Gowan, Thomas (1631–83), presbyterian minister and philosophy teacher, was born in Caldermuir, Scotland, an undeveloped region on the western border of Edinburghshire. His parentage is not known. He studied at the College of Edinburgh, where he graduated MA in 1655, signing the register ‘Thomas Govanus’. After training for the protestant ministry, he spent his professional career in Ireland. He was ordained to the parish of Donnagh, Co. Monaghan, in 1658. His income, in cash and kind, was derived from the parish tithe, which he lost when the Church of Ireland was restored in 1661. He continued to serve the presbyterian community at Glaslough for several years, supported by the charity of his hearers.
In 1666 Gowan was granted leave to move to Connor, Co. Antrim, to develop an academy or ‘philosophy school’ for the sons of northern dissenters, implementing a scheme first proposed a decade earlier by Sir John Clotworthy (qv), 1st Viscount Massereene. This was one of the first dissenting academies to be established in either Ireland or England after the passage of the act of uniformity in both countries, and was probably coeval with the first English academy (Newington Green) for which a firm date survives. Gowan additionally engaged in supply preaching at Connor and, as an ordained minister living within the bounds, became active in the business of the Antrim ‘meeting’, the forerunner of the later presbytery. After protracted negotiations, he moved the academy to the town of Antrim and accepted a call to the presbyterian congregation there in 1672. The academy probably remained his main source of income. Already at the outset, the ‘little maintenance’ provided for him by his congregation was ‘not well payed’ (Antrim minutes, 3 July 1672). The promise of a permanent manse and meeting-house was probably never fulfilled. His ministerial stipend was judged inadequate at £40 a year in 1674, but may never have been any higher; his widow received only a part of the accumulated arrears when he died. For a time, through the mediation of Sir John Skeffington (qv), 2nd Viscount Massereene, the congregation was allowed to worship in the parish church after the conclusion of the episcopalian liturgy, but some consciences were offended and Gowan was obliged to abandon the practice. By 1677 he had the use of a thatched house outside the town and had additionally succeeded the English dissenter, John Howe, as private chaplain in the Massereene household. In 1679 Gowan was one of two emissaries from the Antrim meeting who went to Dublin to deliver a loyal address to the lord lieutenant; the intention was to distance Irish presbyterians from the covenanting revival in Scotland.
An attempt was made in 1675 to secure a monopoly for Gowan in philosophy teaching among the dissenters of the northern counties, but it failed, since shortly afterwards a second academy was established by John Hutcheson at Newtownards. When the Tyrone meeting recommended the creation of a divinity school, the Antrim meeting tried to have this too brought under Gowan's control, proposing that Howe should help with the additional burden (minutes, 1 June 1675). James Kirkpatrick (qv), writing thirty years after Gowan's death, is the first to claim that Gowan's academy had indeed taught both philosophy and divinity, but this appears to be a mistake. Howe soon after returned to England, and the divinity school was established by William Legatt at Dromore, Co. Down (MS Carte 221, item 194). Gowan was, however, throughout his career involved in the examination of ministerial candidates, who were required to pass trials in both divinity and philosophy.
As ‘Goveanus’, he published two substantial Latin textbooks. Ars sciendi (1681) was dedicated to Clotworthy Skeffington (qv), future 3rd viscount, and his former student. While expounding a traditional logic modelled on the reformed scholastic tradition, Gowan provided an extended analysis of logical and metaphysical topics, and one of the earliest guides to textual hermeneutics and public discoursing for the benefit of those going into preaching. His most significant innovation was to take on board the work of the latest continental philosophers. He read the texts of Johannes Clauberg and of the Port-Royalists (Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole), respectively protestant and Jansenist followers of Descartes who aimed to harmonise traditional logic with the psychology and metaphysics of Descartes. Gowan followed them in restating the rules of logic in terms of the new language of ‘ideas’, but he also accepted much of Cartesian natural philosophy and was aware of the recent Dutch university debate over the autonomy of philosophy. Logica elenctica (1683) was a lengthy textbook for student disputants, with sample disputations. A planned natural philosophy text has not survived, nor has a treatise directed against the rising tide of quakerism. The latter was passed in manuscript to the Rev. Thomas Hall for revision on Gowan's death, but ‘Mr Hall being valetudinarian & shy’ seems to have made nothing of it (minutes, 4 May 1686).
Although a commission of the Scottish universities in 1695 found Gowan's work too unconventional, it influenced instruction in some of the leading English academies by encouraging pluralism in the study of philosophical traditions and opening the way to freedom of judgement. One important conduit here was the Irish-born John Ker (1648/9–c.1714), who conducted his own academy in Dublin in the 1680s, but left for London in the turmoil of 1689 and took Gowan's books with him. In the American colonies, Ars sciendi was still the most recent philosophy text available at Harvard College in 1723.
Gowan died 15 September 1683 in Antrim. No information is available on his marriage. A daughter married the Rev. Alexander Brown who became moderator of the general synod of Ulster in 1728. A son, also Thomas, born in the last year of Gowan's life and later minister first at Drumbo, Co. Down, and afterwards at Leiden, published pieces on presbyterianism and politics. It was he who standardised the spelling of the family name (a variant of ‘Govan’) which has been adopted by subsequent historians.