Thomas Reid.

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

. (page 27 of 114)
Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 27 of 114)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

used to signify the sensations ; for the most
part, they signify the external qualities
which are indicated by the sensations — the
cause of which phenomenon It take to be
this. Our sensations have very different
degrees of strength. Some of them are so
quick and lively as to give us a great deal
either of pleasure or of uneasiness. When
this is the case, we are compelled to attend
to the sensation itself, and to make it an
object of thought and discourse ; we give it
a name, which signifies nothing but the
sensation ; and in this case we readily
acknowledge, that the thing meant by that
name is in the mind only, and not in any-
thing external. Such are the various kinds
of pain, sickness, and the sensations of
hunger and other appetites. But, where
the se.isation is not so interesting as to re-

quire to be made an object of thought, our
constitution leads us to consider it as a
sign of something external, which hath u
constant conjunction with it; and, having
found what it indicates, we give a name to
that : the sensation, having no proper
name, falls in as an accessory to the thing
signified by it, and is confounded under the
same name. So that the name may, in-
deed, be applied to the sensation, but most
properly and commonly is applied to the
thing indicated by that sensation. The
sensations of smell, taste, sound, and colour,
are of infinitely more importance as signs
or indications, than they are upon their own
account ; like the words of a language,
wherein we do not attend to the sound but
to the sense.

Section X.


There is one inquiry remains, Whether,
in smelling, and in other sensations, the
mind is active or passive ? This possibly
may seem to be a question about words, or,
at least, of very small importance ; how-
ever, if it leads us to attend more accu-
rately to the operations of our minds than
we are accustomed to do, it is, upon that
very account, not altogether unprofitable.
I think the opinion of modern philosophers
is, that in sensation the mind is altogether
passive.* And this undoubtedly is so far
true, that we cannot raise any sensation in
our minds by willing it ; and, on the other
hand, it seems hardly possible to avoid
having the sensation when the object is
presented. Yet it seems likewise to be
true, that, in proportion as the attention is
more or less turned to a sensation or
diverted from it, that sensation is more or
less perceived and remembered. Every
one knows that very intense pain may be
diverted by a surprise, or by anything that
entirely occupies the mind. When we are
engaged in earnest conversation, the clock
may strike by us without being heard ; at
least, we remember not, the next moment,
that we did hear it. The noise and tumult
of a great trading city is not heard by
them who have lived in it all their days ;
but it stuns those strangers who have
lived in the peaceful retirement of the
country. Whether, therefore, there can
be any sensation where the mind is purely
passive, I will not say ; but I think we are
conscious of having given some attention
to every sensation which we remember,
though ever so recent.

* This i 3 far too absolutely stated.— H.



No doubt, where the impulse is strong
and uncommon, it is as difficult to withhold
attention as it is to forbear crying out in
racking pain, or starting in a sudden fright.
But how far both might be attained by
strong resolution and practice, is not easy
to determine. So that, although the Peri-
patetics had no good reason to suppose an
active and a passive intellect, since atten-
tion may be well enough accounted an act
of the will, yet I think they came nearer
to the truth, in holding the mind to be in
sensation partly passive and partly active,
than the moderns, in affirming it toi be
purely passive. Sensation, imagination,
memory, and judgment, have, by the vulgar
in alL ages, been considered as acts of the
mind. The manner in which they are ex-
pressed in all languages, shews this. When
the mind is much employed in them, we
say it is very active ; whereas, if they were
impressions only, as the ideal philosophy
would lead us to conceive, we ought, in such
a case, rather to say, that the mind is very
passive ; for, I suppose, no man would
attribute great activity to the paper I write
upon, because it receives variety of cha-

The relation which the sensation of smell
bears to the memory and imagination of it,
and to a mind or subject, is common to all
our sensations, and, indeed, to all the oper-
ations of the mind : the relation it bears to
the will is common to it with all the powers
of*understandiug ; and the relation itbears to
that quality or virtue of bodies which it in-
dicates, is common to it with the sensa-
tions of taste, hearing, colour, heat, and
cold — so that what hath been said of this
sense, may easily be applied to several of
our senses, and to other operations of the
mind ; and this, I hope, will apologize for
our insisting so long upon it.



