Thomas Reid.

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

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knowledge are ideas in my own mind?" — Essays on
the Intellectual Powers, Ess. 11. ch. x. p. 1G-2.

In like manner, Kant informs us, that it was by
Hume's sceptical inferences, in regard to the causal
nexus, that he also " was first roused from his dog.
matic slumber." See the "Prolegomena," p. 13.—

t See Note A at the end of the volume, in illustra-
tion of the principle, that the root of Knowledge is
Belief.— H.



should be read and regarded. I hope he
wrote it in the belief also that it would be
useful to mankind ; and, perhaps, it may
prove so at last. For I conceive the scep-
tical writers to be a set of men whose busi-
ness it is to pick holes in the fabric of
knowledge wherever it is weak and faulty ;
and, when these places are properly repaired,
the whole building becomes more firm and
solid than it was formerly.

For my own satisfaction, I entered into
a serious examination of the principles upon
which this sceptical system is built ; and
was not a little surprised to find, that it
leans with its whole weight upon a hypo-
thesis, which is ancient indeed, and hath
been very generally received by philoso-
phers, but of which I could find no solid
proof. The hypothesis I mean, is, That
Jiothing is perceived but what is in the
mind which perceives it : That we do not
really perceive things that are external, but
only certain images and pictures of them
imprinted upon the mind, which are called
impressions and ideas-
It this be true, supposing certain im-
pressions and ideas to exist in my mind,* I
cannot, from their existence, infer the exist-
ence of anything else : my impressions and
ideas are the only existences of which I can
have any knowledge or conception ; and
they are such fleeting and transitory beings,
that they can have no existence at all, any
longer than I am conscious of them. So
that, upon this hypothesis, the whole uni-
verse about me, bodies and spirits, sun,
moon, stars, and earth, friends and rela-
tions, all things without exception, which
I imagined to have a permanent existence,
whether I thought of them or not, vanish
at once ;

" And, like the baseless fabric of a vision,

Leave not a track behind."

I thought it unreasonable, my Lord, upon
the authority of philosophers, to admit a
hypothesis which, in my opinion, overturns
all philosophy, all religion and virtue, and
all common sensef — and, finding that all the
systems concerning the human understand-
ing which I was acquainted with, were built
upon this hypothesis, I resolved to inquire
into this subject anew, without regard to any

What I now humbly present to your
Lordship, is the fruit of this inquiry, so far
only as it regards the five senses : in which
I claim no other merit than that of having

* In first edition, " to exist presently in my
mind." I may here, once for all, notice that pre-
sently, (in its original and proper sense, and as it is
frequently employed by Reid,) for now or at present,
has waxed obsolete in English. For above a century
ami a half, it is only to be found in good English
writers in the secondary meaning of in a little while
— without delay- — H.

+ See Note A at the end of the volume, in defence
and illustration of the term Common Sense.— H.

given great attention to the operations of my
own mind, and of having expressed, with all
the perspicuity I was able, what I conceive
every man, who gives the same attention,
will feel and perceive. The productions of
imagination require a genius which soars
above the common rank ; but the treasures
of knowledge are commonly buried deep,
and may be reached by those drudges who
can dig with labour and patience, though
they have not wings to fly. The experi-
ments that were to be made in this investi-
gation suited me, as they required no other
expense but that of time and attention,
which I could bestow. The leisure of an
academical life, disengaged from the pur-
suits of interest and ambition ; the duty of
my profession, which obliged me to give
prelections on these subjects to the youth ;
and an early inclination to speculations of
this kind, have enabled me, as I flatter my-
self, to give a more minute attention to the
subject of this inquiry, than has been given

My thoughts upon this subject were, a
good many years ago, put together in an-
other form, for the use of my pupils, and
afterwards were submitted to the judgment
of a private philosophical society," of which
I have the honour to be a member. A
great part of this Inquiry was honoured
even by your Lordship's perusal. And
the encouragement which you, my Lord,
and others, whose friendship is my boast,
and whose judgment I reverence, were
pleased to give me, counterbalance my timi-
dity and diffidence, and determined me to
offer it to the public.

