Thomas Reid.

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

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philosophers, they would probably have
given some flexion to the indicative mood
of verbs, which extended to all times past,
1 1 resent, and future ; for such a flexion only
would .be fit to express necessary proposi-
tions, which have no relation to time. But
there is no language, as far as I know, in
which such a flexion of verbs is to be found.
Because the thoughts and discourse of men
are seldom employed about necessary truths,
hut commonly about such as are contin-
gent, languages are fitted to express the
List rather than the first.

The distinction commonly made between
abstract truths, and those that express mat-
ters of fact, or real existences, coincides in
a great measjre, but not altogether, with
that between necessary and contingent
truths. The necessary truths that fall
within our knowledge are, for the most part,
abstract truths. We must except the ex-
istence and nature of the Supreme Being,
which is necessary. Other existences are
the effects of will and power. They had a
beginning, and are mutable. Their nature
is such as the Supreme Being was pleased
to give them. Their attributes and rela-
tions must depend upon the nature God has
given them, the powers with which he has
endowed them, and the situation in which
he hath placed them.

The conclusions deduced by reasoning
from , rst principles, will commonly be ne-
cessary or contingent, according as the
principles are from which they are drawn.
Oa the one hand, I take it to be certain,
that whatever can, by just reasoning, be
inferred from a principle that is necessary,
must be a necessary truth, and that no
contingent truth can be inferred from prin-
ciples that are necessary. " [578]

Thus, as the axioms in mathematics are
all necessary truths, so are all the conclu-
sions drawn from them ; that is, the whole
b dy of that science. But from no mathe-
matical truth can we deduce the existence
of anything ; not even of the objects of the

On the other hand, I apprehend there
are very few cases in which we can, from
principles that are contingent, deduce truths
th..t are necessary. I can only recollect

* Sec stew irl's '" Elements," li. p 33

one instance of this kind — namely — that,
from the existence of things contingent and
mutable, we can infer the existence of ail
immutable and eternal cause of them.

As the minds of men are occupied much
more about truths that are contingent than
about those that are necessary, I shall first
endeavour to point out the principles of the
former kind.

1. First, then, I hold, as a first principle,
the existence of everything of which I am

Consciousness is an operation of the
understanding of its own kind, and cannot
be logically defined. The objects of it are
our present pains, our pleasures, our hopes,
our fears, our desires, our doubts, our
thoughts of every kind ; in a word, all the
passions, and all the actions and operations
of our own minds, while they are present.
We may remember them when they are
past; but we are conscious of them only
while they are present.

When a man is conscious of pain, he is
certain of its existence; when he is con-
scious that he doubts or believes, he is
certain of the existence of those operations.

But the irresistible conviction he has of
the reality of those operations is not the
effect of reasoning; it is immediate and
intuitive. The existence therefore of those
passions and operations of our minds, of
which we are conscious, is a first principle,
which nature requires us to believe upon
her authority. [579]

If I am asked to prove that I cannot be
deceived by consciousness — to prove that it
is not a fallacious sense — I can find nc proof.
I cannot find any antecedent truth from
which it is deduced, or upon which its evi-
dence depends. It seems to disdain any
such derived authority, and to claim my
assent in its own right.

If any man could be found so frantic as
to deny that he thinks, while he is conscious
of it, I may wonder, I may laugh, or I may
pity him, but I cannot reason the matter
with him. We have no common principles
from which we may reason, and therefore
can never join issue in an argument.

This, I think, is the only principle of
common sense that has never directly been
called in question. * It seems to be so firmly
rooted in the minds of men, as to retain its
authority with the greatest sceptics. Mr
Hume, after annihilating body and mind,
time and space, action and causation, and
even his own mind, acknowledges the reality
of the thoughts, sensations, and passions of
which he is conscious.

* It could not possibly recalled in question. For
in doubting the fret or his consciousness, i he sceptic
must at leas- affirm the fact of his doubt : but to
atfirm a doubt is to affirm the consciousness of it-
thetlnu t would, Iheielorc, be self-contradictory—
/ i\, aniuhi'atc itself. — II.




