Thomas Reid.

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

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Berkeley's opinion ; and, whatever others
might do, the philosophers had no title to
look upon it as absurd, or unworthy of a
fair examination. Several authors attempt-
ed to answer his arguments, but with little
success, and others acknowledged that they
could neither answer them nor assent to
them. It is probable the Bishop made but
few converts to his doctrine ; but it is cer-
tain he made some ; and that he himself
continued, to the end of his life, firmly per-
suaded, not only of its truth,* but of its

• Berkeley's confidence in his idealism was, how-
ever, nothing to Fichte's. This philosopher, in one
of his controversial treatises, imprecates everlasting
damnation on himself not only should he retract, but

fl6S, 1591

great importance for the improvement oi
human knowledge, and especially for the
defence of religion. Dial. Pref. " If the
principles which I here endeavour to pro-
pagate, are admitted for true, the conse-
quences which I think evidently flow from
thence are, that atheism and scepticism
will be utterly destroyed, many intricate
points made plain, great difficulties solved,
several useless parts of science retrenched,
speculation referred to practice, and men
reduced from paradoxes to common sense."

In the " Theory of Vision," he goes no
farther than to assert that the objects of
sight are nothing but ideas in the mind,
granting, or at least not denying, that there
is a tangible world, which is really external,
and which exists whether we perceive it or
not. Whetherthereasonof this was, that his
system had not, at that time, wholly opened
to his own mind, or whether he thought it
prudent to let it enter into the minds of his
readers by degrees, I cannot say. I think
he insinuates the last as the reason, in the
" Principles of Human Knowledge." [109]

The" Theory of Vision," however, taken
by itself, and without relation to the main
branch of his system, contains very important
discoveries, and marks of great genius. He
distinguishes more accurately than any that
went before him, between the immediate
objects of sight, and those of the other
senses which are early associated with them.
He shews that distance, of itself and imme-
diately, is not seen ; but that we learn to
judge of it by certain sensations and per-
ceptions which are connected with it. This
is a very important observation; and, I
believe, was first made by this author.*
It gives much new light to the operations
of our senses, and serves to account for
many phenomena in optics, of which the
greatest adepts in that science had always
either given a false account, or acknow-
ledged that they could give none at all.

We may observe, by the way, that the
ingenious author seems not to have attended
to a distinction by which his general asser-
tion ought to have been limited. It is true
that the distance of an object from the eye is
not immediately seen ; but there is a certain
kind of distance of one object from another
which we see immediately. The author
acknowledges that there is a visible exten-
sion, and visible figures, which are proper
objects of sight ; there must therefore be a
visible distance. Astronomers call it an-
gular distance ; and, although they measure

should he even waver in regard to any one principle
of .his doctrine; a doctrine, the speculative result of
which left him, as he confesses, without even a cer.
tainty of his own existence. (See above, p. 129,
note *,) It is Varro who speaks of the credula
philosophorum natio : but this is to be credulous
even in incredulity.— H.

* This last statement is inaccurate. — H,



£essay II.

it by the angle, which is made by two lines
drawn from the eye to the two distant ob-
jects, yet it is immediately perceived by
sight, even by those who never thought of
that angle.

He led the way in shewing how we learn
to perceive the distance of an object from
the eye, though this speculation was carried
farther by others who came after him. He
made the distinction between that extension
and figure which we perceive by sight only,
and that which we perceive by touch ; call-
ing the first, visible, the last, tangible ex-
tension and figure. He shewed, likewise,
that tangible extension, and not visible, is
the object of geometry, although mathema-
ticians commonly use visible diagrams in
their demonstrations.* [160]

The notion of extension and figure which
we get from sight only, and that which we
get from touch, have been so constantly
conjoined from our infancy in all the judg-
ments we form of the objects of sense,
that it required great abilities to distin-
guish them accurately, and to assign to
each sense what truly belongs to it ; " so
difficult a thing it is," as Berkeley justly
observes, " to dissolve an union so early
begun, and confirmed by so long a habit."
This point he has laboured, through the
whole of the essay on vision, with that
uncommon penetration and judgment which
he possessed, and with as great success as
could be expected in a first attempt upon
so abstruse a subject.

