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Hamilton, William

The Continuum Encyclopedia of British Philosophy

Sylvana Tomaselli

Hamilton, William (1788–1856) 

William Hamilton was born within the College of Glasgow on 8 March 1788 and died in Edinburgh on 6 May 1856. His family had close links over three generations with the medical profession and with Glasgow University. In 1816, when Hamilton became interested in his genealogy, he legally proved his connection with the family of Sir Robert Hamilton of Preston, and thereafter styled himself Sir William, Baronet of Preston and Fingalton. Hamilton entered Glasgow University in 1803, where he studied logic and moral philosophy under George Jardine and James Mylne, through whom he would have acquired a broad knowledge of the philosophy of Reid. By the winter of 1806–1807 he had moved to Edinburgh and was preparing for a medical career. In 1807 he went to Balliol College, Oxford, on a Snell Exhibition. Here his studies included classics, rhetoric, logic, moral philosophy, the elements of mathematics and natural philosophy, and he gained an extensive knowledge of Aristotelianism that remained with him throughout his career. He graduated BA from Oxford in 1811 and moved back to Edinburgh. He now abandoned his medical ambitions to enter the Scottish Bar. In 1813 he became an advocate, but his court practice was not particularly successful, partly because legal briefs did not match with his natural inclination for research, partly because being a Whig in a Tory-dominated establishment excluded him from many legal appointments. During his practice as an advocate he visited Germany twice: first in 1817, with his Oxford friend John Gibson Lockhart, then in 1820, with James Mackenzie. After this second visit Hamilton began a systematic study of German.

When Thomas Brown died in 1820, Hamilton failed to obtain the Chair of Moral Philosophy, since the town council, with its Tory majority, gave it to his friend John Wilson, one of the founders and contributors, with Lockhart and other young Tories, of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. In 1821, through the Faculty of Advocates, Hamilton was offered the Chair of Universal and Civil History, which he kept until 1836. After Johann Gaspar Spurzheim's visit to Edinburgh in 1816, Hamilton became interested in phrenology and turned out to be one of its major opponents. His fight against phrenology and phrenologists took a significant turn between 1825 and 1829, when he gave four papers to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. These he refused to publish, but materials from them were later included in part in volume 1, Appendix II, of Mansel and Veitch's edition of his Lectures on Metaphysics and Logic (1859–60). These papers led to controversy with George Combe, the Edinburgh phrenologist and moral philosopher, and to their correspondence in early March 1828, which was published in the Caledonian Mercury.

In 1829, when Macvey Napier succeeded Francis Jeffrey as editor of the Edinburgh Review, Hamilton began his own engagement with the journal, which lasted until 1839. His contributions were later collected as part of his Discussions on Philosophy and Literature, Education and University Reform (1852). Three in particular brought him popularity as a philosopher and metaphysician. ‘On the Philosophy of the Unconditioned’ (1829), which appeared after the publication of Victor Cousin's Cours de philosophie (1828), is mainly a criticism of Cousin's, Kant's and Schelling's theories of the infinite and absolute, an illustration of Hamilton's doctrine of the conditioned, and of the state of philosophy on the Continent, in France and Germany. ‘Philosophy of Perception’ (1830), following the appearance of part of Théodore Simon Jouffroy's translation of Oeuvres complètes de Thomas Reid in 1828–9, includes an attack on Brown's philosophy and theory of perception, and shows Hamilton's engagement with the common sense tradition, his criticism of ‘representative knowledge’ and his support for ‘natural realism’ (a theory of perception according to which what we are immediately and directly conscious of is the external object). The third article, ‘Logic’ (1833), is a review of several logical treatises, in particular Richard Whately's Elements of Logic (1826). Here Hamilton discusses the nature of logic and of inductive syllogism, and sets out a view on the subject which clashes with that of Reid and Stewart (based on Lockean notions of evidence and truth), and of his contemporaries. For Hamilton, logic was the study of the form of thoughts, not of their matter.

Through his contributions to the Edinburgh Review Hamilton became one of the voices of the Scottish Whigs, without taking an active part in the proceedings of the party. His stance was critical on many issues, particularly regarding education and university reform. Between 1831 and 1836 he wrote several articles on university organization in Scotland, England and other European countries, and on academic patronage in the Scottish universities: ‘On the State of the English Universities, with more Especial Reference to Oxford’ (1831), ‘Cousin on German Schools’ (1833) and ‘On the Patronage and Superintendence of Universities’ (1834). In this last article Hamilton criticizes the General Report of the Royal Commission of 1831 (and indirectly the previous Tory government that requested it and the Whig government that inherited it) for defending the rights of patronage of local councils in the election of university professors. The article led to one of several disputes Hamilton had with Edinburgh town council, and influenced the Report of the Burgh Commissioners in 1835 with regard to the introduction of a small extra-academical board of curators, which Hamilton himself advocated.

