Thomas Reid.

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

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men whoare guided by the dictates of nature
and common sense. And, it will not, I ap-
prehend, be improper to trace this progeny
of the doctrine of ideas from its origin, and
to observe its gradual progress, till it acquired
such strength that a pious and learned
bishop had the boldness to usher it into the
world, as demonstrable from the principles
of philosophy universally received, and as
an admirable expedient for the advance-
ment of knowledge and for the defence of

During the reign of the Peripatetic phi-
losophy, men were little disposed to doubt,
and much to dogmatize. The existence of
the objects of sense was held as a first prin-
ciple ; and the received doctrine was, that
the sensible species or idea is the very form
of the external object, just separated from
the matter of it, and sent into the mind that
perceives it ; so that we find no appearance
of scepticism about the existence of mat-
ter under that philosophy. -(•

Des Cartes taught men to doubt even of
those things that had been taken for first
principles. He rejected J the doctrine of

• In which the soul, like the unhappy Dido—
^_— << semperque relinqui
Solasibi, semper longam incomitatavidetur
Ire viam." — H.
f This is not the case. It could easily be shewn
that, in the schools of the middle ages, the argument!
in favour of Idealism were fully understood ; and
they would certainly have obtained numerous parti.
sans, had it not teen seen that such a philosophical
opinion involved a theological heresy touching the
eucharist. This was even recognised by St Augus-
tine.— H.
1 After many of the Peripatetics themselves — H.




species or ideas coming from objects ; but
still maintained that what we immediately
perceive, is not the external object, but an
idea or image of it in our mind. This led
some of his disciples into Egoism, and to dis-
believe the existence of every creature in the
universe but themselves and their own ideas. •

But Des Cartes himself — either from
dread of the censure of the church, which
he took great care not to provoke; orto shun
the ridicule of the world, which might have
crushed his system at once, as it did that of
the Egoists ;* or, perhaps, from inward
conviction — was resolved to support the ex-
istence of matter. To do this consistently
with his principles, he found himself obliged
to have recourse to arguments that are far-
fetched, and not very cogent. Sometimes
he argues that our senses are given us by
God, who is no deceiver ; and, therefore,
we ought to believe their testimony. [170]
But this argumentis weak ; because, accord-
ing to his principles, our senses testify no
more but that we have certain ideas : and,
if we draw conclusions from this testimony,
which the premises will not support, we
deceive ourselves. To give more force to
this weak argument, he sometimes adds,
that we have by nature a strong propensity
to believe that there is an external world
corresponding to our ideas. +

Malebranche thought that this strong
propensity is not a sufficient reason for be-
lieving the existence of matter ; and that it
is to be received as an article of faith, not
certainly discoverable by reason. He is
aware that faith comes by hearing ; and that
it may be said that prophets, apostles, and
miracles are only ideas in our minds. But
to this he answers, that, though these things
are only ideas, yet faith turns them into
realities ; and this answer, he hopes, will
satisfy those who are not too morose.

It may perhaps seem strange that Locke,
who wrote so much about ideas, should not
see those consequences which Berkeley
thought so obviously deducible from that
doctrine. Mr Locke surely was not willing
that the doctrine of ideas should be thought
to be loaded with such consequences. He
acknowledges that the existence of a mate-
rial world is not to be received as a first
principle — nor is it demonstrable ; but he
offers the best arguments for it he can ; and
supplies the weakness of his arguments by
this observation — that we have such evi-

* See above, p. 26U, note & : and below, under p.

t We are only by nature led to believe in the exist,
ence of an outer world, because we are by nature led
to believe that we have an immediate knowledge of
it as existing. Now, Dee Cartes and the philosophers
in general (is Reid an exception y) hold that we are
deluded in the latter belief, and yet they argue, on
the authority of the former, that an external world
exists.— H.

dence as is sufficient to direct us in pur.
suing the good and avoiding the ill we may
receive from external things, beyond which
we have no concern.

