Thomas Brown (philosopher)

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Thomas Brown
Thomas Brown philosopher.jpg
Born (1778-01-09)9 January 1778
Kirkmabreck, Wigtownshire
Died 2 April 1820(1820-04-02) (aged 42)
Brompton, London, England
Nationality Scottish
Occupation Philosopher, poet

Thomas Brown FRSE (9 January 1778 – 2 April 1820) was a Scottish philosopher and poet.


Early life[edit]

He was born at Kirkmabreck, Wigtownshire, where his father, Rev. Samuel Brown, was a parish clergyman. He was a wide reader and an eager student. Educated at several schools in London, he went to the University of Edinburgh in 1792, where he attended Dugald Stewart's moral philosophy class, but does not appear to have completed his course. After studying law for a time he took up medicine; his graduation thesis De Somno was well received. But his strength lay in metaphysical analysis.

Philosophical career[edit]

Brown set an answer to the objections raised against the appointment of Sir John Leslie to the mathematical professorship (1805). Leslie, a follower of David Hume, was attacked by the clerical party as a sceptic and an infidel, and Brown took the opportunity to defend Hume's doctrine of causality as in no way inimical to religion.[1] His defence, at first only a pamphlet, became in its third edition a lengthy treatise entitled Inquiry into the Relation of Cause and Effect, and is a fine specimen of Brown's analytical faculty.[2]

In 1806, Brown became a medical practitioner in partnership with James Gregory (1753–1821), but, though successful, preferred literature and philosophy. After twice failing to gain a professorship in the university, he was invited, during an illness of Dugald Stewart in the session of 1808-1809, to act as his substitute, and during the following session he undertook much of Stewart's work. The students received him with enthusiasm, due partly to his splendid rhetoric and partly to the novelty and ingenuity of his views. In 1810 he was appointed as colleague to Stewart, a position which he held for the rest of his life. He wrote his lectures at high pressure, and devoted much time to the editing and publication of the numerous poems which he had written at various times during his life. He was also preparing an abstract of his lectures as a handbook for his class. His health, never strong, gave way under the strain of his work. He was advised to take a trip to London, where he died.

Among Brown's poems, which are modelled on Pope and Akenside and rather commonplace, may be mentioned: Paradise of Coquettes (1814); Wanderer in Norway (1815); Warfiend (1816); Bower of Spring (1817); Agnes (1818); Emily (1819); a collected edition in 4 vols. appeared in 1820. His poetry, though graceful, lacked force, and is now forgotten.

Brown was one of the first contributors to the Edinburgh Review, in the second number of which he published a criticism of Immanuel Kant's philosophy, based entirely on Villers's French account of it.

Criticism of Darwin[edit]

One of Brown's notable works included a critique of Erasmus Darwin's theory of transmutation. The philosopher published it in the form of a detailed study Observations on the zoonomia of Erasmus Darwin (1798), which was recognized as a mature work of criticsm.[3]

There, Brown wrote:

As the earth, to a considerable depth, abounds with the recrements of organic life, Dr. Darwin adopts the opinion, that it has been generated, rather than created; the original quantity of matter having been continually increased, by the processes of animalization, and vegetation. This production of the causes of effects he considers, as affording a more magnificent idea of the infinite power of the Creator, than if he had simply caused the effects themselves; and, if the inconceivable be the source of the magnificent, the opinion is just. It is contrary, however, to all the observations, which prove the processes of animal, and vegetable growth, to be the result of new combinations of matter, previously existing; and it is also in direct opposition to the opinions,