No philosopher has attempted, by any
hypothesis, to account for this consciousness
of our own thoughts, and the certain know-
ledge of their real existence which accom-
panies it. By this they seem to acknow-
ledge that this at least is an original power
of the mind ; a power by which we not only
have ideas, but original judgments, and the
knowledge of real existence.

I cannot reconcile this immediate know-
ledge of the operations of our own minds
with Mr Locke's theory, that all know-
ledge consists in perceiving the agreement
and disagreement of ideas. What are the
ideas, from whose comparison the knowledge
of our own thoughts results ? Or what are
the agreements or disagreements which con-
vince a man that he is in pain when he
feels it ? [580]

Neither can I reconcile it with Mr Hume's
theory, that to believe the existence of any-
thing, is nothing else than to have a strong
and lively conception of it ; or, at most,
that belief is only some modification of the
idea which is the object of belief. For, not
to mention that propositions, not ideas, are
the object of belief, in all that variety of
thoughts and passions of which we are con-
scious we believe the existence of the weak
as well as of the strong, the faint as well as
the lively. No modification of the opera-
tions of our minds disposes us to the least
doubt of their real existence.

As, therefore, the real existence of our
thoughts, and of all the operations and feel-
ings of our own minds, is believed by all
men — as we find ourselves incapable of
doubting it, and as incapable of offering any
proof of it — it may justly be considered as a
first principle, or dictate of common sense.

But, although this principle rests upon
no other, n, very considerable and import-
ant branch of human knowledge rests upon


For from this source of consciousness is
derived all that we know, and indeed all
that we can know, of the structure and of
the powers of our own minds ; from which
we may conclude, that there is no branch
of knowledge that stands upon » firmer
foundation ; for surely no kind of evidence
can go beyond that of consciousness.

How does it come to pass, then, that in
this branch of knowledge there are so many
and so contrary systems ? so many subtile
controversies that are never brought to an
issue ? and so little fixed and determined ?
Is it possible that philosophers should differ
most where they have the surest means of
agreement — where everything is built upon
a species of evidence which all men ac-
quiesce in, and hold to be the most certain ?

This strange phaenomenon may, I think,
be accounted for, if we distinguish between

consciousness and reflection, which are often
improperly confounded *

The first is common to all men at all
times j but is insufficient of itself to give us
clear and distinct notions of the opera-
tions of which we are conscious, and of
their mutual relations and minute distinc-
tions. The second — to wit, attentive reflec-
tion upon those operations, making them
objects of thought, surveying them atten-
tively, and examining them on all sides — is
so far from being common to all men, that it
is the lot of very few. The greatest part
of men, either through want of capacity, or
from other causes, never reflect attentively
upon the operations of their own minds.
The habit of this reflection, even in those
whom nature has fitted for it, is not to be at-
tained without much pains and practice.

We can know nothing of the immediate
objects of sight, but by the testimony of our
eyes; and I apprehend that, if mankind
had found as great difficulty in giving at-
tention to the objects of sight, as they find
in attentive reflection upon the operations
of their own minds, our knowledge of the
first might have been in as backward a state
as our knowledge of the last.

But this darkness will not last for ever.
Light will arise upon this benighted part of
the intellectual globe. When any man is
so happy as to delineate the powers of the
human mind as they really are in nature,
men that are free from prejudice, and cap-
able of reflection, will recognise their own
features in the picture ; and then the wonder
will be, how things so obvious could be so
long wrapped up in mystery and darkness ;
how men could be carried away by false
theories and conjectures, when the truth
was to be found in their own breasts if they
had but attended to it.

2. Another first principle, I think, is,
That the thoughts of which I am contci >vs,
are the tho-ights of a being which I call
myself, my mind, mi/ person. [582]

The thoughts and feelings of which we are
conscious are continually changing, and the
thought of this moment is not the thought
of the last ; but something which I call my.
self, remains under this change of thought.
This self has the same relation to all the
successive thoughts I am conscious of — they
are all my thoughts; and every thought
which is not my thought, must be the
thought of some other person.

