Thomas Reid.

The works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters online

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CHAPTER XIV.

REFLECTIONS ON THE COMMON THEORY OF
IDEAS.

After so long a detail of the sentiments
of philosophers, ancient and modern, con-
cerning ideas, it may seem presumptuous
to call in question their existence. But no
philosophical opinion, however ancient,
however generally received, ought to rest
upon authority. There is no presumption
in requiring evidence for it, or in regulat-
ing our belief by the evidence we can find.

To prevent mistakes, the reader must
again be reminded, that if by ideas are
meant only the acts or operations of our
minds in perceiving, remembering, or ima-
gining objects, I am far from calling in
question the existence of those acts ; we
are conscious of them every day and every
hour of life; and I believe no man of a
sound mind ever doubted of the real exist-
ence of the operations of mind, of which he
is conscious. Nor is it to be doubted that,
by the faculties which God has given us,
we can conceive things that are absent, as
well as perceive those that are within the
reach of our senses ; and that such concep-
tions may be more or less distinct, and



■ Reids discontent with Arnauld s opinion — an
opinion which is stated with great perspicuity by its
author — may be used as an argument to shew that his
own doctrine is, however ambiguous, that of intui.
tive or immediate perception. (SeeNoteC) Amauld's
theory is identical with the finer fomvof representa-
tive or mediate perception, and the difficulties of Ulat
doctrine were not overlooked by his great antagonist.
Arnauld well objected that, when we see a horse, ac-
cording to Malebranche, what we see is in reality
God. himself; but Malebrauche Well rejoined, that,
when we see a horse,- according to Arnauld, what we
tiee is, i a reality, only a modification of ourselves.— H.



more or less lively and strong. We have
reason to ascribe to the all-knowing and
all-perfect Being distinct conceptions of all
things existent and possible, and of all their
relations ; and if these conceptions are called
his eternal ideas, there ought to he no dis-
pute among philosophers about a word.
[198] The ideas, of whose existence I
require the proof, are not the operations of
any mind, but supposed objects of those
operations. They are not perception, re-
membrance, or conception, but things that
are said to be perceived, or remembered, or
imagined.

Nor do I dispute the existence of what
the vulgar call the objects of perception.
These, by all who acknowledge their exist-
ence, are called real things, not ideas. But
philosophers maintain that, besides these,
there are immediate objects of perception
in the mind itself : that, for instance, we
do not see the sun immediately, but an
idea ; or, as Mr Hume calls it, an impres-
sion in our own minds. This idea is said
to be the image, the resemblance, the re-
presentative of the .sun, if there be a sun.
It is from the existence of the idea that we
must infer the existence of the sun. But
the idea, being immediately perceived, there
can be no doubt, as philosophers think, of
its existence.

In like manner, when I remember, or
when I imagine anything, all men acknow-
ledge that there must be something that is
remembered, or that is imagined ; that is,
some object of those operations. The
object remembered must be something that
did exist in time past : the object imagined
may be something that never existed.*
But, say the philosophers, besides these
objects which all men acknowledge, there
is a more immediate object which really
exists in the mind at the same time we
remember or imagine. This object is an
idea or image of the thing remembered or
imagined.

The first reflection I would make on this
philosophical opinion is, that it is directly
contrary to the universal sense of men who
have not been instructed in philosophy.
When we see the sun or moon, we have no
doubt that the very objects which we im-
mediately see are very far distant from us,
and from one another. We have not the
least doubt that this is the sun and moon
which God created some thousands of years
ago, and which have continued to perform
their revolutions in the heavens ever since.
[199] But how are we astonished when
the philosopher informs us that we are mis-
taken in all this ; that the sun and moon
which we see are not, as we imagine, many
miles distant from us, and from each other,



» • See Note B H



£W-I99]



ohap. xiv.] REFLECTIONS ON THE THEORY OF IDEAS.



299



but that they are in our own mind ; that
they had no existence before we saw them,
and will have none when we cease to per-
ceive and to think of them; because the
objects we perceive are only ideas in our
own minds, which can have no existence a
moment longer than we think of them !*

If a plain man, uninstructed in philoso-
phy, has faith to receive these mysteries,
how great must be his astonishment ! He
is brought into a new world, where every-
thing he sees, tastes, or touches, is an idea
— a fleeting kind of being which he can con-
jure into existence, or can annihilate in the
twinkling of an eye.

