Hamilton, William (1788-1856) (DNB00)

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HAMILTON, Sir WILLIAM (1788–1856), metaphysician, born in the College of Glasgow 8 March 1788, was the son of William Hamilton and Elizabeth, daughter of William Stirling, merchant, of Glasgow. He was christened William Stirling, but dropped the second name. His father belonged to the Airdrie family, the first of whom, John, son of Sir Robert Hamilton of Preston, was slain at Flodden (1513). A descendant, Dr. Robert Hamilton, was professor of anatomy at Glasgow from 1742 to 1756, and professor of medicine from 1757 to 1766. He was succeeded in the professorship of anatomy by his younger brother, Thomas, who held the chair from 1757 till his death, 2 Aug. 1781, and was a friend of Cullen, and a partner of Dr. John Moore, author of 'Zeluco.' Thomas Hamilton's son William [see Hamilton, William, 1758-1790] left two infant sons, William and Thomas (1789-1842) [q. v.], author of 'Cyril Thornton.' The elder, William, was chiefly noticeable as a child for exuberant animal spirits. He was sent to the Glasgow grammar school in 1797, and in 1800 attended the junior Greek and Latin classes at the university. From 1801 till 1803 he was at school, first at Chiswick and afterwards at Bromley, Kent. He spent three summers at the manse of the Rev. John Sommers at Mid Calder, near Edinburgh, attending Glasgow University during three winters. He was now in the senior classical classes, and distinguished himself in the classes of logic and moral philosophy, under the professors Jardine and James Mylne. In the winter 1806-7 he studied medicine at Edinburgh. In May 1807 he went to Balliol College, Oxford, with a Snell exhibition. At Oxford he made some warm friendships, especially with J. G. Lockhart and a youth named Alexander Scott. He was strikingly handsome, and had great athletic power. The neglect of an eccentric tutor left him to manage his own studies. Though not a finished scholar of the English public school pattern, he gained the reputation of being 'the most learned Aristotelian in Oxford.' The modern examination system at Oxford had been recently started. The list of books in which Hamilton offered himself was considered to be unprecedented ; and a note of them was kept by his examiner, Thomas Gaisford [q. v.] (Veitch, Life of Hamilton, p. 58). He was first class in literis humanioribus in the Michaelmas term 1810, but did not obtain a fellowship, on account, it is suggested, of the unpopularity of the Scots. He graduated B.A. in 1811, M. A. in 1814.

Hamilton had made some studies with a view to the medical profession at Edinburgh and Oxford, and Dr. Baillie, who had known his father, promised to help him. He took lodgings in Brompton with his friend Scott, who died of consumption in 1812. Hamilton had already decided to change medicine for law. He returned to Scotland, became an advocate in July 1813, and henceforward lived at Edinburgh. His mother settled there in 1815, and her son lived with her successively in Hill Street, Howe Street, and Great King Street. After being called to the bar, Hamilton spent much labour upon studying his own genealogy. He was enabled in 1816 to present a case to a jury before the sheriff of Edinburgh, and was'adj udged 'heir male in general' to Sir Robert Hamilton of Preston (1650-1701) [q. v.] ; their common ancestor being a John Hamilton who died before 1522. The baronetcy being granted to the heirs-male general of Sir William Hamilton (elder brother of Robert), created a baronet of Nova Scotia in 1673, Hamilton henceforth styled himself Sir William, baronet of Preston and Fingalton. Hamilton is said to have been a good lawyer in antiquarian cases. But he was not a fluent speaker ; he would not condescend to the minuter matters of the law, and he preferred the Advocates' Library to the Parliament House. For whatever reasons he never obtained a large practice, and as a whig was out of the road to preferment. He became known in Edinburgh literary circles, though he saw little of Scott or of Jeffrey, its most prominent leaders. De Quincey on coming to Edinburgh in 1814 was introduced to him by Wilson (Christopher North), and says that he was then regarded as 'a monster of erudition,' and respected for his 'elevation of character.' He preserved his intimacy with Lockhart till, for some unexplained reason, probably connected with Lockhart's toryism and contributions to 'Blackwood's Magazine,' they broke finally about 1818.

