Ferguson, Adam

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Ferguson, Adam



“I hear he [Ferguson] is about to publish ... a natural history of man: exhibiting a view of him in the savage state, and in the several successive states of pasturage, agriculture and commerce” (Reid [1764-1788] 1895, p. 42). Thus wrote Thomas Reid on December 20, 1765, to his friend Dr. David Skeene. Reid had just succeeded Adam Smith in the chair of moral philosophy at Glasgow. Nearly a century later, Karl Marx singled out Ferguson, although not with complete accuracy, as the first in modern times to develop the theory of the division of labor in economy and society. Still later, Gumplowicz, distinguished exponent of the conflict theory of society, saw in Ferguson’s History of Civil Society“the first natural history of society” and in Ferguson himself “the first sociologist” (Gumplowicz 1892, p. 67). William Dunning found in him one who combined “the critical spirit of Hume and the historical spirit of Montesquieu” most attractively and “studied society and its institutions … to determine by the light of history whither society was moving, not by superhuman wisdom to fix its course” (Dunning [1920] 1936, p. 63).

These brief characterizations may serve to epitomize the thought, and the place in the history of social thought, of one of the outstanding “moral philosophers” of Scotland of the later eighteenth century.

Adam Ferguson was born in the manse of Logierait, Perthshire, in 1723, and was educated for the Christian ministry (like so many leaders of thought in the Scotland of his day) at St. Andrews and Edinburgh. At the age of 21, he was appointed deputy-chaplain—and later chaplain—of the famous Highland “Black Watch” regiment. In 1757, Ferguson succeeded Hume as keeper of the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh, and in 1759 he was appointed to the chair of natural philosophy in the university there; he was transferred five years later to the chair of pneumatics and moral philosophy. He filled this post with distinction until 1785, when for reasons of health he resigned it. He continued literary activities at a more leisurely pace in retirement.

In 1767, he published his Essay on the History of Civil Society, using “history” in the then current static-descriptive sense as well as in a “temporalizing” sense. This work strongly reflects, by Ferguson’s own admission, the influence of Montesquieu. Two years later, Ferguson published the Institutes of Moral Philosophy, an outline of the course of lectures that he followed, with variations, throughout his teaching career. In 1783, he published The History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic, a work that reached many editions. His two-volume Principles of Moral and Political Science,“being chiefly a Retrospect of Lectures delivered in the College of Edinburgh,” was published in 1792. This was in reality only a greatly expanded and more finished version of the Institutes, with some variations. Most of these works appeared almost immediately in translation in Germany and France, and some also in Italy and Russia. He was also widely known and read in America.

Ferguson was a principal founder and charter member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; on a visit to the Continent in 1793, he was made an honorary member of the Berlin Academy of Science. He was closely associated, through personal friendship, various literary clubs, and correspondence, with others from Edinburgh, such as Hume, Lord Kames, William Robertson, John Home, Adam Smith (with whom he had a temporary falling-out), and Edward Gibbon, all of whom had high regard for Ferguson. Abroad he received the acclaim of men like Baron d’Holbach in France and Schiller, Jacobi, Herder, and others in Germany. He spent his last years, with failing eyesight, at St. Andrews, where he died in 1816, at the age of 92. He was buried in the old cathedral churchyard, and the beautiful epitaph that Sir Walter Scott, boyhood playmate of the Ferguson children, wrote for him is still to be seen there.

Whereas Ferguson’s fame at home and abroad rested chiefly on his Civil Society, this work is best understood in the broader setting of his entire social and moral philosophy, which is more adequately stated in his Principles.“Moral philosophy” covers comparative anthropology, individual and social psychology, and “natural religion” and is applied to jurisprudence, economics and politics, and ethics. The basic concern of moral philosophy is human nature itself. “Human nature,” Ferguson once observed, “is my trade”—meaning, no doubt, the business of his chair. Man is viewed as a rationally intelligent, morally evaluating, active, and therefore progressive animal, always and everywhere living in society. He is to be studied, therefore, not only as an individual but also as a member of the community. The community is at once the source of his being, the field of his operations, the end of most of his actions, and the indispensable means— through the invention and use of language as his principal instrument of communication—to the realization of his essential humanity.

Key elements in Ferguson’s social theory are a clear-cut distinction between “physical law,” which he saw as a generalization of behavioral fact on every level, and “moral law,” which he saw as a generalization of values and norms of conduct; a sharp differentiation of the cultural and traditional from the biological; a juxtaposition of the principles of “union” and of “rivalship” or conflict; the division of labor in economy and society; and a consistently evolutionistic viewpoint skeptical of planned progress—evolution, however, usually in an ontogenetic and cultural, rather than a biological, application.

