Thomas Reid.

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

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under restraint, that as far as possible they
may be kept from doing harm to themselves
or to others. They are not considered as
reasonable creatures, or members of society.
But, as to men who have a sound mind, we
depend upon a certain degree of regularity
in their conduct ; and could put a thousand
different cases, wherein we could venture,
ten to one, that they will act in such a way,
and not in the contrary.

If we had no confidence in our fellow-men
that they will act such a part in such cir-
cumstances, it would be impossible to live
in society with them. For that which
makes men capable of living in society, and
uniting in a political body under government,
is, that their actions will always be regu-
lated, in a great measure, by the common
principles of human nature.

It may always be expected that they
will regard their own interest and reputa-
tion, and that of their families and friends ;
that they will repel injuries, and have some
sense of good offices ; and that they will
have some regard to truth and justice, so
far at least as not to swerve from them
without temptation.

It is upon such principles as these, that
all political reasoning is grounded. Such
reasoning is never demonstrative ; but it
may have a very great degree of probability,
especially when applied to great bodies of
men. [603]

12. The last principle of contingent truths
I mention is, That, in the phwnomena of
nature, what is to be, will probably be like
to what has been in similar circumstances.*

We must have this conviction as soon as
we are capable of learning anything from
experience ; for all experience is grounded
upon a belief that the future will be like
the past. Take away this principle, and
the experience of an hundred years makes

* Compare above, " Inquiry," c. vi. § 24. Stewart's
" Elements", i. p. 205. *' Philosophical Essays,"
p. 71, sq. — H.


us no wiser with regard to what is to

This is one of those principles which,
when we grow up and observe the course of
nature, we can confirm by reasoning. We
perceive that Nature is governed by fixed
laws, and that, if it were not so, there could
be no such thing as prudence in human
conduct ; there would be no fitness in any
means to promote an end ; and what, on
one occasion, promoted it, might as pro-
bably, on another occasion, obstruct it.

But the principle is necessary for us be-
fore we are able to discover it by reasoning,
and therefore is made a part of our consti-
tution, and produces its effects before the
use of reason.

This principle remains in all its force
when we come to the use of reason ; but
we learn to be more cautious in the appli-
cation of it. We observe more carefully
the circumstances on which the past event
depended, and learn to distinguish them
from those which were accidentally con-
joined with it.

In order to this, a number of experi-
ments, varied in their circumstances, is
often necessary. Sometimes a single ex-
periment is thought sufficient to establish a
general conclusion. Thus, when it was
once found, that, in a certain degree of cold,
quicksilver became a hard and malleable
metal, there was good reason to think that
the same degree of cold will always produce
this effect to the end of the world. [604]

I need hardly mention, that the whole
fabric of natural philosophy is built upon
this principle, and, if it be taken away,
must tumble down to the foundation.

Therefore the great Newton lays it down
as an axiom, or as one of his laws of philo-
sophising, in these words, Effectuum natur-
alium ejusdem generis easdem esse causas.
This is what every man assents to, as soon
as he understands it, and no man asks a
reason for it. It has, therefore, the most
genuine marks of a first principle.

It is very remarkable, that, although all
our expectation of what is to happen in the
course of nature is derived from the belief
of this principle, yet no man thinks of ask-
ing what is the ground of this belief.

Mr Hume, I think, was the first* who
put this question ; and he has shewn clearly
and invincibly, that it is neither grounded
upon reasoning, nor has that kind of intui-
tive evidence which mathematical axioms
have. It is not a necessary truth.

He has endeavoured to account for it
upon his own principles. It is not my
business, at present, to examine the account
he has given of this universal belief of man-

* Hume was not the. first : but on the various
opinions touching the ground of this expectancy, I
cannot touch. — H.

2 G 2



£essay VI,

kind ; because, whether his account of it be
just or not, (and I think it is not,) yet, as
this belief is universal among mankind, and
is not grounded upon any antecedent rea-
soning, but upon the constitution of the
mind itself, it must be acknowledged to be
a first principle, in the sense in which I
use that word.

