Hamilton, Sir William
Hamilton, Sir William a recent Scotch philosopher, who will probably be regarded as the most subtle logician and the most acute metaphysician produced in Britain since Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. (He must not be confounded with his scarcely less distinguished contemporary, Sir William Rowan Hamilton the Irish mathematician.) He is included, and included himself, among the adherents of the Scotch school of psychology, but he is not of them, having remodeled, interpreted, expanded, and transmuted their doctrines in such a manner as to elevate their character and entirely change their nature. His potent influence is manifested in nearly all the current speculation of the British Isles. After having created by the labors of his life and by the fascination of his example a new class of inquirers, his mind still dominates over those who reject, as well as over those who accept his principles.
Life. — Sir William Hamilton was born at Glasgow March 8,1780, eight years before the decease of Reid; he died at Edinburgh on May 6,1856. He thus lived through the whole of the revolution which convulsed the governments, societies, industries, and opinions of modern Europe, and prepared the new earth which is yet to be revealed. He was the son of Dr. William Hamilton, professor of anatomy at Glasgow; but he came of a long-descended line. He claimed a hereditary baronetcy, and deduced his lineage from the ducal and almost royal house of Hamilton and Chastelherault. The illustration of his birth was obscured by the splendor of his intellectual career. He received his early education in his native city. From the University of Glasgow he passed to Baliol College, Oxford, and distinguished himself by his attainments in both classics and mathematics. Here he gained his acquaintance with the writings of Aristotle, which have never been disregarded in this ancient seat of learning. In the competition for graduating honors, he professed his readiness to be examined on most of the recognized Greek and Latin classics, including many of the works of Plato and Aristotle, and of the writings of the Neo-Platonists and the peripatetic scholiasts. He had, moreover, already obtained some knowledge of Averroes and Avicenna; of the Latin fathers and the great schoolmen; of Cardan, Agricola, Laurentius Valla, and the Scaligers; and had formed a less questionable intimacy with Des Cartes, Leibnitz, and other luminaries of the Cartesian school.
The erudition of Hamilton commenced early, and was extended throughout his life. It was vast, curious, and recondite. It produces amazement by the continual array of forgotten names and unexplored authors — omne ignotum pro mirabili. But it is needlessly ostentatious and frequently deceptive. It is received without challenge, from the inaccessibility of the authorities alleged, and the disinclination to verify citations from unfamiliar works. Hare has shown that the imputations against Luther rest on invalid quotations taken at second-hand. It is alleged that, in his attack on mathematical studies, he has employed mangled extracts without regarding the context. His references to Aristotle, and his representations of the doctrines of the Stagyrite, are unreliable, being fragmentary, distorted or misapprehended, from ignorance of the tenor of his writings. There is too much reason for believing that Hamilton's familiarity with "many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore" was derived from the diligent consultation of indexes, and the hasty appreciation of passages thus indicated.
The young philosopher had been designed for the legal profession. He removed to Edinburgh in 1812 to prosecute his juridical studies, and was called to the Scotch bar in 1813. In 1820, on the death of Dr. Thomas Brown, he was a candidate for the chair of moral philosophy in the University of Edinburgh. John Wilson, the poet, and editor of Blackwood's Magazine, was a Tory, and, as such, was preferred by the Tory town council, which constituted the electoral body. In the course of the ensuing year, the defeated candidate, rich in brains and various accomplishments, but poor in purse, was appointed by the Faculty of Advocates to the chair of history. His lectures on this great branch of knowledge, which is philosophy in its concrete and dynamical aspects, are reported to have been vigorous, original, learned, and acute. This period of Sir William's life exemplified his indefatigable industry, patient research, versatility of talent, and zealous solicitude for truth. George Combe had attracted much attention in Edinburgh to Phrenology-a suspicious province of speculation lying along the indistinct boundary between intellectual and physical science. The profession of Hamilton's father, and his own youthful associations, may have cherished in him some aptitudes for anatomical and physiological inquiries. He now engaged in such pursuits with the earnest pertinacity that had been displayed by Des Cartes when tracing the mechanism of vision and endeavoring to discover in the pineal gland the domicile of the mind. With saw and scalpel, and tape and balance, he divided skulls, dissected, measured, and weighed their contents. The conclusions thus reached were communicated to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1826 and 1827, and dissipated the pretensions of Phrenology by demonstrating the falsity of the facts alleged as its foundation. These researches also rectified some physiological misapprehensions, and enabled Sir William to make those delicate observations on the composition and action of the nerves which are introduced into his notes on Reid.
