Thomas Reid.

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

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It ought to be remembered, also, that this
inquiry, with respect to the laws regulating
the connection between our bodily organiz-
ation, and the phenomena subjected to our
own consciousness, is but one particular
department of the philosophy of the mind ;
and that there still remains a wide, and,
indeed, boundless region, where all our data
must be obtained from our own mental
operations. In examining, for instance, the
powers of judgment and reasoning, let any
person of sound understanding, after perus-
ing the observations of Bacon on the differ-
ent classes of our prejudices, or those of
Locke on the abuse of words, turn his atten-
tion to the speculations of some of our con-
temporary theorists, and he will at once
perceive the distinction between the two
modes of investigation which I wish at pre-
sent to contrast. " Reasoning," says one
of the most ingenious and original of these,
" is that operation of the sensorium by
which we excite two or many tribes of ideas,
and then re-excite the ideas in which they
differ or correspond. If we determine this
difference, it is called Judgment ; if we in
vain endeavour to determine it, it is called
Doubting ; if we re-excite the ideas in which
they differ, it is called Distinguishing ; if
we re-excite those in which they correspond,
itis called Comparing."* In what accept-
ation the word idea is to be understood in
the foregoing passage, may be learned from
the following definition of the same author :
— " The word idea has various meanings in
the writers of metaphysic : it is here used
simply for those notions of external things
which our organs of sense bring us ac-
quainted with originally ; and is defined a
contraction, or motion, or configuration, of
the fibres which constitute the immediate
organ of sense."+ Mr Hume, who was less
of a physiologist than Dr Darwin, has made
use of a language by no means so theoretical
and arbitrary, but still widely removed from
the simplicity and precision essentially neces-

• » Zoonomia," vol. i. p 181 ,3d edit
t Ibid., vol. i.pp..ll,12.

sary in studies where everything depends
on the cautious use of terms. "Belief,''
according to him, is " a lively idea related
to or associated with a present impression ;
Memory is the faculty by which we repeat
our impressions, so as that they retain a
considerable degree of their first vivacity,
and are somewhat intermediate betwixt an
idea and an impression."

According to the views of Dr Reid, the
terms which express the simple powers of
the mind, are considered as unsusceptible
of definition or explanation ; the words,
Feeling, for example, Knowledge, Will,
Doubt, Belief, being, in this respect, on the
same footing with the words, Green or
Scarlet, Sweet or Bitter. To the names of
these mental operations, all men annex
some notions, more or less distinct; and
the only way of conveying to them notions
more correct, is by teaching them to ex-
ercise their own powers of reflection. The
definitions quoted from Hume and Darwin,
even if they were more unexceptionable in
point of phraseology, would, for these rea-
sons, be unphilosophical, as attempts to
simplify what is incapable of analysis ; but,
as they are actually stated, they not only
envelope truth in mystery, but lay a found-
ation, at the very outset, for an erroneous
theory. It is worth while to add, that, of
the two theories in question, that of Darwin,
how inferior soever, in the estimation of
competent judges, as a philosophical work,
is by far the best calculated to impose on
a very wide circle of readers, by the mix-
ture it exhibits of crude and visionary me-
taphysics, with those important facts and
conclusions which might be expected from
the talents and experience of such a writer,
in the present advanced state of medical
and physiological science. The questions
which have been hitherto confined to a few,
prepared for such discussions by habits of
philosophical study, are thus submitted to
the consideration, not only of the cultivated
and enlightened minds which adorn the
medical profession, but of the half -informed
multitude who follow the medical trade :
nor is it to be doubted, that many of these
will give the author credit, upon subjects of
whiph they feel themselves incompetent to
judge, for the same ability which he dis-
plays within their own professional sphere.
The hypothetical principles assumed by
Hume are intelligible to those only who are
familiarized to the language of the schools ;
and his ingenuity and elegance, captivating
as they are to men of taste and refinement,
possess slight attractions to the majority
of such as are most likely to be misled by
his conclusions.

