Thomas Reid.

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

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press, was well understood by Des Cartes,
and is explained by him in his " Principia,"
Part I., § 69, 70, 71. [149] '

Although no author has more merit than
Mr Locke, in pointing out the ambiguity of
words, and resolving, by that means, many
knotty questions, which had tortured the
wits of the schoolmen, yet, I apprehend,
he has been sometimes misled by the ambi-
guity of the word idea, which he uses so
often almost in every page of his essay.

In the explication given of this word, we
took notice of two meanings given to it — a
popular and a philosophical. In the popu-
lar meaning, to have an idea of anything,
signifies nothing more than to think of it.

Although the operations of the mind are
most properly and naturally, and indeed
most commonly in all vulgar languages, ex-
pressed by active verbs, there is another
way of expressing them, less common, but
equally well understood. To think of a
thing, and to have a thought of it ; to be-
lieve a thing, and to have a belief of it ; to
see a thing, and have a sight of it ; to con-
ceive a thing, and to have a conception,
notion, or idea of it — are phrases perfectly
synonymous. In these phrases, the thought
means nothing but the act of thinking ; the
belief, the act of believing ; and the con-
ception, notion, or idea, the act* of conceiv-
ing. To have a clear and distinct idea is,
in this sense, nothing else but to conceive
r U9, 1501

the thing clearly and distinctly. When the
word idea is taken in this popular sense,
there can be no doubt of our having ideas in
our minds. To think without ideas would
be to think without thought, which is a
manifest contradiction.*

But there is another meaning of the word
idea peculiar to philosophers, and grounded
upon a philosophical theory, which the vul-
gar never think of. Philosophers, ancient
and modern, have maintained that the
operations of the mind, like the tools of an
artificer, can only be employed upon objects
that are present in the mind, or in the
brain, where the mind is supposed to reside.
[150] Therefore, obj ects that are distant in
time or place must have a representative in
the mind, or in the brain — some image or
picture of them, which is the object that the
mind contemplates. This representative
image was, in the old philosophy, called a
species or phantasm. Since the time of
Des Cartes, it has more commonly been
called an idea ; and every thought is con-
ceived to have an idea of its object. As
this has been a common opinion among
philosophers, as far back as we can trace phi-
losophy, it is the less to be wondered at that
they should be apt to confound the opera-
tion of the mind in thinking with the idea
or object of thought, which is supposed to
be its inseparable concomitant.*

If we pay any regard to the common
sense of mankind, thought and the object
of thought are different things, and ought
to be distinguished. It is true, thought
cannot be without an object — for every
man who thinks must think of something ;
but the object he thinks of is one thing, his
thought of that object is another thing.
They are distinguished in all languages, even
by the vulgar ; and many things may be
affirmed of thought — that is, of the opera-
tion of the mind in thinking — which cannot,
without error, and even absurdity, be af-
firmed of the object of that operation.*

From this, I think, it is evident that, if
the word idea, in a work where it occurs in
every paragraph, is used without any inti-
mation of the ambiguity of the word, some-
times to signify thought, or the .operation
of the mind in thinking, sometimes to sig-
nify those internal objects of thought which
philosophers suppose, this must occasion
confusion in the thoughts both of the au-
thor and of the readers. I take this to be
the greatest blemish in the " Essay on Hu-
man Understanding." I apprehend this is
the true source of several paradoxical opin-
ions in that excellent work, which I shall
have occasion to take notice of.

Here it is very natural to ask, Whether
it was Mr Locke's opinion, that ideas are

* See Note C H.



[essay u,

the only objects of thought ? or, Whether
it is not possible for men to think of things
which are not ideas in the mind ?* [151]

To this question it is not easy to give a
direct answer. On the one hand, he says
often, in distinct and studied expressions,
that the term idea stands for whatever is
the object of the understanding when a man
thinks, or whatever it is which the mind
can be employed about in thinking : that
the mind perceives nothing but its own
ideas : that all knowledge consists in the
perception of the agreement or disagree-
ment of our ideas : that we can have no
knowledge farther than we have ideas.
These, and many other expressions of the
like import, evidently imply that every
object of thought must be an idea, and can
be nothing else.

