ferguson’s “Ethical Methods and Hallmarks of Integrity” might be applied in the United States “regarding what a person should wish for themselves, their friends, their country and mankind as a whole” (197–98). The earlier chapters lead the reader to recognise “Ferguson’s hallmark—that consciousness of existence entails facing ultimate questions openly and candidly—would resonate with the American moral narrative that ‘we’re all in this together’” (210). Without question, Hill “openly and candidly” reveals his personal views in prescribing a highly original interpretation of Ferguson’s project of ethical integrity and its relevance to the modern American crisis of losing who we are and who we ought to be. An impressive work of scholarship and intervention in contemporary debates on ethical conduct, Adam Ferguson and Ethical Integrity offers an important and instructive contribution to understanding the central ambition of Ferguson’s moral philosophy and why it still matters.

  • Jack Hill

    Jack Hill


    C. B. Bow and the Limits of Ferguson’s Project


    I want to express my gratitude to the four scholars who have contributed these highly-nuanced reflections on Adam Ferguson and Ethical Integrity.1 It is particularly noteworthy that each of these reader responses raise different—though occasionally complementary—issues and questions regarding my iteration of Ferguson’s ethics. I can only hope that my responses do partial justice to the intellectual richness of each of the preceding reviews. Ferguson, I suspect, would have enjoyed reading them and been honored that his work has given rise to the kind of interactive scholarly discourse that is made possible through Syndicate online.

    Response to C. B. Bow

    In his seminal essay, Bow raises four explicit, carefully crafted questions. Paraphrasing Bow: (1) “How was Ferguson’s work received by his students and how did it impact the age in which he lived?” (2) “Was Ferguson’s identity significantly challenged by the Scottish literati?” (3) “To what extent was Ferguson’s view of progress exceptional among the Scottish literati?” and, (4) “How is Ferguson’s project helpful for dealing with the loss of civic virtue and a concomitant rise of fringe militias which threaten national unity in the United States?” Since other reviewers also articulate versions of questions three and four, I will delay comment on issues raised by those questions for subsequent sections.

    Significantly, Bow notes that Dugald Stewart—a former student of Ferguson’s and his immediate successor to the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University—“drew heavily” from Ferguson’s lectures during the seven years prior to developing his own common sense philosophy. This is an important observation for at least two reasons. First, Stewart has yet to receive the attention he deserves as an original, independent thinker. He has frequently been relegated to the role of the penultimate compiler of insights of the Scottish Enlightenment—as a scholar who provided little in the way of original insight or philosophical innovation. Bow’s forthcoming scholarship on Stewart will no doubt go a long way toward challenging this narrative. Clearly, if Stewart’s stature as a major transitional figure in Scottish intellectual history is fully appreciated, then Ferguson’s legacy as a teacher of moral philosophy is thereby enhanced. As Ferguson made abundantly clear from the outset of the Principles, while he could provide a method for moral inquiry, “every reader must perform the work for himself” (1:4).2 Ferguson did not aim to create a “school” of followers or make Fergusonian “disciples” as such. The fact that perhaps his most famous student developed his own philosophical perspective in contradistinction to Ferguson’s own views is itself a testimony to the efficacy of Ferguson’s pedagogy.

    Regarding Ferguson’s other students, it might well be illuminating—as Bow suggests—to conduct a full-scale inquiry into how Ferguson was received by them, their friends and associates. However, the larger story of Ferguson’s reception is primarily the story of his footprints in Germany, France, Russia, Italy, and more recently, Australia, South Asia, and North America.3 It is no small matter that Ferguson’s Essay was one of the topics studied by the candidates of the agrégation d’anglais in 2012 and 2013 in France.4 Bow’s suggestion concerning affinities between Ferguson’s ideas and the thought of Thomas Jefferson could be further explored. Ferguson’s pedagogy made an impression on students alluded to in the “Postscript” of AFEI. Nevertheless, while reception history has its merits, it is prudent to exercise caution when asking questions about how something impacts something else. “Impacts” can be direct or indirect, privately conveyed or institutionally embodied. While they may constitute traces of actual causes and effects, they are notoriously difficult to measure, pinpoint or circumscribe.

    It is important not to lose sight of the old adage that “no prophet is recognized in his own country.”5 If Ferguson is interpreted as going against the grain of the more optimistic views (associated with Hume, for example) of the prospects for society, and if the latter view shaped the rubrics of evaluation concerning what counted as a credible perspective on such prospects, then, Ferguson’s account—especially his radical critique of the ethos being spawned by the commercial arts—would not have resonated with the reigning consensus of his age. As a moral prophet, Ferguson was not likely to be received as an easily adopted resource for constructing one’s own intellectual perspective. I also wonder if Ferguson, as something of a sociological maverick, may have shielded himself from what might be termed “controversy overload.” The bulk of the truly intimate and personal letters in his published correspondence appear to be written to select friends—such as John Macpherson and Alexander Carlyle—who were not philosophers or historians of the likes of Adam Smith or William Robertson.6 Consequently, his interpersonal “impact” on the Scottish literati as a whole may have been limited out of a sense of self-preservation.

    Fast-forwarding to the twenty-first century, where the contemporary ethos bears all the marks—and more—of the one which disturbed Ferguson in the late 1700s, it would not be surprising if Ferguson’s views (when brought into high relief in a platform such as Syndicate) would receive something less than a positive assessment regarding potential for “impact” on the dividing issues of our time. As it was at the dawn of the nineteenth century, Ferguson’s voice will always remain a minority voice, that is lifted up by some prescient minds. (I referenced the twentieth-century philosopher Alastair MacIntyre in AFEI [148, 159n25], but not seriously acknowledged by most of the movers and shakers in academia.) Perhaps it might be fruitful to pursue a more hypothetical question: namely, “How should Ferguson’s work have been received by his students, and how might it yet be received—especially by those open to, in Mike Hill’s words, thinking about “the Enlightenment we never had?”7

    Bow’s second line of questioning—that “the reactive nature” of Ferguson’s philosophical writings “in responding to timely concerns” might be explained by investigating the varying environments in which he lived during “different seasons of his life”—is food for further reflection. Given limitations of space I simply want to pick up on one thread of this query; namely, that changes in Ferguson’s religious commitments following the ’45 uprising may well have contributed to a “transformation” of his identity. By the mid-1750s, after his father died, Ferguson had already become disenchanted with the nomenclature of “clergyman.” He began thereafter to view his life calling as novel intellectual inquiry into the nature of the moral life in service of humanity as a whole wherever it exists—in the Highlands, Edinburgh, or the Cape of Good Hope. Given his Highlander background, this calling necessarily entailed wrestling with what he termed “partiality to our kind”—whether the parochial biases and cultural insularity of Edinburgh literati or those of Scottish Highlanders (Principles 1:6). Bow appears to view Ferguson’s sojourn among Edinburgh literati as a matter of resisting “the corruption of his ‘Highlander ethos.’” But perhaps Ferguson’s evolution into a cosmopolitan intellectual can be understood as more of an intracultural balancing act. In this scenario, one might envision Ferguson weaving Highlander predilections about the moral significance of the clan together with classical moral theory and contemporary enlightenment thought into a multicultural tapestry of ethical reasoning—a tapestry that encompassed the widest possible reaches of human experience. Clearly, Ferguson’s project was in certain respects representative of the kind of intellectual exploration typical of Scottish literati such as Smith, Robertson, and Kames. Yet, in Ferguson’s case, his Highlander upbringing and background may well have predisposed him to conduct this exploration in an unusually profound and persuasive manner. This might help explain the wide-ranging acclaim which accompanied the appearance of the Essay. Accordingly, one could argue that Ferguson’s various interactions with the Scottish literati did not so much “challenge” his identity as they refined, enhanced, and deepened it.

    1. The full bibliographical citation is: Jack A. Hill, Adam Ferguson and Ethical Integrity: The Man and His Prescriptions for the Moral Life (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, an imprint of Rowman and Littlefield, 2017)—hereafter cited as AFEI.

    2. Principles of Moral and Political Science: Being Chiefly a Retrospect of Lectures Delivered in the College of Edinburgh, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Creech, 1792)—hereafter cited as Principles.