He had visited Germany with Lockhart in 1817 to examine a library at Leipzig with a view to its purchase by the Faculty of Advocates. He went there again upon legal business in 1820. These were his only visits to the continent. At the first date he was still a beginner in the study of German. He attacked the language systematically on his second visit, and joined a club formed in Edinburgh for the circulation of German periodicals. Upon the death of Thomas Brown (1778-1820) [q. v.], the colleague of Dugald Stewart 'in the Edinburgh chair of moral philosophy Hamilton offered himself as a candidate, and received strong support from Stewart, Jeffrey, and some of his Oxford contemporaries. The town council, however, elected his opponent, John Wilson, by a majority of twenty-one to eleven. The election was determined by political considerations (see {sc|Mrs. Gordon's}} Christopher North, 1859, p. 217). Scott strongly supported Wilson upon that ground. Hamilton's very superior qualifications were only known by private report. He afterwards said that he lost his chance by refusing to state, in compliance with a hint from 'a most influential quarter,' that he did not belong to the whig party (Veitch, p. 260). His friendship with Wilson was not weakened by the contest.

In 1821 Hamilton was elected to the professorship of civil history, for which the Faculty of Advocates nominated two candidates to the town council. Upon their advice the council appointed Hamilton, jointly with the previous occupant of the chair, William Fraser Tytler. The salary was 100l. a year, payable from a local duty on beer, and after a time not paid at all. Attendance on the classes was optional, and Hamilton seems to have done well by attracting a class varying from thirty to fifty. The numbers, however, diminished, and when his pay ceased he gave up lecturing. He was at this time much interested in phrenology, then popularised in Edinburgh by George Combe [q. v.] He made various anatomical researches, and reached conclusions entirely hostile to the claims of phrenologists. He read papers upon this subject to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1826 and 1827, which led to a controversial correspondence with Combe.

The death of his mother in January 1827 profoundly affected him. They had been on terms of more than the ordinary affection from his childhood. In 1828 he moved into a smaller house in Manor Place, where he was often visited by De Quincey. On 31 March 1828 he married his cousin, Janet Marshall, who had lived with his mother for the ten last years of her life. Lady Hamilton not only relieved her husband from household cares, but was his regular amanuensis, induced him to bring some, at least, of his work to completion, and cheered him through his long period of declining powers. In 1832 he was appointed to the small office of the solicitorship of the teinds.

In 1829 Macvey Napier succeeded Jeffrey as editor of the 'Edinburgh Review,' and with much difficulty succeeded in extorting from Hamilton a contribution to the first number under the new editorship. This article, upon Cousin's course of philosophy, appeared in October 1829. From this period until his election to a professorship in 1836 Hamilton contributed a series of articles, collected in his 'Discussions.' One appeared afterwards in 1839. In October 1830 appeared the article upon the 'Philosophy of Perception,' and in 1833 an article upon 'Logic.' These writings at once made Hamilton's reputation. Recent German philosophy had been entirely neglected ty the recognised teachers, such as Thomas Brown and Dugald Stewart. Coleridge's influence had drawn the attention of younger men to the subject ; but it was a novelty to find a writer in a leading review criticising the theories of Kant and his successors in the tone of an equal, and as one at home in their mysterious terminology. Jeffrey was horror-struck at his successor's acceptance of the 'most unreadable thing that ever appeared in the review' (the article on Cousin), denounced it as 'sheer nonsense,' and said that the writer could not be a 'very clever man' (Macvey Napier, Corresp., 1879, p. 70). Cousin, on the other hand, expressed the highest admiration of- his critic in spite of their antagonistic views, and on hearing the author's name from Mrs. Sarah Austin [q. v.], wrote his warm acknowledgments. They exchanged mutual expressions of admiration for many years, although they never met. Hamilton's articles were translated into French and German (Veitch, p. 260), and made his name known in America. Of Hamilton's other articles one upon the 'Epistolæ Obscurorum Virorum' (March 1831) showed his wide knowledge of the early Reformation period. In others he attacked the Oxford system, chiefly by an historical account of the absorption of the university by the colleges, which he held to have led to the grossest abuses. He advocated the admission of dissenters to the university. A bill brought in by Lord Radnor in 1835 to give effect to these principles was rejected in the House of Lords (14 July) by 163 to 57. An incidental remark upon Luther in one of his articles brought him into collision with Julius Hare [q.v.] Hare attacked him in a note in the * Mission of the Comforter '(1846), and Hamilton retorted in notes to his 'Discussions.' Hamilton made large collections upon this topic, which were never used (see Veitch, p. 335, for an account of them). In an article upon the 'Study of Mathematics' (January 1836) he made a sharp attack upon Whewell, and in a previous article (April 1834) criticised severely the mode of appointment to university offices. Hamilton's tone in controversy was anything but conciliatory and certainly not free from pedantry, but his aim was always high, and he stirred some important questions.

