Adam Ferguson was among the most original and important thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment. He, together with Adam Smith and David Hume, contributed to shaping the philosophical underpinnings of British liberalism. Whereas Smith’s contributions consisted mainly in examinations of the mechanism by which wealth is created and distributed, and Hume’s lay in offering a theory of jurisprudence distinct from older notions of natural law, Ferguson’s work was primarily in the area of sociology and conjectural history.

Adam Ferguson was born in Perthshire, the youngest son of the minister of the parish. After having attended his local parish school and the grammar school at Perth, Ferguson was enrolled in the University of St. Andrews in 1738, where he read classics. Some 4 years later, at the age of 19, he entered the university’s divinity school, and in 1745, he obtained his license to preach. After having served a few years as a military chaplain, Ferguson was able to obtain the help of his good friend David Hume to succeed him as Keeper of the Advocate’s Library in Edinburgh. Finally, in 1759, Ferguson was appointed to the faculty of the University of Edinburgh, where he held the chair of pneumatics and moral philosophy from 1764 until his retirement in 1785. It was during his tenure as professor of moral philosophy that three of his four most important works were published: the Essay on the History of Civil Society in 1767; the Institutes of Moral Philosophy, a synopsis of his lectures on moral philosophy, in 1769; and the History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic in 1783. It was during the years of his retirement that Ferguson completed his major work in philosophy, a revision and expansion of his Institutes, titled The Principles of Moral and Political Science, which appeared in two volumes in 1792. Ferguson died on February 22, 1816, at St. Andrews in his 93rd year, and he was buried in the cathedral there.

Of Ferguson’s principal writings, the Essay on the History of Civil Society is unquestioningly the most important and was regarded as such by both his contemporaries and political theorists writing today. In it Ferguson offers a conjectural history of social institutions, maintaining that societies naturally evolved from savagery to barbarism to civilization. Of these stages of development, the first, Ferguson maintained, was both prepolitical and lacked any real notion of private property. In barbaric societies, in contrast, property had ceased to remain communal, and private wealth, most often in the form of agricultural products and animal herds, had developed. Despite the existence of unequal possessions, however, a formal institutionalized system of laws regarding property had to await the development of civilized society. It was in response to the emergence of that complex of rules regarding the possession and transfer of property, and the permanent subordination of rank that follows upon it, that political institutions appeared. In summary, Ferguson argued, government was a creature of property, and property was an artifact of civilization.

Embedded in Ferguson’s conjectural analysis of the historical development of societies is the notion that the institutions under which men live are not the product of deliberate contrivance, but take their form through a process of evolution. Indeed, these institutional arrangements are of such a high order of complexity that their structure and interconnections with each other are beyond the comprehension of any mind. Rather, they come into being and are shaped by numerous discrete individual actions, none of which aims at the formation of coherent social institutions. Society is not the result of calculation, but arises spontaneously, and its institutions are not the result of intentional design, but of men’s actions, which have as their purpose an array of short‐​term private objectives. As Ferguson wrote:

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.

That conception, that social structures are formed spontaneously and that it is possible to have ordered arrangements of great complexity without a designer or coordinator, is possibly the single most spectacular contribution to social philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment and is reflected in Adam Smith’s description of the market as an “invisible hand” and in David Hume’s discussions of the origin and nature of justice. It was via the Scottish Enlightenment that the theory entered British liberal thought and was employed to explain why social order and individual liberty are perfectly compatible. At the same time, the theory provided a powerful argument against dirigiste systems and added strength to the arguments, put forward most forcefully by F. A. Hayek in the 20th century, that institutional arrangements that operate under central direction are unable to coordinate the many diverse interests, bits of knowledge, and plans that make up what Adam Smith called “the Great Society.”

Further Readings

Hamowy, Ronald. “Progress and Commerce in Anglo‐​American Thought: The Social Philosophy of Adam Ferguson.” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 14 (1986): 61–87.

———. The Scottish Enlightenment and the Theory of Spontaneous Order. Carbondale and Edwardsville: University of Southern Illinois Press, 1987.

Kettler, David. The Social and Political Philosophy of Adam Ferguson. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1965.

Lehmann, William. Adam Ferguson and the Beginnings of Modern Sociology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1930.

Spadafora, David. The Idea of Progress in Eighteenth‐​Century Britain. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

Ronald Hamowy
Originally published