In 1829, his friend, professor Napier, requested from him a philosophical article to inaugurate his literary reign as editor of the Edinburgh Review. The paper furnished in compliance with his request was the first, and still remains the most satisfactory exposition of Hamilton's metaphysical views. It purported to be a notice of Victor Cousin's eclecticism, but it presented in broken outlines "the Philosophy of the Conditioned." No such tractate had appeared in Britain for centuries. It recalled the ancient glories of the 13th and 14th centuries. It united the speculative subtlety of Berkeley with the dialectical skill of the schoolmen. It attracted universal admiration at home and abroad, and was promptly translated into foreign languages. It placed its author at once among the sovereigns of thought, and restored the British Isles to their place among the combatants in the shadowy arena of abstract disputation. This remarkable production was followed by others scarcely less remarkable, and similarly distinguished by comprehensive erudition, logical perspicacity, analytical precision, breadth of reasoning, and profundity of thought. Thus his claims were immeasurably superior to those of any other aspirant when the professorship of logic and metaphysics in the university became vacant in 1836. He was not elected, however, to this position without hesitancy, and the hesitancy was removed chiefly by the earnest testimonials of Victor Cousin, and professor Brandis, of Bonn.
In his new domain Sir William commenced the rehabilitation of logical studies, and the restoration of the prince of philosophers to the throne from which he had been removed by more than two centuries of ignorant and uninquiring clamor. So far, indeed, as originality appertains to his own logical and metaphysical speculations, it is obtained by recurrence to the instructions or to the hints of "the master of the wise." He held his chair for twenty years, till his death. To the discharge of his academical duties are due the lectures on logic and on metaphysics. They afford a very imperfect exhibition of either his abilities or his philosophy. They were the first fruits of his service, hurriedly prepared to satisfy immediate requirements, and precariously modified at irregular times. They never received final elaboration or systematic revision, and were published posthumously from such sketches and loose notes as had been preserved. Throughout the period of their recurrent delivery, their development was restrained and distorted by the traditions, associations, and expectations of the school. He could not renounce allegiance to Reid, or proclaim an independent authority, or render liege-homage to Aristotle. Hence there is throughout his career a continual effort to reconcile by ingenious tours-de, force his own more profound and comprehensive views with the narrow, shallow, and timid utterances of the common sense brotherhood. There is nothing in the history of philosophy more grotesque, more inconclusive, and better calculated to mislead, than the array of the hundred and six witnesses to the universality of the philosophy of common sense. What these deponents unanimously attest is not the truth of Reid's characteristic dogmas, but the necessity of admitting indemonstrable principles — a thesis which may be, and has been associated with many dissimilar systems. Sir William would have been swift to expose this fallacy had such an ignoratio elenchi been detected in any victim of his critical lash.
Though the lectures of Sir William Hamilton give an imperfect idea of his services and teaching, he efficiently promoted the cause of genuine philosophy by the spirit and breadth of his instructions, by his wonderful display of learning, by the penetration and precision of his distinctions, by attracting earnest attention to the highest walks of speculation, and by training up a generation of enthusiastic inquirers in a branch of knowledge which had been misconceived and degraded by disregard of its loftiest developments. He was untiring in encouraging and guiding the studies of his pupils; he was exacting in his demands upon their powers; but he was remarkably successful in securing their confidence and their affection; and he deepened his influence by the affability of his demeanor and by his impressive bearing. "Sir William," says one of his reviewers, "enjoyed physical advantages almost as uncommon as his intellectual attainments. His frame was large and commanding; his head was cast in a classic mould; his face was handsome and expressive; his voice possessed great compass and mellifluous sweetness." With such a fortunate combination of natural endowments and cultivated acquirements, he was well adapted to become the "magnus Apollo" of a new sect of adorers. System, however, was foreign to his nature: the pursuit of truth was more than truth. He never evinced any desire to be the founder of a school: he may have been conscious that such a desire would have been futile, since he built on the substructions of Aristotle, or repainted with his own colors and devices the ruinous walls of the peripatetic temple.
