Thomas Reid.

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

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are no less analogical than the names we
give them. Almost all the words by which
we express the operations of the mind, are
borrowed from material objects. To un-
derstand, to conceive, to imagine, to com-
prehend, to deliberate, to infer, and many
others, are words of this kind ; so that the
very language of mankind, with regard to
the operations of our minds, is analogical.
Because bodies are affected only by con-
tact and pressure, we are apt to conceive
that what is an immediate object of thought,
and affects the mind, must be in contact
with it, and make some impression upon
it. When we imagine anything, the very
word leads us to think that there must be
some image in the mind of the thing con-
ceived. It is evident that these notions
are drawn from some similitude conceived
between body and mind, and between the
properties of body and the operations of
To illustrate more fully that analogical
reasoning from a supposed similitude of
mind to body, which I conceive to be the
most fruitful source of error with regard to
the operations of our minds, I shall give an
instance of it.

When a man is urged by contrary motives
— those on one hand inciting him to do some
action, those on the other to forbear it — he
deliberates about it, and at last resolves to
do it, or not to do it. The contrary motiveo
are here compared to the weights iu the
opposite scales of a balance ; and there is



[essay I.

not, perhaps, any instance that can be
named of a more striking analogy between
body and mind. Hence the phrases of
weighing motives, of deliberating upon
actions, are commott to all languages.

From this analogy, some philosophers
draw very important conclusions. They
say, that, as the balance cannot incline to
one side more than the other when the
opposite weights are equal, so a man can-
not possibly determine himself if the motives
on both hands are equal ; and, as the bal-
ance must necessarily turn to that side [56]
which has most weight, so the man must
necessarily be determined to that hand
where the motive is strongest. And on
this foundation some of the schoolmen*
maintained that, if a hungry ass were
placed between two bundles of hay equally
inviting, the beast must stand still and starve
to death, being unable to turn to either,
because there are equal motives to both.
This is an instance of that analogical rea-
soning which I conceive ought never to be
trusted ; for the analogy between a balance
and a man deliberating, though one of the
strongest that can be found between matter
and mind, is too weak to support any argu-
ment. A piece of dead inactive matter,
and an active intelligent being, are things
very unlike; and, because the one would
remain at rest in a certain case, it does not
follow that the other would be inactive in a
case somewhat similar. The argument is
no better than this — That, because a dead
animal moves only as it is pushed, and, if
pushed with equal force in contrary direc-
tions, must remain at rest ; therefore, the
same thing must happen to a living animal ;
for, surely, th-e similitude between a dead
animal and a living, is as great as that
between a balance and a man.

The conclusion I would draw from all
that has been said on analogy, is, that, in
our inquiries concerning the mind and its
operations, we ought never to trust to rea-
sonings drawn from some supposed simili-
tude of body to mind ; and that we ought
to be very much upon our guard that we
be not imposed upon by those analogical
terms and phrases, by which the operations
of the mind are expressed in all languages.

• This illustration ts specially associated with
Joannes Buridanus, a celebrated Nominalism of the
14th centurv, anclone-ol'tlie acutest reasoners on the
great question of mnral liberty. The supposition
of the ass, *c, is not, however, as I have ascertained,
to be found in his writings. Perhaps it was orally
advanced in disputation, or in lei'turing, as an ex-
ample in illustration of his Determinism ; perhaps it
was employed by his opponents as an instance to
reduce that doctrine to absurdity. With this latter
view, a similar refutation of the principles of our
modern Fatalists was, as we have s L en, ingeniously
essayed by Reid's friend and kinsman, I>r James
Gregory. — H.



Since we ought to pay no regard to hypo-
theses, and to be very suspicious of analo-
gical reasoning, it may be asked, From what
source must the knowledge of the mind
and its faculties be drawn ?

