Thomas Reid.

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

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sion on those who are confirmed in bad
habits. The same discourse delivered in
one way makes a strong impression on the
hearers ; delivered in another way, it makes
no impression at all.

It may be observed that, in such ex-
amples, an impression made on the mind
always implies some change of purpose or
will ; some new habit produced, or some
former habit weakened ; some passion raised
or allayed. When such changes are pro-
duced by persuasion, example, or any ex-
ternal cause, we say that such causes make
an impression upon the mind; but, when
things are seen, or heard, or apprehended,
without producing any passion or emotion,
we say that they make no impression.

In the most extensive sense, an impres-
sion is a change produced in some passive
subject by the operation of an external
cause. If we suppose an active being to
produce any change in itself by its own
active power, this is never called an im-
pression. It is the act or operation of
the being itself, not an impression upon it.
From this it appears, that to give the name
of an impression to any effect produced in
the mind, is to suppose that the mind does
not act at all in the production of that effect.
If seeing, hearing, desiring, willing, be
operations of the mind, they cannot be im-
pressions. If [32] they he impressions, they
cannot be operations of the mind. In the
structure of all languages, they are con-
sidered as acts or operations of the mind it-
self, and the names given them imply this.
To call them impressions, therefore, is to
trespass against the structure, not of a par-
ticular language only, but of all languages.*

If the word impression be an improper
word to signify the operations of the mind,
it is at least as improper to signify their
objects ; for would any man be thought to
speak with propriety, who should say that
the sun is an impression, that the earth and
the sea are impressions ?

It is commonly believed, and taken for
granted, that every language, if it be suffi-
ciently copious in words, is equally fit to
express all opinions, whether they be true

• But see Scaligcr, •• De Stabtilitate," Exero. 298.
\ 1.


>JHAP. I.]



or false. I apprehend, however, that there
is an exception to this general rule, which
deserves our notice. There are certain
common opinions of mankind, upon which
the structure and grammar of all languages
are founded. While these opinions are
common to all men, there will be a great
similarity in all languages that are to be
found on the face of the earth. Such a
similarity there really is ; for we find in all
languages the same parts of speech, the
distinction of nouns and verbs, the distinc-
tion of nouns into adjective and substan-
tive, of verbs into active and passive. In
verbs we find like tenses, moods, persons,
and numbers. \There are general rules of
grammar, the same in all languages. This
similarity of structure in all languages,
shews an uniformity among men in those
opinions upon which the structure of lan-
guage is founded.

If, for instance, we should suppose that
there was a nation who believed that the
things which we call attributes might exist
without a subject, there would be in their
language no distinction between adjectives
and substantives, nor would it be a rule
with them that an adjective has no mean-
ing, unless when joined to a substantive.
If there was any nation who did not dis-
tinguish between [33] actingand being acted
upon, there would in their language be no
distinction between active and passive
verbs ; nor would it be a rule that the
active verb must have an agent in the
nominative case, but that, in the passive
verb, the agent must be in an oblique case.

Thestructure of all languages is grounded
upon common notions, which Mr Hume's
philosophy opposes, and endeavours to
overturn. This, no doubt, led him to warp
the common language into a conformity with
his principles ; but we ought not to imitate
him in this, until we are satisfied that his
principles are built on a solid foundation.

12. Sensation is a name given by philo-
sophers to an act of mind, which may be
distinguished from all others by this, that
it hath no object distinct from the act itself."
Pain of every kiud is an uneasy sensation.
When I am pained, I cannot say that the
pain I feel is one thing, and that my feeling
it is another thing. They are one and the
same thing, and cannot be disjoined, even
in imagination. Pain, when it is not felt,
has no existence. It can be neither greater
nor less in degree or duration, nor anything
else in kind than it is felt to be. It cannot
exist by itself, nor in any subject but in a
sentient being. No quality of an inanimate

* But sensation, in the language of philosophers,
has been generally employed to denote the whole pro-
cess of sensitive.cognition, including both peiccpiion
j riper and xrnsation proper. On this distinction,
lee below, Essay II., ch. xvi., and Note D.* H.

