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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

I. Philosophers

§ 30. Ferrier’s Institutes of Metaphysic

The first important work of the new movement was The Institutes of Metaphysic (1854) by James Frederick Ferrier, professor at St. Andrews. Before this date he had written a number of philosophical articles, and in particular a series of papers entitled “The Philosophy of Consciousness,” which showed the trend of his thinking. After his death these were collected and published together along with a series of lectures as Lectures on Greek Philosophy and other philosophical remains (1866). As a historian of philosophy, Ferrier did not pretend to exceptional research; but he had a remarkable power of entering into the mind of earlier thinkers and of giving a living presentation of their views. The history of philosophy was, for him, no mere record of discarded systems, but “philosophy itself taking its time.” He was a sympathetic student, also, of the German philosophers banned by his friend Hamilton. It is difficult to trace any direct influence of Hegel upon his own doctrine, and, indeed, he said that he could not understand Hegel. But, both his earlier and his later writings have an affinity with Fichte—especially in their central doctrine: the stress laid on self-consciousness, and its distinction from the “mental states” with which the psychologist is concerned. This doctrine connects him with Berkeley, also. He was one of the first to appreciate the true nature of Berkeley’s thought, as not a mere transition-stage between Locke and Hume, but as a discovery of the spiritual nature of reality. The philosophy which he worked out in The Institutes of Metaphysic is, however, strikingly original. He claimed that it was “Scottish to the core.” But it is very different from the traditional Scottish philosophy. It disclaims all connection with psychology. He even formulates a false and psychological theorem as the counterpart of each true and metaphysical theorem. And this reiterated opposition, it must be confessed, grows a little wearisome and can be excused only by the backward state of psychology, and its confusion with philosophy, at the time when the book was written. Further, the Scottish philosophy relied on intuition or immediate apprehension of reality; Ferrier’s method is that of rational deduction from a first principle. Philosophy is “reasoned truth,” he says; but “it is more proper that philosophy should be reasoned, than that it should be true.” Unfortunately, he takes Spinoza’s method as his model, though he does not follow the model in all details. There is no array of definitions, axioms and postulates, but only propositions, each deduced from the preceding. Thus, a heavy weight is thrown on the first proposition of the series. This is the primary law or condition of all knowledge, and is stated in the words, “Along with whatever any intelligence knows it must, as the ground or condition of its knowledge, have some cognisance of itself.” What follows is little more than the elaboration of this statement. Ferrier has not only an epistemology, or theory of knowledge, but also an agnoiology, or theory of ignorance, the main doctrine of which is that we can only be ignorant of what can possibly be known. Hence, in his ontology, or theory of being, he reaches the conclusion that absolute existence is “a supreme and infinite and everlasting mind in synthesis with all things.” Ferrier’s writings had, and continue to have, a considerable reputation, yet a reputation hardly commensurate with their philosophical insight and perfect style. Perhaps the formalism of his method counteracted the lucidity of the thought. Soon after his death (1864) English philosophy came under the influence of the more comprehensive genius of Hegel.