Thomas Reid.

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

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nothing less would satisfy the wife. He
took them to a room where his saddle and
bridle hung, and shut the door. What
satisfaction he required for the fault I know
not ; but, after the matter was compromised,
he took the bridle, and lashed the said saddle
very unmercifully, and ordered the boys to
cry, which they did most pitifully. The
mother hearing the noise, thought her boys
would be killed, and wanted to interpose,
but the door was bolted. She was forced
to stand behind the door, and felt every
stroke more than either the saddle or the
boys, resolving never again to trust her
husband with the rod of correction.

I have found the printed thesis of James
Gregory, above mentioned ; it is printed at
Edinburgh, 1690. It would seem that the
reform of St Andrew's University, after the
Revolution, was not overtaken at that time.
The students' names who were to defend the
thesis at Salvator College, in St Andrew's, on
such a day of June, are all mentioned, to the
number of twenty-one. Kinairdy was a
Scotch Episcopalian. He wrote memoirs
of his own times, which my father, who had
read them, told me were unfavourable to
the Covenant — the idol of the Presbyte-
rians at that time. These Memoirs were
in your father's possession, and I suppose
are in yours. You see, my dear sir, that
I have answered more than I was asked,
because I like to dwell upon the subject ;
but you must not think nor say that my
grandmother was a scold ; she might have
strong passions, but no scold ever had her
dignity and magnanimity. She had a
brother, whom I knew well, who was very
like to her — Provost John Gordon. He
was long at the head of the magistracy in
Aberdeen ; and had been a member of the
Scotch Parliament, and was one of the most
respected magistrates that ever was in that
city — I ever am, dear Sir, yours,

Tho. Keid.

Aug. 24, 1787.



Dear Sir, — I have read your theory of
the moods of verbs* over and over, and
shall give you a few trifling remarks when
the MS. is returned, or sooner, if I see you
sooner. It is not yet sent to Dr Cleghorn,
but shall be this week. In the meantime,

» Snbiequently printed in "The Transactions of I
ine Royal Society of Edinburgh."— H I

having the opportunity of my good friend
Mr John Dugnid, I send you some reveries
on the invention and progress of language.
The art of communicating our sentiments
by articulate sounds,is certainly, of all human
arts, the most ingenious, and that which
has required most of thought, of abstraction,
and nice metaphysical discrimination. This
has led our friend L. M.* to think that it
must have been, at first, the work of philo-
sophers. I rather consider it as a huge and
complicated machine, which was very im-
perfect at first, but gradually received im-
provements from the judgment andinvention
of all who used it in the course of many

It is a machine which every man must
use, and which he finds of suoh utility and
importance, that, if he has any genius, he
has sufficient inducement to employ it in
making language more subservient to bis

In the natural talents of genius and in-
vention, there is no less difference among
savages than among philosophers. One
savage, in the use of natural signs, will shew
great superiority to others in conveying his
sentiments distinctly and intelligibly ; and
the same superiority he will shew in the use
of a rude language of articulate sounds—
sometimes by giving a more easy or more
agreeable sound to words that are in use;
sometimes by distinguishing, by some in-
flection or inversion, words or phrases that
were before ambiguous ; sometimes by a
new metaphorical meaning ; and sometimes
by new words or new derivations, where
they were wanted.

So fond are ingenious men to invent such
improvements in language, and so prone the
multitude to adopt them, when they please
the public taste, that all languages are per-
petually changing, according to the beau-
tiful simile of Horace — Ut silvai foliis pronos
mutantur in annos, $c. In a rude language
it iseasyto make improvements; andchanges
that are found useful and important, though
invented by one man, will soon be adopted
by the multitude.

Thus the inventions of thousands of in- ,
genious men, in a succession of ages, all '
employed upon this one machine, bring it •
by insensible degrees to its perfection ; as
knowledge grows, language grows along
with it, till it arrive at that stately form
which we contemplate with admiration.

The steam engine was invented not much
more than a century ago ; but it has re-
ceived so many and so great improvements
in that short period, that, if the inventor
were to arise from the dead, and view it in '■
its improved state, he would hardly be able
to discern his own share of the invention.

