James McCosh

James McCosh (1811-1894), Scottish-American minister, philosopher, and college president, summarized the achievements of the Scottish philosophy and prepared Princeton for its transition from a small college to a modern university.

James McCosh was born on April 1, 1811, in Ayrshire, Scotland. He studied at the University of Glasgow and then at the University of Edinburgh, from which he received his master's degree in 1833. The following year he became a minister of the Established Church of Scotland. He later considered the greatest event in his life to have been his participation in the Free Church of Scotland movement; the Free Church seceded from the establishment in 1843.

While a student McCosh had developed a serious interest in natural theology and philosophy which culminated in his first book, The Method of the Divine Government, Physical and Moral (1850). This defense of supernaturalism and Christianity against materialism won him the chair of logic and metaphysics at Queen's College, Belfast. During his Belfast years (1852-1868) he published four books; the most important was The Intuitions of the Mind Inductively Investigated (1860).

In opposition to skepticism and Kantian idealism, McCosh's version of the Scottish philosophy argued that there existed intuitions of the mind (sometimes called the principles of common sense). These intuitions were self-evident, necessary, and universal principles of the human mind; they were immediate perceptions of the real objective order. Man could generalize from these individual, intuitive truths to formulate general principles. In all areas of inquiry, including ethics, certitude rested firmly on immediate, self-evident knowledge. McCosh, constantly concerned with the relations between philosophy and religion, believed that this form of philosophical realism was both true and most favorable to religion. He was not an innovator, but a synthesizer of a philosophical tradition that was becoming outmoded even as he wrote.

McCosh's books were popular in the United States because he was the leading philosophical writer within the Presbyterian family of churches. It was, then, appropriate that the Presbyterian-founded College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) chose McCosh as its president in 1868. He undertook the presidency of the small school with his accustomed earnestness, energy, and force. He expanded the faculty, the program, and the physical plant and increased enrollment and financial support. He continued to write on philosophy and religion during his 20 vigorous years as president. He distinguished himself by his courageous public insistence that Darwinian evolution did not conflict with Christianity. Thus he was instrumental in accommodating theology and 19th-century science.

In 1888 McCosh retired from the presidency because of age. He died on Nov. 16, 1894, in Princeton.


Further Reading on James McCosh

The Life of James McCosh: A Record Chiefly Autobiographical, edited by William M. Sloane (1897), intersperses biography and autobiography.

Additional Biography Sources

Hoeveler, J. David, James McCosh and the Scottish intellectual tradition: from Glasgow to Princeton, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.