Thomas Reid.

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

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that from certain signs or indications in the
effect, we may infer that there must have
been intelligence, wisdom, or other intel-
lectual or moral qualities hi the cause, is a
principle which we get, neither by reason-
ing nor by experience ; and, therefore, if it
be a true principle, it must be a first prin-
ciple. There is in the human understand-
ing a light, by which we see immediately
the evidence of it, when there is occasion
to apply it.

Of how great importance this principle
is in common life, we have already observed.
And I need hardly mention its importance
in natural theology.

The clear marks and signatures of wis-

* See above p. 153; and " Active Powers," p. 31.— H.

dom, power, and goodness, in the consti-
tution and government of the world, is, of
all arguments that have been advanced for
the being and providence of the Deity, that
which in all ages has made the strongest
impression upon candid and thinking minds ;
an argument, which has this peculiar ad-
vantage, that it gathers strength as human
knowledge advances, and is more convincing
at present than it was some centuries ago.

King Alphonsus might say, that he could
contrive a better planetary system than that
which astronomers held in his day.* That
system was not the work of God, but the
fiction of men. [629]

But since the true system of the sun,
moon, and planets, has been discovered, no
man, however atheistically disposed, has
pretended to shew how a better could be

When we attend to the marks of good
contrivance which appear in the works of
God, every discovery we make in the con-
stitution of the material or intellectual
system becomes a hymn of praise to the
great Creator and Governor of the world.
And a man who is possessed of the genuine
spirit of philosophy will think it impiety to
contaminate the divine workmanship, by
mixing it with those fictions of human fancy,
called theories and hypotheses, which will
always bear the signatures of human folly,
no less than the other does of divine wis-

I know of no person who ever called in
question the principle now under our consi-
deration, when it is applied to the actions
and discourses of men. For this would be to
deny that we have any means of discerning
a wise man from an idiot, or a man that is
illiterate in the highest degree from a man
of knowledge and learning, which no man
has the effrontery to deny.

But, in all ages, those who have been
unfriendly to the principles of religion, have
made attempts to weaken the force of the
argument for the existence and perfec-
tions of the Deity, which is founded on this
principle. That argument has got the name
of the argument from final causes ; and as
the meaning of this name is well understood,
we shall use it.

The argument from final causes, when re-
duced to a syllogism, has these two premises :
— First, That design and intelligence in the
cause, may, with certainty, be inferred from
marks or signs of it in the effect. This is
the principle we have been considering, and

* Alphonso X. of Castile. He flourished iD the
thirteenth century— a great mathematician and as-
tronomer. To him we owe the Alphonsine Tables.
His Baying was not so pious and philosophical as lipid
states ; but that, " Had he been present with Ood
at the creation, he could have supplied some useful
hints towards the better ordering of tile universe."

[6S8. 629]



we may call it the major proposition of the
argument. The second, which we call the
minor proposition, is, That there are in fact
the clearest marks of design and wisdom in
the works of nature ; and the conclusion is,
That the works of nature are the effects
of a wise and intelligent Cause. One must
either assent to the conclusion, or deny one
or other of the premises. [630]

Those among the ancients who denied a
God or a Providence, seem to me to have
yielded the major proposition, and to have
denied the minor ; conceiving that there
are not in the constitution of things such
marks of wise contrivance as are sufficient
to put the conclusion beyond doubt. This,
I think, we may learn, from the reasoning
of Cotta the academic, in the third book of
Cicero, of the Nature of the Gods.

The gradual advancement made in the
knowledge of nature, hath put this opinion
quite out of countenance.

When the structure of the human body
was much less known than it is now, the
famous Galen saw snch evident marks of
wise contrivance in it, that, though he had
been educated an Epicurean, he renounced
that system, and wrote his book of the use
of the parts of the human body, on purpose
to convince others of what appeared so clear
to himself, that it was impossible that such
admirable contrivance should be the effect
of chance.

Those, therefore, of later times, who are
dissatisfied with this argument from final
causes, have quitted the stronghold of the
ancient atheists, which had become un-
tenable, and have chosen rather to make a
defence against the major proposition.

