Thomas Reid.

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

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that we can have no conception of any
material thing which is not like some sens-
ation in our minds ; and particularly that
the sensations of touch are images of exten-
sion, hardness, figure, and motion. Every
argument brought against the existence of
a material world, either by the Bishop of
Cloyne, or by the author of the " Treatise
of Human Nature," supposeth this. If
this is true, their arguments are conclusive
and unanswerable ; but, on the other hand,
if it is not true, there is no shadow of argu-
ment left. Have those philosophers, then, \
given any solid proof of this hypothesis,
upon which the whole weight of so strange
a system rests. No. They have not so
much as attempted to do it. But, because
ancient and modern philosophers have
agreed in this opinion, they have taken it
for granted. But let us, as becomes
philosophers, lay aside authority ; we
need not, surely, consult Aristotle or
Locke, to know whether pain be like
the point of a sword. I have as clear a
conception of extension, hardness, and
motion, as I have of the point of a sword ;
and, with some pains and practice, I can
form as clear a notion of the other sensa*
* See last note. — H.



turns of touch as I have of pain. When I
do so, and compare them together, it ap-
pears to me clear as daylight, that the for-
mer are not of kin to the latter, nor resemble
them in any one feature. They are as
unlike, yea as certainly and manifestly un-
like, as pain is to the point of a sword. It
may be true, that those sensations first
introduced the material world to our ac-
quaintance ; it may be true, that it seldom
or never appears without their company ;
but, for all that, they are as unlike as the
passion of anger is to those features of the
countenance which attend it.

So that, in the sentence those philoso-
phers have passed against the material
world, there is an pp.rsonce. Their
proof touches not matter, or any of its qua-
lities ; but strikes directly against an idol
of their own imagination, a material world
made of ideas and sensations, which never
had, nor can have an existence.

Secondly, The very existence of our con-
ceptions of extension, figure, and motion,
since they are neither ideas of sensation nor
reflection, overturns the whole ideal system,
by which the material world hath been tried
and condemned ;* so that there hath been
likewise in this sentence an error juris.

It is a very fine and a just observation of
Locke, that, as no human art can create a
single particle of matter, and the whole ex-
tent of our power over the material world
consists in compounding, combining, and
disjoining the matter made to our hands ;
so, in the world of thought, the materials
are all made by nature, and can only be
variously combined and disjoined by us-
So that it is impossible for reason or preju-
dice, true or false philosophy, to produce
one simple notion or conception, which is
not the work of nature, and the result of
our constitution. The conception of exten-
sion, motion, and the other attributes of
matter, cannot be the effect of error or pre-
judice ; it must be the work of nature.
And the power or faculty by which we
acquire those conceptions, must be some-
thing different from any power of the hu-
man mind that hath been explained, since
it is neither sensation nor reflection.

This I would, therefore, humbly propose,
as an e^perimentum cruris, by which the
ideal system must stand or fall ; and it
brings the matter to a short issue : Exten-
sion, figure, motion, may, any one, or all
of them, be taken for the subject of this
experiment Either they are ideas of sens-

* It only overturns that Idealism founded on the
clumsy hypothesis of ideas being something different,
both from ihe reality they represent, and from the
mind contemplating their representation, and which,
also, derives all. such ideas from without. 'I 'his doc-
trine may .subvert the Idealism of Herkeley, but it
even supplies a basis for an Idealism like that of
fc'ichtc. See the following note. — H.

ation, or they are not. If any one of
them can be shewn to be an idea of sensa-
tion, or to have the least resemblance to
any sensation, I lay my hand upon my
mouth, and give up all pretence to recon-
cile reason to common sense in this matter,
and must suffer the ideal scepticism to
triumph. But if, on the other hand, they
are not ideas of sensation, nor like to any
sensation, then the ideal system is a rope
of sand, and all the laboured arguments of
the sceptical philosophy against a material
world, and against the existence of every
thing but impressions and ideas, proceed
upon a false hypothesis."