[33 31]

insentient being can have the least resem-
blance to it.

What we have said of pain may be
applied to every other sensation. Some of
them are agreeable, others uneasy, in
various degrees. These being objects of
desire or aversion, have some attention
given to them ; but many are indifferent,
and so little attended to that they have no
name in any language.

Most operations of the mind that have
names in common language, are complex
in their nature, and made up of various
ingredients, or more simple acts ; which,
though conjoined in our constitution, must
be disjoined by abstraction, in order to our
having a distinct and scientific notion of the
complex operation. [34] In such operations,
sensation, for the most part, makes an in-
gredient. Those who do not attend to the
complex nature of such operations, are apt
to resolve them into some one of the simple
acts of which they are compounded, over-
looking the others. And from this cause
many disputes have been raised, and many
errors have been occasioned with regard to
the nature of such operations.

The perception of external objects is
accompanied with some sensation corre-
sponding to the object perceived, and such
sensations have, in many cases, in all lan-
guages, the same name with the external
object which they always accompany. The
difficulty of disjoining, by abstraction, things
thus constantly conjoined in the -course of
nature, and things which have one and the
same name in all languages, has likewise
been frequently an occasion of errors in the
philosophy of the mind. To avoid such
errors, nothing is of more importance than
to have a distinct notion of that simple
act of the mind which we call sensation, and
which we have endeavoured to describe.
By this means, we shall find it more easy to
distinguish it from every external object that
it accompanies, and from every other act of
the mind that may be conjoined with it.
For this purpose, it is likewise of import-
ance that the name of sensation should, in
philosophical writings, be appropriated to
signify this simple act of the mind, without
including anything more in its signification,
or being applied to other purposes

I shall add an observation concerning the
word fueling. This word has two meanings.
First, it signifies the perceptions we have of
external objects, by the sense of touch.
When we speak of feeling a body to be hard
or soft, rough or smooth, hot or cold, to
feel these things is to perceive them by
touch. They are external things, and that
act of the mind by which we feel them is
easily distinguished from the objects felt.
Secondly, the word feeling is used to signify
the same thinff as sensation, which we have



£essay i.

just now explained ; and, in this sense, it
has no object; the feeling and the thing
felt are one and the same. [35]

Perhaps betwixt feeling, taken in this
last sense, and sensation, there may be this
small difference, that sensation is most com-
monly used to signify those feelings which
we have by our external senses and bodily
appetites, and all our bodily pains and
pleasures. But there are feelings of a
nobler nature accompanying our affections,
our moral judgments, and our determina-
tions in matters of taste, to which the word
sensation is less properly applied.

I have premised these observations on
the meaning of certain words that frequently
occur in treating of this subject, for two
reasons : First, That I may be the better
understood when I use them; and, Secondly,
That those who would make any progress
in this branch of science, may accustom
themselves to attend very carefully to the
meaning of words that are used in it. They
may be assured of this, that the ambiguity
of words, and the vague and improper appli-
cation of them, have thrown more darkness
upon this subject than the subtilty and
intricacy of things.

When we use common words, we ought
to use them in the sense in which they are
most commonly used by the best and purest
writers in the language ; and, when we have
occasion to enlarge or restrict the meaning
of a common word, or give it more precision
than it has in common language, the reader
ought to have warning of this, otherwise we
shall impose upon ourselves and upon him.

A very respectable writer has given a
good example of this kind, by explaining,
in an Appendix to his " Elements of Criti-
cism," the terms he has occasion to use.
In that Appendix, most of the words are
explained on which I have been making
observations ; and the explication I have
given, I think, agrees, for the most part,
with his.

Other words that need explication, shall
be explained as they occur. [36]



As there are words common to philosophers
and to the vulgar, which need no explica-
tion, so there are principles common to both,
which need no proof, and which do not
admit of direct proof.