I do not at all affirm, that those I have
mentioned are all the first principles from
which we may reason concerning contingent
truths. Such enumerations, even when
made after much reflection, are seldom per-
fect. [605]



About most of the first principles of ne-
cessary truths there has been no dispute,
and therefore it is the less necessary to
dwell upon them. It will be sufficient to
divide them into different classes ; to men-
tion some, by way of specimen, in each
class ; and to make some remarks on those
of which the truth has been called in ques-

They may, I think, most properly be
divided according to the sciences to which
they belong.

1. There are some first principles that
may be called grammatical, such as, That
every adjective in a sentence must belong to
some substantive expressed or understood ;
That every complete sentence must have a

Those who have attended to the struc-
ture of language, and formed distinct no-
tions of the nature and use of the various
parts of speech, perceive, without reasoning,
that these, and many other such principles,
are necessarily true.

2. There are logical axioms : such as,
That any contexture of words which does not
make a proposition, isneither true nor false ;
That -every proposition is either true or

false ; That no proposition can be both true
and false at the same time ; That reasoning
in a circle proves nothing ; That whatever
may be truly affirmed of a genus, may be
truly affirmed of all the species, and all the
individuals belonging to that genus. [606]

3. Every one knows there are mathematical
axioms.* Mathematicians have, from the
days of Euclid, very wisely laid down the
axioms or first principles on which they
reason. And the effect which this appears
to have had upon the stability and happy
progress of this science, gives no small en-
couragement to attempt to lay the founda-
tion of other sciences in a similar manner,
as far as we are able.

* See Stewart's " Elements '

S, sq.— H.

Mr Hume hath discovered, as he appro.
hends, a weak side, even in mathematical
axioms ;• and thinks that it is not strictly
true, for instance, that two right lines can
cut one another in one point only.

The principle he reasons from is, That
every simple idea is a copy of a preceding
impression ; and therefore in its precision
and accuracy, can never go beyond its ori-
ginal. From which he reasons in this man-
ner : No man ever saw or felt a line so
straight that it might not cut another,
equally straight, in two or more points.
Therefore, there can be no idea of such a

The ideas that are most essential to geo-
metry — such as those of equality, of a
straight line, and of a square surface, are far,
he says, from being distinct and deter-
minate ; and the definitions destroy the
pretended demonstrations. Thus, mathe-
matical demonstration is found to be a rope
of sand.

I agree with this acute author, that, if
we could form no notion of points, lines, and
surfaces, more accurate than those we see
and handle, there could be no mathematical

But every man that has understanding,
by analysing, by abstra cting, and compound-
ing the rude materials exhibited by his
senses, can fabricate, in his own mind,
those elegant and accurate forms of mathe-
matical lines, surfaces, and solids. [607]

If a man finds himself incapable of form-
ing a precise and determinate notion of the
figure which mathematicians call a cube,
he not only is no mathematician, but is in-
capable of being one. But, if he has a pre.
cise and determinate notion of that figure,
he must perceive that it is terminated by six
mathematical surfaces, perfectly square and
perfectly equal. He must perceive that
these surfaces are terminated by twelve
mathematical lines, perfectly straight and
perfectly equal, and that those lines are ter-
minated by eight mathematical points.

When a man is conscious of having these
conceptions distinct and determinate, as
every mathematician is, it is in vain to bring
metaphysical arguments to convince him
that they are not distinct. You may as well
bring arguments to convince a man racked
with pain that he feels no pain.

Every theory that is inconsistent with our
having accurate notions of mathematical
lines, surfaces, and solids, must be false.
Therefore it follows, that they are not copies
of our impressions.

The Medicean Venus is not a copy of the
block of marble from which it was made.
It is true, that the elegant statue was
formed out of the rude block, and that, too,
by a manual operation, which, in a literal
sense, we may call abstraction. Mathe-



matical notions are formed in the under-
standing by an abstraction of another kind,
out of the rude perceptions of our senses.