* Nothing is easier than to shew, that, so far from
refuting Idealism, this d'ictrirje affords it the best of
all possible foundations. It Idealism, indeed, supposed
the existence of ideas as tertia qutedam, distinct at
once from the material object and the immaterial
subject, these intermediate entities being likewise
held to originate immediately or mediately in sense—
if this hypothesis, I f-ay, were Idealism,
then would Reid's crii icism of that'doctrine be a com-
plete and final confutation. But as this criticism
did not contemplate, so it does not confute that sim-
pler and more refined Idealism, which ideas
only modifications of the mind itself; and which, in
place of sensualizing intellect, inejllec-iuaUzes sense.
On the contrary, Held, (and herein he U followed by
Mr Stewart,) in the doctrine now maintained, asserts
the very positions on which this scheme ot Idealism
establishes its conclusions. An Egoistical Idealism is
established, on the doctrine, that all our knowledge
is merely subjective, or of the mind iD-elf ; that (he
Ego has no immediate cognizance of a Non-Ego a*
existing, but that the Son-Ego l> only represented x<\
us in a modification of the self-conscious Ego. This
doctrine being admitted, the Idralist has only toshew
that the supposition ot a Non-Ego, or external world
really existent, is a groundless and unnecessary
assumption; for, while the law of parcnnony 'pro-
hibits the multiplication of substances or causes be-
yond what the phsnomona require, v.e have mani-
festly no right to postulate for the Non-Eg ■ the dig-
nity of an iudependent substance beyond the Ego,
seeing that this Non.Ego is, ex hypothetic known to
us, consequently exists for us, only as a phenomenon
of the tigo.— Now, the.doctrinc of our Scottish philo-
sophers is, in (act, the very groundwork on which
the Egoistical Idenlism reposes. That'doctrine not
only maintains our nensations of the secondary qua-
lities to be the mere effects of certain unknown
causes, of which we are consequently entitled to
affirm nothing, butthat wehavenodirectand imme-
diate perception of extension and the otherprimary
qualities of matter. To limit ourselves to extension,
(or space,) which figure and motion (the two other
qualities proposed by Reid fur the experiment) sup.
pose, it ig evident that if extension be not immediately
perceived as externally existing, extended objects
cannot be immediately perceived as realities out,
and independent, of the percipient subject ; for, it we
were capable of such a perception ot such objects, we
should uecessarilybe also capable of a perception of
this, the one essential attribute of their existence.
But, on the doctrine i f our Scottish philosophers,
Extension is a notion.suggested on occasion of sens-
ations supposed to bedctermined by certain unknown
causes ; which unknown causes are again supposed
to be existences independent of the mind, and ex-
tended — (heir complement, in fact, constituting the
external world All our knowledge of the Non-Ego
is thus merely ideal and mediate; we have no
knowledge of any really objective reality* except
through a subjective representation or notion; in
other words, we are only Immediately cognizant of
certain modes of our own minds, and, in and through
them, mediately warned of the phenomena of the
material universe. In all essential respects, this doc-
trine of Reid and Stewart is. identical with Kant's;
except that the German philosopher, in holding space



Tf our philosophy concerning the mind
be so lame with regard to the origin of our
notions of the clearest, most simple, and
most familiar objects of thought, and the
powers from which they are derived, can
we expect that it should be more perfect in
the account it gives of the origin of our
opinions and belief ? We have seen already
some instances of its imperfection in this
respect ; and, perhaps, that same nature
which hath given us the power to conceive
things altogether unlike to any of our sens-
ations, or to any operation of our minds,
hath likewise provided for our belief of
them, by some part of our constitution
hitherto not explained.

Bishop Berkeley hath proved, beyond
the possibility of reply, that we cannot by
reasoning infer the existence of matter from
our sensations ; and the author of the
" Treatise of Human Nature'' hath proved
no less clearly, that we cannot by reasoning
infer the existence of our own or other
minds from our sensations. But are we to
admit nothing but what can be proved hy
reasoning ? Then we must be sceptics in-
deed, and believe nothing at all. The
author of the " Treatise of Human Na-
ture" appears to me to be but a half-sceptic.
He hath not followed his principles so far as
they lead him ; but, after having, with un-
paralleled intrepidity and success, combated
vulgar prejudices, when he had but one
blow to strike, his courage fails him, he
fairly lays down his arms, and yields him-
self a captive to the most common of all
vulgar prejudices — I mean the belief of the
existence of his own impressions and ideas. *

to be a necessary form of our conceptions of external
things, prudently declined asserting that these un-
known things are, in themselves, extended.

