Thomas Reid.

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

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tions verbal and real, which should have been care-
fully distinguished.— H.




species ; because such things only can have
a specific difference ; and a specific differ-
ence is essential to a logical definition.
On this account there can be no logical
definition of individual things, such as
London or Paris. Individuals are distin-
guished either by proper names, or by acci-
dental circumstances of time or place ; but
they have no specific difference ; and, there-
fore, though they may be known by pro-
per names, or may be described by circum-
stances or relations, they cannot be denned. *
It is no less evident that the most general
words cannot be logically defined, because
there is not a more general term, of which
they are a species.

Nay, we cannot define every species of
things, because it happens sometimes that
we have not words to express the specific
difference. Thus, a scarlet colour is, no
doubt, a species of colour ; but how shall
we express the specific difference by which
scarlet is distinguished from green or blue ?
The difference of them is immediately per-
ceived by the eye ; but we have not words
to express it. These things we are taught
by logic.

Without having recourse to the prin-
ciples of logic, we may easily be satisfied
that words cannot be defined, which signify
things perfectly simple, and void of all com-
position. This observation, I think, was
first made by Des Cartes, and afterwards
more fully illustrated by Locke.*}* And,
however obvious it appears to be, many in-
stances may be given of great philosophers
who have perplexed [12] and darkened the
subjects they have treated, by not knowing,
or not attending to it.

When men attempt to define things which
cannot be defined, their definitions will
always be either obscure or false. It was
one of the capital defects of Aristotle's phi-
losophy, that he pretended to define the
simplest things, which neither can be, nor
need to be defined — such as time and mo-
th n.% Among modern philosophers, I

* It is well said by the old logicians, Omnia in-
tuttiva notttia est definitio; — that is, a view of the
thing itself is its best definition And 'his in inie,
both of the objects of sense, and of the objects of self-
consciousness. — H.

t This is incorrect Des Cartes has little, and
I.ocke no title to praise for this observation. It had
been made by Aristotle, and alter him by many
others; while, subsequent to Des Cartes, and pre-
vious to Locke, Pascal and the Port. Royal Logicians,
to say nothing of a paper of Leibnitz, in 1R84-, had re-
duced it to a matter of commonplace. In this instance,
Lncke can, indeed, be proved a borrower. M r Stewart
(" Philosophical Kssays," Note A) is wrong in think-
ing that, afte< Des Cartes, Lord Stair is the earliest
philosopher by whom this logical principle was
enounced; for Stair, as a writer, is subsequent to
the authors adduced — H.

t There is not a lit tic, however, to be said in vin-
dicat on of Aristotle's definitions. Leibnitz is not
the only modern philosopher who hasapplaudcd iliat
of Motion, winch requires, however, some illi s- I
tration of the special Mguificance of its terms — H.
[12, 13]

know none that has abused definition so
much as Carolus [Christianus] Wolfius, the
famous German philosopher, who, iu a
work on the human mind, called " Psycho-
logia Empirica," consisting of many hun-
dred propositions, fortified by demon-
strations, with a proportional accompani-
ment of definitions, corollaries, and scholia,
has given so many definitions of things
which cannot be defined, and so many de-
monstrations of things self-evident, that
the greatest part of the work consists of
tautology, and ringing changes upon

There is no subject in which there is
more frequent occasion to use words that
cannot be logically defined, than in treating
of the powers and operations of the mind.
The simplest operations of our minds must
all be expressed by words of this kind. No
man can explain, by a logical definition,
what it is to thiiik, to apprehend, to believe,
to w 11, todeshe. Every man who under-
stands the language, has some notion of the
meaning of those words ; and every man
who is capable of reflection may, by attend-
ing to the operations of his own mind,
which are signified by them, form a clear
and distinct notion of them ; but they can-
not be logically defined.

Since, therefore, it is often impossible to
define words which we must use on this
subject, we must as much as possible use
common words, in their common accepta-
tion, pointing out their various senses where
they are ambiguous ; and, when we are
obliged to use words less common, we must
endeavour to explain them [13] as well as
we can, without affecting to give logical de-
finitions, when the nature of the thing does
not allow it.

The following observations on the mean-
ing of certain words are intended to supply,
as far as we can, the want of definitions, by
preventing ambiguity or obscurity in the
use of them.

1. By the mind of a man, we understand
that in him which thinks, remembers, rea-
sons, wills, f The essence both of body and
of mind is unknown to us. We know cer-
tain properties of the first, and certain oper-
ations of the last, and by these only we can
define or describe them. We define body
to be that which is extended, solid, move-
able, divisible. In like manner, we define
mind to be that which thinks. We are con-
cious that we think, and that we have a
variety of thoughts of different kinds— such
as seeing, hearing, remembering, delibe-
rating, resolving, loving, hating, and many

* This judgment isnot false ; but it is exaggerated
— H.

t This corresponds to Aristotle's sreord definition
of the soul, or i hat a postei ioru Vide supra, p. 203,
b,iote-.-H. f ,v >




other kinds of thought — all which we are
taught by nature to attribute to one internal
principle ; and this principle of thought we
call the mind or soul of a man.

2. By the operations' of the mind, we un-
derstand every mode of thinking of which
we are conscious.

It deserves our notice, that the various
modes of thinking have always, and in all
languages, as far as we know, been called
by the name of operations of the mind, or
by names of the same Import. To body
we ascribe various properties, but not oper-
ations, properly so called : it is extended,
divisible, moveable, inert ; it continues in
any state in which it is put ; every change
of its state is the effect of some force im-
pressed upon it, and is exactly proportional
to the force impressed, and in the precise
direction of that force. These are the ge-
neral properties of matter, and these are
not operations ; on the contrary, they all
imply its being a dead, inactive thing,
which moves only as it is moved, and acts
only by being acted upon.-)- [14]

But the mind is, from its very nature, a,
living and active being. Everything we
know of it implies life and active energy ;
and the reason why all its modes of thinking
are called its operations, is, that in all, or in
most of them, it is not merely passive, as
body is, but is really and properly active.

In all ages, and in all languages, ancient
and modern, the various modes of thinking
have been expressed by words of active
signification, such as seeing, hearing, reason-
ing, willing, and the like. It seems, there-
fore, to be the natural judgment of man-
kind, that the mind is active in its various
ways of thinking : and, for this reason, they
are called its operations, and are expressed
by active verbs.

It may be made a question, What regard
is to be paid to this natural judgment ?
May it not be a vulgar error ? Philosophers
who think so have, no doubt, a right to be
heard. But, until it is proved that the
mind is not active in thinking, but merely
passive, the common language with regard
to its operations ought to be used, and ought
not to give place to a phraseology invented
by philosophers, which implies its being
merely passive.

3. The words power and faculty, which
are often used in speaking of the mind,
need little explication. Every operation
supposes a power in the being that oper-
rates ; for to suppose anything to operate,
which has no power to operate, is mani-
festly absurd. But, on the other hand,

* Operation, Act, Energy, are nearly convertible
terms; and are opposed to Faculty, (of which anon,)
as the actual to the potential — H.

T " Materiae datum est cogi, sed cogere Menu."
Manilius. — H.

("H, I«]

there is no absurdity in supposing a being
to have power to operate, when it does not
operate. Thus I may have power to walk,
when I sit ; or to speak, when I am silent.
Every operation, therefore, implies power ;
but the power does not imply the operation.

The faculties of the mind, and its powers,
are often used as synonymous expressions.
But, as most synonymes have some minute
distinction that deserves notice, I apprehend
that the word faculty [15] is most properly
applied to those powers of the mind which
are original and natural, and which make a
part of the constitution of the mind. There
are other powers, which are acquired by
use, exercise, or study, which are not called
faculties, but habits. There must be some-
thing in the constitution of the mind neces-
sary to our being able to acquire habits—
and this is commonly called capacity.*

4. We frequently meet with a distinction
in writers upon this subject, between things
in the mind, and things exlernalio the mind.
The powers, faculties, and operations of the
mind, are things in the mind. Everything
is said to be in the mind, of which the mind
is the subject. It is self-evident that there
are some things which cannot exist without
a subject to which they belong, and of which
they are attributes. Thus, colour must be
in something coloured ; figure in something
figured ; thought can only be in something
that thinks ; wisdom and virtue cannot exist
but in some being that is wise and virtuous.
When, therefore, we speak of things in the
mind, we understand by this, things of which
the mind is the subject. Excepting the
mind itself, and things in the mind, all other
things are said to be external. It ought
therefore to be remembered, that this dis-
tinction between things in the mind and
things external, is not meant to signify the
place of the things we speak of, but their
subject. -f

There is a figurative sense in which things
are said to be in the mind, which it is suf-
ficient barely to mention. We say such a
thing was not in my mind ; meaning no more
than that I had not the least thought of it.
By a figure, we put the-thing for the thought

* These terms properly stand in the following re-
lations •.—Powers are active and passive, natural
and acquired. Powers, natural aid acti ve,.nre railed
Faculties : Powers, natural and passive, Capacities
or Receptivities : Powers acquired are Habits, and
habit is used both in an active and in a pasaive^ense:
the Power, again, of acquiring a habit, is called a
Disposition. — On the meaning of the term Power, see
further, under the first Essay on the Active Powers,
chap, iil., p 23— H

t Subject and Object are correlative terms. The
former is properly id in quo : the latter, id circa
quod. Hence, in psychological language, the subject,
absolutely, is the mind that knows or thinks — i e.,
the mind considered as the-sulject of knowledge or
thought ; the object, that which is known, or thought
about. The adjectives subjective and objective are
convenient, if not indispensable, expressions. — H.



Qessay i.

of it. In this sense external things are in
the mind as often as they are the objects of
our thought.

5. Thinking is a very general word, which
includes all the operations of our minds, and
is so well understood as to need no defi-
nition.* [16]

To perceive, to remember, to be conscious,
and to conceive or imagine, are words com-
mon to philosophers and to the vulgar.
They signify different operations of the
mind, which are distinguished in all lan-
guages, and by all men that think. I shall
endeavour to use them in their most com-
mon and proper acceptation, and I think
they are hardly capable of strict definition.
But, as some philosophers, in treating of the
mind, have taken the liberty to use them
very improperly, so as to corrupt the Eng-
lish language, and to confound things
which the common understanding of man-
kind hath always led them to distinguish,
I shall make someobservations on the mean-
ing of them, that may prevent ambiguity
or confusion in the use of them.

6. First, We are never said to perceive
things, of the existence of which we have
not a full conviction. I may conceive or
imagine a mountain of gold, or a winged
horse ; but no man says that he perceives
such a creature of imagination. Thus per-
ception'^ distinguished from conception or
imagination. Secondly, Perception is ap-
plied only to external objects, not to those
that are in the mind itself. When I am
pained, I do not say that I perceive pain,
but that I feel it, or that I am conscious of
it. Thus, perception is distinguished from
consciousness. Thirdly, The immediate
object of perception must be something pre-
sent, and not what is past. We may re-
member what is past, but do not perceive
it. I may say, I perceive such a person
has had the small-pox ; but this phrase is
figurative, although the figure is so familiar
that it is not observed. The meaning of it
is, that I perceive the pits in his face, which
are certain signs of his having had the small
pox. We say we perceive the thing signi-
1 ed, when we only perceive the sign. But
when the word perception is used properly,
and without any figure, it is never applied
to things past. And thus it is distinguished
from remembrance.

In a word, perception is most properly
applied to the evidence which we have of
external objects by our senses. But, as
this is a [17] very clear and cogent kind of
evidence, the word is often applied by ana-
logy to the evidence of reason or of testi-

• Though /and thinking are used in a more, and in
a less, restricted signification. In the former mean,
ing they are limited to the discursive energies atone ;
in the latter, they are co.extensive with conscious,
nesa. — H.


mony, when it is clear and cogent. The
perception of external objects by our senses,
is an operation of the mind of a peculiar
nature, and ought to have a name appro-
priated to it. It has so in all languages.
And, in English, I know no word more
proper to express this act of the mind than
perception. Seeing, hearing, smelling,
tasting, and touching or feeling, are words
that express the operations proper to each
sense ; perceiving expresses that which is
common to them all.

The observations made on this word
would have been unnecessary, if it had not
been so much abused in philosophical
writings upon the mind ; for, in other writ-
ings, it Has no obscurity. Although this
abuse is not chargeable on Mr Hume only,
yet I think he has carried it to the highest
pitch. The first sentence of his " Treatise
of Human Nature" runs thus : — " All the
perceptions of the human mind resolve
themselves into two distinct heads, which
I shall call impressions and ideas." He
adds, a little after, that, under the name
of impressions, he comprehends all our
sensations, passions, and emotions. Here
we learn that our passions and emotions
are perceptions. I believe, no English
writer before him ever gave the name of a
perception to any passion or emotion.
When a man is angry, we must say that he
has the perception of anger. When he is .
in love, that he has the perception of love.
He speaks often of the perceptions of me-
mory, and of the perceptions of imagina-
tion ; and he might as well speak of the
hearing of sight, or of the smelling of touch ;
for, surely, hearing is not more different
from sight, or smelling from touch, than
perceiving is from remembering or imagin-

7- Consciousness is a word used bv
philosophers, to signify that immediate
knowledge which we have of our present
thoughts and purposes, and, in general, of
all the present operations of our minds.
Whence we may observe, that conscious-
ness is only of things present. To apply
consciousness to things past, which some-
times [18] is done in popular discourse, is to
confound conscieusness with memory ; and
all such confusion of words ought to be
avoided in philosophical discourse. It is
likewise to be observed, that consciousness

• In the Cartesian and Locfcian philosophies, the
term Perception was used almost convertibly with
Consciousness : whatever we could be said to be
conscious of, that we could be said to perceive. And
there is nothing in the etymology of the word, or in
its use by ancient writers, that renders this unexclu-
■ive application of it abusive. In the Leibnitzian
philosophy, perception and apperception were dis.
tinguished in a peculiar manner— of which again.
Reid is right in his own restriction of the term; hut
lie is not warranted in blaming Hume for having used
it in the wider signification of his predecessors H.




is only of things in the mind, and not of
external things. It is improper to say, I
am conscious of the table which is before
me. I perceive it, I see it ; but do not say
I am conscious of it. As that consciousness
by which we have a knowledge of the opera-
tions of our own minds, is a different power
from that by which we perceive external
objects, and as these different powers have
different names in our language, and, I
believe, in all languages, a philosopher
ought carefully to preserve this distinction,
and never to confound things so different in
their nature.*

8. Conceiving, imagining, and appre-
hending, are commonly used as synony-
mous in our language, and signify the same
thing which the logicians call simple appre-
hension. This is an operation of the mind
different from all those we have mentioned.
Whatever we perceive, whatever we re-
member, whatever we are conscious of, we
have a full persuasion or conviction of its
existence. But we may conceive or imagine
what has no existence, and what we firmly
believe to have no existence. What never
had an existence cannot be remembered ;
what has no existence at present cannot
be the object of perception or of conscious-
ness ; but what never had, nor has any
existence, may be conceived. Every man
knows that it is as easy to conceive a winged
horse, or a centaur, as it is to conceive a horse
or a man. Let it be observed, therefore, that
to conceive, to imagine, to apprehend, when
taken in the proper sense, signify an act of
the mind which implies no belief or judg-
ment at all.-J- It is an act of the mind by
which nothing is affirmed or denied, and
which, therefore, can neither be true nor

But there is another and a very different
meaning of those words, so common and so
well authorized in language that it cannot
easily be avoided ; and on that account
we ought to be the more on our guard, that
we be not misled by the ambiguity. Po-
liteness and [19] good-breeding lead men, on
most occasions, to express their opinions
with modesty, especially when they differ
from others whom they ought to respect.
Therefore, when we would express our
opinion modestly, instead of saying, " This
is myopinion," or, " This is my judgment,*'
which has the air of dogmaticalness, we say,
" I conceiveitto be thus. — I imagine, or ap-
prehend it to be thus ;" which is understood
as a modest declaration of our judgment-
In like manner, when anything is said which
wetaketo be impossible, we say, " We can-

* Reid's degradation of Consciousness into a
special faculty, (in which he seems to follow Hut.
cheson, in opposition to other philosophers,) is, in
every point of view, obnoxious to every possible ob.
lection. See note H — H

t Except of its own ideal reality. — H.

f 19,20"!

not conceive it;" meaning that we cannot
believe it.

