Ferguson’s Theology/Ontology

Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives internationales d’histoire des idées book series (ARCH, volume 191)


Human Affair Spontaneous Order Natural Theology Design Argument Cosmological Argument 
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  1. 236.
    ‘That the author of nature though himself omnipotent acts in every department by the intervention of secondary causes... The secondary cause is an instrument in the hand of man by which to effect his [God’s] purpose in many instances’. ‘Of Cause and Effect, Ends and Means, Order, Combination and Design’, Collection of Essays, No. 13, p. 124.Google Scholar
  2. 237.
    See, for example, P.II., p. 27. I P.I, pp. 53, 180; I Essay, pp. 89–90.Google Scholar
  3. 238.
    A view held also by Newton. J. E. McGuire ‘Force, Active Principles and Newton’s Invisible Realm’, Ambix, Vol. 15, 1968, pp. 154–208, pp. 202–7.Google Scholar
  4. 239.
    Hamowy, Spontaneous Order, pp. 3–4. Hayek also implicitly elides the Providentialist underpinnings of Ferguson’s vision. See D. Simpson, ‘Joseph Schumpeter and the Austrian School of Economics’, Journal of Economic Studies, Vol. 10, (4), 1983, pp.15–28, p. 26.Google Scholar
  5. 240.
    For example, Essay, p. 12; P.I., p. 312 and P.II., p. 27.Google Scholar
  6. 241.
    Jean Willke concludes that, in his maturity, Ferguson was a ‘thorough-going deist’. Willke, Historical Thought of Adam Ferguson, p.34. See also, G.L. McDowell, ‘Commerce, Virtue and Politics: Adam Ferguson’s Constitutionalism’, Review of Politics,Vol. 45 (4), 1983, pp. 536–52. Andrew Skinner has detected in Ferguson’s philosophy a belief in ‘a Divine Rational Intelligence’. Andrew Skinner, ‘Economics and History-The Scottish Enlightenment’, The Scottish Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 12, 1965, pp. 1–22, p. 22. For the idea that Ferguson was a lapsed Christian see Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, in 2 Vols, London: Weidenfield and Nicholson, 1970, Vol. 2, p. 336. According to Sher, ‘(t)he fact that Ferguson left the ministry in the 1750s has led scholars unfamiliar with the intricacies of Scottish ecclesiastical affairs’ to incorrectly assume this view. Sher, Church and University, p. 125.Google Scholar
  7. 242.
    Some materialist or secularist interpretations follow: Duncan Forbes, in his ‘Introduction’ to Ferguson’s Essay (p. xviii.) describes the latter’s analysis of conflict as ‘utterly matter of fact, dry and secular’. The German historian Breysig characterised Ferguson as ‘a pure empiricist, free from both theological and intellectual teleological’ assumptions. Lehmann, ‘Review’, p. 177. See also Pascal, ‘Herder and the Scottish Historical School’, p. 27; Ferrarotti, ‘Civil Society and State Structures in Creative Tension’, pp. 11–12; Meek ‘The Scottish Contribution to Marxist Sociology’, pp. 34–45; D. Zaret, ‘From Political Philosophy to Social Theory’, Journal of the History of the Behavioural Sciences, Vol. 17, 1981, pp. 153–73.Google Scholar
  8. 243.
    Kettler, Social and Political Thought of Adam Ferguson, p. 131.Google Scholar
  9. 244.
    Broadie, The Scottish Enlightenment, pp. 33–5.Google Scholar
  10. 245.
    Ferguson makes no attempt to hide his dislike of revealed religion and at no point does he describe himself as a Christian. See P.I., p. vii; Institutes, pp. 235–6; and The Morality of Stage Plays Seriously Considered, Edinburgh, 1757, p. 5. Even so, the Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen reported that Ferguson, having been ‘(b)red in the tenets of the church of Scotland...was a respectful believer in the truths of revelation. A Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, Vol. II, Edinburgh: Blackie and Son, 1864, p. 201.Google Scholar
  11. 246.
