Sir William Hamilton, a Scottish philosopher, born in Glasgow, March 8, 1788, died in Edinburgh, May 6, 1856. At the university of Glasgow ho took a high position in the classes, and carried off the first prizes in philosophy. From Glasgow he went to Balliol college, Oxford, where candidates for honors were required to profess a certain number of books in history, poetry, and science. In going up for his degree, he not only took with him into the schools far more than the usual average of books in poetry and history, but in science he professed all the works extant in Greek and Roman philosophy, including the whole of Arigtotle and all the works of his earlier commentators, all of Plato, the Neo-Platonists, Proclus, and Plotinus, and the fragments of the earlier and later philosophical doctrines preserved by Laertius, Stobaeus, and the other collectors. His examination in philosophy occupied two days, running through six hours each day. In 14 of his books on Greek philosophy he "was not questioned, the greater part of these being declared by the masters to be too abstrusely metaphysical for examination. At this time also he had studied the earlier modern philosophers and become interested in the speculations of contemporary metaphysicians on the continent.
He was admitted to the bar at Edinburgh in 1813, and began to practise as an advocate; but his time was given more to philosophical studies than to his profession. In 1816 he established his claim to a dormant baronetcy. In 1820 he was a candidate for the chair of moral philosophy in the university of Edinburgh; but his competitor John Wilson, being a tory, was elected. In 1821, by appointment of the faculty of advocates, Hamilton delivered in the university a short course of lectures on the character and history of the classic nations of antiquity. At this time phrenology was exciting especial interest in Edinburgh. For the purpose of testing its pretensions Sir William went through a laborious course of comparative anatomy, dissecting with his own hands several hundred different brains. He sawed open a series of skulls of different nations, of both sexes and all ages, to ascertain the facts in regard to the frontal sinus on which the phrenologists had founded so much. He also instituted a series of experiments for ascertaining the relative size and weight of brains. The results of these investigations were embodied in two papers which he read before the royal society of Edinburgh in 1826, maintaining that the assertions of fact by the phrenologists were utterly false.
In 1829 ho contributed to the " Edinburgh Review " a powerful article against the German doctrine of human omniscience, as set forth after Schel-ling and Hegel, though in modified form, in the lectures of Victor Cousin. This was followed by other contributions to the same review, two of which are particularly celebrated, "On the Philosophy of Perception" and "On Recent Publications in Logical Science." Many of these articles were translated into foreign languages, and in 1852 all of them were published collectively, edited by their author with notes and appendices, under the title "Discussions in Philosophy and Literature, Education, and University Reform" (enlarged ed., 1854; republished, with an introductory essay by Robert Turnbull, D. D., New York, 1855). In 1330 Sir William was elected professor of logic and metaphysics in the university of Edinburgh; and then began a new era in his life and in the academical life of Scotland. He entered upon his professorship with every qualification. His personal appearance was the very finest.
Above the middle height, of a sinewy and well compacted frame, with a massive head, decisive and finely cut features, a dark, calm, piercing eye, perfect self-possession and reliance, finished courtesy of manners, and a voice remarkably distinct, silvery, and melodious, he stood before his hearers the perfection of a man in every physical adornment. " Whatever," says Mr. Baynes, his class assistant, "the previous expectations of Sir William's appearance might be, they were certainly realized if not surpassed; and however familiar one might afterward become with the play of thought and feeling on that noble countenance, the first impression remained the strongest and the last - that it was perhaps altogether the finest head and face you had ever seen, strikingly handsome, and full of intelligence and power. When he began to read, Sir William's voice confirmed the impression his appearance and manner had produced. It was full, clear, and resolute, with a swell of intellectual ardor in the more measured cadences, and a tone that grew deep and resonant in reading any striking extracts from a favorite author, whether in prose or poetry - from Plato or Pascal, Lucretius or Virgil, Scaliger or Sir John Davies, whose quaint and nervous lines Sir William was fond of quoting." He had methodized all his views on logic and metaphysics, and in his lectures he now put them into an admirable form for academic instruction.
He disciplined his pupils by severe examinations and in the writing of essays, which excited the most intense mental activity. In 1846 Sir William published his edition of Reid's works, which was undertaken ten years before, as a book for the use of his class. It made a profound impression in Scotland, and Lord Jeffrey, in a letter to the editor of the " Edinburgh Review," expressed his admiration of "the immensity of its erudition, its vigor, completeness, and inexorable march of ratiocination." His last literary labor was an edition of the works of Dugald Stewart, in nine volumes, with a life of Stewart by Mr. John Veitch, one of his pupils. For ten years he had been enfeebled by a severe paralysis, but had never relaxed his labors as a teacher, and only lessened them as an author. He finished his lectures of the session of 1855 and 1850, and distributed the prizes to his class; and after an illness of ten days he died at his residence in Great King street. - As a metaphysician Hamilton stands among the greatest.
His disquisition on the Epis-toloe Obscurorum. Virornm gave an example which astonished even the Germans; his polemic against phrenology, in the several papers appended to the first volume of his " Lectures," is a wonder of experimental sagacity; and his immense erudition has quickened the scholarship of the world. The most important of his writings, next to those on philosophy, are his papers on educational reform. In one of these he made a powerful attack on Whewell's theory that mathematics is a better logical discipline than logic itself. Sir William Hamilton's philosophy, though it professes to be little more than an elucidation and elaboration of Reid's, is universally recognized and treated as his own. It accepts consciousness as an infallible witness, and therefore declares, in opposition both to idealism and to the doctrine of representative perception, that there is in reality an external world, and that we have an immediate perception of that world; it teaches also that the highest speculation is within the comprehension of this philosophy of common sense, and that there is a moral universe, known to us through our moral nature, which implies a moral order and a moral governor of all. - Many of Hamilton's notes are included in the abridgment of Reid's " Essays on the Intellectual Powers " by Dr. James Walker (Cambridge, 1850). A selection from his writings by O. W. Wight, entitled " The Philosophy of Sir William Hamilton," was published in New York in 1853, and "Metaphysics of Sir William Hamilton," edited by Prof. Francis Bowen, in Cambridge in 1801. A selection of his academical lectures, edited by Mansel and Veitch, was published in 4 vols. in 1859-'61. - See "Memoir of Sir William Hamilton," by John Veitch (Edinburgh, 1809), and "Examination of the Philosophy of Sir William Hamilton," by John Stuart Mill (2 vols., London, 1805).