As the truths of natural philosophy are
not necessary truths, but contingent, de-
pending upon the will of the Maker of the
world, the principles from which they are
deduced must be of the same nature, and,
therefore, belong not to this class. [608]

4. I think there are axioms, even in
matters of laste. Notwithstanding the
variety found among men, in taste, there
are, I apprehend, some common principles,
even in matters of this kind. I never heard
of any man who thought it a beauty in a
human face to want a nose, or an eye, or to
have the mouth on one side. How many
ages have passed since the days of Homer !
Yet, in this long tract of ages, there never
was found a man who took Thersites for a

The fine arts are very properly called the
arts of taste, because the principles of both
are the same ; and, in the fine arts, we find
no less agreement among those who practise
them than among other artists.

No work of taste can be either relished
or understood by those who do not agree
with the author in the principles of taste.

Homer and Virgil, and Shakspeare and
Milton, had the same taste ; and all men
who have been acquainted with their writ-
ings, and agree in the admiration of them,
must have the same taste.

The fundamental rules of poetry and
music, and painting, and dramatic action and
eloquence, have been always the same, and
will be so to the end of the world.

The variety we find among men in matters
of taste, is easily accounted for, consistently
with what we have advanced.

There is a taste that is acquired, and a
taste that is natural. This holds with re-
spect both to the external sense of taste and
the internal. Habit and fashion have a
powerful influence upon both.

Of tastes that are natural, there are some
that may be called rational, others that are
merely animal.

Children are delighted with brilliant and
gaudy colours, with romping and noisy
mirth, with feats of agility, strength, or
cunning ; and savages have much the same
tas*e as children. [609]

But there are tastes that are more intel-
lectual. It is the dictate of our rational na-
ture, that love and admiration are misplaced
when there isno intrinsic worth in theobject.

In those operations of taste which are ra-
tional, we judge of the real worth and ex-
cellence of the object, and our love or
admiration is guided by that judgment. In
such operations there is judgment as well
as feeling, and the feeling depends upon
the judgment we form of the object.

I do not maintain that taste, so far as it
is acquired, or so far as it is merely animal,
can be reduced to principles. But, as far
as itisfoundedon judgment, it certainly may.

The virtues, the graces, the muses, have
a beauty that is intrinsic. It lies not in
the feelings of the spectator, but in the
real excellence of the object. If we do not
perceive their beauty, it is owing to the de-
fect or to the perversion of our faculties.

And. as there is an original beauty in cer-
tain moral and intellectual qualities, so
there is a borrowed and derived beauty
in the natural signs and expressions of
such qualities.

The features of the human face, the mo-
dulations of the voice, and the proportions,
attitudes, and gesture of the body, are all
natural expressions of good or bad quali-
ties of the person, and derive a beauty or
a deformity from the qualities which they

. Works of art express some quality of
the artist, and often derive an additional
beauty from their utility or fitness for their

Of such things there are some that
ought to please, and others that ought to
displease. If they do not, it is owing to
some defect in the spectator. But what
has real excellence will always please
those who have a correct judgment and a
sound heart. [610]

The sum of what has been said upon
this subject is, that, setting aside the
tastes which men acquire by habit and
fashion, there is a natural taste, which is
partly animal, and partly rational. With
regard to the first, all we can say is,
that the Author of nature, for wise rea-
sons, has formed us so as to receive plea-
sure from the contemplation of certain
objects, and disgust from others, before
we are capable of perceiving any real ex.
cellence in one or defect in the other.
But that taste which we may call ration-
al, is that part of our constitution by
which we are made to receive pleasure
from the contemplation of what we con-
ceive to be excellent in its kind, the plea-
sure being annexed to this judgment, and
regulated by it. This taste may be true
or false, according as it is founded on a
true or false judgment. And, if it may be
true or false, it must have first principles.

5. There are also first principles in mo-

That an unjust action has more demerit
than an ungenerous one .* That a generous
action has more merit than a merely just
one : That no man ought to be blamed for
what it was not in his power to hinder .- That
we ought not to do to others what we would
think unjust or unfair to be done to us in
like circumstances. These are moral axioms,




and many others might be named which ap-
pear to me to have no less evidence than
those of mathematics.

