Hutton, James

, an ingenious philosopher of the sceptical class, was the son of Mr. William Hutton, merchant in Edinburgh, and born in that city on the 3d of June, 1726. He entered the university as a student of humanity, in Nov. 1740. He studied afterwards under the celebrated Maclaurin, but did not prosecute the mathematical sciences to any great extent. The origin of his attachment to the study of chemistry is traced to the accidental mention of a chemical fact by professor Stevenson, in his prelections on logic. The fact was, that aqua regia is the only solvent of gold which requires the united action of two acids, each of which singly is capable of dissolving any of the baser metals. This important phenomenon drew him, as if by a kind of electric attraction, to the study of chemistry, with a force that could never afterwards be overcome. His philosophical career was however interrupted by his engaging, at the request of his friends, as an apprentice to a writer to the signet. But instead of copying writs and deeds, or studying th,e forms of legal proceedings, it was found that his favourite object of pursuit was the experiments of the crucible and retort. He was accordingly released from his engagement as an apprentice, and permitted to direct his attention to studies more congenial to his inclinations. He applied himself to the study of medicine as being the most closely connected with chemistry, and after attending the lectures in the university for some years, repaired, as was then customary, to the continent, to finish his course of study. He took the degree of M. D. at Leyden, in 1749.

After his return from the continent, he began to think seriously of settling in the world. His views were first directed to the medical profession, but were soon abandoned for others that afforded better hopes of success. He resolved to apply himself to the study and practice of agriculture. With this view he fixed his residence for some time with a farmer in Norfolk, from whom he received practical lessons in husbandry. During his stay in England he made many journeys on foot into different parts of the pountry, for the purpose of studying mineralogy or geology. He afterwards visited Flanders with the view of | (promoting both his mineralogical and agricultural studies. Jn 1754 he returned- to Scotland, and fixed his residence on his own farm in Berwickshire, where he introduced the new husbandry which has since made such rapid advances in that quarter. About 1768 he left Berwickshire, and went to reside in Edinburgh, giving his undivided attention to scientific pursuits. This gave him the advantage of enjoying with less interruption, the society of his literary friends, among whom were Dr. Black, Mr. Russel, and professor Adam Ferguson.

Dr. Hutton’s first publication was given to the world in 1777, entitled “Considerations on the nature, quality, and distinctions of Coal and Culm.” It proves that culm is the small or refuse of the infusible or stone-coal, but very different in its properties from the small of the fusible coal. A sketch of his great work, his “Theory of the Earth,” the formation of which had been the object of many years of previous study, was communicated to the royal society of Edinburgh soon after its original institution. Another paper, a “Theory of Kain,” appeared also in the first volume of the Edinburgh Transactions. This theory, as is well known, met with a most vigorous and determined opposition from M. de Luc, and became a subject of controversy, which was conducted with perhaps too much warmth. After the period of these two publications, Dr. Hutton made severalexcursions into different parts of Scotland, wkh a view of comparing certain results of his theory with actual observation; and in these he seems to have been very successful. In 1792 he published “Dissertations on different subjects in Natural Philosophy,” in which his theory for explaining the phenomena of the material world, seems to coincide very closely with that of Boscovich, though there is no reason to suppose that the former was suggested by the latter. But Dr. Hutton did not confine himself merely to physical speculations; he directed his attention also to the study of metaphysics, the result of which was the publication of a work entitled “An Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge, and of the Progress of Reason from Sense to Science and Philosophy,” 3 vols. 4to. The metaphysical opinions advanced in this work coincide for the most part with those of Dr. Berkeley, and abound in sceptical boldness and philosophical infidelity. In 1794 appeared his “Dissertation upon the Philosophy of Light, Heat, and Fire,” 8vo, | which may be considered as a kind of supplement to the two preceding works. In 1796 his “Theory of the Earth” was republished in 2 vols. 8vo, from the Edinburgh Philosophical Transactions, with large additions, and a new mineralogical system. Many of his opinions here have been ably combated by Kirwan and others.

In 1792 Dr. Hutton’s health began to decline, and in the summer of 1793 he was seized with a severe illness, which after some intervals of convalescence, terminated at last in his death, March 26, 1797. 1


Philosophical Transactions of Edinburgh, vol. V.