1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas Reid

Thomas Reid
Scottish philosopher

THOMAS REID (1710-1796) the chief founder of what is generally designated the Scottish school of philo-sophy, was born at Strachan in Kincardineshire, about 20 miles from Aberdeen, on the 26th April 1710. His father was minister of the place for fifty years, and traced his descent from a long line of Bresbyterian ministers on Deeside. His mother belonged to the brilliant family of the Gregorys, which gave so many representatives to literature and science in Scotland last century. After two years at the parish school of Kincardine, Thomas Reid entered Marischal College, Aberdeen, in 1722. He was instructed in philosophy by Dr George Turnbull, in his day a voluminous and versatile writer, but now almost entirely forgotten. Turnbull's teaching would appear, from the account given of it by M'Cosh, to have antici-pated and suggested certain characteristics of Reid's sub-sequent theory. Reid graduated in 1726 at the early age of sixteen, but remained in Aberdeen as librarian to the university for ten years longer. This may be looked upon as his real student-time, and it seems to have been largely devoted to mathematical reading. In 1737 he was pre-sented to the living of Newmachar near Aberdeen. The parishioners, being violently excited at the time about the law of patronage, received Reid with open hostility; and tradition asserts that, during the preaching of his first sermon, an uncle who lived near defended him on the pulpit stair with a drawn sword. But before he left the parish he was completely successful in winning the affections of his people. He was, however, nowise dis-tinguished is a preacher, being accustomed " from a distrust in his own powers," as Stewart puts it, "to preach the sermons of Dr Tillotson and of Dr Evans." The greater part of his time was given to study; and, insti-gated by the publication of Hume's treatise, he now turned his chief attention to philosophy, and in particular to the theory of external perception. His first publication, however, which dealt with a question of philosophical method suggested by the reading ot Hutcheson, was more nearly allied to his mathematical studies. The "Essay on Quantity, occasioned by reading a Treatise in which Simple and Compound Batios are applied to Virtue and Merit," denies that a mathematical treatment of moral subjects is possible. The essay appeared in the Transac-tions of the Boyal Society for the year 1748. Before this, in 1740, Reid had married a cousin of his own, the daughter of a London physician. In 1752 the professors of King's College, Aberdeen, elected him to the chair of philosophy, which he held for the next twelve years. The foundation of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, which numbered among its members Campbell, Beattie, Gerard, and Dr John Gregory, was mainly owing to the exertions of Beid, who was secretary for the first year (1758). Many of the subjects of discussion were drawn from Hume's speculations; and during the last years of his stay in Aberdeen Reid propounded his new point of view in several papers read before the society. Thus we find from the minutes that on the 13th and 26th of July 1758 Mr Beid "handled" the following questions:— " Are the objects of the human mind properly divided into impressions and ideas 1 And must every idea be a copy of a preceding impression 1" The reply to Hume which these titles foreshadow was embodied by Beid in his Enquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, published in 1764. The Enquiry does not go beyond an analysis of sense perception, and is therefore more limited in its scope than the later Essays; but if the latter are sometimes more mature, there is more freshness about the earlier work. The same year saw Beid's removal from Aberdeen to the professorship of moral philosophy in the university of Glasgow, where he succeeded Adam Smith. This position he continued to hold till 1781, when he resigned his chair in order to give his undivided energies to completing a systematic exposition of his philosophy. As a public teacher, Reid did not possess the eloquence and charm of manner which afterwards characterized both Stewart and Brown. Stewart's account of his lecturing, which may be pre-sumed to be favourable, mentions only the " silent and respectful attention" which was accorded to " the sim-plicity and perspicuity of his style" and " the gravity and authority of his character." Reid's philosophical influence was mainly exerted through his writings, and, at second hand, through the eloquent treatment which his doctrines received at the hands of Dugald Stewart, and the learning which Hamilton subsequently devoted to their elucidation. The Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man appeared in 1785, and their ethical complement, the Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, in 1788. These, with an account of Aristotle's Logic appended to Lord Karnes's Sketches of tlie History of Man (1774), conclude the list of works published in Reid's life-time. Hamilton's edition of Beid also contains an account of the university of Glasgow and a selection of Reid's letters, chiefly addressed to his Aberdeen friends the Skenes, to Lord Kames, and to Dr James Gregory. With the two last-named he discusses the materialism of Priestley and the theory of necessitarianism. He reverted in his old age to the mathematical pursuits of his earlier years, and his ardour for knowledge of every kind remained fresh to the last. But in 1792 the serenity which marked the concluding years of his life was clouded by the death of his wife. All the children of their marriage except one daughter had died many years before. In other respects Beid's life pursued its equable and uneventful course till within a few weeks of his death, which took place on the 7th October 1796.

