Open main menu

McCOSH, JAMES (1811–1894), philosopher, only son of Andrew McCosh, farmer, of Carskoech, Ayrshire, by Jean, daughter of James Carson, farmer, of the same county, was born on 1 April 1811. Of covenanting ancestry, he was brought up religiously and was early devoted to the kirk. He was educated at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and in 1834 gained the M.A. degree at Edinburgh by an essay on the Stoic philosophy, which was highly commended by Sir William Hamilton. He studied theology under Dr. Chalmers, and, having been licensed by the presbytery of Ayrshire, officiated successively at Arbroath, 1835-8, and Brechin, 1838-50. While at the latter place he became a convert to 'free kirk' principles, and took an active part in organising the secession. Meanwhile, however, he was busy with natural theology, and the publication in 1850 of his first important work, 'The Method of the Divine Government, Physical and Moral' (Edinburgh, 8vo; last edition, New York, 1874), proved the turning-point in his career. It was read and greatly admired by the Earl of Clarendon, then lord-lieutenant of Ireland, and led to McCosh's appointment to the chair of logic and metaphysics in Queen's College, Belfast (1861). In 1860 appeared his 'Intuitions of the Mind inductively investigated,' London, 8vo (last edition, New York, 1872), in which he attempted to meet the prevalent empiricism by a careful survey of the entire domain of what he conceived to be axiomatic truth. It was followed by 'An Examination of Mr. J. S. Mill's Philosophy: being a Defence of Fundamental Truth,' London, 1860, 8vo (last edition, New York, 1880)— a work called forth by Mill's 'Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy' (1865). Mill honoured his critic with a few strictures in his third edition, to which McCosh rejoined in a volume entitled 'Philosophical Papers,' London, 1868 (New York, 1869), which also included an 'Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Logic' and an essay on the 'Present State of Moral Philosophy in Britain.'

McCosh resigned his post at Belfast on being elected in 1868 to the presidency of Princeton College, New Jersey, with which office was associated the chair of philosophy in that seminary. He administered the affairs of the college with eminent success for twenty years, during which period he published many philosophical works.

McCosh resigned the presidency of Princeton College in 1888, but retained the chair of philosophy until his death on 16 Nov. 1894. He was LL.D. of the universities of Aberdeen (1850) and Harvard (1868), also D.Litt. of Queen's College, Belfast, and D.D. He married in 1845 a daughter of Alexander Guthrie, M.D., brother of Dr. Thomas Guthrie [q.v.] Princeton College contains his statue, set there by his admirers in 1888. (For portraits see his 'Life' by Sloane, cited infra.)

McCosh is said to have been an effective lecturer and preacher, and his simplicity and perspicuity of style render this extremely probable. His philosophy, however, had never an appreciable influence on English thought. To the defects of the Scottish school he was by no means blind, but his early training had included no systematic study of transcendentalism, and a visit to Germany in 1858 led to no result. It may even be doubted whether he had apprehended the earlier forms of idealism. At any rate his polemical works evince no adequate appreciation of the positions which he attacked, and his own 'intuitional' theory is a mere ignoratio elenchi.

McCosh was joint author with Dr. Dickie of 'Typical Forms and Special Ends in Creation,' Edinburgh, 1855 ; London, 1862 (last edition, New York, 1880). He was also author of the following works : 1. 'The Supernatural in relation to the Natural,' Cambridge, Belfast, and New York, 1862, 8vo. 2. 'Supplement' to Dugald Stewart's 'Outlines of Moral Philosophy,' 1865. 3. 'The Laws of Discursive Thought,' London and New York, 1870, 12mo (last edition, New York, 1890). 4. 'Christianity and Positivism,' London and New York, 1871, 8vo (last edition, New York, 1875). 5. 'The Scottish Philosophy: Biographical, Expository, Critical; from Hutcheson to Hamilton,' London, 1874, 8vo (last edition, New York, 1880). 6. 'Ideas in Nature overlooked by Dr. Tyndall,' New York, 1875, 12mo. 7. 'The Development Hypothesis: is it Sufficient?' New York, 1876, 12mo. 8. 'The Emotions,' London and New York, 1880, 12mo. 9. 'The Conflicts of the Age' (from the 'North American Review'), New York, 1881, 8vo. 10. 'Psychology. The Cognitive Powers,' London and New York, 1886, 8vo (last edition, New York, 1891). 11. 'Psychology. The Motive Powers : Emotions, Conscience, Will,' London and New York, 1887, 8vo. 12. 'Realistic Philosophy defended in a Philosophic Series,' London and New York, 1887, 2 vols. 8vo (a collective issue of several dissertations published between the years 1882 and 1885). 13. 'The Religious Aspect of Evolution. The Bedell Lectures for 1887,' New York, 1888, 12mo (enlarged edition, 1890). 14. 'First and Fundamental Truths,' London and New York, 1889, 12mo. 15. 'The Tests of various Kinds of Truths' (Merrick Lectures), New York and Cincinnati, 1889, 1891, 12mo. 16. 'The Prevailing Types of Philosophy: Can they reach Reality logically?' New York, 1890, 12mo. 17. 'Our Moral Nature,' New York, 1892, 12mo (see also Dulles, McCosh Bibliography, which gives a complete catalogue of his multifarious contributions to periodical literature, articles in the 'Schaff-Herzog Encyclopædia of Religious Knowledge,' pamphlets, and other fugitive pieces).

[Sloane's Life of James McCosh, 1896; Irving's Book of Scotsmen; Eclectic Magazine, July 1871; Appleton's Journ. 8 March 1873; Men and Women of the Time, 1891; Scotsman, 19 Nov. 1894; Ann. Reg. 1894, ii. 209.]

J. M. R.