Thomas Reid.

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

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curious, when contrasted with that ease,
perspicuity, and purity of style, which he
afterwards attained. From some informa-
tion, however, which has been lately trans-
mitted to me by one of his nearest relations,
I have reason to believe that the number
of original discourses which he wrote while
a country clergyman, was not inconsider-

The satisfaction of his own mind was
probably, at this period, a more powerful
incentive to his philosophical researches,
than the hope of being able to instruct the
world as an author. But, whatever his views
were, one thing is certain, that, during his
residence at New-Machar, the greater part
of his time was spent in the most intense
study; more particularly in a careful exami-
nation of the laws of external perception,
and of the other principles which' form the
groundwork of human knowledge. His
chief relaxations were gardening and beta ny ,
to both of which pursuits he retained his
attachment even in old age.

A paper which he published in the Phi-
losophical Transactions of the Eoyal Society
of London, for the year 1748, affords some
light with respect to the progress of liis
speculations about this period. It is en-
titled, " An Essay on Quantity, occasioned
by reading a Treatise in which Simplo and
Compound Ratios are implied to Virtue and

* Tho lu.y Stron.-icn.



Merit ;" and Bhews plainly, by its contents,
that, although he had not yet entirely re-
linquished the favourite researches of his
youth, he was beginning to direct his thoughts
to other objects.

The treatise alluded to in the title of this
paper, was manifestly the " Inquiry into
the Origin of our Ideas of Beauty and Vir-
tue ;" by Dr Hutcheson of Glasgow. Ac-
cording to this very ingenious writer, the
moment of public good produced by an indi-
vidual, depending partly on his benevolence,
and partly onhis ability, the relation between
these different moral ideas may be expressed
in the technical form of algebraists, by say-
ing that the first is in the compound pro-
portion of the two others. Hence, Dr
Hutcheson infers, that " the beneroLnee of
an agent (which in this system is synony-
mous with his moral merit) is proportional
to a fraction, having the moment of good
for the numerator, and the ability of the
agent for the denominator." Various other
examples of a similar nature occur in the
same work ; and are stated with a gravity
not altogether worthy of the author. It is
probable that they were intended merely as
illustrations of his general reasonings, not as
media of investigation for the discovery of
new conclusions ; but they appeared to Dr
Reid to be an innovation which it was of
importance to resist, on account of the ten-
dency it might have (by confounding the
evidence of different branches of science) to
retard the progress of knowledge. The very
high reputation which Dr Hutcheson then
possessed in the universities of Scotland,
added to the recent attempts of Pitcairn and
Cheyne to apply mathematical reasoning to
medicine, would bestow, it is likely, an in-
terest on Dr Reid's Essay at the time of
its publication, which it can scarcely be
expected to possess at present. Many of
the observations, however, which it contains,
are acute and original ; and all of them are
expressed with that clearness and precision
so conspicuous in his subsequent composi-
tions. The circumstance which renders a
subject susceptible of mathematical consider-
ation, is accurately stated ; and the proper
province of that science defined in such a
manner as sufficiently to expose the absur-
dity of those abuses of its technical phrase-
ology which were at that time prevalent.
From some passages in it, there is, I think,
ground for concluding that the author's
reading had not been very extensive pre-
vious to this period. The enumeration, in
particular, which he has given of the differ-
ent kinds of proper quantity, affords a proof
that he was not acquainted with the re-
fined yet sound disquisitions concerning the
nature of number and of proportion, which
had appeared, almost a century before, in
the " Mathematical Lt/i:Liirco" of Dr

row ; nor with the remarks on the same
subject introduced by Dr Clarke m one of
his controversial letters addressed to

In the same paper, Dr Reid takes occa-
sion to offer some reflections on the dispute
between the Newtonians and Leibnitzians,
concerning the measure of forces. The
fundamental idea on which these reflections!
proceed, is just and important ; and it
leads to the correction of an error com-
mitted very generally by the partisans of
both opinions — that of mistaking a question
concerning the comparative advantages of
two definitions for a difference of statement
with respect to a physical fact. It must, I
think, be acknowledged, at the same time,
that the whole merits of the controversy
are not here exhausted ; and that the hon- ■
our of placing this very subtle and abstruse
question in a point of view calculated to
reconcile completely the contending parties,
was reserved for M. D'Alembert. To have
fallen short of the success which attended,
the inquiries of that eminent man, on a
subject so congenial to his favourite habits
of study, will not reflect any discredit on Hit
powers of Dr Reid's mind, in the judgment
of those who are at all acquainted with the
history of this celebrated discussion.