After his mind is somewhat composed, it
will be natural for him to ask his philoso-
phical instructor, Pray, sir, are there then
no substantial and permanent beings called
the sun and moon, which continue to exist
whether we think of them or not ?

Here the philosophers differ. Mr Locke,
and those that were before him, will answer
to this question, that it is very true there
are substantial and permanent beings called
the sun and moon ; but they never appear
to us in their own person, but by their re-
presentatives, the ideas in our own minds,
and we know nothing of them but what we
can gather from those ideas.

Bishop Berkeley and Mr Hume would
give a different answer to the question pro-
posed. They would assure the querist that
it is a vulgar error, a mere prejudice of the
ignorant and unlearned, to think that there
are any permanent and substantial beings
called the sun and moon ; that the heavenly
bodies, our own bodies, and all bodies what-
soever, are nothing but ideas in our minds ;
and that there can be nothing like the ideas
of one mind, but the ideas of another mind.
[200] There is nothing in nature but
minds and ideas, says the Bishop; — nay,
says Mr Hume, there is nothing in nature
but ideas only ; for what we call a mind is
nothing but a train of ideas connected by
certain relations between themselves.

In this representation of the theory of
ideas, there is nothing exaggerated or mis-
represented^ far as I am able to judge ;
and surely nothing farther is necessary to
shew that, to the uninstructed in philoso-
phy, it must appear extravagant and vision-
ary, and most contrary to the dictates of
common understanding.

There is the less need of any farther
proof of this, that it is very amply aeknow-

• Whether Eeid himself do not virtually hold thi 8
last opinion, see Note C. At any rate, it is very in-
correct to say that the sun, moon, &c. , are, or can be*
perceived-by ub as existent, and in. their real -dis-
tance in the heavens ; all that we can be cognisant
of (supposing that we are immediately percipient of
the non-ego) is the rays of .light emanating from them,
and in contact and relation with our organ of sight.

f200, 201]



ledged by Mr Hume in his Essay on tha
Academical or Sceptical Philosophy. " It
seems evident," says he, " that men are car-
ried, by a natural instinct or prepossession,
to repose faith in their senses; and that,
without any reasoning, or even almost be-
fore the use of reason, we always suppose an
external universe, which depends not on
our perception, but would exist though we
and every sensible creature were absent , or
annihilated. Even the animal creation are
governed by a like opinion, and preserve this
belief of external objects in all their thoughts,
designs, and actions."

" It seems also evident that, when men
follow this blind and powerful instinct of
nature, they always suppose the very im-
ages presented by the senses to be the ex-
ternal objects, and never entertain any
suspicion that the one are nothing but re-
presentations of the other. This very table
which we see white, and feel hard, is be-
lieved to exist independent of our percep-
tion, and to be something external to the
mind which perceives it ; our presence be-
stows not being upon it ; our absence anni-
hilates it not : it preserves its existence
uniform and entire, independent of the situ-
ation of "intelligent beings who perceive or
contemplate it. [201]

"..But this universal and primary notion
of all men is soon destroyed by the slightest
philosophy, which teaches us that nothing
can ever be present to the mind, but an
image or perception ; and that the senses
are only the inlets through which these
images are received, without being ever
able to produce any immediate intercourse
between the mind and the object."

It is therefore acknowledged by this phi-
losopher, to be a natural instinct or pre-
possession, an universal andprimary opinion
of all men, a primary instinct of nature, that
the objects which we immediately perceive
by our senses, are not images in our minds,
but external objects, and that their exist-
ence is independent of us and our percep-
tion.

In this acknowledgment, Mr Hume in-
deed seems to me more generous, and even
more ingenuous than Bishop Berkeley, who
would persuade us that his opinion does
not oppose the vulgar opinion, but only that
of the philosophers ; and that the external
existence of a material world is a philoso-
phical hypothesis, and not the natural dic-
tate of our perceptive powers. The Bishop
shews a timidity of engaging such an adver-
sary, as a primary and universal opinion of
all men. He is rather fond to court its pa-
tronage. Butthe philosopher intrepidly gives
a defiance to this antagonist, and seems to
glory inaconflict that was worthy of his arm.
Optat aprum aut fulvurn descendere monte
leonem. After all, I suspect that a philo-



300



ON THE INTELLECTUAL POWERS.