In the same year Hamilton resigned from the Royal Society of Edinburgh (to which he had been elected at the age of twenty-nine) because of disagreements over the diminishing role of the literary class within the society. In 1836, after David Ritchie resigned from the Chair of Logic and Metaphysics, Hamilton competed against Combe, William Spalding and others for the post. He answered accusations of obscurity in style in April 1836 in a ‘Letter to the Lord Provost’, and after receiving testimonials from Cousin, Jeffrey, Wilson and others, he took up the chair in July. After his appointment, he started giving two courses of lectures, alternately on metaphysics or psychology (1836–7) and on logic (1837–8). This pattern was kept until 1856. In the winter of 1844–5, after Hamilton had a stroke, the lectures were undertaken by James Ferrier and afterwards by Hamilton and an assistant, Thomas Spencer Baynes (Baynes, formerly a prize-winning student of Hamilton, remained a lifelong friend, and in 1851 dedicated to Hamilton his translation of the Port-Royal Logic). The lectures were collected and published in 1859–60 by H. L. Mansel and John Veitch, Hamilton's friends and disciples. Although fragmentary in style and aimed at students, they contain many of Hamilton's sources and authorities and they expand some of the views on mental faculties (perception and mental latency) and on logic already introduced in the Discussions and examined in the notes to his edition of The Works of Thomas Reid (1846).

Hamilton started working on his edition of Reid in 1836, while giving his lectures, but had to give up in 1839 because of difficulty in agreeing publication arrangements with the bookseller. The huge amount of notes and appendices he managed to write throughout this period resulted in the ‘Dissertations, Historical, Critical and Supplementary’ appended to his edition. When, in 1838, the Chair of Mathematics at Edinburgh became vacant, Hamilton, who thought Duncan Gregory best qualified for the post, wrote a Letter to the Right Honourable the Lord Provost of Edinburgh on the Election of a Professor of Mathematics. The letter backs some of the views discussed in 1836 in the article ‘On the Study of Mathematics, as an Exercise of Mind’, where he disagrees with William Whewell and plays down the role of mathematics in liberal education. In 1838–9 Hamilton entered into a further quarrel with the council on the introduction of a second or advanced class of logic and metaphysics and on the difference in fees between the philosophy and the law and medicine classes. This resulted in the withdrawal of the class in 1839. In 1840 Hamilton was nominated corresponding member of the philosophy section of the Institute of France, and at some time also became a member of the Latin Society of Jena.

In the early 1840s, when the Church of Scotland, to which Hamilton was attached, was divided by controversy, he took a position unfavourable to the Disruption and in 1843, just before the Free Church of Scotland was set up, he wrote a pamphlet, Be not Schismatics, Be not Martyrs, by Mistake, in which he argued that the non-interference of the civil courts in spiritual matters was not established by Calvin and Beza, the founders of the Presbyterian tradition. This prompted a reply from one of the Free Church theologians, William Cunningham, who wrote Animadversions upon Sir William Hamilton's Pamphlet (1843). Hamilton's serious engagement with the study of ecclesiastical matters and of church history lasted until 1852, when he discussed Julius Charles Hare's reply to his attack on Luther in the footnotes of his article ‘On the Right of Dissenters to Admission into the English Universities’ (1834), in the 1852 and 1853 editions of the Discussions.

In 1846, after disagreements with his colleagues over his proposal for a reform of the examination in arts, he reduced his participation in the Senate, of which he had been the Secretary. In the same year he started his correspondence with De Morgan, which turned into a controversy over the paternity of the discovery of a ‘quantity in the predicate’ and resulted in two pamphlets dated 1847: Hamilton's Letter to Augustus De Morgan and De Morgan's Statement in Answer to an Assertion made by Sir William Hamilton. In 1853, after Hamilton completed the second (enlarged) edition of the Discussions, he was asked to edit the works of Dugald Stewart and to write a preface to Stewart's Lectures on Political Economy, never printed before. A memoir of Stewart was planned too, but Hamilton died before its completion. Of this memoir we have only some short sketches included in Appendixes III and IV of volume 2 of Hamilton's Lectures on Metaphysics.

