Thomas Reid.

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

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inexplicable and unaccountable. It is, in-
deed, impossible that it can be in any body :
it is a sensation, and a sensation can only
be in a sentient thing.

The various odours have each their dif-
ferent degrees of strength or weakness.
Most of them are agreeable or disagree-

able; and frequently those that are agree-
able when weak, are disagreeable when
stronger. When we compare different
smells together, we can perceive very few
resemblances or contrarieties, or, indeed,
relations of any kind between them. They
are all so simple in themselves, and so dif-
ferent from each other, that it is hardly
possible to divide them into genera and
species. Most of the names we give them
are particular ; as the smell of a rose, of a
jessamine, and the like. Yet there are
some general names — as sweet, slinking,
musty, putrid, cadaverous, aromatic. Some
of them seem to refresh and animate the
mind, others to deaden and depress it.

Section III.


So far we have considered this sensation
abstractly. Let us next compare it with
other things to which it bears some relation.
And first I shall compare this sensation
with the remembrance, and the imagination
of it.

I can think of the smell of a rose when I
do not smell it ; and it is possible that when
I think of it, there is neither rose nor smell
anywhere existing. But when I smell it,
I am necessarily determined to believe that
the sensation really exists. This is common
to all sensations, that, as they cannot exist
but in being perceived, so they cannot be
perceived but they must exist. I could as
easily doubt of my own existence, as of the
existence of my sensations. Even those
profound philosophers who have endeayoured
to disprove their own existence, have yet
left their sensations to stand upon their
own bottom, stript of a subject, rather than
call in question the reality of their existence.

Here, then, a sensation, a smell for in-
stance, may be presented to the mind three
different ways : it may be smelled, it may
be remembered, it may be imagined or
thought of. In the first casg, it is neces-
sarily accompanied with a belief of its pre-
sent existence ; in the second, it is neces-
sarily accompanied with a belief of its past
existence ; and in the last, it is not accom-
panied with belief at all,* but is what the
logicians call a simphapprehension.

Why sensation sHould ^GoTfTpel our belief
of the present existence of the thing, me-
mory a belief of its past existence, and

# This is not strictly correct. The imagination
of an object is necessaiily accompanied with a belief
of the existence of the mental representation. Heid
uses the term existence for objective existenc only,
and tnkes no account of tlie possibility of a subjecttvi.



imagination no belief at all, I believe no
philosopher can give a shadow of reason,
but that such is the nature of these opera-
tions : they are all simple and original, and
therefore inexplicable acts of the mind.

Suppose that once, and only once, I
smelled a tuberose in a certain room, where
it grew in a pot, and gave a very grateful
perfume. Next day I relate what I saw
and smelled- When I attend as carefully
as I can to what passes in my mind in this
case, it appears evident that the very thing
I saw yesterday, and the fragrance I smelled,
are now the immediate objects of my mind,
when I remember it. Further, I can
imagine this pot and flower transported to
the room where I now sit, and yielding the
same perfume. Here likewise it appears,
that the individual thing which I saw and
smelled, is the object of my imagination.*

Philosophers indeed tell me, that the
immediate object of my memory and ima-
gination* in this case, is not the past sensa-
tion, but an idea of it, an image, phantasm,
or species, -f* of the odour I smelled : that
this idea now exists in my mind, or in my
sensorium ; and the mind, contemplating
this present idea, finds it a representation
of what is past, or of what may exist ; and
accordingly calls it memory, or imagination.
This is the doctrine of the ideal philosophy ;
which we shall not now examine, that we
may not interrupt the thread of the present
investigation. Upon the strictest atten-
tion, memory appears to me to have things
that are past, and not present ideas, for its
object. "We shall afterwards examine this
system of ideas, and endeavour to make it
appear, that no solid proof has ever been
advanced of the existence of ideas ; that
they are a mere fiction and hypothesis, con-
trived to solve the phsenomena of the hu-
man understanding ; that they do not at all
answer this end ; and that this hypothesis
of ideas or images of things in the mind, or
in the sensorium, is the parent of those
many paradoxes so shocking to common
sense, and of that scepticism which disgrace
our philosophy of the mind, and have
brought upon^it the ridicule and contempt
of sensible men.

