Oswald, James (1703–93)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB054-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

Article Summary

James Oswald, Scottish theological writer, used the philosophy of ‘common sense’ to try to found religious and moral conviction on principles that were impervious to scepticism. In a long running controversy over Church discipline, he defended the right of individual parishes to choose their ministers, seeing the prevailing system of patronage as favouring the advocates of a fashionable kind of civility that was too tolerant of scepticism and intellectual innovation, and too indifferent to the Church’s traditional concerns with public and private morality. Though never part of the Aberdeen philosophical community, Oswald corresponded with Reid, and late in life collaborated with him in charitable work for the sons of clergy.

James Oswald was born at Dunnet in Caithness, where he succeeded his father as parish minister in 1726. He moved to Methven, Perthshire, in 1750, ministering there till 1783. He was Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1765, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate at Glasgow. As early as 1732, reporting to the Caithness Presbytery on a colleague’s conduct, Oswald cited ‘the common sense of mankind’ to determine the binding character of promises. In Submission and Obedience (1753) he used the same authority to justify seeing the institutions of government as part of the divine plan for the world, arguing that the Church’s mission could only be accomplished on the assumption that it too operated according to comparable principles of good order and government. From these derive obligations to duty, both civil and religious, which are ‘obvious to the Understanding of Men’. This is reminiscent of George Turnbull’s contention in his Philosophical Enquiry (1726, published 1731) that whatever is fit and binding in individuals’ relations with one another and with God can be known by common sense (see Turnbull, G.). Turnbull and Oswald were products of the same divinity school at Edinburgh; they also shared a view of miracles as law-governed events.

‘Common sense’, meaning a direct deliverance of our common human reason or cognitive faculty, was cited by Oswald to justify practices the abandonment of which would undo social institutions, affront conscience or undermine religion. He subsequently extended it to cover all beliefs a challenge to which could be considered destructive of sense or sanity. Wherever the self-evidence of common-sense judgments was impugned, some form of incoherence (social or intellectual) would ensue. The commonest way of seeming to impugn them was to allow that they needed, or were even capable of, reasoned justification. On the contrary, they were held to constitute the primary truths which all reasoned justification must already assume (see Common sense school).

Oswald was unperturbed at the diversity of principles to which he accorded common-sense status, and in An Appeal to Common Sense (1766–72) resisted any attempt to give a precise analysis of this status or rest it on more formal criteria. The thread holding his primary truths together is that they had virtually all been targets of Hume’s scepticism (see Hume, D.). Oswald commended Hume for seeing they are beyond the scope of reasoning, but he equated this too narrowly with strict demonstration, and argued against Hume that neither custom nor sentiment, both of which he considered highly fallible resources and the roots of bigotry and folly, could account for the transparent certainty of these unreasoned truths. Some degree of mental maturity, intelligent observation, even repeated experience, may be necessary to our initial appreciation of them, but thereafter their ‘self’-evidence exceeds any other evidence we could cite for them. Oswald also criticized Francis Hutcheson and Henry Home for placing moral perception in feeling rather than cognitive judgment, but he agreed that moral training proceeds more by engaging the heart than the intellect (see Hutcheson, F.; Home, H. (Lord Kames)).

Oswald’s primary truths fluctuate between the particular and the universal. They include beliefs with regard to our own existence and continued identity; the existence, identity and relative placings of objects around us and their motions, powers and causal operations expressed in the laws of nature; the existence of other sentient life with powers of action and traits of character; mathematical axioms; the being and providence of God; the real distinction between vice and virtue and its enforcement through punishment and reward; and the existence of obligations to God, others and ourselves. These are topics too central to this life and the next to be left to the rarified argumentation of the learned, and Oswald supposed it inherently ridiculous that the intelligent multitude should remain in suspense on them. A certain amount of unacknowledged chauvinism entered into Oswald’s characterization of this multitude, whom he tended to see reflected in the persons of property and judgment who formed the mainstay of the Church of Scotland.

The laws of nature, for Oswald, are not formal, mathematical laws, but such relatively nebulous principles as that bodies sink by virtue of their weight, or that fire has the power to consume combustible materials. He means that the gravity of bodies and the power of fire are too much facts of life to be subject to caveats of inductive logic. In arguing that God’s existence is evident to common sense, he wishes to avoid the metaphysical nicety of a priori demonstration and the inductive hazards of argument by analogy. To detect design, even on a limited scale, in inanimate nature is no different in principle from recognizing it among animals and humans, which in turn is no different (notwithstanding Hume’s argument to the contrary) from actually experiencing the powers of things in their manifestation; and once Oswald has reached this point he develops his argument beyond the strict requirements of common sense philosophy, into a general theodicy.

Oswald’s Appeal was sympathetically received in The Monthly Review, and by the Dissenter William Enfield in a tract directed to Joseph Priestley (see Priestley, J.). Philip Skelton commended Oswald’s argumentative skill but thought he undervalued revelation. Favourable notices in Göttingische Anzeigen led to a German translation (1774), but the popularity of Oswald’s work was shortlived. Priestley (1774) condemned his declamatory rhetoric, his restricted understanding of ‘reason’, and his dogmatic use of ‘common sense’ as an arbitrary block to legitimate enquiry. The translator of Claude Buffier’s First Truths (1780) (see Buffier, C.) thought Oswald grossly over-extended the scope of common sense, and that he failed to see how often he was describing what were implicitly reasoned judgments.

Citing this article:
Stewart, M.A.. Oswald, James (1703–93), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB054-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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