In 1835 he resigned his membership of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, because it would not accept his views as to its constitution ; a characteristic proceeding which, as his biographer says, showed not 'self-seeking' but 'intense individuality,' which sometimes has very similar results.

In 1836 David Ritchie resigned the chair of logic and metaphysics in the university of Edinburgh. Hamilton became a candidate, his opponents being Isaac Taylor [q. v.], George Combe [q. v.], and Patrick Campbell Macdougall, afterwards professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh. Hamilton produced the highest testimonials from Cousin, Professor Brandis of Bonn, Jeffrey, the elder Alison, Brewster, Wilson, and others. He refused indignantly to canvass personally, and was accused of obscurity and of doubtful orthodoxy. On 15 July 1836, however, he was elected by the town council, receiving eighteen votes against fourteen for Isaac Taylor, and delivered his inaugural lecture on 21 Nov. Hamilton gave two courses of lectures, one upon psychology and philosophy, the other upon logic. The lectures were written during the first two sessions, each lecture generally on the night preceding its delivery, and were afterwards only verbally altered. His biographer therefore warns us that the most authoritative exposition of his views is to be found in the 'Discussions' and in the 'Dissertations' appended to his edition of Reid. In the session of 1838-9 he added lectures on 'Speculative Philosophy' to a senior class. For this he charged an extra fee,to which the town council objected. Controversy followed, not the gen tier because Hamilton had spoken with great severity of the rights of the council to university patronage. He was supported by its professors, but ultimately had to give up the fee. He afterwards delivered courses of lectures on logic and metaphysics in alternate years. Napier told him with apparent justice that he should have begun by obtaining authority instead of taking matters into his own hand.

Hamilton made a profound impression upon his hearers. His striking appearance, fine head and piercing eye, his dignity, earnestness, and air of authority, combined with the display of wide reading and dialectical ability to produce admiring sympathy. He introduced various plans for effectually catechising his hearers, called upon them to give public recapitulations of his teaching, and frequently entertained them in his own house.

A metaphysical society formed among the students contributed to spread his teaching. He suggested courses of reading for the vacations, and had mechanical devices for illustrating his lectures, and for recording the names of the pupils who distinguished themselves in examinations. He persuaded a greatnumberof young Scotsmen and some of them with justice that they were able metaphysicians. He instituted an honour examination, but withdrew in 1846 from cooperating with the senatus in regard to graduation. In his relations to his colleagues he appears to have been generally uncompromising. A constant topic of dispute was the 'Reid fund,' of which the distribution was not finally settled until the Scottish University Act of 1858. Hamilton disinterestedly objected to applying it to a fund for retiring allowances to professors. His income, in consequence of an annuity to his predecessor, was under 300l. a year, and in 1840 he applied without result to Lord Melbourne for an appointment as clerk to the court of sessions.

In 1843 he contributed to the ecclesiastical controversy of the day a pamphlet called 'Be not Schismatics, be not Martyrs by mistake,' arguing that the so-called 'non-intrusion principle' was really inconsistent with the presbyterian church establishment. He was answered by William Cunningham [q.v.]

In July 1844 Hamilton had an attack of paralysis, without premonitory symptoms. It was no doubt precipitated by his habit of sitting up writing or reading all night. His mental faculties were not injured, and he calmly observed his own symptoms and remembered analogous cases. He never fully regained the command of his limbs ; his articulation and his eyesight were affected, and he was ever afterwards an invalid. An appeal was made to Lord John Russell in 1846 for a pension, but Hamilton declined as inadequate an offer of 100l. a year, all that was then at the disposal of the minister. After some further negotiations a pension of 100l. was granted to Lady Hamilton in 1849, but, in spite of an application from many distinguished people, Lord Palmerston declined to increase it after Hamilton's death.