In 175'2, the professors of King's Col-
lege elected Dr Reid Professor of Philoso-
phy, in testimony of the high opinion they
had formed of his learning and abilities.
Of the particular plan which he followed
in his academical lectures, while he held
this office, I have not been able to obtain
any satisfactory account ; but the depart-
ment of science which was assigned to him
by the general system of education in that
university, was abundantly extensive ; com-
prehending Mathematics and Physics as
well as Logic and Ethics. A similar system
was pursued formerly in the other univer-
sities of Scotland ; the same professor thai
conducting his pupil through all those
branches of knowledge which are now ap-
propriated to different teachers. And when
he happened fortunately to possess tta
various accomplishments which distin-
guished Dr Reid in so remarkable a degree,
it cannot be doubted that the unity anJ
comprehensiveness of method of which such
academical courses admitted, must neces-
sarily have possessed Important advantags
over that more minute subdivision of lito
ary labour which has since been introdui "
But, as public establishments ought to afe, r
themselves to what is ordinary, rather ftu
to what is possible, it is not surprising tlul
experience should have gradually suggested
an arrangement more suitable to the narro«
limits which commonly circumscribe hui~

Sut.11 after Dr Reid's removal to A!


di'cn, lie projected (in conjunction with his
friend Dr John Gregory) a literary society,
which subsisted for many years, and which
seems to have had the happiest effects in
awakening and directing that spirit of philo-
sophical research which has since reflected
so much lustre on the north of Scotland.
The meetings of this society were held
weekly ; and afforded the members (beside
the advantages to be derived from a mutual
communication of their sentiments on the
common objects of their pursuit) an oppor-
tunity of subjecting their intended publica-
tions to the test of friendly criticism. The
number of valuable works which issued,
nearly about the same time, from individuals
connected with this institution — more par-
ticularly the writings of Reid, Gregory,
Campbell, Beattie, and Gerard — furnish the
best panegyric on the enlightened views of
those under whose direction it was originally

Among these works, the most original
and profound was unquestionably the " In-
quiry into the Human Mind," published by
Dr Reid in 1764. The plan appears to have
been conceived, and the subject deeply medi-
tated, by the. author long before; but it is
doubtful whether his modesty would have
ever permitted him to present to the world
the fruits of his solitary studies, without the
encouragement which he received from the
general acquiescence of his associates in the
most important conclusions to which he had
been led.

From a passage in the dedication, it would
seem that the speculations which termi-
nated in these conclusions, had commenced
as early as the year 1739 ; at which period
the publication of Mr Hume's " Treatise of
Human Nature," induced him, for the first
time, (as he himself informs us,) " to call
in question the principles commonly received
with regard to the human understanding."
In his "Essays on the Intellectual Powers,"
he acknowledges that, in his youth, he had,
without examination, admitted the esta-
blished opinions on which Mr Hume's sys-
tem of scepticism was raised ; and that it
was the consequences which these opinions
seemed to involve, which roused his suspi-
cions concerning their truth. " If I may
presume," says he, " to speak my own sen-
timents, I once believed the doctrine of Ideas
so firmly as to embrace the whole of Berke-
ley's system along with it ; till, finding other
consequences to follow from it, which gave
me more uneasiness than the want of a ma-
terial world, it came into my mind, more
than forty years ago, to put the question,
What evidence have I for this doctrine, that
all the objects of my knowledge are ideas in
my own mind ? From that time to the pre-
sent, I have been candidly and impartiy,all
B8 I think, seeking for the evidence of this

principle ; but can find none, excepting the
authority of philosophers."