The years of Sir William's scholastic duty were illustrated by other and more important productions than his lectures — productions which reveal more decisively the depth of his genius and supply the best means for ascertaining the complexion and constitution of his philosophy. It seems to be expected of a Scotch professor that he should produce a book either as a title to office or in vindication of his appointment. In accordance with this custom, if not in compliance with it, Sir William signalized his induction into his chair by an edition of Reid's works, accompanied with observations and illustrative discussions. The manner in which this task was executed is characteristic of his habits. The notes were written as the text passed through the press; the supplementary disputations were added some years afterwards: they were never completed; the last that he published "breaks off in the middle," like the celebrated canto of Hudibras; and the "copious indices subjoined," which had been announced in the title- page remains an announcement-to eternity. Sir William has nowhere given any systematic view of his doctrine, either in detail or in summary. He has left behind him elaborate essays on a few cardinal topics; many fragmentary notices of others; and numerous suggestive, but undeveloped hints. His relics are like the fossil remains of the mighty monsters of remote geological periods: here a tibia, there a maxilla; here a huge vertebra, there a ponderous scapula; here a tusk, there a claw; but nowhere is found the complete form, or even the entire skeleton. Still, from the fragments preserved, the philosophy of Hamilton may be reconstructed. The incompleteness of his labors may be ascribed in part to the polemical character of his procedure; in part to the absence of distinct originality; in part to the vast and unmanageable extent of his information, to the variety of his meditations, and to the fastidiousness of his judgment, which sought unattainable fullness and perfection in all the details; but much must be attributed to a more mournful cause to the paralysis which crushed his strength and deprived him of the use of his right hand for the last ten years of his life, compelling him to avail himself of the assistance of his wife and family for his correspondence and literary labors.
During his later years Sir William was chiefly occupied with the extension and application of his logical innovations. These were expounded to his class as early as 1840, and announced to the world in 1846. They provoked a bitter controversy with professor De Morgan. It is unnecessary to enter into the examination of a dispute in which the parties are satisfied neither with themselves nor with each other, and in which the language is so tortuous, rugged, and peculiar as to be almost equally unintelligible in both.
Some critics have commended the style of Sir William Hamilton as "unequalled for conciseness, precision, and force" as "a model of philosophical clearness, conciseness, and energy" (non cuicumque datum est haebere nasu n). Mr. De Morgan characterized the Hamiltonian style as bombinans, whatever that may mean; and of one expression he says that it is "hard to make sense or English of it." The censure may be applied to both the combatants in this unseemly controversy. Sir William's dialect may be clear, precise, significant, when it has been mastered; but it is not English. It is a concrete of his own compounding, requiring special study just as much as any archaic patois. Berkeley and Hume, Stewart and Spencer, have shown that it is possible to write philosophically, and yet maintain a pure, transparent, natural English idiom. This Sir William rarely does.
Writings. — The published works of Hamilton embrace the lectures on logic and on metaphysics; an edition of Reid, never completed; an edition of the works of Dugald (Stewart; and a volume of Discussions on Philosophy and Literature, Education and University Reform (1852; 2nd edit. enlarged, 1853; reprinted by Harper and Brothers, N. York). There is little evidence of any taste for literature, properly so called, in the volume. The only essay connected even remotely with polite letters is that on the authorship of the Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum, which is, in some respects, his most curious contribution to periodical literature. A wide chasm separates this from the instructive and entertaining papers On the Revolutions of Medicine, and on Mathematics snot Philosophy. Both of these readily consort with the laborious and learned investigation of the history, condition, objects, and possible ameliorations of university education. The remainder of the "Discussions" is devoted to logic and metaphysics. The former science is illustrated by the essay on Logic
contributed to the Edinburgh Review in April, 1833; and that on Syllogism, its kinds, canons, notations, etc., contained in the appendix. The peculiar views of the author are further expounded in the Prospectus of an Essay on the New Analytic of Logical Forms, and in the Prize Essay of Thomas Spencer Baynes on the same subject, to which should be added the appendix to the lectures on logic.