After all, I do not apprehend that the
physiological theories concerning the mind,
which have made so much noise of lats



will produce a very lasting impression.
The splendour of Dr Darwin's accomplish-
ments could not fail to bestow a temporary
importance on whatever opinions were sanc-
tioned by his name ; as the chemical dis-
coveries which have immortalized that of
Priestley, have, for a while, recalled from
oblivion the reveries of Hartley. But, ab-
stracting from these accidental instances,
in which human reason seems to have held
aretrograde course, there has certainly been,
since the time of Des Cartes, a continual,
and, on the whole, a very remarkable ap-
proach to the inductive plan of studying
human nature. We may trace this in the
writingB even of those who profess to con-
sider thought merely as an agitation of the
brain — in the writings more particularly
of Hume and of Helvetius ; both of whom,
although they may have occasionally ex-
pressed themselves in an unguarded man-
ner concerning the nature of mind, have,
in their mrst useful and practical disquisi-
tions, been prevented, by their own good
sense, from blending any theory with re-
spect to the causes of the intellectual phe-
nomena with the history of facts, or the
investigation of general laws. The authors
who form the most conspicuous exceptions
to this gradual progress, consist chiefly of
men whose errors may be easily accounted
for, by the prejudices connected with their
circumscribed habits of observation and
inquiry : of physiologists, accustomed to
attend to that part alone of the human
frame which the knife of the anatomist
can lay open ; or of chemists, who enter on
the analysis of thought, fresh from the
decompositions of the laboratory — carrying
into the theory of mind itself (what Bacon
expressively calls) " the smoke and tarnish
of the furnace." Of the value of such pur-
suits, none can think more highly than
myself ; but I must be allowed to observe,
that the most distinguished pre-eminence
in them does not necessarily imply a capa-
city of collected and abstracted reflection,
or an understanding superior to the preju-
dices of early association, and the illusions
of popular language. I will not go so far
as Cicero, when he ascribes to those who
possess these advantages, a more than
ordinary vigour of intellect : — " Magni est
ingenii revocare mentem a sensibus, et cogita-
lionem a consueludine abducere." I would
only claim for them the merit of patient
and cautious research ; and would exact
from their antagonists the same qualifica-

In offering these remarks, I have no
wish to exalt any one branch of useful
knowledge at the expense of another, but
to combat prejudices equally fatal to the

* NoteD.

progress of them all. With the same view,
I cannot help taking notice of a prevailing,
but very mistaken idea, that the formation
of a hypothetical system is a stronger proof
of inventive genius than the patient in-
vestigation of Nature in the way of induc-
tion. To form a system, appears to the
young and inexperienced understanding, a
species of creation ; to ascend slowly to
general conclusions, from the observation
and comparison of particular facts, is tc
comment servilely on the works of another.

No opinion, surely, can be more ground-
less. To fix on a few principles, or even
on a single principle, as the foundation of a
theory ; and, by an artful statement of sup-
posed facts, aided by a dexterous use oi
language, to give a plausible explanation,
by means of it, of an immense number of
phenomena, is within the reach of most
men whose talents have been a little exer-
cised among the subtilties of the schools :
whereas, to follow Nature through all her
varieties with a quick yet an exact eye —
to record faithfully what she exhibits, and
to record nothing more — to trace, amidst
the diversity of her operations, the simple
and comprehensive laws by which they are
regulated, and sometimes to guess at the
beneficent purposes to which they are sub-
servient — may be safely pronounced to be
the highest effort of a created intelligence.
And, accordingly, the number of ingenious
theorists has, in every age, been great;
that of sound philosophers has been won-
derfully small ; — or, rather, they are only
beginning now to have a glimpse of their
way, in consequence of the combined lights
furnished by their predecessors.

Des Cartes aimed at a complete system
of physics, deduced oprioHfromtheabstract
suggestions of his own reason ; Newton as-
pired no higher than at a faithful " inter-
pretation of Nature," in a few of the more
general laws which she presents to our no-
tice : and yet the intellectual power displayed
in the voluminous writings of the former
vanishes into nothing when compared with
what we may trace in a single page of the
latter. On this occasion, a remark of Lord
Bacon appears singularly apposite — that
"Alexander and Caesar, thpugh they acted
without the aid of magic or prodigy, per-
formed exploits that are truly greater than
what fable reports of King Arthur or Ama-
dis de Gaul."

I shall only add farther on this head,
that the last observation holds more strictly
with respect to the philosophy of the human
mmd, than any other branch of science;
for there is no subject whatever on which
it is so easy to form theories calculated to
impose on the multitude ; and none where
the discovery of truth is attended with so
many difficulties. One great cause of this



is, the analogical or theoretical terms em-
ployed in ordinary language to express every
thing relating either to our intellectual or
active powers ; in consequence of which,
specious explanations of the most mysteri-
ous phenomena may be given to superficial
inquirers ; while, at the same time, the la-
bour of just investigation is increased to an
incalculable degree.