In following the train of Dr Reid's re-
searches, this last extract merits attention,
as it contains an explicit avowal, on his
own part, that, at one period of his life, he
had been led, by Berkeley's reasonings, to
abandon the belief of the existence of matter.
The avowal does honour to his candour,
and the fact reflects no discredit on his saga-
city. The truth is, that this article of the
Berkleian system, however contrary to the
conclusions of a sounder philosophy, was
the error of no common mind. Considered
in contrast with that theory of materialism
which the excellent author was anxious to
supplant, it possessed important advantages,
not only in its tendency, but in its scientific
consistency ; and it afforded a proof, wher-
ever it met with a favourable reception, of
an understanding superior to those casual
associations which, in the apprehensions of
most men, blend indissolubly the pheno-
mena of thought with the objects of external
perception. It is recorded as a saying of
M. Turgot, (whose philosophical opinions in
some important points approached very
nearly to those of Dr Reid,*) that " he
who had never doubted of the existence of
matter, might be assured he had no turn for
metaphysical disquisitions."

As the refutation of Mr Hume's sceptical
theory was the great and professed object of
Dr Reid's " Inquiry," he was anxious, before
taking the field as a controversial writer, to
guard against the danger of misapprehend-
ing or misrepresenting the meaning of his
adversary, by submitting his reasonings to
Mr Hume's private examination. With
this view, he availed himself of the good
offices of Dr Blair, with whom both he and
Mr Hume had long lived in habits of friend,
ship. The communications which he at
first transmitted, consisted only of detached
parts of the work ; and appear evidently,
from a correspondence which I have per-
used, to have conveyed a very imperfect
idea of his general system. In one of Mr
Hume's letters to Dr Blair, he betrays some
want of his usual good humour, in looking
forward to his new antagonist. " I wish,"
says he, " that the parsons would confine
themselves to their old occupation of worry-
ing one another, and leave philosophers to
argue with temper, moderation, and good
manners." After Mr Hume, however, had
read the manuscript, he addressed himself
directly to the Author, in terms so candid
and liberal, that it would be unjust to his
memory to withhold from the public so
pleasing a memorial of his character : —

" By Dr Blair's means I have been

* See, in particular, the article " Fxietenoe" in
the " Luicyclcipeuie."



favoured with the perusal of your perform-
ance, which I have read with great pleasure
and attention. It is certainly very rare
that a piece so deeply philosophical is wrote
with so much spirit, and affords so much
entertainment to the reader ; though I must
still regret the disadvantages under which I
read it, as I never had the whole perform-
ance at once before me, and could not be
able fully to compare one part with another.
To this reason, chiefly, I ascribe some
obscurities, which, in spite of your short
analysis or abstract, still seem to hang over
your system ; for I must do you the jus-
tice to own that, when I enter into your
ideas, no man appears to express himself
with greater perspicuity than you do — a
talent which, above all others, is requisite
in that species of literature which you have
cultivated. There are some objections
which I would willingly propose to the chap-
ter, ' Of Sight,' did I not suspect that they
proceed from my not sufficiently under-
standing it ; and I am the more confirmed
in this suspicion, as Dr Blair tells me that
the former objections I made had been
derived chiefly from that cause. I shall,
therefore, forbear till the whole can be
before me, and shall not at present propose
any farther difficulties to your reasonings.
I shall only say that, if you have been able
to clear up these abstruse and important
subjects, instead of being mortified, I shall
be so vain as to pretend to a share of the
praise ; and shall think that my errors, by
having at least some coherence, had led you
to make a more strict review of my prin-
ciples, which were the common ones, and to
perceive their futility.

" As I was desirous to be of some use to
you, I kept a watchful eye all along over
your style ; but it is really so correct, and
so good English, that I found not anything
worth the remarking. There is only one
passage in this chapter, where you make
use of the phrase hirvkr to do, instead of
hinder from doing, which is the English
one ; but I could not find the passage when
I sought for it. You may judge how un-
exceptionable the whole appeared to me,
vhen I could remark so small a blemish.
l beg my compliments to my friendly adver-
saries, Dr Campbell and Dr Gerard ; and
also to Dr Gregory, whom I suspect to be
of the same disposition, though he has not
openly declared himself such."