On the other hand, I am persuaded that
Mr Locke would have acknowledged that
we may think of Alexander the Great, or
of the planet Jupiter, and of numberless
things which he would have owned are not
ideas in the mind, but objects which exist
independent of the mind that thinks of

How shall we reconcile the two parts of
this apparent contradiction ? All I am able
to say, upon Mr Locke's principles, to recon-
cile them, is this, That we cannot think of
Alexander, or of the planet Jupiter, unless
we have in our minds an idea — that is, an
image or picture of those objects. The
idea of Alexander is an image, or picture,
or representation of that hero in my mind ;

* It ia to be remembered that Keid means, by
Ideas, representative entities different from the cog-
nitive modifications of the mind itself. — H.

t On the confusion of this and the four subsequent
paragraphs, see Note C. — Whatever is the immediate
object of thought, of that we are necessarily conscious.
But of Alexander, for example, as existing, we are
necessatily not conscious. Alexander, as existing,
cannot, therefore, possibly be an immediate object of
thought; consequently, if we can be said to think of
Alexander at all, we can only be said to think of him
mediately, in and through a representation of which
we are conscious ; and that representation is the im.
mediate object of thought. It makes no difference
whether this immediate object be viewed as a tertium
quid, distinct from the existing reality and from the
conscious mind ; or whether as a mere modality of
the conscious mind itself— as the mere act of thought
considered in its relation to something beyond the
sphere of consciousness. In neither case, can we be
said (be it in the imagination of a possible or the
recollection of a past existence) to know a thing as
existing— that is, immediately ; and, therefore, if in
these operations we be said to know aught out the
mind at all, we can only be said to know it me-
diately—in other words, as a mediate object. The
whole perplexity arises from the ambiguity of the
term object, that term being used both iortheexter.
nal reality of which we are here not conscious, and
cannot therefore know in itself, and for the mental
representation which we know in itself, but which is
known only as relativeto the other. Reid chooses to
abolish the former signification, on the supposition
that it only applies to a representative entity differ-
ent from the act of thought. In this supposition,
however, he is wrong ; nor does he obtain an imme-
diate knowledge, even In perception, by merely deny.
Ihecrude hypothesis of representation — H.

and this idea is the immediate object of my
thought when I think of Alexander. That
this was Locke's opinion, and that it has
been generally the opinion of philosophers,
there can be no doubt.

But, instead of giving light to the ques-
tion proposed, it seems to involve it in
greater darkness.

When I think of Alexander, I am told
there is an image or idea of Alexander in
my mind, which is the immediate object of
this thought. The necessary consequence
of this seems to be, that there are two ob-
jects of this thought — the idea, which is in
the mind, and the person represented by that
idea ; the first, the immediate object of the
thought, the last, the object of the same
thought, but not the immediate object.
[152] This is a hard saying ; for it makes
every thought of things external to have a
double object. Every man is conscious of
his thoughts, and yet, upon attentive reflec-
tion, he perceives no such duplicity in the
object he thinks about. Sometimes men
see objects double, but they always know
when they do so : and I know of no philo-
sopher who has expressly owned this dupli-
city in the object of thought, though it fol-
lows necessarily from maintaining that, in
the same thought, there is one object that
is immediate and in the mind itself, and
another object which is not immediate, and
which is not in the mind.*

Besides this, it seems very hard, or rather
impossible, to understand what is meant by
an object of thought that is not an imme-
diate object of thought. A body in motion
may move another that was at rest, by the
medium of a third body that is interposed.
This is easily understood ; but we are unable
to conceive any medium interposed between
a mind and the thought of that mind ; and,
to think of any object by a medium, seems
to be words without any meaning. There
is a sense in which a thing may be said to
be perceived by a medium. Thus any kind
of sign may he said to be the medium by
which I perceive or understand the thing
signified. The sign by custom, or compact,
or perhaps by nature, introduces the thought
of the thing signified. But here the thing
signified, when it is introduced to the
thought, is an object of thought no less
immediate than the sign was before. And
there are here two objects of thought, one
succeeding another, which we have shewn
is not the case with respect to an idea, and
the object it represents.

