Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Brown, Thomas (1778-1820)

BROWN, THOMAS (1778–1820), metaphysician, was born at the manse of Kilmabreck 9 Jan. 1778. His father, minister of Kilmabreck and Kirkdale, died eighteen months later, and his mother removed to Edinburgh. Thomas was a very precocious child. His biographer asserts, 'upon the most satisfactory evidence,' that when four years old he was found comparing the gospels to see in what respects the narratives differed. In his seventh year he was sent to a school at Camberwell by a maternal uncle, Captain Smith. Thence, in a year, he was moved to Chiswick, and afterwards to schools at Bromley and Kensington. On his removal from Chiswick, the other pupils drew up a round-robin asking for his return. A poem on Charles I, written at Chiswick, was inserted by one of the masters in a magazine. In 1792, on the death of his uncle, he returned to Edinburgh, and was much grieved by the loss of his books at sea. He entered the university at Edinburgh, and studied logic under Dr. Finlayson. In 1793 he spent part of the vacation at Liverpool. Here he made the acquaintance of Dr. Currie, the biographer of Burns, who put into his hands the recently published first volume of Dugald Stewart's ‘Elements.’ Next winter he attended Stewart's lectures, and attracted the professor's notice by submitting to him an acute criticism. If, as Stewart held, memory depends upon voluntary attention, how, asked Brown, do we remember dreams? The same objection had been urged in a letter which Stewart had just received from Prevost of Geneva (1755–1819), afterwards professor at Montauban. (Prevost's letter is given in Stewart's ‘Works,’ ii. 491.) Darwin's ‘Zoonomia’ was at this time attracting attention, and Brown wrote some remarks upon it, which, by Stewart's advice, he communicated to Darwin. A correspondence took place (October 1796 to January 1797), in which Darwin showed some annoyance at the sharp treatment of his theories. The remarks were put together by the boyish critic, and published in 1798. They were highly praised by the critics in the literary circles of Edinburgh. Brown had become intimate with young men of promise. He joined the Literary Society in 1796, and a smaller society, formed by some of the members in 1797, which called itself the Academy of Physics, and included Brougham, Jeffrey, Horner, Sydney Smith, Leyden, and others. It flourished for about three years, and helped to bring together the founders of the ‘Edinburgh Review.’ Brown was one of the first reviewers. He wrote an article upon Kant in the second number, which is at least a proof of courage, as it is founded entirely upon Villiers's French account of Kant. Some editorial interference with an article in the third number led him to withdraw from the review. He never afterwards wrote in a periodical. He began to study law in 1796, but finding that it did not suit his health became a medical student from 1798 to 1803. His thesis upon taking his degree, entitled ‘De Somno,’ is praised for the purity of the Latin, in which language, it is said, he could talk as fluently as in English.

In 1804 he published poems in two volumes, and in the same year took part in a famous controversy. The claims of Leslie to the mathematical chair at Edinburgh had been opposed on the ground that he had spoken favourably of Hume's theory of causation. Brown undertook to prove that Hume's theory did not lead to the sceptical consequences ascribed to it. He published ‘Observations on the Nature and Tendency of the Doctrine of Mr. Hume concerning the Relation of Cause and Effect’ in 1804; a second and enlarged edition of which appeared in 1806; and a third, called ‘An Inquiry into the Relation of Cause and Effect,’ in 1818. In 1806 Brown became a partner of Dr. Gregory. In spite of fair professional prospects, his tastes were still philosophical. Attempts had been made in 1799 to obtain his appointment to the chair of rhetoric, and in 1808 to the chair of logic. The tory and church interest was too strong for him. Dugald Stewart's health was now declining, and he obtained the assistance of Brown in lecturing the moral philosophy class in the winter of 1808–9. In the next winter Brown acted for a longer time as Stewart's substitute. His lectures attracted the attendance of professors as well as students, and a committee was formed upon Stewart's reappearance to congratulate him and express admiration for his assistant. In the following May (1810), after an earnest canvass by Stewart himself, and many letters from eminent men, Brown was elected by the town council as Stewart's colleague. He held this position for the rest of his life. His lectures were written at high pressure. He began to write each on the evening before its delivery, sat up late—several times all night in the first winter—and did not finish till the clock struck twelve, the hour of lecturing. Three volumes were thus written in his first session, and the fourth in the second. He lived quietly with his mother and sisters, hospitably entertaining visitors to Edinburgh. His chief amusement was walking, and he had a passion for hill climbing. He also found time to compose a quantity of indifferent poetry, which he alone preferred to his philosophy. In 1814 he finished and published anonymously his ‘Paradise of Coquettes,’ begun six years before. In 1815 he published the ‘Wanderer in Norway,’ an elaboration of some verses in his first volumes, suggested by Mary Wollstonecraft's ‘Letters from Norway.’ In 1816 he published the ‘Warfiend,’ in 1817 the ‘Bower of Spring,’ in 1818 ‘Agnes,’ and in 1819 ‘Emily.’ A collected edition in 1820, in four volumes, includes these and a second edition of a poem called the ‘Renovation of India,’ originally written for a college prize, and published when, after three years, no award was made. He was much grieved by the death, in 1817, of his mother, to whom he had been most tenderly attached. In 1819 he began to prepare a text-book of his lectures. He fell ill, and upon meeting his class broke down in giving a lecture (No. 36 in the collected edition), which always affected him. He never lectured again. His health was injured by worry about providing a substitute, and afterwards by severe weather. His physicians recommended a voyage to London. He died at Brompton on 2 April 1820. He had left to his friend and biographer. Dr. Welsh, the superintendence of the last sheets of his text-book, called the 'Physiology of the Human Mind,' which was already in the press; and his lectures were published under the care of John Stewart (who had undertaken to supply his place on his final breakdown), and on Stewart's death of the Rev. E. Milroy.