A great part of what hath been said of
the sense of smelling, is so easily applied
to those of tasting and hearing, that we
shall leave the application entirely to the
reader's judgment, and save ourselves the
trouble of a tedious repetition.

It is probable that everything that affects
the taste is, in some degree, soluble in the
saliva. It is not conceivable how anything
should enter readily, and of its own accord,
as it were, into the pores of the tongue,
palate, and fauces, unless it had some
chemical affinity to that liquor with which
these pores are always replete. It is, there-
fore, an admirable contrivance of nature,
that the organs of taste should always be

moist with a liquor which is so universal a
menstruum, anil which deserves to be ex-
amined more than it hath been hitherto,
both in that capacity, and as a medical
unguent. Nature teaches dogs, and other
animals, to use it in this last way ; and its
subserviency both to taste and digestion
shews its efficacy in the former.

It is with manifest design and propriety,
that the organ of this sense guards the
entrance of the alimentary canal, as that of
smell the entrance of the canal for respira-
tion. And from these organs being placed in
such manner that everything that enters into
the stomach must undergo the scrutiny of
both senses, it isplainthatthey were intended
by nature to distinguish wholesome food
from that which is noxious. The brutes
have no other means of choosing their food ;
nor would mankind, in the savage state.
And it is very probable that the smell and
taste, noway vitiated by luxury or bad
habits, would rarely, if ever, lead us to a
wrong choice of food among the produc-
tions of nature ; although the artificial
compositions of a refined and luxurious
cookery, or of chemistry and pharmacy,
may often impose upon both, and produce
things agreeable to the taste and smell,
which are noxious to health. And it is
probable that both smell and taste are
vitiated, and rendered less fit to perform
their natural offices, by the unnatural kind
of life men commonly lead in society.

These senses are likewise of great use to
distinguish bodies that cannot be distin-
guished by our other senses, and to discern
the changes which the same body under-
goes, which, in many cases, are sooner per-
ceived by taste and smell than by any other
means. How many things are there in the
market, the eating-house, and the tavern,
as well as in the apothecary and chemist's
shops, which are known to be what they
are given out to be, and are perceived to be
good or bad in their kind, only by taste
or smell ? And how far our judgment of
things, by means of our senses, might bo
improved by accurate attention to the small
differences of taste and smell, and other
sensible qualities, is not easy to determine.
Sir Isaac Newton, by a noble effort of his
great genius, attempted, from the colour
of opaque bodies, to discover the magnitude
of the minute pellucid parts of which they
are compounded: and who knows what
new lights natural philosophy may yet re-
ceive from other secondary qualities duly
examined ?

Some tastes and smells stimulate the
nerves and raise the spirits : but such an
artificial elevation of the spirits is, by the
laws of nature, followed by a depression,
which can only be relieved by time, or by
the repeated use of the like stimulus. By
; 2



the use of such things we create an appe-
tite for them, which very much resembles,
and hath all the force of a natural one. It
is in this manner that men acquire an ap-
petite for snuff, tobacco, strong liquors,
laudanum, and the like.

Nature, indeed, seems studiously to have
set bounds to the pleasures and pains we
have by these two senses, and to have con-
fined them within very narrow limits, that
we might not place any part of our happi-
ness in them; there being hardly any
smell or taste so disagreeable that use will
not make it tolerable, and at last perhaps
agreeable, nor any so agreeable as not to
lose its relish by constant use. Neither is
there any pleasure or pain of these senses
which is not introduced or followed by
some degree of its contrary, which nearly
balances it; so that we may here apply
the beautiful allegory of the divine So-
crates — that, although pleasure and pain
are contrary in their nature, and their faces
look different ways, yet Jupiter hath tied
them so together that he that lays hold of
the one draws the other along with it.