2. To allege that, in this circumscription
of the field of our inquiries concerning the
mind, there is any tendency to repress a
reasonable and philosophical curiosity, is a
charge no less unfounded than the former ;
inasmuch as every physical inquiry concern-
ing the material world is circumscribed by
limits precisely analogous. In all our in-
vestigations, whatever their subject may be,
the business of philosophy is confined to a
reference of particular facts to other facts
more general ; and our most successful re-
searches must at length terminate in some
law of nature, of which no explanation can
be given. In its application to Dr Reid's
writings, this objection has, I think, been
more pointedly directed against his reason-
ings concerning the process of nature in
perception; a part of his writings which
(as it is of fundamental importance in his
general system) he has laboured with pecu-
liar care. The result is, indeed, by no means
flattering to the pride of those theorists who
profess to explain everything; for it amounts
to an acknowledgment that, after all the
lights which anatomy and physiology supply,
the information we obtain by means of our
senses, concerning the existence and the
qualities of matter, is no less incomprehen-
sible to our faculties than it appears to the
most illiterate peasant ; and that all we
have gained, is a more precise and complete
acquaintance with some particulars in our
animal economy — highly interesting, indeed,
when regarded in their proper light, as ac-
cessions to our physical knowledge, but,
considered in connection with the philoso-
phy of the mind, affording only a more
accurate statement of the astonishing phe-
nomena which we would vainly endeavour
to explain. This language has been charged,
but most unjustly and ignorantly, with mys-
ticism ; for the same charge may be brought,
with equal fairness, against all the most im-
portant discoveries in the sciences. It was,
in truth, the very objection urged against
Newton, when his adversaries contended,
that gravity was to be ranked with the occult
qualities of the schoolmen, till its mechanical
cause should be assigned ; and the answer
given to this objection, by Sir Isaac New-
ton's commentator, Mr Maclaurin, may be
literally applied, in the instance before us.
to the inductive philosophy of the human
mind :—

" The opponents of Newton, finding no-

thing to obj ect to his observations and reason-
ings, pretended to find a resemblance between
his doctrines and the exploded tenets of the
scholastic philosophy. They triumphed
mightily in treating gravity as an occult
quality, because he did not pretend to de-
duce this principle fully from its cause. .

... I know not that ever it was made
an objection to the circulation of the blood,
that there is no small difficulty in account-
ing for it mechanically. They, too, who
first extended gravity to air, vapour, and to
all bodies round the earth, had their praise ;
though the cause of gravity was as obscure
as before ; or rather appeared more myste-
terious, after they had shewn that there
was no body found near the earth, exempt
from gravity, that might be supposed to be
its cause. Why, then, were his admirable
discoveries, by which this principle was ex-
tended over the universe, so ill relished
by some philosophers ? The truth is, he
had, with great evidence, overthrown the
boasted schemes by which they pretended
to unravel all the mysteries of nature ; and
the philosophy he introduced in place of
them, carrying with it a sincere confession
of our being far from a complete and perfect
knowledge of it, could not please those who
had been accustomed to imagine themselves
possessed of the eternal reasons and primary
causes of all things.

"It was, however, no new thing that
this philosophy should meet with opposition.
All the useful discoveries that were made in
former times, and particularly in the seven-
teenth century, had to struggle with the
prejudices of those who had accustomed
themselves, not so much. as to think but in
a certain systematic way ; who could not be
prevailed on to abandon their favourite
schemes, while they were able to imagine
the least pretext for continuing the dispute.
Every art and talent was displayed to sup-
port their falling cause ; no aid seemtd
foreign to them that could in any manner
annoy their adversary ; and such often was
their obstinacy, that truth was able to make
little progress, till they were succeeded by
younger persons, who had not so strongly
imbibed their prejudices."

These excellent observations are not the
less applicable to the subject now under
consideration, that the part of Dr Reid's
writings which suggested the quotation,
leads only to the correction of an inveterate
prejudice, not to any new general conclu-
sion. It is probable, indeed, (now that the
ideal theory has, in a great measure, dis-
appeared from our late metaphysical sys-
tems,) that those who have a pleasure in
detracting from the merits of their prede-
cessors, may be disposed to represent it as
an idle waste of labour and ingenuity to have
entered into a serious refutation of a hypo-



thesis at once gratuitous and inconceivable.
A different judgment, however, will be
formed by such as are acquainted with the
extensive influence which, from the ear-
liest accounts of science, this single preju-
dice has had in vitiating almost every
branch of the philosophy of the mind ; and
who, at the same time, recollect the names
of the illustrious men by whom, in more
modern times, it has been adopted as an
incontrovertible principle. It is sufficient
for me to mention those of Berkeley, Hume,
Locke, Clarke, and Newton. To the two
first of these, it has served as the basis of
their sceptical conclusions, which seem, in-
deed, to follow from it as necessary conse-
quences ; while the others repeatedly refer
to it in their reasonings, as one of those
facts' concerning the mind of which it
would be equally superfluous to attempt a
proof or a refutation.