which Dr. Darwin has himself advanced.
A body can increase in bulk, only by the farther separation of its parts, in expansion, or by the accretion of new parts. In the former case, no addition is made to the origina quantity of matter; and it will surely be admitted, that nothing can accresce, which does not exist. The parts accreted, existing before their junction with the animal, must have formed a portion of the original matter of the world, or been called into being,, in a new creation, not by the animal, to which they accresce, but by the great fource of animal existence.
The immense beds of limestone, chalk, and marble, may have been, at one time, the shells of fish, and may thus have received a difference of form; but, unless the calcareous earth, of which they are composed, if that earth be a simple body, or its ingredients, if it be compound, had previously existed, all the powers of animation which the ocean contains would have been insufficient to create a single shell...
The process of generation is said to consist in the secretion by the male of a living filament, and by the female of a nutritive fluid, which stimulates the filament, to absorb particles, and thus to add to its bulk: At the earliest period of its existence the embryon, as secreted from the blood of the male, would seem to consist of a living filament, with certain capabilities of irritation, sensation, volition and association," p. 484. To say, that the filament is living, and that it possesses these powers, is to say, that it possess sensorial power, which is considered by Dr. Darwin, as the source of animation...
Dr. Darwin seems to consider the animals of former times, as possessing powers, much superior to those of their posterity. They reasoned on their wants : they wished : and it was done. The boar, which originally differed little from the other beasts of the forest, first obtained tusks, because he conceived them to be useful weapons, and then, by another process of reasoning, a thick shield-like shoulder, to defend himself from the tusks of his fellows. The stag, in like manner, formed to himself horns, at once sharp, and branched, for the different purposes of offence, and defence. Some animals obtained wings, others fins, and others swiftness of foot; while the vegetables exerted themselves, in inventing various modes of concealing, and defending their feeds, and honey. These are a few of many instances, adduced by Dr. Darwin, which are all objectionable, on his own principles ; as they require us to believe the various propensities, to have been the cause, rather than the effect, of the difference of configuration...
If we admit the supposed capacity of producing organs, by the mere feeling of a want, man must have been greatly degenerated, or been originally inferior, in power. He may \Nash for wings, as the other bipeds are supposed to have done with success ; but a century of wishes will not render him abler to take flight. It is not, however, to man that the observation must be confined. No improvements of form have been observed, in the other animals, since the first dawnings of zoology ; and we must, therefore, believe them, to have lost the power of production, rather than to have attained all the objects of their desire.

Noteworthy, Brown's criticism of the Darwinian thesis, like that of Rudolf Virchow, did not come from a religious feeling.


Brown's philosophy occupies an intermediate place between the earlier Scottish school and the later analytical or associational psychology, to which he really belonged. He still retained a small quantum of intuitive beliefs, and did not appear to see that the very existence of these could not be explained by his theory of mental action. This accounts for the comparative neglect into which his works have now fallen. Later criticism of Brown's philosophy lessened its popularity and he is now forgotten in many circles. A severe criticism of Brown's philosophy was done by Sir William Hamilton, 9th Baronet in his Discussions and Lectures on Metaphysics. In the opinion of some authors, they did not furnish a coherent system, and the doctrines which were then new have since been worked out with greater consistency and clearness.

Nonetheless, a high estimate of his merits is shown in John Stuart Mill's Examination of Hamilton. Also, David Welsh's Account of the Life and Writings, etc. (1825); James McCosh's Scottish Philosophy, pp. 317–337.

One German writer who seems to have known anything of Brown is Beneke, who found in him anticipations of some of his own doctrines. See Die neue Psychologie, pp. 320–330.

Another philosoper, Schopenhauer, wrote of him in 1844:

Quite recently Thomas Brown has taught ... in his extremely tedious book Inquiry into the Relation of Cause and Effect (4th ed., 1835), ... that knowledge springs from an innate, intuitive, and instinctive conviction; he is therefore essentially on the right path. However, the crass ignorance is unpardonable by which, in this book of 476 pages, 130 of which are devoted to the refutation of Hume, no mention at all is made of Kant, who cleared up the matter seventy years ago.

The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II, Chapter IV

Finally, his friend and biographer, David Welsh (1793–1845), superintended the publication of his text-book, the Physiology of the Human Mind, and his Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind, which was published by his successors, John Stewart and the Rev. E Milroy. The latter was received with great enthusiasm both in England (where it reached its 19th edition)[4] and in America.


