Thomas Reid.

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

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Beings to whom God has given any de-
gree of power, and understanding to direct
them to the proper use of it, must be ac-
countable to their Maker. But those who
are intrusted with no power can have no
account to make ; for all good conduct con-
sists in the right use of power; all bad
conduct in the abuse of it.

To call to account a being who never was
intrusted with any degree of power, is an
absurdity no less than it would be to call
to account an inanimate being. We are
sure, therefore, if we have any account to
make to the Author of our being, that we
must have some degree of power, which,
as far as it is properly used, entitles us to
his approbation ; and, when abused, renders
us obnoxious to his displeasure. [590]

It is not easy to say in what way we first
get the notion or idea of power. It is
neither an object of sense nor of conscious-
ness. We see events, one succeeding an-
other ; but we see not the power by which
they are produced. We are conscious of
the operations of our minds ; but power is
not an operation of mind. If we had no
notions but such as are furnished by the
external senses, and by consciousness, it
seems to be impossible that we should ever
have any conception of power. Accord-
ingly, Mr Hume, who has reasoned the
most accurately upon this hypothesis, denies
that we have any idea of power, and clearly
refutes the account given by Mr Locke of
the origin of this idea.

But it is in vain to reason from a hypo-
thesis against a. fact, the truth of which
every man may see by attending to his own
thoughts. It is evident that all men, very
early in life, not only have an idea of power,
but a conviction that they have some de-
gree of it in themselves ; for this conviction
is necessarily implied in many operations
of mind, which are familiar to every man,
and without which no man can act the part
of a reasonable being.

First, It is implied in every act of voli-
tion. " Volition, it is plain," says Mr
Locke, " is an act of the mind, knowingly

* Philosophers admitted that we are conscious 61
these ; does Reid admit this of external objects ?— H.




exerting that dominion which it takes itself
to have over any part of the man, by em-
ploying it in, or withholding it from any
particular action." Every volition, there-
fore, implies a conviction of power to do the
action willed. A man may desire to make
a visit to the moon, or to the planet Jupi-
ter ; but nothing but insanity could make
him will to do so. And, if even insanity
produced this effect, it must be by making
him think it to be in his power.

Secondly, This- conviction is implied in
all deliberation ; for no man in his wits de-
liberates whether he shall do what he be-
lieves not to be in his power. Thirdly,
The same conviction is implied in every
resolution or purpose formed in consequence
of deliberation. A man may as well form
a resolution to pull the moon oat of her
sphere, as to do the most insignificant action
which he believes not to be in his power.
The same thing may be said of every pro-
mise or contract wherein a man plights his
faith ; for he is not an honest man who
promises what he does not believe he has
power to perform. [591]

As these operations imply a, belief of
some degree of power in ourselves ; so there
are others equally common and familiar,
which imply a like belief with regard to

When we impute to a man any action or
omission, as a ground of approbation or of
blame, we must believe he had power to do
otherwise. The same is implied in all
advice, exhortation, command, and rebuke,
and in every case in which we rely upon his
fidelity in performing any engagement or
executing any trust

It is not more evident that mankind have
a conviction of the exis ence of a material
world, than that they have the conviction
of some degree of power in themselves and
in others ; every one over his own actions,
and the determinations of his will — a con-
viction so early, so general, and so inter-
woven with the whole of human conduct,
that it must be the natural effect of our
constitution, and intended by the Author of
our being to guide our actions.