The principal metaphysical papers in the Discussions are those on The Philosophy of the Conditioned; on The Philosophy of Perception, and On Idealism, with the appendix On the Conditions of the Thinkable. In the editorial labors on Reid, besides many important notes elucidating, rectifying, developing, Co-altering the statements in the text, which merit careful consideration, should be specially studied Note A, On the Philosophy of Common Sense; Note B, On Presentative and Representative Knowledge; and Note D, Distinction of the Primary and Secondary Qualities of Body, which has an intimate relation to the theory of immediate or presentative perception.
Philosophy. — Logic, metaphysics, and ethics are comprised under the general designation of philosophy. The last of these divisions is untouched by Sir William Hamilton. In the other two he has pushed his inquiries far beyond any of his British contemporaries, and with much more brilliant success. In both he evinced signal acuteness; in both he rendered good service: and in both he deemed himself an inventor and reformer, and not merely an innovator.
The character of his metaphysical doctrine is manifested by the designation which he bestowed upon it. The Philosophy of the Conditioned. It is critical in its procedure; it is mainly negative in its results. In these respects it resembles the philosophy of Kant, to which it approximates in many of its developments. It is a crusade against all theories reposing on the absolute and the unconditioned. It sets out with affirming the essential relativity of all knowledge; it concludes with the restriction of philosophy to the determination of the conditions of thought. In this there is nothing new but the mode of exposition. It was a familiar aphorism of the schoolmen, founded upon the teachings of Aristotle, that all thought was bounded by the limits of the thinking mind- "omne perceptum est secundum modum percipientis"- "omne scitum est in sciente secundeum modum scientis"- "species cogniti est in cognoscente." From this position Hamilton deduces the invalidity of all conceptions pretending to be absolute, and hence denies the possibility of any positive conception of the infinite. Herein he merely repeats Aristotle, but with less moderation in his doctrine. This thesis has been violently opposed, and usually misapprehended. It was assailed by Calderwood, Philosophy of the Infinite, who confounds the negation of the Infinite in thought with the negation of the infinity of God. It has been accepted and applied by Mansel to theology in his Limits of Religious Thought. The next step is to a purely negative exposition of causality, as resulting from "mental impotence" to conceive an absolute commencement. Sir William recognizes that this interpretation conflicts with the idea of a great First Cause, and he propounds a very ingenious apology for his doctrine. He similarly follows out his fundamental tenet to other applications, and arrives uniformly at negative conclusions.
The tenet, however, is not presented as an axiom, but receives interpretation, if not demonstration. It is the inevitable consequence of the dualism of our knowledge — a thesis contained in Aristotle. Every act of consciousness "gives a knowledge of the ego in relation and contrast to the non-ego, and a knowledge of the non-ego in relation and contrast to the ego. The ego and non-ego are thus given, in an original synthesis, as conjoined in the unity of knowledge, and in an original antithesis, as opposed in the contrariety of existence." This "natural dualism" is accepted by professor Ferrier as the beginning of an antagonistic scheme of philosophy. With Hamilton it is made to rest upon the basis of immediate perception, and thus he is led to the affirmation of direct or presentative perception in opposition to the older theory of indirect or representative perception. This brings him into accordance with the school of Reid- though Reid and his school would scarcely have understood, and certainly could not have appreciated his delicate distinctions; and it must be acknowledged that it is a coarse and materialistic conception of species, images, and impressions which requires any deadly opposition between presentative and representative perception. To one cultivating such divisions and differences, the treatise of Roger Bacon, De Multiplicatione Specierum — the most marvelous result of mediaeval science-would be utterly unintelligible.
