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James Hutchison Stirling

Writer, Philosopher and Physician
1820 to 1909

Medical doctor and philosopher James Hutchison Stirling was born on 22 June 1820 in Glasgow to William Stirling, a textile producer, and his wife Elizabeth Christie Stirling. William was known for his deeply religious views; those views never left the young James Stirling, the youngest of six, 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. From 1833-1842, he studied medicine, history, and classics at the University of Glasgow. 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 interests 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.

Interestingly, Stirling’s other major work, Philosophy and Theology (1890), which is composed of his twenty Gifford Lectures, barely mentions Hegelian philosophy, which he treated extensively in other works. Rather, Philosophy and Theology culminates in a severe criticism of Darwin’s evolutionary theories.

Stirling never achieved the great eminence in philosophy that he likely hoped for, owing in part to his often obscure and difficult prose. 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 only 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).