Of the particular doctrines contained in
Dr Reid's " Inquiry,'' I do not think it
necessary here to attempt any abstract s
nor, indeed, do his speculations (conducted,
as they were, in strict conformity to the
rules of inductive philosophizing) afford a
subject for the same species of rapid out-
line which is so useful in facilitating the
study of a merely hypothet'cal theory.

Their great object was to record and to
classify the phenomena which the operations
of the human mind present to those who
reflect carefully on the subjects of their
consciousness ; and of such a history, it is
manifest that no abridgement could be
offered with advantage. Some reflections ,
on the peculiar plan adopted by the author, 1
and on the general scope of his researches
in this department of science, will after-
wards find a more convenient place, when I
shall have finished my account of his subse-
quent publications.

The idea of prosecuting the study of the
human mind, on ■■*■ plan analagous to that
which had been so successfully adopted in
physics by the followers of Lord Bacon, if
not first conceived by Dr Reid, was, at least,
first carried successfully into execution in
his writings. An attempt had, long before,
been announced by Mr Hume, in the title-
page of his " Treatise of Human Nature,"
to introduce the experimental method of
reasoning into moral subjects ; and some
admirable remarks are made in the intro-
duction to that work, on the errors into
which his predecessors had been betrayed
by the spirit of hypothesis ; and yet it is
now very generally admitted, that the whole
of his own system rests on a principle for
which there is no evidence but the authority
of philosophers ; and it is certain that, in
no part of it has he aimed to investigate, by
a systematical analysis, those general prin-
ciples of our constitution which can alone
afford a synthetical explanation of its com-
plicated phenomena.

I have often been disposed to think that Mr
Hume's inattention to those rules of philoso-
phizing which it was his professed intention J
to exemplify, was owing, in part, to some
indistinctness in his notions concerning their
import. It does not appear that, in the
earlier part of his studies, he had paid much
attention to the models of investigation ex-
hibited in the writings of Newton and of
his successors ; and that he was by no
means aware of the extraordinary merits of
Bacon as a philosopher, nor of the influence
which his writings have had on the subse-
quent progress of physical discovery, is
demonstrated by the cold and qualified
encomium which is bestowed on his genius
in one of the most elaborate passages of
the " History of England."

In these respects, Dr Reid possessed
important advantages ; familiarized, from
his early years, to those experimental:?
inquiries which, in the course of the two*
last centuries, have exalted natural philo-
sophy to the dignity of a science, and
determined strongly, by the peculiar bent
of his genius, to connect every step in tin
progress of discovery with the history of the
Iranian mind. The influence of the 'eneral



views opened in the " Novum Organon"
may be traced in almost every page of his
writings ; and, indeed, the circumstance by
which these are so strongly and character-
istically distinguished, is, that they exhibit
the first systematical attempt to exemplify,
in the study of human nature, the same
plan of investigation which conducted
Newton to the properties of light, and to
the law of gravitation. It is from a steady
adherence to this plan, and not from the
superiority of his inventive powers, that he
claims to himself any merit as a philosopher ;
and he seems even willing (with a modesty
approaching to a fault) to abandon the
praise of what is commonly called genius,
to the authors of the systems which he was
anxious to refute. " It is genius," he ob-
serves in one passage, " and not the want
of it, that adulterates philosophy, and fills
it with error and false theory. A creative
imagination disdains the mean offices of
digging for a foundation, of removing rub-
bish, and carrying materials : leaving these
servile employments to the drudges in
science, it plans a design, and raises a fa-
bric. Invention supplies materials where
they are wanting, and fancy adds colouring
and every befitting ornament. The work
pleases the eye, and wants nothing but
solidity and a good foundation. It seems
even to vie with the works of nature, till
some succeeding architect blows it into
ruins, and builds as goodly a fabric of his
own in its place."

