Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Robertson, George Croom

ROBERTSON, GEORGE CROOM (1842–1892), philosopher, sixth child of Charles Robertson, ironmonger, by his wife, Marjorie Laing, was born at Aberdeen on 10 March 1842. He was a delicate and precocious child. After some elementary teaching he was sent to the grammar school at the age of eleven, and when fifteen won a bursary at Marischal College. He entered as a student in November 1857, and at the end of his first three sessions was first in Greek. In the fourth session he studied moral philosophy. He took his M.A. degree in 1861 ‘with the highest honours,’ being especially distinguished in classics and philosophy. He attended the logic lectures of Professor Bain, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. In October 1861 he gained one of the newly founded Ferguson scholarships of 100l. a year for two years, his scholarship being awarded for ‘classics and mental philosophy’ combined. This enabled him to extend his studies. He spent the winter of 1861–2 in attendance upon lectures at University College, London. In July 1862 he went to Heidelberg, where he mastered German, and spent the winter at Berlin, where he heard Trendelenburg and other professors, and especially devoted himself to Kant. The next summer was spent partly at Göttingen and partly in Paris. He returned to Aberdeen, where he tried unsuccessfully for an examinership in philosophy, and stayed at home, devoting himself to philosophical reading. He helped Professor Bain in the revision of some of his books. In September 1864 he was appointed teaching assistant to Professor Geddes, and in that capacity lectured upon Greek during the two following sessions. In December 1866 Robertson was elected to the chair of mental philosophy and logic in University College, London. His most formidable opponent was Dr. James Martineau, who was rejected chiefly through the influence of George Grote, on the ground of the incompatibility of the professorship with any kind of clerical position. The decision led to some angry controversy, but produced no ill feeling between the candidates (a full account of the facts was given by Robertson in his life of George Grote in this dictionary). Robertson began his lectures in January 1867, and devoted himself unreservedly to his work as long as strength lasted. They involved much labour and a careful study of original authorities, and he soon won the confidence of his colleagues and the affection of a large number of pupils. Soon after his appointment he undertook a work upon Hobbes; he examined the manuscripts at Chatsworth, and, besides other investigations, revived his mathematical knowledge in order to follow some of Hobbes's controversies. Failing health prevented the completion of a book which would have included a survey of the works of Hobbes's philosophical contemporaries. Part of his results were embodied in his admirable monograph upon Hobbes in Blackwood's ‘Philosophical Classics,’ 1886.

In 1872 Robertson married Caroline Anna, daughter of Sir Charles John Crompton [q. v.], justice of the queen's bench. The marriage was of the happiest, and Mrs. Robertson entirely sympathised with her husband's views. From 1870 to 1876 he was on the committee of the ‘National Society for Women's Suffrage,’ and in active correspondence with J. S. Mill, the president, until Mill's death in 1873. In later years he took no active part in the movement. The admission of female students to lectures at University College was warmly and successfully supported by him. Mrs. Robertson afterwards took a considerable share, with her husband's advice, in the management of the ladies' college at Girton.

In January 1876 appeared the first number of ‘Mind,’ a title suggested by himself for the only English journal devoted to philosophy. The publishing expenses were undertaken by Professor Bain, on condition that Robertson should be the sole editor. The labour of collecting and revising contributions, and of providing full accounts of all current philosophical literature, was very considerable, and Robertson discharged a troublesome duty with the most punctilious accuracy. His high standard of thoroughness made him a comparatively slow worker. In 1880 appeared the first symptoms of a disease which involved severe suffering. He submitted to strict regimen, and was helped by the entire devotion of his wife. Surgical operations became necessary, and in the winter of 1883–1884 he was obliged to obtain assistance in lecturing. Repeated attacks in following years induced him to offer his resignation in 1888. The council refused to accept it until 7 May 1892, when continuance had become manifestly impossible. His wife had been suffering from a fatal disease for some time, and died, after making every possible arrangement for her husband's future, on 29 May. Robertson was attempting to take up some of his old work, but was much weakened, and a slight chill was too much for his remaining strength. He died on 20 Sept. 1892. His friends were profoundly impressed by the heroic cheerfulness with which he bore the sufferings and anxieties of his later years, and carried on his work to the last moment at which it was possible. Though his health prevented him from finishing any considerable work, his influence in promoting philosophical studies in England, both by his lectures and his editorial labours, was probably unsurpassed by that of any contemporary. In philosophy his affinities were chiefly with the school represented by the Mills and Professor Bain; but he was widely acquainted with philosophical literature of all schools, and singularly impartial and cautious in his judgment.

Robertson wrote some articles in reviews, gave a few popular lectures, and contributed to the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ and to this dictionary. Most of these and his chief articles in ‘Mind’ were collected as ‘Philosophical Remains,’ 1894, edited by Professor Bain and Mr. T. Whittaker, Robertson's assistant in the editorship of ‘Mind.’ A memoir by Professor Bain is prefixed. Two volumes of his lectures (1870–92), edited by Mrs. Rhys Davids, were published in 1896.

[Memoir by Prof. Bain, as above; personal knowledge.]

L. S.