Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Stirling, James Hutchison
STIRLING, JAMES HUTCHISON (1820–1909), Scottish philosopher, born in Glasgow on 22 June 1820, was youngest of the six children of William Stirling, a Glasgow manufacturer, who was a man of intellectual ability, a student more especially of mathematics. His mother, Elizabeth Christie, died while he was still a child. Three brothers died young. James Stirling was educated first at Young's Academy, Glasgow, and then for nine successive sessions (1833–42) at Glasgow University, where he attended the classes in the faculties of arts and medicine, and took a high place in mathematics and classics. He became M.R.C.S. Edinburgh in July 1842, and F.R.C.S. in 1860. In 1843 he was appointed assistant to a medical practitioner at Pontypool in Monmouthshire, and in 1846 he was made surgeon to the Hirwain iron-works. Meanwhile he interested himself in literature, and as early as 1845 contributed to 'Douglas Jerrold's Magazine.' After his father's death in 1851 Stirling gave up medical practice, and, inheriting a competency, took no other professional post. He travelled in France and Germany, devoting himself mainly to the study of German philosophy. Stirling's first and most important book was 'The Secret of Hegel, being the Hegehan System in Origin, Principle, Form and Matter' (2 vols. 1865; 2nd edit. 1898). The book may be said to have revealed for the first time to the English public the significance and import of Hegel's idealistic philosophy. Stirling's style of writing, trenchant and forceful as that of Carlyle, from whom he learned much, emphasised the lessons he set himself to teach. Few philosophical books have exerted an equal influence on the trend of thought in younger students, and to it and Stirling's succeeding works may be ascribed in great measure the rise of the school of idealism which has flourished of late years, more especially in the Scottish universities. The 'Secret' was succeeded in 1865 by an ’Analysis of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy,' a forcible attack on Hamilton's philosophy of perception; but the point of view differs from that of Mill's famous onslaught. In 1867 was published Stirling's translation with annotations of Schwegler' 'History of Philosophy,' which has gone through fourteen editions and still holds its place as a standard text-book. The next of Stirling's works, 'As Regards Protoplasm' (1869; new edit. 1872), was a refutation, by means of reasoning based on physiological considerations, of Huxley's theory 'that there is one kind of matter 'named Protoplasm' common to all living beings.' Then came 'Lectures on the Philosophy of Law,' delivered in Edinburgh in 1871 and afterwards republished, which contain an exposition of Hegelianism in short form; and finally, in 1881, his 'Text-book to Kant,' a scholarly exposition and faithful reproduction of the 'Critique of Pure Reason' (which is translated), and of Kantian doctrines generally, with a biographical sketch of Kant. A masterpiece of criticism and interpretation, Stirling's 'Text-book' resolves many difficulties which seemed to former critics well-nigh insoluble, and shows how Hegel's philosophy originates in the Kantian system, from which it was a natural and necessary development, and how the English philosopher Hume, who had pro-pounded the questions Kant set himself to answer, stands in relationship to German philosophy.
Stirling was appointed Gifford lecturer at Edinburgh (1889-90), and his lectures 'Philosophy and Theology' were published there in 1890. He was made hon. LL.D. of the University of Edinburgh in 1867 and of Glasgow in 1901; he was elected a foreign member of the Philosophical Society of Berlin in 1871. In 1889 he was granted a civil list pension of 50l, Meanwhile he wrote much in the 'Fortnightly Review,' 'Macmillan's Magazine,' and 'Mind,' as well as in American periodicals. His themes included materialism, philosophy in the poets, and nationalisation of the land; in 'Community of Property' (1885) he sought to refute the views of Henry George.
Stirling lived the ideal life of a philosopher, devoting all his time and talents to special studies. He died at Edinburgh on 19 March 1909, and was buried at Warriston cemetery there. He married in 1847 Jane Hunter Mair, and had two sons and five daughters. His daughter Amelia has written several historical books and was joint translator of 'Spinoza's Ethic' with Mr. Hale White; another, Florence, was for three successive years the Scottish lady chess champion.
Besides the books already cited, Stirling also published:
- 'Jerrold, Tennyson and Macaulay, with other Critical Essays,' Edinburgh, 1868.
- 'Burns in Drama, together with Saved Leaves,' Edinburgh, 1878, a collection of literary writings.
- 'Darwinianism: Workmen and Work,' Edinburgh, 1894, an acute criticism of the Darwinian theory of evolution.
- 'What is Thought? ' Edinburgh, 1900.
- 'The Categories,' Edinburgh, 1903; 2nd edit. 1907; an appendix to the former book, both further elucidating the Hegelian position.
A painted portrait by Stirling's daughter Florence is in the possession of the family. There is also a black-and-white drawing, of which a replica is in the philosophy classroom of St. Andrews University.
[A biography of Stirling, by his daughter Amelia, is in course of publication.]