It resembles our conviction of the ex-
istence of a material world in this respect
also, that even those who reject it in specu-
lation, find themselves under a necessity of
being governed by it in their practice ; and
thus it will always happen when philosophy
contradicts first principles,

7. Another first principle is — That the
natural faculties, by which we distinguish
truth from error, are not fallacious. If any
man should demand a proof of this, it is
impossible to satisfy him. For, suppose it
should be mathematically demonstrated,
this would signify nothing in this case;
because, to judge of a demonstration, a man

must trust his faculties, and take for gran ted
the very thing in question. [592]

If a man's honesty were called in ques-
tion, it would be ridiculous to refer it to the
man's own word, whether he be honest or
not. The same absurdity there is in at-
tempting to prove, by any kind of reasoning,
probable or demonstrative, that our reason
is not fallacious, since the very point in
question is, whether reasoning may be

If a sceptic should build his scepticism
upon this foundation, that all our reasoning
and judging powers are fallacious in their
nature, or should resolve at least to with-
hold assent until it be proved that they are
not, it would be impossible by argument
to beat him out of this stronghold ; and lie
must even be left to enjoy his scepticism.

Des Cartes certainly made a false step in
this matter, for having suggested this doubt
among others — that whatever evidence he
might have from his consciousness, his
senses, his memory, or his reason, yet
possibly some malignant being had given
him those faculties on purpose to impose
upon him ; and, therefure, that they are not
to be trusted without a proper voucher.
To remove this doubt, he endeavours to
prove the being of a Deity who is no de-
ceiver; whence he concludes, that the facul-
ties he had given him are true and worthy
to be trusted.

It is strange that so acute a reasoner did
not perceive that in this reasoning there is
evidently a begging of the question.

For, if our faculties be fallacious, why
may they not deceive us in this reasoning as
well as in others ? And, if they are not to
be trusted in this instance without a voucher,
why not in others ? [593]

Every kind of reasoning for the veracity
of our faculties, amounts to no more than
taking their own testimony for their vera-
city ; and this we must do implicitly, until
God give us new faculties to sit in judg-
ment upon the old ; and the reason why
Des Cartes satisfied himself with so weak
an argument for the truth of his faculties,
most probably was, that he never seriously
doubted of it.

If any truth can be said to be prior to all
others in the order of nature, this seems
to have the best claim-; because, in every
instance of assent, whether upon intuitive,
demonstrative, or probable evidence, the
truth of our faculties is taken for granted,
and is, as it were, one of the premises on
which our assent is grounded.*

How then come we to be assured of this

* There is a presumption in favour of the veracity
of the primary data of consciousness. This can only
be rebutted by shewingtha' these facts are contradic.
tory. Scepticism attempts to shew ti is on the priii.
ciplcs which Dogmatism postulates — 11.




fundamental truth on which all others rest ?
Perhaps evidence, as in many other respects
it resembles light, so in this also — that, as
light, which is the discoverer of all visible
objects, discovers itself at the same time,
so evidence, which is the voucher for all
truth, vouches for itself at the same time.

This, however, is certain, that such is
the constitution of the human mind, that
evidence discerned by us, forces a corre-
sponding degree of assent. And a man
who perfectly understood a just syllogism,
without believing that the conclusion follows
from the premises, would be a greater mon-
ster than a man bom without hands or

We are born under a necessity of trust-
ing to our reasoning and judging powers ;
anU a real belief of their being fallacious
cannot be maintained for any considerable
time by the greatest sceptic, becaube it is
doing violence to our constitution. It is
like a man's walking upon hi hands, a feat
which some men upon occasion can exhibit;
but no man ever made a long journey in
this manner. Cease to admire his dexte-
rity, and he will, like other men, betake
himself to his legs. [594 ]

We may here take notice of a property
of the principle under consideration, that
seems to be common to it with many other
first principles, and which can hardly be
found in any principle that is built solely
upon reasoning ; and that is, that in most
men it produces its effect without ever being
attended to, or made an object of thought.
No man ever thinks of this principle, unless
whenhecousidersthe grounds of scepticism ;
yet it invariably governs his opinions.
When a man in the common course of
life gives credit to the testimony of his
senses, his memory, or his reason, he does
not put the question to himself, whether
these faculties may deceive him ; yet the
trust he reposes in them supposes an inward
conviction, that, in that instance at least,
they do not deceive him.