    3. See especially, David Allan’s chapter on Ferguson’s impact and influence in Adam Ferguson. Aberdeen Introductions to Irish and Scottish Culture (Aberdeen: AHRC Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies, University of Aberdeen, 2006) 121–52. Fania Oz-Salzberger (Translating the Enlightenment: Scottish Discourse in Eighteenth-Century Germany [Oxford: Clarendon, 1995]), has provided a meticulous account of Ferguson’s reception in Germany. Lisa Hill (The Passionate Society: The Social, Political and Moral Thought of Adam Ferguson [Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, 2006]) has referenced his popularity in Russia, and Voltaire once alluded to the rapid incorporation of Ferguson’s Institutes into the curriculum of the University of Moscow (Allan, 126).

    4. The agrégation is the official exam for the recruitment of secondary class teachers in France as civil servants in the ministry of education. The recommended editions (in English) were Duncan Forbes, ed., Adam Ferguson: An Essay on the History of Civil Society [1767] (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1966), and Fania Oz-Salzberger, ed., Adam Ferguson: An Essay on the History of Civil Society [1767] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). I am indebted to Jean-François Dunyach for this information.

    5. Luke 4:24. The passage is quoted from the New English Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).

    6. See The Correspondence of Adam Ferguson, 2 vols., edited by Vincenzo Merolle, with an introduction by Jane Fagg (London: Pickering, 1995)—hereafter cited as Correspondence. Fagg provided a useful “List of Letters” (cxli–clii) as part of her extensive introduction to Correspondence.

    7. See Mike Hill’s contribution, “Ferguson, Marx and Us: On the Enlightenment Never Had” in this collection of reviews of AFEI.

    • C. Bradford Bow

      C. Bradford Bow


      Response to Jack…

      Thank you for your thoughtful response to my sweeping questions. Your account of Ferguson’s published works in global contexts is interesting. I completely agree that tracing the reception of Ferguson’s lectures on moral philosophy among his former students could be problematic and difficult to convincingly measure. While Ferguson did not attempt to construct a new ‘school’ of philosophy for others to follow, it might be worthwhile to consider how his ethics factored into the well-established philosophical tradition of teaching metaphysics as moral philosophy at Edinburgh University. In other words, how did Ferguson’s lectures on moral philosophy contribute to the institutional conventions or expectations at Edinburgh? In doing so, you might reconsider the extent to which William Cleghorn’s lectures factored into Ferguson’s treatment of ethics. As you mention in response to Jeng-Guo Chen (p. 179), Ferguson did not replicate Cleghorn’s alternative to Hutcheson’s philosophical system. Likewise, Stewart’s educational doctrine did not appeal to Ferguson’s instruction of ‘ethical integrity’. While the succession of students replacing their former professors at Edinburgh did not imply a closed loop of recycled thought, degrees of continuity persisted among those who occupied the Chair of moral philosophy at Edinburgh. Perhaps situating Ferguson’s lectures on moral philosophy as contributing to the Scottish philosophical tradition at Edinburgh might be a way to trace the reception of his ‘ethical integrity’. I am not suggesting that these areas of research should have been addressed in your book. I believe they merit future research. Once again, thank you for your instructive response.

    • Jack Hill

      Jack Hill


      Ferguson’s Teaching of Ethics in Institutional Context: A Reply to Brad’s Reply

      Dr. Bow frames an interesting terrain of inquiry by turning our focus toward Ferguson’s social location within the evolving context of the teaching of moral philosophy at Edinburgh University. How did Ferguson contribute to institutional conventions and/or expectations? First, Ferguson was apparently Cleghorn’s preferred choice as an heir apparent, so Ferguson may have felt some obligation to continue the teaching of moral philosophy in ways that did not depart too radically from Cleghorn. I must confess that when I examined pages of Cleghorn’s handwritten lecture notes at the University of Edinburgh, I found the cursive very difficult to read. So, I’m afraid I can’t be much help on linking the content of his lecture notes with those of Ferguson. Second, a couple of Ferguson’s students have indicated that Ferguson did not simply “read” his lectures, but spoke from notes extemporaneously. This may have been a departure from Cleghorn and perhaps the usual expectation at Edinburgh in the 1760’s-1780’s. Certainly, there is evidence (continual additions of notes in the margins and occasional scratch outs of original phrases) in Ferguson’s later lecture notes (1776-1785), that he was constantly revising his lectures–right up to the very end of his career. This would suggest a teaching of ethics as creative, adaptive pedagogy. Third, however, it is important to be mindful of both the larger pressures on the holder of the Chair of Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh–especially the expectations of leading lights in Edinburgh’s city council–and the degree to which institutional variables often have the effect of tamping down or otherwise minimizing any one individual professor’s influence on institutional directions. Certain aspects of Ferguson’s “ethical integrity”–particularly his emphasis on the principle of probity–would probably have been viewed as good fits with the university’s ethos at the time. But there is also evidence that Ferguson tried the patience of his overseers. On more than one occasion he abruptly abandoned his teaching–most notably to serve on the Carlyle Commission to the American colonies–and had to appeal to the good graces of friends to hold onto the chair in his absence. In any event, my hunch is that in faithfully fulfilling his vocation as a professor of moral philosophy–when he was in residence–that some of his “independent,” even “maverick” behavior would have been tolerated. My final thought is that Bow’s question raises afresh the whole issue of how individual professors do or do not have any lasting effects on the institutions in which they serve. None of us are indispensable and Ferguson would not, I believe, have thought that he left much of an impact on the teaching of ethics at Edinburgh. In later life, reminiscing about his legacy, he speculated that perhaps if he had written in the field of law that his philosophy would have been better received, and less vulnerable, to assaults from ecclesiastical circles. A full inquiry into the matter would also entail an analysis of how institutional academic politics shapes and re-shapes the legacies of all professors. Many thanks to Bradford for posing this line of inquiry.

Glen Doris


Adam Ferguson’s Ethics for the Modern World

The idea of moral science has become, for some, oxymoronic in an age of what the author labels “scientism,” the rejection of any meaning beyond what can be empirically determined. In his book Adam Ferguson and Ethical Integrity, Jack Hill examines the life and moral theory of this lesser-known but important Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, and calls into question the validity of such a worldview. He encourages the reader to consider both the necessity of ethical inquiry and postulates a method for today’s ethicists to formulate their own foundation for understanding human activity and “the virtuous life.”

Hill’s subject, the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century moral philosopher Adam Ferguson, has not received the kind of attention that other contemporaries such as Adam Smith and David Hume have in the literature of history and philosophy, however, as the author points out, Ferguson was, in his own time, an “academic rock star” whose lectures were very popular and were attended by large numbers of students as well as many lay visitors. His published works were widely read in Europe and in the Americas and his influence on the thoughts and ideas behind many subsequent philosophical and political movements has been little acknowledged. Ferguson’s long life and prodigious literary output allowed him a wide audience spanning generations and his rich personal history gave him a perspective missing from his more illustrious peers.

Hill begins his highly readable work with this history, placing the philosopher into the context of his birth on the very boundaries of the Scottish highlands, a place deemed by many of the literati in the more genteel South to be a close-by example of “rude” society in their own land. The son of a Church of Scotland minister father and a gentry-born mother, Ferguson grew up with both the Calvinist sensibilities of the predominantly Protestant Lowlands and the Gallic-speaking clan kinship ethic of the Highlands. This particular heritage allowed him to become, early in his career, chaplain to the Highland Black Watch regiment of the military, the only member of the Scottish literati to join the armed forces. With both religious training and martial experience, Ferguson the ethicist combined an understanding of the transcendent and the esprit de corps of the regiment to formulate his own understanding of moral philosophy which he later espoused in lectures and publications. As the author points out, the religious underpinning of Ferguson’s thought morphed and shifted away from the traditional Calvinist Christology to a more rationalized theism, never abandoning the concept of God, but perhaps shifting it toward a more nature-revealed creator. In this the Scottish philosopher opened the door to ethical enquiry that did not have to lean closely on a traditional Christian foundation.

Jack Hill posits Ferguson’s nonspecific theism as a basis for a moral philosophy adept at tackling the postmodern, and post-Christian consensus world and its concurrent need for a basis for ethical norms. Ferguson defined the chief virtue of the ethical person as “probity,” an unfamiliar word in the modern lexicon but one that was perhaps more widely understood in the eighteenth century. In giving his readers a definition of the word, the author has had to devote considerable space to fleshing out its meaning. While contemporary dictionaries define it with such synonyms as “honesty” and “veracity,” other sources confuse the matter by aligning its meaning with words that defy simple explanation such as “Fiddes.” It is difficult not to conclude that the word was chosen as a literary chameleon, a term that fits almost any praiseworthy attribute and that describing someone as a man or woman “of probity” was perhaps a means of avoiding the need to fight a duel. What is perhaps of greater value to the reader attempting to encapsulate Ferguson’s ideal of probity, is the goal of acting in concert with what one “ought to wish for himself, for his country, and for mankind.”

