Thomas Reid.

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

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meaning of those two words, and of the
others that depend upon them, must have
been the first, and the popular meaning a
corruption of the philosophical, introduced
by time, but so deeply rooted in the struc-
ture of all languages, that it is impossible
to eradicate it ; for nothing external to us
could introduce into the human mind the
general notion of priority and constant con-
junction, but nothing farther.

Power and activity are first conceived
from being conscious of them in ourselves.
Conceiving of other beings from what we
know of ourselves, we first ascribe to them
such powers as we are conscious of in our-
selves. Experience, at least, informs us
that the things about us have not the same
powers that we have ; but language was
formed on a contrary supposition before
this discovery was made, and we must give
a new, and perhaps a very indistinct, mean-
ing to words which before had a clear and
distinct one.

As to the other difference you mention
between you and me, I have quite forgot it.
But I think one can hardly be too cautious
of denying the bona Jides of an antagonist
in a philosophical dispute. It is so bitter a
pill, that it cannot be swallowed without
being very well gilded and aromatized. I
cannot but agree with you that assent or
belief is not a voluntary act. Neither is
seeing when the eyes are open. One may
voluntarily shut his bodily eyes, and perhaps
the eye of his understanding. I confess
this is mala fides. But as light may he so
offensive that the bodily eye is shut involun-
tarily, may not something similar happen to
the eye of the understanding, when brought
to a light too offensive to some favourite
prejudice or passion, to be endured?*

As soon as I have done with your book, I
shall execute your commission to Mr Ar-
thur — I am, dear Sir, yours very sincerely.
Tho. Ekid.

Thursday, July 30, 1789.

* This passage (" But I think"—" be endured f •')
is quoted in the Introduction to Dr Gregory's Essays,
p. 316. ^H.





Remarks on the Introduction.''

1. I humbly think you are too severe
against Aristotle and Plato, especially the
former, f Two hundred years ago, it was
proper to pull him down from the high seat
he held ; but now he is sufficiently humbled,
and I would not have him trampled upon.
I confess that his distinction of causes into
four kinds is not a division of a, genus into its
species, but of an ambiguous word into its
different meanings, and that this is the case
with many of his divisions. But, in>the in-
fancy of philosophy, this ought to be corrected
without severity. It was more inexcusable
in many philosophers and divines of the
scholastick ages to handle every subject in
one method, namely, by shewing its four
causes — Efficient, Material, Formal, and
Final. A very learned divine, whose compend
was the text-book in the school where I was
taught, treating of the creation, when he
comes to the material cause, pronounces it
to be nihil. If Aristotle had treated of his
materia prima in this method, he must have
made the material cause to be the thing it-
self, and all the three other causes to be
nihil ; for it had no form, no efficient, con-
sequently no end. But the absurdity of
making everything to have four causes, can-
not, I believe, be imputed to Aristotle.

2. You challenge him with a violation of
propriety in the Greek language. J I am dis-
posed to take it upon the authority of Aris-
totle, as a man who understood Greek better
than any modern, that the word Hmn was
sometimes used to signify the form, some-
times the matter of a thing. If these were
not popular meanings of the word, might
they not be philosophical, and perhaps to be
found only in the writings of philosophers,
which are now lost ? But I cannot think
that Aristotle would have given these mean-
ings without authority ; and I think it bold
in any modern to impute this to him.

3. You are likewise severe upon the n ij- «. ||
May it not be said that it is very like the sup-
posed principle of change, which, in page xvii.,
you make the general meaning of the word
cause ?

4. You seem to think -{end of page xxi.)
that there are different kinds of causes, each

* " Introduction to the Eaaay," &c. printed in
part,— H.
1 Vide «'E66ays," Introduction, p. xvi. eg.— H.
} Ibidem, p. xvii — H. |] Ibidem, p. xvii.— H.

having something specifick in its relation to
the effect.

I know not what the kinds are which you
have in your eye, and therefore speak in
the dark upon this point. I mean onely to
put you upon your guard that they be
really species of the same genus, that you
may not fall under the censure you have
passed upon Aristotle.