[_ESSAY it.



Bopher who wages war with this adversary,
will find himself in the same condition as a
mathematician who should undertake to
demonstrate that there is no truth in the
axioms of mathematics.

A second reflection upon this subject is—
that the authors who have treated of ideas,
have generally taken their existence for
granted, as a thing that could not be called
in question ; and such arguments as they
have mentioned incidentally, in order to
prove it, seem too weak to support the con-
clusion. [202]

Mr Locke, in the introduction to his
Essay, tells us, that he uses the word idea
to signify whatever is the immediate object
of thought ; and then adds," (C I presume it
will be easily granted me that there are
such ideas in men's minds; every one is
conscious of them in himself; and men's
words and actions will satisfy him that they
are in others." I am indeed conscious of
perceiving, remembering, imagining; but
that the objects of these operations are
images in my mind, I am not conscious.
I am satisfied, by men's words and actions,
that they often perceive the same objects
which I perceive, which could not be, if
those objects were ideas in their own minds.

Mr Norris is the only author I have met
with, who professedly puts the question,
Whether material things can be perceived
by us immediately ? He has offered four
arguments to shew that they cannot. First,
" Material objects are without the mind,
and therefore there can be no union between
the object and the percipient." Answer,
This argument is lame, until it is shewn to
be necessary that in perception there should
be a union between the object and the per-
cipient. Second, " Material objects are
disproportioned to the mind, and removed
from it by the whole diameter of Being."
This argument I cannot answer, because I
do not understand it.' Third, "Because,



* This confession would, of itself, prove how super,
ficially Reid was versed in the literature of philo-
sophy. Norris's .second argument is only the state-
ment of a principle generally assumed by philosophers
— that the relation of knowledge infers a correspond-
ence of nature between the subject knowing, and the
object known. This principle has, perhaps, exerted
a more extensive influence on speculation than any
other ; and yet it has not been proved, and is incapable
of proof— nay, is contradicted by the evidence of
consciousness itself. To trace the influence of this
assumption would be, in fact, in a certain sort, to
write the history of philosophy ; for, though this in-
fluence has never yet been historically devel< ped, it
would be easy to shew that the belief, explicit
or implicit, that what knows and what is imme-
diately known must be "of an analogous nature, lies
at the root of almost every theory of cognition, from
the very earliest to the very latest speculations. In
the more ancient philosophy of Greece, three philo-
sophers (Anaxagoras, Heraclitus, and Alcmffi m) are
found, who professed the opposite doctrine— thai the
condition of knowledge lies in the contrariety, in the
natural antithesis, of subject and object. Aristotle,
likewise, in his treatise On the Soul, expressly coa-
dermis the prevalent opinion, that the similar is only



if material objects were immediate objects
of perception, there could be no physical
science — things necessary and immutable
being the only object of science." Answer,
Although things necessary and immutable
be not the immediate objects of perception,
they may be immediate objects of other
powers of the mind. Foui th, " If material
things were perceived by themselves, they
would be a true light to our minds, as being
the intelligible form of our understandings,
and consequently perfective of them, and
indeed superior to them." If I comprehend
anything of this mysterious argument, it
follows from it, that the Deity perceives
nothing at all, because nothing can be supe-
rior to his understanding, or perfective of
it. [203]

There is an argument which is hinted
at by Malebranche, and by several other
authors, which deserves to be more seriously
considered. As I find it most clearly ex-
pressed and most fully urged by Dr Samuel
Clarke, I shall give it in his words, in his
second' reply to Leibnitz, § 4. " The soul,
without being present to the images of the
things perceived, could not possibly perceive
them. A living substance can only there
perceive, where it is present, either to the



