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McCosh was born of a Covenanting family in Ayrshire, and studied at the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, obtaining his M.A. at the latter, at the suggestion of Sir William Hamilton, for an essay on stoicism. He became a minister of the Established Church of Scotland in 1834, serving as pastor first at Arbroath and then at Brechin. He sided with the Free Church of Scotland (1843-1900) in the Disruption of 1843, becoming minister at Brechin's new East Free Church. In 1850 or 1851 he was appointed Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at Queen's College, Belfast (now Queen's University Belfast).
In 1868 he travelled to the United States to become president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). He resigned the presidency in 1888, but continued to teach philosophy until his death and was involved in the development of the psychology department. McCosh Hall (home of the English department) and a cross-campus walkway are named in his honor. The campus infirmary is named after his wife, Isabella McCosh. A school on the South Side of Chicago was named after him, but has since been renamed the Emmett Louis Till Math & Science Academy.
McCosh's position was mainly in the tradition of Thomas Reid and other Scottish common-sense philosophers. He denied that our beliefs about the nature of the external world rest on causal or other inferences from perceptual ideas, but held that they are the direct accompaniments of sensation, and thus not open to question. He also argued for the a priori nature of fundamental principles such as those of causality and morality. Our judgements and other cognitions are regulated by such principles, though that is not to say that everyone is aware of them; they can be reached through reflection on our experience, when they are recognised as self-evidently necessary. In his moral theory, especially, McCosh differed from many of his contemporaries in being relatively uninfluenced by Kant.
McCosh's most original work concerned the attempt to reconcile evolution and Christian beliefs. He argued that evolution, far from being inconsistent with belief in divine design, glorifies the divine designer (see for example his Christianity and Positivism). This aspect of his work found popularity among evangelical clergy, who found his arguments useful in their attempts to cope with scientific philosophy.
- Method of Divine Government, Physical and Moral (Edinburgh, 1850, 5th ed., 1856, and frequently republished in New York)
- The Typical Forms and Special Ends in Creation (Edinburgh, 1855; new editions, New York, 1871–1880)
- Intuitions of the Mind inductively investigated (London and New York, 1860; 3rd rev. ed., 1872)
- An Examination of Mr J. S. Mill's Philosophy (London and New York, 1866; enlarged 1871, several editions)
- Philosophical Papers containing (1)"Examination of Sir W. Hamilton's Logic", (2)"Reply to Mr Mill's third edition", and (3) "Present State of Moral Philosophy in Britain".
- Religious Aspects of Evolution (New York, 1888, 2nd ed., 1890). For a complete list of his writings see Joseph Heatly Dulles, McCosh Bibliography (Princeton, 1895).
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
- Douglas Arner, "James McCosh", in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy", ed. Paul Edwards (Collier Macmillan, 1967)
- Paul Helm, "M'Cosh, James", in Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology, ed. Nigel M de S Cameron (Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1993)
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