You will forgive my offering this caution,
because I apprehend that there is one ori-
ginal notion of cause grounded in human
nature, and that this is the notion on which
the maxim is grounded — that every change
or event must have a cause. This maxim is
so universally held, and forces itself upon
the judgment so strongly, that I think it
must be a first principle, or what you call a
law of human thought. And I think the
only distinct and true meaning of this maxim
is, that there must be something that had
power to produce the event, arid did pro-
duce it. We are early conscious of some
power in ourselves to produce some events ;
and our nature leads us to think that every
event is produced by a power similar to that
which we find in ourselves — that is, by will
and exertion : when a weight falls and hurts
a child, he is angry with it — he attributes
power and will to everything that seems to
act. Language is formed upon these early
sentiments, and attributes action and power
to things that are afterwards discovered to
have neither will nor power. By this
means, the notion of action and causation is
gradually changed ; what was essential to it
at first is left out, while the name remains :
and the term cause is applied to things which
we believe to be inanimate and passive.

I conceive that, from the original notion
or sentiment above described, all the dif-
ferent notions of cause have been derived,
by some kind of analogy, or perhaps abuse ;
and I know not but the T o J| ff may compre-
hend them all, as well as any other general
name, as they are so heterogeneous.

A law plea is the cause of a litigation.
The motive that induces a great body of men
to act in concert, is the cause of a revolu-
tion in politicks. A law of nature is the
cause of a phenomenon in physicks, or,
perhaps, the cause is another phenomenon
which always goes before it. The cause of
the universe has been by some thought to
be necessity, by others chance, by others a
powerful intelligent being.

I think it is a good division in Aristotle,
that the same word may be applied to dif-
ferent things in three ways — univocally,
analogically, and equivocally. Univocally,
when the things are species of the same
genus ; analogically, when the things are
related by some similitude or analogy; equi-
vocally, when they have no relation but a
common name. When a word is analogi-



cally applied to different things, as, I be-
lieve, the word cause is, there must be an
original meaning from which the things
related to it have borrowed the name ; and
it happens not unfrequently that the origi-
nal notion loses the name by disuse, while
the relatives monopolize it ; as in the Eng-
lish words, deliberate, suspense, project,
and many others.

The vulgar, in their notion even of the
physical cause of a phEenomenon, include
some conception of efficiency or productive
influence. So all the ancient philosophers
did. Itaque non sic causa intelligi debet,
ut quod cuique antecedat, id ei causa sit, sed
quod efficienter antecedit. — Cicero.

Modern philosophers know that we have
no ground to ascribe efficiency to natural
causes, or even necessary connection with
the effect. But we still call them causes,
including nothing under the name but pri-
ority and constant conjunction. Thus the
giving the name of causation to the relation
of connected events in physicks, is, in mo-
dern philosophers, a kind of abuse of the
name, because we know that the thing
most essential to causation in its proper
meaning — to wit, efficiency— is wanting.
Yet this does not hinder our notion of a
physical cause from being distinct and de-
terminate, though, I think, it cannot be
said to be of the same genus with an effi-
cient cause or agent. Even the great Bacon
seems to have thought that there is a latens
processus, as he calls it, by which natural
causes really produce their effects ; and
that, in the progress of philosophy, this
might be discovered. But Newton, more
enlightened on this point, has taught us to
acquiesce in a law of nature, according to
which the effect is produced, as the utmost
that natural philosophy can reach, leaving
what can be known of the agent or efficient
cause to metaphysicks or natural theology.
This I look upon as one of the great dis-
coveries of Newton ; for I know of none
that went before him in it. It has new-
modelled our notion of physical causes, but,
at the same time, carried it farther from
what I take to be the original notion of
cause or agent.

If you have found, as you seem to say,
(page xxii.,) that the different relations of
things, which we call cause and effect, differ
only as species of the same genus, and have
found the general notion which comprehends
them all under it — this, indeed, is more
than I am able to do. Supposing it to be
done, I should think that the genus, being
an abstract notion, would be capable of a
just definition. Yet I do not find fault
with your declining to set out by giving
the definition ; for I conceive you may,
with great propriety, pave the way to it by
» preliminary induction.




