Dugald Stewart

Dugald Stewart
Dugald Stewart

Dugald Stewart was an Edinburgh professor of moral philosophy who expounded the common sense theory of Thomas Reid and the libertarian political economy of Adam Smith. He taught from 1785 until illness forced his retirement in 1809.

An eloquent spokesman for Reid and Smith rather than an original thinker, he left no legacy of his own but conveyed theirs. He provided his classes with a feast of psychology, ethics, and intellectual history and was the first professor in Britain to offer a course in political economy, which he began in 1800.

A defender of academic freedom (see Brown [2004, 657] and Veitch [1858, lxxv–lxxix on the Leslie affair]), he both consoled and disturbed his audience by sustaining its metaphysical prejudices against Humean skepticism while revising its economic and political ones. He was no utilitarian yet advocated private liberty and the open market as the route to general happiness. His renown as a teacher was sustained by his books, which were translated into German, French, and Italian.

Adam Smith
Adam Smith

He was honored by learned societies in Russia, Italy, and America, as well as by the Royal Societies of Edinburgh and London. Poet Robert Burns summed Stewart up as four parts Socrates, four parts Nathaniel, and two parts Brutus. He meant that Stewart combined philosophical wisdom, a prophetic sense of morality, and a republican inclination.

Stewart’s birth in Edinburgh on November 22, 1753 was in every sense an academic one. Not only was his father, Matthew, a college professor, but he was actually born in the college itself since their house was one of the college buildings.

His father’s family came from the southwest of Scotland where his grandfather was a minister. His mother was the daughter of an Edinburgh lawyer from whom she inherited the small Ayrshire estate of Catrine where the family spent the summer and where he befriended Burns whose home was at nearby Mossgiel.


Stewart attended the High School of Edinburgh where he learned Latin and Greek and the literature of both civilizations. He formed a lifelong attachment to the classics, a taste he shared with his revered friend Smith. In old age both philosophers turned to the early authors for pleasure and consolation, Smith to Sophocles and Euripides, Stewart to the Latin poets.

He would later find this school education helpful in following the lectures of Adam Ferguson, whose class in moral philosophy he attended at the College in Edinburgh, which later became Edinburgh University. Ferguson was steeped in Roman history and literature, which formed the background to his lectures on moral and political philosophy and on civil society and its progress.

At the college, Stewart was introduced by John Stevenson, professor of logic and metaphysics, to the philosophy of John Locke, which was dominant at the time but which Stewart was to reject largely under the influence of Reid but also under that of Ferguson, who inspired his love of moral philosophy and whose chair he was to occupy. Before replacing Ferguson and after completing his college studies, Stewart had unexpectedly to take his father’s place as professor of mathematics because illness forced his premature retirement.


His father had achieved a minor international reputation as a Euclidean geometer although he was a reactionary who disdained algebraic geometry. He probably schooled his son informally in his own subject. Although Stewart was a good mathematician, he preferred philosophy, in which subject Ferguson discovered his talent.

Ferguson’s philosophy was eclectic but principally Stoic. The classical moralists on whom he modeled himself advanced their own individual conceptions of virtue, of which they were taken to be exemplars. Assuming that moral philosophy is a kind of practical wisdom, their aim was to advise their students morally and lead them towards virtue.

practical wisdom
practical wisdom

Stewart followed Ferguson’s lead in adopting this ideal and in regarding right and wrong as like primary qualities, such as hardness, and not like the secondary qualities of colour and taste. With Ferguson and Reid, he criticized the school of moral sense led by the Lockean Francis Hutcheson, professor of moral philosophy in Glasgow and Smith’s teacher.

 Hutcheson, followed by David Hume, said that virtue and vice are perceived through moral sensations of pleasure and pain or displeasure. Reason, they thought, is indifferent to virtue, which is only discovered by the responsive heart.

Lockean Francis Hutcheson - Steampunk Flying House
Lockean Francis Hutcheson

Their critics—Ferguson, Reid, and Stewart—proposed, on the contrary, that humans use rational intuition to see which actions are morally right or wrong. These qualities exist independently of feeling and sensation. If the two sides did not agree about how virtue is perceived and why it is pursued, they did agree that the fundamental virtues are those of benevolence and justice.

