McCosh, James (1811–94), presbyterian minister, philosopher, and academic, was born 1 April 1811, near Patna, Ayrshire, Scotland, second and only surviving son and fifth child of seven born to Andrew McCosh, farmer, and Jean Carson, his wife. Educated at the local parish school, and then at Glasgow University (1824–9), he proceeded to Edinburgh University in 1829, and graduated MA in 1833. He was licensed in 1834 by the presbytery of Ayr to preach the gospel and was ordained as minister in the parish of the abbey church in Arbroath in 1835. In January 1839 he was installed as minister in the parish of Brechin. He belonged to the evangelical party within the established presbyterian church of Scotland, which withdrew in the Disruption of 1843 to form the Free Church of Scotland. In September 1845 he married Isabella Guthrie, a daughter of Dr Alexander Guthrie, a surgeon in Brechin and brother of the Rev. Dr Thomas Guthrie, minister of Greyfriars, Edinburgh. They had five children; their third son and fifth child, Andrew (b. 1858), became a distinguished surgeon at the Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University Medical Center, New York City.
The publication of McCosh's first book, The method of the divine government, physical and moral (1850), for which he was awarded the degree of LLD by Marischal College, Aberdeen, in 1851, led to his appointment as professor of logic and metaphysics in QCB in November 1851. He began lecturing at Queen's in January 1852, and over the next sixteen years in Belfast, through his published works, established a reputation as a philosopher in the mould of the Scottish school of common sense, setting out a middle way between the empiricism of J. S. Mill and the idealism of Immanuel Kant, notably with The intuitions of the mind inductively investigated (1865), and An examination of Mr J. S. Mill's philosophy being a defence of fundamental truth (1866). He wrote with Dr George Dickie (qv) of QCB, Typical forms and special ends in creation (1855), ‘incorporating an outline of evolutionary change’ (Hoeveler, 203).
In The supernatural in relation to the natural (1862), McCosh defended the miraculous against materialism and scepticism, in response to Essays and Reviews (1860). He thereby combined his interests in philosophy, theology and science, which led to the offer of a chair in theology at the College of the Presbyterian Church in England in 1867, and similar offers from Canada and America, all of which he refused. While in Belfast, with others, he championed, unsuccessfully, the establishment of a secondary or intermediate system of education, and defended the non-denominational character of the queen's colleges in Ireland. Installed an elder in the congregation of Rosemary Street, Belfast, in 1852, he played an active role in the life of the presbyterian church in Ireland. In an address to the Evangelical Alliance meeting in Belfast in September 1859, he defended the Ulster revival of 1859 as a work of God, against those who believed it discredited by the ‘physiological accidents’ or emotional excesses that sometimes accompanied it. These McCosh explained as manifestations of emotional feeling which neither confirmed nor disproved a genuine work of the Holy Spirit. He was a founding member of the Bible and Colportage Society of Ireland, and of the Pan-Presbyterian Alliance, forerunner of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches; he also took an interest in a number of religious and philanthropic causes.
During his years in Ireland, McCosh tried unsuccessfully to secure a chair of philosophy in Scotland (Edinburgh in 1850 and Aberdeen in 1860). On a visit to America in 1866 he met many of the leading educational, religious and political figures of the day, and these contacts, together with his brand of Scottish common-sense realism and his experience as an educationist, led to his appointment as president of Princeton College in 1868. He prepared the college for university status some twenty years later with his expansion and modernisation of the curriculum and of the property, the encouragement of feeder schools, the development of an alumni association and the recruitment of bright young academics.
McCosh continued to write on philosophical topics, publishing a useful history of the Scottish school, The Scottish philosophy, biographical, expository, critical, from Hutcheson to Hamilton (1875), and, risking his reputation, in Christianity and positivism (1871) he made public his belief that evolution was compatible with divine design. McCosh was convinced by the weight of Darwin's evidence and counselled against a division between science and religion. However, he was not a Darwinian: he equated Darwinism with atheism, and preferred the term ‘development’ to ‘evolution’. McCosh retired in 1888 and died peacefully at Princeton 16 November 1894. His successor at Princeton, Francis L. Patton, described him as ‘a stalwart man, with an iron will . . . a sturdy oak that storms might wrestle with but only heaven's lightning could hurt'. Princeton College was granted university status in 1896, a tribute to his vision and perseverance.