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 on Adam Ferguson

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).

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