  1. ^ See Brown, Thomas (1806). Observations on the Nature and Tendency of the Doctrine of Mr. Hume concerning the Relation of Cause and Effect (2 ed.). Edinburgh: Archibald Constable & Company. Retrieved 28 July 2014 via Internet Archive. 
  2. ^ See Brown, Thomas (1818). Inquiry into the Relation of Cause and Effect (3 ed.). Edinburgh: Mundell & Son. Retrieved 28 July 2014 via Internet Archive. 
  3. ^ History English Philosophy, A History of British Philosophy to 1900. CUP Archive. p. 209 ISBN: 1001412796; 9781001412795
  4. ^ See Brown, Thomas (1851). Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind (19 ed.). Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black. Retrieved 28 July 2014 via Internet Archive. 

Secondary Sources[edit]

  • Anon, "Letters from Edinburgh", North American Review and Miscellaneous Journal, Vol.1, (1815), pp. 183–195.
  • Anon, "Professor Brown’s Outlines of the Philosophy of the Human Mind", Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Vol.7, (April 1820), pp. 62–71.
  • Anon [Brown, T.], "Belsham's Philosophy of the Mind", Edinburgh Review, Vol.1, No.2, (January 1803), pp. 475–485.
  • Anon [Brown, T.], "Lettre de Charles Villers à Georges Cuvier, de l'Institut National de France, & c. A Letter from Charles Villers to Georges Cuvier, Member of the National Institute of France, on a New Theory of the Brain, as the immediate Organ of the Intellectual and Moral Faculties; by Dr. Gall of Vienna. Metz. 1802", Edinburgh Review, Vol.2, No.3, (April 1803), pp. 147–160.
  • Anon [Brown, T.], "Viller's Philosophy of Kant", Edinburgh Review, Vol.1, No.2, (January 1803), pp. 253–280.
  • Blakey, R., "Dr. Thomas Brown", pp. 25–33 in Blakey, R., History of the Philosophy of Mind: Embracing the Opinions of all Writers on Mental Science from the Earliest Period to the Present Time; Volume IV: From the Commencement of the Nineteenth Century to the Present Day, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, (London), 1850.
  • Blakey, R., "Dr. Thomas Brown: Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind", pp. 239–250 in Blakey, R., History of Moral Science, in Two Volumes: Volume II (Second Edition), Bell & Bradfute, (Edinburgh), 1836.
  • Brett, G.S., "The Transition in Britain and France", pp. 11–35 in Brett, G.S., A History of Psychology: Vol.III: Modern Psychology, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, (London), 1921.
  • Brooks, G.P., "Contributions to the History of Psychotherapy: XXX. Notes on the Sources of Francis Hutcheson's Views on the Association of Ideas", Psychological Reports, Vol.50, No.3, Pt.2, (June 1982), pp. 1251–1256.
  • Brooks, G.P., "The Faculty Psychology of Thomas Reid", Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, Vol.12, No.1, (January 1976), pp. 65–77.
  • Brown, T., A Treatise on the Philosophy of the Human Mind, abridged, and distributed according to the natural divisions of the subject by Levi Hedge, ed., in two volumes, Cambridge: Hillard and Brown, 1827. [1] [2]
  • Brown, T., Inquiry into the Relation of Cause and Effect (Fourth Edition), H.G. Bohn, (London), 1835. Reissued with an introduction by Rollin, B.E., Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, (Delmar), 1977.
  • Brown, T., Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind (Nineteenth Edition), William Tegg & Co., (London), 1858.
  • Brown, T., Sketch of a System of the Philosophy of the Human Mind, Part First: Comprehending the Physiology of the Mind, Bell & Bradfute, (Edinburgh), 1820.
  • Bryant, C., "Brown, Thomas", in Craig, E. (ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Routledge, (London), 1998. [3]
  • Burke, J.G., "Kirk and Causality in Edinburgh, 1805", Isis, Vol.61, No.3, (Autumn 1970), pp. 340–354.
  • Cantor, G.N., "The Academy of Physics at Edinburgh 1797-1800", Social Studies of Science, Vol.5, No.2, (May 1975), pp. 109–134.