cognisable by the similar; but, in his Nicomochian
Ethics, he reverts to the doctrine which, in the for-
mer work, he had rejected. With these exceptions,
no principle, since the time of Empedocles, by whom
it seems first to have been explicitly announced, has
been more universally received, than this— that the
relation of knowledge infers an analogy of existence.
This analogy may be of two degrees. What knows,
and wliat is known, may be either similar or the
same ; and, it the principle itself be admitted, the
latter alternative is the more philosophical. 'Without
entering on details, I may here notice some of the
more remarkable results of this principle, in both its
degrees. The general principle, not, indeed, exclu.
sively, but mainly, determined the admission of a
representative perception, by disallowing the possibil-
ity of any consciousness, or immediate knowledge of
matter, by a nature so different from it as mind ;
and, in its two degrees, it determined thevarious hy-
potheses, by which it was attempted to explain the
possibility of a representative or mediate perception
of the external world. To this principle, iu its
lower potence— that what knows must be similar in
nature to what is immediately known— we owe the
intentional species of the Aristotelians, and the ideas
of Malebranche and Berkeley. From this principle,
in its higher potence— that what knows must be
identical in nature with what is immediately known
— there flow the gnostic reasons of the Flatonists, the
pre-eafeUngfornis or species of Theophta&tus and The.
mistius, of Adelandus and Avicenna, the (mental)
ideas of Des Cartes and Arnauld, the representations,
sensual ideas, $c. of Leibnitz and Wolf, the phceno-
mena of Kant, the states of Brown, and (shall we
say ?} the vacillating doctrine of perception held by
Reid himself. Mediately, this principle was the
origin of many other famous theories :— of the hier.
archical gradation of souls or faculties of the Aristo-
telians ; of the vehicular media of the Platonists ;
of the hypotheses of a common intellect of Alex-
ander, Themistius, Averroes, Cajetanus, and Zabar-
ella j ofthe vision in the deity of Malebranche; andof
the Cartesian and I<eibnitzian doctrines of assistance
and pre. established harmony. Finally, to this prin-
ciple is to be ascribed the ret u -al ofthe evidence of con.
sciousness to the primary fact, the duality of its per-
ception ; andtheunitarian schemes of Absolute Iden-
tity, Materialism, and Idealism, are the results.— H.

j'202, SdOSj



chap, xiv.] REFLECTIONS ON THE THEORY OF IDEAS.



301



things themselves, (as the omnipresent God
is to the whole universe,) or to the images
offhuigs, as the soul is in its proper senso-
rium."

Sir Isaac Newton expresses the same
sentiment, but with his usual reserve, in a
query only.

The ingenious Dr Porterfield, in his Essay
concerning the motions of our eyes, adopts
this opinion with more confidence. His
words are : " How body acts upon mind,
or mind upon body, I know not ; but this I
am very certain of, that nothing can act, or
be acted upon, where it is not ; and there-
fore our mind can never perceive anything
but its own proper modifications, and the
various states of the sensorium, to which it
is present : so that it is not the external
sun and moon which are in the heavens,
which our mind perceives, but only their
image or representation impressed upon the
sensorium. How the soul of a seeing man
sees these images, or how it receives those
ideas, from such agitations in the sensorium,
I know not ; but I am sure it can never
perceive the external bodies themselves, to
which it is not present."

These, indeed, are great authorities : but,
in matters of philosophy, we must not be
guided by authority, but by reason. Dr
Clarke, in the place cited, mentions slightly,
as the reason of his opinion, that " nothing
can any more act, or be acted upon when
it is not present, than it can be where it is
not." [204] And again, in his third
reply to Leibnitz, § 11 — " We are sure the
soul cannot perceive what it is not present
to, because nothing can act, or be acted
upon, where it is not." The same reason
we see is urged by Dr Porterfield.

That nothing can act immediately where
it is not, I think must be admitted : for I
agree with Sir Isaac Newton, that power
without substance is inconceivable. It is a
consequence of this, that nothing can be
acted upon immediately where the agent is
not present : let this, therefore be granted.
To make the reasoning conclusive, it is
farther necessary, that, when we perceive
objects, either they act upon us, or we act
upon them. This does not appear self-evi-
dent, nor have I ever met with any proof
of it. I shall briefly offer the reasons why I
think it ought not to be admitted.

When we say that one being acts upon
another, we mean that some power or force
is exerted by the agent, which produces, or
has a tendency to produce, a change in the
thing acted upon. If this be the meaning
of the phrase, as I conceive it is, there
appears no reason for asserting that, in
perception, either the object acts upon the
mind, or the mind upon the object.