Lord Monboddo H.



Language is like a tree, which, from a small
seed, grows imperceptibly, till the fowls of
the air lodge in its branches, and the beasts
of the earth rest under its shadow. The
seed of language is the natural signs of our
thoughts, which nature has taught all men
to use, and all men to understand. But its
growth is the effect of the united energy of
all who do or ever did use it. One man
pushes out a branch, another a leaf, one
smooths a rough part, another lops off an
excrescence. Grammarians have, without
doubt, contributed much to its regularity
and beauty 5 and philosophers, by increasing
our knowledge, have added many a fair
branch to it ; but it would have been a tree
without the aid of either.

The rudest tribes of men soon find lan-
guage to express their confined wants and
desires ; and the natural love of analogy
will produce much analogy even in the lan-
guage of savages. We see that children of
two or three years old, having got a few
plurals, without being taught, form new
ones analogically, and often, in the pursuit
of analogy, break chrough the rules of

A man born deaf, who has no opportunity
of conversing with other deaf men, has to
invent a language for himself, along with the
additional labour of teaching others to un-
derstand it- One who has had access to
know to what degree of perfection some
deaf men have carried their art of commu-
nicating their thoughts, will not think it
incredible that a nation flourishing in arts
and sciences should, in a course of ages, by
their united efforts, bring language to all
the perfection it has ever attained.

In speech, the true natural unit is a sen-
tence. No man intends less when he
speaks ; what is less than a complete sen-
tence is not speech, but a part or parts of
speech; to divide a sentence into parts
requires greater abstraction than to divide
the unit into fractions of a unit. It is,
therefore, extremely probable that men ex-
pressed sentences by one complex sound or
word, before they thought of dividing them
into parts, signified by different words. One
word signified, give me bread ; another, take
' bread ; another, eat bread ; another, bake
bread. As all these sentences have some-
thing common in their meaning, the natu-
ral love of analogy would lead to some-
thing common in the word by which they
were expressed; and in the progress -of
language, that which was common in the
sound of all these sentences might be sepa-
rated from that which was proper to each ;
and being thus separated, it becomes that
part of speech which we call a substantive

* This is an important truth, the ignorance, of
which is seen in our perverted systems of Grammar,
Logic, and Psychology— H.

noun, signifying bread, which substantive
will be fit to make a part of many other

Thus the object, or accusative, may be,
as it were, cut out of the sentence, so as to
form a word by itself, though originally it
was only a part of a word.

Another set of sentences — such as, / love
Martha, You love Mary, John loves Matilda
— might lead men to separate what is com-
mon in the word by which each of these
three sentences is expressed, from what is
proper to each, and by that means to have
a word for the verb love.

To shew how all the parts of speech may
be cut out of words that signify whole sen-
tences, by separating that part of the sound
which is common to many sentences, from
that which is proper to each, would be more
tedious than difficult, and may easily be
conceived. By dividing the sound, the
mental abstraction is made easy, even to
rude men, who, without some aid of this
kind, would find it above their reach. Such
division facilitates greatly the use of lan-
guage, and, therefore, when once begun,
will go on.

That the parts of speech should be con-
ceived before speech was in use, and that
speech should at first be formed by putting
together parts of speech, which before had
got names, seems to me altogether incred-
ible ; no less incredible than if it should be
said that before men had the conception of
a body, they first formed the conception of
matter, then the conception of form, and,
putting these two together, they got the
conception of body, which is made up of
matter and form.

Perhaps, in the language of some savages,
all the parts of speech have not yet been
separated into different words. Charlevoix
has given a very full account of some of the
Canadian languages. I quote him from
memory, having read his history of Canada,
I think, about forty years ago ; but, as it
first led me into this speculation, I remem-
ber it the better.