[No dale.]
My Dear Sir, — I must thank you, in
the first place, for your attention to my in-
terest in writing to Dr Rose what you in-
formed me of in your answer to my last.

I received your three volumes' on Wed-
nesday evening, with the letter and plan of
the Essay. ......

Volume First.

In the induction made to prove that men
have a notion of the relation of cause and
effect, this case ought to be particularly in the
view of the author, (as I take it to be the
case that really exists) — to wit, that cause
and effect, from the imperfection of langu-
age, signifie many different relations, and
yet, by those who write and think dis-
tinctly, will be used without ambiguity;
the things of which they are predicated ex-
plaining sufficiently what relation is meant.
This is the case of many words that have
various meanings really different, though,
perhaps, somewhat similar or analogous. It
is remarkably the case of prepositions. Yet
such words as prepositions are used with-
out ambiguity by those who think distinctly.
How many relations are expressed by the
preposition of ? — and yet, when it is put be-
tween two words, we are never at a loss
for its meaning. In Aristotle's days, a cause
meant four things — to wit, the Efficient,
the Form, the Matter, and the End. Yet,
when it was used by a good writer, it was
easy to see in which of these senses it was
meant. With us the word cause has lost
some of these 'four meanings, and has got
others to supply their places, and, perhaps,
has not, in one language, all the meanings
which it has in another. Perhaps, therefore,
it may be said, that all men have many no-
tions of cause and effect, and some men
more than others; the same observation
may, I think, be applied to the words Power,
Agent, and Activity.

To give you a hint of my notion of the
word cause, I think it has one strict and
philosophical meaning which is a single re-
lation, and it has a lax and popular meaning
which includes many relations. The popu-
lar meaning I think I can express by a
definition. Causa est id, quo posito ponitur

I The MS. of the Essay itself. The Essay wu
probably considerably modified before publication ;
and 1 have been unable to attempt the task of discover,
ing how far, and to .what pages of the published book,
the following remarks apply. H.



Effeetus, quo sublato tollitur. This, you
will easily see, includes many relations, and,
I believe, includes all thatinany language are
expressed by cause, thoughjnsomelanguages
some of the relations included under the
definition may not be called causes, on ac-
count, perhaps, of their having some other
word appropriated to signify such relations.

In the strict philosophical sense, I take a
cause to be that which has the relation to
the effect which I have to my voluntary and
deliberate actions ; for I take this notion of
a cause to be derived from the power I feel
in myself to produce certain effects. In
this sense, we say that the Deity is the
cause of the universe.

I think there is some ambiguity in your
use of the words The notion of a cause.
Through a considerable part of Vol. I. it
means barely a conception of the meaning
of the word cause ; then suddenly it means
some opinion or judgment about the word
cause, or the thing meant by that word.
The last must be the meaning when you
speak of the notion of a cause being true or
false, being condemned or justified. The
bare conception of a cause, without any
opinion about it, can neither be true nor
false. It is true that notion often signifies
opinion ; but when, in a train of discourse,
it has been put for simple conception, and
then immediately for opinion, the reader
is apt to overlook the change of signification,
or to think that the author means to impute
truth or falsehood to a bare conception,
without opinion.

The same thing I observe when you
speak of the notion of power, vol. II. p. 19.

Page 40, &c What is said about the

non-existence of the objects of geometry, I
think, is rather too strongly expressed. I
grant that they are things conceived without
regard to their existence ; but they are pos-
sible modifications of things which we dayly
perceive by our senses. We perceive length,
breadth, and thickness : these attributes do
really exist. The objects of geometry are
modifications of one or more of these, accu-
rately conceived and defined.

