Ferguson, Adam

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Ferguson, Adam (1723-1816): Scottish Political Theorist.

Born on the border between the Scottish highlands and lowlands, Adam Ferguson was the son of a Presbyterian minister. In 1738, Ferguson entered St. Andrews University, and in 1742 he moved to Edinburgh to study at the University there. From 1745 to 1754, he served in the army with the Black Watch, 143rd/142nd Regiment of Highlanders, with which he saw combat on the continent. For the rest of his life, he remained proud of that service.

After retiring from the military and having spent two years in Germany, Ferguson returned to Edinburgh, where he became one of the major intellectual figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. In Edinburgh, he became friends with Robertson, William, Hume, David and other figures of the literary scene, but he was distinguished from them by conversant with the Gaelic language and highland culture. In 1759, he assumed the Chair of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and in 1764 took the chair of Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy.

In 1776, Ferguson engaged in a polemic with Price, Richard over the upheavals in the American colonies. Though sympathetic with the grievances of the colonists, Ferguson rejected their use of violence. In 1778, he participated in the Carlyle Commission’s failed attempt to resolve the problems with the American colonies.

His many writings include the Institutes of Moral Philosophy (1769), History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic (1783), and Principles of Moral and Political Science (1792). By far, though, his most enduring and influential work was An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767). In general, the Essay represents Ferguson’s effort to establish the relevance of the civic virtues for the emerging commercial society of his time. Ferguson argued that a sound political order requires not just well-designed laws and institutions but political participation by an active citizenry.

Ferguson presented a stadial theory of the emergence of civilization linking together economic, social, and political development. Eschewing the sort of hypothetical constructions an alleged natural condition of humanity favored by Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Ferguson’s starting point was human beings as they are actually found in history, and humans are always found in social settings. Furthermore, constant activity by humans in the exertion of their powers was the central characteristic of human life in all its forms. According to Ferguson, humans begin in a savage state characterized by tight communal bonds. The introduction of private property transforms savage society into a barbarian phase governed by military leadership. From the barbarian stage, there emerges the stage of commercial or polite society featuring an extensive division of labor. Along with Smith, Adam, Ferguson was one of the first thinkers to identify the division of labor as a significant force in society. The cultivation of the division of labor produces a dramatic increase in societal wealth, but also leads to the professionalization of politics and the military. Continuing citizen participation in the governance of society’s affairs is threatened by the political detachment engendered by the professionalization that is such a prominent feature of commercial society. Ferguson held that only the cultivation and exercise of the civic virtues in the active of life of an engaged citizenry, not institutional structures, can counter the deleterious effects of this trend.

In 1793, Ferguson was elected external member of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences and Arts. Ferguson was particularly influential in Germany, especially on Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von, Hegel, and Marx. Ferguson died in St. Andrews in 1816.

Further Reading:

David Kettler, The Social and Political Thought of Adam Ferguson, 1965.

William Christian Lehmann, Adam Ferguson and the Beginning of Modern Sociology, 1930.

Kevin E. Dodson

Lamar University

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