For the modern reader of Ferguson, Hill distils six principles for working toward ethical integrity. Firstly, observing one’s own mind and thoughts is vital to beginning the ethical journey; the old Greek philosophical adage “know thyself.” Once this inner subjectivity can be mined, the second principle is to ascertain his or her relation to others. This can only be done through observation of the world around us and the people we interact with, nearby or far away. Counter to Rousseau and Hobbes, Ferguson saw humankind as a social animal from the very beginning and no ethical enquiry could end without an examination of those with whom one shared society. Thirdly, the ethicist must avoid the bias of a purely local outlook. By examining the wider world and the rights and wrongs of other cultures, the enquirer avoids ethnocentrism and avoids trap of merely considering what is good for his or her own nation. Ferguson’s own sources for these accounts of the manners and mores of peoples around the world were, perhaps by modern standards, skewed toward a European gaze, nonetheless the author is correct in claiming his principle of seeking out the moral standards of other cultures to point the way toward a modern cross-cultural basis for determining ethics. For a forth step, the Scottish philosopher sought to examine the past and triangulate modern moral ideas with those of writers in earlier epochs. Could one see a link between the actions of those in ancient Rome and Greece and what the man of probity sought in the world of Commercial Britain? This leads to the fifth principle, a “canvassing of how others today and yesterday have in fact made moral judgements.” To do this, Ferguson utilized what Dugald Stewart called “conjectural history,” essentially estimating how history, in the absence of definite records, probably progressed. This tool was a staple of Scottish Enlightenment historians, and was characterized by the rejection of the “great man” principle. Using this idea, Ferguson claimed to be able to discern common moral values throughout history. Lastly, step six involved taking a step back and examining the wider picture of events and circumstances to give the moral enquirer a broad understanding of the context into which the ethical judgement should be made.

Jack Hill asserts that these six steps in ethical enquiry are valuable tools in determining modern moral actions and maintaining ethical integrity in the midst of a world in which the reader is inundated with news and information, the veracity of which is difficult to ascertain at first glance. Starting with an understanding of one’s own thoughts, desires and aims and then moving onto an examination of those of others, the reader is urged to explore widely both geographically and historically to attempt to gain a view that goes beyond the latest Facebook post or opinion piece on a favourite news network. Only through pausing and looking at the big picture can the reader make the best ethical decisions.

If there is one area where this reviewer finds drawbacks in examining Ferguson, it is the subject’s choice to limit his own engagement with contemporary issues. While Ferguson was a widely-read academic, it is pertinent to note how little he interacted with the contemporary society in which he lived. With such tumultuous events as the French Revolution and socially transforming movements in Britain such as Slave Trade Abolition and Catholic Emancipation occurring within Ferguson’s writing career, it is all the more bewildering that such a social critic and student of history appeared not to discern momentous events when they occurred in his own time. While certainly eager to write on such subjects that took his attention, such as the Scottish militia, Ferguson wrote very little on the French Revolution and almost nothing on contemporary chattel slavery, both arguably monumental issues of his day. For the modern ethicist seeking to tackle great modern issues such as climate change, global poverty or the gun crime epidemic in the United States, Ferguson’s own example appears to condone inaction, despite Hill’s extrapolation of the subject’s ethics toward such practical actions as joining in “public demonstrations and protests.” While it is hard to imagine the elderly (by this time) professor marching in the streets of Edinburgh in support of Abolition, writing his opinions would not have been inconceivable. The modern scholar can only utilize “conjectural history” to posit that Ferguson shared his Abolitionist contemporaries’ abhorrence of the subjugation of Africans (as some have done in elevating Ferguson to company of anti-slavery writers) or confess that his own ethical enquiry did not result in considering the issue worthy of his commentary. As such the moral formulas of Ferguson, while useful for the modern ethicist cannot be their sole resource.

As a teacher of ethics in a modern American university, Jack Hill is in an ideal place to guide the reader of Adam Ferguson and his book opens up doors to long-forgotten treasures in the moral philosophy of eighteenth-century Scotland. In terms of laying a foundation for personal and communal ethics in the twenty-first century, Hill’s call to question the unthinking acceptance of scientism and materialism, and to rediscover the transcendent in our value systems, is vitally important. While other moral systems, such as Adam Smith’s sympathy principle with his call to consult the inner “impartial spectator” as an arbiter of the moral quality of our actions, have little to offer the narcissistic “me” generation, Ferguson’s rational basis for ethical enquiry is ideally suited for those wary of religion-based morality. Jack Hill had done a remarkable work in examining the voluminous and often dense works to distil his moral philosophical system. His book will be a valuable resource for both Enlightenment scholars and students of ethics.

  • Jack Hill

    Jack Hill


    Theory and Praxis in Ferguson’s Ethics

    Among the numerous issues raised in Doris’s thoughtful essay, I would like to focus on two fundamental philosophical questions: “What is the basis of ethics?” and “How should the gulf between theory and praxis in Ferguson’s ethics be addressed?” While the first goes to the very heart of Ferguson’s preoccupations as a moral philosopher, the second raises legitimate concerns regarding the practical efficacy of his enterprise. I will attempt to provide an initial response to each and look forward to continued dialogue on both questions.

    I think Doris is correct when he states that Ferguson appears to ground ethics on a “non-specific theism.” Ferguson used different metaphors (for example, “Providence” in his “Lectures” and “Principle of Being” in later essays) to evoke a transcendent plane of reality.1 This plane constitutes the outer horizon for all the earth’s species. It is the most comprehensive context of human dwelling. It is the overarching canopy that shelters the manifold microcosm of minute biological exertions in the great unfolding of the universe. When Ferguson does ethics, it is always with an awareness of human thought and action within this broad dialectical continuum: Principle of Being—Exertions of species beings. At the center of this continuum is the distinctly human experience of forming intimate relationships with significant others. Consequently, the three core symbols of the ground of Ferguson’s ethics may be construed as: Principle of Being, acts of exertion and freely chosen, intimate relationships. Humans “select” their friends as well as form more exclusive bonds with a partner. Looking around us in the past—near and far—and studying human intention in the present, it is possible to discern enduring strands of moral guidance, or what Ferguson says one “ought to wish for himself, his country, and for mankind” (Principles 1:10).

    Such an ethic is thus a matter of what one ought to do, or ought to refrain from doing. Initially, reasoning from Ferguson’s conception of human nature, it is perhaps easier to discern what one ought not to do. Individual selves, given to acts of exertion, ought not to succumb to inactive, banal lives aimed at convenience. Social agents, seeking their fortune together, ought not to acquiesce to the lowest common denominators of civic life. Human beings, wherever they live, ought not to be plagued by political slavery. On the other hand, reasoning from empirical observations, concerning the ways we treat those closest to us—and in response to their expectations of how we ought to treat them—positive aspects of “oughtness” are disclosed. The just, courageous, and candid person is judged to be preferable to the brutal, cowardly, and deceitful person. Strong, healthy marriages manifest love, hope, and charity. Weak, troubled marriages manifest hate, despair, and selfishness. For Ferguson, the bridge to the ought is integrally and indelibly connected to what is experienced as the case.

    Of course, this way of articulating the ground of ethics entails several problems. Perhaps the most confounding one is that human experience varies, not only from culture to culture, but also among persons belonging to the same culture. This is why Ferguson devotes so much space in the first volume of the Principles to a depiction of human nature in general. To explicate two points of orientation, let us return to Ferguson’s dialectical method. All human beings are created beings. Another way of stating this is to say that our lives are not our own. They are given to us and for relatively short time spans in infinitesimally small corners of the universe. We do not will ourselves into being and we have very little ultimate control over the cessation of our being. This is the case, relative to the Principle of Being, whether we live a few seconds or one hundred years; whether we live all our days on a tiny island or travel the planet. To live well is to live with this radical awareness of one’s limits and mortality. The big picture is a humble picture which entails a basic sense of gratitude that we are. In Ferguson’s cosmos, that gratitude was due to the Principle of Being. In a non-theistic, scientist context, it is difficult, if not impossible, to articulate the object of our gratitude. In fact, it is difficult to conjure up discourse that gives a reality sense to any all-encompassing object of gratitude. Eventually, as the object fades from view, an underlying sense of gratitude tends to diminish as well.

