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Aberdeen Philosophical Society

(The Wise Club)

The Old Red Lion Inn which was situated in Red Lion Brae now Firhill Place off the Spital and dates back to pre 1750's this Inn was used by the Aberdeen Philosophical Society every 2nd and 4th Wednesday in the month at 5pm between 1758 and 1773.  It was better known as the Wise Club.

Its aim was to investigate:

'...every Principle of Science which may be deduced by Just and Lawfull Induction from the Phaenomena either of the human Mind or of the material World; all Observations and Experiments that may furnish Materials for such Induction; the Examination of False Schemes of Philosophy and false Methods of Philosophising; the Subserviency of Philosophy to Arts, the Principles they borrow from it and the Means of carrying them out to their Perfection.’

picture of reidThomas Reid, (1710-1796) founder of the 'Wise Club', was a renowned Scottish philosopher.  He founded the Scottish philosophical school of 'common sense', wrote ‘An Inquiry Into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense’ and was a professor at King's College Aberdeen and Glasgow University.

The universities played a key role in the Scottish Enlightenment. Almost all of the leading lights of the Enlightenment held professorships. Their ideas and work spread Enlightenment thought to a new generation of lawyers, school teachers, doctors, ministers and philosophers.

Minutes of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, 1758-73 [Paperback]

"Aberdeen Philosophical Society (1758 - 1773) fostered some of the most significant works of the Scottish Enlightenment, including Thomas Reid's An Inquiry into the Human Mind, on the Principles of Common Sense (1764), and George Campbell's Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776)" ('Minutes of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, 1758-1773', ed. by Lewis H. Ulman, Aberdeen University Studies, 158, (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1990)). Its six founding members were George Campbell (1719 - 1796), Professor of Divinity and Principal, Marischal College; John Gregory (1724 - 1773), Professor of Philosophy, King's College, later Physician; Thomas Reid (1710 - 1796), Regent, King's College, later Professor of Moral Philosophy, Glasgow; David Skene (1731 - 1770), physician; John Stewart (c 1708 - 1766), Professor of Mathematics, Marischal College; and Robert Trail (1720 - 1775), Professor of Oriental Languages, later Professor of Divinity, Glasgow.

During its lifetime a further 9 elected members were invited to join the group. These were John Farquhar (1732 - 1768), Scottish church minister; Alexander Gerard (1728 - 1795), Professor of Logic and Moral Philosophy, Marischal College, later Professor of Divinity, King's College; Thomas Gordon (1714 - 1797), Professor of Humanity, King's College; John Ross (c 1730 - c 1800), Professor of Hebrew, King's College; James Beattie (1735 - 1803), Professor of Philosophy and Logic, Marischal College, philosopher, and poet; George Skene (1742 - 1803), Professor of Natural Philosophy, later Professor of Civil and Natural History, Marischal College, and physician; William Ogilvie (1736 - 1819), Professor of Philosophy, later Professor of Humanity, King's College; James Dunbar (1742 - 1798), Regent, King's College; William Trail (1746 - 1831), Professor of Mathematics, Marischal College, later minister of the Church of Ireland.

Aberdeen Philosophical Society (1840 - 1939) was formed on 11 Jan 1840, with the object of receiving and debating original scientific, literary and philosophical papers from its members. Like the 18th century Aberdeen Philosophical Society (1758 - 1773), its members had a strong association with Aberdeen's two universities, King's College and Marischal College. The decision was taken on 13 Sept 1939 to discontinue its meetings, chiefly in view of the difficulties posed by the war, although it does not appear to have been ever formally wound up.

Transactions of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society [Paperback]

In  the record of the preliminary meeting held in Professor Gregory's house, Old Aberdeen, on 11th January, 1840. At that meeting the Society was originated, and at the next meeting it was formally constituted by the adoption of general rules, and the election of members and office-bearers. Reference to the list will show that the Society, The History and Public Work of the Society, originated mainly amongst the Professors and Lecturers of the two Universities, which were then, and for 20 years thereafter continued to be, separate institutions.