Des Cartes seems to have led the way in
this, though he was no atheist. But, having
invented some new arguments for the being
of God, he was, perhaps, led to disparage
those that had been used before, that he
might bring more credit to his own. Or
perhaps he was offended with the Peripa-
tetics, because they often mixed final causes
with physical, in order to account for the
phenomena of nature. [631 ]

He maintained, therefore, that physical
causes only should be assigned for phaeno-
mena ; that the philosopher has nothing to
do with final causes ; and that it is pre-
sumption in us to pretend to determine for
what end any work of nature is framed.
Some of those who were great admirers of
Des Cartes, and followed him in many
points, differed from him in this, particu-
larly Dr Henry More and the pious Arch-
bishop Fenelon : but others, after the ex-
ample of Des Cartes, have shewn a contempt
of all reasoning from final causes. Among
these, I think, we may reckon Maupertuis
and Button. But the most direct attack
has been made upon this principle by Hi

Hume, who puts an argument in the mouth
of an Epicurean, on which he seems to lay
great stress.

The argument is, That the universe is a
singular effect, and, therefore, we can draw
no conclusion from it, whether it may have
been made by wisdom or not. *

If I understand the force of this argu-
ment, it amounts to this, That, if we had
been accustomed to see worlds produced,
some by wisdom and others without it, and
had observed that such a world as this
which we inhabit was always the effect of
wisdom, we might then, from past experi-
ence, conclude that this world was made
by wisdom; but, having no such experi-
ence, we have no means of forming any
conclusion about it.

That this is the strength of the argument
appears, because, if the marks of wisdom
seen in one world be no evidence of wisdom,
the like marks seen in ten thousand will
give as little evidence, unless, in time past,
we perceived wisdom itself conjoined with
the tokens of it ; and, from their perceived
conjunction in time past, conclude that, al-
though, in the present world, we see only
one of the two, the other must accompany
it. [632]

Whence it appears that this reasoning of
Mr Hume is built on the supposition that
our inferring design from the strongest
marks of it, is entirely owing to our past
experience of having always found these
two things conjoined- But I hope I have
made it evident that this is not the case.
And, indeed, it is evident that, according
to this reasoning, we can have no evidence
of mind or design in any of our fellow-

How do I know that any man of my ac-
quaintance has understanding ? I never
saw his understanding. I see only cer-
tain effects, which my judgment leads
me to conclude to be marks and tokens
of it.

But, says the sceptical philosopher, you
can conclude nothing from these tokens, un-
less past experience has informed you that
such tokens are always joined with under-
standing. Alas ! sir, it is impossible I can
ever have this experience. The understand-
ing of another man is no immediate object
of sight, or of any other faculty which God
hath given me ; and unless I can conclude
its existence from tokens that are visible, I
have no evidence that there is understand-
ing in any man.

It seems, then, that the man who main-
tains that there is no force in the argument
from final causes, must, if he will be con-
sistent, see no evidence of the existence of
any intelligent being but himself.

* See Stewart's " Element-," it. p 579.— H.






I know no writer who has treated ex-
pressly of first principles before Aristotle ;
but it is probable that, in the ancient Py-
thagorean school, from which both Plato
and Aristotle borrowed much, this subject
had not been left untouched. [633]

Before the time of Aristotle, considerable
progress had been made in the mathema-
tical sciences, particularly in geometry.

The discovery of the forty-seventh pro-
position of the first book of Euclid, and of
the five regular solids, is, by antiquity,
ascribed to Pythagoras himself; and it is
impossible he could have made those dis-
coveries without knowing many other pro-
positions in mathematics. Aristotle.- men-
tions the incommensurability of the diagonal
of a square to its side, and gives a hint of
the manner in which it was demonstrated.
We find likewise some of the axioms of
geometry mentioned by Aristotle as axioms,
and as indemonstrable principles of mathe-
matical reasoning.

It is probable, therefore, that, before the
time of Aristotle, there were elementary
treatises of geometry, which are now lost ;
and that in them the axioms were distin-
guished from the propositions which require
] roof.

