An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy 
by John Stuart Mill, edited by J.M. Robson.
Routledge, 625 pp., £15.95, February 1980, 0 7100 0178 9
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It is a long time​ now since any undergraduate class used Mill’s An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy, first published in 1865, as a set text. But it has happened. George Santayana, who graduated from Harvard College in 1886, has described in Persons and Places the teaching of Francis Bowen:

But Harvard possessed safe, sober old professors also and oldest of all, ‘Fanny’ Bowen ... He was a dear old thing, and an excellent teacher. Between his fits of coughing, and his invectives against all who were wrong and didn’t agree with Sir William Hamilton, he would impress upon us many an axiom, many an argument belonging to the great traditions of philosophy ... Sometimes he would wander into irrelevant invectives against John Stuart Mill, who in a footnote had once referred to Bowen ... as ‘an obscure American’.

It was Bowen who twenty years earlier had within two years of Mill’s publishing the Examination instituted an elective course at Harvard entirely devoted to it. In the final examinations for this course the students were required to produce refutations of Mill on a variety of points.

The present-day reader who turns to the magnificent edition of the Examination which Professor J.M. Robson of the University of Toronto has now produced for us as part of the Collected Edition of the works of Mill is likely to be very puzzled almost at once. Why on earth, he will find himself asking, should Mill have devoted all this laborious attention to a philosopher whom he finds not merely mistaken, but often enough absurdly mistaken, on so very many points? And why should someone such as Bowen have become so excited over the question of whether Mill’s criticisms succeed or fail? The answers to these two questions lay bare a set of remarkable, but too often forgotten episodes in the intellectual history of Scotland, England and the United States.

Mill’s attack upon Hamilton had political as well as intellectual motives. For Mill saw Hamilton as the chief defender of a family of views which he grouped together as ‘intuitionism’; and he took intuitionism to provide the intellectual resources for resistance to political and social reform (Autobiography, Chapter Seven). In the way that he understood these two theses, Mill grossly oversimplified, but underlying the aridity of the oversimplifications there is in each case a defensible formulation of some interest. So far as the first thesis is concerned, the oversimplification arises partly because Mill identifies too often and too easily two quite distinct positions: the view that there are certain truths which we know prior to and independently of all sense-experience, and the view that there are certain truths which we know, in favour of which no argument or reasoning whatsoever can be adduced because they themselves provide the initial premises or first principles from which we argue to further true conclusions. The first view is Kant’s, but one could certainly hold the first view, as Kant did, without holding the second. For whenever Kant urges that a particular judgment is a priori true, he always offers us arguments, even if sometimes not very good ones. The second view is central to the philosophies of Reid and Stewart. But both Reid and Stewart believed that at least some of the truths which we know without supporting argument require sense-experience to be elicited; and thus, although they are not derived from sense-experience, they cannot be known prior to such experience. Hence Kant is not committed to agreeing with Reid and Stewart or they with him. That Mill assimilated these two rather different positions was not however entirely his fault: for Hamilton’s self-set task was to synthesise Kant’s idealism with the realism of Reid and Stewart.

Mill’s intellectual quarrel with Hamilton is best illustrated by their divergent attitudes on two central topics. The first of these concerns our grounds for believing in an external world of material objects. Hamilton supposed that we make a distinction between the self and what is external to the self prior to all experience: for he believed that we need to employ that distinction in order to classify our experiences in the most elementary way. Mill, whose empiricist first principles did not allow him to admit that we have any justification for accepting any distinction, principle or judgment other than by an appeal to sense-experience, had, of course, to deny this. Mill, like Hume before him, is therefore faced with a difficulty in giving any plausible account of the unity of the self which has sense-experiences. And he is forced to treat that unity as a ‘final inexplicabilily’. It is not surprising that Hamilton’s defenders, such as James McCash, the President of Princeton, who published a rejoinder in 1866 entitled An Examination of Mr J.S. Mill’s Philosophy, being a Defence of Fundamental Truth, fastened on this as evidence that Mill, as much as Hamilton, fell back upon first principles for which no further defence could be given.

A second central issue dividing Mill from Hamilton was Hamilton’s doctrine of the Unconditioned or the Absolute. Here the chief target of Mill’s attack is the development of Hamilton’s doctrine by his Oxford follower, H.L. Mansel. Both Hamilton and Mansel argued – the influence of Kant is evident – that what philosophy tells us about God is that we cannot render the divine being intelligible by the exercise of rational argument, but that this in no way renders belief in God illegitimate. The task of philosophical reason is precisely to show that we can know about God only by faith in a divine revelation. Mill’s central charge against Hamilton and Mansel is that, by allowing that God is incomprehensible in the way that they do, they make belief in God rationally unacceptable, but then dodge this conclusion by what is in effect a subterfuge.

It is easy enough, then, to understand why Mill thought Hamilton’s central doctrines false. And Hamilton’s conclusions and often turgid formulations made him an easy victim. The present-day reader may in fact find Mill’s relentless verbal bullying of Hamilton distasteful. So that it is important to remember that the kind of treatment which Mill meted out to Hamilton had been meted out by Hamilton himself to an earlier holder of the Edinburgh professorship of Moral Philosophy, Thomas Brown.

