Thomas Reid.

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

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that did it. Now, consciousness of what is
past can signify nothing else but the re-
membrance that I did it ; so that Locke's
principle must be, That identity consists in
remembrance ; and, consequently, a man
must lose his personal identity with regard
to everything he forgets.

Nor are these the only instances whereby
our philosophy concerning the mind appears
to be very fruitful in creating doubts, but
very unhappy in resolving them.

Des Cartes, Malebranche, and Locke,
have all employed their genius and skill to
prove the existence of a material world ;
and with very bad success. Poor untaught
mortals believe undoubtedly that there is a
sun, moon, and stars ; an earth, which we
inhabit ; country, friends, and relations,
which we enjoy ; land, houses, and move-
ables, which we possess. But philosophers,
pitying the credulity of the vulgar, resolve
to have no faith but what is founded upon
reason. + They apply to philosophy to fur-

* In English, we cannot say the I, and the Not.l
so happily as the Fr< nch le Mor, and le Non-Moi, or
even the Germans das Ich, and das Nicht-lch. llie
ambiguity arising from the identity of sound between
the I and Hie eye, would of itself preclude the ordinary
employment ot the former. 1 tie Ego and Ihc Non-
Ego are the best terms we can u-e ; and, as the ex.
pressions are scientific, i t is perhaps no loss that their
technical precision Is guarded by their non-vernacul-
arity.— H.

+ Reason is here employed, by Reid, not as a
synonyme for Common Sense, (vove, locus princi-
piorum,) and as he himself more correctly emplo\s
it in his later works, but as equivalent to Reason-
ing, ( 5i«vo<«, discur-us mmtalis.) See Note *.— li.



nish them with reasons for the belief of
those things which all mankind have be-
lieved, without being able to give any rea-
son for it. And surely one would expect,
that, in matters of such importance, the
proof would not be difficult : but it is the
most difficult thing in the world. For these
three great men, with the best good will,
have not been able, from all the treasures
of philosophy, to draw one argument that
is fit to convince a man that can reason, of
the existence of any one thing without him.
Admired Philosophy ! daughter of light !
parent of wisdom and knowledge ! if thou
art she, surely thou hast not yet arisen
upon the human mind, nor blessed us with
more of thy rays than are sufficient to shed
a darkness visible upon the human facul-
ties, and to disturb that repose and security
which happier mortals enjoy, who never
approached thine altar, nor felt thine in-
flueuce ! But if, indeed, thou hast not
power to dispel those clouds and phantoms
which thou hast discovered or created, with-
draw this penurious and malignant ray ; I
despise Philosophy, and renounce its guid-
ance — let my soul dwell with Common

Section IF.


But, instead of despising the dawn of light,
we ought rather to hope for its increase :
instead of blaming the philosophers I have
mentioned for the defects and blemishes of
their sj'stem, we ought rather to honour
their memories, as the first discoverers of a
region in philosophy formerly unknown ;
and, however lame and imperfect the sys-
tem may be, they have opened the way to
future discoveries, and are justly entitled to
a great share in the merit of them. They
have removed an infinite deal of dust and
rubbish, collected in the ages of scholastic
sophistry, which had obstructed the way.
They have put us in the right road — that
of experience and accurate reflection. They
have taught us to avoid the snares of am-
biguous and ill-defined words, and have
spoken and thought upon this subject with
a distinctness and perspicuity formerly un-
known. They have made many openings
that may lead to the discovery of truths
which they did not reach, or to the detec-
tion of errors in which they were involun-
tarily entangled.

It may be observed, that the defects and
blemishes in the received philosophy con-
cerning the mind, which have most exposed

• Mr Stewart very justly censures the vagueness
and amlnguity of this passage, Elem. vol. ii., cb. i.,
\ 3, p. 92, 8vo editions.— H.

it to the contempt and ridicule of sensible
men, have chiefly been owing to this — that
the votaries of this Philosophy, from a na-
tural prejudice in her favour, have endea-
voured to extend her jurisdiction beyond its
just limits, and to call to her bar the dictates
of Common Sense. But these decline this
jurisdiction ; they disdain the trial of rea-
soning, and disown its authority ; they
neither claim its aid, nor dread its attacks.

In this unequal contest betwixt Common
Sense and Philosophy, the latter will always
come off both with dishonour and loss ; not
can she ever thrive till this rivalship is
dropt, these encroachments given up, and
a cordial friendship restored : for, in reality,
Common Sense holds nothing of Philoso-
phy, nor needs her aid. But, on the other
hand, Philosophy (if I may be permitted to
change the metaphor) has no other root but
the principles of Common Sense ; it grows
out of them, and draws its nourishment from
them. Severed from this root, its honours
wither, its sap is dried up, it dies and rots.

The philosophers of the last age, whom I
have mentioned, did not attend to the pre-
serving this union and subordination so
carefully as the honour and interest of phi-
losophy required : but those of the present
have waged open war with Common Sense,
and hope to make a complete conquest of it
by the subtilties of Philosophy — an attempt
no less audacious and vain than that of the
giants to dethrone almighty Jove.

Section V.



The present age,I apprehend, has not pro-
duced two- more acute or more practised in
this part of philosophy, than the Bishop of
Cloyne, and the author of the " Treatise of
Human Nature." The first was no friend
to scepticism, but had that warm concern
for religious and moral principles which be-
came his order : yet the result of his inquiry
was a serious conviction that there is no
such thing as a material world — nothing in
nature but spirits and ideas ; and that the
belief of material substances, and of abstract
ideas, are the chief causes of all our errors
in philosophy, and of all infidelity and heresy
in religion. His arguments are founded
upon the principles which were formerly
laid down by Des Cartes, Malebranche, and
Locke, and which have been very generally

And the opinion of the ablest judges
seems to be, that they neither have been,
nor can be confuted ; and that he hath
proved by unanswerable arguments what no
man in his senses can believe.



The second proceeds upon the same prin-
ciples, but carries them to their full length ;
and, as the Bishop undid the whole material
world, this author, upon the same grounds,
undoes the world of spirits, and leaves no-
thing in nature but ideas and impressions,
without any subject on which they may be

It seems to be a peculiar strain of humour
in this author, to set out in his introduction
by promising, with a grave face, no less than
a complete system of the sciences, upon a
foundation entirely new — to wit, that of hu-
man nature — when the intention of the
whole work is to shew, that there is neither
human nature nor science in the world. It
may perhaps be unreasonable to complain
of this conduct in an author who neither
believes his own existence nor that of his
reader ; and therefore could not mean to
disappoint him, or to laugh at his credulity.
Yet I cannot imagine that the author of the
" Treatise of Human Nature" is so scep-
tical as to plead this apology. He believed,
against his principles, that he should be
read, and that he should retain his personal
identity, till he reaped the honour and repu-
tation justly due to his metaphysical acumen.
Indeed, he ingeniously acknowledges, that
it was only in solitude and retirement that
he could yield any assent to his own philo-
sophy ; society, like day-light, dispelled the
darkuess and fogs of scepticism, and made
him yield to the dominion of common sense.
Nor did I ever hear him charged with doing
anything, even in solitude, that argued
such a degree of scepticism as his principles
maintain. Surely if his friends apprehended
this, they would have the charity never to
leave him alone.

Pyrrho the Elean, the father of this phi-
losophy, seems to have carried it to greater
perfection than any of his successors : for,
if we may believe Antigonus the Carystian,
quoted by Diogenes Laertius, his life cor-
responded to his doctrine. And, therefore,
if a cart run against him, or a dog attacked
him, or if he came upon a precipice, he
would not stir a foot to avoid the danger,
giving no credit to his senses. But his at-
tendants, who, happily for him, were not so
great sceptics, took care to keep him out of
harm's way ; so that he lived till he was
ninety years of age. Nor is it to be doubted
but this author's friends would have been
equally careful to keep him from harm, if
ever his principles had taken too strong a
hold of him.

It is probable the " Treatise of Human
Nature'' was not written in company ; yet
it contains manifest indications that the
author every now and then relapsed into
the faith of the vulgar, and could hardly,
for half a dozen pages, keep up the scep-
tical character.

In like manner, the great Pyrrho him-
self forgot his principles on some occasions ;
and is said once to have been in such a
passion with his cook, who probably had not
roasted his dinner to his mind, that with
the spit in his hand, and the meat upon it,
he pursued him even into the market-

It is abold philosophy that rejects, without
ceremony, principles which irresistibly go-
vern the belief and the conduct of all man-
kind in the common concerns of life ; and
to which the philosopher himself must yield,
after he imagines he hath confuted them.
Such principles are older, and of more au-
thority, than Philosophy : she rests upon
them as her basis, not they upon her. If
she could overturn them, she must be buried
in their ruins ; but all the engines of philo-
sophical subtilty are too weak for this pur-
pose ; and the attempt is no less ridiculous
than if a mechanic should 1 contrive an axis
in peritrochio to remove the earth out of
its place ; or if a mathematician should pre-
tend to demonstrate that things equal to
the same thing are not equal to one an-

Zeno-f- endeavoured to demonstrate the
impossibility of motion ;$ Hobbes, that there
was no difference between right and wrong ;
and this author, that no credit is to be given
to our senses, to our memory, or even to
demonstration. Such philosophy is< justly
ridiculous, even to those who cannot detect
the fallacy of it. It can have no other tend-
ency, than to shew the ?cuteness of the
sophist, at the expense of disgracing reason
and human nature, and making mankind

Section VI.


There are other prejudices against this
system of human nature, which, even upon
a general view, may make one diffident of

Des Cartes, Hobbes, and this author,
have each of them given us a system of
human nature ; an undertaking too vast for
any one man, how great soever his genius
and abilities may be. There must surely
be reason to apprehend, that many pajjts of
human nature never came under their
observation; and that others have been
stretched and distorted, to fill up blanks,
and complete the system. Christopher

» Laertius, L. ix. Seg 68. — H.

f Zeno of Elea There are fifteen Zenos known
in the history of Philosophy ; of these, Laertius sig.
nalizes eight. — H.

t The fallacy of Zeno's exposition of the contra,
dictions involved in our notion ci motion, has nut
yet been detected. — H.



Columbus, or Sebastian Cabot, might almost
as reasonably have undertaken to give us a
complete map of America.

There is a certain character and style in
Nature's works, which is never attained
in the most perfect imitation of them.
This seems to be wanting in the systems of
human nature I have mentioned, and par-
ticularly in the last. One may see a pup-
pet make variety of motions and gesticula-
tions, which strike much at first view ; but
when it is accurately observed, and taken
to pieces, our admiration ceases : we com-
prehend the whole art of the maker. How
unlike is it to that which it represents !
What a poor piece of work compared with
the body of a man, whose structure the
more we know, the more wonders we dis-
cover in it, and the more sensible we are of
our ignorance ! Is the mechanism of the
mind so easily comprehended, when that of
the body is so difficult ? Yet, by this sys-
tem, three laws of association, joined to a
few original feelings, explain the whole
mechanism of sense, imagination, memory,
belief, and of all the actions and passions of
the mind. Is this the man that Nature
made ? I suspect it is not so easy to look
behind the scenes in Nature's work. This
is a puppet, surely, contrived by too bold an
apprentice of Nature, to mimic her work.
It shews tolerably by candle light ; but,
brought into clear day, and taken to pieces,
it will appear to be a man made with mor-
tar and a trowel. The more we know of
other parts of nature, the more we like and
approve them. The little I know of the
planetary system ; of the earth which we
inhabit ; of minerals, vegetables, and ani-
mals ; of my own body ; and of the laws
which obtain in these parts of nature — opens
to my mind grand and beautiful scenes, and
contributes equally to my happiness and
power. But, when I look within, and con-
sider the mind itself, which makes me
capable of all these prospects and enjoy-
ments — if it is, indeed, what the " Treatise
of Human Nature" makes it — I find I have
been only in an enchanted castle, imposed
upon by spectres and apparitions. I blush
inwardly to think how I have been deluded ;
I am ashamed of my frame, and can hardly
forbear expostulating with my destiny. Is
this thy pastime, O Nature, to put such
tricks upon a silly creature, and then to take
off the mask, and shew him how he hath
been befooled ? If this is the philosophy of
human nature, my soul enter thou not into
! her secrets ! It is surely the forbidden
' tree of knowledge ; I no sooner taste of it,
j than I perceive myself naked, and stript of
all things — yea, even of my very self. I
see myself, and the whole frame of nature,
shrink into fleeting ideas, which, like Epi-
curus's atoms, dance about in emptiness.

Section VI I.


But what if these profound disquisitions
into the first principles of human nature,
do naturally and necessarily plunge a man
into this abyss of scepticism ? May we not
reasonably judge so from what hath hap-
pened ? Des Cartes no sooner began to
dig in this mine, than scepticism was ready
to break in upon him. He did what he
could to shut it out. Malebranche and
Locke, who dug deeper, found the difficulty
of keeping out this enemy still to increase ;
but they laboured honestly in the design.
Then Berkeley, who carried on the work,
despairing of securing all, bethought him-
self of an expedient : — By giving up the
material world, which he thought might
be spared without loss, and even with ad-
vantage, he hoped, by an impregnable par-
tition, to secure the world of spirits. But,
alas ! the " Treatise of Human Nature"
wantonly sapped the foundation of this
partition, and drowned all in one universal

These facts, which are undeniable, do,
indeed, give reason to apprehend that Des
Cartes' system of the human understand-
ing, which I shall beg leave to call the ideal
system, and which, with some improvements
made by later writers, is now generally
received, hath some original defect ; that
this scepticism is inlaid in it, and reared
along with it ; and, therefore, that we must
lay it open to the foundation, and examine
the materials, before we can expect to raise
any solid and useful fabric of knowledge on
this subject.

Section VIII.


But is this to be despaired of, because
Des Cartes and his followers have failed ?
By no means. This pusillanimity would be
injurious to ourselves and injurious to truth.
Useful discoveries are sometimes indeed
the effect of superior genius, but more fre-
quently they are the birth of time and of
accidents. A travellerof good judgment may
mistake his way, and be unawares led into
a wrong track ; and, while the road is fair
before him, he may go on without suspicion
and be followed by others; but, when it
ends in a coal-pit, it requires no great judg-
ment to know that he hath gone wrong,
nor perhaps to find out what misled him.

In the meantime, the unprosperous state
of this part of philosophy hath produced an



effect, somewhat discouraging indeed to
any attempt of this nature, but an effect
which might be expected, and which time
only and better success can remedy. Sen-
sible men, who never will be sceptics in
matters of common life, are apt to treat
with sovereign contempt everything that
hath been said, or is to be said, upon this
subject. It is metaphysic, say they : who
minds it ? Let scholastic sophisters en-
tangle themselves in their own cobwebs ; I
am resolved to take my own existence, and
the existence of other things, upon trust ;
and to believe that snow is cold, and
honey sweet, whatever they may say to
the contrary. He must either be a fool,
or want to make a fool of me, that would
reason me out of my reason and senses.

I confess I know not what a sceptic can
answer to this, nor by what good argument
he can plead even for a hearing ; for either
his reasoning is sophistry, and so deserves
contempt ; or there is no truth in human
faculties — and then why should we reason ?

If, therefore, a man findhimself intangled
in these metaphysical toils, and can find no
other way to escape, let him bravely cut
the knot which he cannot loose, curse me-
taphysic, and dissuade every man from
meddling with it ; for, if I have been led
into bogs and quagmires by following an
ign'is fatuus, what can I do better than to
warn others to beware of it ? If philoso-
phy contradicts herself, befools her votaries,
and deprives them of every object worthy
to be pursued or enjoyed, let her be sent
back to the infernal regions from which she
must have had her original.

But is it absolutely certain that this fair
lady is of the party ? Is it not possible
she may have been misrepresented ? Have
not men of genius in former ages often
made their own dreams to pass for her
oracles ? Ought she then to be condemned
without any further hearing ? This would
be unreasonable. I have found her in all
other matters an agreeable companion, a
faithful counsellor, a friend . to common
sense, and to the happiness of mankind.
This justly entitles her to my correspond-
ence and confidence, till I find infallible
proofs of her infidelity.



Section I.


It is so difficult to unravel the operations
of the human understanding, and to reduce

them to their first principles, that we can.
not expect to succeed in the attempt, but
by beginning with the simplest, and pro-
ceeding by very cautious steps to the more
complex. The five external senses may,
for this reason, claim to be first considered
in an analysis of the human faculties.
And the same reason ought to determine
us to make a choice even among the senses,
and to give the precedence, not to the
noblest or most useful, but to the simplest,
and that whose objects are least in danger
of being mistaken for other things.

In this view, an analysis of our sensa-
tions may be carried on, perhaps with most
ease and distinctness, by taking them in
this order : Smelling, Tasting, Hearing,
Touch, and, last of all, Seeing.

Natural philosophy informs us, that all
animal and vegetable bodies, and probably
all or most other bodies, while exposed to
the air, are continually sending forth efflu-
via of vast subtilty, not only in their state
of life and growth, but in the states of fer-
mentation and putrefaction. These volatile
particles do probably repel each other, and
so scatter themselves in the air, until they
meet with other bodies to which they have
some chemical affinity, and with which they
unite, and form new concretes. All the
smell of plants, and of other bodies, is caused
by these volatile parts, and is smelled wher-
ever they are scattered in the air : and the
acuteness of smell in some animals, shews
us, that these effluvia spread far, and must
be inconceivably subtile.

Whether, as some chemists conceive,
every species of bodies hath a spiritus rector,
a kind of soul, which causes the smell and
all the specific virtues of that body, and
which, being extremely volatile, flies about
in the air in quest of a proper receptacle, I
do not inquire. This, hke most other
theories, is perhaps rather the product of
imagination than of just induction. But
that all bodies are smelled by means of
effluvia* which they emit, and which are
drawn into the nostrils along with the air,
there is no reason to doubt. So that there
is manifest appearance of design in placing
the organ of smell in the inside of that canal,
through which the air is continually passing
in inspiration and expiration.

Anatomy informs us, that the membrane,
pituilaria, and the olfactory nerves, which
are distributed to the villous parts of this
membrane, are the organs destined by the

* It ia wrong to say that "a body is smelled by
means of effluvia " Nothing is smelt but the effluvia
themselves. They constitute the total object of per-
ception in smell j and in all the senses the only object
perceived, is that in immediate contact with the or.
gan. There is, in reality, no medium in any sense;
and, as Democritus long ago shrewdly observed, all
the senses arc only modifications of touch H.



wisdom of nature to this sense; so that
when a body emits no effluvia, or when they
do not enter into the nose, or when the
pituitary membrane or olfactory nerves are
rendered unfit to perform their office, it can-
not be smelled.

Yet, notwithstanding this, it is evident
that neither the organ of smell, nor the
medium, nor any motions we can conceive
excited in the membrane above mentioned,
or in the nerve or animal spirits, do in the
least resemble the sensation of smelling;
nor could that sensation of itself ever have
led us to think of nerves, animal spirits, or

Section II.


Having premised these things with re-
gard to the medium and organ of this sense,
let us now attend carefully to what the mind
is conscious of when we smell a rose or a
lily; and, since our language affords no
other name for this sensation, we shall call
it a smell or odour, carefully excluding from
the meaning of those names everything but
the sensation itself, at least till we have ex-
amined it.

Suppose a person who never had this
sense before, to receive it all at once, and
to smell a rose — can he perceive any simi-
litude or agreement between the smell and
the rose ? or indeed between it and any
other object whatsoever ? Certainly he can-
not. He finds himself affected in a new
way, he knows not why or from what cause.
Like a man that feels some pain or pleasure
formerly unknown to him, he is conscious
that he is not the cause of it himself; but
cannot, from the nature of the thing, deter-
mine whether it is caused by body or spirit,
by something near, or by something at a
distance. It has no similitude to anything
else, so as to admit of a comparison ; and,
therefore, he can conclude nothing from it,
unless, perhaps, that there must be some
unknown cause of it.

It is evidently ridiculous to ascribe to it
figure, colour, extension, or any other
quality of bodies. He cannot give it a place,
any more than he can give a place to mel-
ancholy or joy ; nor can he conceive it to
have any existence, but when it is smelled.
So that it appears to be a simple and original
affection or feeling of the mind, altogether

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 24 of 114)