Sunday, 16 August 2015

From Mylne to Hegel (Part One)

This post examines the reception of Hegel in 19th century Britain, leading up to The Secret of Hegel (1865) by James Hutchison Stirling, the "father of British Hegelianism". I trace the striking Scottish receptiveness to Hegelian ideas back to James Mylne's rationalist critique of the "moral sense" and "common sense" schools of philosophy in Glasgow.

[The following essay was originally intended to be first part of a chapter in my book Rational Piety and Social Reform in Glasgow (Wipf & Stock, 2015), but is summarized in the published version for reasons of space and unity. The remainder of the original will appear in the following blog entry.]

Relation of Mylne to the Idealist Movement 

In terms of the trajectory of Scottish moral philosophy as a whole, the period of James Mylne [who taught moral philosophy in Glasgow from 1797 to the mid-1830s. Ed.] is central to establishing the form in which the Scottish philosophical culture of rational piety was passed on to the Glasgow idealists. We now intend to show how this happened, much as the Harvard Unitarians in the USA evolved into the American Transcendentalists, who “owed much to the liberalism of the creed they outgrew”. [1] In contrast to the situation in the USA however, the link is disguised by the intervening era of political and academic conservatism. However, a generation of Glasgow thinkers form a bridge between Mylne and the Idealists. These include John Strang (1795-1865), John Pringle Nichol (1804-59) and John MacLeod Campbell (1800-72). Mylne’s students, Robert Buchanan, William Fleming and James Thomson taught the leading idealists Edward Caird (1835-1908) and James Hutchison Stirling (1820-1909); whilst John Nichol’s (1833-94) father knew Mylne well. 

In contrast, Rudolf Metz begins his A Hundred Years of British Philosophy (1938) with a chapter on “The Scottish School” in which he states that there was “no actual historical transition” from earlier Scottish thought to the work of the Glasgow Idealists. [2] Surprisingly, the leading Scottish scholar of the post-war era, George Davie, takes a similar line. My recovery of Mylne’s thought leads me to revise this view. Mylne’s philosophical programme was too deeply rooted in the life of the country to die a death by neglect, for the number of those who had absorbed it over the thirty-six years of his teaching amounted to several thousand potential opinion formers and tradition bearers. 

In Glasgow, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) was taken as the key German idealist over Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), whose immovable a priori categories and principles were explicitly likened to common sense principles by Mylne’s successor Fleming. [3] The thought of James Mylne resembles that of his contemporary Hegel in combining a sense of the sovereignty of reason that validates religious conceptions with a commitment to historical inquiry as integral to the philosophical study of mind. In view of the later flourishing of progressive idealism in Glasgow from the 1860s on, it is worth bring out the similarities. Firstly, we have noted that Mylne’s empiricism rejects fixed a priori starting points in favour of the ‘perfect unity of law and philosophy’ Millar found in Hume. This is common ground with both Hegel’s historically tempered rationalism and his polemics against common sense philosophy. [4] Secondly, they share a belief in the rationality of action, expressed in Hegel’s assertion in the Philosophy of Right that “the real is rational and the rational is real.” [5] This is comparable with Mylne’s view that even “the most hasty passion has reason in it.” [6] Hegel’s comment that “whether what the individual conscience holds and gives out as good is really good, can be ascertained only by an examination of the contents of the intended good” [7] likewise expresses Mylne’s advocacy of inquiry. Thirdly, both thinkers lay stress on the unities of reason and of consciousness. In Mylne, this is based on the idea of comparison, in Hegel on Kant’s unity of apperception. Their opposition to fixed finitudes and thus to the unity of experience is arguably linked to their critical openness to religion.