Ferguson’s moral philosophy in particular was essentially that of the ancient Stoics: Man is by his very nature an active being and a social being; all action involves choices, both of ends and of means to ends; choices are made between moral values and result in either happiness or misery, both for the actor and for his fellow men. If norms of conduct and systems of such norms are to be effective, they must be rationally based on empirical knowledge both of human nature and “of the situation in which [man] is placed.” “Men of real fortitude, integrity and ability are well placed in every scene” ([1767] 1819, p. 506). “Everyone indeed is answerable only for himself; and, in preserving the integrity of one citizen, does what is required of him for the happiness of the whole” (1792, vol. 2, p. 512).

Like most of his Scottish contemporaries, Ferguson was averse to “metaphysics,” or abstract philosophizing; yet he was not without philosophical acumen, a regard for system, a sense of “wholism,” and a clear understanding of basic methodology. In this sense, he was an exponent of the “common-sense” philosophy and one of its founders.

William C. Lehmann

[For the historical context of Ferguson’s work, see the biography ofHUME.]


(1767) 1819 An Essay on the History of Civil Society.8th ed. Philadelphia: Finley.

(1769) 1800 Institutes of Moral Philosophy. New ed., enl. Basel: Decker.

(1783) 1841 The History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic.3 vols. Philadelphia; Wardle.

1792 Principles of Moral and Political Science.2 vols. Edinburgh: Trahan.


Dunning, William A. (1920)1936 A History of Political Theories From Rousseau to Spencer. New York: Macmillan.

Gumplowicz, Ludwig 1892 Die soziologische Staatsidee. Graz (Austria): Leuschner & Lubensky.

Jogland, Herta H. 1959 Ursprünge und Grundlagen der Soziologie bei Adam Ferguson. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

Kettler, David 1965 The Social and Political Thought of Adam Ferguson. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press.

Lehmann, William C. 1930 Adam Ferguson and the Beginnings of Modern Sociology. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Reid, Thomas (1764-1788) 1895 Works.2 vols. London: Longmans.

Small, John 1864 Biographical Sketch of Adam Ferguson, LL.D.: Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh. Royal Society of Edinburgh, Transactions 23 : 599–665.

Adam Ferguson

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Adam Ferguson

The Scottish philosopher, moralist, and historian Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) produced a number of notable works concerning the nature of society. He is regarded as one of the founders of modern sociology.

Adam Ferguson was born in Logierat, Perthshire. In 1739 he went to the University of St. Andrews, where he received his master of arts degree in 1742. Determined on a clerical career, he began to study divinity at St. Andrews, continuing these studies in Edinburgh. In 1745 he became first deputy chaplain and later chaplain of the Black Watch Regiment, but in 1754 he left the regiment and abandoned the ministry.

In 1757 Ferguson replaced David Hume as librarian to the Advocates Library in Edinburgh. In 1759 he became professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and in 1764 was appointed to the coveted chair of "pneumatics [mental philosophy] and moral philosophy." Ferguson held this post until 1785 and retired from university life soon after. For the rest of his remarkably long life, however, he remained active as a writer, traveler, and speaker, amassing a considerable contemporary reputation for his Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) and Principles of Moral and Political Science (1792). In 1793, on a trip to Germany, he was elected an honorary member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences.

Ferguson's importance as a thinker rests on his recognition of the important role played by society in shaping human values. He particularly rejected any notion of a "state of nature" in which men lived as individuals before society was established. Being a social animal, man was conditioned by necessity, habit, language, and familial or societal guidance. Societies as a whole, Ferguson asserted, are dynamic, following a pattern of change from "savagery" to "barbarism" to "civilization." Like individuals, they learn from and build upon the past. Different societies may, however, reflect particular characteristics based on factors such as geography or climate.

As any society becomes civilized, Ferguson suggested, it becomes more prone to conflict. Commerce breeds economic competition, and the state system breeds war. Although some benefits do result from conflict—industrial growth, scientific and esthetic advances—Ferguson stressed that, when the division of labor results in economic class stratification and when warfare becomes the province of the professional military, a society faces decay and despotism and conflict is then no longer present. It should be noted that Ferguson was one of the first thinkers to point to conflict as a positive factor in human development and to argue that such conflict is more pronounced in civilized societies than in primitive ones.

Further Reading

Ferguson's An Essay on the History of Civil Society was recently edited with an introduction by Duncan Forbes (1966). Two useful studies of Ferguson are William C. Lehman, Adam Ferguson and the Beginnings of Modern Sociology (1930), and David Kettler, The Social and Political Thought of Adam Ferguson (1965). □

Ferguson, Adam

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Ferguson, Adam (1724–1816) Though less revered as a philosopher than his fellow luminary of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume, Ferguson has a better claim to be considered among the founders of modern sociology. His critique of the ‘self-interest’ view of human nature followed Hume's lead, but Ferguson took his view of humans as inescapably social in nature forward into a critical analysis of the new commercial civilization then displacing the older clan-based society of the Scottish Highlands. His views on the effects of the division of labour were significant precursors of later work on this topic by Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim, and the concepts of self-estrangement and alienation are also prefigured in Ferguson's writings. See also INTERESTS.