He was from an academic family, his younger brother being Robert Hamilton, the economist. His father Professor William Hamilton, had in 1781, been appointed to succeed his own father, Dr Thomas Hamilton, as Regius Professor of Anatomy, Glasgow. Two visits to Germany in 1817 and 1820 led to William's taking up the study of German and later on that of contemporary German philosophy, which was almost entirely neglected in British universities. In 1820 he was a candidate for the chair of moral philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, which had fallen vacant on the death of Thomas Brown, colleague of Dugald Stewart, and Stewart's consequent resignation, however he was defeated on political grounds by John Wilson, the "Christopher North" of Blackwood's Magazine. In 1821 he was appointed professor of civil history and delivered several courses of lectures on the history of modern Europe and the history of literature. In 1829 his career of authorship began with the appearance of the well-known essay on the "Philosophy of the Unconditioned" -the first of a series of articles contributed by him to the Edinburgh Review. He was elected in 1836 to the University of Edinburgh chair of logic and metaphysics, and from this time dates the influence which, during the next 20 years, he exerted over the thought of the younger generation in Scotland. Much about the same time he began the preparation of an annotated edition of Thomas Reid's works, intending to annex to it a number of dissertations. However before this design had been carried out, he was struck, in 1844, with paralysis of the right side which seriously crippled his bodily powers, though left his mind unimpaired.