Now, the doctrine of Kant has been rigorously
proved hy Jacdhi and Fichte fo be, in its legitimate
issue, a doctiineof absolute Ideali-m; and the de-
monstralions which the philosopher of Koenigsberg
has given of the existence of an external world, have
been long admitted, even by his disciples themselves,
to he inconclusive. But our Scottish philosophers
appeal to an argument which the German philoso-
pher overtly rejected-the argument, as it is called,
from common sense. In their hands however, this
argument is unavailing ; lor, if it be good against the
conclusions of the Idealist, it is good against the pre-
mises which thev afiord h m. '1 he common sense of
mankind only assures us of the existence of an ex-
ternal and extended world, in assuring usihatwe
are conscious, ivj merely of the phenomena of mind
in relation to miuter, but of the phenomena of mat-
ter in relation to mind— in other words, that we are
immediately percipient of extended things.

Reid himself seems to have become obscurely aware
of this condition ; and, though he never retracted his
doctrine concerning the mere sut>L estion of exten i n,
we find, in his " Essays on the Intellectual Powers,"
assertions in regard to the immediate perception of
external things, which would tend to shew that
his later views were more in unison with the ne-
cessary convictions of mankind. But of this again.

* There is in this and the two following para-
graphs a confusion and inaccuracy which it is re-
quisite to notice— There is no scepticism possible
touching the facts of consciousness in themselves.
We cannot doubt that the phenomena of conecious-

I beg, therefore, to have the honour of
making an addition to the sceptical system,
without which I conceive it cannot hang
together. I affirm, that the belief of the
existence of impressions and ideas, is as lit-
tle supported by reason, as that of the exist-
ence of minds and bodies. No man ever
did or could offer any reason for this belief.

ness are real, in so far as we are conscious of them.
I cannot doubt, for example, that I am actually
conscious of a certain feeling of fragrance, and or
certain perceptions of colour, figure, \c when I see
and mella rose. Of the reality of these, a a expe-
rienced, I cannot doubt, because rln*y are facts of
consciousne.-s ; and of consciousness I cannot dnubt,
because such doubt being itself an act of consci< u .
ness, W'iuld contradict, and, consequently, annilu.
late itself. Bin of all beyond the mere phenomena
of which we are conscious, we may — without fiar of
self-contradiction at least— doubt. I may, lor in-
stance, doubt whether the rose I see and smell has
any existence bejond a phamoinenal existence in
my consciousness. I cannot doubt that I am con.
scious of it as something d fterent from self, but whe-
ther it have, indeed, any reality beyond my mind —
whether the not-se/fbc not in truth only self— that
I may philos- phically question. In like manner, I
am conscious of Mh> memory of a certain pant event.
Of the contents of this memory, as a phenomenon
Kiven in consciousness, scepticism is impossible. But
I may by possibility demur to the reality of all be-
yond these contents and the sphere ol present con-

In Reid's strictures upon Hume, he confounds
two opposite things: He reproaches that philosopher
with inconsequence, in holding to " the belief of the
existence-Of his own impressions and ideas." Now,
if, by the existence of impressions and ideas, Reid
meant their existence as mere phenomena of con-
sciousness, his criticism is inept; for a disbelief of
their existence, as such phenomena, would have
been a suicidal act in the sceptic. If, again, he
meant by imtressions and ideas the hypothesis of
representative entities different from the mind and
its modifications; in that case the oljection is
equally invalid. Hume was a sceptic ; i hat is, he
acccp ed the premises afforded him by the dogmatist,
and carried these premises to their legitimate con-
sequences. To blame Hume, therefore, for not having
doubted of his borrowed principles, is to tilame the
sceptic for not performing a part altogether incon-
sistent with his vocation. But, in point of fact,
the hypothe is of such entities is ot no value to the
idealist or sceptic. Impressions and fleas, viewed as
menial modes, would have answered Hume's pur-
pose not a whit \vor*e than impressions and ideas
viewed as objects, but not as affections of mind.
The most consistent scheme of idealism known in
the history of philosophy is that of Fichte ; and
Fichte's idealism is founded on a basis which ex-
cludes that crude hypothesis of ideas on which alone
Reid imagined any doctrine of Idealism could pos-
sibly be established. And is the acknowledged result
of the Fichtean dogmatism less a nihilism than the
scepticism of Hume? " The sum to al," says Fichte,
"is this; — There is absolutely nothing permanent
either without me or within me, but only an un-
ceasing change. I know a' S'lutciy nothing of any
existence, not even of my own. I myself know
nothing, and am nothing. Images (Bilder) there
are : they constitute all that apparently exists, and
what they know of them>elves is after the manner
of images ; images that pass and vanish without
there being aught to witness their transition ; that
consist in fact of the image- of images, wiihouf sig-
nificance and without an aim. 1 myself am one of
these images; nay, I am not even thus much, but
only a confused image of images All reality is con,
verted into a marvellous dream, without a life to,
d p edm of, and without a mind to dream; into a
dream made up only of a drtam of itself. Percep-
tion is a dream ; thought— the source of all the ex-
istence and all the reality which I imagine to myself
of my existence, of my power, of my destinations
is the dream of that dream. "— H.