I answer, the chief and proper source of
this branch of knowledge is accurate reflec-
tion upon the operations of our own minds.
Of this source we shall speak more fully,
after making some remarks upon two others
that may be subservient to it. The first of
them is attention to the structure of lan-

The language of mankind is expressive of
their thoughts, and of the various opera-
tions of their minds. The various opera-
tions of the understanding, will, and pas-
sions, which are common to mankind, have
various forms of speech corresponding to
them in all languages, which are the signs
of them, and by which they are expressed :
And a due attention to the signs may, in
many cases, give considerable light to the
things signified by them.

There are in all languages modes of
speech, by which men signify their judg-
ment, or give their testimony; by which
they accept or refuse ; by which they ask
information or advice ; by which they com-
mand, or threaten, or supplicate ; by which
they plight their faith in promises or con -
tracts. If such operations were not com-
mon to mankind, we should not find in all
languages forms of speech, by which they
are expressed.

All languages, indeed, have their imper-
fections — they can never be adequate to all
the varieties of human thought ; and there-
fore things may be really distinct in their
nature, and capable of being distinguished
by the human mind, which are not distin-
guished [58] in common language. We can
only expect, in the structure of languages,
those distinctions which all mankind in the
common business of life have occasion to

There may be peculiarities in a particular
language, of the causes of which we are
ignorant, and from which, therefore, we can
draw no conclusion. But whatever we find
common to all languages, must have a com-
mon cause ; must be owing to some coir
mon notion or sentiment of the human

We gave some examples of this before,
and shall here add another. All languages
have a plural number in many of their
nouns ; from which we may infer that all
men have notions, not of individual things





only, but of attributes, or things which are
common to many individuals ; for jjo indi-
vidual can have a plural number.

Another source of information in this
subject, is a due attention to the course of
human actions and conduct. The actions
of men are effects ; their sentiments, their
passions, and their affections, are the causes
of those effects ; and we may, in many cases,
form a judgment of the cause from the

The behaviour of parents towards their
children gives sufficient evidence even to
those who never had children, that the
parental affection is common to mankind.
It is easy to see, from the general conduct
of men, what are the natural objects of their
esteem, their admiration, their love, their
approbation, their resentment, and of all
their other original dispositions. It is
obvious, from the conduct of men in all
ages, that man is by his nature a social
animal ; that he delights to associate with
his species ; to converse, and to exchange
good offices with them.

Not only the actions, but even the opi-
nions of men may sometimes give light
into the frame of the human mind. The
opinions of men may be considered as the
effects of their intellectual powers, [59] as
their actions are the effects of their active
principles. Even the prejudices and errors
of mankind, when they are general, must
have some cause no less general ; the dis-
covery of which will throw some light upon
the frame of the human understanding.

I conceive this to be the principal use of
the history of philosophy. When we trace
the history of the various philosophical opin-
ions that have sprung up among thinking
men, we are led into a labyrinth of fanciful
opinions, contradictions, and absurdities,
intermixed with some truths ; yet we may
sometimes find a clue to lead us through the
several windings of this labyrinth. We may
find that point of view which presented
things to the author of the system, in the
h\>ht in which they appeared to him. This
will often give a consistency to things seem-
ingly contradictory, and some degree of
probability to those that appeared most
fanciful. *

The history of philosophy, considered as
a map of the intellectual operations of men
of genius, must always be entertaining, and
may sometimes give us views of the human
understanding, which could not easilybe had
any other way.

I return to what I mentioned as the main
source of information on this subject — at-
tentive reflection upon the operations of our
own minds.

• " Every error," say* Bossuet, " is a truth
■blued."— H.

All the notions we have of mind and nf
its operations, are, by Mr Locke, called
ideas of reflection.' A man may have as
distinct notions of remembrance, of judg-
ment, of will, of desire, as he has of any
object whatever. Such notions, as Mr
Locke justly observes, are got by tile power
of reflection. But what is this power of
reflection ? " It is," says the same author,
"that power by which the mind turns its
view inward, and observes its own actions
and operations." He observes elsewhere,
" That the understanding, like the eye,
whilst it makes us see and perceive all [60]
other things, takes no notice of itself ; and
that it requires art and pains to set it at a
distance, and make it its own object."
Cicero hath expressed this sentiment most
beautifully. Tusc. I. 28.