On Sir William Hamilton's principles, the only object of philosophy is the determination of the limits and requirements of thought, or, as he phrases it," the Conditions of the Thinkable." On this subject he has left an admirable and most suggestive paper; but his whole scheme of speculation is without any basis for certainty, without any witness of "the Spirit bearing witness to our spirit." It is thus built upon the void; and, like the eclecticism of Cousin, and the transcendentalism of Hegel and Schelling, which it was specially designed to oppose, it tends, however unconsciously, to practical skepticism. "Such (φωνᾶντα συνετοῖσιν)," says Sir William, "are the hints of an undeveloped philosophy, which, I am confident, is founded upon truth." Doubtless this philosophy is undeveloped, and doubtless it is founded upon truth; but the foundation may not be homogeneous or sufficient, and the superstructure may not be composed of the same materials as the substruction. The most dangerous error is that which proceeds from mutilated, distorted, or alloyed truth.
"The views of Sir William Hamilton are before us, in certain parts, in his own exposition;" they invite and require rigorous examination. "That they have already been much discussed, and have exerted a powerful influence on speculation, is a good omen for philosophy. We have, especially, his treatment of three great problems in philosophy. First, there is the theory of the two kinds of human knowledge, Immediate and Mediate. Secondly, there is a special application of this theory to the construction of a theory of External Perception. Thirdly, there is an exhaustive system of Metaphysics Proper, or Ontology, in his 'Philosophy of the Conditioned' and 'Conditions of the Thinkable' a vast and noble idea, traced out for us in nothing but a tantalizing fragment. His Logical system is to be gathered from the sources already mentioned. They will probably convey no distinct notion of the system, unless to readers who are familiar with the German methods of logical analysis since Kant. The leading points may be said to be four; and it is perhaps possible to make these intelligible very briefly to persons acquainted with the outlines of the science in its received forms.
1. Hamilton insists on having, in all propositions through common terms which are set forth for logical scrutiny, a sign of quantity prefixed to predicate as well as to subject. The point, though merely- one of form, is curiously suggestive of difficulties, and hence of solutions.
2. Instead of recognizing only four forms of propositions, the A, E, I, O of the old logicians, he insists (on admitting all the eight forms which are possible. (See Thomson and Solly.)
3. He widens the range of the syllogism by admitting all moods which can validly be constructed by any combination of any of his eight kinds of propositions.
4. The Port-Royal doctrine of the inverse ratio of the extension and comprehension of terms is worked out by him in reference to the syllogism. This application of the doctrine has certainly not been anticipated by any logician; and, when elaborated to its results, it throws many new lights on the characters and mutual relations of the syllogistic figures." The value of these innovations has riot been definitely settled, nor has it been ascertained whether they were overlooked by Aristotle, misapprehended by him, or deliberately rejected from his Analytics.
Authorities. — An earnest discussion of Hamilton's doctrines may be found in the Methodist Quarterly Review for 1857; a sketch of his metaphysical views is given in the Princeton Review for 1855. One of the most unfortunate, features in the literary history of Sir William was his attack on the reputation of Luther, which was fully answered by Hare in his Vindication of Luther. Hare convicts Hamilton of using second-hand knowledge as if he had studied the original sources. See A. Brit. Rev. Nov. 1848, Feb. 1853, July, 1859; Revue des Deux Mondes, April, 1856; Gentleman's Magazine, June, 1856; North American Review, Oct. 1845, p. 485-9; Jan. 1853, art. 3; British Quarterly Review, 16:479; Wight, Philosophy of Sir William Hamilton (N. Y. 1855); Mill, Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (Lond. 1865) —reviewed in the Westminster Review, Jan. 1866, and elaborately answered by H. L. Mansel, The Philosophy of the Conditioned (Lond. 1866); De Morgan, Formal Logic (London, 1847); Bowen, A Treatise on Logic (Cambridge, 1864). The Life of Sir William Hamilton, by J. Veitch (1869), which had been long expected, has been recently published. (G. F. H.)