Thomas Brown (philosopher)
9 January 1778|
|Died||2 April 1820
Brompton, London, England
He was born at Kirkmabreck, Wigtownshire, the son of Rev. Samuel Brown (d.1779) (minister of Kirkmabreck and Kirkdale) and Mary Smith.
Their son 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.
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. 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.
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 in 1820 aged 42. His body was returned to Kirkmabreck for burial.
Criticism of Darwin
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.
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 original 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 any 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) and in America.
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.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Cousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: J. M. Dent & Sons. Wikisource
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- 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.
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- See Brown, Thomas (1818). Inquiry into the Relation of Cause and Effect (3 ed.). Edinburgh: Mundell & Son. Retrieved 28 July 2014 via Internet Archive.
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- History English Philosophy, A History of British Philosophy to 1900. CUP Archive. p. 209 ISBN: 1001412796; 9781001412795
- 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.
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