This power of the understanding to make
its own operations its object, to attend to
them, and examine them on all sides, is the
power of reflection, by which alone we can
have any distinct notion of the powers of our
own or of other minds.

This reflection ought to be distinguished
from consciousness, with which it is too
often confounded, even by Mr Locke. All
men are conscious of the operations of their
own minds, at all times, while they are
awake ; but there are few who reflect upon
them, or make them objects of thought.

From infancy, till we come to the years
of understanding, we are employed solely
about external objects. And, although the
mind is conscious of its operations, it does
not attend to them ; its attention is turned
solely to the external objects, about which
those operations are employed. Thus, when
a man is angry, he is conscious of his pas-
sion ; but his attention is turned to the
person who offended him, and the circum-
stances of the offence, while the passion of
anger is not in the least the object of his

I conceive this is sufficient to shew the
difference between consciousness of the
operations of our minds, and reflection upon
them ; and to shew that we may have the
former without any degree of the latter.
The difference between consciousness and
reflection, is like to the difference between
a superficial view of an object which pre-
sents itself to the eye while we are engaged
about something else, and that, attentive
examination which we give to an object
when we are wholly employed in surveying
it. Attention is a voluntary act ; it re-
quires an active exertion to begin and to
continue it, and it may be continued as
long as we will ; but consciousness [61] is

* Locke is not {as Reid seems ta think, and as M.
Stewart expressly says) the first who introduced Ke.
flection either as a psychological term, or apsycholo.
gical principle. See Note I — H,



£essay I,

involuntary and of no continuance, changing
with every thought.

The power of reflection upon the oper-
ations of their own minds, does not appear
at all in children. Men must be come to
some ripeness of understanding before they
are capable of it. Of all the powers of the
human mind, it seems to be the last that
unfolds itself. Most men seem incapable of
acquiring it in any considerable degree.
Like all our other powers, it is greatly im-
proved by exercise ; and until a man has
got the habit of attending to the operations
of his own mind, he can never have clear
and distinct notions of them, nor form any
steady judgment concerning them. His
opinions must be borrowed from others, Ms
notions confused and indistinct, and he may
easily be led to swallow very gross absurd-
ities. To acquire this habit, is a work of
time and labour, even in those who begin it
early, and whose natural talents are toler-
ably fitted for it ; but the difficulty will be
daily diminishing, and the advantage of it
is great. They will, thereby, be enabled to
think with precision and accuracy on every
subject, especially on those subjects that
are more abstract. They will be able to
judge for themselves in many important
points, wherein others must blindly follow a



The difficulty of attending to our mental
operations, ought to be well understood, and
justly estimated, by those who would make
any progress in this science ; that they may
neither, on the one hand, expect success
without pains and application of thought ;
nor, on the other, be discouraged, by con-
ceiving that the obstacles that lie in the way
are insuperable, and that there is no cer-
tainty to be attained in it. I shall, there-
fore, endeavour to point [62] outthe causes
of this difficulty, and the effects that have
arisen from it, that we may be able to form
a true judgment of both.

1 . The number and quick succession of
the operations of the mind, make it difficult
to give due attention to them. It is well
known that, if a great number of objects be
presented in quick succession, even to the
eye, they are confounded in the memory
and imagination. We retain a confused
notion of the whole, and a more confused
one of the several parts, especially if they
are objects to which we have never before
given particular attention. No succession
con be more quick than that of thought.
The mind is busy while we are awake, con-

tinually passing from one thought and ona
operation to another. The scene is con-
stantly shifting. Every man will be sen-
sible of this, who tries but for one minute
to keep the same thought in his imagination,
without addition or variation. He will find
it impossible to keep the scene of his imagin-
ation fixed. Other objects will intrude,
without being called, and all he can do is to
reject these intruders as quickly as possible,
and return to his principal object.