He concludes this essay, by shewing, in
no less than seven sections, the notions
which an intelligent being, endowed with
sight, without the sense of touch, might
form of the objects of sense. This specu-
lation, to shallow thinkers, may appear to
be egregious trifling. ■)• To Bishop Ber-
keley it appeared in another light, and will
do so to those who are capable of entering
into it, and who know the importance of it,
iu solving many of the pheenomena of vision.
He seems, indeed, to have exerted more
force of genius in this than in the main
branch of his system.

In the new philosophy, the pillars by
which the existence of a material world was
supported, were so feeble that it did not
require the force of a Samson to bring them

* Properly speak ng, it is neither tangible nor
visible extension which is the object of geometry,
but intelligible, pure, or a priori extension. — H.

t This, Ihave no doubt, is in allusion to Priestley.
That writer had, not very courteously, said, in his
** Examination of Reid's Inquiry*" '' Ido not re.
member to have seen a more egregious piece of so-
lemn trifling than the chapter which our author calls
the ' Geometry of Visibles,' and bis account of the
' Idomenians,' as he terms those imaginary beings who
had no ideas of substance but fromsijht." — In a note
upon that chapter of " The Inquiry," I stated that
the thought of a Geometry of Visibles was original to
Berkeley, and I had then no recollection of Reid's
acknowledgment in the present paragraph. — H.

down ; and in this we have not so much
reason to admire the strength of Berkeley's
genius, as his boldness in publishing to the
world an opinion which the unlearned would
be apt to interpret as the sign of a crazy
intellect. A man who was firmly persuaded
of the doctrine universally received by phi-
losophers concerning ideas, if he could but
take courage to call in question the exist-
ence of a material world, would easily find
unanswerable arguments in that doctrine.
[161] " Some truths there are," says Berke.
ley, " so near and obvious to the mind, that
a man need only open his eyes to see them.
Such," he adds, " I take this important one
to be, that all the choir of heaven, and fur-
niture of the earth— in a word, all those
bodies which compose the mighty frame
of the world — have not any subsistence
without a mind." Princ. § 6.

The principle from which this important
conclusion is obviously deduced, is laid down
in the first sentence of his principles of
knowledge, as evident ; and, indeed, it has
always been acknowledged by philosophers.
" It is evident," says he, " to any one who
takes a survey of the objects of human
knowledge, that they are either ideas ac-
tually imprinted on the senses, or else such
as are perceived, by attending to the pas-
sions and operations of the mind ; or, lastly,
ideas formed by help of memory and imagin-
ation, either compounding, dividing, or
barely representing those originally per-
ceived in the foresaid ways."

This is the foundation on which the whole
system rests. If this be true, then, indeed,
the existence of a material world must be
a dream that has imposed upon all mankind
from the beginning of the world.

The foundation on which such a fabric
rests ought to be very solid and well esta-
blished ; yet Berkeley says nothing more for
it than that it is evident. If he means that
it is self-evident, this indeed might be a
good reason for not offering any direct argu-
ment in proof of it. But I apprehend this
cannot justly be said. Self-evident propo-
sitions are those which appear evident to
every man of sound understanding who ap-
prehends the meaning of them distinctly,
and attends to them without prejudice. Can
this be said of this proposition, That all the
objects of our knowledge are ideas in our
own minds ?* I believe that, to any man

• To the Idealist, it is of perfect indifference whether
this proposition, in Reid's sense of the expression
Ideas, be admitted, or whether it be held that we are
conscious of nothing but of the modifications of our
own minds. For, on the supposition that we can
know the non-ego only in and through the ego, it
follows, (since we can know nothing immediately of
which we are not conscious, and it being allowed
that we are conscious only of mind,) that it 4a con.
tradictory to suppose aught, as known, (i.e., any ob-
ject of knowledge,) to be known otherwise than as a
phenomenon ot mind H.