He says, "of one of their languages, (I
think that of the Hurons,) that in each of
their villages there is a public orator chosen,
who makes it the whole study of his life to
speakthe language with propriety and force ;
that the people are very nice judges of the
defects and excellencies of their orators ;
so that there are very few of them that can
perfectly please the public ear ; that their
verbs have as many moods and tenses as
the Greek verbs have, and, besides this,
that the accusative or object always makes
a part of the verb. Thus, one verb signi-
fies to drink wine ; another, to drink water ;
one, to kill a brother ; another, to kill an ene-
my ; so that the verb very often expresses
the whole sentence.



I believe, in all languages of nations
which we account civilized, the several parts
of speech have been separated from one an-
other, and are often expressed by words
proper to them. But in all of them, and in
some more than in others, several parts of
speech are often combined in one word, not
from necessity, but for the sake of elegance
and beauty.

Thus, in the Latin and Greek verbs, be-
sides the radical signification of the verb,
its voice, mood, tense, person, and number
are all expressed in one word. In nouns,
both substantive and adjective, we have the
noun, together with its case, number, and
gender, in one word. Nor is this owing to
a want of words in those languages to ex-
press separately those accidents of verbs and
nouns. It seems rather to be a matter of
choice, to give greater beauty and strength
to the language. By this expedient, much
may be said in few words — and these, lofty
and sonorous words, with a beautiful variety
and harmony of termination, and great
power of inversion ; which are qualities of
great importance in poetry and eloquence.

In language, as in many other things,
necessity, convenience, and long practice,
have, without the rules of art, produced
artifices, which the artist or the philosopher
has reason to admire, which, sitting in his
chair, he would never have been able to
invent, and which, now that they are in-
vented, he finds it very difficult to reduce
to principles of art.

I believe the principles of the art of lan-
guage are to be found in a just analysis of
the various species of sentences. Aristotle
and the logicians have analysed one species —
vO wit, the proposition. To enumerate and
analyse the other species, must, I think, be
the foundation of a just theory of language.
—I am, dear Sir, yours affectionately,
Tho. Reid.

Aug. 26, 1787.


Dear Sir, — I received yours of Feb. 19,
and last evening received, by the fly, the
very acceptable present of the new edition
of your father's works, for which I heartily
thank you. I have read the Life, which I
think well wrote. I am much obliged to
the author* of it for the notice he has taken
of me; but I wish he had spared some
epithets, which I could not read to myself
without a blush ; I have exceptions to
some things in the narrative, but they
relate to unimportant circumstances. The
quotation from " Whiston's Memoirs" de-
lighted me, and does honour to Scotland.-)-

• Lord Woodhouselee. — H.

t It iB of the following purpott : — Speaking of Dr

Perhaps it might have been added, that
James, the brother of David, was at that
time teaching the same doctrine, as a Pro-
fessor of Philosophy, in another Scotch
university. I have by me a thesis he
published in 1690, which is a compend of
the conclusions of Newton's " Principia,"
I have always heard, by tradition, that D.
Gregory, the astronomer, was chosen to be
preceptor to the Duke of Gloucester, Queen
Ann's son ; but whether his entering upon
that office was prevented by his death, or
by the death of the young prince, I know
not. I have also heard that the Profession
of Modern History in Oxford was erected in
favour of his son, David, when he came
home from his travels.*

I am happy in the account you give me
of our friend, William. I hope he will
continue the race of the Gregories, if you
do not — which, however, I do not yet de-
spair of. Our University has sent a petition
to the House of Commons, in favour of the
African slaves. I hope yours will not be
the last in this humane design ; and that
the Clergy of Scotland will likewise join in
it. I comfort my greyhairswiththe thoughts
that the world is growing better, having long
resolved to resist the common sentiment of
old age, that it is always growing worse.
I am grown so deaf that I can only converse
with one person, and that when he speaks
into my left ear ; but I hope to resist that
depression of spirits which commonly at-
tends that disorder. I can see people con-
versing together without any uneasiness ;
the only difficulty is, when a laugh is raised,
whether to laugh at one does not know what,

