Thomas Reid - Encyclopedia

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THOMAS REID (1710-1796), Scottish philosopher, was born at Strachan in Kincardineshire, on the 26th of April 1710. His father was minister of the place for fifty years, and traced his descent from a long line of Presbyterian ministers on Deeside. His mother belonged to the brilliant Gregory family (q.v.), which, in the 18th century, gave so many representatives to literature and science in Scotland. Reid graduated at Aberdeen in 1726, and remained there as librarian to the university for ten years, a period which he devoted largely to mathematical reading. In 1737 he was presented to the living of Newmachar near Aberdeen. The parishioners, violently excited at the time about the law of patronage, received him with open hostility; and tradition asserts that his uncle defended him on the pulpit stair with a drawn sword. Though not distinguished as a preacher, he was successful in winning the affections of his people. The publication of Hume's treatise turned his attention to philosophy, and in particular to the theory of external perception. His first publication, however, dealt with a question of philosophical method suggested by the reading of Hutcheson. The "Essay on Quantity, occasioned by reading a Treatise in which Simple and Compound Ratios are applied to Virtue and Merit," denies the possibility of a mathematical treatment of moral subjects. The essay appeared in the Transactions of the Royal Society (1748). In 1740 Reid married a cousin, 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 twelve years. The foundation of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society (the "Wise Club"), which numbered among its members Campbell, Beattie, Gerard and Dr John Gregory, was mainly owing to the exertions of Reid, 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. The results of these papers were embodied in the Enquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764). The Enquiry does not go beyond an analysis of sense perception, and is therefore more limited in scope than the later Essays; but if the latter are more mature, there is more freshness about the earlier work. In this year, Reid succeeded Adam Smith as professor of moral philosophy in the university of Glasgow. After seventeen years of active teaching, he retired in order to complete his philosophical system. As a lecturer, he was inferior in charm and eloquence to Brown and Stewart; the latter says that "silent and respectful attention" was accorded to the "simplicity and perspicuity of his style" and "the gravity and authority of his character." His philosophical influence was exerted largely through the writings of Dugald Stewart and Sir William Hamilton. 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 Kames's Sketches of the History of Man (1774), conclude the list of works published in Reid's lifetime. Hamilton's edition of Reid 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 discussed 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. He died of paralysis on the 7th of October 1796, his wife and all his children save one having predeceased him. His portrait by Raeburn is the property of Glasgow University, and in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, there is a good medallion by Tassie, taken in his eighty-first year. His character was marked by independence, economy and generosity.

The key to Reid's 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. In the dedication of the Enquiry, he says: "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 (see Hume, ad fin.) of accepted philosophical principles, and refuses, accordingly, to separate Hume from his intellectual progenitors. From its origin in Descartes and onwards through Locke and Berkeley, modern philosophy carried with it, Reid contends, the germ of scepticism. Embracing the whole philosophic movement under the name of "the Cartesian system," Reid detects its fundamental error 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 unduly narrows the scope of Scottish philosophy, which does not exhaust itself, as is sometimes supposed, in uncritically reasserting the independent existence of matter and its immediate presence to mind. The real significance of Reid's doctrine lies in its attack upon Hume's fundamental principles, (1) that all our perceptions are distinct existences, and (2) that the mind never perceives any real connexion among distinct existences (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," essentially unconnected with each other. This theory admitted, nothing is left for philosophy save to explain the illusion of necessary connexion. Reid, however, attacks the fundamental assumption. In logical language, he denies the actuality of the abstract particular. 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 at 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. Reid has a variety of names for the principles which, by their presence, lift us out of subjectivity into perception. He calls them "natural judgments," "natural suggestions," "judgments of nature," "judgments immediately inspired by our constitution," "principles of our nature," "first principles," "principles of common sense." The last designation, which became the current one, was un doubtedly unfortunate, and has conveyed to many a false impression of Scottish philosophy. It has been understood as if Reid had merely appealed from the reasoned conclusions of philosophers to the unreasoned beliefs of common life. 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 sensible 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 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 "1 as a necessary 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, p. 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 wonderful degree of breadth and insight, he mars the effect by looseness of statement, and by the incorporation of irrelevant psychological matter. And, if Kant was overridden by a love of symmetry, Reid's indifference to form and system is an even more dangerous defect. Further, Reid is inclined to state his principles dogmatically rather than as logical deductions. The transcendental deduction, 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 developed. Nevertheless, Reid's insistence on judgment as the unit of knowledge and his sharp distinction between sensation and perception must still be recognized as of the highest importance.

The relativism or phenomenalism which Hamilton afterwards adopted from Kant and sought to engraft upon Scottish philosophy is wholly absent from the original Scottish doctrine. One or two passages may certainly be quoted from Reid in School. 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. Dugald Stewart, however, deliberately .emphasizes the merely qualitative nature of our knowledge as the foundation of philosophical argument, and thus paves the way for the 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. For Reid's ethical theory, see Ethics.

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. For Reid's life see D. Stewart's Memoir prefixed to Hamilton's edition of Reid's works. See also McCosh, Scottish Philosophers (1875); Rait, Universities of Aberdeen, pp. 199-203, 223; A. C. Fraser, Monograph (1898); A. Bain, Mental Science, p. 207, p. 422 (for his theory of free will), and Appendix, pp. 29, 63, 88, 89.

(A. S. P.-P.; X.)

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