Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ferrier, James Frederick
FERRIER, JAMES FREDERICK (1808–1864), metaphysician, born in Edinburgh 16 June 1808, was the son of John Ferrier, writer to the signet. His mother was the sister of John Wilson (‘Christopher North’), and his father's sister was Susan Edmonstone Ferrier [q. v.] James Frederick Ferrier was educated by the Rev. H. Duncan, at the manse of Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire; and afterwards at the Edinburgh High School, and under Dr. Charles Parr Burney, son of Dr. Charles Burney (1757–1817) [q. v.], at Greenwich. He was at the university of Edinburgh in the sessions 1825–6 and 1826–7, and then became a fellow-commoner of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he graduated B.A. in 1831. He formed in the same year the acquaintance of Sir William Hamilton, whose influence upon him was very great, and for whose personal character and services to speculation he expresses the highest reverence. For years together he was almost daily in Hamilton's company for hours (Remains, i. 488). In 1832 he became an advocate, but apparently never practised. His metaphysical tastes, stimulated by Hamilton's influence, led him to spend some months at Heidelberg in 1834, in order to study German philosophy. He was on very intimate terms with his aunt, Miss Ferrier, and his uncle, John Wilson, and in 1837 married his cousin, Margaret Anne, eldest daughter of John Wilson. He became a contributor to ‘Blackwood's Magazine.’ He there wrote a remarkable article upon Coleridge's plagiarisms in 1840. His first metaphysical publication was a series of papers, reprinted in his ‘Remains,’ called ‘An Introduction to the Philosophy of Consciousness,’ in ‘Blackwood's Magazine’ for 1838 and 1839.
In 1842 he was appointed professor of civil history in the university of Edinburgh; and in 1844–5 he lectured as Sir W. Hamilton's substitute. In 1845 he was elected professor of moral philosophy and political economy at St. Andrews. He was a candidate for the professorship of moral philosophy, resigned by Wilson in 1852, and for the professorship of logic and metaphysics vacated by Hamilton's death in 1856; but he was unsuccessful on both occasions, and continued at St. Andrews until his death. His chief work, the ‘Institutes of Metaphysic,’ was published in 1854. The theory which it upholds had been already expounded to his class. It reached a second edition in 1856. In the same year he replied to his critics in a vigorous pamphlet called ‘Scottish Philosophy, the Old and New,’ which, with certain omissions, is published as an ‘Appendix to the Institutes’ in his ‘Remains.’ He thought that the misunderstandings of his previous exposition had told against his candidature for the chair of metaphysics. Ferrier devoted himself to his professorial duties at St. Andrews; wrote and carefully rewrote his lectures, and excited the devoted sympathy of his pupils. He lived chiefly in his study, and could seldom be persuaded to leave St. Andrews even for a brief excursion. An attack of angina pectoris in November 1861 weakened him permanently, though he continued to labour, and gave lectures in his own house. Renewed attacks followed in 1863, and he died at St. Andrews 11 June 1864. He had five children: Jane Margaret (Mrs. Rhoades), Susan (widow of Sir Alexander Grant [q. v.]), Elizabeth Anne, John, and James Walter (deceased).
Ferrier is described by his friends and colleagues as a man of singular personal charm. A manner of much dignity was combined with fine literary taste, wide culture, and thorough gentleness and kindness of heart. He was a man of finely strung nerves, and could be combative in defence of his opinions, but of a tolerant and chivalrous nature. His style is admirably clear and direct. He was a keen metaphysician, and comparatively indifferent to ethical and other applications of his doctrine. His whole aim was to establish his theory of knowing and being. He says that his ‘philosophy is Scottish to the very core.’ He was well acquainted with Spinoza, Kant, and the later German philosophy, and greatly admired Hegel; but he differed radically from the applications made by his friend Sir William Hamilton. He was profoundly influenced by Berkeley, and his theory seems to be a development of Berkeley in the light of later discussions. In a letter to De Quincey (Remains, i. 481–5) he sums up his teaching by saying that the ‘only knowable’ is object plus subject; that ‘the mind by its very law and nature must know the thing … along with itself knowing it;’ that our ignorance of ‘matter per se’ does not represent a limitation, but a perfection of our cognitive faculties; and that the only knowable is either that which we know or ‘object plus subject,’ or that which we are ignorant of, which must again be ‘object plus subject.’ Though he has had few followers, he certainly showed remarkable vigour and independence of thought.
His ‘Lectures on Greek Philosophy and other Philosophical Remains,’ in 2 vols., were edited in 1866 by his son-in-law, Sir Alexander Grant, and Professor Lushington. The second volume contains philosophical papers from ‘Blackwood's Magazine.’ His philosophical works, in 3 vols., including the above, were published in 1875. Ferrier contributed some lives to the ‘Imperial Dictionary of Biography,’ some of which are used in the ‘Remains.’
[Life prefixed to Lectures, &c., as above. A good description by Mr. Skelton is in Fraser's Magazine for July 1864.]