It is another property of this and of many
first principles, that they force assent in par-
ticular instances, more powerfully than
when they are turned into a general propo-
sition. Many sceptics have denied every
general principle of science, excepting per-
haps the existence of our present thoughts ;
yet these men reason, and refute, and prove,
they assent and dissent in particular cases.
They use reasoning to overturn all reason-
ing, and judge that they ought to have no
judgment, and see clearly that they are
blind. Many have in general maintained
that the senses are fallacious, yet there
never was found a man so sceptical as not
to trust his senses in particular instances
when his safety required it ; and it may be
observed of those who have professed scep-

ticism, that their scepticism lies in generals,
while in particulars they are no less dog-
matical than others.

8. Another first principle relating to ex-
istence, is, That Ihrre is. life and intelligence
in our. fellow-men withwhomwe converse.

As soon as children are capable of asking
a question, or of answering a question, as
soon as they shew the signs of love, of re-
sentment, or of any other affection, they
must be convinced that those with whom
they have this intercourse are intelligent
beings. [595]

It is evident they are capable of such in-
tercourse long before they can reason.
Every one knows that there is a social in-
tercourse between the nurse and the child
before it is a year old. It can, at that age,
understand many things that are said to it.

It can by signs ask and refuse, threaten
and supplicate. It clings to its nurse in
danger, enters into her grief and joy, is hap-
py in her soothing and caresses, and un-
happy in her displeasure. That these
tilings cannot be without a conviction in
the child that the nurse is an intelligent
being, I think must be granted.

Now, I would ask how a child of a year
old comes by this conviction ? Not by rea-
soning surely, for children do not reason at
that age. Nor is it by external senses, for
life and intelligence are not objects of the
external senses.

By what means, or upon what occasions,
Nature first gives this information to the
infant mind is not easy to determine. We
are not capable of reflecting upon our own
thoughts at that period of life ; and before
we attain this capacity, we have quite for-
got how or on what occasion we first had
this belief ; we perceive it in those who are
born blind, and in others who are born
deaf ; and therefore Nature has not con-
nected it solely either with any object of
sight, or with any object of hearing. When
we grow up to the years of reason and re-
flection, this belief remains. No man thinks
of asking himself what reason he has to be-
lieve that his neighbour is a living creature-
He would be not a little surprised if another
person should ask him so absurd a ques-
tion ; and perhaps could not give any rea-
son which would not equally prove a watch
or a puppet to be a living creature.

But, though you should satisfy him of the
weakness of the reasons he gives for his be-
lief, you cannot make him in the least
doubtful. This belief stands upon another
foundation than that of reasoning; and
therefore, whether a man can give good
reasons for it or not, it is not in his power
to shake it off. [590]

Setting aside this natural conviction, I

believe the best reason we can give, to

prove that other men are living and intelli-



gent, is, that their words and actions indi-
cate like powers of understanding as we
are conscious of in ourselves. The very
same argument applied to the works of na-
ture, leads us to conclude that there is an
intelligent Author of nature, and appears
equally strong and obvious in the last case
as in the first ; so that it may be doubted
whether men, by the mere exercise of rea-
soning, might not as soon discover the ex-
istence of a Deity, as that other men have
life and intelligence.

The knowledge of the last is absolutely
necessary to our receiving any improve-
ment by means of instruction and example ;
and, without these means of improvement,
there is no ground to think that we should
ever be able to acquire the use of our rea-
soning powers. This knowledge, therefore,
must be antecedent to reasoning, and there-
fore must be a first principle.

It cannot be said that the judgments we
form concerning life and intelligence in
other beings are at first free from error.
But the errors of children in this matter
he on the safe side ; they are prone to at-
tribute intelligence to things inanimate.
These errors are of small consequence, and
are gradually corrected by experience and
ripe judgment. But the belief of life and
intelligence in other men, is absolutely ne-
cessary for us before we are capable of
reasoning ; and therefore the Author of
our being hath given us this belief antece-
dently to all reasoning.

