Adam Ferguson was a well know 18 th Century Scottish Historian and Philosopher. He was one of the central figures in Scottish Enlightenment. In Scotland, the Enlightenment was characterised by a thorough empiricism and practicality where the chief values were improvement, virtue, and practical benefit for the individual and society as a whole. Ferguson is chiefly remembered for the Essay on The History of Civil Society. This was an intellectual history that traced humanities progression from Barbarism to social and political refinement.
In Ferguson's philosophical works, he emphasises that the study of human nature is essentially the study of human beings. In addition to this, Ferguson's work also has a historical dimension. This is, that the study of morality is cast within a socio-historical framework in which a process of perfection can be found at work. As a consequence, Ferguson has been referred to as ‘The Father of Modern Sociology.”
Adam Ferguson was born on July 1st, 1723, in Logierait, Perthshire. Ferguson was the son of a minister in the Church of Scotland. He was educated at Perth Grammar school and then at the University of St Andrews. After graduating he attended Edinburgh University to study divinity. Whilst in Edinburgh, Ferguson became acquainted with some of the leading figures of the Scottish enlightenment, notably William Robertson, Alexander Carlyle, and Hugh Blair. In 1745, when the Jacobite rebellion broke out, Ferguson had only completed three of the required six years of theological study. Despite this, because of his knowledge of Gaelic, he was granted a licence to serve as a Minister. He was appointed Deputy Chaplain to Scotland’s Black Watch Regiment and engaged in combat in Flanders. In 1746, he was promoted to the Principal Chaplain and remained with the regiment until 1754. Ferguson left the regiment to devote himself to literary pursuits.
These pursuits led him to Germany. Ferguson lived there for a short period but later returned to Edinburgh in 1757. He then succeeded his friend David Hume as keeper of the Advocates’ Library. However, he soon renounced this to become a tutor to the family of the Earl of Bute. In 1759, Ferguson became a Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, and five years later, in 1764, he transferred to the Chair of Pneumatics (philosophy of the mind) and Moral Philosophy.
In 1757, Ferguson published his first work, ‘The morality of stage plays seriously considered’. Ten years later, in 1767, Ferguson published his most well-known, famous, and important work: ‘Essay on the History of Civil Society’. It was very well received and was translated into several European languages. In 1776 he published his anonymous pamphlet on the American Revolution in which he argued against Dr. Richard Price’s ‘Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty’ in which he sympathised with the views of the British Legislature.
In 1778 Ferguson was appointed Secretary to the Carlisle Peace Commission. He travelled to Philadelphia to negotiate peace with the American Revolutionaries. Despite his best efforts, there was no success.
Adam Ferguson married in 1756 and had nine children with his partner, two of whom died in infancy. He spent many of his later years in life traveling around Europe. From 1795, Ferguson resided near Peebles and once he retired, he moved back to St Andrew's. Ferguson passed away on February 22nd, 1816, at the age of 93. He is buried in the churchyard of St Andrews Cathedral, against the east wall. He has a large mural monument that includes a carved profile portrait in marble.
Some of Ferguson's other popular works include, ‘The history of the progress and termination of the roman republic, 3 vol’, and ‘Principles of Moral and Political science, vol 2’. Ferguson also wrote the article on history for the second edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, which included the first timeline presented in the encyclopaedia. However, his Essay on the History of Civil Society remains his most renowned work.