In passing, we may note that Hegel was familiar with British political literature, including the Whig Edinburgh Review and the Morning Chronicle newspaper. [8] He also mentions Scottish philosophy in his lectures. [9] A visitor in 1826 recorded discussing British politics with him and “Scotch metaphysics, the leading principles of which he knew, but apparently not from the originals and not very profoundly”. [10] 

I shall argue my case, firstly by describing the reception of German ideas in Mylne’s own era; secondly by recording how that relative ignorance was removed by Mylne’s students and thirdly [See next blog entry. Ed.] by examining the work of Mylne's colleague the Professor of Astronomy John Pringle Nichol, who inherited Mylne’s reformist mantle among the Glasgow professors, and showing how the resultant ethos contributed to the work of three key idealist writers: James Hutchison Stirling (1820-1909), John Nichol (1833-94) and Edward Caird (1835-1908).

The Early Reception of German Literature in the West of Scotland

The reception of German literature begins in Mylne’s lifetime and in its philosophical aspect, with Mylne himself. The evidence of the circulating libraries indicates that Goethe’s Sorrows of Werther and a few other German works were available locally in translations. [11] Schiller’s Don Carlos and The American were amongst these. [12] John Millar, in a posthumous essay co-edited by Mylne, shows an awareness of recent German drama. [13] Mylne owned Churchill’s translation of Herder’s Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man (London, 1800) and Herder’s Oriental Dialogues, or the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews was also translated and available locally. [14] Thus an early version of the German “higher criticism” of the Old Testament was available even to Mylne. [15] Elizabeth Hamilton’s popular novel Letters of a Hindoo Rajah (1796) had a similar spirit. 

In terms of philosophy, the reception of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and the evaluation of Kantian ideas begins with Mylne himself. In April 1794, A.F.M. Willich, who had attended Kant’s lectures at Königsberg, [16] advertised a German class in Glasgow on the model of a successful class in Edinburgh. [17] Walter Scott describes this in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3):
Dr Willich (a medical gentleman) read with them Gessner’s sentimental “Death of Abel”. At length, in the midst of much laughing and little study, most of us acquired some knowledge, more or less extensive, of the German language, and selected for ourselves, some in the philosophy of Kant, some in the more animated works of the German dramatists, specimens more to our taste than the “Death of Abel”. [18]
Wellek, in Immanuel Kant in England 1793-1838, identifies several other members of this German reading group, including Thomas Brown, the teacher of moral philosophy to a recalcitrant Thomas Carlyle. [19] Willich was at that time the only teacher of German in Glasgow and went on to co-dedicate his Elements of the Critical Philosophy (1798) to Mylne, suggesting an intellectual engagement between the two men. [20] A class library at the College acquired an early English book on Kant from 1797. [21] We know that Mylne acquired a German dictionary, though not when. [22] Later in life, having acquired a German translation of The Vicar of Wakefield (1818), he borrowed Daniel Boileau’s Nature and Genius of the German Language (1820), not an ideal work of grammar for a complete beginner, from the College Library for six months in 1820 and thereafter successive volumes of Wieland’s Dramatische Werke, [23] perhaps for Millar’s daughters.

In his book, Willich interprets Kant’s philosophy as a response to the “fashionable scepticism” of Frederick the Great and refers to Professor Staedlin of Gőttingen’s book On the Spirit and History of Scepticism (1794). Mylne was familiar with the scepticism of Hume and Voltaire from his college days and would no doubt have followed the argument thus far. Willich quotes at length from Kant, including the “dogmatic slumbers” passage from the Prolegomena (1783), praising Hume, at the expense of “Reid, Beattie, Oswald, and lastly Priestley”, for opening the question of the nature of causality which Kant later generalised. [24] He then discusses the German response to Hume to frame his own interpretation of Kant:
This imperfect account will, at least, serve the purpose of shewing, how this system, on the one hand, sets limits to the Scepticism of Hume, while it refutes and overturns Materialism, Fatalism, Atheism, as well as Fanaticism and Infidelity. [25]
One has the impression from here on that Mylne shared too few of the groundwork of assumptions attributed to Kant to have found much of value in his work. Mylne knew of Hume’s general view of causation for example, but agreed with it. On the particular instance of causality of most moment, namely the causing of impressions in the mind by the action of external objects, Mylne had derived his own account of this from Condillac, framed in terms of the sense of touch on which Kant is almost wholly silent. [26] Mylne’s view of mathematical truth was not that it was intuitive, as in Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetic, but rather the result of abstraction: indeed, the intrusion of intuition into a supposedly rationalist philosophy might have struck him as falling flat at the first hurdle. 