9. Another first principle I take to be,
That certain features of the countenance,
sounds of the voice, and gestures of the body,
indicate certain thoughts and dispositions tf
mind. [597]

That many operations of the mind have
their natural signs in the countenance, voice,
and gesture, I suppose every man will ad-
mit. Omnis evim moius animi, says Cicero,
suum quemdam habet a nalura vultum, et
vocem et gestum. The only question is,
whether we understand the signification of
those signs, by the constitution of our na-
ture, by a kind of natural perception simi-
lar to the perceptions of sense ; or whether
we gradually learn the signification of such
signs from experience, as we learn that
smoke is a sign of fire, or that the freezing
of water is a sign of cold ? I take the first
to be the truth-
It seems to me incredible, that the no-
tions men have of the expression of features,
voice, and gesture, are entirely the fruit of
experience. Children, almost assoonas born,
may be frighted, and thrown into fits by a
threatening or angry tone of voice. I knew
a man who could make an infant cry, by
whistling a melancholy tune in the same
or in the next room ; and again, by alter-
ing his key, and the strain of his music,
[597, 598]

could make the child leap and dance for

It is not by experience surely that we
learn the expression of music ; for its opera-
tion is commonly strongest the first time we
hear it; On» air expresses mirth and festi-
vity — so that, when we hear it, it is with
difficulty we can forbear to dance ; another
is sorrowful and solemn. One inspires with
tenderness and love ; another with rage and

" Hear how Timotheus varied lays surprise,
And bid alternate passions fall and rise ;
While at each change, the son of Lvbian Jove
Now burns with glory, and then melts with love.
Now his tierce eyes with sparkling fury glow,
Now sighs ste:il out, and tears begin 1o flow.
Persians and Greeks, like turns of Nature, found,
And the world's victor stood suUdu'd by sound."

It is not necessary that a man have studied
either music or the passions, in order to his
feeling these effects. The most ignorant
and unimproved, to whom Nature has given
a good ear, feel them as strongly as the
most knowing. [598]

The countenance and gesture have an
expression no less strong and natural than
the voice. The first time one sees a stern
and fierce look, a contracted brow, and a
menacing posture, he concludes that the
person is inflamed with anger. Shall we
say, that, previous to experience, the most
hostile countenance has as agreeable an
appearance as the most gentle and benign ?
This surely would contradict all experience ;
for we know that an angry countenance
will fright a child in the cradle. Who has
not observed that children, very early, are
able to distinguish what is said to them in
jest from what is said in earnest, by the
tone of the voice, and the features of the
face ? They judge by these natural signs,
even when they seem to contradict the arti-

If It were by experience that we learn
the meaning of features, and sound, and
gesture, it might be expected that we should
recollect the time when we first learned
those lessons, or, at least, some of such a

Those who give attention to the opera-
tions of children, can easily discover the
time when they have their earliest notices
from experience— such as that flame will
burn, or that knives will cut. But no
man is able to recollect in himself, or to
observe in others, the time when the expres-
sion of the face, voice, and gesture, were

Nay, I apprehend that it is impossible
that this should be learned from experi-

When we see the sign, and see the thing
signified always conjoined with it, expe-
rience may be the instructor, and teach us
how that sign is to be interpreted. But




how shall experience instruct us when we
see the sign only, when the thing signified
is invisible ? Now, this is the case here :
the thoughts and passions of the mind, as
well as the mind itself, are invisible, and
therefore their connection wh* any sensible
sign cannot be first discovered by expe-
perience ; there must be some earlier source
of this knowledge. [599]

Nature seems to have given to men a
faculty or sense, by which this connection
is perceived. And the operation of this
sense is very analogous to that of the ex-
ternal senses.

When I grasp an ivory ball in my hand,
I feel a certain sensation of touch. In the
sensation there is nothing external, nothing
corporeal. The sensation is neither round
nor hard; it is an act of feeling of the
mind, from which I cannot, by reasoning,
infer the existence of any body. But, by
the constitution of my nature, the sensation
carries along with it the conception and be-
lief of a round hard body really existing in
my hand.