It is less easy to understand Mill’s identification of the intuitionism of Reid and Hamilton and of Kant’s a-priorism with resistance to the cause of political and social reform, and of his own – and presumably therefore Hume’s – associationist empiricism with the furthering of that cause. Alan Ryan, in his excellent introduction to this edition of the Examination, remarks mildly: ‘One might doubt whether there was any very close practical connection between, say, a Kantian view of knowledge and conservatism on the one hand, and a Humean view and liberalism on the other. Certainly it is difficult to imagine Hume welcoming the French Revolution, had he lived to see it, and it is not very difficult to construct radical political philosophies of a broadly intuitionist kind.’ But the difficulty is even more acute than Ryan suggests. For although what Hume would or would not have believed about the French Revolution may be a speculative question, the question of what Hume believed about the polities of his own day is not speculative at all. Hume was a conservative, a spokesman for the Hanoverian, Protestant establishment, as Duncan Forbes established once and for all in his brilliant book Hume’s Philosophical Politics. By contrast, Dugald Stewart, Reid’s most able disciple and probably the most cogent defender of intuitionism, did view the opening phases of the French Revolution with warm sympathy, and was as a consequence treated both by the Government and by Edinburgh society as a dangerous liberal, although he was, in fact, a very moderate Whig. Thus Mill’s political interpretation of the debate between intuitionists and empiricists is at first sight completely mistaken. But behind Mill’s unnecessarily vulnerable formulation of his position can be discerned a more complex truth.

For although the real Hume was a conservative, the image of Hume which became established in the public mind was not a conservative image. In 1828, a writer in the Edinburgh Review, in the course of congratulating his fellow-countrymen on now at last possessing a culture at once authentically flourishing and genuinely Scottish, remarked on the contrast with the mid-18th century. Then there was ‘nothing truly Scottish, nothing indigenous’ in the dominant writers. They were in their attitudes ‘almost exclusively French ... Never perhaps was there a class of writers, so clear and so well-ordered, yet so totally destitute, to all appearances, of any patriotic affection, nay of any human affection whatever.’ I have no doubt that this is how Hume was imagined by many writers in both Britain and America in the 1820s. ‘Hume,’ said a contributor to the North American Review in 1824, ‘was perhaps superior in taste as well as natural acuteness and sagacity to Stewart; but such were the strange aberrations of his intellect, when applied to the study of metaphysics and morals, that his works on those subjects have little or no value.’ The Hume thus dismissed was seen primarily as the author of a dangerous attempt to subvert all received principles in morals and religion, in politics and in the theory of knowledge. And this imaginary Hume – although part of what was imagined was of course real enough – is clearly no exception to Mill’s political generalisation.

Equally, the cautious Scottish Whigs of the 1790s, such as Stewart, must by the 1840s have appeared to hold essentially reactionary positions. Indeed, what was progressive in the 1790s was in fact reactionary by the 1840s. Hence Stewart, as he appeared to Mill, doubtless did not seem to provide any exception to Mill’s political thesis any more than Hume did.

The true character of Mill’s error is now clear. It did not lie in his assigning a political significance to a philosophical disagreement. It lay rather in his supposing that the political or ideological significance of a particular philosophical theory attaches to that theory as such, and not to that theory as it is advanced in specific social and political circumstances. It is in and from particular contexts that theories gain ideological power. To understand this is a necessary preliminary to recognising how what is substantially one and the same philosophical debate may in different situations have quite different social and political significance. Bowen’s reaction to Mill’s attack on Hamilton illustrates this clearly.

Francis Bowen was not only a Harvard professor. As first a contributor to and then the editor of the North American Review, he was one of the chief protagonists of New England Unitarianism in the middle of the 19th century. The Unitarianism of that time and place was not the shadowy deistic religion into which Unitarianism has so often declined. Its content was remarkably close to that of orthodox Christianity: what distinguished it was not so much its doctrinal deviations as its systematic insistence that Christianity must be vindicated, and could be vindicated only by an appeal to rational argument based upon evidence. So 19th-century Unitarians would, for example, appeal to the evidence of the miracles performed by Jesus as evidence of Jesus’s unique divine power. In making this appeal to the evidence found in nature and history, they encountered in their native culture two kinds of opponent. On the one hand, there was Emersonian Transcendentalism, with its exclusive appeal to inner experience and its disregard for the historical element in religion. On the other hand, there was the kind of scepticism derived from Hume which denied that reason could discern either in the design of the natural world or in the occurence of miracles any evidence that warranted theistic conclusions. Thus from Bowen’s point of view Hume and Mill were the unwitting allies of Emerson and of what Bowen took to be Emerson’s irrationalism. And it was peculiarly important to Bowen that Mill’s attack on Hamilton should fail, since it was in Hamilton’s writings, very largely, that Bowen himself had found the philosophical resources for his defence of Unitarianism and his attacks on Emerson. Thus in New England the significance of Mill’s critique of Hamilton derives from its relevance to a debate of the whole content of which Mill was quite probably unaware.

Bowen was not a particularly able philosopher, and Hamilton only a little more so. It would be all too easy to conclude, therefore, that Mill emerged from this encounter victorious in every way. Yet Bowen’s response raises at least one disturbing question. The assumption of the 18th-century Enlightenment and of its 19th-century heirs such as Mill was that the spread of liberal, scientific inquiry would destroy superstition, and with it the cultural power of traditional Christian theism. What more recent history suggests, however, is that the spread of the spirit of liberal, scientific inquiry can at least under certain circumstances, co-exist very easily with a variety of forms of superstition and irrationalism. Californian culture is the paradigm case: here are more physicists, more engineers and more universities, and here also are more astrologers, more irrational cults and more superstition. Bowen was certainly wrong to think that Hamilton’s arguments could survive Mill’s onslaught in such a way as to provide philosophical foundations for rational religion, but the question of whether he was entirely wrong in the significance he attached to the nature of the debate between Hamilton and Mill has not yet been conclusively answered.

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