In the meantime, I beg leave to think,
with the vulgar, that, when I remember the
smell of the tuberose, that very sensation
which I had yesterday, and which has now

* For an exposition of Reid's error in regard to
the- immediate objeci of Memory and Imagination, spe
Note B at the end of the volume.— H.

t It will be observed, that Keid understands by
Id a, Image, Phantasm, Species, S[C always ater-
tium quid rmrm-rically differentboth from the Object
existing and from the Subject knowing. He had formed
nn conception of a doctrine in which a representative
object is allowed, but only as a modification of the
mind itself. On the evil consequences of this error,
both on his own philosophy and on his criticism ot
oi her opinions, see Note V at the md of the volume,

no more any existence, is the immediate
object of my memory ; and when I imagine
it present, the sensation itself, and not any
idea of it,is the object of my imagination. But,
though the object of my sensation, memory,
and imagination, be in this case the same,
yet these acts or operations of the mind are
as different, and as easily distinguishable,
as smell, taste, and sound. I am conscious
of a difference in kind between sensation
and memory, and between both and imag-
ination. I find this also, that the sensation
compels my belief of the present existence
of the smell, and memory my belief of its
past existence. There is a smell, is the
immediate testimony of sense; there was a
smell, is the immediate testimony of mem-
ory. If you ask me, why I believe that the
smell exists, I can give no other reason,
nor shall ever be able to give any other,
than that I smell it. If you ask, why I
believe that it existed yesterday, I can give
no other reason but that I remember it.

Sensation and memory, therefore, are
simple, original, and perfectly distinct opera-
tions of the mind, and both of them are
original principles of belief. Imagination
is distinct from both, but is no principle of
belief. Sensation implies the present exist-
ence of its object, memory its past existence,
but imagination views its object naked, and
without any belief of its existence or non-
existence, and is therefore what the schools
call Simple Apprehension. m

Section IV.



But here, again, the ideal system comes
in our way: it teaches us that the first J*
operation of the mind about its ideas, is yT
simple apprehension —that is, the bare
conception of a thing without any belief
about it : and that, after we have got
simple apprehensions, by comparing them
together, we perceive agreements or dis-
agreements between them ; and that this
perception of the agreement or disagreement
of ideas, is all that we call belief, judgment,
or knowledge. Now, this appears to me to
be all fiction, without any foundation in
nature ; for it is acknowledged by all, that
sensation must go before memory and im-
agination ; and hence it necessarily follows,
that apprehension, acompanied with belie)
and knowledge, must go before simple ap-
prehension, at least in the matters we are
now speaking of. So that here, instead ol

• Simple Apprehension, in the language of the
Schools, has no relerence to any exclusion of belief,
ll was merely given to (he conception ot simple, in
contrast to the cognition of complex, terms H.



saying that the belief or knowledge is got
by putting together and comparing the
simple apprehensions, we ought rather to say
that the simple apprehension is performed
by resolving and analysing a natural and
original judgment. And it is with the
operations of the mind, in this case, as
with natural bodies, which are, indeed,
compounded of simple principles or ele-
ments. Nature does not exhibit these ele-
ments separate, to be compounded by us ;
she exhibits them mixed and compounded
in concrete bodies, and it is only by art and
chemical analysis that they can be separated.

Section V.