David Gregory, when Professor of Mathematics at
Edinburgh, Whiston says — « He had already caused
several of his scholars to keep acts, as we call them,
upon several branches of the Newtonian philosophy,
while we at Cambridge, poor wretches ! were ignomi-
niously studying the fictitious hypotheses of the Carte-
sian." — tVhiston's Memoirs, p. 32. — There is in this,
however, no just ground of panegyric on Scotland,
In the intrusive system of the English universities,
where the tutor has illegally superseded the professor,
all change from one set of doctrines to a better, must
be the tardy and painful work of time and necessity.
The evolutions of a university are prompt and easy
where each department of its cyclopaedia is separately
taught by an able professor; whereas a university
which abandons instruction, in all branches, to any
individual of a host of tutors — the majority of whom
assume the office ol instructor for their own couve.
nience, though without the ability adequate' to dis-
charge its duties — such a university must be content,
not only always to teach little, and that little ill, but
to continue often for a long time to teach what
is elsewhere obsolete or exploded. Accordingly, in
Newton's own university, the Cartesian theories con-
tinued to be taught as the orthodox doctrine, after the
Newtonian physics had, in other univetsities, super-
seded the Cartesian. Andwhy? Simply because, in
Cambridge, instruction was carried on by tutors ; and
the majority of the Cambridge tutors, educated in the
old system, were unable or unwilling to qualify them-
selves to become instructors in the new. — H.

• David Gregory, the son, was.certainlyTSr** Pro-
fessor in the chair ol Modern History and Languages,
founded by George I. — H.



or to be grave when other people laugh. I
am very glad to hear that Dug. Stewart
lectures in physicks so acceptably, but wish
his health be not affected by his being over-
wrought — I am, dear Sir, very affection-
ately yours,

Tho. Reid.



I am much
pleased with the tract you sent me on
usury." I think the reasoning unanswer-
able, and have long been of the author's
opinion, though I suspect that the general
principle, that bargains ought to be left to
the judgment of the parties, may admit of
some exceptions, when the buyers are the
many, the poor, and the simple — the sellers
few, rich, and cunning; the former may
need the aid of the magistrate to prevent
their being oppressed by the latter. It
seems to be upon this principle that por-
tage, freight, the hire of chairs.and coaches,
and the price of bread, are regulated in most
great towns. But with regard to the loan
of money in a commercial state, the excep-
tion can have no place — the borrowers and
lenders are upon an equal footiug, and each
may be left to take care of his own interest.
Nor do I see any good reason for the inter-
position of law in bargains about the loan
of money more than in bargains of any
other kind. I am least pleased with the
10th letter, wherein he accounts for the
infamy of usury. In one of the papers you
mention, (which I give you liberty to use
as'you please,) I have attempted an account
of that phenomenon, which satisfies me more
than his account does. — I am, dear Sir,
Yours most affectionately,
Tho- Reid.
Glasgow, 5th Sept. 1788.



My Dear Sir,— On Monday evening I
received your book,f with the letter in-
closed. The book I shall peruse at leisure
with the eye of a critick ; but, as it is proper
to acquaint you soon of my having received
it safe, I shall now answer your letter,
though perhaps in too much haste. Your

* '''Letters On Usury," by Mr Jeremy Bentham,
addressed to George Wilson, Esq., (Dr Gregory's
triend,) and published. by Mr Wilson in 1787.— H.

f The " Philosophical and I iterary Essays," or
rather their introduction, which was in great part
printed several years belore publication.— H.

intention of inscribing the book, if published,
to me, I account a very great honour done
me ; and, if you do not alter your mind,
would not be so self-denying as to decline
it ; but, as a real friend, I think you ought
to inscribe it to some man in power that
may be of use to you, though I hate dedi-
cations stuffed with flattery to great men.
Yet I know no reason why a man of your
time of life may not court the notice of a
great man by a dedication, as well as by a
visit. When I inscribed a book to you,
my situation was very different. I was past
all hopes and fears with regard to this
world ; and, indeed, had Lord Kaimes been
alive, intended to have addressed it to him.
When he was dead, there was not a man
of his eminence that I had so much ac-
quaintance with as to j ustify such an address.
I therefore seriously wish you to spend a
second thought upon this subject ; and not
to suffer your friendship, of which I need
no new proof, to lead you to do an impru-
dent thing, and what the world would think
such, or even perhaps construe as a con-
tempt put upon your great friends. *

As to the two points wherein you and I
differ, after what you have said of them ia
this letter, I am really uncertain whether
we differ about things or only about words.
You deny that of every change there must
be an efficient cause, in my sense — that is,
an intelligent agent, who by his power and
will effected the change. But I think you
grant that, when the change-is not effected
by such an agent, "it must have a physical
cause — that is, it must be the necessary
consequence of the nature and previous state
of things unintelligent and inactive.