[160, 161"!



uninstructed in philosophy, this proposition
will appear very improbable, if not absurd.
[162] However scanty his knowledge may
be, he considers the sun and moon, the earth
and sea, as objects of it; and it will be difficult
to persuade him that those objects of his
knowledge are ideas in his own mind, and
have no existence when he does not think
of them. If I may presume to speak my
own sentiments, I once believed this doc-
trine of ideas so firmly as to embrace the
whole of Berkeley's system in consequence
of it; till, finding other consequences to
follow from it, which gave me more unea-
siness than the want of a material world,
it came into my mind, more than forty
years ago, to put the question, What evi-
dence have I for this doctrine, that all the
objects of my knowledge are ideas in my
own mind ? From that time to the pre-
sent I have been candidly and impartially,
as I think, seeking for the evidence of this
principle, but can find none, excepting the
authority of philosophers.

We shall have occasion to examine its
evidence afterwards. I would at present
only observe, that all the arguments brought
by Berkeley against the existence of a ma-
terial world are grounded upon it ; and that
he has not attempted to give any evidence
for it, but takes it for granted, as other
philosophers had done before him.

But, supposing this principle to be true,
Berkeley's system is impregnable. No
demonstration can be more evident than
his reasoning from it Whatever is per-
ceived is an idea, and an idea can only
exist in a mind. It has no existence when
it is not perceived ; nor can there be any-
thing like an idea, but an idea.

So sensible he was that it required no
laborious reasoning to deduce Ins system
from the principle laid down, that he was
afraid of being thought needlessly prolix in
handling the subject, and makes an apology
for it. Princ. § 22. " To what purpose
is it," says he, " to dilate upon that which
may be demonstrated, with the utmost evi-
dence, in a line or two, to any one who is
capable of the least reflection?" [163] But,
though his demonstration might have been
comprehended in aline or two, he very pru-
dently thought that an opinion which the
world would be apt to look upon as a mon-
ster of absurdity, would not be able to make
its way at once, even by the force of a naked
demonstration. He observes, justly, Dial.
2, " That, though a demonstration be never
so well grounded and fairly proposed, yet
if there is, withal, a strain of prejudice, or
a wrong bias on the understanding, can it
be expected to perceive clearly, and adhere
firmly to the truth ? No ; there is need of
time and pains ; the attention must be
iwakened and detained, by a frequent re-

petition of the same thing, placed often in
the same, often in different lights."

It was, therefore, necessary to dwell
upon it, and turn it on all sides, till it became
familiar ; to consider all its consequences,
and to obviate every prejudice and pre-
possession that might hinder its admittance.
It was even a matter of some difficulty to
fit it to common language, so far as to
enable men to speak and reason about it
intelligibly. Those who have entered se-
riously into Berkeley's system, have found,
after all the assistance which his writings
give, that time and practice are necessary
to acquire the habit of speaking and think-
ing distinctly upon it.

Berkeley foresaw the opposition that
would be made to his system, from two
different quarters : first, from the philos-
ophers ; and, secondly, from the vulgar,
who are led by the plain dictates of nature.
The first he had the courage to oppose
openly and avowedly ; the second, he
dreaded much more, and, therefore, takes
a great deal of pains, and, I think, uses
some art, to court into his party. This
is particularly observable in his " Dia-
logues." He sets out with a declaration,
Dial. 1, " That, of late, he had quitted
several of the sublime notions he had got
in the schools of the philosophers, for vul-
gar opinions," and assures Hylas, his fel-
low-dialogist, " That, since this revolt from
metaphysical notions to the plain dictates
of nature and common sense, he found his
understanding strangely enlightened; so
that he could now easily comprehend a great
many things, which before were all mys-
tery and riddle." [164] Pref. to Dial. " If
his principles are admitted for true, men
will be reduced from paradoxes to common
sense." At the same time, he acknowledges,
" That they carry with them a great opposi-
tion to the prejudices of philosophers, which
have so far prevailed against the common
sense and natural notions of mankind."

