Thomas Reid.

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

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tions of the mind to which Dr Reid has
given the names of the " Principle of
Credulity," and the " Principle of Vera-
city." How far these titles are happily
chosen, is a question of little moment ;
and on that point I am ready to make
every concession. I contend only for
what is essentially connected with the
objection which has given rise to these
remarks.

"That any man," says Dr Priestley,
" should imagine that a peculiar instinctive
principle was necessary to explain our
giving credit to the relations of others,
appears to me, who have been used to see
things in a different light, very extraordi-
nary ; and yet this doctrine is advanced by
Dr Reid, and adopted by Dr Beattie. But
really," he adds, " what the former says in
favour of it, is hardly deserving of the
slightest notice. "•)-

The passage quoted by Dr Priestley, in
justification of this very peremptory deci-
sion, is as follows : — " If credulity were the
effect of reasoning and experience, it must
grow up and gather strength in the same
proportion as reason and experience do.
But, if it is the gift of nature, it will be
the strongest in childhood, and limited and
restrained by experience ; and the most
superficial view of human life shews that
this last is the case, and not the first."

To my own judgment, this argument of
Dr Reid's, when connected with the ex-
cellent illustrations which accompany it,
carries complete conviction ; and I am con-
firmed in my opinion by finding, that Mr
Smith (a writer inferior to none in acute-
ness, and strongly disposed, by the peculiar
bent of his genius, to simplify, as far as
possible, the philosophy of human nature)
has, in the latest edition of his " Theory
of Moral Sentiments," acquiesced in this
very conclusion ; urging in support of it
the same reasoning which Dr Priestley
affects to estimate so lightly. " There
seems to be in young children an instinctive



* Examination of Reid's " Inquiry," &c. London
1774.
f Examination of Reid's " Inquiry," &c, p. 88.



24



ACCOUNT OF THE LIFE AND WRITINGS



disposition to believe whatever they are
told. Nature seems to have judged it ne-
cessary for their preservation that they
should, for some time at least, put implicit
confidence in those to whom the care of
their childhood, and of the earliest and
most necessary part of their education, is
intrusted. Their credulity, accordingly, is
excessive ; and it requires long and much
experience of the falsehood of mankind to
reduce them to a reasonable degree of diffi-
dence and distrust."* That Mr Smith's
opinion also coincided with Dr Eeid's, in
what he has stated concerning the principle
of veracity, appears evidently from the
remarks which immediately follow the pas-
sage just quoted. But I must not add to
the length of this memoir by unnecessary
citations.

Another instinctive principle mentioned
by Reid, is " our belief of the continuance
of the present course of nature." " All our
knowledge of nature," he observes, " be-
yond our original perceptions, is got by
experience, and consists in the interpreta-
tion of natural signs. The appearance of
the sign is followed \>y the belief of the
thing signified. Upon this principle of our
constitution, not only acquired perception,
but also inductive reasoning, and all rea-
soning from analogy, is grounded ; and,
therefore, for want of a better name, we
shall beg leave to call it the inductive prin-
ciple. It is from the force of this principle
that we immediately assent to that axiom
upon which all our knowledge of nature is
built, that effects of the same kind must
have the same cause. Take away the
light of this inductive principle, and ex-
perience is as blind as a mole. She may
indeed feel what is present, and what im-
mediately touches her, but she sees nothing
that is either before or behind, upon the
right hand or upon the left, future or
past."

On this doctrine, likewise, the same
critic has expressed himself with much
severity ; calling it " a mere quibble ;"
and adding, " every step that I take among
this writer's sophisms, raises my astonish-
ment higher than before." In this, how-
ever, as in many other instances, he has
been led to censure Dr Reid, not because
he was able to see farther than his antago-
nist, but because he did not see quite so
far. Turgot, in an article inserted in the
French " Encyclopeaie," and Condorcet, in
a discourse prefixed to one of his mathe-
matical publications,f have, both of them,
stated the fact with a true philosophical
precision; and, after doing so, have de-



* Smith's "Theory," last edit, pari VII. sect 4.

t " Rssai sur I'apphcation de l'analyse a la pro.
ba.bilite des decisions rendues a la plurality des
voix." Paris, 1785.