Turning to morality and religion, Willich tells us: “Liberty, God and Immortality are ideas which are exalted above all sensitive faculties; they are not objects of sensitive knowledge, nor of objective certainty, but of necessary thought and belief.” [27] Mylne agreed that these were important topics in ethical theory and discussed them all at length in his lectures. However, on the specific arguments offered, he was both sufficiently Calvinist to be unimpressed by “transcendental freedom” and overly empiricist to find intellectual satisfaction in “exaltation above the sensitive faculties”.

 Turning finally to political theory, at this time of revolutionary wars with France, Willich refers to an English translation of his Perpetual Peace that appears not to have reached Glasgow. [28] Writing from an associationist standpoint, Thomas Belsham rejected Willich’s book explicitly, [29] whilst a review in 1803 by Thomas Brown on the émigré Villers’ book Philosophie de Kant (1801) in the Edinburgh Review [30] (to which Mylne subscribed) was negative.

Thereafter, the level of coverage of German language and literature in the Glasgow press suggests a steady interest yet to catch fire. The German language was not yet taught at University and its private teachers were outweighed by those of French, Italian and Spanish. This linguistic bias may be partly explained by the practical purpose of trading with the Continent and Latin America from an Atlantic port. However, by 1807 German classes were instituted again in the town, [31] though not at the College. 

It was not until after the Prussian and Russian victories over Napoleon’s armies that a discernible interest in German philosophy in Scotland awoke again with Mme de Stael’s De L’Allemagne (1813). [32] Contemporary advocates of transcendentalism included former Unitarian Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and German thought was thus widely associated with the Restoration. Such translations as were available emanated from conservative publishers, such as Blackwood’s Friedrich Schlegel’s Lectures on the History of Literature: Ancient and Modern, [33] and would be unlikely to sway Mylne’s judgement favourably.

Unfortunately, in relation to the nascent reputation of German philosophy, Mylne is on record only as having “scouted transcendentalism”, in a remark recorded long after by George Gilfillan (1813-78) who knew him in the late 1820s. [34] The scope of this dismissal is obscure, though the term was associated with Coleridge. Gilfillan continues:
he was not much versed in the poetry of metaphysics; his views seldom tapered away into the subtle, or broadened into the sublime; but he was the ideal of a clear, ingenious intellectualist. [35]
The remark shows though, that his views were publicly known and perhaps included in the later versions of his lectures or the associated class discussions. 

Mylne’s students travel to Germany

The ‘grand tour’ to the Latin countries of Europe was supplemented, or replaced, for many of Mylne’s students by time spent in Germany and many of them learned German. William Hamilton for example travelled to Germany in 1817 to purchase books and learned German. [36] His early article on The Philosophy of the Unconditioned refers to Kant, Schelling and Hegel; and his logic lectures borrow from Krug. Hamilton knew Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), whose translations, essays and novel Sartor Resartus (1831) did much to popularise the idea of Germany as a heartland of transcendental philosophy. Hamilton’s student John Meiklejohn (1830-1902) translated Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1855), a more adequate translation than that of Haywood (1835). [37]