Nor do I think it can be said, without great
exceptions, that the notions of the objects
of geometry are not common among man-
kind. The notions of a straight and a curve
line, of an angle, of a plain surface, and
others, are common; though, perhaps, in the
minds of the vulgar, not so accurately de-
fined as in those of geometers. The more
complex geometrical conceptions of cycloids
and other curves, are only artificial com-
positions of more simple notions which are
common to the vulgar. Hence, a man of
ordinary capacity finds no difficulty in under-
standing the definitions of Euclid. All the
difficulty lies in forming the habit by which

the name, and an accurate conception of its
meaning, are so associated, that the one
readily suggests the other. To form this
habit requires time, and in some persons
much more than in others.

Page 68. — You may use freedom with
Aristotle, because he won't feel it. But I
would not have you laugh at the restorer of
ancient metaphysicks* in publick while he
is alive. Why hurt a man who is not
hurting you ?

Page 70. — I thought the animal implume
bipes was Plato's definition, and I think I
quoted it as his ; but you may examine. I
think it is Diog. Laertius that says so ; but
I am not sure, nor have I the book here.-)-

What you say of definitions in natural
history, chemistry, and medicine, may per-
haps be taken by some persons as a disap-
probation of definitions in those sciences.
Would it not be proper to guard against
this misconstruction ? I think them very
useful to the present age, and that they
may be still more useful to future ages,
though you observe, very justly, that we can-
not reason from them as we do from mathe-
matical definitions. The most common
words may flow with the flux of time, and
have their meaning contracted, enlarged, or
altered. Definition seems to be the only
mean of fixing them to one meaning, or, at
least, of shewing what was the meaning when
that definition had authority.

Volume Second.

After what I have already said, you will
not be surprized to find me one of those
who think that the notions of Power and of
Agency or Activity, have a- share in the rela-
tion of Cause and Effect. I take all the
three words to have a lax and popular
meaning, in which they are nearly related ;
and a strict and philosophical meaning, in
which also they have the same affinity.

In the strict sense, I agree with you
that power and agency are attributes of
mind onely ; and I think that mind onely can
be a cause in the strict sense. This power,
indeed, may be where it is not exerted, and
so may be without agency or causation ; but
there can be no agency or causation with-
out power to act, and to produce the effect.

As far as I can judge, to everything we
call a cause we ascribe power to produce
the effect. In intelligent causes, the power
may be without being exerted ; so I have
power to run, when I sit still or walk. But
in .inanimate causes, we conceive no power
but what is exerted ; and, therefore, mea-
sure the power of the cause by the effect

• Lord Monboddo.— H.

t See Laertius, L. vi. Seg. 40. The definition i.
Plato's H.


which it actually produces. The power of
an acid to dissolve iron is measured by
what it actually dissolves.

We get the notion of active power, as
well as of cause and effect, as I think, from
what we feel in ourselves. We feel in our-
selves a, power »to move our limbs, and to
produce certain effects when we choose.
Hence, we get the notion of power, agency,
and causation, in the strict and philosophical
sense ; and this I take to be our first notion
of these three things.

If this be so, it is a curious problem in
human nature, how, in the progress of
life, we come by the lax notion of power,
agency, cause, and effect, and to ascribe
them to things that have no will nor intel-
ligence. I am apt to think, with the Abbe 1
Raynal, " that savages," (I add children
as in the same predicament,) " wherever
they see motion which they cannot account
for, there they suppose a soul." Hence
chey ascribe active power and causation to
sun, moon, and stars, rivers, fountains, sea,
air, and earth ; these are 'conceived to be
causes in the strict sense. In this period
of society, language is formed, its funda-
mental rules and forms established. Ac-
tive verbs are applied onely to things that
are believed to have power and activity in
the proper sense. Every part of nature
which moves, without our seeing any exter-
nal cause of its motion, is conceived to be a
cause in the strict sense, and, therefore, is
called so. At length, the more acute and
speculative few discover that some of those
things which the vulgar believe to be ani-
mated like themselves, are inanimate, and
have neither will nor understanding. These
discoveries grow and spread slowly in a
course of ages. In this slow progress, what
use must the wise men make of their dis-
coveries ? Will they affirm that the sun
does not shine nor give heat, that the
sea never rages, nor do the winds blow, nor
the earth bring forth grass and corn ? If
any bold spirit should maintain such para-
doxes, he would probably repent his teme-
rity. The wiser part will speak the com-
mon language, and suit it to their new no-
tions as well as they can ; just as philoso-
phers say with the vulgar, that the sun
rises and sets, and the moon changes. The
philosopher must put a meaning upon vul-
gar language that suits his peculiar tenets
as well as he can. And, even if all men
should become philosophers, their language
would still retain strong marks of the opi-
nions that prevailed when it was first made.
If we allow that active verbs were made to
express action, it seems to be a necessary
consequence, that all the languages we
know were made by men who believed
almost every part of nature to be active,
and to have inherent power.