Constitution and Objects of the Society, In the preliminary minute referred to, the members denominated themselves " Cultivators of Natural Science'.  This seems to fall short of what is implied in the name, which was adopted at the same time - the Aberdeen Philosophical Society. But a glance at the Papers read during the first few years of the Society will show that the Society, from an early period, followed the name rather than the comparatively narrow definition referred to, and its papers have ever since been in harmony with the formula embodied in a print issued in 1857, which defined the object of the Society to be - " To receive, at its stated meetings, original Papers contributed by its members on subjects of science, literature, and philosophy." By a tacit agreement, which has existed all along, the discussion of party politics and sectarian differences in religious belief has not been considered to be in accordance with the objects of the Society Conditions of Membership, From the commencement members and office-bearers were admitted by ballot, one vote in five, and at a subsequent period, one vote in three, being considered a vote of non-admission. during the early years of the Society it was also laid down as a condition that members should promise to contribute to the Papers of the Society, and failing to contribute, they remained subject to payment of the annual subscription after other members had leased to do so. This restriction was found to be either impracticable or inexpedient - probably both - and was abolished.   Although, strictly, admission is by ballot, the Society has, from its very first meeting, entrusted its President - subject to the approval of the other office-bearers - with the liberty of proposing the admission by acclamation of persons already distinguished as suitable for membership. 

At an early period of the Society's history, the annual subscription ceased to be payable after a few years, but this was departed from. For many years the annual subscription was 5s., and is now 10s. 6d. Unless the subscription had stood at this latter amount for some years, the Society's funds would not have admitted of the donations made to various public objects from time to time, nor of the publication of this volume. The single entry subscription has varied between 10s. 6d. and 21s., at which latter point it has remained for a good many years. Honorary and Corresponding Members have never been called upon to pay any subscription.

The Places of Meeting
According to a resolution of the Society at its commencement the meetings were held for some years in the Lemon Tree Tavern, Aberdeen, and occasionally in Old Aberdeen. In 1846, the Society migrated to the Agricultural Hall, King Street, for a few months, returning to the Lemon Tree in the same year. This arrangement seems to have been considered after all unsatisfactory, as at the December meeting of that year the Society resolved -  To discontinue meeting in a tavern." It is not, however, to be supposed that the resolution originated in anything incompatible with the nature of such a Society, as we find, what some may recollect, that each member present contributed only the sum of 6d. as his share for entertainment and accommodation. From 1855 to 1858 the Society met in the County Rooms, now the Music Hall Buildings; from 1858 to 1872, in the old Advocates' Hall; from 1872 to 1874, in the Faculty Room, Marischal College ; from 1874 to 1878, in the Music Hall Buildings ; and since then, in the Library, 199 Union Street, in Watson's Rooms, and in the Bath Hotel (now Royal Hotel).


Other Work of the Society

As indicated in its minutes, and which cannot be gathered directly from the mere titles of Papers read, allusion will now be made. In most cases, records of the work of the committees were not preserved by the Society, but it is quite possible that if occasion should arise, some of them might be recovered.  In 1845, Mesmerism was exciting much public interest and inquiry, and a committee was appointed to investigate its phenomena. In January, 1846, the Society originated and carried out a scheme for the delivery of a course of 12 public lectures by members. The lectures were delivered in the Royal Hotel, and the proceeds were divided between the two industrial schools, which had shortly before been established in Aberdeen. In January, 1854, a proposal was made that a committee be appointed to inquire into the physical and intellectual condition of pauper children. After deliberation, this project was considered to be beyond the scope of the Society. In 1857, the Society resolved to hold a public conversazione (scholarly gathering), and this was carried out on the 8th and 9th May of that year, in the County Rooms, at the expense of the Society, and under the management of the members.  In 1858, the Society voted £25 to the guarantee fund of the British Association, arranged to meet in Aberdeen in 1859, and by request of the local secretaries of the Association appointed a committee of its office-bearers and members to co-operate with the local committee of the Association. At the meeting of the Association, a very effective conversazione and art were also carried out, mainly by the help of members of the Society, under the guidance of Mr. John F. White, one of their number, who also occupied the position of one of the local secretaries of the British Association.