However, Hamilton was not the only conduit of ideas on German philosophy. One merchant close to Mylne, Walter Buchanan (1797-1883) had lived in Hamburg and was familiar with German language and literature. [38] The authority on German thought in Mylne’s immediate circle was fellow liberal, John Strang, whose impression of German literature in 1831 was:
Without some acquaintanceship also, with the religious reveries of Jacobi, the dogmas of Kant, the lifeless, godless Egoismus of Fichte, and the transcendent Idealismus of Schelling, German literature, especially the mighty contributions which Göthe has made to it, will, in many instances, remain an absolute riddle; [39]
Mylne duly borrowed Strang’s book from the University library. [40] A pattern begins to emerge amongst Mylne’s former students. In 1819, after a none too successful early teaching career, John Kendrick spent a year in Germany where in Berlin he studied under Schleiermacher and apparently Hegel and studied German methods of Biblical philology. His colleague, John James Tayler was noted for his knowledge of German thought and affection for its life, probably dating from tine spent on the Continent in 1834. Julia Garnett (1793-1852), with whom Mylne had corresponded, married the German historian Georg Heinrich Pertz in 1827, in whose arms she died, and went to live in Hanover; whilst her sister Harriet also learned German. [41] Pertz was the biographer of the Prussian reformer and defeated party at the Congress of Vienna, Baron von Stein (1757-1831). [42] 

After his studies in Oxford, Charles Badham “spent a considerable time in Germany and acquired an intimate familiarity with the language and literature of that country”. [43] Badham went on to teach classics at Sydney University, which other of Mylne's students played a prominent role in founding and staffing. In later years he discussed Hegel in public lectures there.

A book by Mylne student, John Hoppus’ The Continent in 1835 (1836), shows British interest in mainland Europe again extending its gaze across the Rhine. Hoppus advocates the study of Kant and makes mention of Hegel, whom at this time he classes as a pantheist. He had a particular knowledge of post-Hegelian German theology and its challenges to orthodox Christianity. Hoppus went on to teach philosophy at the newly founded University College, London. His sustained interest in European philosophy was later expressed in lectures on German philosophy. This shows that Mylne’s students played a significant role in the reception of German thought in Britain.

