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John Watson

Professor of Moral Philosophy, Queen's University, Kingston Canada
1847 to 1939

John Watson, philosopher and professor of moral philosophy in Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada, was born 25 February 1847 in the parish of Gorbals, Glasgow, Lanarkshire, eldest of four children of John and Elizabeth (née Robertson) Watson. His father, a block printer, came from a family of farmers in Lanarkshire.


After attending the Free Church school in Kilmarnock (Ayrshire), Watson worked briefly as a clerk in Dunbartonshire and Glasgow. In 1866 he entered Glasgow University to study theology. His mentor was the philosopher Edward Caird. Watson won numerous prizes, among them the Rector’s Prize. In 1872 he graduated MA with the highest honours in mental and moral philosophy. Due to Caird’s recommendation, Watson was appointed to the Chair of Logic, Metaphysics, and Ethics at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, in 1872.

Watson married Margaret Patterson, the daughter of David Mitchell, a calenderer, in 1874. They had one son and three daughters. In 1880 he was awarded the degree of LLD by Glasgow University. One year later Watson’s first book, Kant and His English Critics, was published.

In 1889 Watson became professor of moral philosophy at Queen’s University Kingston, a position he held until his retirement in 1924. From 1901 to 1924 Watson was vice-principal. He was one of the strongest advocates for the admission of women to Queen’s University and embraced many new academic disciplines, introducing the study of economics, political studies and psychology to Queen’s University.

Through his ‘rational religion’ Watson was influential in liberalizing the Presbyterian Church in Canada. His work contributed to the general tendency in ideas that led to the creation of the United Church in Canada. He became a charter member of the Royal Society of Canada in 1882 and was the first philosopher in Canada to achieve an international reputation.

Watson was appointed Gifford Lecturer at the University of Glasgow for the session 1910-1912 and his lectures were published in two volumes under the title The Interpretation of Religious Experience. Part First, Historical and The Interpretation of Religious Experience. Part Second, Constructive in 1912.

Watson’s academic honours include honorary degrees from the University of Michigan, and Knox College, Toronto. His work is widely recognized as one of the great influences on the development of Queen’s University, and of university education in Canada in general.

As an absolute idealist Watson was influenced by the works of Plato, Kant and Hegel. He published extensively on German idealism and the positivist, empiricist and evolutionist varieties of materialism to which he was opposed. Among his publications are Dante and Medieval Thought (1894), An Outline of Philosophy (1895), Comte, Mill, and Spencer (1895), Hedonistic Theories from Aristippus to Spencer (1895), Christianity and Idealism (1897), and The Philosophy of Kant (1897). In his book The State in Peace and War (1919), Watson called for a world federation of states. He published many articles and gave guest lectures all over the world.

John Watson died in Kingston, Ontario, on 27 January 1939 and was buried in Cataraqui Cemetery in Kingston.

  • Benedikt Bock, University of Glasgow