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

The unassuming language with which
Dr Reid endeavours to remove the preju-
dices naturally excited by a new attempt to
philosophize on so unpromising, and hitherto
so ungrateful a subject, recalls to our recol-
lection those passages in which Lord Bacon
— filled as his own imagination was with the
future grandeur of the fabric founded by
his hand — bespeaks the indulgence of his
readers, for an enterprise apparently so
hopeless and presumptuous. The apology
he offers for himself, when compared with
the height to which the structure of physical
knowledge has since attained, may perhaps
have some effect in attracting a more gene-
ral attention to pursuits still more im-
mediately interesting to mankind ; and, at
any rate, it forms the best comment on the
prophetic suggestions in which Dr Reid

occasionally indulges himself concerning the
future progress of moral speculation : —

" Si homines per tanta annorum spatia
viam veram invcniendi et colendi scientias
tenuissent, nee tamen ulterius progredi po-
tuissent, audax procul dubio et temeraria
foret opinio, posse rem in ulterius provehi.
Quod si in via ipsa erratum sit, atque homi-
num opera in iis consumpta in quibus minime
oportebat, sequitur ex eo, non in rebus
ipsis dimcultatem oriri, quae potestatis nos-
tras non sunt ; sed inintellectu humano, ej us-
que usu et applicatione, quse res remedium
et medicinam suscipit."* — "De nobis ipsis
silemus : de re autem quse agitur, petimus ;
Ut homines earn non opinionem, sed opus
esse cogitent ; ac pro certo habeant, non
sectse nos alicujus, aut placiti, sed utilitatis
et amplitudinis humanae fundamenta moliri.
Praeterea, ut bene sperent ; neque Instau-
rationem nostram ut quiddam infinitum et
ultra mortale fingant, et animo concipiant ;
quum revera sit infiniti erroris finis et ter-
minus legitimus."-)-

The impression produced on the minds of
speculative men, by the publication of Dr
Reid's "Inquiry," wasfully asgreatas could
be expected from the nature of his under-
taking. It was a work neither addressed
to the multitude, nor level to their compre-
hension ; and the freedom with which it
canvassed opinions sanctioned by the highest
authorities, was ill calculated to conciliate
the favour of the learned. A few, however,
habituated, like the author, to the analytical
researches of the Newtonian school, soon
perceived the extent of his views, and re-
cognised in his pages the genuine spirit and
language of inductive investigation. Among
the members of this University, Mr Fergu-
son was the first to applaud Dr Reid's
success ; warmly recommending to his pu-
pils a steady prosecution of the same plan,
as the only effectual method of ascertaining
the general principles of the human frame ;
and illustrating, happily, by his own pro-
found and eloquent disquisitions, the appli-
cation of such studies to the conduct of the
understanding and to the great concerns of
life. I recollect, too, when I attended (about
the year 1771) the lectures of the late Mr
Russell, to have heard high encomiums on
the philosophy of Reid, in the course of
those comprehensive discussions concerning
the objects and the rules of experimental
science, with which he so agreeably diversi-
fied the particular doctrines of physics. Nor
must I omit this opportunity of paying a
tribute to the memory of my old friend, Mr
Stevenson, then Professor of Logic ; whose
candid mind, at the age of seventy, gave a
welcome reception to a system subversive
of the theories which he had taught for

Nov, Cr{;. 91. -f Iiibtaur. Mag — Tin-fat.



forty years ; and whose zeal for the ad-
vancement of knowledge prompted him,
when his career was almost finished, to
undertake the laborious task of new-model-
ling that useful compilation of elementary
instruction to which a singular diffidence
of his own powers limited his literary exer-

It is with no common feelings of respect
and of gratitude, that I now recall the names
of those to whom I owe my first attach-
ment to tHfese studies, and the happiness
of a liberal occupation superior to the more
aspiring aims of a servile ambition.

From the University of Glasgow, Dr
Reid's " Inquiry" received a still more
substantial testimony of approbation ; the
author having been invited, in 1703, by
that learned body, to the Professorship of
Moral Philosophy, then vacant by the
resignation of Mr Smith. The preferment
was, in many respects, advantageous ;
affording an income considerably greater
than he enjoyed at Aberdeen; and enabling
him to concentrate to his favourite objects,
that attention which had been hitherto dis-
tracted by the miscellaneous nature of his

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 4 of 114)