    This is one way of characterizing the first part of what Ferguson means when he says that we are losing a sense of who we ought to be. We ought to be people who live with a sense of gratitude. Such a posture enables the development of a calm and resourceful view of the world. It is humbling, but it is also liberating. Second, while they are created beings, all humans become who they are through acts of exertion. The infant survives, in part, because it breathes, cries, and flexes its muscles. The infant also survives because its mother (and/or father) nourishes it, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Without such nourishment it ceases to flourish. What Ferguson calls the love or compassion of the parent for the infant is emblematic of humanity. As they learn to walk, speak, and socially interact with others, infants become social actors in pre-given webs of social relations. Flourishing in these webs entails the extension of proclivities for love, especially because self-preservation and continual survival will require competitive skills and defensive postures that are in tension with dispositions to love one another. For Ferguson, we ought to be persons who are predisposed to love others, not in obsequious or unrealistic ways, but as humans who are most truly themselves when they act with compassion, especially with regard to the sufferings of others. This reflection suggests the following question: “What are the obstacles to maintaining and enhancing a sense of gratitude and a predisposition to love others in our contemporary societies?”

    An ethic rooted in human relationships which attends to others’ suffering is problematic if it is not readily conducive to concrete action on behalf of those who suffer. Aside from a few general statements regarding his opposition to human slavery, Ferguson did not, as Doris argues, comment specifically on the chattel slavery in the British Empire or join in the Abolition campaign. Without mounting an apologetic for Ferguson, I would make the following three observations. First, part of the issue concerns where one puts one’s energy. According to several accounts, Ferguson was meticulous about preparing for his lecture performances, even up to and through the final year of his full-time teaching of moral philosophy (1764–1785). Between 1759 and 1764, he also expended enormous effort getting up to speed in order to teach the course in natural philosophy, also at Edinburgh University. Prior to these two teaching stints, Ferguson was hard at work writing and revising his famous Essay—a work based, in no small degree, on an encyclopedic review of the literature concerning indigenous peoples. After leaving full-time teaching, Ferguson devoted several years to refining and revamping his lectures into what later became the lengthy two-volume Principles. And in the midst of all this, he was researching and writing his voluminous history of Rome, which he later revised as well.2 In short, throughout his career, Ferguson focused his full attention on teaching and scholarship. And regarding the latter, he was primarily invested in theory as opposed to elaborations of praxis. In fact, although they can be found in the Principles, what I have termed “epitomes of moral dynamics” are often difficult to unearth and even the sections of the Principles that focus on “Applications” tend to range at a fairly theoretical level.

    Second, Ferguson, like all of us, was not immune to social and political pressures associated with his professional status. In particular, his university appointment was subject to the political and religious sensibilities of the Edinburgh City Council. He was not independently wealthy, and depended on patrons for social security in retirement. He helped support a large family of siblings. This is all to say that Ferguson may have been especially sensitive to the risks that active political engagement on issues such as the Abolition movement might pose for someone in his social situation. Again, this is not to excuse inaction, but rather to attempt to shed light upon it. Clearly, one needs to be perspicacious regarding the battles one chooses to fight.

    Third, it may be that Ferguson’s theory does not lend itself to the types of praxis that I conjected about in AFEI, especially under the hallmark pertaining to civic engagement. Actually, my specific suggestions were not intended to be understood as actions that I thought Ferguson would have advocated were he alive today, but rather possible types of praxis that Ferguson’s concern about civic action might evoke in the twenty-first-century reader. Nevertheless, it may be that Ferguson’s own idea of progress—with its ambivalence about society’s prospects—entailed a certain reticence regarding contemporary efforts at reform. Clearly, on the spectrum of social change, Ferguson’s instincts were somewhere between the extremes of revolutionary excess and reactionary stagnation. However, his fears of the potential chaos of the former generally outweighed his reservations concerning the limitations of the latter. Ferguson viewed himself as a conscientious Whig who was committed to the mixed government of the Britain of his day—a government which he thought did a reasonable job of balancing the interests of monarchy, nobility, and the common populace in an uneven, often flawed, but roughly sustainable, constitutional order. While in hindsight one might wish that he had been proactive on certain issues, it is perhaps equally true that future generations may similarly wish that each of us had been proactive on issues such as species protection and preservation, immigration, or human contributions to global warming

    In retrospect, Ferguson’s failure to actively engage a cause like the Abolition movement merits further research and it may be fair to argue that he underestimated the need for greater urgency in ending chattel slavery. Ferguson certainly recognized the oppressive plight of the factory worker (in the Essay), and yet did not explicitly advocate for labor reform.3 However, one way to think about all this is to recall that Ferguson, like Marx, was always balancing empirical observation in the present with an eye to the big picture of the unfolding of human history as a whole. The long, uneven trajectory of human progress tends to relativize all particular injustices (as well as meritorious reforms), however heinous or glorious they may be. Human slavery persists into the present day—in the more overt forms of human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of minors, but also in the many covert forms of slavish labor arrangements in which migrant workers are paid pittances for arduous work and the elderly are consigned to mind-numbing jobs which do not yield a living wage. My point is not to equate the brutality and cruelty of the slavery of plantation America with these other forms of slavery, but rather to suggest that slavery does indeed appear in many guises and it is the entire panoply of “enslavement” that particularly concerned Ferguson.

    1. “Lectures on Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy,” original lectures (autograph) revised on various dates, chiefly 1776–1785, Doc. 1.84-6, Edinburgh University Library—hereafter cited as “Lectures.” The later essays have been published in The Manuscripts of Adam Ferguson, edited by Vincenzo Merolle, with Eugene Heath and Robin Dix (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2006)—hereafter cited as Manuscripts.

    2. The History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic, six books in one volume, 1783, reprint (London: Jones, 1829)—hereafter cited as History.

    3. An Essay on the History of Civil Society 1767, edited with a new introduction by Louis Schneider (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1980)—hereafter cited as Essay.

    • Glen Doris

      Glen Doris


      Divergence in foundation, different outcomes? A Reply.

      My response to Dr Hill’s response has taken a slight detour in that his emphasis on the foundations of Ferguson’s ethics has sparked a particular idea that I think has been given less attention in the study of the Scottish enlightenment. I hope the reader will indulge me as I spring off into a new vector of inquiry and hopefully add to the discussion my review touched upon.
      For me to suggest an ethical blind spot for Ferguson is perhaps not really fair to the man in isolation. The focus of Ferguson’s ethics on the integrity of relationships close to the individual is shared with others of his literati circle. Dr Hill’s analysis of the foundation for Ferguson’s ethics in gratitude to the “Principle of Being” I believe is an important one. I believe it opens the door for further exploration of the commonality we see in particular ethical foci of Ferguson and his peers in Scotland and the difference of outcomes we witness in the praxis of groups like the Abolitionists. That Ferguson was aware of what Hill describes as the “Principle of Being”, and found the locus of what humankind “ought to be” emerging from a sense of gratitude toward it is perhaps what anchored his motivation to embark on the ethicist project. But how did Ferguson’s idea of the divine allow him to proceed from there? After abandoning the specificity of the Historic Christian understanding of God and the particulars of the Biblical ethical commands, the theism (what C.B. Bow labels “humanistic deism”) of Ferguson could only provide elementary guidance as to ethical direction. It is here that Ferguson shared his starting point with his contemporaries David Hume and Adam Smith. Smith, embarking on a project to capture the very essence of an ethical foundation in the absence of divine revelation, had to begin with the rational human mind and centred on the principle of sympathy. While Ferguson and Hume perhaps did not argue precisely the same, their ethical boundaries began with the individual reaching out to those around them. Naturally, their sense of fellow-feeling extended to their families, friends, and neighbours though, as both Smith and Hume argued, in ever diminishing force (Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 99, and Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 219-200). The imagination of the individual could encompass one’s own country as an object for sympathetic concern, but little beyond. What one might wish for mankind as a whole was merely a projection of what a virtuous person could hope for his own kin and country, the commonality of human nature being the best guide for appropriate action in required.
      If I am to contrast with groups such as the Abolitionists whose ethical projects were unambiguously rooted in their historic Christian faith, their acting on the particular world-embracing commands of Jesus (“Go into all the world and make disciples”, for just one example) gave them a proto-manifesto for global action. While sharing the principle of care for those in their immediate circle, their imagination of the plight of far off peoples suffering injustice could be acted upon without usurping the role that Smith argued was self-evidently the role purview of the divine (Smith, 237).
      While it is certainly true, has Dr Hill has argued, that Ferguson’s occupational tasks may have prevented his attention to wider political action or commentary on slave trade abolition or the French Revolution, the contrast in practical outcomes emerging at the same time may also have had some connection to the divergence in religion. The turn of the 19th century saw a move from observing the wider world to actively seeking to change it, first in abolishing the British Slave Trade and its wider suppression to the emergence of the modern missionary movement, as well as the darker aspects such as colonialism under the rubric of “civilizing” other lands. Ideas that Smith would have dismissed as “universal benevolence” and beyond the abilities or mortal humans (ibid), soon became the impetus for global change, with both blessings and curses for the world.

