James Frederick Ferrier

Poet, Philosopher & Advocate | Number 15

James Ferrier (1808-1864) was the son of a lawyer and grew up with strong literary connections.  His aunt was Susan Ferrier, Scotland's first successful woman novelist. He married Margaret Wilson whose father, under the name Christopher North, was a powerful force in Scotland’s cultural life.

After school in Dumfriesshire and study in Edinburgh, London and Oxford, he sailed back to Scotland on the ship bearing Sir Walter Scott – a close friend of his grandfather - back to Scotland, to die.  Philosophy and literature vied at this time for his commitment.  Philosophy won out. His biographer says that Ferrier ‘wrote much of the best philosophy that was published in Britain between 1830 and 1860, and wrote one of the best poems that were published in Britain in the age of the great romantic poets’.

His poetical work was abandoned early, after the 1828 failure of his ‘The Hope of Immortality’, despite its grand lines like Stanza 70.

“No stir is on the waters and no sound
Save where the working tides together meet
In hoary line – as if a snake had wound
Along the glass – save where the sea-mew’s feet
Break into moving parts, the picture sweet
Of dusky wood and hill, that slumbering lie
Deep in its dark-green bosom – save where beat
The oars of sturdy rowers, as they ply
With homeward speed, ere yet the day’s last splendours die”

By contrast, his career as a philosopher was full of distinction.  He held the Chair of Moral Philosophy in St Andrews University from 1845 up to his death in 1863. He was an able and influential teacher. He was also able to communicate complex new ideas to a wider audience – for example through his groundbreaking 1838-9 articles in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine entitled ‘An Introduction to the Philosophy of Consciousness’. He is credited with challenging the empirical and ‘common sense’ based thought of the previous century. The impact and challenges to religious and moral thinking of the great Disruption of 1843 - when many ministers and congregations left the established Church of Scotland - came to dominate his later work.

Ferrier also practised briefly as an advocate.  He was an active contributor to Blackwoods magazine, reviewing verse translations of Goethe’s Faust.

His later years were clouded by ill-health, notably the later stages of syphilis.  After his death, his body was returned to Edinburgh and he lies buried in St Cuthbert’s churchyard.  His academic reputation burned low for many years but has recovered more recently with better understanding of his important role in developing in a Scottish context the dramatic nineteenth century advances made by German thinkers like Hegel.

Further reading is in ‘Ferrier of St Andrews: An Academic Tragedy’, written by Arthur Thomson and published by Scottish Academic Press Ltd, Edinburgh 1985; and ‘Ferrier and the Blackout of the Scottish Enlightenment’, written by George Davie, Edinburgh Review, published by the Centre for the History of Ideas in Scotland in 2003.

he sailed back to Scotland on the ship bearing Sir Walter Scott – a close friend of his grandfather - back to Scotland, to die