Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Baxter, Andrew

BAXTER, ANDREW (1686–1750), philosophical writer, was born at Aberdeen in 1686 or 1687, and educated at King's College, Aberdeen. His father was a merchant, but Baxter appears to have maintained himself chiefly by acting as tutor to noblemen's sons. He married in 1724 Alice McBane, daughter of a Berwickshire clergyman. In the spring of 1741 he went with two pupils, Mr. Hay of Drummelgier, and Lord Blantyre, to Utrecht, and resided there, making occasional excursions to Spa, Cleves, and other places, until 1747, when he returned to Scotland, and rejoined his wife and family. He spent the remainder of his life at Whittingham, near Edinburgh, where he helped to look after the affairs of his old pupil, Mr. Hay. In one of his visits to Spa, Baxter had accidentally met John Wilkes, then travelling with a tutor, and was fascinated by the young man, then under 20. A correspondence between them was maintained during the rest of Baxter's life. ‘My first desire,’ he says in a letter to his ‘dearest Mr. Wilkes’ of April 1749, ‘is to serve virtue and religion; my second and ardent wish to testify my respect to Mr. Wilkes.’ Baxter composed a dialogue called ‘Histor,’ from the chief interlocutor, who was intended to represent Wilkes, and whom Baxter laboured to make a worthy representative of the original in wit and vivacity. This dialogue defended Newton and Clarke against Leibnitz, and was offered to Millar in 1747 for publication; but rejected on the ground that in the judgment of three independent readers the discussion had lost its interest. Baxter's health broke down after his return to Scotland, and in January 1750 he wrote a touching letter to Wilkes, announcing the hopelessness of his case. Wilkes printed this letter in 1753 and distributed copies amongst his friends. Baxter died on 23 April 1750, and was buried at Whittingham in Mr. Hay's family vault. A posthumous work, finished just before his death, appeared in the same year, with a dedication to Wilkes, describing it as the substance of a conversation which they had held in the ‘Capuchine's garden at Spaw in the summer of 1745.’ His widow died in 1760, and was buried in Linlithgow. He left a son Alexander, who gave information for the life in the ‘Biographia Britannica,’ and three daughters. He is described as very studious, often reading through the night; a cheerful and modest companion, very popular with young men, and elegant, though severely economical. Offers of preferment failed to induce him to take orders in the church of England.

Baxter's works are as follows: ‘Matho, sive Cosmotheoria Puerilis,’ an exposition in Latin of the first principles of astronomy drawn up for the use of his pupils, which was afterwards translated by the author; the first English edition, in two volumes, appearing in 1740, the second in 1745, and a third, in which a new dialogue was substituted for an erroneous one, in 1765. In this work Baxter gives the argument which forms the subject of his chief work, the ‘Enquiry into the Nature of the Human Soul.’ The first edition is not dated, but appeared in October 1733 (Gent. Mag. ‘Register of Books’); the second appeared in 1737, and the third in 1745. An ‘Appendix to the first part of the Enquiry’ appeared in 1750, and is chiefly occupied with a consideration of some statements in Maclaurin's ‘Account of Sir I. Newton's Philosophical Discoveries.’ Besides these a book called ‘The Evidence of Reason in Proof of the Immortality of the Soul’ was published from his manuscripts by Dr. Duncan in 1779.

Baxter's argument is that matter is essentially inert, and that therefore all the changes in matter imply the constant action of an immaterial principle; and, consequently, the universal superintendence of a divine power. He is a tedious and lengthy, though a sincere and painstaking reasoner. Toland, in his ‘Letters to Serena’ (1704), had argued that motion was essential to matter, a doctrine which was generally regarded as atheistic. Baxter's chief polemic, however, is directed against Locke. The second volume gives the first considerable criticism of Berkeley, who had based his argument for theism upon the denial that matter exists; whereas Baxter considers the existence of matter essential to the proof of theism. He falls, however, into the vulgar misconception of Berkeley's theories. He argues that dreams are caused by the action of spiritual beings, a fancy which, according to Warburton, caused his ‘noble demonstration’ to be neglected (Letters from an Eminent Prelate, p. 283). Baxter may be classed as belonging to the school of Clarke, and is more than once mentioned with respect by his personal friend Warburton, but has now only an historical interest. It may be remarked that he makes no reference to his countryman and contemporary Hume.

[Life in Biographia Britannica (on information from his son); Letters to Wilkes in Additional MSS. 30867; McCosh's Scottish Philosophy, pp. 42–49.]

L. S.