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

I. Philosophers

§ 37. Alexander Campbell Fraser

In the latter part of the nineteenth century there were other philosophical tendencies at work than those already mentioned. There were idealist writers whose idealism was of a different type, resembling Berkeley’s rather than Hegel’s, and who are sometimes called personal idealists; there was a movement of reaction from the type of idealism last described in the direction of philosophical realism or naturalism; and there were the first indications of the new movements of thought which have characterised the early years of the twentieth century.

Among the writers classed as personal idealists may be counted Alexander Campbell Fraser. His philosophical career, as student, professor and thinker, began before the Victorian era and lasted into the present reign. He was a pupil of Hamilton at Edinburgh, was for ten years professor of philosophy in New college there and succeeded to the university chair on Hamilton’s death in 1856. His first book, Essays in Philosophy, was published in 1856, his last, a small monograph entitled Berkeley and Spiritual Realism, in 1908. Apart from minor works, among which special mention should be made of his monographs on Locke (1890) and Berkeley (1881), he is best known as the editor of the standard editions of Berkeley’s Works (1871) and of Locke’s Essay (1894), and as the author of Gifford lectures The Philosophy of Theism (1896). He also wrote an interesting and valuable account of his life and views entitled Biographia Philosophica (1904).

For a great many years, Fraser, Caird and Bain powerfully affected philosophical thought in Scotland through their university teaching. Owing to the position of philosophy in the academic curriculum, their influence upon the wider intellectual life of the country was almost equally great, though less easy to trace with any exactness. From Bain, his pupils learned precision in thinking and an interest in psychology as a science, together with, perhaps, a somewhat limited comprehension of metaphysical problems. Caird gave an insight into the history of thought and provided a point of view from which the world and man’s life might be understood; many of his pupils have shown in their writings that they had learned his great language and were able to develop and apply his ideas. Fraser did not teach a system or found a school; he awakened and stimulated thought, without controlling its direction; he called forth in his hearers a sense of the mysteries of existence, and he encouraged in many the spirit of reflection. He had no system; but his thought was essentially constructive, though the construction was based on an almost Humean scepticism. On one point, however, he never yielded to sceptical analysis—the reality of the self as conscious activity. He found the same thought in Berkeley, and he may almost be said to have rediscovered Berkeley for modern readers. Of the world beyond self he could find no theory which could be satisfactorily established by strict reasoning. But he saw (as Hume saw in his first work) that science has its assumptions as well as theology. In particular, he looked upon the postulate of uniformity as an act of moral faith in the rationality of the universe, and it was as a “venture of faith” that he interpreted the universe as grounded in the reason and goodness of God.