    • Jack Hill

      Jack Hill


      The Modernist Turn in Ferguson’s “Humanist” Ethics

      Glen Doris’s reply raises several intriguing points for further reflection. First, if one develops one’s “ethics” (i.e., one’s specific way of reflecting on moral experience) out of a particular sectarian religious tradition which includes a strand of prophetic teachings (such as missionary Christianity or engaged Buddhism), one will be predisposed–to the extent that she/he takes that strand seriously–to be proactive on social justice issues. While the institutions of traditional, major religions like Christianity often reflect some of the most conservative norms and values of any institutions in society, they also occasionally spark radical initiatives for social change (think of the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., as well as the Abolitionist movement in Britain). In each case, some of the most prominent agitators and leaders were devout Christians. They could and did justify their social activism by appealing to Biblical injunctions (such as “let justice roll down like a river”) and core narratives, such as the Exodus story in which Moses leads his people out of captivity into freedom. The God who authors the ten commandments in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, is the very God who liberates the Hebrews from slavery. In other words, guidelines for social ethical action can be derived from Biblical teachings.
      The matter is far less clear, as Doris implies, for those who operate out of a humanistic ethic. In fact, reasoning from human experience as the alpha and omega of ethics, it is very difficult to get beyond some form of utilitarian ethics–where the good is equated with what is good for a great number of persons, and what is right is what promotes the happiness and/or well-being of humans as a whole. This appears to be where both Adam Smith and David Hume end up, Smith’s appeal to sympathy as a heuristic norm notwithstanding. The problem, however, is that without an implicit strand of prophetic principles or values, utilitarians are not generally predisposed to oppose the status quo, especially if it seems to be benefiting oneself and one’s circles of acquaintances. An injustice that impacts a minority group or even a large mass of persons who are geographically remote, may not, and usually does not, trump taken-for-granted laws, customs and conventional mores that are socially approved among members of “one’s kind.” Indeed, it should be frankly acknowledged that, with few exceptions, the leading lights of the Eighteenth-Century enlightenment in Britain did not address some of the glaring social injustices of the age, including slavery, exploitation of the worker in manufacturing, and the subjugation of women.
      Although Ferguson explicitly critiques the ethic of what he terms “utility” in the Principles; like Hume and Smith, he did not really provide distinct, non-utilitarian guidelines for human conduct.

      Nevertheless, two points should be emphasized in this connection. One, Ferguson is quite clear that what he is doing is outlining a method for doing ethics, not constructing a system of ethics. In a notable passage from the Principles that deserves quoting in full, Ferguson states:

      The distinction of good and evil originates in the sensibility
      of intelligent beings to the circumstances in which they are
      placed, or to the qualities of their own nature. But the appli-
      cations of this distinction, and the course of life to proceed
      from it, will depend on the associations men have formed,
      and even on the epithets of good and evil, they are used to
      bestow on the subjects that occur to their choice (I: 126-27)

      What is striking here is the modernist turn in Ferguson’s humanist ethics. Like Martin Heidegger, Ferguson begins with “man” in relationship to “the circumstances in which they are placed.” These “circumstances” presuppose a divine horizon (what Heidegger calls “the divinities”), and an agent who is actively pursuing some project (what Heidegger refers to as “Dasein”)–in everyday life, and who is situated in a context (what Heidegger refers to as a “world”). Rather than an autonomous “subject,” Ferguson’s self is an artisan who comports himself toward a task in a purposeful manner and who is situated in relation to other persons. Good and evil are discovered in the course of one’s engaging the world–they are built into the fabric of our exertions as agents who are employing skills in the fulfillment of callings or vocations. What scholars have recognized as a strong sociological bent in Ferguson’s thought can also be interpreted in terms of a social relational, philosophical turn that anticipates twentieth-century phenomenology.

      Second, while I think it is correct to say, with Doris, that Ferguson abandoned “the specificity of other historic Christian understandings of God” and certainly did not ground his ethic in Biblical revelation–still, many particulars of Ferguson’s ethics resonate with Biblical themes (e.g., emphases on gratitude, love of neighbor, concern for the sufferings of others). In this sense, there is what might be termed a “Calvinist scent” in Ferguson’s ethics. However, this scent is not the modus operandi of his ethics. The latter is found in his modernist notion of the self–a being characterized by exertions in the world–exertions in which she or he realizes who she or he is (or in Heidegger’s language, a “being there”). Furthermore, Ferguson’s self is a complex being who is inseparable from a “fellow-feeling” that extends to, and is most dramatically seen and made manifest in, the clan. It also reaches beyond the clan and is expressed in duty to nation and mindfulness of responsibilities to all of mankind. But the latter is admittedly a weaker extension of fellow-feeling than that which is experienced among intimate friends and companions. What makes Ferguson’s humanist ethic more resourceful than Hume’s or Smith’s however, is the imprint of his Highlander background … and his unabashed fascination with, and critical yet empathetic use of, the dense and far-ranging literature on the so-called rude peoples. They were not, for Ferguson, peoples that one ought to have sympathy for (re: Smith), or less developed, less refined subjects than the British intelligentsia (re: Hume) … but, to a certain degree, moral exemplars to emulate (see Ferguson’s reference to the religiosity of Native Americans in AFEI, p. 161). Thus, what made Ferguson different from many of his peers is that his moral imagination was not so much a projection of a commonly shared humanistic vision as it was a genuine, cross-culturally nuanced, apprehension of how rightness and goodness are manifest in situations quite removed from eighteenth-century Britain. Doris is justly disappointed that Ferguson does not explicate practical, social ethical guidelines in his articulation of a humanist ethic. I concur that this is a shortcoming. Here what is wanting in Ferguson’s approach could perhaps be supplied by careful readings of Marxists and thinkers such as Marcuse. What Ferguson does give us is a calm and resourceful vision of human flourishing that enables a depiction of three hallmarks of the moral life–although none function as explicit calls to action which address systemic roots of injustice. But one can say that in his empathy for the manners and mores of “peoples of the mountains,” Ferguson may have been on the cusp of challenging what he called “partiality to our kind” in terms of economic and cultural elitism. And such a challenging may contribute to preparing the ground for social justice activism in contemporary struggles around the world.

Anna Plassart


Ethical Prescriptions from the Highlands

Adam Ferguson’s Scottish Enlightenment

In his time, Adam Ferguson was a widely celebrated teacher, philosopher and historian. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries however, his reputation has suffered from comparison with his more famous Scottish contemporaries. While the Scottish Enlightenment has come to be broadly associated with the idea of “modernity”—most famously for its writers’ contributions to socioeconomic thought, as they attempted to come to grips with the rise of commercial society and its implications for political life—Ferguson’s lifelong concern for the ethical and virtuous life has sometimes seemed disappointingly out of step with his colleagues’ supposedly more “modern” outlook. He has been praised for some of his proto-sociological insights (especially his early presentation of the concept of alienation), but at their core his writings are not as easily celebrated as those of his Scottish contemporaries for heralding post-Enlightenment social and political science—he was more circumspect about the potential benefits of commercial society than Hume or Smith, less enthusiastic about democratic politics than Millar, and less optimistic about the possibility of progress than Robertson.

Ferguson certainly stood out among the men of letters of late eighteenth-century Scotland: he was a Gaelic-speaking Highlander who had once held a commission in the famed Scottish “Black Watch” regiment, and a man whose imposing presence and taste for adventures inspired many a contemporary anecdote. His reputation, then as now, was also that of a conservative political thinker. He was a moderate Whig who valued civic participation more than democratic rights: because he voiced strong misgivings about the moral and political dangers inherent to Europe’s emerging commercial society, and because he was a vocal critic of both the American and French revolutions, he has sometimes been (unfairly) dismissed as an outmoded civic republican, increasingly out of tune with the rise of democratic politics.