There is, indeed, a single passage in
Locke's essay, which may lead one to con-
jecture that he had a glimpse of that sys-
tem which Berkeley afterwards advanced,
but thought proper to suppress it within his
own breast. [171] The passage is in Book
4, u. 10, where, having proved the existence
of an eternal intelligent mind, he comes
to answer those who conceive that matter
also must be eternal, because we cannot
conceive how it could be made out of
nothing; and having observed that the
creation of mind requires no less power than
the creation of matter, he adds what fol-
lows : — " Nay, possibly, if we could eman-
cipate ourselves from vulgar notions, and
raise our thoughts, as far as they would
reach, to a closer contemplation of things,
we might be able to aim at some dim and
seeming conception, how matter might at
first be made and begin to exist, by the
power of that eternal first Being ; but to
give beginning and being to a spirit, would
be found a more inconceivable effect of om-
nipotent power. But this being what would
perhaps lead us too far from the notions on
which the philosophy now in the world is
built, it would not be pardonable to deviate
so far from them, or to inquire, so far as
grammar itself would authorize, if the com-
mon settled opinion opposes it ; especially
in this place, where the received doctrine
serves well enough to our present purpose.*

It appears from this passage — First, That
Mr Locke had some system in his mind,
perhaps not fully digested, to which we
might be led, by raising our thoughts to a
closer contemplation of things, and emanci-
pating them from vulgar notions ; Secondly,
That this system would lead so far from the
notions on which the philosophy now in the
world is built, that he thought proper to
keep it within his own breast ; Thirdly,
That it might be doubted whether this sys-
tem differed so far from the common settled
opinion in reality, as it seemed to do in
words ; Fourthly, By this system, we might
possibly be enabled to aim at some dim and
seeming conception how matter might at
first be made and begin to exist; but it
would give no aid in conceiving how a
spirit might be made. These are the cha-
racteristics of that system which Mr Locke
had in his mind, and thought it prudent to
suppress. May they not lead to a probable
conjecture, that it was the same, or some-
thing similar to that of Bishop Berkeley ?

* Mr Stewart plausibly supposes that this passage
contains rather an anticipation of Boscovich's Theory
of Matter, than of Berkeley's Theory of Idealism.
Philosophical Essays, p. 61. But see note F.— H.

[170, 171]



According to Berkeley's system, God'screat-
ing the material world at such a time, means
no more but that he decreed from that time,
to produce ideas in the minds of finite spirits,
in that order and according to those rules
which we call the laws of Nature. [172]
This, indeed, removes all difficulty, in con-
ceiving how matter was created; and
Berkeley does not fail to take notice of the
advantage of his system on that account.
But his system gives no aid in conceiving
how a spirit may be made. It appears,
therefore, that every particular Mr Locke
has hinted, with regard to that system which
he had in his mind, but thought it prudent
to suppress, tallies exactly with the system
of Berkeley. If we add to this, that
Berkeley's system follows from Mr Locke's,
by very obvious consequence, it seems rea-
sonable to conjecture, from the passage now
quoted, that he was not unaware of that
consequence, but left it to those who should
come after him to carry his principles their
full length, when they should by time be
better established, and able to bear the shock
of their opposition to vulgar notions. Mr
Norris, in his " Essay towards the Theory
of the Ideal or Intelligible World," pub-
lished in 1701, observes, that the material
world is not an object of sense; because
sensation is within us, and has no object.
Its existence, therefore, he says, is a collec-
tion of reason, and not a very evident one.

From this detail we may learn that the
doctrine of ideas, as it was new-modelled
byjDes Cartes, looked with an unfriendly
aspect upon the material world ; and, al-
though philosophers were very unwilling to
give up either, they found it a very difficult
task to reconcile them to each other. In
this state of things, Berkeley, I think, is
reputed the first who had the daring reso-
lution to give up the material world alto-
gether, as a sacrifice to the received phi-
losophy of ideas.

But we ought not, in this historical sketch,
to omit an author of far inferior name,
Arthur Collier, Rector of Langford Magna,
near Sarum. He published a book in 1713,
which he calls " Clavis Universalis ; or, a
New Inquiry after Truth ; being a demon-
stration of the non-existence or impossibility
of an external world." His arguments are the
same in substance with Berkeley's; and he
appears to understand the whole strength of
his cause. [173] Though he is not deficient
in metaphysical acuteness, his style is dis-
agreeable, being full of conceits, of new-
coined words, scholastic terms, and per-
plexed sentences. He appears to be well
acquainted with Des Cartes, Malebranche,
and Norris, as well as with Aristotle and
the schoolmen- But, what is very strange,
it does not appear that he had ever heard
of Locke's Essay, which had been pub-

lished twenty-four years, or of Berkeley's
" Principles of Knowledge," which had
been published three years.