To suppose that so perfect a system as
that of Euclid's " Elements" was produced
by one man, without any preceding model
or materials, would be to suppose Euclid
more than a man. We ascribe to him as
much as the weakness of human under-
standing will permit, if we suppose that the
inventions in geometry, which had been
made in a tract of preceding ages, were by
him not only carried much farther, but
digested into so admirable a system that
his work obscured all that went before it,
and made them be forgot and lost.

Perhaps, in like manner, the writings of
Aristotle with regard to first principles, and
with regard to many other abstract subjects,
may have occasioned the loss of what had
been written upon those subjects by more
ancient philosophers. [634]

Whatever may be in this, in his second
book upon demonstration, he has treated
very fully of first principles ; and, though he
has not attempted any enumeration of them,
he shews very clearly that all demonstra-
tion muBt be built upon truths which are
evident of themselves, but cannot be de-
monstrated. His whole doctrine of syllo-
gisms is grounded upon a few axioms, from
which he endeavours to demonstrate the
rules of syllogism in a mathematical way ;

and in his topics he points out many of the
first principles of probable reasoning.

As long as the philosophy of Aristotle
prevailed, it was held as a fixed point, that
all proof must be drawn from principles
already known and granted.

We must observe, however, that, in that
philosophy, many things were assumed as
first principles, which have no just claim
to that character : such as, that the earth
is at rest ; that nature abhors a vacuum ;
that there is no change in the heavens above
the sphere of the moon ; that the heavenly
bodies move in circles, that being the most
perfect figure ; that bodies do not gravitate
in their proper place ; and many others.

The Peripatetic philosophy, therefore,
instead of being deficient in first principles,
was redundant ; instead of rejecting those
that are truly such, it adopted, as first
principles, many vulgar prejudices and rash
judgments : and this seems in general to
have been the spirit of ancient philosophy.*

It is true, there were among the ancients
sceptical philosophers, who professed to have
no principles, and held it to be the greatest
virtue in a philosopher to withhold assent,
and keep his judgment in a perfect equil -
brium between contradictory opinions. But,
though this sect was defended by some per-
sons of great erudition and acuteness, it died
of itself, and the dogmatic philosophy of
Aristotle obtained a complete triumph over
it. [635]

What Mr Hume says of those who are
sceptical with regard to moral distinctions
seems to have had its accomplishment in
the ancient sect of Sceptics. " The only
way," says he, " of converting antagonists
of this kind is to leave them to themselves ;
for, finding that nobody keeps up the con-
troversy with them, it is probable they will
at last of themselves, from mere weariness,
come over to the side of common sense and

Setting aside this small sect of the Scep-
tics, which was extinct many ages before the
authority of Aristotle declined, I know of
no opposition made to first principles among
the ancients. The disposition was, as has
been observed, not to oppose, but to mul-
tiply them beyond measure.

Men have always been prone, when they
leave one extreme, to run into the opposite ;
and this spirit, in the ancient philosophy, to
multiply first principles beyond reason, was
a strong presage that, when the authority
of the Peripatetic system was at an, end,

* The Peripatetic philosophy did not assume any
such principles as original and self-evident ; but pro.
fessed to establish them all upon induction and gene,
ralization. In practice its induction of 'instances
might be imperfect, and its generalization from par.
titulars rash j but in theory, at least, it was correct.

— a.




the next reigning system would diminish
their number beyond reason.

This, accordingly, happened in that great
revolution of the philosophical republic
brought about by Des Cartes. That truly
great reformer in philosophy, cautious to
avoid the snare in which Aristotle was
taken, of admitting things as first principles
too rashly, resolved to doubt of everything,
and to withhold his assent, until it was forced
by the clearest evidence.*

Thus Des Cartes brought himself into
that very state of suspense which the an-
cient Sceptics recommended as the highest
perfection of a wise man, and the only road
to tranquillity of mind. But he did not
remain long in this state ; his doubt did
not arise from despair of finding the truth,
but from, caution, that he might not be im-
posed upon, and embrace a cloud instead of
a goddess. [636]

His very doubting convinced him of his
own existence ; for that which does not exist
can neither doubt, nor believe, nor reason.