    There is little or no significant orthodox Christian content in Ferguson’s writings except where his philosophy is specifically intended for the education of youth. Kettler, Social and Political Thought of Adam Ferguson, p. 153. But, even in such material, his critique of religious ‘casuistry’ is clearly in evidence. See, for example, Institutes, pp. 235, 164. For the most part, Ferguson either ignores or indirectly criticises revealed and established religion. For example: ‘Under the title of religion we admire and love the conceivable perfections of the supreme Being: But bigotry and superstition may assume the name of religion, and substitute acts of oppression and cruelty towards men for act of duty towards God. We must not, therefore, trust to whatever may bear the name of religion or conscience, or to what may have a temporary vogue in the world for our direction in the paths of a just and manly virtue’. P.II., p. 320. Ferguson’s emphasis. See also P.I., p. vii.. He also refers to the ‘very fatal effects’ which accompany ‘the abuse of religion’. and applauds provisions made in the Twelve Tables to permit ‘every family’ freedom ‘to worship the gods in their own way’. Institutes, p. 216; History, p. 12.Google Scholar
  12. 247.
    Kettler, Social and Political Thought of Adam Ferguson, p. 171.Google Scholar
  13. 248.
    P.I., pp. vii–viii.Google Scholar
  14. 249.
    Essay, pp. 89–90.Google Scholar
  15. 250.
    J. Viner, The Role of Providence in the Social Order, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, p. 13.Google Scholar
  16. 251.
    Ferguson sees these two sources as fully consistent. P.I., p. 312. For further discussion of Newtonian theology see: M.A. Hoskin, ‘Newton, Providence and the Universe of Stars’, Journal of the History of Astronomy, Vol. 8, 1977, pp. 77–101; P. Casini, ‘Newton: The Classical Scholia’, History of Science, Vol. 22, 1984, pp. 1–23; James E. Force, ‘Hume and the Relation of Science to Religion Among Certain Members of the Royal Society’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 45 (4), 1984, pp. 517–53, p. 523; D. Kubrin, ‘Newton and the Cyclical Cosmos: Providence and the Mechanical Philosophy’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 28 (3), 1967, pp. 325–46; J. Gascgoigne, ‘From Bentley to the Victorians: The Rise and Fall of Newtonian Natural Theology’, Science in Context, Vol. 2 (2), 1988, pp. 219–56 and G. W. Trompf, ‘On Newtonian History’, in Stephen Gaukroger, (ed.), The Uses of Antiquity, Amsterdam: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991, pp. 213–49.Google Scholar
  17. 252.
    ‘The will of God’ is ‘declared’ or reflected in ‘the order established in his works’. P.I., pp. 166–7. See also P.I., pp. vii, 312, 338.Google Scholar
  18. 253.
    Raphael and Macfie, ‘Introduction’ to TMS, p. 6. For a discussion of Hutcheson’s influence on Ferguson see Sher, Church and University, p.167 and T.D. Campbell, ‘Francis Hutcheson: “Father of the Scottish Enlightenment”’, in R.H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner, (eds), The Origins and Nature of the Scottish Enlightenment, Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 1982.Google Scholar
  19. 254.
    Willke, Historical Thought of Adam Ferguson, p. 34.Google Scholar
  20. 255.
    Sher, Church and University, pp. 177; pp. 324–8. Ferguson’s combination of Stoic natural religion with orthodox Christianity is not as problematic as it at first appears. According to Jacob Viner “natural theology” was not an innovation. It had been freely accepted in Catholicism from at least the late Middle Ages as a supplement and reinforcement of revealed doctrine. It found early acceptance in Anglicanism’. J. Viner, The Role of Providence, p. 12.Google Scholar
  21. 256.
    Though this term is somewhat imprecise since ‘Deists would embrace the existence and some of the attributes of deity, and often a humanitarian ethic, but held divergent opinions about the soul, immortality and last judgement’. M.A. Stewart, ‘Religion and Rational Theology’, in Alexander Broadie (ed.) The Scottish Enlightenment, Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 33.Google Scholar
  22. 257.
    John Haldane, ‘The Player’s Scourge’, cited in Fagg, Biographical Introduction, p. xxvii. Ferguson’s involvement in the controversy surrounding John Home’s play, Douglas, brought him into open conflict with the Church. Ferguson participated in and attended rehearsals and readings of the play. He also published a pamphlet (The Morality of Stage Plays Seriously Considered) criticising the Presbytery of Edinburgh’s condemnation of plays. Fagg, Biographical Introduction, p. xxviii.Google Scholar
  23. 258.
    P.II., p. 320. See also P.I., pp. 304–5.Google Scholar
  24. 259.