One who applies to any branch of science,
must be come to years of understanding,
and, consequently, must have exercised his
rrason, and the other powers of his mind,
in various ways. Hu must have formed
\ arious opinions and principles, by which he

conducts himself in the affairs of life. Of
those principles, some are common to all
men, being evident in themselves, and so
necessary in the conduct of life that a man
cannot live and act according to the rules
of common prudence without them.

All men that have common understand-
ing, agree in such principles ; and consider
a man as lunatic or destitute of common
sense, who denies or calls them in question.
Thus, if any man were found of so strange
a turn as not to believe his own eyes, to
put no trust in his senses, nor have the
least regard to their testimony, would any
man think it worth while to reason gravely
with such a person, and, by argument, to
convince him of his error ? Surely no wise
man would. For, before men can reason
together, they must agree in first principles ;
and it is impossible to reason with a man
who has no principles in common with you.

There are, therefore, common principles,
which are the foundation of all reasoning
and of all science. Such common principles
seldom admit of direct proof, nor do they
need'it. Men need not to be taught them ;
for they are such as all men of [37] com-
mon understanding know ; or such, at least,
as they give a ready assent to, as soon as
they are proposed and understood.

Such principles, when we have occasion
to use them in science, are called axioms.
And, although it be not absolutely neces-
sary, yet it may be of great use, to point
out the principles or axioms on which a
science is grounded.

Thus, mathematicians, before they prove
any of the propositions of mathematics, lay
down certain axioms, or common princi-
ples, upon which they build their reason-
ings. And although those axioms be truths
which every man knew before — such as,
That the whole is greater than a part, That
equal quantities added to equal quantities
make equal sums ; yet, when we see no-
thing assumed in the proof of mathematical
propositions, but such self-evident axioms,
the propositions appear more certain, and
leave no room for doubt or dispute.

In all other sciences, as well as in mathe-
. matics, it will be found that there are a
few common principles, upon which all the
reasonings in that science are grounded,
and into which they may be resolved. If
these were pointed out and considered, we
should be better aide to judge what stress may
be laid upon the conclusions in that science.
If the principles be certain, the conclusions
justly drawn from them must be certain.
If the principles be only probable, the con-
clusions can only be probable. If the prin-
ciples be false, dubious, or obscure, the
superstructure that is built, upon them
must partake of the weakness of the found-





Sir Isaac- Newton, the greatest of na-
tural philosophers, has given an example
well worthy of imitation, by laying down
the common principles or axioms, on which
the reasonings in natural philosophy are
built. Before this was done, the reason-
ings of philosophers in that science were
as vague and uncertain as they are in
most others. Nothing was fixed ; all was
dispute and controversy; [38] but, by
this happy expedient, a solid foundation
is laid iu that science, and a noble super-
structure is raised upon it, about which
there is now no more dispute or con-
troversy among men of knowledge, than
there is about the conclusions of mathe-

It may, however be observed, that the
first principles of natural philosophy are of
a quite different nature from mathematical
axioms : they have not the same kind of
evidence, nor are they necessary truths, as
mathematical axioms are. They are such as
these : That similar effects proceed from the
same or similar causes ; That we ought to
admit of no other causes of natural effects,
but such as are true, and sufficient to ac-
count for the effects. These are principles
which, though they ha ve not the same kind of
evidence that mathematical axioms have ;
yet have such evidence that every man of
common understanding readily assents to
them, and finds it absolutely necessary to
conduct his actions and opinions by them,
iii the ordinary affairs of life.