As there is a great variety of smells,
seemingly simple and uncompounded, not
only altogether unlike, but some of them
contrary to others, and as the same thing
may be said of tastes, it would seem that
one taste is not less different from another
than it is from a smell : and therefore it
may be a question, how all smells come
to be considered as one genus, and all
tastes as another ? What is the generical
distinction ? Is it only that the nose is the
organ of the one and the palate of the
other ? or, abstracting from the organ, is
there not in the sensations themselves
something common to smells, and some-
thing else common to tastes, whereby the
one is distinguished from the other ? It
seems most probable that the latter is the
case ; and that, under the appearance of
the greatest simplicity, there is still in
these sensations something of composition.

If one considers the matter abstractly, it
would seem that a number of sensations,
or, indeed, of any other individual things,
which are perfectly simple and uncom-
pounded, are incapable of being reduced
into genera and species ; because individuals
which belong to a species must have some-
thing peculiar to each, by which they are
distinguished, and something common to
the whole species. And the same may be
said of species which belong to one genus.
And, whether this does not imply some kind
of composition, we shall leave to metaphy-
sicians to determine.

The sensations both of smell and taste do
undoubtedly admit of an immense variety
of modifications, which no language can
express If man was to examine five

hundred different wines, he would hardly
find two of them that had precisely the
same taste. The same thing holds in cheese,
and in many other things. Yet, of five
hundred different tastes in cheese or wine,
we can hardly describe twenty, so as to give
a distinct notion of them to one who had
not tasted them.

Dr Nehemiah Grew, a most judicious
and laborious naturalist, in a discourse read
before the Royal Society, anno 1675, bath
endeavoured to shew that there are at least
sixteen different simple tastes, which he
enumerates.* How many compounded
ones may be made out of all the various
combinations of two, three, four, or more
of these simple ones, they who are ac-
quainted with the theory of combinations
will easily perceive. AH these have va-
rious degrees of intenseness and weakness.
Many of them have other varieties ; in some
the taste is more quickly perceived upon
the application of the sapid body, in others
more slowly — in some the sensation is more
permanent, in others more transient — in
some it seems to undulate or return after
certain intervals, in others it is constant ;
the various parts of the organ — as the lips,
the tip of the tongue, the root of the tongue,
the fauces, the uvula, and the throat— are
some of them chiefly affected by one sapid
body, and others by another. All these,
and other varieties of tastes, that accurate
writer illustrates by a number of examples.
Nor is it to be doubted, but smells, if exa-
mined with the same accuracy, would appear
to have as great variety.



Section I.


Sounds have probably no less variety of
modifications, than either tastes or odours.
For, first, sounds differ in tone. The ear
is capable of perceiving four or five hun-
dred variations of tone in sound, and pro-
bably as many different degrees of strength ;
by combining these, we have above twenty
thousand simple sounds that differ either
in tone or strength, supposing every tone
to be perfect. But it is to be observed,
that to make a perfect tone, a great many

• Plato and Galen reckon seven, Aristotle and
Theophrasrns efgtii species of simple tastes Amone
the moderns, (as 1 recollect.) these are estimateo at
ten, by Boerhaavc and Linnaeus ; by Haller, at

I twelve H.



undulations of elastic air are required,
which must all be of equal duration and
extent, and follow one another with perfect
regularity ; and each undulation must be
made up of the advance and recoil of in-
numerable particles of elastic air, whose
motions are all uniform in direction, force,
and time. Hence we may easily conceive
a prodigious variety in the same tone, aris-
ing from irregularities of it, occasioned by
the constitution, figure, situation, or man-
ner of striking the sonorous body ; from
the constitution of the elastic medium,
or its being disturbed by other motions ;
and from the constitution of the ear itself,
upon which the impression is made.

A flute, a violin, a hautboy, and a French
horn, may all sound the same tone, and be
easily distinguishable. Nay, if twenty
human voices sound the same note, and
with equal strength, there will still be some
difference. The same voice, while it re-
tains its p oper distinctions, may yet be
varied many ways, by sickness or health,
youth or age, leanness or fatness, good or
bad humour. The same words spoken by
foreigners and natives — nay, by persons of
different provinces of the same nation — may
be distinguished.