Jack Hill’s book, however, eschews the weight of this scholarly history by approaching Ferguson from an entirely different perspective. Refreshingly, Hill is not interested in assessing Ferguson’s role in the development of social and political thought, and he is at pains to avoid reading him through the lens of specialised academic agenda—this would be, he aptly writes, “not only to summarily underestimate the significance of his writings, but also to risk misunderstanding what he was trying to achieve” (31). Rather, his study of Ferguson—“part biography and part philosophical enquiry” (ix)—is exciting and ambitious, precisely because it takes Ferguson seriously on his own terms, as a philosopher of ethics. From this starting point the book reconstructs Ferguson’s intellectual project, and offers an organic, holistic reassessment of his thought.

Hill’s thesis is a deceptively simple one: Ferguson’s various works are best understood as forming the strands of an ambitious and complex ethical enquiry, whose practical insights remain relevant in the twenty-first century. He develops this argument alongside a detailed biographical account, in an effort to demonstrate that Ferguson’s brand of ethics was directly tied to his personal experience of the Scottish Highlands.

The book’s first chapter, therefore, offers a fascinating and richly detailed account of Ferguson’s bicultural background. While the evidence used by Hill to support his argument that Ferguson’s “hybrid” (7) cultural identity was a major influence in shaping his intellectual outlook remains largely circumstantial, he does convincingly argue that Ferguson’s Highlands identity was far from insignificant. The extent of its importance, however, remains in my view up for debate—Hill’s suggestion that previous accounts were based on “selective reading of the data” (4) could equally apply to his own analysis.

The following three chapters form the thematic core of the book, and are highly convincing in their presentation of Ferguson’s project as one fundamentally anchored in his moral philosophy. While scholars have long appreciated Ferguson’s comparative historical method as a remarkably non-ethnocentric form of early anthropology, and have usually analysed his praise for the moral qualities of “rude nations” in relation to his republican critique of the corrupting influence of commercial society, Hill recasts these approaches in his broad rereading of Ferguson’s writings. Ferguson’s project, he demonstrates, is best understood as a “full-blown ethical enquiry” (31), a coherent philosophical system whose unifying principle, and most distinctive feature, was the notion of human agency. Ferguson’s moral philosophy was a multidisciplinary endeavour that aimed to provide socially contextualised, practical tools for discovering “what man ought to wish for himself, for his country, for mankind” (Ferguson, cited at 32). Recast in this ethical perspective, Hill argues, Ferguson’s inquiry is best examined not through his famous Essay, but through a close analysis of his Principles of Moral and Political Science. Arguing that the Principles represent the culmination of Ferguson’s philosophical endeavours, Hill provides an illuminating account of his moral philosophy, including his depiction of human nature as centred on the principle of exertion, the grounding of moral life in social interaction, and the power of habit. One clear lesson here is that the Principles ought to attract much more scholarly interest than they usually have. But more broadly, there is much to learn from Hill’s wide-ranging analysis of Ferguson’s writings, and his rereading of Ferguson as an ethical philosopher is entirely convincing.

Moving on from his reconstruction of Ferguson’s ethical philosophy, in chapter 5 Hill applies his findings to Ferguson’s analysis of commercial society. He enriches previous scholarly discussions by replacing Ferguson’s critique of the “commercial arts” in a broader landscape, relating it to the political arts as well as aesthetic production and intellectual enquiry. In the later sections of the chapter (as well as in the book’s conclusion), Hill mines Ferguson’s ethical philosophy and critique of eighteenth-century society for lessons applicable to the twenty-first century. The shift may appear a little jarring to the historian reader, and some may wonder whether Hill’s efforts to demonstrate Ferguson’s relevance for twenty-first-century US politics will date his book unnecessarily quickly—but it remains that he certainly succeeds in illustrating the striking modernity of Ferguson’s concerns.

The last chapter focuses on Ferguson’s efforts to construct a religious thought compatible with his prescriptions for ethical life. As in the first chapter, Hill’s discussion of Ferguson’s naturalistic religion locates the relevant context for his enquiry in the details of Ferguson’s biography rather than in the broader intellectual environment of Moderate, enlightened Scotland. While Hill provides rich additional contextual layers that also rely on a broad use of primary sources, he understandably struggles to provide conclusive evidence for the nature of Ferguson’s faith, or lack thereof. Nevertheless, the chapter opens up fascinating (yet arguably, ultimately unanswerable) questions about the role of religion in Ferguson’s practical ethics.

The sum of these parts adds up to an important contribution that should be required reading for all Ferguson scholars. Even if some of Hill’s specific insights aren’t entirely novel, he performs an important shift in emphasis in how we should approach and understand Ferguson’s intellectual project as a whole. Most importantly, he shows that Ferguson’s moral philosophy stood at the core of his historical and political writings, and demonstrates that his Principles need to be thoroughly reexamined, not to mention benefit from a modern edition.

The few remarks below, some of which I have already hinted at, are certainly not intended to take away from Hill’s contribution—merely to share some of my thoughts as a starting point for discussion.

First, it seems to me that Hill’s methodology invites debate, because it cobbles together several different approaches and research questions. At its core the book is an account of Ferguson’s philosophy of ethics, but Hill’s approach to his subject is part intellectual biography, part history of philosophy, part practical ethics. Which could lead the reader to wonder—if this is intellectual history (or history of philosophy), why isn’t Hill exploring in more detail both Ferguson’s philosophical debt to his predecessors and colleagues, and his intellectual heritage? Hill appears to have limited interest in placing Ferguson’s view of human nature in relation to that of his Scottish and continental colleagues, who were often preoccupied with at least some of the same questions, particularly when it came to natural sociability. This leads him to sometimes questionable generalizations. To take but one example, it could be disputed whether such a thing as “classical stadial theory” (71) existed, and whether Ferguson’s refusal to adopt linear, teleological views of societal progress was truly original among his Scottish (or indeed European) colleagues. From the opposite perspective, at a few points Hill appears to suggest that Ferguson’s ethics did have an important intellectual heritage (notably when he writes that Ferguson “essentially initiated a shift in the trajectory of moral inquiry . . . a re-framing of ethics in terms of concrete moral experience rather than systematic reflection on theoretical questions,” xix). However, he doesn’t pursue this line of inquiry, preferring instead to locate the relevance of his topic in Ferguson’s philosophical insights, and in their potential for application in modern contexts. But if this is the case, it is not immediately clear why Ferguson’s philosophy cannot stand on its own, and what added value is gained from the biographical context in which it is embedded here.

Second—and this is the historian of political ideas talking—I was struck by the choices Hill makes in his contextualisation of Ferguson’s thought. He consistently prioritizes Ferguson’s Highlands background at the expense of other (sometimes more obviously relevant) contexts. One example that comes to mind would be Ferguson’s remarkably non-Eurocentric interest in other cultures. Hill attributes this almost entirely to Ferguson’s bicultural upbringing, yet one could object that he was hardly the only, or the first, Enlightenment philosopher to adopt such an approach—here his admiration for Montesquieu (which Hill acknowledges) could be, at the very least, a reinforcing influence. Similarly, Ferguson’s critique of the “commercial arts” is contextualised biographically, primarily in terms of his lifelong financial insecurity, rather than in relation to the huge increase in trade, especially global trade, experienced by Scotland and Europe in the eighteenth century, and which became the object of much philosophical and political debate among Ferguson’s contemporaries. More generally—and this is the other side of the coin to Hill’s admirable effort to understand Ferguson on his own terms—Ferguson’s originality seems to me to be occasionally overplayed, precisely because Hill underplays his roots in European philosophy as well as his implantation in the Lowlands intellectual culture of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Regardless of my occasional reservations, Hill undoubtedly succeeds in his attempt to recast Ferguson as a philosopher primarily occupied with ethical questions, and whose entire intellectual production should be reread in this light. It seems to me that Hill’s thoughtful, sensitive and profoundly sympathetic account manages to capture the very essence of Ferguson’s philosophical project—as well as provide tools to help his readers reflect on its continuing relevance. This is an occasionally flawed, yet deeply invigorating call to reexamine one of the Scottish Enlightenment’s most misunderstood figures.