Des Cartes took it for granted, that he
thought, and had sensations and ideas ; so
have all his followers done. Even the hero
of scepticism hath yielded this point, I crave
leaye to say, weakly and imprudently. I
say so, because I am persuaded that there
is no principle of his philosophy that obliged
him to make this concession. And what is
there in impressions and ideas so formid-
able, that this all-conquering philosophy,
after triumphing over every other existence,
should pay homage to them ? Besides, the
concession is dangerous : for belief is of
such a nature, that, if you leave any root,
it will spread ; and you may more easily
pull it up altogether, than say, Hitherto
shalt thou go and no further: the existence
of impressions and ideas I give up to thee ;
but see thou pretend to nothing more. A
thorough and consistent sceptic will never,
therefore, yield this point ; and while he
holds it, you can never oblige him to yield
anything else.

To such a sceptic I have nothing to say ;
but of the semi-sceptics, I should beg to
know, why they believe the existence of
their impressions and ideas. The true
reason I take to be, because they cannot
help it ; and the same reason will lead them
to believe many other things.

All reasoning must be from first prin-
ciples ; and for first principles no other
reason can be given but this, that, by the
constitution of our nature, we are under
a necessity of assenting to them. Such
principles are parts of our constitution, no
less than the power of thinking : reason
can neither make nor destroy them ; nor
can it do anything without them : it is like
a telescope, which may help a man to see
farther, who hath eyes; but, without eyes,
a telescope shews nothing at all. A ma-
thematician cannot prove the truth of his
axioms, nor can he prove anything, unless
he takes them for granted. We cannot
prove the existence of our minds, nor even
of our thoughts and sensations. A histo-
rian, or a witness, can prove nothing, unless
it is taken for granted that the memory
and senses may be trusted. A natural
philosopher ean prove nothing, unless it is
taken for granted that the course of nature
is steady and uniform.

How or when I got such first principles,
upon which I build all my reasoning, I
know not ; for I had them before I can
remember : but I am sure they are parts
of my constitution, and that I cannot throw
them off. That our thoughts and sensa-
tions must have a subject, which we call
ourselfj is not therefore an opinion got by
reasoning, but a natural principle. That
our sensations of touch indicate something
external, extended, figured, hard or soft,
is not n deduction of reason, but a natural

principle. The belief of it, and the very
conception of it, are equally parts of our
constitution. If we are deceived in it, we
are deceived by Him that made us, and
there is no remedy.*

I do not mean to affirm, that the sensa-
tions of touch do, from the very first, sug-
gest the same notions of body and its qua-
lities which they do when we are grown
up. Perhaps Nature is frugal in this, as
in her other operations. The passion of
love, with all its concomitant sentiments
and desires, is naturally suggested by the
perception of beauty in the other sex ; yet
the same perception does not suggest tho
tender passion till a certain period of life.
A blow given to an infant, raises grief and
lamentation ; but when he grows up, it as
naturally stirs resentment, and prompts him
to resistance. Perhaps a child in the womb,
or for some short period of its existence, is
merely a sentient being ; the faculties by
which it perceives an external world, by
which it reflects on its own thoughts, and
existence, and relation to other things, as
well as its reasoning and moral faculties,
unfold themselves by degrees ; so that it is
inspired with the various principles of com-
mon sense, as with the passions of love and
resentment, when it has occasion for them.