If any man asks a proof of this, I confess
I can give none ; there is an evidence in the
proposition itself which I am unable to re-
sist. Shall I think that thought can stand
by itself without a thinking being ? or that
ideas can feel pleasure or pain ? My nature
dictates to me that it is impossible.

* t'oinjiarc aluve, pp. .230, b, 258, a— H.



Lessay yi

And that nature has dictated the same to
all men, appears from the structure of all
languages : for in all languages men have
expressed thinking, reasoning, willing, lov-
ing, hating, by personal verbs, which, from
their nature, require a person who thinks,
reasons, wills, loves, or hates. From which
it appears, that men have been taught by
nature to believe that thought requires a
thinker, reason a reasoner, and love a lover.

Here we must leave Mr Hume, who con-
ceives it to be a vulgar error, that, besides
the thoughts we are conscious of, there is a
mind which is the subject of those thoughts.
If the mind be anything else than impres-
sions and ideas, it must be a word without
a meaning. The mind, therefore, accord-
ing to this philosopher, is a word which
signifies a bundle of perceptions ; or, when
he defines it more accurately — " It is that
succession of related ideas and impressions,
of which we have an intimate memory and

I am, therefore, that succession of related
ideas and impressions of which I have the
intimate memory and consciousness.

But who is the I that has this memory
and consciousness of a succession of ideas
and impressions ? Why, it is nothing but
that succession itself. [583]

Hence, I learn, that this succession of
ideas and impressions intimately remembers,
and is conscious of itself. I would wish to
be farther instructed, whether the impres-
sions remember and are conscious of the
ideas, or the ideas remember and are con-
scious of the impressions, or if both remem-
ber and are conscious of both ? and whether
the ideas remember those that come after
them, as well as those that were before them ?
These are questions naturally arising from
this system, that have not yet been explained.

This, however, is clear, that this succes-
sion of ideas and impressions, not only re-
members and is conscious, but that it judges,
reasons, affirms, denies — nay, that it eats
and drinks, and is sometimes merry and
sometimes sad.

If these things can be ascribed to a suc-
cession of ideas and impressions, in* a con-
sistency with common sense, I should be
very glad to know what is nonsense.

The scholastic philosophers have been
wittily ridiculed, by representing them as
disputing upon thisquestion — Numchimcera
bnmbinans in vacuo possit comedere secun-
das iiitentiane.i ? and I believe the wit of
man cannot invent a more ridiculous ques-
tion. But, if Mr Hume's philosophy be
admitted, this question deserves to be
treuted more gravely : for if, as we learn
from this philosophy, a succession of ideas
and impressions may eat, and drink, and
be merry, I see no good reason why a
chimera, which,, if not the same is of kin to

an idea, may not chew the cud upon that
kind of food which the schoolmen call second

3. Another first principle I take to be —
Thai- those things did really/ happen which 1
distinc ly- remember. [584]

This has one of the surest marks of a first
principle ; for no man ever pretended to
prove it, and yet no man in his wits calls it
in question : the testimony of memory, like
that of consciousness, is immediate ; it
claims our assent upon its own authority. -f

Suppose that a learned counsel, in defence
of a client against the concurring testimony
of witnesses of credit, should insist upon a
new topic to invalidate the testimony.
" Admitting," says he, " the integrity of
the witnesses, and that they distinctly re-
member what they have given in evidence —
it does not follow that the prisoner is guilty.
It has never been proved that the most
distinct memory may not be fallacious.
Shew me any necessary connection between
that act of the mind which we call memory,
and the past existence of the event remem-
bered. No man has ever offered a shadow
of argument to prove such a connection ;
yet this is one link of the chain of proof
against the prisoner ; and, if it have no
strength, the whole proof falls to the ground :
until this, therefore, be made evident — until
it can be proved that we may safely rest
upon the testimony of memory for the truth
of past events — no judge or jury can justly
take away the life of a citizen upon so
doubtful a point.**

I believe we may take it for granted, that
this argument from a learned counsel would
have no other effect upon the judge or jury,
than to convince them that he was dis-
ordered in his judgment. Counsel is allowed
to plead every. hing for a client that is fit to
persuade or to move ; yet I believe no
counsel ever had the boldness to plead this
topic. And for what reason ? For no other
reason, surely, but because it is absurd.
Now, what is absurd at the bar, is so in the
philosopher's chair. What would be ridi-
culous, if delivered to a jury of honest sen-
sible citizens, is no less so when delivered
gravely in a philosophical dissertation.