If it appears to your Lordship to justify
the common sense and reason of mankind,
against the sceptical subtilties which, in
this age, have endeavoured to put them out
of countenance — if it appears to throw any
new light upon one of the noblest parts of
the divine workmanship — your Lordship's
respect for the arts and sciences, and your
attention to everything which tends to the
improvement of them, as well as to every-
thing else that contributes to the felicity of
your country, leave me no room to doubt
of your favourable acceptance of this essay,
as the fruit of my industry in a profession+
wherein I was* accountable to your Lord-
ship ; and as a testimony of the great esteem
and respect wherewith I have the honour
to be,

My Lord,
Your Lordship's most obliged

And most devoted Servant,

Tho. Eeid.§

* See above, p 4i,b.— H.

t Reid, here and elsewhere, uses profession for chat*-
or professorship. — H.

t " Am" — first edition — H.

f ; In first edition this dedication is dated — " King's
College, Nov. 9, 1763."— H.





Section I.


'1 he fabric of the human mind is curious
; nd wonderful, as well as that of the human
body. The faculties of the one are with no
less wisdom adapted to their several ends
than the organs of the other. Nay, it is
reasonable to think, that, as the mind is a
nobler work and of a higher order than the
body, even more of the wisdom and skill o_
the divine Architect hath been employed in
its structure. It is, therefore, a subject
highly worthy of inquiry on its own account,
but still more worthy on account of the
extensive influence which the knowledge of
it hath over every other branch of science.
In the arts and sciences which have least
connection with the mind, its faculties are
the engines which we must employ; and
the better we understand their nature and
use, their defects and disorders, the more
skilfully we shall apply them, and with the
greater success. But in the noblest arts,
the mind is also the subject" upon which
we operate. The painter, the poet, the actor,
the orator, the moralist, and the statesman,
attempt to operate upon the mind in differ-
ent ways, and for different ends ; and they
succeed according as they touch properly
the strings of the human frame. Nor can

* In philosophical language, it were to be wished
that the word subject should be reserved for the sub-
ject of inhesi n — the materia in gun ; and the term
vbjeci exclusively applied to the subject of operation
— the materia circa quam. If this be not done, the
grand distinction of subjective and objective, in phi.
losophy, is confounded. But if the employment of
Subject for Object is to be deprecated, the employ-
ment of Object for purpose or final cause, (in th°
French and English languages,) is to be absolutely
condemned, as a recent and irrational confusion ot
notions which should lie carefully distinguished.— H.

their several arts ever stand on a solid found-
ation, or rise to the dignity of science, until
they are built on the principles of the human

Wise men now agree, or ought to agree,
in this, that there is but one way to the
knowledge of nature's works — the way of
observation and experiment. By our con-
stitution, we have a strong propensity to
trace particular facts and observations to
general rules, and to apply such general
rules to account for other effects, or to direct
us in the production of them. This proce-
dure of the understanding is familiar to
every human creature in the common affairs
of life, and it is the only one by which any
real discovery in philosophy can be made.

The man who first discovered that cold
freezes water, and that heat turns it into
vapour, proceeded on the same general prin.
ciples, and in the same method by which
Newton discovered the law of gravitation
and the properties of light. His reguta
vhilosophandi are maxims of common sense,
and are practised every day in common
life ; and he who philosophizes by other
rules, either concerning the material sys-
tem or concerning the mind, mistakes his

Conjectures and theories' are the crea-
tures of men, and will always be found very
unlike the creatures of God. If we would
know the works of God, we must consult
themselves with attention and humility,
without daring to add anything of ours
to what they declare. A just interpretation
of nature is the only sound and orthodox
philosophy : whatever we add of our own,
is apocryphal, and of no authority.

All our curious theories of the formation
of the earth, of the generation of animals,
of the origin of natural and moral evil, so
far as they go beyond a just induction from

» Reid uses the terms, Theory, Hypothesis, and
Conjecture, as convertible, and always in an unfavour.
able acceptation. Herein there is a double inaccu-
racy. But of this again.— H.



facts, are vanity and folly, no less than the
Vortices of Des Cartes,* or the Archseus
of Paracelsus. Perhaps the philosophy of
the mind hath been no less adulterated by
theories, than that of the material system.
The theory of Ideas is indeed very ancient,
and hath been very universally received ;
but, as neither of these titles can give it
authenticity, they ought not to screen it from
a free and candid examination ; especially in
this age, when it hath produced a system of
scepticism that seems to triumph over all
science, and even over the dictates of com-
mon sense.

All that we know of the body, is owing
to anatomical dissection and observation,
and it must be by an anatomy of the mind
that we can discover its powers and prin-

Section II.


But it must be acknowledged, that this
kind of anatomy is much more difficult than
the other ; and, therefore, it needs not
seem strange that mankind have made
less progress in it. To attend accurately
to the operations of our minds, and make
them an object of thought, is no easy mat-
ter even to the contemplative, and to the
bulk of mankind is next to impossible.

An anatomist who hath happy opportu-
nities, may have access to examine with
his own eyes, and with equal accuracy,
bodies of all different ages, sexes, and
conditions ; so that what is defective, ob-
scure, or preternatural in one, may be
discerned clearly and in its most perfect
state in another. But the anatomist of the
mind cannot have the same advantage. It
is his own mind only that he can examine
with any degree of accuracy and distinct-
ness. This is the only subject he can look
into. He may, from outward signs, collect
the operations of other minds; but these
signs are for the most part ambiguous, and
must be interpreted by what he perceives
within himself.

So that, if a philosopher could delineate
to us, distinctly and methodically, all the
operations of the thinking principle within
him, which no man was ever able to do,
this would be only the anatomy of one par-
ticular subject ; which would be both defi-
cient and erroneous, if applied to human
nature in general. For a little reflection

* No one deemed more lightly of his hypotheses
than Des Cartes himself He called them " philosoph-
ical romances ;" and thus anticipated Father Daniel,
who again anticipated Voltaire, in the saying — The
Philosophy of Des Cartes is the Romance of Nature.

may satisfy us, that the difference of minds
is greater than that of any other beings
which we consider as of the same species.

Of the various powers and faculties we
possess, there are some which nature seems
both to have planted and reared, so as to
have left nothing to human industry. Such
are the powers which we have in common
with the brutes, and which are necessary
to the preservation of the individual, or the
continuance of the kind. There are other
powers, of which nature hath only planted
the seeds in our minds, but hath left the
rearing of them to human culture. It is by
the proper culture of these that we are cap-
able of all those improvements in intellec-
tuals, in taste, and in morals, which exalt
and dignify human nature ; while, on the
other hand, the neglect or perversion of
them makes its degeneracy and corruption.

The two-legged animal that eats of na-
ture's dainties, what his taste or appetite
craves, and satisfies his thirst at the crystal
fountain, who propagates his kind as occa-
sion and lust prompt, repels injuries, and
takes alternate labour and repose, is, like a
tree in the forest, purely of nature's growth.
But this same savage hath within him the
seeds of the logician, the man of taste and
breeding, the orator, the statesman, the man
of virtue, and the saint ; which seeds, though
planted in his mind by nature, yet, through
want of culture and exercise, must lie for
ever buried, and be hardly perceivable by
himself or by others.

The lowest degree of social life will bring
to light some of those principles which lay
hid in the savage state ; and, according to
his training, and company, and manner of
life, some of them, either by their native
vigour, or by the force of culture, will thrive
and grow up to great perfection, others will
be strangely perverted from their natural
form, and others checked, or perhaps quite

This makes human nature so various and
multiform in the individuals that partake of
it, that, in point of morals and intellectual
endowments, it fills up all that gap which
we conceive to be between brutes and devils
below, and the celestial orders above ; and
such a prodigious diversity of minds must
make it extremely difficult to discover the
common principles of the species.

The language of philosophers, with re-
gard to the original faculties of the mind,
is so adapted to the prevailing system, that
it cannot fit any other ; like a coat that fits
the man for whom it was made, and shews
him to advantage, which yet will sit very
awkward upon one of a different make,
although perhaps as handsome and as well
proportioned. It is hardly possible to make
any innovation in our philosophy concern-
ing the mind and its operations, without



asing new words and phrases, or giving a
different meaning to those that are received
— a liberty which, even when necessary,
creates prejudice and misconstruction, and
which must wait the sanction of time to
authorize it ; for innovations in language,
like those in religion and government, are
always suspected and disliked by the many,
till use hath made them familiar, and pre-
scription hath given them a title.

If the original perceptions and notions' of
the mind were to make their appearance
single and unmixed, as we first received
them from the hand of nature, one accus-
tomed to reflection would have less difficulty
iii tracing them ; but before we are capa-
ble of reflection, they are so mixed, com-
pounded, and decompounded, by habits,
associations, and abstractions, that it is
hard to know what they were originally.
The mind may, in this respect, be compared
to an apothecary or a chemist, whose mate-
rials indeed are furnished by nature ; but,
for the purposes of his art, he mixes, com-
pounds, dissolves, evaporates, and sublimes
them, till they put on a quite different
appearance ; so that it is very difficult to
know what they were at first, and much
more to bring them back to their original
and natural form. And this work of the
mind is not carried on by deliberate acts of
mature reason, which we might recollect,
but by means of instincts, habits, associa-
tions, and other principles, which operate
before we come to the use of reason ; so
that it is extremely difficult for the mind
to return upon its own footsteps, and trace
back those operations which have employed
it since it first began to think and to act.

Could we obtain a distinct and full his-
tory of all that hath past in the mind of a
child, from the beginning of life and sensa-
tion, till it grows up to the use of reason —
how its infant faculties began to work, and
how they brought forth and ripened all the
various notions, opinions, and sentiments
which we find in ourselves when we come
to be capable of reflection — this would be
a treasure of natural history, which would
probably give more light into the human
faculties, than all the systems of philoso-
phers about them since the beginning of
the world. But it is in vain to wish for
what nature has not put within the reach
of our power. Reflection, the only instru-
ment by which we can discern the powers
of the mind, comes too late to observe the
progress of nature, in raising them from
their infancy to perfection.

It must therefore require great caution,
and great application of mind, for a man
that is grown up in all the prejudices of
education, fashion, and philosophy, to
unravel his notions and opinions, till he
find out the simple and original principles

of his constitution, of which no account
can be given but the will of our Maker.
This may be truly called an analysis of the
human faculties ; and, till this is performed,
it is in vain we expect any juBt system of
the mind — that is, an enumeration of the
original powers and laws of our constitution,
and an explication from them of the various
phenomena of human nature.

Success in an inquiry of this kind, it is
not in human power to command ; but, per-
haps, it is possible, by caution and humility,
to avoid error and delusion. The labyrinth
may be too intricate, and the thread too
fine, to be traced through all its windings ;
but, if we stop where we can trace it no
farther, and secure the ground we have
gained, there is no harm done ; a quicker
eye may in time trace it farther.

It is genius, and not the want of it, that
adulterates philosophy, and fills it with
error and false theory. A creative imagi-
nation disdains the mean offices of digging
for a foundation, of removing rubbish, and
carrying materials ; leaving these servile
employments to the drudges in science, it
plans a design, and raises a fabric. Inven-
tion supplies materials where they are
wanting, and fancy adds colouring and
every befitting ornament. The work
pleases the eye, and wants nothing but
solidity and a good foundation. It seems
even to vie with the works of nature, till
some succeeding architect blows it into
rubbish, and builds as goodly a fabric of
his own in its place. Happily for the pre-
sent age, *the castle-builders employ them-
selves more in romance thau in philosophy.
That is undoubtedly their province, and
in those regions the offspring of fancy is
legitimate, but in philosophy it is all spu-

Section III.


That our philosophy concerning the mind
and its faculties is but in a very low state,
may be reasonably conjectured even by
those who never have narrowly examined
it. Are there any principles, with regard
to the mind, settled with that perspicuity
and evidence which attends the principles
of mechanics, astronomy, and optics ?
These are really sciences built upon laws of
nature which universally obtain. What is

* The same doctrine of the incompatibility of crea-
tive imagination and philosophical talent, is held by
Hume and Kant. There is required, however, foi
the metaphysician, not less imagination than for the
poet, though of a different kind j it may, in fact, lie
doubted whether Homer or Aristotle possessed this
faculty in greater vigour. — H.




discovered in them is no longer matter of
dispute : future ages may add to it ; but,
till the course of nature be changed, what is
already established can never be overturned.
But when we turn our attention inward, and
consider the phaenomena of human thoughts,
opinions, and perceptions, and endeavour to
trace them to the general laws and the first
principles of our constitution, we are imme-
diately involved in darkness and perplexity ;
and, if common sense, or the principles of
education, happen not to be stubborn, it is
odds but we end in absolute scepticism.

Des Cartes, finding nothing established in
this part of philosophy, in ortler to lay the
foundation of it deep, resolved not to believe
his own existence till he should be able to
give a good reason for it. He was, per-
haps, the first that took up such a resolu-
tion ; but, if he could indeed have effected
his purpose, and really become diffident of
his existence, his case would have been
deplorable, and without any remedy from
reason or philosophy. A man that dis-
believes his own existence, is surely as unfit
to be reasoned with as a man that believes
he is made of glass. There may be dis-
orders in the human frame that may pro-
duce such extravagancies, but they will never
be cured by reasoning. Des Cartes, in-
deed, would make us believe that he got out
of this delirium by this logical argument,
Cogito, ergo sum ; but it is evident he was
in his senses all the time, and never seri-
ously doubted of his existence ; for he takes
it for granted in this argument, and proves
nothing at all. I am thinking, says he —
therefore, I am. And is it not as good rea-
soning to say, I am sleeping — therefore, I
am ? or, I am doing nothing — therefore, I
am ? If a body moves, it must exist, no
doubt ; but, if it is at rest, it must exist
likewise. "

Perhaps Des Cartes meant not to assume
his own existence in this enthymeme, but
the existence of thought ; and to infer from
that the existence of a mind, or subject of
thought. But why did he not prove the
existence of his thought ? Consciousness,
it may be said, vouches that. But who
is voucher for consciousness ? Can any
man prove that his consciousness may not
deceive him ? No man can ; nor can we
give a better reason for trusting to it, than
that every man, while his mind is sound, is
determined, by the constitution of his na-
ture, to give implicit belief to it, and to
laugh at or pity the man who doubts its
testimony. And is not every man, in his
wits, as much determined to take his exist-
ence upon trust as his consciousness ?

* The nature of the Cartesian Doubt and its solu-
tion is here misapprehended — how, will be shewn in
a note upon the eighth chapter of the second" riss.iy
3n the In'ellectual Powers." — H.

The other proposition assumed in this
argument, That thought cannot be without
a mind or subject, is liable to the same
objection : not that it wants evidence, but
that its evidence is no clearer, ner more
immediate, than that of the proposition to
be proved by it. And, taking all these pro
positions together — I think ; I am con-
scious ; Everything that thinks, exists ; I
exist — would not every sober man form the
same opinion of the man who seriously
doubted any one of them ? And if he was
his friend, would he not hope for his cure
from physic and good regimen, rather than
from metaphysic and logic ?

But supposing it proved, that my thought
and my consciousness must have a subject,
and consequently that I exist, how do I
know that all that train and succession of
thoughts which I remember belong to one
subject, and that the I " of this moment is
the very individual I of yesterday and of
times past ?

Des Cartes did not think proper to start
this doubt ; but Locke has done it ; and, in
order to resolve it, gravely determines that
personal identity consists in consciousness —
that is, if you are conscious that you did
such a thing a twelvemonth ago, this con-
sciousness makes you to be the very person

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 23 of 114)