Hamilton had begun his edition of Reid in 1836, but dropped it in 1839, in consequence of a dispute with the publisher. He had resumed it before his illness, and it was published, though still imperfect, in November 1846. It was completed after his death by H. L. Mansel [q. v.] The first course of lectures after his attack was undertaken by James Frederick Ferrier [q. v.] He was afterwards able to superintend his classes, with the assistance in later years of Thomas Spencer Baynes, subsequently professor of logic and rhetoric at St. Andrews. In January 1851 he began to collect his articles in the 'Edinburgh Review,' which with various appendices and additions appeared in March 1852. In 1853 he undertook an edition of Dugald Stewart's 'Works,' and his last publication was a preface to the two volumes containing Stewart's lectures on political economy. In the autumn of 1853 he broke his arm by a fall, and probably received a shock to the brain, which caused an illness in the following winter. After this his strength failed, and he died in his house in Great King Street, Edinburgh, on 6 May 1856. Lady Hamilton died on 24 Dec. 1877, and his only daughter Elizabeth on 2 March 1882. The baronetcy devolved upon his son (vide Foster, Baronetage, p. 688).

In 1865 a fund was raised in honour of Hamilton, and devoted to the foundation of the 'Hamilton Philosophical Examination,' given once in three years by competitive examination to the masters of arts of Edinburgh of not more than three years' standing. A bust by William Brodie (1815-1881) [q. v.] was presented by the subscribers, and placed in the senate hall of the university in December 1867. An engraving from a portrait by James Archer is prefixed to his 'Life.' Twenty gentlemen of Glasgow subscribed 2,000l. to buy his library for presentation to the university of Glasgow.