Such an immense variety of sensations
of smell, taste, and sound, surely was not
given us in vain. They are signs by which
we know and distinguish things without
us ; and it was fit that the variety of the
.'igns should, in some degree, correspond
with the variety of the things signified by

It seems to be by custom that we learn
to distinguish both the place of things, and
their nature, by means of their sound.
That such a noise is in the street, such
another in the room above me ; that this
is a knock at my door, that a person walk-
ing up stairs — is probably learnt by expe-
rience. I remember, that once lying a-
bed, and having been put into a fright, I
heard my own heart beat; but I took it
to be one knocking at the door, and arose
and opened the door oftener than once,
before I discovered that the sound was in
my own breast. It is probable, that, pre-
vious to all experience, we should as little
know whether a sound came from the
right or left, from above or below, from
a great or a small distance, as we should
know whether it was the sound of a drum,
or a bell, or a cart. Nature is frugal in
her operations, and will not be at the ex-
pense of a particular instinct, to give us
that knowledge which experience will soon
produce, by means of a general principle of
human nature.

For a little experience, by the constitu-
tion of human nature, ties together, not
onl} in our imagination, but in our belief,

those things which were in their nature un-
connected. When I hear a certain sound,
I conclude immediately, without reasoning,
that a coach passes by. There are no pre-
mises from which this conclusion is inferred
by any rules of logic. It is the effect of a
principle of our nature, common to us with
the brutes.

Although it is by hearing that we are
capable of the perceptions of harmony and
melody, and of all the charms of music,
yet it would seem that these require a
higher faculty, which we call a musical ear.
This seems to be in very different degrees,
in those who have the bare faculty of hear-
ing equally perfect ; and, therefore, ought
not to be classed with the external senses,
but in a higher order.

Section II.


One of the noblest purposes of sound un-
doubtedly is language, without which man-
kind would hardly be able to attain any
degree of improvement above the brutes.
Language is commonly considered as purely
an invention of men, who by nature are
no less mute than the brutes ; but, having
a superior degree of invention and reason,
have been able to contrive artificial signs
of their thoughts and purposes, and to es-
tablish them by common consent. But 1 he
origin of language deserves to be more care-
fully inquired into, not only as this inquiry
may be of importance for the improvement
of language, but as it is related to the pre-
sent subject, and tends to lay open some
of the first principles of human nature. I
shall, therefore, offer some thoughts upon
this subject.

By language I understand all those signs
which mankind use in order to communi-
cate to others their thoughts and intentions,
their purposes and desires. And such
signs may be conceived to be of two kinds :
First, such as have no meaning but what
is affixed to them by compact or agreement
among those who use them — these are ar-
tificial signs; Secondly, such as, previous
to all compact or agreement, have a mean-
ing which every man understands by the
principles of his nature. Language, so far
as it consists of artificial signs, may be called
artificial ; so far as it consists of natural
signs, I call it natural.

Having premised these definitions, I
think it is demonstrable, that, if mankind
had not a natural language, they could
never have invented an artificial one by
their reason and ingenuity. For all arti-
ficial language supposes some compact or
agreement to affix a certain meaning to



certain signs ; therefore, there must be
compacts or agreements before the use of
artificial signs ; but there can be no com-
pact or agreement without signs, nor with-
out language ; and, therefore, there must
be a natural language before any artificial
language can be invented : which was to
be demonstrated.