Though no populist, Stewart managed to be more supportive of the idea of liberal reform than Ferguson. He agreed with Ferguson on the need for political leadership by wise philosophers, though he was quite clear about the citizen’s right to political representation and clear that personal liberty is sacred.

Red hot
François Quesnay

If the citizen is to be led, then it is to be out of servitude toward liberty. He was therefore deeply interested in the French liberal movement, which was headed intellectually by AnneRobert-Jacques Turgot, François Quesnay, and Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet.

They saw the nation’s economy as the means of raising the standard of living of all its citizens. The movement was taken over by extremist deputies in the Assembly and culminated in violence against the throne. This was not the intention of the economists, who were not arguing for populist control but for rule by platonic philosophers guiding the monarch.

populist control - Mary Jane Watson
populist control

Stewart visited Paris in 1788 and 1789 and met some of the reformist thinkers, who encouraged his belief in the peaceful benefits of economic reform under wise government. He subsequently explained his innocuous views on political reform in Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind.

But this had an un-looked-for consequence because it led Scotland’s judiciary to suppose that he actually supported violent revolution. Included among those were two judges known personally to Stewart who wished him to tone down his political writings.

standard of living - Sisi Salsabila
standard of living

He declined to alter the second edition (1802) of the offending text, explaining his reason in a footnote. Although he sympathized with French liberalism and, unusually for someone of his position, with the American assertion of political and economic independence, he rejected violence as an instrument of change.

Stewart went to Glasgow to hear Reid lecture in 1772 just before he took over as deputy for his father. As professor of moral philosophy, Reid was famous for his theory of common sense and his criticism of Hume’s skepticism and the theory that ideas are copies of sensations.

French liberalism - India | Sikh man at the golden temple in Amritsar.
French liberalism

It was Reid’s theory of belief, or laws of belief, as Stewart preferred to phrase it, that specially appealed, and he dedicated his first book, Elements, to Reid in 1792. Stewart felt that describing Reid’s work as an inquiry into the principles of common sense suggested quite wrongly that it was not a philosophical theory about a philosophical matter: There is no room for theory if it is only common sense.

According to Stewart—though Reid did much in showing that sensation cannot explain central beliefs in personal identity, the external world, the past and the future—Reid made no progress on René Descartes’s position on proof of the existence of the external world: In other words, we can only trust to our beliefs, not prove them.

personal identity - Roro Fitria
personal identity

To advance further, Stewart revives a suggestion he attributes to Father Ruggero Giussepe Boscovich the eighteenth-century Jesuit natural philosopher, that belief in external objects comes from the experience of their resistance. Stewart enlarges the suggestion with an idea from Turgot that, if experience suggests its cause, it is repetition of the experience that suggests the continuity of that cause.

This account does not, he admits, completely prove that there are external objects but, rather, explains the belief as an expectation that what resists being touched or pushed will do so again because it continues to exist when it is not being felt.

Ruggero Giussepe Boscovich - Pevita Pearce
Ruggero Giussepe Boscovich

As did the despised Lockeans, Stewart believed that the philosophy of mind is a science in which data are our sensations, our thoughts, and our volitions. It tries to analyze states of consciousness without either aspiring to understand the ultimate nature of mind or trying to explain all belief by sensation and feeling.

We are not directly conscious of mind, nor are we of matter. Although we do not know what matter is, nor what mind is, we do know that there are two fundamentally different kinds of experience.

states of consciousness - Julie Estelle
states of consciousness

One suggests matter, the other mind. To materialists who said that if we do not know what matter or mind are, they might be the same thing, he replied in a footnote in the first part of the introduction to Elements: if they were the same, “it would no more be proper to say of mind, that it is material, than to say of body, that it is spiritual”.

It did not occur to Stewart that, since it is improper to say of what is spiritual that it is material, if mind is matter, it would be improper to say that it is spiritual but not improper to say that it is material. It was inconceivable to him, though not to others such as David Hartley and Joseph Priestley, that mind might be located in the nervous system and the brain.

David Hartley - Nabila Gomes
David Hartley
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