But what is this belief or knowledge
which accompanies sensation and memory ?
Every man knows what it is, but no man
can define it. Does any man pretend
to define sensation, or to define con-
sciousness ? It is happy, indeed, that
no man does. And if no philosopher had
endeavoured to define and explain belief,
some paradoxes in philosophy, more in-
credible than ever were brought forth by
the most abject superstition or the most
frantic enthusiasm, had never seen the light.
Of this kind surely is that modern discovery
of the ideal philosophy, that sensation, me-
mory, belief, and imagination, when they
have the same object, are only different
degrees of strength and vivacity in the
idea.* Suppose the idea to be that of a
future state after death : one man believes
it firmly — this means no more than that he
hath a strong and lively idea of it ; another
neither believes nor disbelieves — that is, he
has a weak and faint idea. Suppose, now, a
third person believes firmly that there is no
such thing, I am at a loss to know whether
his idea be faint or lively : if it is faint,
then there may be a firm belief where the
idea is faint ; if the idea is lively, then the
belief of a future state and the belief of no
future state must be one and the same. The
same arguments that are used to prove that
belief implies only a stronger idea of the
object than simple apprehension, might as
well be used to prove that love implies only
a stronger idea of the object than indiffer-
ence. And then what shall we say of
hatred, which must upon this hypothesis be
a degree of love, or a degree of indifference ?
If it should be said, that in love there is
something more than an idea — to wit, an
affection of the mind — may it not be said

* He refers lo IluiTitf.— H

with equal reason, that in belief there is
something more than an idea — to wit, an
assent or persuasion of the mind ?

But perhaps it may be thought as ridicu-
lous to argue against this strange opinion,
as to maintain it. Indeed, if a man should
maintain that a circle, a square, and a
triangle differ only in magnitude, and not
in figure, I belieVe he would find nobody
disposed either to believe him or to argue
against him ; and yet I do not think it less
shocking to oommon sense, to maintain that
sensation, memory, and imagination differ
only in degree, and not in kind. I know
it is said, that, in a delirium, or in dreaming,
men are apt to mistake one for the other.
But does it follow from this, that men who
are neither dreaming nor in a delirium
cannot distinguish them ? But how does
a man know that he is net in a delirium ?
I cannot tell : neither can I tell how a man
knows that he exists. But, if any man seri-
ously doubts whether he is in a delirium, I
think it highly probable that he is, and that
it is time to seek for a cure, which I am
persuaded he will not find in the whole
system of logic.

I mentioned before Locke's notion of
belief or knowledge ; he holds that it con-
sists in a perception of the agreement or
disagreement of ideas ; and this he values
himself upon as a very important discovery.

We shall have occasion afterwards to
examine more particularly this grand prin-
ciple of Locke's philosophy, and to shew
that it is one of the main pillars of modern
scepticism, although he had no intention to
make that use of it. At present let us only
consider how it agrees with the instances
of belief now under consideration ; and
whether it gives any light to them. I be-
lieve that the sensation I have exists ; and
that the sensation I remember does not
now exist, but did exist yesterday. Here,
according to Locke's system, I compare the
idea of a sensation with the ideas of past
and present existence : at one time I per-
ceive that this idea agrees with that of pre-
sent existence, but disagrees with that of
past existence ; but, at another time, it
agrees with the idea of past existence, and
disagrees with that of present existence.
Truly these ideas seem to be very capri-
cious in their agreements and disagree-
ments. Besides, I cannot, for my heart,
conceive what is meant by either. I say
a sensation exists, and I think I understand
clearly what I mean. But you want to
make the thing clearer, and for that end
tell me, that there is an agreement between
the idea of that sensation and the idea of
existence. To speak freely, this conveys
to me no light, but darkness ; I can con-
ceive no otherwise of it, than as an odd and
obscure circumlocution. I conclude, then,



that the belief which accompanies sensation
and memory, is a simple act of the mind,
which cannot be denned. It is, in this
respect, like seeing and hearing, which can
•never be so denned as to be understood by
those who have not these faculties ; and to
such as have them, no definition can make
these operations more clear than they aru
already. In like manne*r, every man that
has any belief — and he must be a curiosity
that has none — knows perfectly wl at belief
is, but can never define or explain it. I
conclude, also, that sensation, memory, and
imagination, even where they have the
same object, are operations of a quite dif-
ferent nature, and perfectly distinguishable
by those who are sound and sober. A man
that is in danger of confounding them, is
indeed to be pitied ; but whatever relief le
may find from another art, he can find none
from logic or metaphysic. I conclude fur-
ther, that it is no less a part of the human
constitution, to believe the present existence
of our sensations, and to believe the past
existence of what we remember, than it is
to believe that twice two make four. The
evidence of sense, the evidence of memory,
and the evidence of the necessary relations
of things, are all distinct and original kinds
of evidence, equally grounded on our consti-
tution : none of them depends upon, or can
be resolved into another. To reason against
any of these kinds of evidence, is absurd ;
nay, to reason for them is absurd. They
are first principles ; and such fall not with-
in the province of reason," but of common

Section VI.