I admit that, for anything I know to the
contrary, there may be such a nature and
state of things which have no proper ac-
tivity, as that certain events or changes
must necessarily follow. I admit that, in
such a case, that which is antecedent may
be called the physical cause, and what is
necessarily consequent, may be called the
effect of that cause.

I likewise admit, laws of nature may be
called (as they commonly are called) phy-
sical causes — in a sense indeed somewhat
different from the former — because laws of
nature effect nothing, but as far as they are
put to execution, either by some agent, or
by some physical cause ; they being, how-
ever, our neplus ultra in natural philosophy,
which professes to shew us the causes of
natural things, and being, both in ancient
and modern times, called causes, they have
by prescription acquired a right to that

I think also, and I believe you agree with

» It is needless to say that Dr Gregory did not
comply with this prudent advice. The " Essaifc" 1
are dedicated to Keid.~ U.



me, that every physical cause must be the
work of some agent or efficient cause. Thus,
that a body put in motion continues to move
till it be stopped, is an effect which, for what
I know, may be owing to an inherent pro-
perty in matter ; if this be so, this pro-
perty of matter is the physical cause of the
continuance of the motion ; but the ultimate
efficient cause is the Being who gave this
property to matter.

If we suppose this continuance of motion
to be an arbitrary appointment of the
Deity, and call that appointment a law of
nature and a physical cause ; such a law of
nature requires a Being who has not only
enacted the law, but provided the means of
its being executed, either by some physical
cause, or by some agent acting by his order.
If we agree in these things, I see not
wherein we differ, but in words.

I agree with you that to confound the
notion of agent or efficient cause with that
of physical cause, has been a common error
of philosophers, from the days of Plato to
our own. I could wish that the same gene-
ral name of cause had not been given to
both, as if they were two species belonging
to the same genus. They differ toto genere.
For a physical cause is not an agent. It
does not act, but is acted upon, and is as
passive as its effect. You accordingly give
them different generical names, calling the
one the agent, and not the cause — the other
the cause, but not the agent.

I approve of your view in this ; but think
it too bold an innovation in language. In
all writing, preaching, and speaking, men
have been so much accustomed to call the
Deity the first cause of all things, that to
maintain that he is no cause at all, would
be too shocking. To say that the world
exists without a cause, would be accounted
Atheism, in spite of all explications that
could be given of it. Agency, efficiency,
operation, are so conjoyned in our concep-
tions with a cause, that an age would not be
sufficient to disjoyn them.

The words agent and action are not less
ambiguous than cause and causation ; they
are applied, by the most accurate thinkers
and speakers, to what you call physical
causes. So we say, one body acts upon
another, by a stroke, by pressure, by attrac-
tion or repulsion ; and in vain would one
attempt to abolish this language. We must
bear with the imperfections of language in
some degree ; we are not able to make it
so philosophical as we wish.

To remedy the ambiguity of cause and
agent as far as possible, without too bold
an innovation, I say that each of these
words has two meanings — a lax and popular
meaning, and a philosophical. In the po-
pular meaning, both are applied to what you
call a physical cause. In the strict or philo-

sophical meaning, both are applied only to
what you call an agent — I, an efficient
cause. I choose to distinguish the philoso-
phical meaning of cause, by calling it an
efficient cause ; and to distinguish the
philosophical meaning of agent, by calling
it an agent in the strict and proper sense.

You distinguish the philosophical mean-
ing of these two ambiguous words from the
popular, by appropriating one to the philo-
sophical meaning, and the other to the
popular. Is not this the difference between
you and me ?

It is remarkable that the philosophical

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 18 of 114)