    Fagg, Biographical Introduction, p. xxix. Such causes involved defending Hume and other ‘infidel’ thinkers against attacks from conservative elements within the Church of Scotland as well as writing ‘pamphlets on controversial topics such as Douglas [and] the militia’. According to Richard Sher, ‘[b]y the time of his academic retirement in the mid-17802, Ferguson had acquired a reputation as one of the managers of the Moderate interest in the church’. Sher, Church and University, pp. 71–2, 99, 125.Google Scholar
  25. 260.
    Camic, Experience and Enlightenment, p. 61.Google Scholar
  26. 261.
    Ferguson expresses this intention by quoting beneath his chapter title Milton’s famous passage from Paradise Lost: ‘What in me is dark, Illumine; what is low, raise and support; That, to the height of this great argument, I may assert eternal Providence; And justify the ways of God to men’. P.I., p. 172.Google Scholar
  27. 262.
    P.I., pp. 172–203.Google Scholar
  28. 263.
    P.I., p. 187.Google Scholar
  29. 264.
    Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.42. p. 148. Ferguson makes the identical argument that the follies of rogues and knaves provide better incentive to good conduct than the ‘mild and shining examples’. ‘Of Things That Are or May Be’, Collection of Essays, No. 27 (1), p. 229.Google Scholar
  30. 265.
    Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.44. p. 73.Google Scholar
  31. 266.
    Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.17. p. 51.Google Scholar
  32. 267.
    Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.40. p.73.Google Scholar
  33. 268.
    P.I., p. 168.Google Scholar
  34. 269.
    Institutes, p. 124.Google Scholar
  35. 270.
    For a summary of these arguments see Alan Richardson and John Bowden, (eds), A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, London: SCM Press Ltd, 1983, pp. 37–9.Google Scholar
  36. 271.
    Institutes, p. 117. ‘Who ever doubted that the eye was made to see, the ear to hear, the teeth to grind and the stomach to digest the food and so of innumerable instances which, tho various, are still analogous and argue in the power intelligent invention, boundless continual analogy and the combination of parts to a beneficent and salutary end’. ‘Of Things that Are or May Be’ (Part 1), Collection of Essays, No. 27, p. 220. See also: ‘Of the Intellectual or Conscious Powers’, Collection of Essays, No. 31, p. 266 and passim.Google Scholar
  37. 272.
    P.I., p. 338. Ferguson asserts that the first thing we know about God is ‘that he acts from design and means to obtain an End’. ‘What may be Affirmed or Apprehended of the Supreme Creative Being’, Collection of Essays, No. 2, p. 8.Google Scholar
  38. 273.
    Institutes, p. 122.Google Scholar
  39. 274.
    ‘The succession of powers and productions or cause and effect cannot be eternal. There must have been a power underived or which had nothing prior to itself’. ‘Of the Intellectual or Conscious Powers’, Collection of Essays, No. 31, p. 263. ‘From the first cause all is derived’. ‘Of Cause and Effect, Ends and Means, Order, Combination and Design’, ibid, No. 13, p. 120. Further, ‘[t]he unerring mind does now what it always did, and is incapable of change; because to change would be to deviate from what is best’. P.I., p. 180.Google Scholar
  40. 275.
    Institutes, pp. 114–16.Google Scholar
  41. 276.
    P.I., p. 330–2.Google Scholar
  42. 277.
    Kettler, Social and Political Thought of Adam Ferguson, p. 174–5.Google Scholar
  43. 278.
    It would have been unusual for Ferguson to be an atheist during this time. Deism was far more common. Norman Hampson, The Enlightenment, London: Penguin, 1982, p. 131. In fact, Ferguson likens the atheist to a thief who is intent on undermining the peace of mind of others. ‘Of Cause and Effect, Ends and Means, Order, Combination and Design’, Collection of Essays, No. 13, p. 127. It seems clear that Ferguson’s published beliefs were sincere. It is reported that his last words addressed to his daughters from his deathbed were: ‘There is another world’, Dictionary of National Biography, Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee (eds.), Vol. VI, London: Oxford University Press, 1917. The inscription he chose for his own gravestone was: ‘I have seen the works of God: it is now your turn: do you behold them and rejoice.’ Ferguson expressed a profound piety in his private letters. To his close friend, John Macpherson, he wrote: ‘The Intelligence that Conducts the universe is here present and intimately know[s] what we think and do. May he never be Absent from our thoughts’. Letter to John MacPherson, April 29, 1800, Correspondence, No. 360, II. p. 466.Google Scholar
  44. 279.