duced from it an inference, not only flie
same in substance with that of Dr Reid,
but almost expressed in the same form of
words. »

In these references, as well as in that
already made to Mr Smith's " Theory," I
would not be understood to lay any undue
stress on authority in a philosophical argu-
ment. I wish only — by contrasting the
modesty and caution resulting from habits
of profound thought, with that theoretical
intrepidity which a blindness to insuper-
able difficulties has a tendency to inspire

to^invite those whose prejudices against this
part of Reid's system rest chiefly on the
great names to which they conceive it to
be hostile, to re-examine it with a little
more attention, before they pronounce
finally on its merits.

The prejudices which are apt to occur
against a mode of philosophizing so morti-
fying to scholastic arrogance, are encour-
aged greatly by that natural disposition, to
refer particular facts to general laws, which
is the foundation of all scientific arrange-
ment ; a principle of the utmost importance
to our intellectual constitution, but" which
requires the guidance of a sound and ex-
perienced understanding to accomplish the
purposes for which it was destined. They
are encouraged also, in no inconsiderable
degree, by the acknowledged success of
mathematicians, in raising, on the basis of a
few simple data, the most magnificent, and,
at the same time, the most solid fabric of
science, of which human genius can boast.
The absurd references which logicians are
accustomed to make to Euclid's " Elements
of Geometry," as a model which cannot be
too studiously copied, both in physics and
in morals, have contributed, in this as in a
variety of other instances, to mislead phi-
losophers from the study of facts, into the
false refinements of hypothetical theory.

On these misapplications of mathemati-
cal method to sciences which rest ulti-
mately on experiment and observation, I
shall take another opportunity of offering
some strictures. At present, it is suffi-
cient to remark the peculiar nature of the
truths about which pure or abstract mathe-
matics are conversant. As these truths
have all a necessary connection with each
other, (all of them resting ultimately on
those definitions or hypotheses which
are the principles of our reasoning,) the
beauty of the science cannot fail to increase ;
in proportion to the simplicity of the data,
compared with the incalculable variety of
consequences which they involve : and to
the simplifications and generalizations of
theory on such a subject, it is perhaps im-
possible to conceive any limit. How dif-
ferent is the case in those inquiries where
our first principles are not defimtiom but



OF THOMAS RfilD, D.B.



25



facts , aud where our business is not to
trace necessary connections, but the laws
which regulate the established order of the
universe !

In various attempts which have been
lately made, more especially on the Conti-
nent, towards a systematical exposition of
the elements of physics, the effects of the
mistake I am now censuring are extremely
remarkable. The happy use of mathema-
tical principles, exhibited in the writings
of Newton and his followers, having ren-
dered an extensive knowledge of them an
indispensable preparation for the study of
the mechanical philosophy, the early habits
of thought acquired in the former pursuit
are naturally transferred to the latter.
Hence the illogical aud obscure manner in
which its elementary principles have fre-
quently been stated; an attempt being
made to deduce, from the smallest possible
number of data, the whole system of truths
which it comprehends. The analogy exist-
ing among some of the fundamental laws of
mechanics, bestows, in the opinion of the
multitude, an appearance of plausibility on
such attempts ; and their obvious tendency
is to withdraw the attention from that unity
of design which it is the noblest employ-
ment of philosophy to illustrate, by dis-
guising it under the semblance of an eter-
nal and necessary order, similar to what
the mathematician delights to trace among
the mutual relations of quantities and
figures.

These slight hints may serve as a reply in
part to what Dr Priestley has suggested
with respect to the consequences likely to
'follow, if the spirit of Reid's philosophy
should be introduced into physics.* One
consequence would unquestionably be, a
careful separation between the principles
•which we learn from experience alone, and
those which are fairly resolvable, by ma-
thematical or physical reasoning, into other
facts still more general ; and, of course, a
correction of that false logic which, while
it throws an air of mystery over the plainest
and most undeniable facts, levels the study
of nature, in point of moral interest, with
the investigations of the geometer or of the
algebraist.