• That is, if by object was meant the same thing,
when the term is applied to the external reality,
and to its mental representation. Even under the
Scholastic theory of repeesentation, it was generally
maintained that the species itself is not an object of
perception, but the external reality through it ; a
mode of speaking justly reprehended by the acuter
schoolmen. But in this respect Reid is equally to
blame. See Note C H.



I apprehend, therefore, that, if philoso-
phers will maintain that ideas in the mind
are the only immediate objects of thought,
they will he forced to grant that they are the
sole objects of thought, and that it is im-
possible for men to think of anything else.
[ 1 53] Yet, surely, Mr Locke Believed that
we can think of many things that are not
ideas in the mind ; but he seems not to have
perceived, that the maintaining that ideas
in the mind are the only immediate objects
of thought, must necessarily draw this con-
sequence along with it.

The consequence, however, was seen by
Bishop Berkeley and Mr Hume, who rather
chose to admit the consequence than to give
up the principle from which it follows.

Perhaps it was unfortunate for Mr Locke
that he used the word idea so very fre-
quently as to make it very difficult to give
the attention necessary to put it always to
the same meaning. And it appears evident
that, in many places, he means nothing
more by it but the notion or conception we
have of any object of thought ; that is, the
act of the mind in conceiving it, and not the
object conceived.*

In explaining this word, he says that he
uses it for whatever is meant by phantasm,
notion, species. Here are three synonymes
to the word idea. The first and last are
very proper to express the philosophical
meaning of the word, being terms of art in
the Peripatetic philosophy, and signifying
images of external things in the mind,
which, according to that philosophy, are
objects of thought. But the word notion is
a word in common language, whose meaning
agrees exactly with the popular meaning of

* When we contemplate a triangle, we may consider
it either as a complement of three sides or of three
angles ; not that the three sides and the three angles
are possible except through each other, but because
we may in thought view the figure— qua triangle,
in reality one and indivisible— in different relations.
In like manner, we may consider a representative act
of knowledge in two relations— 1°, as an act represen-
tative of something, and, 2° as an act cognitive of
that representation, although, in truth, these are both
only one indivisible energy — the representation only
existing as known, the cognition being only possible in
a representation. Thus, e. g„ in the imagination of
a Centaur— the Centaur represented is the Centaur
known, the Centaur known is the Centaur repre-
sented. It is one act under two relations— a relation
to the subject knowing — a relation to the object re-
presented. But to a cognitive act considered in these
several relations we may give either different names,
or we may confound them under one, or we may do
both ; and this is actually done ; some words express-
ing only one relation, others both or either, and
others properly the one but abusively also the other.
Thus Idea properly denotes an act of thought con-
sidered in relation to an external something beyond
the sphere of consciousness — a representation; but
some philosophers, as Locke, abuse it to comprehend
the thought also, viewed as cognitive of this represen-
tation. Again, perception, notion, conception, &c.
(concept is, unfortunately, obsolete) comprehend
both, or may be used to denote either of the rela-
tions; and it is only by the context that we can ever
vaguely discover in which application they are in-
tended. This is unfortunate; but so it is. — H.

the word idea, but not with the philosophi.

When these two different meanings o<
the word idea are confounded in a studied
explication of it, there is little reason to
expect that they should be carefully dis-
tinguished in the frequent use of it. There
are many passages in the Essay in which,
to make them intelligible, the word idea
must be taken in one of those senses, and
many others in which it must be taken in
the other. It seems probable that the
author, not attending to this ambiguity of
the word, used it in the one sense or the
other, as the subject-matter required ; and
the far greater part of his readers have done
the same. [154]

There is a third sense, in which he uses
the word not unfrequently, to signify objects
of thought that are not in the mind, but
external. Of this he seems to be sensible,
and somewhere makes an apology for it.
When he affirms, as he does in innumerable
places, that all human knowledge consists
in the perception of the agreement or dis-
agreement of our ideas, it is impossible to
put a meaning upon this, consistent with
his principles, unless he means by ideas
every object of human thought, whether
mediate or immediate ; everything, in a
word, that can be signified by the subject,
or predicate of a proposition.