An object, in being perceived, does not
act at all. I perceive the walls of the room
[204, 205]



where I sit ; but they are perfectly inactive,
and therefore act not upon the mind. To
be perceived, is what logicians call an ex-
ternal denomination, which implies neither
action nor quality in the object perceived.*
Nor could men ever have gone into this
notion, that perception is owing to some
action of the object upon the mind, were
it not that we are so prone to form our
notions of the mind from some similitude
we conceive between it and body. Thought
in the mind is conceived to hare some
analogy to motion in a body : and, as a body
is put in motion, by being acted upon by
some other body ; so we are apt to think the
mind is made to perceive, by some impulse
it receives'from the obi ect. But reasonings,
drawn from such analogies, ought never to
be trusted. [205] They are, indeed, the
cause.of most of our errors with regard to
the mind. And we might as well conclude,
that minds may be measured by feet and
inches, or weighed by ounces and drachms,
because bodies have those properties, -f

I see as little reason, in the second place,
to believe that in perception the mind, acts
upon the object. To perceive an object is
one thing, to act upon it is another ; nor is
the last at all included in the first. To say
that I act upon the wall by looking at it, is
an abuse of language, and has no meaning.
Logicians distinguish two kinds of opera-
tions of mind : the first' kind produces no
effect without the mind ; the last does.
The first they call immanent acts, the se-
cond transitive. All intellectual operations
belong to the first class ; they produce no
effect upon any external object. But, with-
out having recourse to logical distinctions,
every man of common sense knows, that to

* This passage, among others that follow, afford
the foundation of an argument, to prove that Reid
is not original in his doctrine of Perception ; but
that it was borrowed from the speculations of cert in
older philosophers, of which be was aware. See
Note S.— H.

f This reasoning, which is not original to Reid,
(see Note S,) is not clearly or precisely expressed.
In asserting that " an object, in being perceived, does
not act at an," our author cannot mean that it does
not act upon the organ of sense; for this would not
only be absurd in itself, but in contradiction to his
own doctrine — " it being," he says, " a law of our
nature that we perceive not external objects un-
less certain impressions be made on the nerves and
brain." The assertion — " I perceive the walls of the
room where 1 sit,-but they are perfectly inactive,
and, therefore, act not on the mind," is equally in-
correct in statement. The walis of the:room, strictly
so called, assuredly do not act on the mind' or on the
eye; but the walls of the room, in this sens ■, are, in
fact, no object of. (visual) perception .at all. What
we see in this instance, and what we loosely call the
walls of the room, is only the light reflected- from
their surface in its relation to the organ of sight — i e.,
colour; but it cannot be affirmed that the rays 'of
light do not act on and affect the retina, optic nerve,
and brain. What Aristotle distinguished as the
concomitants of sensation— as extension, motion,
position, &c— are, indeed, perceived without any
relative passion" of the sense. Bui, whatever ma\
be Reiri's meaning, it is, ai best, vague and inexplt
cit— H.



302



ON THE INTELLECTUAL POWERS.



[essay II.



think of an object, and to act upon it, are
very different things.

As we have, therefore, no evidence that,
in perception, the mind acts upon the object,
or the object upon the mind, but strong rea-
sons to the contrary, Dr Clarke's argument
against our perceiving external objects im-
mediately falls to the ground.

This notion, that, in perception, the object
must be contiguous to the percipient, seems,
with many other prejudices, to be borrowed
from analogy. In all the external senses,
there must, as has been before observed, be
some impression made upon the organ of
sense by the obj ect, or by something coming
from the object. An impression supposes
contiguity. Hence we are led by analogy
to conceive something similar in the opera-
tions of the mind. Many philosophers re-
solve almost every operation of mind into
impressions and feelings, words manifestly
borrowed from the sense of touch. And it
is very natural to conceive contiguity neces-
sary between that which makes the impres-
sion, and that which receives it ; between
that.which feels, and that which is felt. [206]
And though no philosopher will now pre-
tend to justify such analogical reasoning as
this, yet it has a powerful influence upon
the judgment, while we contemplate the
operations of our minds, only as they ap-



Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 68 of 114)