Brown was a man of simple habits and strong domestic affections. He read all his works before publication to his mother and sisters. He was specially fond of animals; he held that some of them had a moral sense and immortal souls, and meant to write a treatise on our duties to them. He was a patriotic Scotchman, and a strong liberal, and credited, though not accurately, with republicanism. Except in the period of first preparing his lectures, he confined his hours of composition to the morning, after breakfast, and the evening from seven till ten or eleven. His knowledge of modern languages was considerable, and his memory extraordinary; he could remember twenty or thirty lines of French or Italian after a single reading. Brown's poetry, modelled chiefly upon Pope and Akenside, never made much impression. His lectures excited the utmost enthusiasm amongst the students; and his fame lasted till the rise of a new school, culminating about 1830 to 1836. A 19th edition of his lectures appeared in 1851. The inquiry into the relation of cause and effect is one of the most vigorous statements of the doctrine first made prominent by Hume, and since maintained by the Mills. Like them. Brown reduces causation to invariable sequence, and especially labours the point that 'power' is a word expressive of nothing else. He denies the distinction between 'physical' and 'efficient' causes. He differs, however, from Hume (upon whose writings he makes some interesting criticisms) in inferring that we have an intuitive conception, underlying all experience, that the same antecedents will produce the same consequences. This takes the place of Hume's 'custom,' and enables Brown to avoid Hume's theological scepticism. He infers God as the cause of an orderly universe. The lectures, hurriedly written, are injured by the sentimental rhetoric and frequent quotations from Akenside, by which they are overlaid and expanded. This is due probably to haste and to the desire to catch a youthful audience. They show, however, remarkable powers of psychological analysis. The most valuable teaching is considered to be the exposition (lectures 22 to 27) of the part played by touch and the muscular sense in revealing an external world. Professor Bain's writings upon the same topic partly embody Brown s theories. Hamilton (Reid's Works, p. 868) accuses Brown of borrowing in this direction from Condillac and De Tracy. His philosophy, as Dr. M'Cosh says, is a combination of Reid and Stewart with the French sensationalists. A peculiarity of Brown is, that he suppresses the will, as Reid had suppressed the feelings in the more generally accepted classification of intellect, will, and feeling. By the subordination of the will to desire, Hamilton (ib. p. 531) says that he virtually abolished all freedom, responsibility, and morality. Hamilton everywhere shows a strong dislike to Brown, whose influence was supplanted by his own. In an article in the 'Edinburgh Review' (October 1830), reprinted in his 'Dissertations,' he accuses Brown of totally misunderstanding the history of previous theories of perception, and of grossly misrepresenting Reid. Brown speaks with some severity of Reid, and Stewart had protested against this, and condemned the general hastiness of Brown's work in a note to the third volume of his 'Elements' (published in 1826) (Stewart's Works, iv. 377). He had been unconscious of his colleague's sentiments till the publication of the lectures in Welsh's 'Life.' Hamilton's dislike is obvious, and his charges of plagiarism seem to be unfair as against lectures intended for learners, and published after the author's death, and without his explanations. Whatever Brown's originality, he was the last and a very vigorous representative of the Scotch school, modified by French influence, but not affected by the German philosophy, which, under the influence of Hamilton and his followers, has since so deeply affected philosophical speculation in Scotland.

[Welsh's Account of the Life and Writings, &c., 1825 (an abridgment is prefixed to the later editions of the lectures); M'Cosh's Scottish Philosophy, pp. 317-37.]

L. S.