Thus, we see that the word idea has three
different meanings in the essay; and the
author seems to haveuseditsometimes in one,
sometimes in another, without being aware
of any change in the meaning. The reader
slides easily into the same fallacy, that
meaning occurring most readily to his mind
which gives the best sense to what he reads.
I have met with persons professing no slight
acquaintance with the " Essay on Human
Understanding," who maintained that the
word idea, wherever it occurs, means
nothing more than thought ; and that,
where he speaks of ideas as images in the
mind, and as objects of thought, he is not
to be understood as speaking properly, but
figuratively or analogically. And, indeed,
I apprehend that it would be no small
advantage to many passages in the book,
if they could admit of -this interpretation.

It is not the fault of this philosopher
alone to have given too little attention to
the distinction between the operations of
the mind and the objects of those opera-
tions. Although this distinction be familiar
to the vulgar, and found in the structure of
all languages, philosophers, when they speak
of ideas, often confound [155] the two to-
gether ; and their theory concerning ideas
has led them to do so ; for ideas, being
supposed to be a shadowy kind of beings,
intermediate between the thought and the
object of thought, sometimes seem to coa-



Lessay II

Iesce with the thought, sometimes with the
object of thought, and sometimes to have a
distinct existence of their own.

The same philosophical theory of ideas
has led philosophers to confound the differ-
ent operations of the understanding, and
to call them all by the name of perception.*
Mr Locke, though not free from this fault,
is not so often chargeable with it as some
who came after him. The vulgar give the
name of perception to that immediate know-
ledge of external objects which we have by
our external senses. + This is its proper
meaning in our language, though sometimes
it may be applied to other things metaphori-
cally or analogically.^ When I think of
anything that does not exist, as of the
republic of Oceana, I do not perceive it — I
only conceive or imagine it.§ When I
think of what happened to me yesterday, I
do not perceive but remember it.|| When
I am pained with the gout, it is not proper
to say I perceive the pain ; I feel it, or am
conscious of it : it is not an object of per-
ception, but of sensation and of conscious-
ness.^ Sn far, the vulgar distinguish very
properly the different operations of the
mind, and never confound the names of
things so different in their nature. But
the theory of ideas leads philosophers to
conceive all those operations to be of one
nature, and to give them one name. ,T ne y
are all, according to that theory, the per-
ception of ideas in the mind. Perceiving,
remembering, imagining, being conscious,
are all perceiving ideas in the mind, and
are called perceptions. Hence it is that
philosophers speak of the perceptions of
memory, and the perceptions of imagina-

• No more than by calling them all by the name
of Cognitions, or Acts of Consciouness. There was
no reason, either from etymology or usage, why.per-
ception should not signify the energy of immediately
apprehending, in general ; and until Reid limited the
word to our apprehension of an external world, it
was, in fact, employed by philosophers, as tanta-
mount to an act of consciousness. \Ve were in need
of a word to express our sensitive cognitions as dis-
tinct from our sensitive feelings, (for the term sens,
ation involved both,) and, therefore, Reid's restric-
tion, though contrary to all precedent, may be ad-
mitted; but his criticism of ether philosophers for
;heir employment of the term, in a wider meaning,
is wholly groundless. — H.

t But not exclusively.— H.

X This is not correct — H.

\ And why ? Simply because we do not, by such
an act, know, or apprehend such an object to exist ;
we merely represent it. But perception was only
used tor such an apprehension. We could say, how-
ever, that we perceived (as we could say that we were
conscious of) the republic of Oceana, as imagined
by us, after Harrington. — H.

|| And this, for the same reason. What is remem-
bered is not and can not be immediately known ;
nought but the present mental representation is so
known ; and this we could properly say that we
perceived. — H.