Having considered the relation which the
sensation of smelling bears to the remem-
brance and imagination of it, I proceed to
consider what relation it bears to a mind,
or sentient principle. It is certain, no man
can conceive or believe smelling to exist
of itself, without a mind, or something that
has the power of smelling, of which it is
called a sensation, an operation, or feeling.
Yet, if any man should demand a proof,
that sensation cannot be without a mind or
sentient being, I confess that I can give
none ; and that to pretend to prove it, seems
to me almost as absurd as to deny it.

This might have been said without any
apology before the '• Treatise of Human
Nature" appeared in the world. For till

tee Nnto + at p. 100. b — H.

that time, no man, as far as I know,
ever thought either of calling in question
that principle, or of giving a reason for his
belief of it. Whether thinking beings were
of an ethereal or igneous nature, whether
material or immaterial, was variously dis-
puted ; but that thinking is an operation of
some kind of being or other, was always
taken for granted, as a principle that could
not possibly admit of doubt.

However, since the author above men-
tioned, who is undoubtedly one of the most
acute metaphysicians that this or any age
hath produced, hath treated it as a vulgar
prejudice, and maintained that the mind
is only a succession of ideas and impres-
sions without any subject ; his opinion,
however contrary to the common appre-
hensions of mankind, deserves respect. I
beg therefore, once for all, that no offence
may be taken at charging this or other
metaphysical notions with absurdity, or
with being contrary to the common sense
of mankind. No disparagement is meant
to the understandings of the authors or
maintainers of such opinions. Indeed, they
commonly proceed, not from defect of under-
standing, but from an excess of refinement ;
the reasoning that leads to them often
gives new light to the subject, and shews
real genius and deep penetration in the
author; and the premises do more than
atone for the conclusion.

If there are certain principles, as I think
there are, which the constitution of our
nature leads us to believe, and which we
are under a necessity to take for granted
in the common concerns of life, without
being able to give a reason for them — these
are what we call the principles of common
sense ; and what is manifestly contrary to
them, is what we call absurd.

Indeed, if it is true, and to be received
as a principle of philosophy, that sensation
and thought may be without a thinking
being, it must be acknowledged to be the
most wonderful discovery that this or any
other age hath produced. The received
doctrine of ideas is the principle from which
it is deduced, and of which indeed it seems
to be a just and natural consequence. And
it is probable, that it would not have been
so late a discovery, but that it is so shock-
ing and repugnant to the common appre-
hensions of mankind, that it required an
uncommon degree of philosophical intre-
pidity to usher it into the world. It is a
fundamental principle of the ideal system,
that every object of thought must be an
impression or an idea — that is, a faint copy
of some preceding impression. This is a
principle so commonly received, that the
author above mentioned, although his whole
system is built upon it, never offers the
least proof of it. It is upon this principle,