    Montesquieu expressed a similar dual attachment in the Laws, 5. 24. 10, pp. 465–6.Google Scholar
  45. 280.
    As opposed to the independent efforts of human agents. According to Kettler this ‘heroic theme...emerged in Ferguson’s writings at least in part as a defence against anti-heroic emphases of Calvinist Christianity’. Kettler, Social and Political Thought of Adam Ferguson, p. 176.Google Scholar
  46. 281.
    This is not really as radical a position as it first appears since, according to Lucien Goldman, during the Enlightenment period ‘[f]eeling oneself a Christian no longer entailed acceptance of all the dogmas established and recognised by the Church. Membership of the Church committed one only to those affirmations and articles of faith that one explicitly recognised oneself’. Lucien Goldman, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973, p. 57. Similarly, Anthony Waterman notes that ‘it is a mistake to imagine that natural theology would have been regarded, in eighteenth century Britain, as in anyway opposed to or even inconsistent with Christianity. A.M.C. Waterman, ‘Economics as Theology: Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations’, Southern Economic Journal, Vol. 68 (4), 2002, pp. 907–21, p. 919.Google Scholar
  47. 282.
    P.I., p. 172.Google Scholar
  48. 283.
    P.I., p. vii. Quoting Marcus Aurelius, Ferguson waxes pantheistic with uncharacteristic abandon: ‘O beautiful order of nature! Whatever thy seasons bring, shall be fruit, neither too early nor too late for me’. P.I., p. 312.Google Scholar
  49. 284.
    P.I., p. vii.Google Scholar
  50. 285.
    P.I., p. 53.Google Scholar
  51. 286.
    P.I., p. 338.Google Scholar
  52. 287.
    Institutes, pp. 8–9; Essay, p. 12.Google Scholar
  53. 288.
    P.I., pp. 173–5; Essay, p. 12.Google Scholar
  54. 289.
    P.I., p. 338.Google Scholar
  55. 290.
    Institutes, p. 117.Google Scholar
  56. 291.
    P.I., p. 153.Google Scholar
  57. 292.
    ‘Of the Principle of Moral Estimation’, Collection of Essays, No. 25, p. 214. Francis Hutcheson also subscribed to teleological arguments, though we can, of course, trace them back to Aristotle and the Stoics. Waszek, Man’s Social Nature, p. 48.Google Scholar
  58. 293.
    Institutes, pp. 114–5.Google Scholar
  59. 294.
    Institutes, p. 116.Google Scholar
  60. 295.
    Institutes, p. 120.Google Scholar
  61. 296.
    Institutes, p. 117.Google Scholar
  62. 297.
    For example, P.I., p. 53.Google Scholar
  63. 298.
    Joseph Owens, ‘Teleology of Nature in Aristotle’, The Monist, Vol. 52, 1968, pp. 158–73, p. 163.Google Scholar
  64. 299.
    Anthony Edel describes the distinction thus: ‘The history of philosophy sometimes divides teleologies into transcendent and immanent. In the former, some purpose is imposed from outside upon the operations of the natural world; in the latter there is a plan or design in some sense within it. Western religious teleology is generally transcendent: God, pre-existing the world, creates it and designs the way of things and creatures. Aristotle’s teleology is not, of course, like that; moreover, his account includes no Creation, but offers a world eternal in its forms. It would thus be classified as an immanent teleology’. A. Edel, Aristotle and His Philosophy, London: Croom Helm, 1982, p. 65. See also Owens, ‘Teleology of Nature in Aristotle’, p. 170.Google Scholar
  65. 300.
    Monistic teleologies, such as Ferguson expounds, conceive whole world plans, highly interdependent and interconnected, whereas pluralistic teleologies such as Aristotle’s, ‘postulate separate systems in the world, each with its own plan; what each system strives to do depends on its nature, but how systems intersect is largely a matter of accident that expresses no single comprehensive plan or nature’. Aristotle’s teleology is also anthropocentric in the sense that he perceives ‘man’ as the highest order of biological existence and that nature is seen to be placed in the service of ‘man’. Edel, Aristotle, pp. 65–6. This is Ferguson’s view also. See, for example, P.II., p. 28.Google Scholar
  66. 301.
    ‘Of the Intellectual or Conscious Powers’, Collection of Essays, No. 31, pp. 266–7.Google Scholar
  67. 302.
    P.II., p. 324. ‘The belief of the existence of God has been universal’ and appears to be endogenous or innate. Institutes, pp. 114–116.Google Scholar
  68. 303.