He says he had been ten years firmly
convinced of the non-existence of an ex-
ternal world, before he ventured to publish
his book. He is far from thinking, as Ber-
keley does, that the vulgar are of his opi-
nion. If his book should make any con-
verts to his system, (of which he expresses
little hope, though he has supported it by
nine demonstrations,) he takes pains to
shew that his disciples, notwithstanding
their opinion, may, with the unenlightened,
speak of material things in the common
style. He himself had scruples of con-
science about this for some time ; and, if
he had not got over them, he must have
shut his lips for ever ; but he considered
that God himself has used this style in
speaking to men in the Holy Scripture, and
has thereby sanctified it to all the faithful ;
and that to the pure all things are pure.
He thinks his opinion may be of great
use, especially in religion ; and applies it,
in particular, to put an end to the con-
troversy about Christ's presence in the

I have taken the liberty to give this
short account of Collier's book, because I
believe it is rare, and little known. I have
only seen one copy of it, which is in the
University library of Glasgow. • [ 174]


bishop Berkeley's sentiments of the
nature of ideas.

I pass over the sentiments of Bishop
Berkeley, with respect to abstract ideas,
and with respect to space and time, as
things which may more properly be consi-
dered in another place. But I must, take
notice of one part of his system, wherein he

• This work, though of extreme rarity, and long
absolutely unknown to the philosophers of this coun-
try, had excited, from the first, the attention of the
German metaphysicians. A long analysis of it was
given in the " Acta Eruditorum ; " it is found quoted
by Bilfinger, and other Lebnitzians; and was sub.
sequently translated into German, with controver-
sial notes by Professor Eschenbach of Rostock, in his
" Collection of the principal- writers who deny the
Reality of their own Body and of the whole Corporeal
World," 1756. The late learned Dr Parr had long
the intention of publishing the work of Collier along
with some other rare metaphysical treatises. He did
not, however, accomplish his purpose; which in-
volved, likewise, an introductory disquisition by him-
self ; but a complete impression of the " Clavis Univer-
salis" and four other tracts, was found, after his
death ; and this having been purchased by-Mr Lum-
ley, has, by him, been recently published, under the
title — " Metaphysical Tracts, by English Philoso-
phers of the Eighteenth Century," &c. London :
1837. A very small edition of the " Clavis" had been
printed in Edinburgh, by private subscription, in tfw
previous year. A Life of Collier has likewise re-
cently appeared.— H.



[essay II

seems to have deviated from the common
opinion about ideas.

Though he sets out in his principles of
knowledge, by telling us that it is evident
the objects of human knowledge are ideas,
and builds his whole system upon this prin-
ciple ; yet, in the progress of it, he finds
that there are certain objects of human
knowledge that are not ideas, but things
which have a permanent existence. The
objects of knowledge, of which we have no
ideas, are our own minds, and their various
operatious, other finite minds, and the
Supreme Mind. The reason why there
can be no ideas of spirits and their opera-
tions, the author informs us is this, That
ideas are passive, inert, unthinking beings ;*
they cannot, therefore, be the image or
likeness of things that have thought, and
will, and active power ; we have notions of
minds, and of their operations, but not
ideas. We know what we mean by think-
ing, willing, and perceiving ; we can rea-
son about beings endowed with those
powers, but we have no ideas of them. A
spirit or mind is the only substance or
support wherein the unthinking beings or
ideas can exist ; but that this substance
which supports or perceives ideas, should
itself be an idea, or like an idea, is evidently

He observes, farther, Princip. sect. 142,
that " all relations, including an act of the
mind, we cannot properly be said to have
an idea, but rather a notion of the relations
or habitudes between things. [175] But
if, in the modern way, the word idea is
extended to spirits, and relations, and acts,
this is, after all, an affair of verbal con-
cern ; yet it conduces to clearness and pro-
priety, that we distinguish things very dif-
ferent by different names."

