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2014 Gifford Lecture Series: University of Edinburgh

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James Hutchison Stirling

1820 - 1909

Writer, Philosopher and Physician



James Hutchison Stirling, medical doctor and philosopher, was born on 22 June 1820 in Glasgow, the youngest of six children of William Stirling, a textile producer, and his wife, Elizabeth Christie Stirling. William Stirling was known for his deeply religious views; those views never left the young James Stirling, who grew up to be a vehement philosophical advocate of Natural Theology and proofs of the existence of God.
As a young man, Stirling was sent to Young’s academy in Glasgow, followed by nine years of education (1833–1842) at the University of Glasgow, where he studied medicine, history and the classics. He received his medical diploma from the College of Surgeons in Edinburgh in 1842, which led to a career as a practising physician in Pontypool, Monmouthshire and later in a community of workers at the Hirwaun ironworks. Throughout this time, Stirling maintained his interest in classical literature and history.
In 1847 Stirling married an old family friend, Jane Hunter Mair. They had seven children—five daughters and two sons, some of whom were particularly precocious. Amelia grew up to write books, including a translation of Spinoza’s Ethics (1883) and a commentary on her own father’s life and works (1911). Another daughter, Florence, became Scotland’s female chess champion for three years running.
When Stirling inherited a substantial sum upon his father’s death, the financial liberty allowed him to abandon the drudgery of his medical practice and take up classical and philosophical interests as a full-time profession. He sought to learn French and German in the hopes of understanding continental philosophical trends better, and moved his family to Paris for a year and a half, followed by four and a half years in St. Servan and then Heidelberg. When Stirling finally returned to settle in Britain, he came to Edinburgh, where he devoted his life to the exposition and teaching of G. W. F Hegel’s works. The result of that research was his book, The Secret of Hegel (1865), which established Stirling as a respected member among the community of philosophers and theologians in Edinburgh at the time.
As the story goes, Stirling only heard of Hegel by chance when he happened to hear a conversation between two students in Germany. The students apparently lauded Hegel for reconciling seemingly incommensurable issues in religion and philosophy. Stirling’s work constitutes the first major introduction of Hegelian philosophy into British philosophy, although its difficult prose and style meant other works on Hegel soon superseded it in terms of popularity and readership. Nonetheless, The Secret of Hegel constituted a key turning point in British philosophy, after which Hegel was dealt with as a serious interlocutor in matters of theology, aesthetics and politics. On Stirling’s interpretation, Hegel was seen to be reintroducing an element of the ‘spiritual’ back into history. Stirling was also interested in the linkage between Kant’s epistemological categories, in particular his notion of ‘pure reason’, and Hegel’s dialectic philosophy. Stirling argued Kant and Hegel go hand-in-hand, Hegel being nothing but the realization in history of Kant’s notion of ‘universal’ truth. By referring to the ‘secret’ of Hegel, Stirling was alluding to these Kantian underpinnings in Hegel’s writing.
Interestingly, his other major work, Philosophy and Theology (1890), which is composed of his twenty Gifford Lectures, barely mentions Hegelian philosophy at all. Rather, it culminates in a severe criticism of Darwin’s evolutionary theories.
Stirling never achieved the great eminence in philosophy that he likely hoped for—his obscure and difficult prose constituted one reason why. More important, however, was his lack of professional status. Although Stirling was appointed to be the first Gifford Lecturer (1889–1890), he was never appointed to a chair of any moral philosophy department in Britain (though he was nominated in 1866 by Glasgow and in 1868 by Edinburgh). He was awarded honorary law degrees by the universities of Edinburgh (in 1867) and Glasgow (1901), and remained a foreign member of the Philosophical Society of Berlin throughout much of his life. But at the time of his death on 19 March 1909, Stirling was a peripheral figure in philosophy, having outlived any fame that would have come to him through his earlier publications.
Apart from the Gifford Lectures, Stirling’s other major works include: The Secret of Hegel (1865); Sir William Hamilton: Being the Philosophy of Perception (1865); a translation of Albert Schwegler’s Handbook of the History of Philosophy (1867); Text-book to Kant: The Critique of Pure Reason (1868); As Regards Protoplasm, in Relation to Professor Huxley’s Essay, on the Physical Basis of Life (1872); Darwinianism: Workmen and Work (1894); What Is Thought? Or, The Problem of Philosophy by Way of a General Conclusion So Far (1900).
Templeton Press