Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Adamson, Robert
ADAMSON, ROBERT (1852–1902), philosopher, born at Edinburgh on 19 Jan. 1852, was fifth of the six children of Robert Adamson and Mary Agnes Buist. The father was a writer (i.e. solicitor) in Dunbar and afterwards at Coldstream, but had removed with his family to Edinburgh before the birth of his son Robert, and died when the latter was three years old. The boy passed from Daniel Stewart's Hospital, Edinburgh, to Edinburgh University in November 1866, and after obtaining first prizes in metaphysics and in English literature, graduated, in 1871, with first-class honours in philosophy and with a scholarship awarded to the best graduate in that subject. He spent the summer of 1871 at Heidelberg, and acted as assistant in the following winter to Henry Calderwood [q. v. Suppl. I], professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh, and in 1872-4 to A. Campbell Fraser, professor of logic and metaphysics. During these years he read omnivorously in the Signet library and elsewhere, and gained other post-graduate scholarships or fellowships, including the Ferguson scholarship and the Shaw fellowship, both open to graduates of any Scottish university. In 1874 he was appointed additional examiner in philosophy in the university, and joined the editorial staff of the 'Encyclopædia Britannica' (9th edition). To the third and fourth volumes of that work he contributed a large number of articles on subjects of general literature, and in the third volume began a series of important philosophical articles. The article on Francis Bacon (which James Spedding [q. v.] had originally undertaken and had relinquished) first gave public proof of Adamson's powers as a philosophical critic and historian. There followed biographies of Hume, Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, and the very learned article on Logic.
In the summer of 1876 Adamson was appointed professor of philosophy and political economy at Owens College, Manchester, in succession to W. Stanley Jevons [q. v.] After six years he was relieved of the work of lecturing in economics; but he greatly extended the philosophical teaching, especially after 1880, when the creation of the Victoria University gave him freedom to plan the work in accordance with his own views. He was made hon. LL.D. of Glasgow in 1883.
In 1893 he was appointed by the crown to the chair of logic in the university of Aberdeen. He removed to Glasgow in 1895 on his election to the professorship of logic and rhetoric there. Between 1885 and 1901 he acted on six occasions as examiner for the moral science tripos at Cambridge. For five years (1887-91) tie was one of the examiners in mental and moral science in the University of London. He was also the first external examiner in philosophy to the newly founded University of Wales (1896-9). On 5 Feb. 1902 died of enteric fever at Glasgow; his body was cremated at the Western Necropolis. In 1881 he married Margaret, daughter of David Duncan, a Manchester merchant, who survived him with two sons and four daughters.
Adamson took an active part in academic business. At Manchester he supported warmly the admission of women students to college and university on equal terms with men; he threw himself zealously into the movement for an independent university, and when the Victoria University was created in 1880 he took a prominent part in its organisation. He acted as temporary registrar, was first secretary and afterwards chairman of the new board of studies, and gave important assistance to the institution of the university department for training elementary teachers. At Glasgow he served on the court as well as on the senatus, and took a leading part in the early stages of the movement which afterwards resulted in substituting a three-term system for the unbroken session of the Scottish universities. He was also a keen politician, and gave active support to the advanced liberal party.
Adamson's literary activity, which was unusually great in youthful manhood, afterwards diminished, largely owing to the demands of lecturing work and academic business, and partly at any rate to a gradual change in his philosophical views. But his lectures to his students gave the results of his original thinking. The stand-point adopted in his earlier work was idealistic, and akin to the prevalent neo-Hegelianism. But he found increasing difficulties in working out a coherent interpretation of reality on these lines, and in adapting to such an interpretation the knowledge of nature, mind and history arrived at by modern science. In his later thinking his attitude to idealism changed, and he aimed at a constructive philosophy from a point of view which he did not refuse to describe as naturalism or realism. By this term, however, he did not mean that the external mechanism of things in space and time was equivalent to the sum-total of reality, but rather that truth in philosophy is to be reached by turning from abstract conceptions to concrete experience. Mind has indeed come into being, but it is not, on that account, less essential than, or inferior to, nature; each is a partial manifestation of reality. An outline of a theory of knowledge on these lines is given in the concluding part of his posthumously published lectures on 'Modern Philosophy'; but this theory was never worked out by him in detail, nor subjected to the same thorough criticism as idealistic philosophies received at his hands. Both in his earlier and in his later period his own views are developed by means of a critical study of the history of thought. Following the biological analogy of 'recapitulation' he found in the history of philosophy a treatment, only more elaborate and leisurely, of the same questions as those which face the individual inquirer. In general his work is distinguished by extensive and exact learning, by keen perception of the essential points in a problem, by great power of clear and sustained reasoning, by complete impartiality, and by rigid exclusion of metaphor and the imaginative factor.
- 'Roger Bacon: the philosophy of science in the middle ages (an introductory address),' Manchester, 1876.
- 'On the Philosophy of Kant' (Shaw Fellowship Lectures, 1879), Edinburgh, 1879 (translated into German by Professor C. Schaarschmidt, 'unter Mitwirkung des Verfassers,' Leipzig, 1880).
- 'Fichte' (Philosophical Classics for English Readers), Edinburgh, 1881.
After his death there appeared:
- 'The Development of Modern Philosophy, with other Lectures and Essays,' ed. by W. R. Sorley, 2 vols., Edinburgh, 1903 (with complete bibliography).
- 'The Development of Greek Philosophy,' ed. by W. R. Sorley and R. P. Hardie, Edinburgh, 1908.
- 'A Short History of Logic,' ed. by W. R. Sorley, Edinburgh, 1911.
A medallion of Adamson, executed in 1903 by Mr. Gilbert Bayes, was presented by old students and other friends to the University of Glasgow in February 1904. Later in the same year, a replica of this medallion was presented by another body of subscribers to the University of Manchester, and the Adamson Lecture there was founded in his memory; at the same time his philosophical books, numbering about 4387 volumes, were presented to the Manchester University by Mrs. Adamson (see Manchester Guardian, 4 June 1904).
[Memorial introduction prefixed to Development of Modern Philosophy, 1903; Prof. (Sir) Henry Jones in Mind, July 1902; private information. For an account of his philosophy see Prof. G. Dawes Hicks, in Mind, January 1904, and Ueberweg-Heinze, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie, 10th edit. 1909, part iv. pp. 535-7.]