In 1861, the Society appointed a committee to collect facts regarding the ocean currents and other physical phenomena of the Arctic regions. It was considered that Aberdeen, Peterhead, and Lerwick, were convenient centres from which observations might be collected and tabulated by captains, surgeons, and officers sailing to these regions. The Society voted funds to defray the expense of books, which were distributed to captains and others. It is believed that the work proved, ultimately, to be beyond the power of the Society, but the observations reached such a stage that the committee were authorised to place them before Admiral Fitzroy; and the local interest in Arctic exploration could not fail to be strengthened by the active steps which the Society then took. 

In December, 1862, a committee was appointed for the purpose of deliberating on the possibility of compiling a "Glossary of the Aberdeenshire Dialects." This committee prosecuted the work assigned to them and it is hoped that the results may yet appear in the labours of individual members of the Society. In January, 1865, a committee was appointed to organise a conversazione similar to that held in 1857.  This was carried out in February in the halls of Marischal College. The expense of this, added to that of previous undertakings, left the Society in debt for a time. In December, 1876, a committee was appointed, on the invitation of the Town Council, to co-operate in carrying out a meeting for the following year of the Social Science Congress to be held in Aberdeen.  At the March meeting, 1877, the Society voted £50 to the guarantee fund for the meeting of the Congress, and resolved to join with the Microscopical Society in organising a conversazione during the meeting. This was carried out with success. At the November meeting the Secretary had the satisfaction of announcing that the greater number of the papers read at the Congress had been by members of the Philosophical Society. The three local secretaries of the Congress were also members of the Society - Professor Milligan and Messrs. Paul and A. D. Milne. In November, 1878, Sir Arthur H. Gordon, K.C.M.G., Governor of Fiji, addressed the Society in the Town-Hall, and was elected an honorary member.  In 1880 an Exhibition of Appliances for the use of gas, oils, electricity, &c., in lighting, heating, and cooking, was projected by members of the Town Council and other citizens. A local committee was appointed, of which the greater number were members of the Society. The Society subscribed £50 to the guarantee fund, and, by request, took charge of the undertaking, the Secretary making the necessary arrangements, along with two other members, Messrs. John Miller and Alex. Smith The University granted the halls of Marischal College for the purpose, and the exhibition was considered a success in every respect. It extended over a fortnight, 20,000 persons visited it from the city. and from all parts of the adjacent counties, and 4000 copies of the descriptive catalogue were circulated. The balance of funds, after paying all expenses, amounted to ;£55, and was handed over to the Art Gallery Fund then being raised. Following up a Paper on Cunningham's positive system of ventilation, read by Mr. Miller in February, 1883, the Society appointed a committee of 5 of its members to co-operate with the School Board in investigating the whole subject of the ventilation of our Board schools. The committee has been engaged in this work, and has now arranged and presented an interim report.

In March, 1883, on the occasion of Mr. J. D. Milne reading a Paper to the Society on Free Libraries, the Society resolved, in addition to including the Paper in the printed proceedings, to distribute it among the citizens. 10,000 copies were printed and circulated at the expense of the Society, and the Act has since been adopted by the city.  Such is a brief resume of the public work of the Society.  Keeping in view what has been now said, and looking at the list of Papeis, and the names of the contributors, it will be seen that there has been no conflict between "Town and Gown." The Society, originated by members of the University and a few others of like tastes, has all along reckoned among its active members and its firm friends many belonging to our highest teaching profession. The lists will recall many members - and remind us of many of the departed who have conferred lustre on our University and City, and of many who are still with us, not Iess illustrious.  At the same time it will be observed that from its earliest years the Society gathered into its membership citizens from all professions and all classes. Conspicuous among these are the Medical Profession, who, although they have a special organisation of their own - the Medico-Chirurgical Society, now nearly of centenarian age - have all along shown their sympathy with the more cosmopolitan work of the Philosophical Society, and have contributed materially to its usefulness. The Legal Profession have also, and in some cases conspicuously, shown a lively interest in the Society's proceedings and work. But all along, and not less at the present time, the general body of citizens have held their ground, both in numbers and in the value of their contributions. And this is as it should be. The professions exists as such, for the benefit of the general community, and it is a matter of history and experience that learning and culture have their firmest hold, not on classes, but on individuals. Some of our greatest names in science in all ages have been closely connected with the ordinary avocations of life - with commerce and trade - and have been, at the same time, among its greatest benefactors ; while from time to time the world is called upon to do honour to workers in the humblest spheres of life, who have risen above their outward circumstances to vindicate the fact that in all departments of knowledge special genius is indispensable to special excellence.  It has sometimes been said of Societies similar to ours, such as those of Glasgow, Liverpool, &c., that they embrace too wide a field - that they should devote their efforts to a special branch of knowledge. The contrary is, however, found to be the case, for the Societies of these towns, and of others, have continued to maintain a constitution similar to our own.