Some porhaps may think that our de-
terminations, either in matters of taste or
in morals, ought not to be accounted ne-
cessary truths : That they are grounded
upon the constitution of that faculty which
we call taste, and of that which we call
the moral sense or conscience ; which fa-
culties might have been so constituted as
to have given determinations different, or
even contrary to those they now give :
That, as there is nothing sweet or bitter
in itself, but according as it agrees or dis-
agrees with the external sense called taste ;
so there is nothing beautiful or ugly in it-
self, but according as it agrees or dis-
agrees with the internal sense, which we
also call taste ; and nothing morally good
or ill in itself, but according as it agrees
or disagrees with our moral sense. [611 J

This indeed is a system, with regard to
morals and taste, which hath been supported
in modern times by great authorities. And
if this system be true, the consequence
must be, that there can be no principles,
either of taste or of morals, that are neces-
sary truths. For, according to this system,
all our determinations, both with regard to
matters of taste, and with regard to morals,
are reduced to matters of fact — I mean to
such as these, that by our constitution we
have on such occasions certain agreeable
feelings, and on other occasions certain dis-
agreeable feelings.

But I cannot help being of a contrary
opinion, being persuaded that a man who
determined that polite behaviour has great
deformity, and that there is great beauty
in rudeness and ill-breeding, would judge
wrong, whatever his feelings were.

In like manner, I cannot help thinking
that a man who determined that there is
more moral worth in cruelty, perfidy, and
injustice, than in generosity, justice, pru-
dence, and temperance, would judge wrong,
whatever his constitution was.

And, if it be true that there is judgment
in our determinations of taste and of morals,
it must be granted that what is true or
false in morals, or in matters of taste, is
necessarily so. For this reason, I have
ranked the first principles of morals and of
t;iste under the class of necessary truths.

6. The last class of first principles I shall
mention, we may call metaphysical.

I shall particularly consider three of these,
because they have been called in question
by Mr Hume. [612]

The first is, That the qualities whirh we
perceive by oar senses must have a subject,
which we call body, and that the thoughts
we are conscious of must have a subjec f ,
which zvc cull mind.

It is not more evident that two and two
make four, than it is that figure cannot
exist, unless there be something that is
figured, nor motion without something that
is moved. I not only perceive figure and
motion, but I perceive them to be qualities.
They have a necessary relation to some-
thing in which they exist as their subject.
The difficulty which some philosophers have
found in admitting this, is entirely owing to
the theory of ideas. A subject of the sen-
sible qualities which we perceive by our
senses, is not an idea either of sensation or
of consciousness ; therefore say they, we
have no such idea. Or, in the style of Mr
Hume, from what impression is the idea of
substance derived ? It is not a copy of any
impression ; therefore there is no such idea.

The distinction between sensible quali-
ties, and the substance to which they belong,
and between thought and the mind that
thinks, is not the invention of philosophers ;
it is found in the structure of all languages,
and therefore must be common to all men
who speak with understanding. And I
believe no man, however sceptical he may
be in speculation, can talk on the common
affairs of life for half an hour, without say-
ing things that imply his belief of the reality
of these distinctions.

Mr Locke acknowledges, " That we can-
not conceive how simple ideas of sensible
qualities should subsist alone ; and there-
fore we suppose them to exist in, and to be
supported by, some common subject." In
his Essay, indeed, some of his expressions
seem to leave it dubious whether this belief,
that sensible qualities must have a subject,
be a true judgment or a vulgar prejudice.
[613] But in his first letter to the Bishop
of Worcester, he removes this doubt, and
quotes many passages of his Essay, to shew
that he neither denied nor doubted of the
existence of substances, both thinking and
material; and that he believed their ex-
istence on the same ground the Bishop
did — to wit, " on the repugnancy to our
conceptions, that modes and accidents should
subsist by themselves-'' He offers no proof
of this repugnancy ; nor, I think, can any
proof of it be given, because it is a, first