  • Diamond, S. (ed.), The Roots of Psychology: A Sourcebook in the History of Ideas, Basic Books, (New York), 1974.
  • Dixon, T., "Introduction", pp.v-xlvi in Dixon, T., Life and Collected Works of Thomas Brown: Volume One, Thoemmes Press, (Bristol) 2003.
  • Dixon, T., From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category, Cambridge University Press, (Cambridge), 2003.
  • Dixon, T., "The Psychology of the Emotions in Britain and America in the Nineteenth Century: The Role of Religious and Antireligious Commitments", Osiris, Vol.26, (2001), pp. 288–320.
  • Flint, R., "Associationism and the Origin of Moral Ideas", Mind, Vol.1, No.3, (July 1876), pp. 321–334.
  • Fuchs, A.H., "Contributions of American Mental Philosophers to Psychology in The United States", History of Psychology, Vol.3, No.1, (February 2000), pp. 3–19.
  • Gilman, S., "Brown’s Philosophy of Mind", The North American Review, New Series, Vol.10, No.19, (a.k.a. Vol.19, No.44), (July 1824), pp. 1–41.
  • Gilman, S., "Character and Writings of Dr Brown", The North American Review, New Series, Vol.12, No.23, (a.k.a. Vol.21, No.48), (July 1825), pp. 19–51.
  • Gilman, S., Contributions to Literature; Descriptive, Critical, Humorous, Biographical, Philosophical, and Poetical, Crosby, Nichols, and Company, (Boston), 1856.
(This is an amalgamation of (a) Gilman, S., "Brown’s Philosophy of Mind", The North American Review, July 1824, and (b) Gilman, S., "Character and Writings of Dr Brown", The North American Review, July 1825, with minimal editing to account for the transfer from the two separate articles into one long piece.)
  • Hartley, D., Observations on Man: His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectations, S. Richardson, (London), 1749. [Facsimile reproduction (two volumes in one, with an introduction by Huguelet, T.L.), Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, (Gainesville), 1966.]
  • Haven, J., Mental Philosophy: Including the Intellect, Sensibilities, and Will, Gould and Lincoln, (Boston), 1862.
  • Henry, C.S., "Brown", pp. 171–190 in Henry, C.S., An Epitome of the History of Philosophy: Being the Work Adopted by the University of France for Instruction in the Colleges and High Schools. Translated from the French, with Additions, and a Continuation of the History from the Time of Reid to the Present Day, in Two Volumes: Volume II, Harper and Brothers, (New York), 1869.
  • James, W., "The Association of Ideas", pp. 79–90 in James, W., Talks to Teachers on Psychology: And to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals, Longmans, Green and Co, (London), 1932. [Reprint; original 1899.]
  • Kallich, M., The Association of Ideas and Critical Theory in Eighteenth-Century England, Mouton, (The Hague), 1970.
  • Kallich, M., "The Associationist Criticism of Francis Hutcheson and David Hume", Studies in Philology, Vol.43, (1946), pp. 644–667.
  • Klein, D.B., A History of Scientific Psychology, Its Origins and Philosophical Backgrounds, Routledge & Kegan Paul, (London), 1970.
  • Landes, M.W., "Thomas Brown: Associationist(?)", The Philosophical Review, Vol.35, No.5, (September 1926), pp. 447–464.
  • Larsen, M.A., "Pedagogic Knowledge and the Victorian Era Anglo-American Teacher", History of Education, Vol.31, No.5, (1 September 2002), pp. 457–474.
  • Lawrence, C. "The Nervous System and Society in the Scottish Enlightenment", pp. 19–40 in Barnes, B. & Shapin, S. (eds.), Natural Order: Historical Studies of Scientific Culture, Sage Publications, (Beverly Hills), 1979.
  • Lewes, G.H., Problems of Life and Mind, First Series: The Foundations of a Creed, Volume II, (Third Edition), Trübner, and Co, (London), 1875.