From his earliest article, ‘Philosophy of the Unconditioned’, Hamilton showed a strong familiarity with Kantian and German philosophy. Unlike Stewart and Brown, he drew his extensive knowledge of the German tradition from the original sources and he did not stop at Kant. His knowledge went from Leibniz and Tetens to post-Kantian philosophers such as Esser, Krug, and in particular Fries, Beneke and Jacobi, who viewed Kant's formalism and subjectivism as the failure of his philosophy. The issues raised by these authors significantly influenced Hamilton's reading of both Reid and Kant. With Tetens and Kant, Hamilton thought that Reid's investigation needed to be taken a step further, towards that identification of common sense with reason that Reid suggests in the Essays on the Intellectual Powers (1785). With the neo-Kantians, he acknowledged that Kant's theory of perception, according to which the mind has no immediate knowledge of any existence external to itself, was ‘false’ and that Reid's position on this point was ‘one of the most important and original contributions ever made to philosophy’ (Lectures on Metaphysics, vol. 1, p. 398). One of the main purposes of Hamilton's philosophical investigation, as his notes to Reid's Works show (Note A), was to place Reid's common sense philosophy within a historical framework that goes from Aristotle and scholastic philosophy to Cousin through the Scottish and German tradition.

Hamilton's attempt at combining Reid's natural realism (the knowledge of external objects immediately and in themselves) with Kant's doctrine of the relativity of human knowledge (the knowledge of things under specific modifications) has been judged inconsistent and contradictory by many scholars, in particular by John Stuart Mill and James Hutchison Stirling. Hamilton, however, claimed in the ‘Dissertations’ that the nature of things absolutely and in themselves was ‘accidentally’ revealed through qualities related to our faculties of knowledge, and in the Lectures that the knowledge of the existence of things different from the self rested ultimately on certain facts of consciousness which cannot but be true and are similar to fundamental beliefs. Unlike for Reid and Stewart, consciousness for Hamilton is the general condition of mental phenomena (of knowledge, feeling and will), not a special faculty, and in perception we are always conscious of a perceiving subject and of the object perceived. This is what Hamilton calls the ‘Duality of Consciousness’ (Lectures on Metaphysics, vol. 1, p. 288).

Consciousness and knowledge always involve each other: they are the same relation considered from two different points of view, that of the subject and that of the object. According to Hamilton, sensation (subjective consciousness) and perception (objective consciousness) are ‘always found to coexist in an inverse proportion’ (Lectures on Metaphysics, vol. 2, p. 99) and the qualities of bodies can be considered from either a physical or a psychological point of view, and therefore divided into primary (objective), secondary (subjective) and secundo-primary (objective and subjective) (‘Dissertations’, Note D). As for knowledge, this has for him always a two-fold origin: the facts of experience on the one hand; and the ‘laws and conditions of thought under which our knowledge a posteriori is possible’ on the other (Lectures on Metaphysics, vol. 2, p. 26). Space, which is ‘a form or fundamental law of thought’, has to be distinguished from extension, ‘our empirical knowledge of space’ (Lectures on Metaphysics, vol. 2, p. 114).

The relationship between logic and psychology or metaphysics is central in Hamilton's philosophy of mind and replaces the agreement between Newtonian science and common sense that appealed to Reid, Stewart and Brown. Hamilton divides logic into pure and modified: one deals with the laws of thought as thought, the other with thought as modified by experience. According to him, pure logic cannot solve most of the problems of the philosophy of mind. These always lie between ‘incompatible alternatives’ that the mind does not have the power to conceive but of which, according to the law of non-contradiction, one or the other necessarily is true (Lectures on Metaphysics, vol. 2, p. 525). Hamilton thus talks about a ‘Psychological application’ of this law and calls it the ‘Law of the Conditioned’. According to this law, ‘The mind is necessitated to think certain forms; and, under these forms, thought is only possible in the interval between two contradictory extremes, both of which are absolutely inconceivable, but one of which, on the principle of Excluded Middle, is necessarily true’ (Lectures on Metaphysics, vol. 2, p. 403). Cause and effect, substance and phenomena derive from this limitation of the human mind; they are negative notions or mental impossibilities. Our mind, however, has also powers or positive notions. Among these (the notion of existence, the intuitions of time and space) Hamilton includes the logical laws of identity, non-contradiction and excluded middle.