The key to Reid's whole philosophy is to be found in his revulsion from the sceptical conclusions of Hume. In several passages of his writings he expressly dates his philosophical awakening from the appearance of the Treatise of Human, Nature. "I acknowledge," he says in the dedication of the Enquiry, " that I never thought of calling in question the principles commonly received with regard to the human understanding until the Treatise of Human Nature was published in the year 1739. The ingenious author of that treatise upon the principles of Locke—who was no sceptic—hath built a system of scepticism which leaves no ground to believe any one thing rather than its contrary. His reasoning appeared to me to be just; there was, therefore, a necessity to call in question the principles upon which it was founded, or to admit the conclusion." Reid thus takes Hume's scepticism as, on its own showing, a reductio ad impossibile of accepted philosophical principles, and refuses, accordingly, to separate Hume from his intellec-tual progenitors. From its origin in Descartes and onwards through Locke and Berkeley, modern philosophy carried with it, Reid contends, the germ of scepticism. That scepticism, " inlaid in it and reared along with it," Hume did but bring to light. Embracing the whole philosophic movement under the name of " the Cartesian system," Reid detects its irpuWov uVeCSos in the unproved assumption shared by these thinkers " that all the objects of my knowledge are ideas in my own mind." This doctrine or hypothesis he usually speaks of as " the ideal system " or "the theory of ideas"; and to it he opposes his own analysis of the act of perception. In view of the results of this analysis, Reid's theory (and the theory of Scottish philosophy generally) has been dubbed natural realism or natural dualism in contrast to theories like subjective idealism and materialism or to the cosmothetic idealism or hypothetical dualism of the majority of philosophers. But this is unduly to narrow the scope of Scottish philosophy, which does not exhaust itself, as it is sometimes supposed to do, in uncritically reasserting the independent existence of matter and its immediate presence to mind. The real significance of Beid's doctrine lies in its attack upon the principles which Hume explicitly lays down as the alpha and the omega of his system, viz., the principles that all our perceptions are distinct existences, and that the mind never perceives any real connexion among distinct exist-ences (cf. Appendix to the third volume of the Treatise, 1740). It is here that the danger of " the ideal system " really lies — in its reduction of reality to " particular perceptions," momentary or "perishing" existences essen-tially unconnected with each other. If the ultimate elements of experience are unrelated units or sense-atoms, called impressions, then it only remains to be shown, as Hume attempts to show, how the illusion of supposed necessary connexion arises. But Beid meets this scepticism by combating the principle on which it is based. In logical language, he denies the actuality of the abstract particular: unrelated impressionsand ideas nowhere exist. The unit of knowledge is not an isolated impression but a judgment; and in such a judgment is contained, even initially, the reference both to a permanent subject and to a permanent world of thought, and, implied in these, such judgments, for example, as those of existence, substance, cause and effect. Such principles are not derived from sensation, but are " suggested " on occasion of sensation, in such a way as to constitute the necessary conditions of our having perceptive experience ao all. Thus we do not start with "ideas," and afterwards refer them to objects; we are never restricted to our own minds, but are from the first immediately related to a permanent world. Beid has a variety of names for the principles which, by their presence, lift us out of subjec-tivity into perception. He calls them "natural judgments," "natural suggestions," "judgments of nature," "judg ments immediately inspired by our constitution," "prinj ciples of our nature," "first principles," "principles of common sense." The last designation, which became the current one, was undoubtedly unfortunate, and has conveyed to many a false impression of Scottish philosophy. It has been understood as if Beid had merely appealed from the reasoned conclusions of philosophers to the unreasoned beliefs of common life. The tirades of men like Beattie and Oswald, and many unguarded utterances of Beid himself, lent countenance to this notion. But Reid's actions are better than his words; his real mode of procedure is to redargue Hume's conclusions by a refutation of the premises inherited by him from his predecessors. For the rest, as regards the question of nomenclature, Reid everywhere unites common sense and reason, making the former " only another name for one branch or degree of reason." Reason, as judging of things self-evident, is called common-sense to distinguish it from ratiocination or reasoning. And in regard to Reid's favourite proof of the principles in question by reference to " the consent of ages and nations, of the learned and unlearned," it is only fair to observe that this argument assumes a much more scientific form in the Essays, where it is almost identified with an appeal to " the structure and grammar of all languages." " The structure of all languages," he says, "is grounded upon common sense." To take but one example, " the distinction between sen-sible qualities and the substance to which they belong, and between thought and the mind that thinks, is not the invention of philosophers; it is found in the structure of all languages, and therefore must be common to all men who speak with understanding" (Hamilton's Reid, pp. 229 and 454).