as a fixed point, that he erects his meta-
physical engines, to overturn heaven and
earth, body and spirit. And, indeed, in
my apprehension, it is altogether sufficient
for the purpose. For, if impressions and
ideas are the only objects of thought, then
heaven and earth, and body and spirit,
and everything you please, must signify
only impressions and ideas, or they must
be words without any meaning. It seems,
therefore, that this notion, however strange,
is closely connected with the received doc-
trine of ideas, and we must either admit the
conclusion, or call in question the premises.
Ideas seem to have something in their
nature unfriendly to other existences. They
were first introduced into philosophy, in
the humble character of images or repre-
sentatives of things ; and in this character
they seemed not only to be inoffensive, but
to serve admirably well for explaining the
operations of the human understanding.
But, since men began to reason clearly and
j^ distinctly about them, they have by degrees
supplanted their constituents, and under-
mined the existence of everything but
themselves. First, they discarded all se-
condary qualities of bodies ; and it was
found out by their means, that fire is not
hot, nor snow cold, nor honey sweet ; and,
in a word, that heat and cold, sound, colour,
taste, and smell, are nothing but ideas or
impressions. Bishop Berkeley advanced
them a step higher, and found out, by just
reasoning from the same principles, that
extension, solidity, space, figure, and body,
are ideas, and that there is nothing in nature
but ideas and spirits. But the triumph of
ideas was completed by the " Treatise of
Human Nature," which discards spirits
also, and leaves ideas and impressions as the
sole existences in the universe. What if, at
last, having nothing else to contend with,
they should fall foul of one another, and
leave no existence in nature at all ? This
would surely bring philosophy into danger ;
for what should we have left to talk or to
dispute about ?

However, hitherto these philosophers
acknowledge the existence of impressions
and ideas ; they acknowledge certain laws
of attraction, or rules of precedence, accord-
ing to which, ideas and impressions range
themselves in various forms, and succeed
one another : but that they should belong
to a mind, as its proper goods and chattels,
this they have found to be a vulgar error.
These ideas are as free and independent as
the birds of the air, or as Epicurus's atoms
when they pursued their journey in the
vast inane. Shall we conceive them like
the films of things in the Epicurean system ?
Principio hoc dico, rerum simulacra vagari,
Multa modis multis, in cunctas undique parteie
Tenuia, quee facile inter te junguntur in aurls,
Obvia cum veniunt. - JL.uCR.

Or do they rather resemble Aristotle's in-
telligible species, after they are shot forth
from the object, and before they have yet
struck upon the passive intellect ? But why
should we seek to compare them with any-
thing, since there is nothing in nature but
themselves ? They make the whole furni-
ture of the universe ; starting into existence,
or out of it, without any cause ; combining
into parcels, which the vulgar call minds ;
and succeeding one another by fixed laws,
without time, place, or author of those laws.

Vet, after all, these self-existent and in-
dependent ideas look pitifully naked and
destitute, when left thus alone in the uni-
verse, and seem, upon the whole, to be in a
worse condition than they were before. Des
Cartes, Malebranche, and Locke, as they
made much use of ideas, treated them hand-
somely, and provided them in decent accom-
modation ; lodging them either in the pineal
gland, or in the pure intellect, or even in
the divine mind. They moreover clothed
them with a commission, and made them
representatives of things, which gave them
some dignity and character. But the "Trea-
tise of Human Nature," though no less
indebted to them, seems to have made but
a bad return, by bestowing upon them this
independent existence ; since thereby they
are turned out of house and home, and set
adrift in the world, without friend or con-
nection, without a rag to cover their naked-
ness ; and who knows but the whole system
of ideas may perish by the indiscreet zeal
of their friends to exalt them ?

However this may be, it is certainly a
most amazing discovery that thought and
ideas may be without any thinking being
— a discovery big with consequences which
cannot easily be traced by those deluded
mortals who think and reason in the com-
mon track. We were always apt to ima-
gine, that thought supposed a thinker, and
love a lover, and treason a traitor : but
this, it seems, was all a mistake ; and it is
found out, that there may be treason with-
out a traitor, and love without a lover, laws
without a legislator, and punishment with-
out a sufferer, succession without time, and
motion without anything moved, or space
in which it may move : or if, in these cases,
ideas are the lover, the sufferer, the traitor,
it were to be wished that the author of this
discovery had farther condescended to ac-
quaint us whether ideas can converse to-
gether, and be under obligations of duty or
gratitude to each other ; whether they can
make promises and enter into leagues and
covenants, and fulfil or break them, and be
punished for the breach. If one set of
ideas makes a covenant, another breaks it,
and a third is punished for it, there is rea-
son to think that justice is no natural virtue
in this system.



It seemed very natural to think, that the
" Treatise of Human Nature'' required an

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 25 of 114)