When Hylas objects to him, Dial. 3,
" You can never persuade me, Philonous,
that the denying of matter or corporeal
substance is not repugnant to the universal
sense of mankind" — he answers, " I wish
both our opinions were fairly stated, and
submitted to the judgment of men who had
plain common sense, without the prejudices
of a learned education. Let me be repre-
sented as one who trusts his senses, who
thinks he knows the things he sees and
feels, and entertains no doubt of their ex-
istence. — If by material substance is meant
only sensible body, that which is seen and
felt, (and the unphilosophical part of the
world, I dare say, mean no more,) then I
am more certain of matter's existence than
you or any other philosopher pretend to be.
If there be anything which makes the



[_Bss*y if.

generality of mankind averse from the
notions I espouse, it is a misapprehension
that I deny the reality of sensible things :
but, as it is you who are guilty of that, and
not I, it follows, that, in truth, their aversion
is against your notions, and not mine. I
am content to appeal to the common sense
of the world for the truth of my notion. I
am of a vulgar cast, simple enough to
believe my senses, and to leave things as I
find them. I cannot, for my life, help
thinking that snow is white and fire hot."

When Hylas is at last entirely converted,
he observes to Philonous, " After all, the
controversy about matter, in the strict
acceptation of it, lies altogether between
you and the philosophers, whose principles,
I acknowledge, are not near so natural, or
so agreeable to the common sense of man-
kind, and Holy Scripture, as yours." [165]
Philonous observes, in the end, " That he
does not pretend to be a setter up of new
notions ; his endeavours tend only to unite,
and to place in a clearer light, that truth
which was before shared between the vul-
gar and the philosophers ; the former being
of opinion, that those things they im-
mediately perceive are the real things ; and
the latter, that the things immediately
perceived, are ideas which exist only in the
mind ; which two things put together do,
in effect, constitute the substance of what
he advances.'' And he concludes by ob-
serving, "That those principles which at
first view lead to scepticism, pursued to a
certain point, bring men back to common

These passages shew sufficiently the
author's concern to reconcile his system to
the plain dictates of nature and common
sense, while he expresses no concern to
reconcile it to the received doctrines of
philosophers. He is fond to take part with
the vulgar against the philosophers, and to
vindicate common sense against their inno-
vations. What pity is it that he did not
carry this suspicion of the doctrine of philo-
sophers so far as to doubt of that philoso-
phical tenet on which his whole system is
built — to wit, that the things immediately
perceived by the senses are ideas which
exist only in the mind !

After all, it seems no easy matter to make
the vulgar opinion and that of Berkeley to
meet. And, to accomplish this, he seems
to me to draw each out of its line towards
the other, not without some straining.

The vulgar opinion he reduces to this,
that the very things which we perceive by
our senses do really exist. This he grants ;*
for these things, says he, are ideas in our
minds, or complexions of ideas, to which

* Thifl is one of the passages that may be brought
to prove that Keid did allow to the ego an immediate
bud real knowledge of the non-ego. — H.

we give one name, and consider as ona
thing ; these are the immediate objects of
sense, and these do really exist. As to the
notion that those things have an absolute
external existence, independent of being
perceived by any mind, he thinks [166] that
this is no notion of the vulgar, but a refine-
ment of philosophers ; and that the notion of
material substance, as a substratum, or sup-
port of that collection of sensible qualities
to which we give the name of an apple or a
melon, is likewise an invention of philoso-
phers, and is not found with the vulgar till
they are instructed by philosophers. The
substance not being an object of sense, the
vulgar never think of it; or, if they are
taught the use of the word, they mean no
more by it but that collection of sensible
qualities which they, from finding them con-
joined in nature, have been accustomed to
call by one name, and to consider as one

Thus he draws the vulgar opinion near
to his own ; and, that he may meet it half
way, he acknowledges that material things
have a real existence out of the mind of
this or that person ; but the question, says
he, between the materialist and me, is,
Whether they have an absolute existence
distinct from their being perceived by God,
and exterior to all minds ? This, indeed,
he says, some heathens and philosophers
have affirmed ; but whoever entertains no-
tions of the Deity, suitable to the Holy
Scripture, will be of another opinion.