This is an important part of Berkeley's
system, and deserves attention. We are
led by it to divide the objects of human
knowledge into two kinds. The first is ideas,
which we have by our five senses ; they
have no existence when they are not per-
ceived, and exist only in the minds of those
who perceive them. The second kind of
objects comprehends spirits, their acts, and
the relations and habitudes of things. Of
these we have notions, but no ideas. No
idea can represent them, or have any simi-
litude to them : yet we understand what
they mean, and we can speak with under-
standing, and reason about them, without

This account of ideas is very different
from that which Locke has given. In his
system, we have no knowledge where we
have no ideas. Every thought must have

• Berkeley is one of the philosophers who really
held the doctrine of ideas, erroneously, by Reid, at-
tributed to all.— H.

an idea for its immediate object. In Ber-
keley's, the most important objects are
known without ideas. In Locke's system,
there are two sources of our ideas, sensa-
tion and reflection. In Berkeley's, sensa-
tion is the only source, because of the objects
of reflection there can be no ideas. We
know them without ideas. Locke divides
our ideas into those of substances, modes,
and relations. In Berkeley's system, there
are no ideas of substances, or of relations ;
but notions only. And even in the class of
modes, the operations of our own minds
are things of which we have distinct notions ;
but no ideas.

We ought to do the j ustice to Malebranche
to acknowledge that, in this point, as well
as in many others, his system comes nearer
to Berkeley's than the latter seems willing
to own. That author tells us that there
are four different ways in which we come
to the knowledge of things. To know things
by their ideas, is only one of the four. [ 176]
He affirms that we have no idea of our
own mind, or any of its modifications : that
we know these things by consciousness,
without ideas. Whether these two acute
philosophers foresaw the consequences that
may be drawn from the system of ideas,
taken in its full extent, and which were after-
wards drawn by Mr Hume, I cannot pre-
tend to say. If they did, their regard to
religion was too great to permit them to ad-
mit those consequences, or the principles
with which they were necessarily connected.

However this may be, if there be so many
things that may be apprehended and known
without ideas, this very naturally suggests
a scruple with regard to those that are left :
for it may be said, If we can. apprehend
and reason about the world of spirits, with-
out ideas, Is it not possible that we may
apprehend and reason about a material
world, without ideas? If consciousness
and reflection furnish us with notions of
spirits and of their attributes, without ideas,
may not our senses furnish us with notions
of bodies and their attributes, without ideas ?

Berkeley foresaw this objection to his
system, and puts it in the mouth of Hylas,
in the following words : — DiaL 3, Hylas.
" If you can conceive the mind of God,
without having an idea of it, why may not
I be allowed to conceive the existence of
matter, notwithstanding that I have no idea
of it ?" The answer of Philonous is—
" You neither perceive matter objectively,
as you do an inactive being or idea, nor
know it, as you do yourself, by a reflex act,
neither do you immediately apprehend it by
similitude of the one or the other, nor yet
collect it by reasoning from that which you
know immediately; all which makes the
case of matter widely different from that of
the Deity."

ri75, 1761



Though Hylas declares himself satisfied
with this answer, I confess I am not : be-
cause, if I may trust the faculties that God
has given me, I do perceive matter objec-
tively — that is, something which is extended
and solid, which may be measured and
weighed, is the immediate object of my touch
andsight.* [177] And this object I take to
be matter, and not an idea. And, though I
have been taught by philosophers, that what
I immediately touch is an idea, and not
matter ; yet I have never been able to dis-
cover this by the most accurate attention
to my own perceptions.

It were to be wished that this ingenious
author had explained what he means by
ideas, as distinguished from notions. The
word notion, being a word in common lan-
guage, is well understood. All men mean
by it, the conception, the apprehension, or
thought which we have of any object of
thought. A notion, therefore, is an act
of the mind conceiving or thinking of some
object. The object of thought may be
either something that is in the mind, or
something that is not in the mind. It may
be something that has no existence, or
something that did, or does, or shall exist.
But the notion which I have of that ob-
ject, is an act of my mind which really
exists while I think of the object ; but has
no existence when I do not think of it.
The word idea, in popular language, has
precisely the same meaning as the word
notion. But philosophers have another
meaning to the word idea ; and what that
meaning is, I think, is very difficult to say.