Though it has not been usual, yet I con-
ceive it may be useful, to point out some of
those things which I shall take for granted,
as first principles, in treating of the mind
and its faculties. There is the more oc-
casion for this ; because very ingenious
men, such as Des Cartes, Malebranche,
Arnauld, Locke, and many others, have
lost much labour, by not distinguishing
things which require proof, from things
which, though they may admit of illustra-
tr.ition, yet, being self-evident, do not admit
of proof. When men attempt to deduce
such self-evident principles from others
more evident, they always fall into incon-
clusive reasoning : and the consequence of
th : s has been, that others, such as Berkeley
and Hume, finding the arguments brought
to prove such first principles to be weak
and inconclusive, have been tempted first
to doubt of them, and afterwards to deny

It is so irksome to reason with those who
deny first principles, that wise men com-
monly decline it. Yet it is not impossible,
that [39] what is only a vulgar prejudice
may be mistaken for a first principle. Nor
is it impossible that what is really a first
principle may, by the enchantment of words,
have such a mist th-own about it, as t •
f3tf 4.01

hide its evidence, and to make a man of
candour doubt of it. Such cases happen
more frequently, perhaps, in this science
than in any other ; but they are not alto-
gether without remedy. There are ways
by which the evidence of first principles
may be made more apparent when they are
brought into dispute ; but they require to
be handled in a way peculiar to themselves.
Their evidence is not demonstrative, but
intuitive. They require not proof, but to
be placed in a proper point of view. This
will be shewn more fully in its proper place,
and applied to those very principles which
we now assume. In the meantime, when
they are proposed as first principles, the
reader is put on his guard, and warned to
consider whether they have a just claim to
that character.

1. First, then, I shall take it for granted,
that I think, that I remember, that I tea-
son, and, in general, that I really perform
all those operations of mind of which I am

The operations of our minds are attended
with consciousness ; and this consciousness
is the evidence, the only evidence, which
we have or can have of their existence. If
a man should take it into his head to think
or to say that his consciousness may de-
ceive him, and to require proof that it can-
not, I know of no proof that can be given
him ; he must be left to himself, as a man
that denies first principles, without which
there can be no reasoning. Every man
finds himself under a necessity of believing
what consciousness testifies, and everything
that hath this testimony is to be taken as a
first principle. •

2. As by consciousness we know cer-
tainly the existence of our present thoughts
and passions ; so we know the past by re-
membrance. -f- And, when they are re-
cent, and the remembrance of them fresh,
[40] the knowledge of them, from such
distinct remembrance, is, in its certainty
and evidence, next to that of conscious-

3. But it is to be observed that we are
conscious of many things to which we give
little or no attention. We can hardly at-
tend to several things at the same time ;
and our attention is commonly employed
about that which is the object of our
thought, and rarely about the thought it-
self. Thus, when a man is angry, his

• To doubt that we are conscious of this or that,
is impossible. For the doubt must at least postulate
itself ; but the doubt is only a datum of conscious-
ness ; therefore, in postulating its own reality, it ad-
mits the truth of consciousness, and consequently
annihilates itself See below, p. 579 On Con.
Bciousness, in the history of psychology, see Note H.
— H.

+ Remembrance cannot be taken out of Cun-
sciuusnrss- SeeNott'H.— H



[_ESSAY t.

attention is turned to the injury done him,
or the injurious person ; and he gives very
little attention to the passion of anger, al-
though he is conscious of it. It is in our
power, however, when we come to the
years of understanding, to give attention to
our own thoughts and passions, and the va-
rious operations of our minds. And, when
we make these the objects of our atten-
tion, either while they are present or
when they are recent and fresh in our me-
mory, this act of the mind is called reflec-

We take it for granted, therefore, that,
by attentive reflection, a man may have a
clear and certain knowledge of the opera-
tions of his own mind ; a knowledge no less
clear and certain than that which he has
of an external object when it is set before
his eyes.

This reflection is a kind of intuition, it
gives a like conviction with regard to in-
ternal objects, or things in the mind, as
the faculty of seeing gives with regard to
objects of sight. A man must, therefore,
be convinced beyond possibility of doubt,
of everything with regard to the opera-
tions of his own mind, which he clearly
and distinctly discerns by attentive reflec-
tion. *

4. I take it for granted that all the
thoughts I am conscious of, or remember,
are the thoughts of one and the same

• thinking principle, which I call myself, or
my mind. Every man has an immediate
and irresistible conviction, not only of his
present existence, but of his continued
existence and identity, as far back as he
can remember. If any man should think
fit to demand [41] a proof that the thoughts
he is successively conscious of, belong to
one and the same thinking principle — if
he should demand a proof that he is the
same person to-day as he was yesterday, or
a year ago — I know no proof that can be
given him : he must be left to himself,
either as a man that is lunatic, or as one
who denies first principles, and is not to be
reasoned with.