In like manner, when I see the features
of an expressive face, I see only figure and
colour variously modified. But, by the
constitution of my nature, the visible ob-
ject brings along with it the conception
and belief of a certain passion or sentiment
in the mind of the person.

In the former case, a sensation of touch-
is the sign, and the hardness and roundness
of the body I grasp is signified by that sen-
sation. In the latter case, the features of
the person is the sign, and the passion or
sentiment is signified by it.

The power of natural signs, to signify
the sentiments and passions of the mind, is
seen in the signs of dumb persons, who can
make themselves to be understood in a con-
siderable degree, even by those who are
wholly inexperienced in that language.

It is seen in the traffic which has been fre-
quently carried on between people that have
no common acquired language. They can
buy and sell, and ask and refuse, and shew a
friendly or hostile disposition by natural
signs. [600]

It was seen still more in the actors
among the ancients who performed the
gesticulation upon the stage, while others
recited the words. To such a pitch was
this art carried, that we are told Cicero
and Roscius used to contend whether the
orator could express anything by words,
which the actor could not express in dumb
show by gesticulation ; and whether the
same sentence or thought could not be act-
ed in all the variety of ways in which the
orator could express it in words.

But the most surprising exhibition of
this kind, was that of the pantomimes
among the Romans, who acted plays, or

scenes of plays, without any recitation, and
yet could be perfectly understood.

And here it deserves our notice, that, al«
though it required much study and practice
in the pantomimes to excel in their art,
yet it required neither study nor practice in
the spectators to understand them. It was
a natural language, and therefore under-
stood by all men, whether Romans, Greeks,
or barbarians, by the learned and the un-

Lucian relates, that a king, whose domi-
nions bordered upon the Euxine Sea, hap-
pening to be at Rome in the reign of Nero,
and having seen a pantomime act, begged
him of Nero, that he might use him in his
intercourse with all the nations in his
neighbourhood ; for, said he, I am obliged
to employ I don't know how many inter-
preters, in order to keep a correspondence
with neighbours who speak many languages,
and do not understand mine ; but this fel-
low will make them all understand him.

For these reasons, I conceive, it must be
granted, not only that there is a connection
established by Nature between certain signs
in the countenance, voice, and gesture, and
the thoughts and passions of the mind ; but
also, that, by our constitution, we under-
stand the meaning of those signs, and from
the sign conclude the existence of the thing
signified. [601]

10. Another first principle appears to
me to be — That there is a certain regard
due to human testimony in matters of fact,
and even to human authority in matters of

Before we are capable of reasoning about
testimony or authority, there are many
tnings which it concerns us to know, for
which we can have no other evidence. The
wise Author of nature hath planted in the
human mind a propensity to rely upon this
evidence before we can give a reason for
doing so. This, indeed, puts our judgment
almost entirely in the power of those who
are about us in the first period of life ; but
this is necessary both to our preservation
and to our improvement. If children were
so framed as to pay no regard to testimony
or to authority, they must, in the literal
sense, perish for lack of knowledge. It is
not more necessary that they should be fed
before they can feed themselves, than that
they should be instructed in many things
before they can discover them by their own

But, when our faculties ripen, we find
reason to check that propensity to yield to
testimony and to authority, which was so
necessary and so natural in the first period
of life. We learn to reason about the re-
gard due to them, and see it to be a childish
weakness to lay more stress upon them than
than reason justifies. Yet, I believe, to


the end of life, most men are more apt to go
into this extreme than into the contrary ;
and the natural propensity still retains some

The natural principles, by which our
judgments and opinions are regulated before
we come to the use of reason, seem to be no
less necessary to such a being as man, than
those natural instincts which the Author of
nature hath given us to regulate our actions
during that period. [602]

11. There are many events depending
upon the will of man, in which there is a
self-evident probability, greater or less, ac-
cwding to circumstances.

There may be in some individuals such a
degree of frenzy and madness, that no
man can say what they may or may not do.
Such persons we find it necessary to put

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 101 of 114)