    Kettler notes, quite fairly, that Ferguson ‘freely used Aristotelian and Stoic arguments with little regard for philosophical niceties’. Social and Political Thought of Adam Ferguson, p. 127.Google Scholar
  69. 304.
    P.II., p. 27.Google Scholar
  70. 305.
    P.I., p. 180.Google Scholar
  71. 306.
    ‘Of the Principle of Moral Estimation’, Collection of Essays, No. 25, p. 214.Google Scholar
  72. 307.
    Kettler, Social and Political Thought of Adam Ferguson, p. 122. Though in fairness to Ferguson, he does show some awareness that this might be a problem. When referring to the ‘error’ of polytheism he notes, critically, that some ‘nations have made up a list of their gods upon a model, taken from the human race, numerous and distinguishable by sex and age, as well as by disposition and rank’. P.I., p. 168.Google Scholar
  73. 308.
    David Hume, ‘Of the Immortality of the Soul’, Essays, passim; Kettler, Social and Political Thought of Adam Ferguson, pp. 122–3.Google Scholar
  74. 309.
    Institutes, pp. 8–9. Kettler, Social and Political Thought of Adam Ferguson pp. 123–4.Google Scholar
  75. 310.
    P.I., pp. 53, 180; Essay, pp. 57, 89–90.Google Scholar
  76. 311.
    The distinction is as follows: ‘General Providence’ refers to God’s action in the original creation of nature. In the beginning God created the material frame of nature and He structured it to function in obedience to the laws of nature which He also created. In contrast to this original creative act of general providence is’ special Providence’ which refers to a particular act of direct divine intervention that cancels or contravenes the ordinary course of natural operations’. J. E. Force, ‘Hume and the Relation of Science to Religion Among Certain Members of the Royal Society’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 45(4), 1984, pp. 517–53, p. 519.Google Scholar
  77. 312.
    See, for example, P.I., pp. 305, 312; History, p. 170.Google Scholar
  78. 313.
    Though teleological explanations can be traced back to Aristotle, the term ‘teleology’ is a modern one, apparently coined in eighteenth-century philosophical Latin to denote the study of final causes in nature. The term was absorbed almost immediately into the modern philosophical vocabulary. It is generally applied to any activity that is purposive or goal directed. Owens, ‘Teleology of Nature in Aristotle’, p.159.Google Scholar
  79. 314.
    Broadie, The Scottish Enlightenment, pp. 57–8.Google Scholar
  80. 315.
    ‘Of Things that Are or May Be’ (Part 1), Collection of Essays, No. 27, p. 221.Google Scholar
  81. 316.
    Essay, p. 120Google Scholar
  82. 317.
    Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, Translated and with an Introduction by William Lovitt, New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1977, p. 8.Google Scholar
  83. 318.
    Edel, Aristotle, p. 64. Ferguson himself employs this typically Aristotelian acorn/oak tree analogy. P.I., p. 188.Google Scholar
  84. 319.
    Essay, pp. 12–13.Google Scholar
  85. 320.
    Institutes, p. 125.Google Scholar
  86. 321.
    Whitney, Primitivism and the Idea of Progress, p. 148. See Institutes, p. 75.Google Scholar
  87. 322.
    D.P. Sailor, ‘Newton’s Debt to Cudworth’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 49(4), 1988, pp. 511–16, p. 511.Google Scholar
  88. 325.
    Roger A. Arnold, ‘Hayek and Institutional Evolution’ The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol. 4(4), 1980, pp. 341–51, p. 341. My emphasis.Google Scholar
  89. 326.
    As Barry observes: ‘What is important about the theory of spontaneous order is that the institutions and practices it investigates reveal well-structured social patterns which appear to be the product of some omniscient designing mind yet which are in reality the spontaneous co-ordinated outcomes of the actions of, possibly, millions of individuals who had no intention of effecting such overall aggregate orders’. Norman Barry, ‘The Tradition of Spontaneous Order’, Literature of Liberty, Vol. 5(2), 1982. pp. 7–58, pp. 8–10. My emphasis. See also Edna Ullmann-Margalit, ‘Invisible Hand Explanations’, Synthese, Vol. 39 (2), 1978, pp. 263–-91, pp. 268–70. For further discussion see Chapter 6.Google Scholar
  90. 327.
    P.I., p. 338.Google Scholar

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