But here an objection occurs, which it
required all his ingenuity to answer. It is
this : The ideas in my mind cannot be the
same with the ideas of any other mind ;
therefore, if the objects I perceive be only
ideas, it is impossible that the objects I per-
ceive can exist anywhere, when I do not
perceive them ; and it is impossible that
two or more minds can perceive the same

To this Berkeley answers, that this ob-
jection presses no less the opinion of the
materialist philosopher than his. But the
difficulty is to make his opinion coincide
with the notions of the vulgar, who are
firmly persuaded that the very identical
objects which they perceive, continue to
exist when they do not perceive them ; and
who are no less firmly persuaded that, when
ten men look at the sun or the moon, they
all see the same individual object.* [167]

To reconcile this repugnancy, he observes,
Dial. 3 — " That, if the term same be taken
in the vulgar acceptation, it is certain (and
not at all repugnant to the principles he
maintains) that different persons may per-
ceive the same thing ; or the same thing or
idea exist in different minds. Words are

• See the last note.— H.




of arbitrary imposition ; and, since men are
used to apply the word same, where no dis-
tinction or variety is perceived, and he does
not pretend to alter their perceptions, it
follows that, as men have said before,
several saw the same thing, so they may,
upon like occasions, still continue to use the
same phrase, without any deviation, either
from propriety of language, or the truth of
things ; but, if the term same be used in the
acceptation of philosophers, who pretend to
an abstracted notion of identity, then,
according to their sundry definitions of this
term, (for it is not yet agreed wherein that
philosophic identity consists,) it may or
may not be possible for divers persons to
perceive the same thing ; but whether phi-
losophers shall think fit to call a thing the
same or no is, I conceive, of small import-
ance. Men i"ay dispute about identity and
divers"*' •■ iti-nut any real difference in
their ll.ou lilt> and opinions, abstracted from

Upon the whole, I apprehend that Berk-
eley has carried this attempt to reconcile
his system to the vulgar opinion farther
than reason supports him ; and he was no
doubt tempted to do so, from a just appre-
hension that, in a controversy of this kind,
the common sense of mankind is the most
formidable antagonist.

Berkeley has employed much pains and
ingenuity to shew that his system, if re-
ceived and believed, would not be attended
with those bad consequences in the conduct
of life, which superficial thinkers may be apt
to impute to it. His system does not take
away or make any alteration upon our plea-
sures or our pains : our sensations, whether
agreeable or disagreable, are the;same upon
his system as upon any other. These are real
things, and the only things that interest us.
[168] They are produced in us according to
certain laws of nature, by which our con-
duct will be directed in attaining the one,
and avoiding the other ; and it is of no
moment to us, whether they are produced
immediately by the operation of some power-
ful intelligent being upon our minds: or
by the mediation of some inanimate being
which we call matter.

The evidence of an all-governing mind,
so far from being weakened, seems to appear
even in a more striking light upon his
hypothesis, than upon the common one.
The powers which inanimate matter is. sup-
posed to 'possess, have always been the
stronghold of atheists, to which they had
recourse in defence of their system. This
fortress of atheism must be most effectually
overturned, if there is no such thing as
matter in the universe. In all this the
Bishop reasons justly and acutely. But
there is one uncomfortable consequence of
his system, which he seems not to have at-
fl68, 169]

tended to, and from which it will be found
difficult, if at all possible, to guard it.

The consequence I mean is this — that,
although it leaves us sufficient evidence of a
supreme intelligent mind, it seems to take
away all the evidence we have of other
intelligent beings like ourselves. What I
call a father, a brother, or a friend, is only
a parcel of ideas in my own mind ; and, being
ideas in my mind, they cannot possibly have
that relation to another mind which they have
to mine, any more than the pain felt by me
can be the individual pain felt by another. I
can find no principle in Berkeley's system,
which affords me even probable ground to
conclude that there are other intelligent
beings, like myself, in the relations of father,
brother, friend, or fellow-citizen. I am left
alone, as the only creature of God in the
universe, in that forlorn state of egoism
into which it is said some of the disciples of
Des Cartes were brought by his philo-
sophy.* [169]

Of all the opinions that have ever been
advanced by philosophers, this of Bishop
Berkeley, that there is no material world,
seems the strangest, and the most apt to
bring philosophy into ridicule with plain

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 64 of 114)