It were to be wished that Mr Locke, who
inquired so accurately and so laudably into
the origin, certainty, and extent of human
knowledge, had turned his attention more
particularly to the origin of these two
opinions which he firmly believed ; to wit,
that sensible qualities must have a subject
which we call body, and that thought must
have a subject which we call mind. A due
attention to these two opinions which go-
vern the belief of all men, even of sceptics
in the practice of life, would probably have
led him to perceive, that sensation and



consciousness are not the only sources of
human knowledge ; and that there are prin-
ciples of belief in human nature, of which
we can give no other account but that they
necessarily result from the constitution of
our faculties ; and that, if it were in our
power to throw off their influence upon our
practice and conduct, we could neither
speak nor act like reasonable men.

We cannot give a reason why we believe
even our sensations to be real and not fal-
lacious ; why we believe what we are con-
scious of ; why we trust any of our natural
faculties. We say, it must be so, it cannot
be otherwise. This expresses only a strong
belief, which is indeed the voice of nature,
and which therefore in vain we attempt to
resist. But if, in spite of nature, we resolve
to go deeper, and not to trust our faculties,
without a reason to shew that they cannot
be fallacious, I am afraid, that, seeking to
become wise, and to be as gods, we shall
become foolish, and, being unsatisfied with
the lot of humanity, we shall throw off com-
mon sense.

The second metaphysical principle I men-
tion is — That whatever begins to exist, must
have a cause which produced it.* [614]

Philosophy is indebted to Mr Hume in
this respect among others, that, by calling
in question many of the first principles of
human knowledge, he hath put speculative
men upon inquiring more carefully than was
done before into the nature of the evidence
upon which they rest. Truth can never
suffer by a fair inquiry ; it can bear to be
seen naked and in the fullest light ; and the
strictest examination will always turn out
in the issue to its advantage. I believe Mr
Hume was the first who ever called in
question whether things that begin to exist
must have a cause.

With regard to this point, we must hold
one of these three things, either that it is
an opinion for which we have no evidence,
and which men have foolishly taken up
without ground ; or, secondly? That it is
capable of direct proof- by argument ; or,
thirdly, That it is self-evident, and needs no
proof, but ought to be received as an axiom,
which cannot, by reasonable men, be called
in question.

The first of these suppositions would put
an end to all philosophy, to all religion, to
all reasoning that would carry us beyond
the objects of sense, and to all prudence in
the conduct of life.

As to the second supposition, that this
principle may be proved by direct reason-
ing, I am afraid we shall find the proof
extremely difficult, if not altogether im-

I know only of three or four arguments

* See below, " Essays on the Active rowers," p. 30.
*).— H.


that have been urged by philosophers, in the
way of abstract reasoning, to prove that
things which begin to exist must haveacause.

One is offered by Mr Hobbes, another
by Dr Samuel Clarke, another by Mr Locke.
Mr Hume, in his "Treatise of Human
Nature," has examined them all ;* and, in
my opinion, has shewn that they take for
granted the thing to be proved ; a kind of
false reasoning, which men are very apt to
fall into when they attempt to prove what
is self-evident. [611]

It has been thoug'it, that, although this
principle does not admit of proof from
abstract reasoning, it may be proved from
experience, and may be justly drawn by
induction, from instances that fall within
our observation.

I conceive this method of proof will leave
us in great uncertainty, for these three
reasons :

1st, Because the proposition to be proved
is not a contingent but a necessary proposi-
tion. It is not that things which begin to
exist commonly have a cause, or even that
they always in fact have a cause ; but that
they must have a cause, and cannot begin
to exist without a cause.

Propositions of this kind, from their
nature, are incapable of proof by induction.
Experience informs us only of what is or
has been, not of what must be ; and the
conclusion must be of the same nature with
the premises. -(■

For this reason, no mathematical propo-
sition can be proved by induction. Though
it should be found by experience in a thou-

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 102 of 114)