The whole of Bishop Berkeley's system
depends upon the distinction between no-
tions and ideas ; and, therefore, it is worth
while to find, if we are able, what those
things are which he calls ideas, as distin-
guished from notions.

For this purpose, we may observe, that
he takes notice of two kinds of ideas — the
ideas of sense, and the ideas of imagina-
tion. " The ideas imprinted on the senses
by the Author of Nature," he says, " are
called real things; and those excited in the
imagination, being less regular, vivid, and
constant, are more properly termed ideas,
or images of things, which they copy and
represent. [178] But then our sensations,
be they never so vivid and distinct, are
nevertheless ideas ; that is, they exist in
the mind, or are perceived by it as truly
as the ideas of its own framing. The ideas
of sense are allowed to have more reality
in them — that is, to be more strong, or-
derly, and coherent — than the creatures of

* Does Reid'mean to surrender his doctrine, that
perception is a conception— that extension and figure
are not known by sense, but are-notions suggested on
the occasion of sensation ? If he does not, his lan-
guage in the text is inaccurate.— H.

| 177-179]

the mind. They are also less dependent
on the spirit, or thinking substance which
perceives them, in that they are excited by
the will of another and more powerful
spirit ; yet still they are ideas ; and cer-
tainly no idea, whether faint or strong, can
exist, otherwise than in a mind perceiving
it." Principles, § 33.

From this passage we see that, by the
ideas of sense, the author means sensa-
tions ;* and this, indeed, is evident from
many other passages, of which I shall men-
tion a few. — Principles, § 5. " Light and
colours, heat and cold, extensionandfigure—
in a word, the things we see and feel — what
are they but so many sensations, notions,
ideas, or impressions on the sense ?— and is
it possible to separate, even in thought,
any of these from perception ? For my
part, I might as easily divide a thing from
itself." § 18. "As for our senses, by
them we have the knowledge only of our
sensations, ideas, or those things that are
immediately perceived by sense, call them
what you will ; — but they do not inform us
that things exist without the mind, or un-
perceived, like to those which are per-
ceived." § 25. " All our ideas, sensa-
tions, or the things which we perceive, by
whatever names they may be distinguished,
are visibly inactive; there is nothing of
power or agency included in them."

This, therefore, appears certain — that,
by the ideas of sense, the author meant the
sensations we have by means of our senses.
I have endeavoured to explain the meaning
of the word sensation, Essay I., chap. 1,
[p. 229,] and refer to the explication there
given of it, which appears to me to be per-
fectly agreeable to the sense in which Bishop
Berkeley uses it.*

As there can be no notion or thought
but in a thinking being ; so there can be
no sensation but in a sentient being. [179]
It is the act or feeling of a sentient being ;
its very essence consists in its being felt.
Nothing can resemble a sensation, but a
similar sensation in the same or in some
other mind. To think that any quality in
a thing that is inanimate can resemble a
sensation, is a great absurdity. In all this,
I cannot but agree perfectly with Bishop
Berkeley ; and I think his notions of sensa-

* How it can beiasserted. that by ideas of sense
Berkeley meant only what Reid did by sensations,
I cannot comprehend. That the former used ideas
of sense and sensations as convertible expressions, is
true. But then Berkeley's sensation was equivalent
to Reid's sensation plus his perception. This is mani-
fest even by the passages adduced in the text. In
that from § v. .of the " Principles," Berkeley ex.
pressly calls extension and-Jigure sensations. But
it is a fundamental' principle of Reid'? philosophy,
not only that neither extension nor figure, but that
none of the .primary qualities, are sensations. To
make a single quotation— *"Thepriviarpqua\itieB"
he says, *' are. neither sensations, nor are'they the
resemblances of sensations."— Infra, p. 238.— H.



(jessay n.

tion much more distinct and accurate than
Locke's, who thought that the primary
qualities of body are resemblances of our

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 65 of 114)