Thomas Reid.

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

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sources of error and false judgment, so pe-
culiarly connected, in consequence of the
association of ideas, with studies in which
our best interests are immediately and deeply
concerned, have never yet been investigated
with such accuracy as to afford effectual
aid to the student, in his attempts to coun-
teract their influence. One of these sources
alone — that which arises from the imper-
fections of language — furnishes an exceptioD
to the general remark. It attracted, fortu-
nately, the particular notice of Locke, whose
observations with respect to it, compose,
perhaps, the most valuable part of his philo-
sophical writings; and, since the time of
Condillac, the subject has been still more
deeply analyzed by others. Even on this
article, much yet remains to be done ; but
enough has been already accomplished to
j ustify the profound aphorism in which Bacon
pointed it out to the attention of his follow-
ers : — " Credunt homines rationem suam
verbis imperare ; sed fit etiam ut verba vim
suam super rationem retorqueant."*

Into these logical discussions concerning
the means of advancing the philosophy of
human nature, Dr Reid has seldom entered;
and still more rarely has he indulged him-
self in tracing the numerous relations by
which this philosophy is connected with the
practical business of life. But he has done
what was still more essential at the time he
wrote : he has exemplified, with the happiest
success, that method of investigation by
which alone any solid progress can be made;
directing his inquiries to a subject which
of his successors— an analysis of the various
powers and principles belonging to our con-
stitution. Of the importance of this under-
taking, it is sufficient to observe, that it

. * This paeaage of Bacon forms the motto toaverv



stands somewhat, although I confess not
altogether, in the same relation to the dif-
ferent branches of intellectual and moral
science, (such as grammar, rhetoric, logic,
ethics, natural theology, and politics,) in
which the anatomy of the human body
stands to the different branches of physio-
logy and pathology. And, as a course of
medical education naturally, or rather ne-
cessarily, begins with a general survey of
man's animal frame, so 1 apprehend that
the proper, or rather the essential prepara-
tion for those studies which regard our
nobler concerns, is an examination of the

firineiples which belong to man as an intel-
igent, active, social, and moral being. Nor
does the importance of such an analysis rest
here ; it exerts an influence over all those
sciences and arts which are connected with
the material world ; and the philosophy of
Bacon itself, while it points out the road to
physical truth, is but a branch of the philo-
sophy of the human mind.

The substance of these remarks is admir-
ably expressed by Mr Hume in the follow-
ing passage— allowances being made for a
few trifling peculiarities of expression, bor-
rowed from the theories which were pre-
valent at the time when he wrote : — " 'Tis
evident that all the sciences have a relation,
greater or less, to human nature ; and that,
however wide any of them may seem to run
from it, they still return back by one pass-
age or another. Even mathematics, natural
philosophy, and natural religion, are in some
measure dependent on the science of man ;
since they lie under the cognizance of men,
and are judged of by their powers and facul-
ties. It is impossible to tell what changes
and improvements we might make in these
sciences, were we thoroughly acquainted
with the extent and force of human under-
standing, and could explain the nature of
the ideas we employ, and of the operations
we perform in our reasonings.

" If, therefore, the sciences of mathe-
matics, natural philosophy, and natural
religion, have such a dependence on the
knowledge of man, what may be expected
in the other sciences, whose connection with
human nature is more close and intimate ?
The sole end of logic is to explain the prin-
ciples and operations of our reasoning
faculty, and the nature of our ideas ; morals
and criticism regard our tastes and senti-
ments ; and politics consider men as united
in society and dependent on each other. In
these four sciences of logic, morals, criti-
cism, and politics, is comprehended almost
everything which it can any way import us
to be acquainted with, or which can tend
either to the improvement or ornament of
the human mind.

" Here, then, is the only expedient from
which we can hope for success in our philo-

sophical researches : to leave the tedious,
lingering method, which we have hitherto
followed ; and, instead of taking, now and
then, a castle or village on the frontier, to
march up directly to the capital or centre
of these sciences — to human nature itself;
which being once masters of, we may every-
where else hope for an easy victory. From
this station, we may extend our conquests
over all those sciences which more intimately
concern human life, and may afterwards
proceed at leisure to discover more fully
those which are the objects of pure curiosity.
There is no question of importance whose
decision is. not comprised in the science of
man ; and there is none which can be de-
cided with any certainty before we become
acquainted with that science."

To prepare the way for the accomplish-
ment of the design so forcibly recommended
in the foregoing quotation — by exemplifying,
in an analysis of our most important intel-
lectual and active principles, the only method
of carrying it successfully into execution —
was the great object of Dr Reid in all his
various philosophical publications. In ex-
amining these principles, he had chiefly in
view a vindication of those fundamental laws
of belief which form the groundwork of
human knowledge, against the attacks made
on their authority in some modern systems
of scepticism ; leaving to his successors the
more agreeable task of applying the philo-
sophy of the mind to its practical uses. On
the analysis and classification of our powers,
which he has proposed, much room for im-
provement must have been left in so vast
an undertaking ; but imperfections of this
kind do not necessarily affect the justness
of his conclusions, even where they may
suggest to future inquirers the advantages
of a simpler arrangement, and a more de-
finite phraseology. Nor must it be forgotten
that, in consequence of the plan he has fol-
lowed, the mistakes which may be detected
in particular parts of his works imply no
such weakness in the fabric he has reared
as might have been justly apprehended, had
he presented a connected system founded
on gratuitous hypothesis, or on arbitrary
definitions. The detections, on the con-
trary, of his occasional errors, may be ex-
pected, from the invariable consistency and
harmony of truth, to throw new lights on
those parts of his work where his inquiries
have been more successful ; as the correc-
tion of *.A particular mistatement in an
authentic history is often found, by com-
pleting an imperfect link, or reconciling a
seeming contradiction, to dispel the doubts
which hung over the most faithful and
accurate details of the narrative.

In Dr Reid's first performance, he con-
fined himself entirely to the five senses, and
the principles of our nature necessarily



connected with tliom ; reserving the further
prosecution of thesubjeet for afuture period.
At that time, indeed, he seems to have
thought, that a more comprehensive exami-
nation of the mind was an enterprise too
great for one individual. " The powers,"'
he observes, " of memory, of imagination,
of taste, of reasoning, of moral perception,
the will, the passions, the affections, and all
the active powers of the soul, present a
boundless field of philosophical disquisition,
which the author of this ' Inquiry' is far
from thinking himself able to explore with
accuracy. Many authors of ingenuity,
ancient and modern, have made incursions
into this vast territory, and have commu-
nicated useful observations ; but there is
reason to believe that those who have pre-
tended to give us a map of the whole, have
satisfied themselves with a very inaccurate
and incomplete survey. If Galileo had
attempted a complete system of natural
philosophy, he had probably done little
service to mankind ; but, by confining him-
self to what was within his comprehension,
he laid the foundation of a system of know-
ledge, which rises by degrees, and does
honour to the human understanding. New-
ton, building upon this foundation, and in
like manner, confining his inquiries to the
law of gravitation, and the properties of
light, performed wonders. If he had at-
tempted a great deal more, he had done a
great deal less, and perhaps nothing at all.
Ambitious of following such great examples,
with unequal steps, alas ! and unequal force,
we have attempted an inquiry into one little
corner only of the human mind ; that cor-
ner which seems to be most exposed to
vulgar observation, and to be most easily
comprehended ; and yet, if we have deli-
neated it justly, it must be acknowledged
that the accounts heretofore given of it
were very lame, and wide of the truth."

From these observations, when compared
with the magnitude of the work which the
author lived to execute, there is some
ground for supposing, that, in the progress
of his researches, he became more and more
sensible of the mutual connection and de-
pendence which exists among the conclu-
sions we form concerning the various prin-
ciples of human nature ; even concerning
those which seem, on a superficial view,
to have the most remote relation to each
other : and it was fortunate for the world,
that, in this respect, he was induced to ex-
tend his views so far beyond the limits of
his original design. His examination, in-
deed, of the powers of external perception,
and of the questions immediately connected
with them, bears marks of a still more
minute diligence and accuracy than appear
in some of his speculations concerning the
^ ther parts of our frame ; and what he has

written on the former subject, in his In.
quiry into the Human Mind," is evidently
more highly finished, both in matter and
form, than the volumes which he published
in his more advanced years. The value,
however, of these is inestimable to future
adventurers in the same arduous under-
taking ; not only in consequence of the aids
they furnish as a rough draught of the field
to be examined, but by the example they
exhibit of a method of investigation on such
subjects, hitherto very imperfectly under-
stood by philosophers. It is by the origin-
ality of this method, so systematically pur-
sued in all his researches, still more than
by the importance of his particular conclu-
sions, that he stands so conspicuously dis-
tinguished among those who have hitherto
prosecuted analytically the study of man.

I have heard it sometimes mentioned, as
a subject of regret, that the writers who
have applied themselves to this branch of
knowledge have, in general, aimed at a
great deal more than it was possible to ac-
complish ; extending their researches to
all the different parts of our constitution,
while a long life might be well employed in
examining and describing the phenomena
connected with any one particular faculty.
Dr Reid, in a passage already quoted from
his " Inquiry," might have been supposed
to give some countenance to this opinion,
if his own subsequent labours did not so
strongly sanction the practice in question.
The truth, I apprehend, is, that such de-
tached researches concerning the human
mind can seldom be attempted with much
hope of success ; and that those who have
recommended them, have not attended suf-
ficiently to the circumstances which so re-
markably distinguish this study from that
which has for its object the philosophy of
the material world- A few remarks in
illustration of this proposition seem to me
to be necessary, in order to justify the rea-
sonableness of Dr Reid's undertaking ; and
they will be found to apply with still greater
force to the labours of such as may wish
to avail themselves of a similar analysis ifl^
explaining the varieties of human genius
and character, or in developing the latent
capacities of the youthful mind.

One consideration of a more general
nature is, in the first place, worthy of
notice ; that, in the infancy of every science,
the grand and fundamental desideratum is
a bold and comprehensive outline ; some-
what for the same reason that, in the cul-
tivation of an extensive country, forests
must be cleared and wildernesses reclaimed,
before the limits of private property are
fixed with accuracy ; and long before the
period when the divisions and subdivisions,,
of separate possessions give rise to the de#
tails of a curious and refined husbandry.



The speculations of Lord Bacon embraced
all the objects of human knowledge. Those
of Newton and Boyle were confined to phy-
sics ; but included an astonishing range of
the material universe. The labours of their
successors, in our own times, have been
employed with no less zeal in pursuing
those more particular, but equally abstruse
investigations, in which they were unable
to engage, for want of a sufficient stock
both of facts and of general principles ; and
which did not perhaps interest their curio-
sity in any considerable degree.

If these observations are allowed to hold
to a certain extent with respect to all the
sciences, they apply in a more peculiar
manner to the subjects treated of .in Dr
Keid's writings — subjects which are all
so intimately connected, that it may be
doubted if it be possible to investigate any
one completely, without some general ac-
quaintance, at least, with the rest. Even
the theory of the understanding may re-
ceive important lights from an examination
of the active and the moral powers ; the
state of which, in the mind of every indivi-
dual, will be found to have a powerful in-
fluence on his intellectual character ; —
while, on the other hand, an accurate analy-
sis of the faculties of the understanding,
would probably go far to obviate the scep-
tical difficulties which have been started
concerning the origin of our moral ideas.
It appears to me, therefore, that, whatever
be the department of mental science that
we propose more particularly to cultivate,
it is necessary to begin with a survey of
human nature in all its various parts ;
studying these parts, however, not so much
on their own account, as with a reference
to the applications of which our conclusions
are susceptible to our favourite purpose.
The researches of Dr Reid, when consid-
ered carefully in the relation which they bear
to each other, afford numberless illustra-
tions of the truth of this remark. His lead-
ing design was evidently to overthrow the
modern system of scepticism ; and, at every
successive step of his progress, new and
unexpected rights break in on his funda-
mental principles.

It is, however, chiefly in their practical
application to the conduct of the under-
standing, and the culture of the heart, that
such partial views are likely to be danger-
ous ; for here, they tend not only to mislead
our theoretical conclusions, but to counter-
act our improvement and happiness. Of
this I am so fully convinced, that the most
faulty theories of human nature, provided
only they embrace the whole of it, appear
to me less mischievous in their probable

, effects than those more accurate and micro-
scopical researches which are habitually

I confined to one particular corner of our

constitution. It is easy to conceive that,
where the attention is wholly engrossed
with the intellectual powers, the moral prin-
ciples will be in danger of running to waste ;
and it is no less certain, on the other hand,
that, by confining our care to the moral
constitution alone, we may suffer the under-
standing to remain under the influence of
unhappy prejudices, and destitute of those
just and enlightened views without which
the worthiest dispositions are of little use,
either to ourselves or to society. An exclu-
sive attention to any one of the subordinate
parts of our frame — to the culture of taste,
for example, or of the argumentative powers,
or even to the refinement of our moral sen-
timents and feelings — must be attended with
a hazard proportionally greater.

" In forming the human character," says
Bacon, in a passage which Lord Bolingbroke
has pronounced to be one of the finest and
deepest in his writings, "we must not proceed
as a statuary does in forming a statue, who
works sometimes on the face, sometimes on
the limbs, sometimes on the folds of the
drapery ; but we must proceed (and it is in
our power to proceed) as Nature does in
forming a flower, or any other of her pro-
ductions : she throws out altogether, and
at once, the whole system of being, and
the rudiments of all the parts. Rudimenta
parLium omnium simul parit et producit"*

Of this passage, so strongly marked with
Bacon's capacious intellect, and so richly
adorned with his "philosophical fancy," I
will not weaken the impression by any
comment ; and, indeed, to those who do
not intuitively perceive its evidence, no
comment would be useful.

In what I have hitherto said of Dr Beid's
speculations, I have confined myself to such
general views of the scope of his researches,
and of his mode of philosophizing, as seemed
most likely to facilitate the perusal of his
works to those readers who have not been
much conversant with these abstract disqui-
sitions. A slight review of some of the more
important and fundamental objections which
have been proposed to his doctrines, may,
I hope, be useful as a farther preparation
for the same course of study.

Of these objections, the four following
appear to me to be chiefly entitled to atten-
tion : —

1. That he has assumed gratuitously, in
all his reasonings, that theory concerning
the human soul which the scheme of
materialism calls in question.

2. That his views tend to damp the
ardour of philosophical curiosity, by stat-
ing as ultimate facts, phenomena which

* In the foregoing paragraph. I have borrowed
(with a very trifling alteration) Lord Bolingbroke's
words, in a beautiful paraphrase on Bacon's remark
—Sec his " Idea ot a Patriot Kiig."




may be resolved into principles more simple
and general.

3. That, by an unnecessary multiplica-
tion of original or instinctive principles, he
has brought the science of mind into a state
more perplexed and unsatisfactory than
that in which it was left by Locke and his

4. That his philosophy, by sanctioning
an appeal from the decisions of the learned
to the voice of the multitude, is unfavour-
able to a spirit of free inquiry, and lends
additional stability to popular errors.

1. With respect to Dr Reid's supposed
assumption of a doubtful hypothesis con-
cerning the nature of the thinking and
sentient principle, it is almost sufficient for
me to observe, that the charge is directed
against that very point of his philosophy in
which it is most completely invulnerable.
The circumstance which peculiarly charac-
terises the inductive science of mind is,
that it professes to abstain from all specu-
lations concerning its nature and essence ;
confining the attention entirely to pheno-
mena for which we have the evidence of
consciousness, and to the laws by which
these phenomena are regulated. In this
respect, it differs equally, in its scope,
from the pneumatological discussions of the
schools, and from the no less visionary
theories so loudly vaunted by the physio-
logical metaphysicians of more modern
times. Compared with the first, it differs
as the inquiries of the mechanical philoso-
phers concerning the laws of moving bodies
differ from the discussions of the ancient
sophists concerning the existence and the
nature of motion. Compared with the
other, the difference is analogous to what
exists between the conclusions of Newton
concerning the law of gravitation, and his
query concerning the invisible ether of
which he supposes it might possibly be
the effect. The facts which this inductive
science aims at ascertaining, rest on their
own proper evidence ; an evidence uncon-
nected with all these hypotheses, and which
would not, in the smallest degree, be
affected, although the truth of any one of
them should be fully established. It is not,
therefore, on account of its inconsistency
with any favourite opinions of my own, that
I would oppose the disquisitions either of
scholastic pneumatology, or of physiological
metaphysics ; but because I consider them
as an idle waste of time and genius on ques-
tions where our conclusions can neither be
verified nor overturned by an appeal to ex-
periment or observation. Sir Isaac New-
ton's query concerning the cause of gravi-
tation was certainly not inconsistent with
his own discoveries concerning its laws;
but what would have been the consequences

to the world, if he had indulged himself in
the prosecutionofhypothetxal theories with
respect to the former, instead of directing
his astonishing powers to an investigation
of the latter ?

That the general spirit of Dr Reid's
philosophy is hostile to the conclusions
of the materialist, is indeed a fact. Not,
however, because his system rests on the
contrary hypothesis as a fundamental prin-
ciple, but because his inquiries have a
powerful tendency to wean the understand-
ing gradually from those obstinate associa-
tions and prejudices to which the common
mechanical theories of mind owe aH their
plausibility. It is, in truth, much more
from such examples of sound research con-
cerning the laws of thought, than from
any direct metaphysical refutation, that a
change is to be expected in the opinions of
those who have been accustomed to con-
found together two classes of phenomena,
so completely and essentially different. But
this view of the subject does not belong to
the present argument, g /VDElOh ?

It has been recommended of lafe, by a
medical author of gr eat reputation, to those"
'who wish to study tne numan mind, to
begin with preparing themselves for the
task by the study of anatomy. I must con-
fess, I cannot perceive the advantages of
this order of investigation ; as the anatomy
of the body does not seem to me more likely
to throw light on the philosophy of the
mind, than an analysis of the mind to throw
light on the physiology of the body. To
ascertain, indeed, the general laws of their
connection from facts established by observ-
ation or experiment, is a reasonable and
most interesting object of philosophical
curiosity ; and in this inquiry, (which was
long ago proposed and recommended by
Lord Bacon,) a knowledge of the constitu-
tion both of mind and body is indispensably
requisite ; but even here, if we wish to pro-
ceed on firm ground, the two classes of facts
must be kept completely distinct ; so that
neither of them may be warped or distorted
in consequence of theories suggested by
their supposed relations or analogies.*
Thus, in many of the phenomena connected
with custom and habit, there is ample scope
for investigating general laws, both with
respect to our mental and our corporeal
frame ; but what light do we derive from
such information concerning this part of
our constitution as is contained in the fol-
lowing sentence of Locke ?_" Habits seem
to be but trains of motion in the animal
spirits, which, once set a-going, continue il

wW-TT « epS they had been ™* *»'
which, by often treading, are worn into »

wSTlfSrJF**' " "» «—



smooth path." In like manner, the laws
which regulate the connection between the
mind and our external organs, in the case
of perception, have furnished a very fertile
subject of examination to some of the best
of our modern philosophers ; but how im-
potent does the genius of Newton itself
appear, when it attempts to shoot the gulf
which separates the sensible world and the
sentient principle ! " Is not the sensorium
of animals," he asks in one of his queries,
" the place where the sentient substance is
present, and to which the sensible species
of things are brought through the nerves
and brain, that they may be perceived by
the mind present in that place ?"

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 6 of 114)