Mr Hume has not, as far as I remember,
directly called in question the testimony of

* All this criticism of Hume proceeds upon the
erroneous hypothesis that he was a Dogmatist He
was a Sceptic— that is, he accepted the principles as-
serted by the prevalent Dogmatism ; and only shewed
that such and such conclusions were, on these -prin-
ciples, inevitable. The absurdity was not Hume's, but
Locke's. This is the kind of criticism, however,
with which Hume is generally assailed H.

+ The datum of Memory does not stand uponjhe
same ground as the datum of simple Consciousness.
In so Far as memory' is consciousness, it cannot he
denied Wc cannot, without contradiction, ik'liy the
fact of memory as a present coniciousnets j but we
may, without contradiction, suppose that the past
given therein, is only an illusion of the present H.

f 583, 584T


memory ; but he has laid down the premises
by which its authority is overturned, leav-
ing it to his reader to draw the conclu-
sion. [585]

He labours to shew that the belief or
assent which always attends the memory
and senses is nothing but the vivacity of
those perceptions which they present. He
shews very clearly, that this vivacity gives
no ground to believe the existence of ex-
ternal objects. And it is obvious that it
can give as little ground to believe the past
existence of the objects of memory.

Indeed the theory concerning ideas, so
generally received by philosophers, destroys
all the authority of memory, as well as the
authority of the senses. Des Cartes, Ma-
lebranche, and Locke, were aware that this
theory made it necessary for them to find
out arguments to prove the existence of ex-
ternal objects, which the vulgar believe
upon the bare authority of their senses ;
but those philosophers were not aware that
this theory made it equally necessary for
them to find arguments to prove the exist-
ence of things past, which we remember,
and to support the authority of memory.

All the arguments they advanced to sup-
port the authority of our senses, were easily
refuted by Bishop Berkeley and Mr Hume,
being indeed' very weak and inconclusive.
And it would have been as, easy to answer
every argument they could have brought,
consistent with their theory, to support the
authority of memory.

For, according to that theory, the im-
mediate object of memory, as well as of
every other operation of the understanding,
is an idea present in the mind. And, from
the present existence of this idea of me-
mory I am left to infer, by reasoning, that,
six months or six years ago, there did ex-
ist an object similar to, this idea. [586]

But what is there in the idea that can
lead me to this conclusion ? What mark
does it bear of the date of its archetype ?
Or what evidence have T that it had an
archetype, and that it is not the first of its

Perhaps it will be said, that this idea or
image in the mind must have had a cause.

I admit that, if there is such an image in
the mind, it must have had a cause, and a
cause able to produce the effect ; . but what
can we infer from its having a cause ? Does
it follow that the effect is a type, an image,
a copy of its cause ? Then it will follow,
that a picture is an image of the painter,
and a coach of the coachmaker.

A past event may be known by reasoning ;
but that is not remembering it. When I
remember a thing distinctly, I disdain
equally to hear reasons for it or against it.
And so I think does every man in his

4. Another first principle is, Our own per-
sonal identity and continued existence, as
far baek as we remember anything distinctly.

This we know immediately, and not
by reasoning. It seems, indeed, to be a
part of the testimony of memory. Every-
thing we remember has such a relation to
ourselves as to imply necessarily our ex-
istence at the time remembered. And
there cannot be a more palpable absurdity
than that a man should remember what
happened before he existed. He must
therefore have existed as far back as he re-
members anything distinctly, if his memory
be not fallacious. This principle, there-
fore, is so connected with the last mention-
ed, that it may be doubtful whether both
ought not to be included in one. Let
eve"ry one judge of this as he'sees reason.
The proper notion of identity, and the sen-
timents of Mr Locke on this subject, have
been considered before, under the head of
Memory. [587]

5. Another first principle is, That those
things do really exist which we distinctly
perceive by oitr senses, and are wfiat we
perceive them to le.