2. In this exercise, we go contrary to
habits which have been early acquired, and
confirmed by long unvaried practice. From
infancy, we are accustomed to attend to
objects of sense, and to them only ; and,
when sensible objects have got such strong
hold of the attention by confirmed habit, it
is not easy to dispossess them. When we
grow up, a variety of external objects
solicits our attention, excites our curiosity,
engages our affections, or touches our pas-
sions ; and the constant round of employ-
ment, about external objects, draws off the
mind from attending to itself; so that
nothing is more just than the observation
of Mr Locke, before mentioned, " That the
understanding, like the eye, while it sur-
veys all the objects around it, commonly
takes no notice of itself."

3. The operations of the mind, from their
very nature, lead the mind to give its atten-
tion to some other object. Our sensations,
[63] as will be shewn afterwards, are natu-
ral signs, and turn our attention to the things
signified by them ; so much that most of
them, and those the most frequent and
familiar, have no name in any language. In
perception, memory, judgment, imagination,
and reasoning, there is an object distinct
from the operation itself ; and, while we are
led by a strong impulse to attend to the
object, the operation escapes our notice.
Our passions, affections, and all our active
powers, have, in like manner, their objects
which engross our attention, and divert it
from the passion itself.

4. To this we may add a just observation
made by Mr Hume, That, when the mind
is agitated by any passion, as soon as we
turn our attention from the object to the
passion itself, the passion subsides or van-
ishes, and, by that means, escapes our
inquiry. This, indeed, is common to almost
every operation of the mind. When it is
exerted, we are conscious of it ; but then
we do not attend to the operation, but to
its object. When the mind is drawn off
from the object to attend to its own opera-
tion, that operation ceases, and escapes our

5. As it is not sufficient to the discovery
of mathematical truths, that a man be able
to attend to mathematical figures, as it is
necessary that he should have the ability to

["62, 63]




listinguish accurately things that differ,
and to discern clearly the various relations
of the quantities he compares — an ability
which, though much greater in those who
have the force of genius than in others,
yet, even in them, requires exercise and
habit to bring it to maturity — so, in order
to discover the truth in what relates to the
operations of the mind, it is not enough that
a man be able to give attention to them :
he must have the ability to distinguish ac-
curately their minute differences ; to resolve
and analyse complex operations into their
simple ingredients ; to unfold the ambiguity
of words, which in this science is greater
than in any other, and to give them the same
accuracy and precision that mathematical
terms have ; for, indeed, the same precision
in the use of words, the same cool attention
to [64] the minute differences of things,
the same talent for abstraction and analys-
ing, which fit a man for the study of math-
ematics, are no less necessary in this. But
there is this great difference between the two
sciences — that the objects of mathematics
being things external to the mind, it is
much more easy to attend to them, and fix
them steadily in the imagination.

The difficulty attending our inquiries
into the powers of the mind, serves to
account for some events respecting this
branch of philosophy, which deserve to be

While most branches of science have,
either in ancient or in modern times, been
highly cultivated, and brought to a con-
siderable degree of perfection, this remains,
to this day, in a very low state, and, as it
were, in its infancy.