The principles which Reid insists upon as everywhere present in experience evidently correspond pretty closely to the Kantian categories and the unity of apperception. Similarly, Reid's assertion of the essential distinction between space or extension and feeling or any succession of feelings may be compared with Kant's doctrine in the Aesthetic. "Space," he says, "whether tangible or visible, is not so properly an object [Kant's " matter "] as a neces-sary concomitant of the objects both of sight and touch." Like Kant, too, Reid finds in space the source of a necessity which sense, as sense, cannot give (Hamilton's Reid, 323). In the substance of their answer to Hume, the two philosophers have therefore much in common. But Reid lacked the art to give due impressiveness to the important advance which his positions really contain. Although at times he states his principles with a wonder-ful degree of breadth and insight, he mars the total effect by frequent looseness of statement, and by the amount of irrelevant psychological matter with which they are overlaid. And, if Kant was overridden by a love of formal completeness and symmetry, Reid's extreme indifference to form and system is an even more danger-ous defect in a philosopher. It has also to be admitted that the principles frequently appear in Reid more as matter of assertion than as demonstrated necessities for the constitution of experience. The transcendental deduc-tion, or proof from the possibility of experience in general, which forms the vital centre of the Kantian scheme, is wanting in Reid; or, at all events, if the spirit of the proof is occasionally present, it is nowhere adequately stated and emphasized. But, when these defects are acknowledged, Reid's insistence on judgment as the unit of knowledge and his sharp distinction between sensation and perception must still be recognized as philosophical results of the highest importance. They embody the only possible answer to Hume's sceptical dissolution of knowledge. Reid's theory of sensation, indeed, deserves more attention than has been generally bestowed upon it. According to this theory, sensations are not the objects of our perception, not even, as Kant maintained, the " matter " of our perceptions on which the " form" is superinduced; they are merely the "signs" which introduce us to the knowledge of real objects. The latter "are presented to the mind" by means of, or on occasion of, certain corresponding sensa-tions; but the sensation and the perception "appear upon accurate reflexion not only to be different things, but as unlike as pain is to the point of a sword" (Hamilton's Reid, 122). Sensation, it might be expressed, is the condition of perception, but there is no sort of community between the two. They are distinct in kind, and therefore the possibility of deriving the one from the other— of melting down the real world into subjective sensations —is once for all shut out. Reid's position here enables him to escape also from the phenomenalism of the Kantian theory. Inasmuch as the permanent objects presented to us in perception are not in any sense a manipulation of subjective sensations, there is not even an apparent warrant for branding them as " merely" phenomenal. They are real in the full sense of the word; we know the world as it really exists.

The relativism or phenomenalism which Hamilton afterwards adopted from Kant and sought to engraft upon Scottish philosophy is thus wholly absent from the original Scottish doctrine. One or two passages may certainly be quoted from Reid in which he asserts that we know only properties of things and are ignorant of their essence. But the exact meaning which he attaches to such expressions is not quite clear; and they occur, moreover, only incidentally and with the air of current phrases mechanically repeated. In Dugald Stewart, however, the merely qualitative nature of our knowledge is consciously emphasized, and made the foundation of philosophical arguments; so that Stewart in this respect paves the way for the more thoroughgoing philosophy of nescience elaborated by Hamilton. But since Hamilton's time the most typical Scottish thinkers have repudiated his relativistic doctrine, and returned to the original tradition of the school.

Authorities.—For the life, the Memoir by Dugald Stewart, prefixed to Hamilton's edition of Reid's works, may be consulted, along with the account given by Dr M'Gosh in his Scottish Philosophy (1875). The complete edition of the works by Sir William Hamilton, published in two volumes with notes and supplementary dissertations by the editor (6th ed. 1863), has superseded all others. (A. SE.)

The above article was written by: Prof. Andrew Seth.

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries