Thomas Reid.

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

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know whether, by those ideas, he means
the operations of the mind, or the objects
about which they are employed. And,
indeed, according to his system, there is
no distinction between the one and the

A philosopher is, no doubt, entitled to
examine even those distinctions that are to
be found in the structure of all languages ;
and, if he is able to shew that there is no
foundation for them in the nature of the
things distinguished — if he can point out
some prejudice common to mankind which
has led them to distinguish things that are
not really different — in that case, such a
distinction may be imputed to a vulgar
error, which ought to be corrected in philo-
sophy. But when, in his first setting out,
he takes it for granted, without proof, that
distinctions found in the structure of all
languages, have no foundation in nature,
this, surely, is too fastidious a way of
treating the common sense of mankind.
When we come to be instructed by philo-
sophers, we must bring the old light of
common sense along with us, and by it
judge of the new light which the philo.
[21 23~]

sopher communicates to us. But when we
are required to put out the old light alto-
gether, that we may follow the new, we
have reason to be on our guard. There
may be distinctions that have a real foun-
dation, and which may be necessary in
philosophy, which are not made in common
language, because not necessary in the com-
mon business of life. But I believe [22] no
instance will be found of a distinction made
in all languages, which has not a just found-
ation in nature.

10. The word idea* occurs so frequently
in modern philosophical writings upon the
mind, and is so ambiguous in its meaning,
that it is necessary to make some observa-
tions upon it. There are chiefly two mean-
ings of this word in modern authors — a
popular and a philosophical.

Firs!, In popular language, idea signi-
fies the same thing as conception, appre-
hension, notion. To have an idea of any-
thing, is to conceive it. To have a distinct
idea, is to conceive it distinctly. To have
no idea of it, is not to conceive it at all-
It was before observed, that conceiving or
apprehending has always been considered
by all men as an act or operation of the
mind, and, on that account, has been ex-
pressed in all languages by an active verb.
When, therefore, we use the phrase of
having ideas, in the popular sense, we
ought to attend to this, that it signifies
precisely the same thing which we com-
monly express by the active verbs, conceiv-
ing or apprehending.

When the word idea is taken in this po-
pular sense, no man can possibly doubt
whether he has ideas. For he that doubts
must think, and to think is to have ideas.

Sometimes, in popular language, a man's
ideas signify his opinions. The ideas of
Aristotle, or of Epicurus, signify the
opinions of these philosophers. What was
formerly said of the words imagine, conceive,
apprehend, that they are sometimes used
to express judgment, is no less true of the
word idea. This signification of the word
seems indeed more common in the French
language than in English. But it is found
in this sense in good English authors, and
even in Mr Locke. Thus we see, that
having ideas, taken in the popular sense,
has precisely the same meaning with conceiv-
ing, imagining, apprehending, and has like-
wise [23] the same ambiguity. It may, there-
fore, be doubted, whether the introduction of
this word into popular discourse, to signify the
operation of conceiving or apprehending,
was at all necessary. For, first, We have,
as has been shewn, several words which are
either originally English, or have been long
naturalized, that express the same thing ;

• On Ihe history of the term Idea, see Note G H.

Chap. i,~\



why, therefore, should we adopt a Greek
word, in place of these, any more than a
French or a German word ? Besides, the
words of our own language are less ambi-
guous. For the word idea has, for many
ages, been used by philosophers as a term
of art ; and in the different systems of phi-
losophers means very different things.

Secondly, According to the philosophi-
cal meaning of the word idea, it does not
signify that act of the mind which we call
thought or conception, but some object of
thought. Ideas, according to Mr Locke,
(whose very frequent use of this word has
probably been the occasion of its being
adopted into common language,) " are
nothing but the immediate objects of the
mind in thinking." But of those objects of
thought called ideas, different sects of phi-
losophers have given a very different ac-
count. Bruckerus, a learned German, wrote
a whole book, giving the history of ideas.

The most ancient system we have con-
cerning ideas, is that which is explained in
several dialogues of Plato, and which many
ancient, as well as modern writers, have
ascribed to Plato, as the inventor. But it is
certain that Plato had his doctrine upon
this subject, as well as the name idea, from
the school of Pythagoras. We have still
extant, a tract of Tinueus, the Locrian, a
Pythagorean philosopher, concerning the
soul of the world, in which we find the sub-
stanceof Plato's doctrine concerning ideas.*
They were held to be eternal, uncreated,
and immutable forms, or models, according
to which the Deity made every species of
things that exists, of an eternal matter.
Those philosophers held, that there are
three first principles of all things : Fii si.
An eternal matter, of which all things were
made ; Secondly, Eternal and immaterial
forms, or ideas, according to which they were
made; and, [24] Thirdly, An efficient cause,
the Deity who made them.-|- The miud of
man, in order to its being fitted for the con-
templation of these eternal ideas, must un-
dergo a certain purification, and be weaned
from sensible things. The eternal ideas are
the only object of science ; because the ob-
jects of sense, being in a perpetual flux, there
can be no real knowledge with regard to them.

The philosophers of the Alexandrian
school, commonly called the latter Plato-
nists, made some change upon the system of
the ancient Platonists with respect to the
eternal ideas. They held them not to be a
principle distinct from the Deity, but to be
the conceptions of things in the divine un-

* The whole series of Pythagorean treatises and
fragments in the Doric dialec", in which the doc-
trines and phraseology of Plato>and Aristotle are so
marvellously anticipated, are now proved to be com-
paratively recent forgeries. Of these, the treatise
under the name of Timceus, is one. — H.

i See aiiove,p.20i, a, note * — H.
[24, 25]

dcrstanding ; the natures and essences of all
things being perfectly known to him from

It ought to be observed that the Pythago-
reans, and the Platonists, whether elder or
latter, made the eternal'ideas to be objects
of science only, and of abstract contempla-
tion, not the objects of sense.* And in
this, the ancient system of eternal ideas
differs from the modern one of Father Ma-
lebranche. He held, in common with other
modern philosophers, that no external
thing is perceived by us immediately, but
only by ideas. But he thought that the
ideas, by which we perceive an external
world, are the ideas of the Deity himself,
in whose mind the ideas of all things, past,
present, and future, must have been from
eternity ; for the Deity being intimately
present to our minds at all times, may dis-
cover to us as much of his ideas as he sees
proper, according to certain established
laws of nature ; and in his ideas, as in a
mirror, we perceive whatever we do per-
ceive of the external world.

Thus we have three systems, which main-
tain that the ideas which are the imme-
diate objects of human knowledge, are
eternal and immutable, and existed before
the things which they represent. There
are other systems, according to which the
ideas which are the immediate objects of
all our thoughts, are posterior to the things
which they represent, and derived from
them. We shall [25] give some account of
these ; but, as they have gradually sprung
out of the ancient Peripatetic system, it is
necessary to begin with some account of it.

Aristotle taught that all the objects of
our thought enter at first by the senses ;
and, since the sense cannot receive external
material objects themselves, it receives their
species — that is, their images or forms,
without the matter ; as wax receives the form
of the seal without any of the matter of it.
These images or forms, impressed upon the
senses, are called sensible species, and are
the objects only of the sensitive part of the
mind ; but, by various internal powers, they
are retained, refined, and spiritualized, so as
to become objects of memory and imagina-
tion, and, at last, of pure intellection.
When they are objects of memory and of
imagination, they get the nameof phantasms.
When, by farther refinement, and being
stripped of their particularities, they become
objects of science, they are called intelli-
gible species : so that every immediate

* Reid, in common with ourphilosophers in general,
had no knowledge rf the Platonic theory of sensible
perception; and yet the gnostic forms, the cognitive
reasons of the Platonists, held afar more proximate
relation to ideas in the modern acceptation, than the
Platonic ideas themselves. These, in fact, as to all
that relates to the doctrine of perception and ima-
gination, may be thrown wholly nut of account. See
below, under p. 11(5. — H.



[essay i.

object, whether of sense, of memory, of
imagination, or of reasoning, must he some
phantasm or species in the mind itself. *

The followers of Aristotle, especially the
schoolmen, made great additions to this
theory, which the author himself mentions
very briefly, and with an appearance of
reserve. They entered into large disquisi-
tions with regard to the sensible species :
what kind of things they are ; how they
are sent forth by the object, and enter by
the organs of the senses ; how they are
preserved and refined by various agents,
called internal senses, concerning the num-
ber and offices of which they had many
controversies. But we shall not enter into
a detail of these matters.

The reason of giving this brief account of
the theory of the Peripatetics, with regard to
the immediate objects of our thoughts, is,
because the doctrine of modern philoso-
phers concerning ideas is built upon it. Mr
Locke, who uses this word so very fre-
quently, tells us, that he means the same thing
by it as is commonly [26] meant by species
or phantasm. Gassendi, from whom Locke
borrowed more than from any other author,
says the same. The words species and
phantasm, are terms of art in the Peripa-
tetic system, and the meaning of them is to
be learned from it.-(-

The theory of Democritus and Epicurus,
on this subject, was not very unlike to that
of the Peripatetics. They held that all
bodies continually send forth slender films
or spectres from their surface, of such
extreme subtilty that they easily penetrate
our gross bodies, or enter by the organs of
sense, and stamp their image upon the
mind. The sensible species of Aristotle
were mere forms without matter. The
spectres of Epicurus were composed of a
very subtile matter.

Modern philosophers, as well as the Peri-
patetics and Epicureans of old, have con-
ceived that external objects cannot be the
immediate objects of our thought; that
there must be some image of them in the
mind itself, in which, as in a mirror, they
are seen. And the name vlea, in the philo-
sophical sense of it, is given to those inter-
nal and immediate objects of our thoughts.
The external thing is the remote or mediate
object ; but the idea, or image of that object
in the mind, is the immediate object, without

• This i6 a tolerable account of the doctrine
vulgarly attributed to Aristotle.— H.

+ If by this it be meant thai the terms of specie*
and phantasm, as occasionally employed by Gassendi
and Locke, are used by them in the common mean-
ing attache.*) to them in the Schools, Reid is wrong.
Gassendi, no more than Des Cartes, in adopting
these terms of the Peripatetics, adopted them in
their Peripatetic signification. Both these philoso-
pliers are explicit in declaring the contrary ; and
what these terms as employed by them denote, they
bavc cli arly st .ted. Locke is less precise. — H.

which we could have no perception, no re-
membrance, no conception of the mediate
object. *

When, therefore, in common language,
we speak of having an idea of anything, we
mean no more by that expression, but
thinking of it. The vulgar allow that this
expression implies a mind that thinks, an
act of that mind which we call thinking,
and an object about which we think. But,
besides these three, the philosopher con-
ceives that there is a fourth — to wit, the
idea, which is the immediate object. The
idea is in the mind itself, and can have no
existence but in a mind that thinks ; but the
remote or mediate object may be something
external, as the sun or moon ; it may be
something past or future ; it may be some-
thing which never existed. [27] This is
the philosophical meaning of the word idea ;
and we may observe that this meaning of
that word is built upon a philosophical
opinion : for, if philosophers had not be-
lieved that there are such immediate objects
of all our thoughts in the mind, they would
never have used the word idea to express

I shall only add, on this article, that, al-
though I may have occasion to use the word
idea in this philosophical sense in explaining
the opinions of others, I shall have no occa-
sion to use it in expressing my own, because
I believe ideas, taken in this sense, to be
a mere fiction of philosophers. And, in the
popular meaning of the word, there is the
less occasion to use it, because the English
words thought, notion, apprehension,
the purpose as well as the Greek word
idea; with this advantage, that they are
le°s ambiguous. There is, indeed, a mean-
ing of the word idea, which I think most
agreeable to its use in ancient philosophy,
and which I would willingly adopt, if use,
the arbiter of language, did permit. But
this will come to be explained afterwards-

1 1. The word impression is used by Mr
Hume, in speaking of the operations of the
mind, almost as often as the word idea is
by Mr Locke. What the latter calls ideas,
the former divides into two classes ; one of
which he calls impressions, the other ideas.
I shall make some observations upon Mr
Hume's explication of that word, and then
consider the proper meaning of it in the
English language.

" We may divide," (says Mr Hume,
" Essays," vol. II., p. 18,-f) " all the percep-
tions of the human mind into two classes
or species, which are distinguished by their

* On Reid's ambiguous employment of the ex-
pressions mediate and immediate object, see Note
B ; and, on his confusion of the two hypotheses of
representation, Note C — H.

t " Enquiry concerning Human Understanding,"
tj 2. The quotation has been filled up by the origi-
nal.— H.

26, 2?1




different degrees of force and vivacity. The
less lively and forcible are commonly deno-
minated thoughts or ideas. The other
species want a name in our language, and
in most others ; [I suppose because it was
not requisite for any but philosophical pur-
poses to rank them under a general term
or appellation] Let us, therefore, use a
little freedom, and call them impressions ;
[employing that word in a sense somewhat
different from the usual.] By the term
impression, then, I mean all our more lively
perceptions, when we hear, or see, or feel,
or love, or hate, or desire, or will. [And
impressions are distinguished from] ideas
[which] are the [28] less lively perceptions,
of which we are conscious, when we reflect on
any of those sensations or movements above

This is the explication Mr Hume hath
given in his " Essays" of the term impres-
sions, when applied to the mind : and his
explication of it, in his " Treatise of Human
Nature," is to the same purpose. [Vol. I.
p. 11.]

Disputes about words belong rather to
grammarians than to philosophers ; but
philosophers ought not to escape censure
when they corrupt a language, by using
words in a way which the purity of the lan-
guage will not admit. I find fault with Mr
Hume's phraseology in the words I have
quoted —

First, Because he gives the name of per-
ceptions to every operation of the mind.
Love is a perception, hatred a perception ;
desire is a perception, will is a perception ;
aud, by the same rule, a doubt, a question,
a command, is », perception. This is an
intolerable abuse of language, which no phi-
losopher has authority to introduce.*

Secondly, When Mr Hume says, that we
may divide all the perceptions of the human
mind into two classes or species, which are
distinguished by their degrees of force and
vivacity, the manner of expression is loose
and unphilosophical. To differ in species
is one thing; to differ in degree is an-
other. Things which differ in degree only
must be of the same species. It is a
maxim of common sense admitted by all
men, that greater and less do not make
a change of species. -f The same man
may differ in the degree of his force and
vivacity, in the morning and at night, in
health and in sickness ; but this is so far
from making him a different species, that
it does not so much as make him a dif-
ferent individual. To say, therefore, that
two different classes, or species of percep-

* Hume did not introduce it The term Percep-
tion was so used by Des Cartes and many others ; and,
as desires, feelings, &c. exist only as known, so are they
all, in a certain sense, cognitions (perceptions.) — H.

■f " Magiset minus non variant spcciem." — K.

f28, 29]

tions, are distinguished by the degrees ol
their force and vivacity, is to confound a
difference of decree with a difference of
species, which every man of understanding
knows how to distinguish.* [29]

Thiidly, We may observe, that this
author, having given the general name of
perception to all the operations of the
mind,-)- and distinguished them into two
classes or species, which differ only in de-
gree of force aud vivacity, tells us, that he
gives the name of impressions to all our
more lively perceptions— to wit, when v. u
hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or
desire, or will. There is great confusion
in this account of the meaning of the word
impression.- When I see, this is an im-
pression. But why has not the author
told us whether he gives the name of im-
pression to the object seen, or to that act of
my mind by which I see ij ? When I see
the full moon, the full moon is one thing,
my perceiving it is another thing. Which
of these two things does he call an impres-
sion ? We axe left to guess this ; nor does
all that this author writes about impressions
clear this point. Everything he says tends
to darken it, and to Lead us to think that the
full moon which I see, and my seeing it, are
not two things, but one and the same thing. J

The same observation may be applied to
every other instance the author gives to
illustrate the meaning of the word impres-
sion. " When we hear, when we feel,
when we love, when we hate, when we de-
sire, when we will." In all these acts of
the mind there must be an object, which is
heard, or felt, or loved, or hated, or desired,
or willed. Thus, for instance, I love my
country. This, says Mr Hume, is an im-
pression. But what is the impression f Is it
my country, or is it the affection I bear to it ?
I ask the philosopher this question ; but I
find no answer to it. And when I read all

• This objection reaches far more extensively than
to Hume ; in fact, to all who do not allow an imme-
diate knowledge or consciousness of the r.on-ego in
perception. Where are the philosophers who 10?—
Aristotle and Hobbes call imagination a dying sense ;
and Des Cartes is equally explicit. — H.

t As others previously had done.— H.

j This objection is easily answered. The thing,
(Hume would say,) as unknown, as unperceived, as
beyund the sphere of my consciousness, is to me as
zero ; to that, therefore, I could not refer, Asper-
ceived, as known, it must be within the sphere oj my
consciousness; but, as philosopher s concur irr main-
taining that i can only be conscious of my mind and
its contents, the object, as perceived, mlM be eit her
a mode of, or something contained within my mind,
and i o that intemalobject, as perceived, I give the
name of impression. — Nor can the act of perception
(he would add) be really distinguished from the oh.
ject perceived. Both are only relatives, mutually
constituent of the same indivisible relation ofknow-
ledge ; and to that relation and these relatives I give
the name of impression, precisely as, in different
points of view, the term perception is applied to the
mind perceiving, to the object perceived, and to the
act of which these are the inseparable constituents.
— I his likewise has reference to what follows. — H.



[essay I-

that he has written on this subject, I find
this word impression sometimes used to sig-
nify an operation of the mind, sometimes
the object of the operation ; but, for the
most part, it is a vague and indetermined
word that signifies both.

I know not whether it may be considered
as an apology for such abuse of words, in an
author who understood the language so well,
and used it with so great propriety in writ-
ing on other subjects, [30] that Mr Hume's
system, with regard to the mind, required a
language of a different structure from the
common : or, if expressed in plain English,
would have been too shocking to the com-
mon sense of mankind. To give an instance
or two of this. If a man receives a present
on which he puts a high value, if he see
and handle it, and put it in his pocket, this,
says Mr Hume, is an impression. If the
man only dream that he received such a
present, this is an idea. Wherein lies the
difference between this impression and this
idea— between the dream and the reality ?
They are different classes or species, says
Mr Hume : so far all men will agree with
him. Buthe adds, that they are distinguished
only by different degrees of force and viva-
city. Here he insinuates a tenet of his
own, in contradiction to the commonsense
of mankind. Common sense convinces every
man, that a lively dream is no nearer to a
reality than a faint one ; and that, if a man
should dream that he had all the wealth of
Croesus, it would not put one farthing in
his pocket. It is impossible to fabricate ar-
guments against such undeniable principles,
without confounding the meaning of words.

In like manner, if a man would persuade
me that the moon which I see, and my see-
ing it, are not two things, but one and the
same thing, he will answer his purpose less
by arguing this point in plain English, than
by confounding the two under one name —
such as that of an impression. For such is
the power of words, that, if we can be
brought to the habit of calling two things
that are connected by the same name, we are
the more easily led to believe them to be
one and the same thing.

Let us next consider the proper meaning
of the word impression* in English, that we
may see how far it is fit to express either
the operations of the mind or their objects.

When a figure is stamped upon a body by
pressure, that figure is called an impression,
as the impression of a seal on wax, of [31 ]
printing-types, or of a copperplate on paper
This seems now to be the literal sense of
the word ; the effect borrowing its name
from the cause. But, by metaphor or ana-
logy, like most other words, its meaning is
extended, so as to signify any change pro-

» See below, under 1 p. 338.— H.

duced in a body by the operation of some
external cause. A blow of the hand makes
no impression on a stone wall ; but a bat-
tery of cannon may. The moon raises a
tide in the ocean, but makes no impression
on rivers and lakes.

When we speak of making an impression
on the mind, the word is carried still farther
from its literal meaning ; use, however,
which is the arbiter of language, authorizes
this application of it — as when we say that
admonition and reproof make little impres-

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 51 of 114)