Volume Third.

The philological discussion is new to me j
and it would require more time in my slow
way to make up my mind about it, than
you allow me. But the general principle —
that every distinction which is found in the
structure of i common language, is a real
distinction, and is perceivable by the com-
mon sense of mankind — this I hold for cer-
tain, and have made frequent use of it. I
wish it were more used than it has been ;
for I believe the whole system of metaphy-
sicks, or the far greater part, may be brought
out of it ; and, next to accurate reflexion
upon the operations of our own minds, I
know nothing that can give so much light
to the human faculties as a due considera-
tion of the structure of language.

From this principle, you prove to my
satisfaction that there is a real distinction
between the relation which a living agent
has to his action, and the relation between
an inanimate and the effect of which it is
the cause, mean, or instrument.

But I know no language in which the
word cause is confined to inanimate things,
though, perhaps, it may be more frequently
applied to them than to things that have
life and intelligence.

If I were convinced that it cannot be said,
in a plain, literal sense, that I am the cause
of my own actions, or that the Deity is the
cause of the universe — if I were convinced
that my actions, or the production of the
universe, are not effects, or that there must
be a cause of these effects distinct from the
agent, I should in this case agree to your

The rule of Latin syntax from which you
reason, seems, indeed, to suppose that all
causes are inanimate things, like means
and instruments ; but I desiderate better
authority. I am not sure but power and
agency are as often ascribed to inanimate
things as causation. Thus we speak of the
powers of gravity, magnetism, mechanical
powers, and a hundred more. Yet there is
a kind of power and agency which you
acknowledge to belong only to mind.

Your system, if I comprehend it, (which,
indeed, I am dubious about,) seems to go
upon the supposition that power and agency
belong onely to mind, and that in language
causation never belongs to mind. If this
be so, you and I may, after all, differ only
about the meaning of words. What you
call an agent, and a being that has power,
that I call a cause with regard to every ex-
ertion of his power.

That which alone you call a cause, I
think is no cause at all in the strict sense of
the word ; but I acknowledge it is so in the
lax and popular sense.



In these remarks I thought friendship
obliged me to lay aside all regard to friend-
ship, and even to indulge a spirit of severity
that seems opposite to it. I hope you will
make allowance for this. For, in reality,
I have such an opinion of your judgment
and taste, that I cannot help suspecting my
own where thev differ.



Motive — Sect 1.

27. [Page 21, published work.]— It
does not appear to me, that the long pas-
sage quoted from Mr Hume's reconciling
project, is so full of ambiguous expressions
and hypothetical doctrine, as it is said to
be ; though I think it is very clearly shewn
to be full of weak reasoning. I think he
does not confound a constant conjunction
with a necessary connection, but plainly dis-
tinguishes them ; affirming, that the fiist is
all the relation which, upon accurate reflec-
tion, we are able to perceive between cause
and effect ; but that mankind, by some pre-
judice, are led to think that cause and effect
have moreover a necessary connection;
when at the same time they acknowledge
onely a constant conjunction betweenmotive
and action ; so far I see no obscurity or
ambiguity. The words constant conjunction
and necessary connection, I think, are the
best that can be used to express the meaning
of each, and the difference between them.
At the same time, to suppose, without
assigning any reason for the supposition,
that the constant conjunction of cause and

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 19 of 114)