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!