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Alexander Campbell Fraser

Professor of Logic and Metaphysic, University of Edinburgh
1819 to 1914

Philosopher and educator Alexander Campbell Fraser was born on 3 September 1819. He was the eldest son of Reverend Hugh Fraser the parish minister of Ardchattan in Argyllshire and Maria Helen the daughter of a neighbouring laird. After years of home schooling, Alexander entered the University of Glasgow at fourteen. He stayed there for one term before moving on to the University of Edinburgh in 1834, where he attended Sir William Hamilton’s inaugural lecture as Professor of Logic. Fraser later attended Hamilton’s metaphysics classes, in addition to courses in divinity under the lectureship of Thomas Chalmers (about whom Fraser would later write a critical review in the North British Review). When Chalmers became the leader of the Free Church of Scotland during the 1843 Disruption, a schismatic period within the Scottish church. Fraser followed his teacher’s footsteps and seceded to the newly founded church.

In 1844 Fraser was ordained a minister of the Free Church in Cramond just outside of Edinburgh, although he left the post two years later to take up an academic position within the church’s theological college. Fraser held his teaching position in the college until 1856 when Hamilton’s death opened up the chair of Logic at the University of Edinburgh. The ‘struggle’ for the chair ‘formed something of an episode in the domestic history of Scottish philosophy’ one biographer writes. This struggle has often been painted in terms of Hegelian and Scottish colours. Fraser’s competitor for the chair J. F. Ferrier who was a professor at St. Andrew’s at the time was widely considered the more distinguished philosopher.

Denominational issues however came to the fore as town councillors who had ultimate control over the post were subjected to a ‘war of pamphlets’ written by supporters of both Fraser and Ferrier. In particular opponents of Ferrier focused on his seemingly Hegelian affinities. Meanwhile, Fraser was well supported by Dr. John Cairns who wrote The Scottish Philosophy: A Vindication and Reply and Examination of Ferrier’s Theory of Knowing and Being as a critique of Ferrier. Fraser’s academic history as a student of Hamilton’s a had given him a reputation for advocating a version of Idealism built upon Thomas Reid’s Common Sense philosophy. The Logic chair was widely expected to be held by someone who would continue to represent this brand of national philosophy. On 15 July Fraser was elected to the Logic chair and filled the post for thirty-five years.

Fraser was seen by his contemporaries as the last link to the Common Sense school of thought as well as the empirical schools of philosophy that had underpinned it. A biography written after his death by Professor Pringle-Pattison says:

The death of Professor Campbell Fraser in his ninety-sixth year severs the last link which connected our British philosophy of today with its own origins in the thirties and forties of the preceding century….Fraser saw the rise and decline of Hamilton’s influence and watched the older English empiricism of Mill take on the larger outlines of Spencerian evolutionism.

The author adds that Fraser had been teaching for twenty years by the time James Hutchison Stirling’s translations of Hegel and the subsequent wave of Hegelian mania swept through British universities in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

In his philosophy Fraser emphasized two themes: the ultimate mysteriousness of the world and the empirical ignorance of man as well as the ultimate harmony of moral and empirical knowledge. He supported George Berkeley and John Locke in their sceptical views of natural knowledge. But Fraser was more critical of David Hume, who he saw as leading humans into a ‘suicidal’ degree of intellectual scepticism. Fraser left behind a body of work notable for its influence on later interpretations of Berkeley which began with his 1862 article “The Real World of Berkley” in Macmillan’s Magazine. He was soon invited to edit Berkeley’s Complete Works, and in the process discovered a number of unpublished papers. Fraser adopted Berkeley’s notion of mind as central to the universe and perceived phenomena, and adopted Immanuel Kant’s idea of human morality as a causal agent. He also wrote extensively on Locke including a re-edited version of the Essay with notes produced after his retirement in 1894.

Yet despite his extensive writing on Berkeley and Locke, Fraser is better remembered for his ability as a teacher and instructor than as an original philosopher. His contribution to philosophy came more from stimulating his students to pursue the subject with emotion (indeed a number of his students became professors of philosophy throughout the United Kingdom) than from making any novel claims himself.

In 1850 Fraser married Jemima Gordon Dyce of Cuttlehill Aberdeenshire. They had one son and two daughters. From 1850 to 1857 he was the editor of the North British Review. After becoming Professor of Logic at Edinburgh University in 1856 he led a bureaucratic life as well as an academic one. Fraser was the Dean of the Faculty of Arts from 1859 to 1891 and he represented the Senate at the University Court from 1877 to 1891. Fraser was awarded various honorary doctorates from Scottish and English universities and was made a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1858. Following his wife’s death in 1907 Fraser moved from his residence at the time near Hawthornden back to Edinburgh. He died on 2 December 1914 and was buried in Lasswade churchyard.

Fraser’s major works include: Essays in Philosophy (1856); Rational Philosophy in History and in System: An Introduction to a Logical and Metaphysical Course (1858); The Literary Life of Isaac Taylor (1865?); Life and Letters of George Berkeley D.D. formerly Bishop of Cloyne: and an account of his philosophy; with many writings of Bishop Berkeley hitherto unpublished: metaphysical descriptive theological (1871); Berkeley (1881); Selections from Berkeley with an introduction and notes for the use of students in the universities 3d ed. (1884); Locke (1890); Thomas Reid (1898); Biographia philosophica: A Retrospect (1904); John Locke as a Factor in Modern Thought (1905); and Berkeley and Spiritual Realism (1908). The most thorough account of Fraser’s life and writing is found in his autobiographical Biographia philosophica.