It must not, however, be supposed, that,
in the present state of natural philosophy,
a false logic threatens the same dangerous
effects as in the philosophy of the mind.
It may retard somewhat the progress of the
student at his first outset ; or it may con-
found, in his apprehensions, the harmony
of systematical order with the consistency
and mutual dependency essential to a series
of mathematical theorems : but the funda-
mental truths of physics are now too well

* " Examination of Reid's Inquiry, p 1 10.



established, and the checks which it fur-
nishes against sophistry are too numerous
and palpable, to admit the possibility of any
permanent error in our deductions. In the
philosophy of the mind, so difficult is the
acquisition of those habits of reflection
which can alone lead to a correct knowledge
of the intellectual phenomena, that a faulty
hypothesis, if skilfully fortified by the im-
posing, though illusory strength of arbitrary
definitions and a systematical phraseology,
may maintain its ground for a succession
of ages.

It will not, I trust, be inferred from
anything I have here advanced, that I
mean to offer an apology for those who,
either in physics or morals, would pre-
sumptuously state their own opinions with
respect to the laws of nature, as a bar
against future attempts to simplify and
generalize them still farther. To assert
that none of the mechanical explanations
yet given of gravitation are satisfactory,
and even to hint that ingenuity might be
more profitably employed than in the search
of such a theory, is something different from
a gratuitous assumption of ultimate facts in
physics ; nor does it imply an obstinate de-
termination to resist legitimate evidence,
should some fortunate inquirer — contrary
to what seems probable at present— succeed
where the genius of Newton has failed. If
Dr Reid has gone farther than this in his
conclusions concerning the principles which
he calls original or instinctive, he has de-
parted from that guarded language in which
he commonly expresses himself — for all that
it was of importance for him to conclude
was, that the theories of his predecessors
were, in these instances, exceptionable ;
and the doubts he may occasionally insinu-
ate, concerning the success of future adven-
turers, so far from betraying any overween-
ing confidence in his own understanding,
are an indirect tribute to the talents of those
from whose failure he draws an argument
against the possibility of their undertaking.

The same eagerness to simplify and to
generalize, which led Priestley to complain
of the number of Reid's instinctive prin-
ciples, has carried some later philosophers
a step farther. According to them, the
very word instinct is unphilosophical ; and
everything, either in man or brute, which
has been hitherto referred to this mysteri-
ous source, may be easily accounted for by
experience or imitation. A few instances
in which this doctrine appears to have been
successfully verified, have been deemed
sufficient to establish it without any limit-
ation. \

InCa very original work) on which I have
already hazarded some criticisms, much in-
genuity has been employed in analyzing the
wonderful efforts which the human infan'



26



ACCOUNT OF THE LIFE AND WRITINGS



is enabled to make for its own preservation
the moment after its introduction to the
light. Thus, it is observed that the fcetus,
while still in the uterus, learns to perforin
the operation of swallowing ; arid also learns
to relieve itself, by a change of posture,
from the irksomeness of continued rest:
and, therefore, (if we admit these proposi-
tions,) we must conclude that some of the
actions which infants are vulgarly supposed
to perform in consequence of instincts coeval
with birth, are only a continuation of actions
to which they were determined at an earlier
period of their being. The remark is inge-
nious, and it may perhaps be just ; but it
does not prove that instinct is an unphiloso-
phical term ; nor does it render the opera-
tions of the infant less mysterious than they
seem to be on the common supposition.
How far soever the analysis, in such in-
stances, may be carried, we must at last
arrive at some phcawmenon no less wonder-
ful than that we mean to explain : in other
words, we must still admit as an ultimate
fact, the existence of an original determina-
tion to a particular mode of action salutary
or necessary to the animal ; and all we
have accomplished is, to connect the origin
of this instinct with an earlier period in the
history of the human mind.

