The Gifford Lectures and the Scottish Personal Idealists

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When Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison(1) and Willam Ritchie Sorley entered Edinburgh University in the 1870s they were among the young Scottish philosophers who came under the influence of British Hegelianism. Idealism was at the time a growing force in British philosophy and it was the 1883 volume, Essays in Philosophical Criticism, edited by Pringle-Pattison and R. B. Haldane, which first made clear the range and scope of this movement. Pringle-Pattison and Sorley were among seven contributors to this volume who subsequently delivered the Gifford Lectures. However, by the time they gave their lectures, British Hegelianism had passed its peak and they, like many other idealists, were engaged in disputes with absolute idealism represented most notably by Francis Herbert Bradley and Bernard Bosanquet. Indeed, Rudolf Metz suggests that it was Pringle-Pattison's Hegelianism and Personality (1887) that brought about a revolution in the Hegelian camp and called into being an opposition movement to the absolutism of Bradley and Bosanquet.(2) It is the purpose of this essay to explore the philosophical theologies of Pringle-Pattison and Sorley in their historical context as an important part of the story of Scottish contributions to the Gifford Lectures. Their work, however, can be seen in a larger context. It helps illustrate much that went under the heading of natural or philosophical theology at the turn of the century when arguments for the existence of God were widely considered to be an antiquarian study, and just prior to the rediscovery of Kierkegaard and the veto of natural theology by the logical positivists and the positivists of revelation.


Although one tends first to associate British Hegelianism with the University of Glasgow and Baillol College, Oxford, its influence was also being felt at Edinburgh University in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. J. H. Stirling, whose 1865 book, The Secret of Hegel, first introduced Hegel to British thought, was living in Edinburgh and Hegelianism was a central topic of discussion in the Philosophical Society of the University. Pringle-Pattison and Sorley joined several other brilliant students in Edinburgh at the time who came under the instruction of Campbell Alexander Fraser (1819-1914).(3) Fraser was not himself an Hegelian; he was a student of and successor to William Hamilton and was much indebted to Thomas Reid and Hamilton. However, he had also spent many years studying Berkeleyian idealism and pointed his students in the direction of an intellectual interpretation of the world as intelligible and orderly, subserving the ends of moral and spiritual beings.

After completing his first degree with first class honors in philosophy and classics at Edinburgh in 1878, Pringle-Pattison was awarded a Hibbert Travelling Scholarship which he used to travel to Germany to study the work of Kant and Hegel. Interest in Hegel in Germany had waned at this time, however, and Pringle-Pattison commented that Germany was the worst place to study Hegel. In Berlin he boarded with the Stropp family whose daughter he would later marry. From Berlin he went to Jena where he found John Haldane, brother of his friend and fellow student, R. B. Haldane, along with a group of Scottish students, with whom he met weekly to study Hegel's Rechtsphilosophie. In the summer of 1880 he went to Gottingen with the aim of studying with Hermann Lotze. Pringle-Pattison respected Lotze for his reassertion of the fundamental truth of the world implied in moral and spiritual experience. J. H. Muirhead says that he "was born by the Lotzean reaction to suspect the whole idea of the Absolute as a menace to individual reality in general and human personality in particular."(4) Lotze, however, was lecturing only to beginning students that summer and Pringle-Pattison set to work on his essay for the Hibbert Trust which was published in 1882 under the title The Development From Kant to Hegel. …