Every science invented by men must
have its beginning and its progress ; and,
from various causes, it may happen that
one science shall be brought to a great
degree of maturity, while another is yet in
its infancy. The maturity of a science may
be judged of by this — When it contains a
system of principles, and conclusions drawn
from them, which are so firmly established
that, among thinking and intelligent men,
there remains no doubt or dispute about
them ; so that those who come after may
raise the superstructure higher, but shall
never be able to overturn what is already
built, in order to begin on ■■• new founda-

Geometry seems to have been in its in-
fancy about the time of Thales and Pytha-
goras ; because many of the elementary
propositions, on which the whole science is
built, are ascribed to them as the inventors.
Euclid's " Elements," which were written
some ages after rythagoras, exhibit a sys-
tem of geometry which deserves the name
of a science ; and, though great additions
have been made by Apollonius, Archi-

medes, Pappus, and others among the an-
cients, and still greater by the moderns ;
yet what [65] was laid down in Euclid's
" Elements" was never set aside. It re-
mains as the firm foundation of all future
superstructures in that science.

Natural philosophy remained in its in-
fant state near two thousand years after
geometry had attained to its manly form :
for natural philosophy seems not to have
been built on a stable foundation, nor carried
to any degree of maturity, till the last cen-
tury. The system of Des Cartes, which was
all hypothesis, prevailed in the most enlight-
ened part of Euvope till towards the end of
last century. Sir Isaac Newton has the
merit of giving the form of a science to this
branch of philosophy ; and it need not ap-
pear surprising, if the philosophy of the
human mind should be a century or two
later in being brought to maturity.

It has received great accessions from the
labours of several modern authors ; and
perhaps wants little more to entitle it to the
name of a science, but to be purged of cer-
tain hypotheses, which have imposed on
some of the most acute writers on this sub-
ject, and led them into downright scepticism.
What the ancients have delivered to us
concerning the mind and its operations, is
almost entirely drawn, not from accurate
reflection, but from some conceived analogy
between body and mind. And, although
the modern authors I formerly named have
given more attention to the operations of
their own minds, and by that means have
made important discoveries, yet, by re-
taining some of the ancient analogical no-
tions, their discoveries have been less use-
ful than they might have been, and have
led to scepticism.

It may happen in science, as in building,
that an error in the foundation shall weaken
the whole ; and the farther the building is
carried on, this weakness shall become the
more apparent and the more threatening.
Something of this kind seems to have hap-
pened in our systems concerning the mind.
The accession they [66] have received by
modern discoveries, though very important in
itself, has thrown darkness and obscurity
upon the whole, and has led men rather to
scepticism than to knowledge. This must
be owing to some fundamental errors that
have not been observed ; and when these
are corrected, it is to be hoped that the im-
provements that have been made will have
their due effect.

The last effect I observe of the difficulty
of inquiries into the powers of the mind, is,
that there is no other part of human know-
ledge in which ingenious authors have been
so apt to run into strange paradoxes, and
even into gross absurdities.

When we find philosophers maintaining




that there ia no heat in the fire, nor colour
in the rainbow ;* when we find the gravest
philosophers, from Des Cartes down to
Bishop Berkeley, mustering up arguments
to prove the existence of a material world,
and unable to find any that will bear ex-
amination ; when we find Bishop Berkeley
and Mr Hume, the acutest metaphysicians
uf the age, maintaining that there is no such
thing as matter in the universe — that sun,
moon, and stars, the earth which we inhabit,
our own bodies, and those of our friends, are
only ideas in our minds, and have no exist-
ence but in thought ; when we find the
last maintaining that there is neither body
nor mind — nothing in nature but ideas and
impressions, without any substance on which
they are impressed — that there is no cer-
tainty, nor indeed probability, even in ma-
thematical axioms : I say, when we consider
such extravagancies of many of the most
acute writers on this subject, we may be apt
to think the whole to be only a dream of
fanciful men, who have entangled them-
selves in cobwebs spun out of their own
brain. But we ought to consider that the
more closely and ingeniously men reason
from false principles, the more absurdities
they will be led into ; and when such absur-
dities help to bring to light the false prin-
ciples from which they are drawn, they may
be the more easily forgiven. [67]



The powers of the mind are so many, so
various, and so connected and complicated
in most of its operations, that there never
has been any division of them proposed
which is not liable to considerable objec-

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 54 of 114)