Section VIII.


All the systems of philosophers about our
senses and their objects have split upon
this rock, of not distinguishing properly

* The philosophers who have most loudly appealed
to the veracity of God. and the natural conviction of
mankind, in refutation of certain obnoxious inclu-
sions, have tno often silently contradicted that vera-
city and those convictions, when opposed to certain
favourite opinions. But it is evident that such autho-
rity is either good for all, or good for nothing. Our
natural consciousness assures us (and the fact of that
assurance is admitted by philosophers ot ail opinions)
that we have an immediate knowledge of the very
things themselves of an external and extended world ;
and, on the ground ot this knowledgealone, is the belief
oi mankind founded, that such a world really exists.
Reid ought, therefore, either to have given up his
doctrine of the mere suggestion of extension, &c., as
subjective notions, on the occasion of sensation, or
not to appeal t a the Divine veracity, and the-common
sense of mankind, in favour of conclusions of which
that doctrine subverts the foundation. In this in-
consistency, Reid has, however, besides Deb Cartes,
many distinguished copartners.— H.

t On this subject, see " Essays on the Intellectual
Powers,*' E>:say II., chap. 7-15, and the notes there-
on. It is perhaps proper to recall to the reader*s-at.
teniinn, thai, by the Ideal Theory, Reid always
understands the ruder form of the doctrine, which
holds that ideas are entities, different both from the
external object and from the percipient mind, and
that he had no conception of the finer form of that
doctrine, which holds that all that we are conscious
of in perception,, (of course also in imagination,) is
only a ratification of the mind itself — Set; Not*
C— H.



sensations which can have no existence but
when they are felt, from the things sug-
gested by them. Aristotle — with as dis-
tinguishing a head as ever applied to philoso-
phical disquisitions— confounds these two ;
and makes every sensation to be the form,
without the matter, of the thing perceived
by it. As the impression of a seal upon
wax has the form of the seal but nothing of
the matter of it, so he conceived our sensa-
tions to be impressions upon the mind, which
bear the image, likeness, or form of the
external thing perceived, without the mat-
ter of it. Colour, sound, and smell, as well
as extension, figure, and hardness, are,
according to him, various forms of matter :
our sensations are the same forms im-
printed on the mind, a d perceived in its
own intellect. It is evident from this, that
Aristotle made no distinction between prim-
ary and secondary qualities of bodies, al-
though that distinction was made by De-
mocritus, Epicurus, and others of the an-
cients. •

Des Cartes, Malebranche, and Locke,
revived the distinction between primary and
secondary qualities; but they made the
secondary qualities mere sensations, and
the primary ones resemblances of our sens-
ations. They maintained that colour,
sound, and heat, are not anything in bodies,
but sensations, of the mind ; at the same
time, they acknowledged some particular
texture or modification of the body to be
the cause or occasion of those sensations ;
but to this modification they gave no name.
Whereas, by the vulgar, the names of col-
our, heat, and sound, are but rarely applied
to the sensations, and most commonly to
those unknown causes of them, as hath been
already explained. The constitution of our
nature leads us rather to attend to the things
signified by the sensation than to the sensa-
tion itself, and to give a name to the former
rather than to the latter. Thus we see,
that, with regard to secondary qualities,
these philosophers thought with the vulgar,
and with common sense. Their paradoxes
were only an abuse of words; for when
they maintain, as an important modern
discovery, that there is no heat in the fire,
they mean no more, than that the fire does
not feel heat, which every one knew before.

With regard to primary qualities, these
philosophers erred more grossly. They
indeed believed the existence of those qua-
lities ; but they did not at all attend to
the sensations that suggest them, which,
having no names, have been as little con-
sidered as if they had no existence. They
were aware that figure, extension, and

* On this last, see Aristotle. De Anima, L. III.,
c. 1, and Mctaph. L. III. c. 5 — The Aristotelic dis-
tinction of first and second qualities was of another
kind.— H. riee Norx i>, p. ozx u.

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 30 of 114)