  • Jack Hill

    Jack Hill


    Method and Context in Reading Ferguson

    With a historian’s acuity, Anna Plassart draws special attention to two critical issues relating to the interpretation of Ferguson’s project: “How does one develop a coherent methodology that does justice to the ethics articulated in Ferguson’s work?” and “What constitutes a proper contextualization of Ferguson’s various performances for an assessment of the originality of Ferguson’s ethics?” These are both highly complex questions that have not been explicitly addressed in Ferguson scholarship. I offer the following comments as suggestions for further reflection.

    Three preliminary clarifications are in order. First, although I reference the phenomenological approach of Alfred Schutz in the introduction (xviii), chapter 6 (185) and in an endnote regarding “Ferguson’s Ethical Method” (193n98), I did not provide an explicit, detailed account of my methodological approach in AFEI.1 I did refer the reader, at the beginning of chapter 2, to a description of this approach in an earlier work (62n5), but in retrospect, Plassart and other readers might justifiably raise questions concerning the method used in AFEI. I will try to briefly articulate what was left unsaid in this regard below.

    Second, with respect to the contextualization of Ferguson’s work, if one adopts Schutz’s approach to understanding a strand of Ferguson’s thought, then that strand will be apprehended in terms of what Schutz called the lifeworld, or the most comprehensive context in human experience. Schutz explicates this context in terms of broad spatial, temporal, and social features. Accordingly, the first chapter of AFEI culminates in an account of Ferguson’s lifeworld in terms of an exposition of “Symbols of a Sense of Place” (10–22). Perhaps it would have been better to organize the chapters of the book in terms of these focal symbols—the river Tay, Celtic stones, Church of Scotland, Regality Court, and the Ràth—rather than as a presentation of his ethic in a philosophically structured manner. In fact, in my initial notes I associated different symbols with distinct terrains of intellectual influences that are not subsequently explored in the book. For example, by Regality Court I had clustered Carmichael, Pufendorf, and Locke. By Church of Scotland, I had Robertson, Home, and Hutcheson (and by way of counterpoint, Voltaire and the Socinians). In any event, I will say more about the issue of context subsequently.

    Third, Plassart expresses concerns about the posing of different research questions. As I stipulate at the beginning of the preface, AFEI is not only intellectual biography and philosophical analysis, but also moral praxis primer—a work intended to be useful in one’s own personal moral reflection. That said, the primary research question was, “How should one understand Ferguson’s ethical framework?” And perhaps the book should have begun and ended with that question alone. For, in my effort to provide illustrations of how the book might also be useful for personal moral inquiry, I introduced examples of contemporary figures and events that ranged far afield from the primary question above. In hindsight, this was a mistake—especially because it has had the effect of sidetracking readers from the primary question of the work. If I were to do it again, I would have written two books—the first restricted to articulating Ferguson’s ethic; the second focused on the problem of applying that ethic to other social and political contexts.

    Regarding method, the approach one adopts to inquire about a particular phenomenon depends on both the researcher’s own interests and the nature of the phenomenon under investigation. As Plassart observes, in AFEI I provide a “selective” reading of Ferguson. However, in my view, because any reading of a text proceeds on the basis of the interest of the researcher, all readings are selective. This is why it is important to be transparent about one’s own interest. In this book my aim was to articulate Ferguson’s vision of “ethical integrity”—a concept I define at the outset as an “overarching frame of reference for properly orienting thought and conduct in relation to a particular moral ethos” (xxiv, n1). The problem then becomes, “How does one discern something like an ‘ethical frame of reference’ of a particular eighteenth-century, Scottish philosopher?” In AFEI, I strive to delineate this framework, as much as possible, in Ferguson’s own terms. What this means is that I take my point of departure from Ferguson’s own description of the ethics aspect of his project in Principles. To reiterate, Ferguson states that the “specific principle of moral science is some general expression of what is good,” and in order to “investigate such a principle relating to man,” that “it will be necessary to recollect what is known of himself” as well as “what is known of the situation in which he is placed” (2:2–3, my emphasis).

    Thus, the particular phenomenon under analysis in AFEI, is an ethical framework that is rooted in a notion of the good, a concept of self and an account of the situation or context which one inhabits. The key insight to stress is that these parts of Ferguson’s ethical framework resonate with what constitute three of the four “base points” or elements of a social ethics. In this connection, I draw on the work of the religious social ethicist James Gustafson.2 Because a “social ethic” is a shared system of value meaning regarding symbolizations of the good, selves and situations, I have found Schutz’s phenomenological method—which entails investigations of symbols—to be extremely illuminating. What I attempt to do in AFEI is to ground my inquiry in a concrete case (that is, Ferguson’s elaboration of his ethical framework) rather than on theory, but employ theoretical constructs—the above mentioned base points of ethics—for analyzing the case at hand. In other words, I strive to develop a methodology which is a fit with the phenomena under investigation. Thus, what may appear to be an eclectic approach in AFEI is a singular effort to develop a novel way of interpreting Ferguson’s ethical framework. Although it draws on insights culled from researchers who have used methods associated with traditional demarcations of inquiry—such as history, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy—it should not be confused with any one of these terrains of investigation.

    Turning to the question of context, in Ferguson’s case, the situation is a life span in which the first thirty-one years are primarily spent growing up in Logierait and ministering to a regiment largely composed of Highlander troops. Given the sense in which one’s developmental identity is to a major degree forged in the first third of one’s life, I am still convinced that Ferguson’s Highlander background was a major influence on his thinking about ethics. Whether or not it was the primary influence is, as Plassart argues, a point for further debate. My concern was to elevate Ferguson’s Highlander identity in ways that will enable it to be a central part of discourse about Ferguson’s thought.

    There is no question that Ferguson was also strongly influenced by ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, Bacon and Newton, Montesquieu, Shaftesbury, and the lesser-known James Harris. I did not, for the most part, explore these intellectual influences because David Allan had already done so in Adam Ferguson and because that would have entailed delaying the publication further. As far as the originality or novelty of Ferguson’s ethics in relation to his contemporaries—especially Smith, Hume, Millar, Kames, or Robertson—it is true that much more needs to be investigated. As Plassart observes, many of Ferguson’s contemporaries were also reading the literature of indigenous peoples that was flooding into Europe at the time. My question is, “Did these contemporaries make the kind of use of the material that Ferguson did in evolving his ethical framework?” The majority of citations in the Essay are references to this literature. One point I strive to establish in AFEI is that Ferguson was indeed unique in the sense that he directly challenged the ways in which Mandeville, Hume, Kant, and Smith accounted for the basis of ethics.3 Additionally, I also sought to emphasize that Ferguson did not really buy into stadial theories of progress. The fact that Ferguson began the Essay by rejecting both Rousseau’s and Hobbes’s views regarding the subject of an original state of nature foregrounds his ensuing dialectical account of the ambiguity of the trajectory of human flourishing. Nevertheless, whether or not this was a “novel” way of approaching ideas of progress may still be a matter of debate.

    Plassart also raises the question of the impact of the burgeoning economic development on Ferguson’s ethics, particularly regarding the commercial arts. Although I allude to this economic context in the preface, and again when discussing the commercial arts (AFEI, 146–56), it should have received greater attention. In fact, Ferguson’s considered ambivalence regarding humanity’s prospects would certainly have been firmly rooted in his experience of the industrial revolution.

    1. See Schutz’s phenomenological perspective in his Collective Papers, 3 vols. (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967), especially vol. 1, The Problem of Social Reality.

    2. See Christ and the Moral Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 1–2.

    3. See my elaboration of this claim in AFEI, 126–27.

    • Anna Plassart

      Anna Plassart


      Method and context – a reply

      Thank you very much, Jack, for your thoughtful response to my comments. Your discussion of the methodology you employ was particularly illuminating, and has given me much to think about.

      While I come from a historical perspective and read the book with my historian’s hat firmly on, I recognize that historical questions are not the only questions worth asking (although they are certainly the only ones I feel qualified to comment on !). In fact what made the book such a rewarding read for me, a historian interested in Ferguson’s political thinking, is the holistic picture that emerged of Ferguson not only as a historian, or an ethicist, or a professor, or a Highlander, but rather as a man who was more than the sum of these parts.

      I will reassert one point, which I meant to be the central point in my review essay : we may approach Ferguson from different methodological perspectives, and ask different resarch questions with different agendas in mind, but what struck me reading this book was how much I recognized “my” Ferguson in your account. For a variety of reasons he has often been unfairly dismissed by historians of political ideas as unoriginal or old-fashioned, and one of the reasons this book is important is that it provides a long-overdue attempt to take him seriously as a moral philosopher, and generally speaking as thinker we can all still learn from. Your sympathetic account does him justice, in my view – I may have a few quibbles on points of detail, but it seems clear to me that you are fundamentally correct about him, his worldview, and the power and relevance of the message he was passing on to his students and readers.

