A leading figure of the 18th Century Scottish Enlightenment and a major exponent of the Scottish common sense school of philosophy.
Dugald Stewart was born in Edinburgh on 22 November 1753, the son of Matthew Stewart, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh.
He was educated at the Royal High School in the city before going on to study mathematics and moral philosophy under Adam Ferguson.
In 1771 he spent a year in Glasgow listening to the teachings of Scottish realist, Thomas Reid. Reid’s ‘An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense’ was central to his philosophical development and influenced his scientific approach to philosophical problems.
In 1772, at the age of 19, though his interests lay in philosophy, he returned to Edinburgh to teach mathematics at the University.
Beginning as temporary cover during his father’s illness, he then shared the position of Professor of Mathematics, before finally succeeding his father in 1775.
In 1885 Stewart took on the role and the chair of moral philosophy, which he would hold for the next 25 years. Under his tenure, the department gained a widespread reputation for excellence, and attracted students such as James Mill, Sir Walter Scott and the future Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston.
Stewart’s lectures and writings, including his major work ‘Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind’, had a lasting cultural and intellectual impact far beyond the University.
His philosophical approach to contemporary problems was an important factor in the creation of the Edinburgh Review, whilst his departure from the Scottish tradition, combined with his fusion of modern English and French ideas, dominated the American philosophical curriculum for much of the nineteenth century.
He played a large part in the establishment of political economy as an area of study and his contributions to linguistic theory are arguably a turning point in the history of the subject.
Despite this intellectual influence Stewart’s popularity ultimately rested as much on his ability to communicate in an eloquent and compelling way, as it did on his original thoughts and theories.
To me Stewart’s lectures were like the opening of the heavens. I felt that I had a soul.
Dugald Stewart’s library is part of the University’s Special Collections.
The library, including the books of his father Matthew Stewart, passed into the hands of Dugald’s son Colonel Matthew Stewart (c.1784-1851), who bequeathed it - along with many of his own books - to the United Service Club in London.
In 1910 the whole collection, with books from all three collectors, was transferred to the University of Edinburgh.
The collection contains 3,432 titles in some 4,000 volumes. It is a rich and broad collection covering many topics but particularly strong in political economy, moral philosophy and mathematics.