The same author has attempted to ac-
count, in a manner somewhat similar, for
the different degrees in which the young
of different animals are able, at the moment
of birth, to exert their bodily powers.
Thus, calves and chickens are able to walk
almost immediately ; while the human in-
fant, even in the most favourable situations,
is six or even twelve months old before he
can stand alone. For this Dr Darwin
assigns two causes. 1. That the young of
some animals come into the world in a more
complete state than that of others — the colt
and lamb, for example, enjoying, in this
respect, a striking advantage over the puppy
and the rabbit. 2. That the mode of walk-
ing of some animals, coincides more per-
fectly than that of others, with the previous
motions of the ftstus in utero. The struggles
of all animals, he observes, in the womb,
must resemble their manner of swimming,
as by this kind of motion they can best
change their attitude in water. But the
swimming of the calf and of the chicken
resembles their ordinary movements on the
ground, which they have thus learned in
part to execute while concealed from our
observation ; whereas, the swimming of the
human infant differing totally from his
manner of walking, he has no opportunity
of acquiring the last of these arts till he is
exposed to our view. The theory is ex-
tremely plausible, and does honour to the
author's sagacity ; but it only places in a
new light that provident care which Nature |



has taken of all her offspring in the infancy
of their existence.

Another instance may contribute towards
a more ample illustration of the same sub-
ject. A lamb, not many minutes after it
is dropped, proceeds to search for its nour-
ishment in that spot where alone it is to be
found ; applying both its limbs and its eyes ts
their respective offices. The peasant ob-
serves the fact, and gives the name of in-
stinct, or some corresponding term, to the
unknown principle by which the animal is
guided. On a more accurate examination
of circumstances, the philosopher finds
reason to conclude that it is by the sense
of smelling it is thus directed to its object.
In proof of this, among other curious facts,
the following has been quoted : — " On
dissecting," says Galen, "a goat great
with young, I found a brisk emkrytm, and
having detached it from the matrix, and
snatching it away before it saw its dam, I
brought it into a room where there were
many vessels ; some filled with wine, others
with oil, some with honey, others with
milk, or some other liquor ; and in others
there were grains and fruits. We first ob-
served the young animal get upon its feet
and walk ; then it shook itself, and after-
wards scratched its side with one of its
feet ; then we saw it smelling to every one
of those things that were set in the room ;
and, when it had smelt to them all, it
drank up the milk."* Admitting this very
beautiful story to be true, (and, for my own
part, I am far from being disposed to ques-
tion its probability,) it only enables us to
state the fact with a little more precision,
in consequence of our having ascertained,
that it is to the sense of smelling the in-
stinctive determination is attached. The
conclusion of the peasant is not here at
variance with that of the philosopher. It
differs only in this, that he expresses him-
self in those general terms which are suited
to his ignorance of the particular process
by which Nature, in this case, accomplishes
her end ; and, if he did otherwise, he
would be censurable for prejudging a ques-
tion of which he is incompetent to form an
accurate opinion.

The application of these illustrations to
some of Dr Reid's conclusions concerning
the instinctive principles of the human
mind, is, I flatter myself, sufficiently mani-
fest. They relate, indeed, to a subject
which differs, in various respects, from that
which has fallen under his more particular-
consideration ; but the same rules of philo-
sophizing wili be found to apply equally to
both.

4. The criticisms which have been made
on what Dr Reid has written concerning

• Darwin, m. i. ppi , Wj lgs



OP THOMAS REID, D.D.



27



the intuitive truths which he distinguishes
by the title of " Principles of Common
Sense," would require a more ample dis-
cussion than I can now bestow on them ;
not that the importance of these criticisms
(of such of them, at least, as I have happened
to meet with) demands a long or elaborate
refutation, but because the subject, accord-
ing to the view I wish to take of it, involves
some other questions of great moment and
difficulty, relative to the foundations of
human knowledge. Dr Priestley, the most
formidable of Dr Reid's antagonists, has
granted as much in favour of this doctrine
as it is worth while to contend for on the
present occasion. " Had these writers,"
he observes, with respect to Dr Reid and
his followers, " assumed, as the elements
of their Common Sense, certain truths which
are so plain that no man could doubt of
them, (without entering into the ground of
our assent to them,) their conduct would
,have been liable to very little objection. AH
jthat could have been said would have been,
jthat, without any necessity, they had made
an innovation in the received use of a term ;
for no person ever denied that there are
self-evident truths, and that these must be
lassumed as the foundation of all our reason-
ing. I never met with any person who did
not acknowledge this, or heard of any argu-
mentative treatise that did not go upon the
supposition of it."* After such an acknow-
ledgment, it is impossible to forbear asking,
a with Dr Campbell,) " What is the great
wint which Dr Priestley would controvert ?
'Is it, whether such self-evident truths shall
"oe denominated Principles of Common Sense,
Sr be distinguished by some other appella-
tion ?"f