Thus he emerged from universal scepti-
cism by this short enthymeme, Cogito, ergo

This enthymeme consists of an antece-
dent proposition, / think, and a conclusion
drawn from it, therefore I exist.

If it should be asked how Des Cartes
came to be certain of the antecedent proposi-
tion, it is evident that for this he trusted to
the testimony of consciousness. He was con-
scious that he thought, and needed no other

So that the first principle which he adopts
in this famous enthymeme is this, That those
doubts, and thoughts, and reasonings, of
which he was conscious, did certainly exist,
and that his consciousness put their exist-
ence beyond all doubt.

It might have been objected to this first
principle of Des Cartes, How do you know
that your consciousness cannot deceive you ?
You have supposed that all you see, and
hear, and handle, may be an illusion. Why,
therefore, should the power of conscious-
ness have this prerogative, to be believed
implicitly, when all our other powers are
supposed fallacious ?

To this objection I know no other answer
that can be made but that we find it im-
possible to doubt of things of which we are
conscious. The constitution of our nature
forces this belief upon us irresistibly.

This is true, and is sufficient to justify
Des Cartes in assuming, as a first principle,
the existence of thought, of which he was
conscious. [637]

He ought, however, to have gone farther
in this track, and to have considered whe-
ther there may not be other first principles

* On the Cartesian doubt, see Note R.— H.

which ought to be adopted for the same
reason. But he did not see this to be ne-
cessary, conceiving that, upon this ons first
principle, he could support the whole fabric
of human knowledge.

To proceed to the conclusion of Des
Cartes's enthymeme. From the existence
of his thought he infers his own existence.
Here he assumes another first principle,
not a contingent, but a necessary one ; to
wit, that, where there is thought, there
must be a thinking being or mind.

Having thus established his own exist-
ence, he proceeds to prove the existence of
a supreme and infinitely perfect Being ;
and, from the perfection of the Deity, he
infers that his senses, his memory, and the
other faculties which God had given hiiu,
are not fallacious.

Whereas other men, from the beginning
of the world, had taken for granted, as a l.rst
principle, the truth and reality of what they
perceive by their senses, and from thence
inferred the existence of a Supreme Author
and Maker of the world, Des Cartes took
a contrary course, conceiving that the tes-
timony of our senses, and of all our facul-
ties, excepting that of consciousness, ought
not to be taken for granted, but to be
proved by argument.

Perhaps some may think that Des Car-
tes meant only to admit no other first prin-
ciple of contingent truths besides that of
consciousness ; but that he allowed the axi-
oms of mathematics, and of other necessary
truths, to be received without proof. [638]

But I apprehend this was not his inten-
tion ; for the truth of mathematical axioms
must depend upon the truth of the faculty
by which we judge of them. If the faculty
be fallacious, we may be deceived by trust-
ing to it. Therefore, as he supposes that
all our faculties, excepting consciousness,
may be fallacious, and attempts to prove
by argument that they are not, it follows
that, according to his principles, even ma-
thematical axioms require proof. Neither
did he allow that there are any necessary
truths, but maintained, that the truths
which are commonly so called, depend up-
on the will of God. And we find his fol-
lowers, who may be supposed to under-
stand his principles, agree in maintaining,
that the knowledge of our own existence is
the first and fundamental principle from
which all knowledge must be deduced by
one who proceeds regularly in philosophy.

There is, no doubt, a beauty in raising a
large fabric of knowledge upon a few firtt
principles. The stately fabric of mathema-
tical knowledge, raised upon the foundation
of a few axioms and definitions, charms
every beholder. Des Cartes, who was well
acquainted with this beauty in the mathe-
matical sciences, seems to have been am.



[essay VI,

bitious to give the same beautiful simplicity
to his system of philosophy ; and therefore
sought only one first principle as the founda-
tion of all our knowledge, at least of con-
tingent truths.

And so far has his authority prevailed,
that those who came after him have
almost universally followed him in this
track. This, therefore, may be considered
as the spirit of modern philosophy, to allow
of no first principles of contingent truths
but this one, that the thoughts and opera-
tions of our own minds, of which we are
conscious, are self-evidently real and true ;
but that everything else that is contingent
is to he proved by argument.

