Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 11. Dugald Stewart

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

III. Bentham and the Early Utilitarians

§ 11. Dugald Stewart

During the period of Bentham’s supremacy, the tradition of a different type of philosophy was carried on by Dugald Stewart. Stewart was born in 1753 and died in 1828; for twenty-five years (1785–1810), he was professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh. His lectures were the most powerful formative influence upon the principles and tastes of a famous generation of literary Scotsmen, and they attracted, besides, many hearers from England, the continent and America.

  • “Perhaps few men ever lived,” said Sir James Mackintosh, one of his pupils, “who poured into the breasts of youth a more fervid and yet reasonable love of liberty, of truth, and of virtue.… Without derogation from his writings, it may be said that his disciples were among his best works.”
  • His writings, also, were numerous. The first volume of his Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind appeared in 1792, the second in 1814, the third in 1827. His Outlines of Moral Philosophy was published in 1794, Philosophical Essays in 1810, a dissertation entitled The Progress of Metaphysical, Ethical, and Political Philosophy since the Revival of Letters (contributed to The Encyclopaedia Britannica) in 1815 and 1821, The Philosophy of the Active and Moral Powers in 1828; and accounts of the lives and writings of Adam Smith, Robertson and Reid were contributed to the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

    Himself, in his youth, a pupil of Reid, Stewart remained his follower in philosophy. But he avoided the use of the term “common sense,” which, as employed by Reid, had produced the impression that questions of philosophy could be decided by an appeal to popular judgment. He speaks, instead, of “the fundamental laws of human belief, or the primary elements of human reason”; and these he regards not as the data upon which conclusions depend, but, rather,

  • as the vincula which give coherence to all the particular links of the chain, or (to vary the metaphor) as component elements without which the faculty of reasoning is inconceivable and impossible.
  • He varied from Reid, also, in many special points, often approximating to the positions of writers of the empirical school; but, according to Mackintosh, he “employed more skill in contriving, and more care in concealing, his very important reforms of Reid’s doctrines, than others exert to maintain their claims to originality.” His works often betray their origin in the lecture-room, and are full of quotations from, and criticisms of, other authors. They are written in a style which is clear and often eloquent, without ever being affected; but the exposition and criticism are devoted to those aspects of philosophical controversy which were prominent in his own day, and they have thus lost interest for a later generation. Nor did he show any such profundity of thought, or even distinction of style, as might have saved his work from comparative neglect. Among his numerous writings, there is no single work of short compass which conveys his contribution to the progress of thought.