Sue Young Histories

William Hamilton 9th Baronet 1788 – 1856

December 23, 2009

William Hamilton 9th Baronet 1788 – 1856Sir William Hamilton 9th Baronet 1788 – 1856 was a Scottish metaphysician.

William Hamilton was Chair of Logic and Metaphysics at Edinburgh University at a time when a great many young doctors converted to homeopathy, and William Hamilton took a very balanced view of this, and he spoke out strongly in defense of Alfred Crosby Pope in 1852, in his Discussions on Philosophy and Literature,

William Hamilton was also a believer in Animal Magnetism,

William Hamilton was born in Glasgow. He was from an academic family, including Robert Hamilton, the economist.

His father, William Hamilton, had in 1781, on the strong recommendation of William Hunter, been appointed to succeed his own father, Dr Thomas Hamilton, as Regius Professor of Anatomy, Glasgow; and when he died in 1790, in his thirty second year, he had already gained a great reputation.

William Hamilton and a younger brother, Thomas Hamilton, were brought up by their mother. William received his early education in Scotland, except for two years which he spent in a private school near London, and in 1807 went as a Snell Exhibitioner, to Balliol College, Oxford. He obtained a first class in lit ens humanioribus and took his B.A. in 1811 (M.A. 1814).

He had been intended for the medical profession, but soon after leaving Oxford he gave up this idea, and in 1813 became a member of the Scottish bar. His life continued to be that of a student; and the years that followed were filled by researches of all kinds, while at the same time he was gradually forming his philosophic system.

Investigation enabled him to make good his claim to represent the ancient family of Hamilton of Preston, and in 1816 he took up the baronetcy, which had been in abeyance since the death of Sir Robert Hamilton of Preston (1650-1701), well known in his day as a Covenanting leader.

Two visits to Germany in 1817 and 1820 led to William’s taking up the study of German and later on that of contemporary German philosophy, which was almost entirely neglected in British universities.

In 1820 he was a candidate for the chair of moral philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, which had fallen vacant on the death of Thomas Brown, colleague of Dugald Stewart, and Stewart’s consequent resignation, but was defeated on political grounds by John Wilson, the “Christopher North” of Blackwood’s Magazine.

Soon afterwards (1821) he was appointed professor of civil history, and as such delivered several courses of lectures on the history of modern Europe and the history of literature. The salary was £100 a year, derived from a local beer tax, and was discontinued after a time. No pupils were compelled to attend, the class dwindled, and Hamilton gave it up when the salary ceased.

In January 1827 his mother, to whom he had been devoted, died. In March 1828 he married his cousin, Janet Marshall.

In 1829 his career of authorship began with the appearance of the well-known essay on the “Philosophy of the Unconditioned” (a critique of Auguste Comte’s Cours de philosophie)—the first of a series of articles contributed by him to the Edinburgh Review.

He was elected in 1836 to the Edinburgh chair of logic and metaphysics, and from this time dates the influence which, during the next twenty years, he exerted over the thought of the younger generation in Scotland.

Much about the same time he began the preparation of an annotated edition of Thomas Reid’s works, intending to annex to it a number of dissertations. Before, however, this design had been carried out, he was struck (1844) with paralysis of the right side, which seriously crippled his bodily powers, though it left his mind wholly unimpaired.

The edition of Thomas Reid appeared in 1846, but with only seven of the intended dissertations, one unfinished. At his death he had still not completed the work; notes on the subjects to be discussed were found among his manuscripts.

Considerably earlier, he had formed his theory of logic, the leading principles of which were indicated in the prospectus of “an essay on a new analytic of logical forms” prefixed to his edition of Thomas Reid. But the elaboration of the scheme in its details and applications continued during the next few years to occupy much of his leisure.

Out of this arose a sharp controversy with Augustus de Morgan. The essay did not appear, but the results of the labour gone through are contained in the appendices to his Lectures on Logic.

Hamilton also prepared extensive materials for a publication which he designed on the personal history, influence and opinions of Martin Luther. Here he advanced so far as to have planned and partly carried out the arrangement of the work; but it did not go further, and still remains in manuscript.

In 1852-1853 appeared the first and second editions of his Discussions in Philosophy, Literature and Education, a reprint, with large additions, of his contributions to the Edinburgh Review.

Soon after, his general health began to fail. Assisted by his devoted wife, he persevered in literary labour; and during 1854-1855 he brought out nine volumes of a new edition of Stewart’s works. The only remaining volume was to have contained a memoir of Stewart, but this he did not live to write. He taught his class for the last time in the winter of 1855-1856. Shortly after the close of the session he was taken ill, and died in Edinburgh.