In moral philosophy, Hamilton provides an account of free will which is strictly related to his notion of causality (to the impossibility of conceiving the absolute commencement and absolute termination of a given phenomenon), and ultimately to his ‘philosophy of the conditioned’. To Hamilton, liberty and necessity are both inconceivable, and the ‘fact that we are free, is given us in the consciousness of an uncompromising law of Duty, in the consciousness of our moral accountability’ (Lectures on Metaphysics, vol. 2, p. 413).

As to theology, Hamilton's view was perceived as hostile to theism and inconsistent: knowledge of God was put into question by his claim that the infinite and the absolute are ‘incogitable’. The problem was first raised in Philosophy of the Infinite (1854) by Henry Calderwood, to whom Hamilton responded that although he thought the infinite could not be known, he was far ‘from denying that by us it is, must and ought to be, believed’ (Lectures on Metaphysics, vol. 2, p. 530). An attempt to develop the theological implications of Hamilton's philosophy of the conditioned was carried out by Mansel in the Bampton Lectures, published as The Limits of Religious Thought Examined (1858). Hamilton's and Mansel's views were then criticised by F. D. Maurice, Peter Chretien and M. P. W. Bolton, and defended by Thomas Collyns Simon.

Hamilton's philosophy attracted the interest of many leading figures of the nineteenth century and his works played an important role in the dissemination of the Scottish philosophy of common sense on the Continent and in the United States. In France Hamilton's ideas were highly respected by Cousin at Paris, with whom he engaged in correspondence for several years, and managed to reach a wider public in 1840 through the translation into French of fragments from his articles (Fragments de philosophie) by Jean-Luis Hippolyte Peisse. This text in turn was translated into Italian by L. Lo Gatto in 1844 and it was read, with the English originals, also in Catalonia where, unlike the rest of Spain, the reception of the Scottish philosophy was very successful, and where Hamilton's thought had a remarkable influence on Francesc Xavier Llorens i Barba at the University of Barcelona.

In the 1860s, following James McCosh's success in introducing Scottish thinkers to American students, Hamilton's thought received the attention of philosophers such as Francis Bowen and Chauncey Wright at Harvard, and of religious periodicals. In Britain, Herbert Spencer, in his First Principles (1862), acknowledges Hamilton's merit in having given a definitive ‘demonstration of the necessarily relative character of our knowledge, as deduced from the nature of intelligence’ (p. 74). Hamilton's reputation, however, started to decline in 1865 after the publication of Mill's critical Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy and Stirling's Sir William Hamilton: Being the Philosophy of Perception. In spite of this, his historical scholarship remains impressive and continues to be a resource for later researchers.


Works of William Hamilton, ed. with an Introduction by Savina Tropea, 7 vols (Bristol, 2001).Find this resource:

    ‘Dissertations, Historical, Critical and Supplementary’, in William Hamilton (ed.), The Works of Thomas Reid (Edinburgh, 1846; 2nd edn, 1849).Find this resource:

      Discussions on Philosophy and Literature, Education and University Reform, Chiefly from the Edinburgh Review (1852; 2nd enl. edn, 1853).Find this resource:

        Lectures on Metaphysics and Logic, ed. H. L. Mansel and J. Veitch, 4 vols (Edinburgh and London, 1859–60).Find this resource:

          Other Relevant Works

          Correspondence Relative to Phrenology, between Sir William Hamilton, Bart., Dr Spurzheim, and Mr George Combe (Edinburgh and London, 1828).Find this resource:

            Be not Schismatics, Be not Martyrs, by Mistake (3rd enl. edn, Edinburgh, 1843).Find this resource:

              Cunningham, William, Animadversions upon Sir William Hamilton's Pamphlet entitled ‘Be not Schismatics, Be not Martyrs, by Mistake’ (Edinburgh, 1843).Find this resource:

                A Letter to Augustus De Morgan, on his Claim to an Independent Re-discovery of a New Principle in the Theory of Syllogism (London and Edinburgh, 1847).Find this resource:

                  De Morgan, A., Statement in Answer to an Assertion made by Sir William Hamilton (1847).Find this resource:

                    Calderwood, Henry, The Philosophy of the Infinite (Edinburgh, 1854; 2nd edn, 1861).Find this resource:

                      Mill, John Stuart, An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (1865; 3rd edn, 1867).Find this resource:

                        Mansel, Henry Longueville, The Philosophy of the Conditioned (1866).Find this resource:

                          Simon, Thomas Collyns, Hamilton versus Mill (Edinburgh, 1866).Find this resource:

                            Stirling, James Hutchison, Sir William Hamilton: Being the Philosophy of Perception (1865; repr. Bristol, 1990).Find this resource:

                              Further Reading

                              Anglès, Misericòrdia, El pensament de F. Xavier Llorens i Barba i la filosofia escocesa (Barcelona, 1998).Find this resource:

                                Bolton, M. P. W., Examination of the Principles of the Scoto-Oxonian Philosophy (1861).Find this resource:

                                  ——, Inquisitio philosophica (1866).Find this resource:

                                    Brody, Baruch A., ‘Reid and Hamilton on Perception’, The Monist, vol. 55 (1971), pp. 423–41.Find this resource:

                                      Buzzetti, Dino, ‘La teoria della quantificazione del predicato di William Hamilton e la rinascita della logica’, Rivista di Filosofia, vol. 64 (1973), pp. 295–337.Find this resource:

                                        Davie, George, The Scotch Metaphysics. A Century of Enlightenment in Scotland (London and New York, 2001), pp. 117–235.Find this resource:

                                          Greenberg, Arthur R., ‘Sir William Hamilton and the Interpretation of Reid's Realism’, Modern Schoolman, vol. 54 (1976), pp. 15–32.Find this resource:

                                            Grote, George, Review of the Work of Mr. John Stuart Mill, entitled, ‘Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy’ (1868).Find this resource:

                                              Heath, Peter, Introduction to Augustus De Morgan, On the Syllogism and other Logical Writings (1966).Find this resource:

                                                Hoeveler, J. David Jr, James McCosh and the Scottish Intellectual Tradition: From Glasgow to Princeton (Princeton, 1981).Find this resource:

                                                  An Inquirer, The Battle of the Two Philosophies (1866).Find this resource:

                                                    Kuehn, Manfred, ‘Hamilton's Reading of Kant: A Chapter in the Early Scottish Reception of Kant's Thought’, in George MacDonald Ross and Tony McWalter (eds), Kant and his Influence (Bristol, 1990), pp. 315–47.Find this resource:

                                                      Latimer, James F., Immediate Perception as held by Reid and Hamilton (Leipzig, 1880).Find this resource:

                                                        Madden, Edward H., ‘Sir William Hamilton, Critical Philosophy, and the Common Sense Tradition’, Review of Metaphysics, vol. 38 (1985), pp. 839–66.Find this resource:

                                                          ——, ‘Did Reid's Metaphilosophy Survive Kant, Hamilton and Mill?’, Metaphilosophy, vol. 18 (1987), pp. 31–48.Find this resource:

                                                            McCosh, James, The Scottish Philosophy, Biographical, Expository, Critical, from Hutcheson to Hamilton (1875).Find this resource:

                                                              Martineau, James, ‘Sir W. Hamilton's Philosophy’, Prospective Review, vol. 9 (1853), pp. 340–84; repr. in Martineau's Essays Philosophical and Theological, 2 vols (Boston, Mass., 1866–8), vol. 2, pp. 227–92 in Essays, Reviews and Addresses, 4 vols (1890–91), vol. 3, pp. 439–88.Find this resource:

                                                                Masson, David, Recent British Philosophy (1865).Find this resource:

                                                                  Monck, W. H. S., Sir William Hamilton (1881).Find this resource:

                                                                    Rasmussen, S. V., The Philosophy of Sir William Hamilton (Copenhagen and London, 1925).Find this resource:

                                                                      de Rémusat, Charles, ‘Sir W. Hamilton’, Revue des deux mondes, vol. 26 (1860), pp. 133–60.Find this resource:

                                                                        Seth, Andrew, Scottish Philosophy: A Comparison of the Scottish and German Answers to Hume (Edinburgh, 1885).Find this resource:

                                                                          Spencer, Herbert, First Principles (1862).Find this resource:

                                                                            Tropea, Savina, ‘William Hamilton: una prospettiva “critica” sul senso comune’, Rivista di storia della filosofia, vol. 55 (2000), pp. 59–78.Find this resource:

                                                                              Veitch, John, Memoir of Sir William Hamilton (Edinburgh and London, 1869).Find this resource:

                                                                                Sylvana Tomaselli

                                                                                See also Causation; Literature; Newtonianism; Religion, Philosophy of; Scholasticism; Scottish Philosophy; Space and Time; United States, Relationship with