      There is one point I would like to elaborate on – I would not dispute that “Ferguson’s Highlander background was a major influence on his thinking about ethics”, as you write. And the book’s detailed account of Ferguson’s cultural and intellectual roots in the Highlands is very welcome indeed, since Ferguson’s Highlands identity, when it has been acknowledged, has until now more often been assumed than precisely demonstrated. What I would dispute, however, is that the Highlands provide, as such, the key to understanding Ferguson’s particular take on the world he lived in, or his recommendations for the ethical life. In my view Ferguson is fascinating precisely because he stood at the interface of the Highlands and the Lowlands, of admiration for virtuous republicanism and acknowledgement of the benefits and drawbacks of modern commercial society. And it would be to fail to do justice to him, I think, to characterize him as primarily belonging to one world over the other. But I suspect we are not in fact in disagreement about this, and I would fully subscribe to your description of a « double bridging – one biographical and one intellectual » that would explain why Ferguson was able to offer such pertinent – yet sympathetic – criticism of the increasingly commercialised and individualistic society he lived in, and why his recommendations remain relevant in the twenty-first century.

    • Jack Hill

      Jack Hill


      My Ferguson & The Vulnerability of the Democratic Project

      Anna Plassart ‘s generous, personal and thoughtful comments are fruit for further thought. I was particularly captivated by her reference to finding “My Ferguson” in AFEI. Indeed, at a deeply subjective level, especially when reading particular strands of Ferguson’s different types of rhetoric in the Essay, political satires and Principles, I frequently found myself in conversation with a kindred spirit of sorts. One encounters an almost scandalous willingness to say what is obviously true, but which is decidedly not politically correct. This is of course true of Millar, Kames and other enlightenment figures, but one senses that with Ferguson it is coming from the heart–and it is deadly serious. It is also courageous, at times unpopular, and sometimes “in-your-face-take-that” kind of discourse. This is the down home, practical, Highlander maverick Ferguson–the one who is not afraid to “say it like it is” or the one you would most enjoy hiking or drinking with–that keeps turning up in my book. This is the Ferguson who really does not suffer fools lightly and who has no patience with academic pretensions or the schemes and pseudo projects of those he calls “the purse proud.”

      However, there is also the contemplative Ferguson–the prodigious student of natural science and history, especially of Greek and Roman history–the admirer of Newton, Montesquieu and Smith, the modern thinker who yet discovered afresh the ethical power of Aristotle, Epictetus and Cicero. To my mind–although it may not come through as strongly in the book as the Highlander maverick Ferguson–this is the Ferguson that the argument of the book revolves around. As Anna states in her above response, it is Ferguson’s focus on agency (really his adaptation of Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia–of human flourishing) within the framework of the organicism of Bacon’s vision of natural science, that is the linchpin of Ferguson’s intellectual world. This focus dovetails with the Highlander maverick Ferguson, but it supersedes it once he is firmly ensconced in Edinburgh and begins to pursue his academic vocation in earnest. Thus, I think Anna and I are largely in agreement about the role of the Highlander ethos in what I have termed Ferguson’s “hybrid” character. It is in the background. It is never far away. It is a deeply rooted, emotionally charged aspect of his enduring character. It influences his “selection” of readings. But it is not at the core of his “philosophical” outlook. In this sense, we probably ought to speak of “many Fergusons.” And in the final analysis, my Ferguson is the stoic philosopher of exertion and the arts who takes center stage.

      I also want to comment further–at the risk of being very wrong–on a thought related to Anna’s comment about Ferguson being “less enthusiastic” than Millar regarding democratic politics and less optimistic than Robertson regarding progress. I couldn’t agree more with both assessments. I also think they have contemporary resonance. Many U.S. citizens are a bit dumbfounded concerning recent political developments in the nation, especially, of course, with the rise of Donald Trump and what is often portrayed as a new nationalism in the U.S.A. Trump has succeeded in saturating media coverage like no politician before him. It is really quite remarkable. But perhaps, given recent U.S. political history, it is not so remarkable.

      Allow me a simple hypothesis: Deep in the U.S. psyche is a repressed yearning for something like a return to monarchical authority. From the onset of this fragile democratic experience (1776-2018 and counting), there were those who would have been quite pleased with George Washington as a kind of American version of King George. That the likes of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson held sway makes fascinating history. But fast-forwarding to the 1900s–ever since the presidency of Woodrow Wilson–we’ve seen an ever expanding role for the executive in our tripartite system of government. We’ve had the four-term reign of Franklin Roosevelt, the Camelot era of the Kennedy family, and the rise of that last symbol of the self-made, wild west, horse-riding, wood-choping, independent cowboy–personified in the movie actor turned politician Ronald Reagan. Then came the Clinton’s and the Bush’s, but both families fell short of Reagan’s symbolic magisterial air (could you imagine Trump taking down Reagan–the politician who once induced a loud ovation by seizing a mic and indignantly proclaiming, “I paid for this mic”–in a Republican primary debate?) But, then, lacking a politician with the symbolic, patriarchal oomph of a Kennedy with his “New Frontier” or a Reagan with his “Morning in America”–here comes D. Trump–the master salesman (or “con-man” if you prefer–as in Melville’s the Confidence Man) with a truly regal sounding jingle– “Make America Great Again,” with all the subtly of a sledge hammer. Daughter and Son-in-Law are ensconced in the White House, sons continue to make the Trump family wealthy with business deals in foreign countries, and Melania becomes a kind of Jackie Kennedy without the capacity to speak French, but in the post-modern era, a beautiful former model with a pretty “face” and figure.

      To cut to the chase if you are still reading this caricature of American history, as Ferguson would remind us, democracy only works as long as one has a committed, educated and patriotic citizenry to prop it up. There are still a lot of committed folks out there doing pretty extraordinary things in local communities, but public education has taken a real dive since the early 1970s and genuine patriotism is now confused with a pseudo patriotism that is patriotic in name only and entails little if anything in the way of personal sacrifices. The outcome? The times are ripe for submission to a real monarch–a strongman who is quite happy to leave the conventions of democratic rule behind. Alas, for Ferguson, the worst possible scenario imaginable in a democracy–the election of a businessman with absolutely no prior experience in public service, who appears to admire demagogues (e.g., Kim Jung Um and Putin), and views himself as “the only one” who can fix what’s wrong with the nation.

      It could well be that our vulnerable democratic project–the 242 year experiment–is seriously unraveling as I write. It is not so much that Trump is to blame, though he appears to herald the end in a particularly vivid and dramatic way. As I argued above, we’ve been yearning for a monarch for quite awhile lately.

      This brings us full circle to Ferguson. Ferguson admired the mixed monarchy of his day. He feared that the American colonialists would, if they proceeded in their rebellion, eventually self-destruct into civil war. This of course is what happened in 1860-65. Again, the Union held firm, but just barely. However, as contemporary politics bare witness–the underlying divisions that fueled the civil war are still lurking at the edges of America’s culture wars today. Ferguson feared rule by the mob almost as much as he feared what he called “despotic tyranny.” What he surmised in the Britain of his day was that a balance of the interests of royalists, nobles and commoners was the best working compromise available.

      To conclude, in the U.S. today I would argue that Trump and his minions in the White House, State, Justice, Health & Human Services, & EPA Departments and Congress are increasingly functioning as if they they were a royal court of sorts; in the age of capitalism par excellence, we “professionals”- i.e., lawyers, doctors, hi-tech engineers, business CEOs, well-known journalists, well-placed clergy, and even some of us “professors”- are the new nobility; and pretty much everyone else are the new commoners. This is not meant to sound “elitest” but rather to suggest that–in the grant scheme of things–in historical perspective–that perhaps less has changed than we usually think. Given the picture I have painted, Ferguson would counsel us to be realists: keep an extremely weary eye on Trump and his soldiers (the much anticipated White House military parade this fall would have given Ferguson concern under the circumstances), prod the intelligentsia of whatever stripe to exert more push back on Trump and his minions, and pay heed to the sufferings of those at the bottom of the economic order while recognizing that their rights and privileges need to be balanced with those of the de facto monarch and the nobility.

      I hope Anna will forgive me for perhaps moving much too far astray in this political commentary, and to others who may have spent their time more profitably reading something else.

Mike Hill


June 21, 2018, 1:00 am