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[1] See The American Transcendentalists: their Prose and Poetry (ed. Perry Miller. NY: Anchor, 1957), Foreword.
[2] Metz, A Hundred Years of British Philosophy London: Allen Unwin, 1938, 45.  Metz mentions Mylne in passing as a “distinguished and influential philosophic teacher” (32n).
[3] Fleming saw in Kant only another version of Reid and Buffier’s “first truths” (Moral Philosophy Chair, 9)
[4] See his early essay on Krug, recapitulated at the start of the Phenomenology (1806).  The Difference essay (1801; NY: Albany, 1977) however, argues instead that “What the so-called common sense takes to be the rational, consists [...] of single items drawn out of the Absolute into consciousness.”  98.
[5] Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1821), preface.
[6] Mackenzie MS, 104 at Glasgow UL [GUL].  The comparison extends safely to its application to society.
[7] Hegel, Philosophy of Right, note to para 137, 60.
[8] See articles by Waszek and Petry in Hegel-Studien; “English Reform Bill” in Political Writings (Oxford: UP, 1964) 295-330.
[9] Hegel: Lectures on the History of Philosophy (London: Paul, 1896), vol 3:3.2.2.B “Scottish Philosophy”.
[10] “Extract from the Diary of the Late Rev. David Aitken” in Scottish Review (1894) 106 et seq. Aitken (1796-1875) records two discussions with Hegel in April 1826. Aitken knew the Carlyle’s and reportedly turned down a Professorship of Divinity and Church History in Edinburgh in 1843.
[11] Glasgow Mercury advert, 2/2/1790.
[12] Glasgow Courier [GC] 5/4/1798; 6/3/1800.
[13] John Millar: Historical View of the English Government (Indianapolis: Liberty, 2006), 825.
[14] GC 30/7/1801.
[15] On the significance of Herder’s work in the context of the later development of Old Testament criticism by Julius Wellhausen, see James Muilenberg’s Prolegomenon to William Robertson Smith’s Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (KTAV, 1969), 2.  J P Nichol later borrowed Sacred Poetry from the College library (PRBs).
[16] Willich tells us, in Elements of the Critical Philosophy, that he was Kant’s student in 1778-81 and in the summer of 1792, iii.
[17] GC, 8/4/1794.
[18] Quoted in Wellek, 11.  The passage is from ‘On Imitations of the Ancient Ballad’ in Part III.
[19] Brown wrote an influential early notice of Villers’ Philosophie de Kant (1801) in the Edinburgh Review in 1803. Another member, Edinburgh lawyer John Colquhoun, wrote the entry on Kant for the early Encyclopaedia Britannica.
[20] The other dedicatee is William Miller (1755-1846) of Glenlee, Bart, a senator of the College of Justice of Scotland.
[21] By Beck, 1797: the GUL class mark NM refers to a class library.
[22] Skirving Auction records 1840.  Ludwig’s Teutschenenglisches Lexicon (Leipzig, n.d.)  It is attributed to Christian Ludovici (1660-1728).  There were several editions, one from 1789.
[23] Professors’ Receipt Books, GUL.
[24] Willich, Elements, 11.
[25] Willich, Elements, 18.
[26] There is no entry on touch in the index to NK Smith’s translation of the Critique of Pure Reason or prominent reference to it elsewhere.  I do find a remark in the Critique of Practical Reason that “Empiricism is based on touch” (Trans. L W Beck, Preface, p14), but the point is not developed.
[27] Willich, Elements, 17, apparently quoting from Critique of Pure Reason.  He seems to use the 4th edition, which is based on the 2nd edition.  I have not found the quote.
[28] Kant’s essay On Perpetual Peace (1795) was translated into English (London, 1796) and again published, along with the Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals and other short pieces, by Richardson in 1798.  According to Wellek, citing no sources, Kant was regarded as a “dangerous republican” by the British establishment.
[29] Thomas Belsham: Elements of the Philosophy of the Mind (London, 1801), iv.
[30] Edinburgh Review, 1803, 253-80.  Interestingly, Brown hopes for a “mutual correction of the errors of Condillac and of Kant”, 264.
[31] GC, 29/12/1807; 6/9/1808; 21/9/1809; and again in 1/12/1818.
[32] Mme De Stael’s “De la Littérature considérée dans ses Rapports avec les Institutions Sociales” was reviewed in Edinburgh Review 41 (1813), followed by De L’Allemagne (Edinburgh Review 43, 1813), this being noted in the Glasgow press (GC 20/5/1813&9/12/1813).  In Glasgow, her Works were advertised by the local bookshops (GC 1/2/1816), including “The Influence of the Passions” and later “On the French Revolution” (GC 21/11/1818&6/7/1819).  Mylne had a copy of the political philosopher and critic of William Godwin, Benjamin Constant’s novel Adolphe (1816) of the Stael circle. See Constant’s Écrits Politiques (Gallimard, 1997) 679 et seq. for his critique of Godwin.
[33] Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1818.
[34] Gilfillan, in Our Scottish Clergy (1849), 194; History of a Man, 89. Gilfillan matriculated in 1825 (GU Matriculation 11783).
[35] “Reverend David Young” in Our Scottish Clergy (Ed. John Smith. Edinburgh: Oliver, 1849), 194.
[36] John Veitch: Memoir of Sir William Hamilton  (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1869), 89.
[37] I rely here on an online biography by Norman Graves titled “John Miller Dow Meiklejohn: Educationist and Prolific Textbook author” (accessed February 2008), who himself cites the Dictionary of National Biography.
[38] James MacLehose, Memoirs and Portraits of 100 Glasgow Men (Glasgow, 1886).
[39] Strang, Germany, 1836, vol. 2, 76-7.
[40] Professors’ Receipt Books, GUL.
[41] Helen Heinemann, Restless Angels, 54, 98; Carl Pertz, Georg Heinrich Pertz’s Leben, 402.
[42] See TM Knox, “Hegel and Prussianism”, Philosophy, 1940, 52.
[43] The biographical Memoir  to Badham’s Speeches and Lectures (1890), xii.