H Because the feeling of pain, though only possible
through consciousness, is not an act of knowledge.
But it could be properly said, 1 perceive a feeling of
pain. A t any rate, the expression i perceive a pain,
is as correct as I am conscious of a tarn. — H.

tion. They make sensation to be a percep-
tion; and everything we perceive by our
senses to be an idea of sensation. Some-
times they say that they are conscious of
the ideas in their own minds, sometimes
that they perceive them.* [156]

However improbable it may appear that
philosophers who have taken pains to study
the operations of their own minds, should
express them less properly and less dis-
tinctly than the vulgar, it seems really to be
the case ; and the only account that can be
given of this strange phenomenon, I take
to be this : that the vulgar seek no theory
to account for the operations of their minds ;
they know that they see, and hear, and re-
member, and imagine ; and those who think
distinctly will express these operations dis-
tinctly, as their consciousness represents
them to the mind ; but philosophers think
they ought to know not only that there are
such operations, but how they are per-
formed ; how they see, and hear, and re-
member, and imagine; and, having invented
a theory to explain these operations, by
ideas or images in the mind, they suit their
expressions to their theory ; and, as a false
comment throws a cloud upon the text, so
a false theory darkens the phsenomena
which it attempts to explain.

We shall examine this theory afterwards.
Here I would only observe that, if it is not
true, it may be expected that it should lead
ingenious men who adopt it to confound the
operations of the mind with their objects,
and with one another, even where the com-
mon language of the unlearned clearly dis-
tinguishes them. One that trusts to a false
guide is in greater danger of being led
astray, than he who trusts his own eyes,
though he should be but indifferently ac-
quainted with the road.



George Berkeley, afterwards Bishop
of Cloyne, published his " New Theory of
Vision," in 1709; his "Treatise concern-
ing the Principles of Human Knowledge," in
1710 ; and his " Dialogues between Hylas
and Philonous," in 1713 ; being then a Fel-
low of Trinity College, Dublin. [157] Heis
acknowledged universally to have great
merit, as an excellent writer, and a very
acute and clear reasoner on the most ab-
stract subjects, not to speak of his virtues
as a man, which were very conspicuous :
yet the doctrine chiefly held forth in the
treatises above mentioned, especially in the

• The connection of the wider signification of the
term perception, with the more complex theory of
representation, has no foundation— H.

p56, 1571


two last, has generally been thought so very
absurd, that few can be brought to think
that he either believed it himself, or that
he seriously meant to persuade others of its

He maintains, and thinks he has demon-
strated, by a variety of arguments, ground-
ed on principles of philosophy universally
received, that there is no such thing as
matter in the universe ; that sun and moon,
earth and sea, our own bodies, and those of
our friends, are nothing but ideas in the
minds of those who think of them, and that
they have no existence when they are not
the objects of thought ; that all that is in
the universe may be reduced to two cate-
gories — to wit, minds, and ideas in the

But, however absurd this doctrine might
appear to the unlearned, who consider the
existence of the objects of sense as the
most evident of all truths, and what no man
in his senses can doubt, the philosophers
who had been accustomed to consider ideas
as the immediate objects of all thought, had
no title to view this doctrine of Berkeley in
so unfavourable a light.

They were taught by Des Cartes, and by
all that came after him, that the existence
of the objects of sense is not self-evident,
but requires to be proved by arguments ;
and, although Des Cartes, and many others,
had laboured to find arguments for this
purpose, there did not appear to be that
force and clearness in them which might
have been expected in a matter of such im-
portance. Mr Norris had declared that,
after all the arguments that had been
offered, the existence of an external world
is only probable, but by no means certain.
[158] Malebranchethoughtit rested upon the
authority of revelation, and that the argu-
ments drawn from reason were not perfectly
conclusive. Others thought that the argu-
ment from revelation was a mere sophism,
because revelation comes to us by our
senses, and must rest upon their authority.

Thus we see that the new philosophy
had been making gradual approaches towards

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 63 of 114)