The existence of a material world, and
of what we perceive by our senses, is not
self-evident, according to this philosophy.
Des Cartes founded it upon this argument,
that God, who hath given us our senses,
and all our faculties, is no deceiver, and
therefore they are not fallacious. [639]

I endeavoured to shew that, if it be not
admitted as a first principle, that our facul-
ties are not fallacious, nothing else can be
admitted ; and that it is impossible to prove
this by argument, unless God should give us
new faculties to sit in judgmentupon the old.

Father Malebranche agreed with Des
Cartes, that the existence of a material
world requires proof ; but, being dissatisfied
with Des Cartes's argument from the per-
fection of the Deity, thought that the only
solid proof is from divine revelation.

Arnauld, who was engaged in controversy
with Malebranche, approves of his anta-
gonist in offering an argument to prove the
existence of the material world, but objects
to the solidity of his argument, and offers
other arguments of his own.

Mr Norris, a great admirer of Des Cartes
and of Malebranche, seems to have thought
all the arguments offered by them and by
Arnauld to be weak, and confesses that we
have, at best, only probable evidence of the
existence of the material world.

Mr Locke acknowledges that the evidence
we have of this point is neither intuitive
nor demonstrative ; yet he thinks it may
be called knowledge, and distinguishes it
by the name of sensitive knowledge ; and,
as the ground of this sensitive knowledge,
he offers some weak arguments, which would
rather tempt one to doubt than to believe.

At last, Bishop Berkeley and Arthur
Collier, without any knowledge of each
other, as far as appears by their writings,
undertook to prove, that there neither is
nor can be a material world. The excel-
lent style and elegant composition of the
former have made his writings to be known
and read, and this system to be attributed
to him only, as if Collier had never ex-
isted. [640]

Both, indeed, owe so much to Male-
branche, that, if we take out of his system
the peculiarities of our seeing all things iu
God, and our learning the existence of an
external world from divine revelation, what
remains is just the system of Bishop Berke-
ley. I make this observation, by the way,
in justice to a foreign author, to whom
British authors seem not to have allowed
all that is due. *

Mr Hume hath adopted Bishop Berke-
ley's arguments against the existence of
matter, and thinks them unanswerable.

We may observe, that this great meta-
physician, though in general he declares in
favour of universal scepticism, and there-
fore may seem to have no first principles at
all, yet, with Des Cartes, he always acknow-
ledges the reality of those thoughts and
operations of mind of which we are con-
scious, -f- So that he yields the antecedent
of Des Cartes's enthymeme cogito, but
denies the conclusion ergo sum, the mind
being, according to him, nothing but that
train of impressions and ideas of which we
are conscious.

Thus, we see that the modern philosophy,
of which Des Cartes may justly be ac-
counted the founder, being built upon the
ruins of the Peripatetic, has a spirit quite
opposite, and runs into a contrary extreme.
The Peripatetic not only adopted as first
principles those which mankind have always
rested upon in their most important trans-
actions, but, along with them, many vulgar
prejudices ; so that this system was founded
upon a wide bottom, but in many parts
unsound. The modern system has nar-
rowed the foundation so much, that every
superstructure raised upon it appears top-

From the single principle of the exist-
ence of our own thoughts, very little, if any
thing, can be deduced by just reasoning,
especially if we suppose that all our other
faculties may be fallacious.

Accordingly, we find that Mr Hume was
not the first that was led into scepticism by
the want of first principles. For, soon after
Des Cartes, there arose a sect in France
called Egoists, who maintained that we
have no evidence of the existence of any-
thing but ourselves. J [641]

Whether these egoists, like Mr Hume,

* If I rocollect aright, (I write this note at a dis-
tance from books,) Locke explicitly anticipates the
Berkeleian idealism in his '< Examination ol Father
Malebranche's Opinion." This was also done oy
Bayle. In fact, Malebranche, and many others be.
fore him, would inevitably have become Idealists,
had they not been Catholics. But an Idealist, as I
have already observed, no consistent Catholic cnvild

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 104 of 114)