' That the doctrine in question has been,
1 n some publications, presented in a very
Exceptionable form, I most readily allow ;
k.ior would I be understood to subscribe to
!l t implicitly, even as it appears in the works
"if Dr Reid. It is but an act of justice to
fiim, however, to request that his opinions
iiay be judged of from his own works alone,
Siot from those of others who may have
j'happened to coincide with him in certain
ikenets, or in certain modes of expression ;
md that, before any ridicule be attempted
An his conclusions concerning the authority
*sf Common Sense, his antagonists would
illake the trouble to examine in what accept-
ation he has employed that phrase,
i i The truths which Dr Reid seems, in most
Ishstances, disposed to refer to the judgment
rff this tribunal, might, in my opinion, be
Renominated more unexceptionably, " fun-
damental laws of human belief." They



ml * « Examination of Dr Reid's Inquiry," Itc. p.

*" t " Philosophv of Rhetoric," vol. i. p. ill — See
— lote E,



have been called by a very ingenious fo-
reigner, (M. Trembley of Geneva,) but
certainly with a singular infelicity of lan-
guage, Prejuges Legitimes. Of this kind
are the following propositions : — " I am the
same person to-day that I was yesterday ;"
" The material world has an existence in-
dependent of that of percipient beings ;"
" There are other intelligent beings in the
universe beside myself;" " The future
course of nature will resemble the past."
Such truths no man but a philosopher ever
thinks of stating to himself in words ; but
all our conduct and all our reasonings pro-
ceed on the supposition that they are admit-
ted. The belief of them is essential for the
preservation of our animal existence ; and
it is accordingly coeval with the first opera-
tions of the intellect.

One of the first writers who introduced
the phrase Common Sense into the tech-
nical or appropriate language of logic, was
Father Buffier, in a book entitled, " Traite
des Premieres Verites." It has since been
adopted by several authors of note in this
country ; particularly by Dr Reid, Dr Os-
wald, and Dr Beattie; by all of whom,
however, I am afraid, it must be confessed,
it has been occasionally employed without
a due attention to precision. The last of
these writers uses it* to denote that power
by which the mind perceives the truth of
any intuitive proposition ; whether it be an
axiom of abstract science ; or a statement
of some fact resting on the immediate inform-
ation of consciousness, of perception, or
of memory ; or one of those fundamental
laws of belief which are implied in the ap-
plication of our faculties to the ordinary
business of life. The same extensive use
of the word may, I believe, be found in
the other authors just mentioned. vBut no
authority can justify such a laxity in the
employment of language in philosophical
discussions^for, if mathematical axioms be
(as they are, manifestly and indisputably)
a class of propositions essentially distinct
from the other kinds of intuitive truths
now described, why refer them all indis-
criminately to the same principle in our
constitution ? If this phrase, therefore, be
at all retained, precision requires that it
should be employed in a more limited ac-
ceptation ; and, accordingly, in the works
under our consideration, it is appropriated
most frequently, though by no means uni-
formly, to that class of intuitive truths
which I have already called " fundamental
laws of belief."f When thus restricted,
it conveys a notion, unambiguous, at least,



• "Essay on Truth," edition second, p. 40, el
seq. ; also p. 166, et seq.

+ This seems to be nearly the meaning annexed to
the phrase, by the learned and acute author of " The
Philosophy of Rhetoric," vol. i p 109, et seq.



21!



ACCOUNT OF THE LIFE AND WRITINGS



and definite ; and, consequently, the ques-
tion about its propriety or impropriety
turns entirely on the coincidence of this
definition with the meaning of the word as
employed in ordinary discourse. What-
ever objections, therefore, may be stated
to the expression as now defined, will
apply to it with additional force, when used
with the latitude which has been already
censured.

I have said that the question about the
propriety of the phrase Common Sense as
employed by philosophers, must be decided
by an appeal to general practice ; for,
although it be allowable, and even neces-
sary, for a philosopher to limit the accepta-



Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 8 of 114)