Scottish Enlightenment philosopher and historian, Adam Ferguson is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of sociology. Born in Perthshire, Scotland, Adam Ferguson was educated at St. Andrews and became a chaplain of the Black Watch Highlander regiment. Gradually losing his faith, Ferguson succeeded David Hume in 1757 as librarian to the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh. Ferguson held successive chairs at the University of Edinburgh, first in Natural Philosophy (1759), then in Moral Philosophy and Pneumatics (1764).
In 1767, Ferguson published his masterpiece, the Essay on Civil Society. It was a "natural" history of the progress of mankind, along the lines that had been pursued by many Enlightenment philosophers, particularly David Hume. Although Hume once claimed that Ferguson had "more genius than the rest", he disliked Ferguson's tract, regarding it as "superficial".
Eschewing speculation about the origins of human nature, Ferguson (1767) was particularly interesting in detailing its reality and consequences. He deplored all talk of "states of nature" and other such artifices of social contract theory, arguing instead that:
"Like the winds that we come we know not whence and blow whither soever they list, the forces of society are derived from an obscure and distant origin. They arise before the date of philosophy, from the instincts, not the speculations of men." (Ferguson, 1767: Pt. 3.2).
Ferguson rejects the hedonic calculus of Hume, arguing that human behavior is driven not only by the peaceful pursuit of pleasure, but also -- indeed primarily -- by a will to power, aggressiveness, animosity and a instictive desire for conflict and a susceptibility to corruption.
"To overawe, or intimidate, or, when we cannot persuade with reason, to resist with fortitude, are the occupations which give its most animating exercise, and its greatest triumphs, to a vigorous mind; and he who has never struggled with his fellow-creatures, is a stranger to half the sentiments of mankind." (Ferguson, 1767: 1.4)
Ferguson's purpose is to emphasize that no matter how universal human attributes and instincts may be, the outcome of social interaction is not uniformity and harmony but rather diversity and conflict. The "active man" is Ferguson's main protagonist. As a result, he did not have patience for analyzing institutions and constitutions in terms of natural rights and laws. Human institutions, he argued, emerge spontaneously from human activity, and evolve in a variety of ways:
"Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design."(Ferguson, 1767: Pt. 3.2)
This idea of "spontaneous order" arising from human interaction is echoed in modern evolutionary economics, particularly in the work of F.A. Hayek.
Among Ferguson's main contributions is the idea of division of labor leading to greater productivity. As he notes:
"The artist finds, that the more he can confine his attention to a particular part of any work, his productions are the more perfect, and grow under his hands in the greater quantities. Every undertaker in manufacture finds, that the more he can subdivide the tasks of his workmen, and the more hands he can employ on separate articles, the more are his expences diminished, and his profits increased." (Ferguson, 1767: Pt. 4.1)
Indeed, the progress of society, Ferguson argued, was necessarily generated by the expansion of commerce which was, in turn, driven by the division of labor -- " progress of commerce is but a continued subdivision of the mechanical arts." (1767: Pt. 4.1). This notion was highly influential on Adam Smith (1776).
However, Ferguson was not misty-eyed about the arrival of capitalism.
Division of labor was, he argued, was necessarily accompanied by inequality --
"In every commercial state, notwithstanding any pretension to
equal rights, the exaltation of a few must depress the many." (1767: Pt. 4.2). Differences in status in the workplace generates differences in the community based on wealth which, Ferguson argued, extends to differences in power in political and social settings. Division of labor is also the cause of ignorance, alienation, misery and vices like envy and servility -- "the beggar, who depends upon charity; the labourer, who toils that he may eat; the mechanic, whose art requires no exertion of genius, are degraded by the object they pursue, and by the means they employ to attain it." (1767: 4.2). This pessimism also found its way into Smith, but was particularly applauded by Karl Marx.
In the 1770s, Ferguson took on the tutorship of the young Earl of Chesterfield and accompanied him on tours of the European continent. Ferguson took the chance to hobnob with the French philosophes. His protracted absence from Edinburgh resulted in a legal challenge, but Ferguson successfully defended himself and returned to his university duties in 1775. In 1778, he was appointed to a commission to mediate between the American colonies and the British government. In 1783, he helped found the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In that same year, he published his narrative history of Rome, covering the period immediately preceding that dealt with by Edward Gibbon. Ferguson resigned from his chair in 1785 (succeeded by his student, Dugald Stewart). Ferguson published his collected lectures in 1792. It is here that we find Ferguson's contributions to moral philosophy, mainly his idea of Stoical "perfection" and an attempt at reconciling all the different Scottish positions.
Major Works of Adam Ferguson
Resources on Adam Ferguson