Every man of a sound mind, finds him-
self under a necessity of believing his own
identity, and continued existence. The
conviction of this" is immediate and irresist-
able ; and, if he should lose this conviction,
it would be a certain proof of insanity,
which is not to be remedied by reasoning.

5. I take it for granted, that there are
some things which cannot exist by them-
selves, but must be in something else to
which they belong,asqualities, or attributes.

Thus, motion cannot exist, but in some-

* See ijtfra, pp. 60, 105, 581 , where a timilar, and
pp 32i, 516, where a different extension is given to
Reflection. On Attention and Reflection, in the
history of psychology, see Note 1- — H.

thing that is moved. And to suppose that
there can be motion while everything is at
rest, is a gross and palpable absurdity. In
like manner, hardness and softness, sweet-
ness and bitterness, are things which cannot
exist by themselves ; they are qualities of
something which is hard or soft, sweet or
bitter. That thing, whatever it be, of
which they are qualities, is called their sub-
ject; and such qualities necessarily suppose
a subject.

Things which may exist by themselves,
and do not necessarily suppose the exist-
ence of anything else, are called substances ;
and, with relation to the qualities or attri-
butes that belong to them, they are called
the subjects of such qualities or attributes.

All the things which we immediately per-
ceive by our senses, and all the things we
are conscious of, are things which must be
in something else, as their subject. Thus,
by my senses, I perceive figure, colour,
hardness, softness, motion, resistance, and
such[42] likethings. Butthesearequahties,
and must necessarily be in something that
is figured, coloured, hard or soft, that
moves, or resists. It is not to these qua-
lities, but to that which is the subject of
them, that we give the name of body. If
any man should think fit to deny that these
things are qualities, or that they require any
subject, I leave him to enjoy his opinion as
a man who denies first principles, and is
not fit to be reasoned with. If he has
common understanding, he will find that he
cannot converse half an hour without say-
ing things which imply the contrary of what
he professes to believe.

In like manner, the things I am conscious
of, such as thought, reasoning, desire, ne-
cessarily suppose something that thinks,
that reasons, that desires. We do not give
the name of mind to thought, reason, or
desire ; but to that being which thinks,
which reasons, and which desires.

That every act or operation, therefore,
supposes an agent, that every quality sup-
poses a subject, are things which I do not
attempt to prove, but take for granted.
Every man of common understanding dis-
cerns this immediately, and cannot enter-
tain the least doubt of it. In all languages,
we find certain words which, by gramma-
rians, are called adjectives. Such words
denote attributes, and every adjective must
have a substantive to which it belongs —
that is, every attribute must have a subject.
In all languages, we find active verbs which
denote some action or operation ; and it
is a fundamental rule in the grammar of all
languages, that such a verb supposes a per-
son— that is, in other words, that every
action must have an agent. We take it,
therefore, as a first principle, that goodness,
wisdom, and virtue, can only be in some

[41, 42]




being that is good, wise, and virtuous ;
that thinking supposes a being that thinks ;
and that every operation we are conscious
of supposes an agent that operates, which
we call mind.

6. I take it for granted, that, in most
operations of the mind, there [43] must be an
object distinct from the operation itself. I
cannot see, without seeing something. To
see without having any object of sight is
absurd. I cannot remember, without re-
membering something. The thing remem-
bered is past, while the remembrance of it
is present ; and, therefore, the operation
and the object of it must be distinct things.
The operations of our mind are denoted, in
all languages, by active transitive verbs,

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 52 of 114)