  • Long, J., [a.k.a. Gray, J.], An Enquiry into the Origin of the Human Appetites and Affections, Shewing how Each arises from Association, with an account of the Entrance of Moral Evil to the world, to which are added Some remarks on the independent Scheme which deduces all Obligation on God’s part and Mans from certain abstract Relations, Truth, &c. Written for the Use of the young Gentlemen at the Universities, W. Wood, (Lincoln), 1747 [facsimile reprint: pp. 281–476 in McReynolds, P. (ed), Four Early Works on Motivation, Scholar’s Facsimiles & Reprints, (Gainesville), 1969]
  • Martin, T., The Instructed Vision: Scottish Common Sense Philosophy and the Origins of American Fiction (Indiana University Humanities Series Number 48), Indiana University Press, (Bloomington), 1961.
  • McCosh, J., "Thomas Brown", pp. 317–337 in McCosh, J., The Scottish Philosophy: Biographical, Expository, Critical, from Hutcheson to Hamilton, Macmillan and Co., (London), 1875.
  • Mill, J.S., An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy and of the Principal Philosophical Questions Discussed in his Writings (Second Edition), Longmans, Green, (London), 1865.
  • Mill, J.S., Autobiography (Second Edition), Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, (London), 1873.
(Mill claims (p.69) that, although he had read Brown’s Cause and Effect by 1822, he "did not read [Brown’s Lectures] until two or three years later".)
  • Mill, J.S., "Letter to Robert Barclay Fox, August 3, 1840", pp. 313–315 in Fox, C. (Pym, H.N. ed), Memories of Old Friends: Being Extracts from the Journals and Letters of Caroline Fox of Penjerrick, Cornwall, from 1835-1871, Edited by Horace N. Pym, Fourth Edition, To which are added Fourteen Original Letters from J.S. Mill Never Before Published, Volume II, Smith, Elder, & Co, (London), 1882.
  • Mills, J.A., "Thomas Brown’s Theory of Causation", Journal of the History of Philosophy, Vol.22, No.2, (April 1984), pp. 207–227.
  • Morris, P., M.D. [Lockhart, J. G], Peter's Letters to His Kinsfolk (The Third Edition): Volume One, W. Blackwood, (Edinburgh), 1819.
  • Rand, B., "The Early Development of Hartley's Doctrine of Association", Psychological Review, Vol.30, No.4, (July 1923), pp. 306–321.
  • Rands, A.C., "Thomas Brown's Theories of Association and Perception as They Relate to His Theories of Poetry", The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol.28, No.4, (Summer 1970), pp. 473–483.
  • Reid, T. (Brookes, D.R., ed.), An Inquiry into the Human Mind On the Principles of Common Sense (A Critical Edition), The Pennsylvania State University Press, (University Park), 2000. (original fourth edition 1785)
  • Schopenhauer, A. The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II, Dover, 1966 ISBN 0-486-21762-0
  • Spoerl, H.D., "Faculties versus Traits: Gall's Solution", Character and Personality, Vol.4, (1936), pp. 216–231.
  • Stewart-Robertson, J.C., "Brown, Thomas (1778-1820)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. [4]
  • Stout, G.F., "Herbart Compared with English Psychologists and with Beneke", Mind, Vol.14, No.53, (January 1889), pp. 1–26.
  • Titchener, E.B., A Text-Book of Psychology, The Macmillan Company, (New York), 1910.
  • Todd, E.W., "Philosophical Ideas at Harvard College, 1817-1837", The New England Quarterly, Vol.16, No.1, (March 1943), pp. 63–90.
  • Veitch, J., "Philosophy in the Scottish Universities (I)", Mind, Vol.2, No.5, (January 1877), pp. 74–91.
  • Veitch, J., "Philosophy in the Scottish Universities (II)", Mind, Vol.2, No.6, (April 1877), pp. 207–234.
  • Welsh, D., Account of the Life and Writings of Thomas Brown, M.D., Late Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, W. & C. Tait, (Edinburgh), 1825.
  • Winch, P.G., "The Notion of “Suggestion” In Thomas Reid's Theory of Perception", The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol.3, No.13, (October 1953), pp. 327–341.