It is too evident to need proof, that all
men are by nature led to give implicit faith
to the distinct testimony of their senses,
long before they are capable of any bias
from prejudices of education or of philo-

How came we at first to know that there
are certain beings about us whom we call
father, and mother, and sisters, and bro-
thers, and nurse ? Was it not by the
testimony of our senses ? How did these
persons convey to us any information or
instruction ? Was it not by means of our
senses ?

It is evident we can have no communi-
cation, no correspondence or society with
any created being, but by means of our
senses. And, until we rely upon their testi-
mony, we must consider ourselves as being
alone in the universe, without any fellow-
creature, living or inanimate, and be left to
converse with our own thoughts.

Bishop Berkeley surely did not duly con-
sider that it is by means of the material
world that we have any correspondence
with thinking beings, or any knowledge of
their existence ; and that, by depriving us
of the material world, he deprived us, at
the same time, of family, friends, country,
and every human creature ; of every object
of affection, esteem, or concern, except our

The good Bishop surely never intended
this. He was too warm a friend, too zeal-
ous a patriot, and too good a Christian to
be capable of such a thought. He was not
aware of the consequences of his system,
and therefore they ought not to be imputed




to him ; but we must impute them to the
system itself. It stifles every generous and
social principle. [588]

When I consider myself as speaking to
men who hear me, and can judge of what
I say, I feel that respect which is due to
such an audience. I feel an enjoyment in
a reciprocal communication of sentiments
with candid and ingenious friends ; and my
soul blesses the Author of my being, who
has made me capable of this manly and
rational entertainment.

But the Bishop shews me, that this is
all a dream ; that I see not a human face ;
that all the objects I see, and hear, and
handle, are only the ideas of my own mind ; j
ideas are my only companions. Cold com-
pany, indeed ! Every social affection freezes
at the thought !

But, my Lord Bishop, are there no minds
left in the universe but my own ?

Yes, indeed; it is only the material
world that is annihilated ; everything else
remains as it was.

This seems to promise some comfort in
my forlorn solitude. But do I see those
minds ? No. Do I see their ideas ? No.
Nor do they see me or my ideas. They
are, then, no more to me than the inhabit-
ants of Solomon's isles, or of the moon ;
and my melancholy solitude returns. Every
social tie is broken, and every social affec-
tion is stifled.

This dismal system, which, if it could be
believed, would deprive men of every social
comfort, a very good Bishop, by strict and
accurate reasoning, deduced from the prin-
ciples commonly received by philosophers
concerning ideas. The fault is not in the
reasoning, but in the principles from which
it is drawn.

All the arguments urged by Berkeley and
Hume, against the existence of a material
world, are grounded upon this principle —
that we do not perceive external objects
themselves, but certain images or ideas in
our own minds."' But this is no dictate of
common sense, but directly contrary to the
sense of all who have not been taught it by
philosophy. [589]

We have before examined the reasons
given by philosophers to prove that ideas,
and not external objects, are the immediate
objects of perception, and the instances
given to prove the senses fallacious. With-
out repeating what has before been said
upon those points, we shall only here ob-
serve, that, if external objeets be perceived
immediately, we have the same reason to

* Idealism, as already noticed, rests equally well,
if not better, on the hypothesis that what we perceive
(or are conscious of in perception) is only a modifica.
tion of mind, as on the hypothesis that, in perception,
we are conscious of a representative. entity distinct
from mind as from the external reality. — H.

believe their existence as philosophers have
to believe the existence of ideas, while they
hold them to be the immediate objects of

6. Another first principle, I think, is,
That we have some degree of power over
Our actions, and the determinations of our

All power must be derived from th«
fountain of power, and of every good »ift-
Upon His good pleasure its continuance de-
pends, and it is always subject to his con-

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 100 of 114)