Had language in general been a human
invention, as much as writing or printing,
we should find whole nations as mute as
the brutes. Indeed, even the brutes have
some natural signs by which they express
their own thoughts, affections, and. desires,
and understand those of others. A chick,
as soon as hatched, understands the differ-
ent sounds whereby its dam calls it to food,
or gives the alarm of danger. A dog or a
horse understands, by nature, when the
human voice caresses, and when it threatens
him. But brutes, as far as we know, have
no notion of contracts or covenants, or of
moral obligation to perform them. If na-
ture had given them these notions, she
would, probably have given them natural
signs to express them. And where nature
has denied these notions, it is as impossible
to acquire them by art, as it is for a blind
man to acquire the notion of colours. Some
brutes are sensible of honour or disgrace ;
they have resentment and gratitude ; but
none of them, as far as we know, can make
a promise or plight their faith, having no
such notions from their constitution. And
if mankind had not these notions by nature,
and natural signs to express them by, with
all their wit and ingenuity they could never
have invented language.

The elements of this natural language
of mankind, or the signs that are naturally
expressive of our thoughts, may, I think,
be reduced to these three kinds : modula-
tions of the voice, gestures, and features.
By means of these, two savages who have
no common artificial language, can converse
together ; can communicate their thoughts
in some tolerable manner; can ask and
refuse, affirm and deny, threaten and sup-
plicate ; can traffic, enter into covenants,
and plight their faith. This might be con-
firmed by historical facts of undoubted
credit, if it were necessary.

Mankind having thus a common language
by nature, though a scanty one, adapted
only to the necessities of nature, there is
no great ingenuity required in improving
it by the addition of artificial signs, to
supply the deficiency of the natural. These
artificial signs must multiply with the arts
of life, and the improvements of knowledge.
The articulations of the voice seem to be,
of all signs, the most proper for artificial
language ; and as mankind have universally
used tliem for that purpose, we may reason-
ably judge that nature intended them for it.

But nature probably does not intend that
we should lay aside the use of the natural
signs; it is enough that we supply their
defects by artificial ones. A man that rides
always in a chariot, by degrees loses the
use of his legs ; and one who uses artificial
signs only, loses both the knowledge and
use of the natural. Dumb people retain
much more of the natural language than
others, because necessity obliges them to
use it. And for the same reason, savages
have much more of it than civilized nations.
It is by natural signs chiefly that we give
force and energy to language ; and the less
language has of theni, it is the less ex-
pressive and persuasive. Thus, writing is
less expressive than reading, and reading
less expressive than speaking without book ;
speaking without the proper and natural
modulations, force, and variations of the
voice, is a frigid and dead language, com-
pared with that which is attended with
them ; it is still more expressive when we
add the language of the eyes and features ;
and is then only in its perfect and natural
state, and attended with its proper energy,
when to all these we superadd the force of

Where speech is natural, it will be an
exercise, not of the voice and lungs only,
but of all the muscles of the body ; like
that of dumb people and savages, whose
language, as it has more of nature, is more
expressive, and is more easily learned.

Is it not pity that the refinements of a
civilized life, instead of supplying the de-
fects of natural language, should root it
out and plant in its stead dull and lifeless
articulations of unmeaning sounds, or the
scrawling of insignificant characters ? The
perfection of language is commonly thought
to be, to express human thoughts and sen-
timents distinctly by these dull signs ; but
if this is the perfection of artificial language,
it is surely the corruption of the natural.

Artificial signs signify, but they do not
express ; they speak to the understanding,
as algebraical characters may do, but the
passions, the affections, and the will, hear
them not : these continue dormant and
inactive, till we speak to them in the lan-
guage of nature, to which they are all atten-
tion and obedience.

It were easy to shew, that the fine arts
of the musician, the painter, the actor, and
the orator, so far as they are expressive —
although the knowledge of them requires
in us a delicate taste, a nice judgment, and
much study and practice — yet they are
nothing else but the language of nature,
which we brought into the world with us,
but have unlearned by disuse, and so find
the greatest difficulty in recovering it.

Abolish the use of articulate sounds and
writing among mankind for a century.



nurl every man would 1)0 n painter, an
actor, and an orator. We mean not to
affirm that such an expedient is practica-
ble; or, if it were, that the advantage
would counterbalance the loss; hut that,
as men are led by nature and necessity to
converse together, they will use every mean
in their power to make themselves under-
stood ; and where they cannot do this by

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 27 of 114)