In private life Hamilton showed a most affectionate nature. He was perfect as a son, brother, husband, and father. His power of concentration enabled him to do much work in the room used by his family. He made friends of his children, encouraged their studies, and joined in their games. Besides his serious studies, he was fond of light literature, and had a fancy for the grotesque, and even the horrible, enjoying fairy tales and Mrs. Radcliffe's romances. He had much mechanical skill, and amused himself by binding- his books. After his illness he became rather irritable, and at all periods was an uncompromising, and when his pugnacity was aroused an unsparing antagonist. He began to collect books as early as 1804, collecting more freely after 1820. At his death he left nine or ten thousand volumes. A collection of manuscripts from a monastery at Erfurt chiefly theological treatises was given to him by an old pupil, Mr. Broad, and after his death presented to the Bodleian. The richest part of his own collection was of the older metaphysical works, treatises on logic, and the early commentaries on Aristotle. He kept elaborate commonplace books, arranged on the principle described by Locke, and was rather too fond of emptying them into his writings. Hamilton's learning was very great, and included many obscure subjects. He was especially familiar with the period of the revival of learning. But he often uses his knowledge with too little discrimination, and often cites 'authorities' with much indifference to the context or to their relative importance. The effect produced upon contemporaries by Hamilton's philosophy was due to his commanding character, as well as to his wide reading and great dialectical power. His influence has declined partly from the fragmentary nature of his writings, and partly from his peculiar position as a thinker. A thorough Scot, he carried on the tradition of the national philosophy of common sense with much wider knowledge than his predecessors, and with logical faculties sharpened by his Aristotelian studies. His acquaintance with German philosophy was applied by him rather to fortify than to modify his opinions. His inconsistencies, real or alleged, are probably due chiefly to the attempt to combine divergent systems. He endeavoured to give more precision to the fundamental principle of the veracity of consciousness by setting forth as tests of our original cognitions their necessity, simplicity, and so forth. He attacked the developments of Kant's successors, especially Schelling and Cousin, which would have taken him outside the Scottish tradition. He pronounced the absolute and infinite to be unknowable, and his teaching led to the agnosticism which Mr. Herbert Spencer professes (preface to First Principles) to have developed from the writings of Hamilton and his disciple Mansel (see also Professor Huxley in Nineteenth Century for February 1889). His theory was assailed from the orthodox side in Professor Calderwood's 'Philosophy of the Infinite,' 1854 ; second and enlarged edition, 1861. A letter from Hamilton in answer to the first edition is given in an appendix to his 'Lectures on Metaphysics.' Hamilton's arguments are borrowed from Kant's antinomies of the pure reason ; but he especially valued himself on having so modified the argument as to obviate a sceptical conclusion (Lectures, i. 402). Our faculties are 'weak, not deceitful;' and while leaving us in presence of 'contradictory inconceivables,' he permits us to accept the alternative justified by our 'moral and religious feelings' (Mansel, Philosophy of the Conditioned, p. 39 n.) We can thus, for example, believe in the freedom of the will although 'inconceivable,' as, according to him, the necessary foundation of ethics. Hamilton's own reasoning, however, is chiefly negative, though the sincerity of his religious belief is beyond question. A similar difficulty occurs in regard to his favourite doctrine of the 'relativity of knowledge,' which according to Mansel (ib. p. 67) is a 'modification of Kant's theory' of the forms of intuition. Although recognising a subjective element in all knowledge, Hamilton declared himself to be a 'natural realist,' as admitting the testimony of consciousness to an outside world. He holds that nearly all modern philosophers are 'cosmothetic idealists,' that is, maintain that the external realty is known through 'representation' only. Though Hamilton's followers consider his teaching to be consistent, most critics have found it difficult to reconcile his 'natural realism' with the doctrine of the 'relativity of knowledge.' The theory of perception to which it leads has been severely criticised by Mr. Hutchison Stirling. Hamilton thus employing weapons from Kant in defence of Reid's philosophy, was equally opposed to the Hegelian school and to the empiricism of Mill, and has been attacked on both sides. It is not disputed, however, that he gave a great stimulus to speculative thought and the study of German philosophy, and made many interesting contributions to psychology and to logic, such as his theory of the association of ideas, of unconscious mental modifications, and of the inverse relation of perception and sensation. His doctrine of the 'quantification of the predicate,' which led to a sharp controversy with De Morgan, was original, though of disputed value. In the ' Bampton Lectures' for 1858 Dean Mansel applied Hamilton's theories in a discussion of the 'limits of religious thought.' In 1865 J. S. Mill criticised Hamilton elabo- rately as the chief representative of the 'intuitional' school, in his 'Examination of Sir W. Hamilton's Philosophy.' In the preface to the 4th edition (1874) is a list of many publications upon the question. The chief are : 'Sir W. Hamilton ; the Philosophy of Perception,' by J. Hutchison Stirling, 1865 ; 'Recent British Philosophy,' by David Masson, 1865, 3rd edit. 1877; 'The Philosophy of the Conditioned,' by H. L. Mansel, 1866; 'Inquisitio Philosophica,' by M. P. W. Bolton, 1866; 'Examination of Mr. J. S. Mill's Philosophy,' by Dr. M'Cosh, 1866; 'The Battle of the Two Philosophies,' by 'An Inquirer,' 1866. See also John Grote's 'Exploratio Philosophica,' 1865. Mr. Herbert Spencer contributed 'Mill v. Hamilton' to the 'Fortnightly Review' of 15 July 1865; Mansel replied to Mill in the 'Contemporary Review' for September 1867; and Dr. M'Cosh in the 'British and Foreign Evangelical Review' for April 1868; Professor Fraser reviewed Mill in the 'North British Review' for September 1865; and George Grote in the 'Westminster Review' for January 1866. Professor Veitch has expounded Hamilton's philosophy in his biography in the volume upon 'Hamilton' in Blackwood's 'Philosophical Classics' (1882), and in 'Sir William Hamilton, the Man and his Philosophy' (two lectures at Edinburgh, 1883). See also M'Cosh's ' Scottish Philosophy from Hutcheson to Hamilton,' 1875, pp. 415-54; Ueberweg's 'History of Philosophy,' 1874, ii. 414-19, and the ordinary text-books.

Hamilton's 'Lectures,' edited by Mansel and Veitch, appeared, vols. i. and ii. (on 'Metaphysics') in 1859; vols. iii. and iv. (on 'Logic') in 1861. His 'Metaphysics,' 'collected, arranged, and abridged by F. Bowen,' were published at Cambridge, Mass., in 1870.

[Veitch's Memoir of Sir W. Hamilton, 1869; Encyc. Britannica, 9th edit., article on 'Hamilton' by his daughter; Edinburgh Essays, 1856; 'Hamilton,' by T. S. Baynes; Gillies's Literary Veteran, 1851, iii. 93-4; Froude's Carlyle, i. 376, 415, ii. 332, 343, 346; Carlyle's Letters, 1832-6, (C. E. Norton), ii. 82.]

L. S.