McCosh, James (1811–1894)

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James McCosh, an influential representative of "commonsense realism," was born in southern Ayrshire, Scotland. He was educated at Glasgow and Edinburgh universities. McCosh was licensed for the ministry in 1834 and served as a pastor of the Established Church of Scotland until 1850, when he was appointed professor of logic and metaphysics at Queen's College of Belfast. In 1868 he came to America to serve as president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), a position he held until 1888.

McCosh's philosophical outlook was in its largest features inherited from the "Scottish school" of Thomas Reid, Dugald Stewart, and others. On one side this meant the denial that our beliefs about the external world rest on any dubious inferences, causal or otherwise, from immediately presented ideas. Those beliefs are rather the natural, noninferential accompaniments of sensation, and their general reliability cannot sensibly be questioned. On another (and for McCosh, more important) side, commonsense philosophy meant apriorism. In The Intuitions of the Mind, Inductively Investigated (London and New York, 1860), McCosh undertook to enumerate certain fundamental principles (such as principles of causation and moral good) that belong to the constitution of the mind. Although persons are not necessarily or normally aware of these very general truths, their particular cognitions and judgments are regulated by them. In saying that these principles are to be discovered "inductively" McCosh did not mean that they are inductive generalizations. Certainly one is led to these principles by reflection on experience. But once before the mind, the principles are recognized as self-evidently and necessarily true. McCosh's realism, unlike that of H. L. Mansel and William Hamilton, was relatively free of the influence of Immanuel Kant. Thus, in An Examination of Mr. J. S. Mill's Philosophy (London and New York, 1866), McCosh defended Hamilton's intuitional philosophy against Mill's criticism but took care to disassociate himself from the former's "agnostic" view that man's knowledge is limited to the finite.

The most original aspect of McCosh's philosophy was his effort to accommodate evolution and Christian theism. In one of his earliest works, The Method of the Divine Government, Physical and Moral (Edinburgh, 1850), he opposed the view that God's design exhibits itself entirely in the lawful development of nature. Such a view, he thought, amounted to a denial of divine providence. Divine government proceeds instead by a combination of law and particular, spontaneous interventions. When The Origin of Species appeared (1859), McCosh found it natural to identify his "special providences" with Charles Darwin's "chance variations." In Christianity and Positivism (New York and London, 1871) he argued that evolution, properly understood, is not only compatible with a divine design but in fact magnifies the Designer. Unlike Darwin, McCosh found nothing abhorrent in the notion that God employs the struggle for survival as a technique of creation. He was confident that success in that struggle was a matter of moral rather than physical strength.

McCosh's writings enjoyed considerable popularity, particularly among the evangelical clergy who found in them a way of dealing with the difficulties raised by science and science-inspired philosophies.

See also Common Sense; Darwin, Charles Robert; Darwinism; Hamilton, William; Kant, Immanuel; Mansel, Henry Longueville; Mill, John Stuart; Realism; Reid, Thomas; Stewart, Dugald.


Apart from those already mentioned, McCosh's chief works are The Supernatural in Relation to the Natural (New York: R. Carter, 1862); The Scottish Philosophy, Biographical, Expository, Critical, from Hutcheson to Hamilton (London, 1874); and First and Fundamental Truths, Being a Treatise on Metaphysics (New York: Scribners, 1889). An extensive bibliography by Joseph H. Dulles is appended to the autobiographical The Life of James McCosh, edited by William Milligan Sloane (New York: Scribners, 1896).

Douglas Arner (1967)

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McCosh, James (1811–1894)

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