Thus we see that the words conceive,
imagine, apprehend, have two meanings,
and are used to express two operations of
the mind, which ought never to be con-
founded. Sometimes they express simple
apprehension, which implies no judgment
at all ; sometimes they express judgment or
opinion. This ambiguity ought to be at-
tended to, that we may not impose upuii
ourselves or others in the use of tliem. The
ambiguity is indeed remedied, in a great
measure, by their construction. When
they are used to express simple apprehend
sion, they are followed by a noun in the
accusative case, which signifies the object
conceived ; but, when they are used to ex-
press opinion or judgment, they are com-
monly followed by a verb, in the infinitive
mood. " I conceive an Egyptian pyramid.'*
This implies no judgment. " I conceive
the Egyptian pyramids to be the most an-
cient monuments of human art." This
implies judgment. When the words are
used in the last sense, the thing conceived
must be a proposition, because judgment
cannot be expressed but by a proposition.
When they are used in the first sense, the
thing conceived may be no proposition, but
a simple term only — as a pyramid, an obe-
lisk. Yet it may be observed, that even a
proposition may be simply apprehended,
without forming any judgment of its truth
or falsehood : for it is one thing to conceive
the meaning of a proposition ; it is another
thing to judge it to be true or false. [20]

Although the distinction between simple
apprehension, and every degree of assent or
judgment, be perfectly evident to every tuan
who reflects attentively on what passes in
his own mind — although it is very neces-
sary, in treating of the powers of the mind,
to attend carefully to this distinction— yet,
in the affairs of common life, it is seldom
necessary to observe it accurately. On
this account we shall find, in all common
languages, the words which express one oi
those operations frequently applied to the
other. To think, to suppose, to imagine,
to conceive, to apprehend, are the words we
use to express simple apprehension ; but
they are all frequently used to express
judgment. Their ambiguity seldom occa-
sions any inconvenience in the common
affairs of life, for which language is framed.
But it has perplexed philosophers, in treat-
ing of the operations of the mind, and will
always perplex them, if they do not attend
accurately to the different meanings which
are put upon those words on different oc-

9. Most of the operations of the mind,
from their very nature, must have objects
to which they are directed, and about which




they are employed. He that perceives,
must perceive something ; and that which
he perceives is called the object of his per-
ception. To perceive, without having any
object of perception, is impossible. The
mind that perceives, the object perceived,
»nd the operation of perceiving that object,
are distinct things, and are distinguished in
the structure of all languages. In this
sentence, " I see, or perceive the moon,"
/ is the person or mind, the active verb
see denotes the operation of that mind, and
the moon denotes the object. What we
have said of perceiving, is equally applicable
to most operations of the mind. Such opera-
tions are, in all languages, expressed by
active transitive verbs ; and we know that,
in all languages, such verbs require a thing
or person, which is the agent, and a noun
following in an oblique case, which is the
object. Whence it is evident, that all
mankind, both those who have contrived
language, and those who use it with under-
standing, have distinguished these three
things as different — to wit, the operations of
the mind, which [21] areexpressed byactive
verbs ; the mind itself, which is the nomin-
ative to those verbs ; and the object, which
is, in the oblique case, governed by them.

It would have been unnecessary to ex-
plain so obvious a distinction, if some sys-
tems of philosophy had not confounded it.
Mr Hume's system, in particular, confounds
all distinction between the operations of the
mind and their "objects. When he speaks
of the ideas of memory, the ideas of imagin-
ation, and the ideas of sense, it is often im-
possible, from the tenor of his discourse, to

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 50 of 114)