At the same time, they have in each case encouraged the formation of other Societies, or branches of the parent Society, for special subjects, such as mathematics, astronomy, natural history, the microscope, &c. Our experience has been somewhat similar. From time to time the members of our Society interested in such subjects have found themselves numerous enough to form other Societies for the special study of these. One of the first formed here of this nature was the Microscopical, but, although carried on with vigour for a time, it passed away a few years ago.  Another Society was formed for the study of Natural History as a specialty, and it promises to have a successful career. It includes many of those specially interested in the Microscope. And following up a Paper read in November, 1872, by Professor Geddes, “On Local Aspects of the Fine Arts," and which forms the first of the printed Papers in this volume, the St. Nicholas Association has been formed, having for its objects - To protect and advance the amenity of the city of Aberdeen and its neighbourhood; to preserve objects of antiquarian, historical, or artistic interest in the city and neighbourhood ; to promote the means of open-air recreation for its inhabitants ; and to support the Magistrates and Town Council in their endeavours to attain these objects. The Philosophical Society seems therefore to fill a distinct place of usefulness on its present broad foundations - including in its objects learning and science in their widest meaning, and in its membership all classes of the community. Nor can it be said that it would add to the strength or usefulness of the Society if each member were required or expected to contribute Papers, for without having done so each may, in his own circle, become a centre of intelligence, as regards the subjects discussed, and may thus benefit the community. As a reason that the catholic constitution of the Society should be firmly maintained, it may be further urged that, in these days of large towns, there are interests most important to the general community which have, necessarily, to be entrusted to men who have not had the benefit of the highest classical, literary, or scientific training. It is manifestly to their advantage that they should become acquainted with those of the community who have been more fortunate, and it is as manifest that the special practical knowledge which they acquire in the discharge of important official duties should be laid before  he public from time to time through such a channel as the Society presents, either by contributing to its papers or by taking part in its discussions. 

It would be idle to attempt, even though it were possible, to determine how far the Society has helped, in any important respects, to forward the progress of those who have taken, in subsequent years, an honourable place in science, literature, philosophy, history, or social and educational questions. Yet it may be hoped and believed that the earlier essays of such members as have afterwards been useful by their teaching, their writings, or their public services, made in a familiar field and with an audience fit, though few, have contributed to prepare them for attempts and successes in wider fields.  Much more must this have been the case with humbler workers outside the learned professions, who had, and have little opportunity, save in such a Society, of finding an audience at once sympathetic and respectful.

The University's Philosophy Society is a small society of students dedicated to meeting regularly to discuss a wide range of philosophical concerns, in the forms of lectures, readings, discussion forums, socials and films. Examples of previous events include discussions on “why should logic be persuasive?”,  how do we relate to characters in fiction?” talks by departmental lecturers on time symmetry and probability and the analogy between abortion and the throwaway culture, plus many, many more. We have a diverse mix of members from all disciplines; perhaps suggesting how relevant and universal philosophical enquiry truly is.

University Philosophical Society

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Last modified: 01/09/2013