I have enlarged on this part of Dr
Eeid's writings the more fully, as he was
himself disposed, on all occasions, to rest
upon it his chief merit as an author. In
proof of this, I shall transcribe a few sen-
tences from a letter of his to Dr Gregory,
dated 20th August 1790 :—

" It would be want of candour not to
cwn that I think there is some merit in
what you are pleased to call my Philoso-
phy ; but I think it lies chiefly in having
called in question the common theory of
Ideas, or Images of things in the mind being
the only objects of thought ; a theory
founded on natural prejudices, and so uni-
versally received as to be interwoven with
the structure of language. Yet, were I to
give you a detail of what led me to call in
question this theory, after I had long held
it as self-evident and unquestionable, you
would think, as I do, that there was much
of chance in the matter. The discovery
was the birth of time, not of genius ; and
Berkeley and Hume did more to bring it
to light than the man that hit upon it. I
think there is hardly anything that can be
called mine in the philosophy of the mind,
which does not follow with ease from the
detection of this prejudice.

" I must, therefore, beg of you most ear-
nestly, to make no contrast in my favour
to the disparagement of my predecessors
in the same pursuit. I can truly say of
them, and shall always avow, what you are
pleased to say of me, that, but for the
assistance I have received from their writ-
ings, I never could have wrote or thought
what I have done."

3. Somewhat connected with the last
objection, are the censures which have been
so frequently bestowed on Dr Beid, for an
unnecessary and unsystematical multiplica-
tion of original or instinctive principles.

In reply to these censures, I have little

to add to what I have remarked on the
same topic, in the " Philosophy of the
Human Mind." That the fault which is
thus ascribed to Dr Eeid has been really
committed by some ingenious writers in
this part of the island, I most readily allow ;
nor will I take upon me to assert that he
has, in no instance, fallen into it himself.
Such instances, however, will be found, on
an accurate examination of his works, to
be comparatively few, and to bear a very
trifling proportion to those in which he has
most successfully and decisively displayed
his acuteness in exposing the premature
and flimsy generalizations of his prede-

A certain degree of leaning to that ex-
treme to which Dr Reid seems to have
inclined, was, at the time when he wrote,
much safer than the opposite bias. From
the earliest ages, the sciences in general,
and more particularly the science of the
human mind, have been vitiated by an
undue love of simplicity ; and, in the course
of the last century, this disposition, after
having been long displayed in subtle theo-
ries concerning the active powers, or the
principles of human conduct, has been
directed to similar refinements with respect
to the faculties of the understanding, and
the truths with which they are conversant.
Mr Hume himself has coincided so far with
the Hartleian school, as to represent the
"principle of union and cohesion among
our simple ideas as a kind of attraction, of
as universal application in the mental
world as in the natural ;"* and Dr Hartley,
with a still more sanguine imagination,
looked forward to an era " when future
generations shall put all kinds of evidences
and inquiries into mathematical forms;
reducing Aristotle's ten categories, and
Bishop Wilkin's forty summa genera, to
the head of quantity alone, so as to make
mathematics and logic, natural history and
civil history, natural philosophy and philo-
sophy of all other kinds, coincide, omni ex

It is needless to remark the obvious ten-
dency of such premature generalizations,
to withdraw the attention from the study of
particular phenomena ; while the effect of
Reid's mode of philosophizing, even in
those instances where it is carried to an ex-
cess, is to detain us, in this preliminary
step, a little longer than is absolutely ne-
cessary. The truth is, that, when the
phenomena are once ascertained, generaliz-
ation is here of comparatively little value,
and a task of far less difficulty than to
observe facts with precision, and to record
them with fairness.

• <■ Treatise of Human Nature," vol. i. p so
t i Hartley " On Man," p. 207, «o edit' London,



In no part of Dr Reid's writings, I am
inclined to think, could more plausible criti-
cisms be made on this ground, than in his
classification of our active principles : but,
even there, the facts are always placed
fully and distinctly before the reader. That
several of the benevolent affections which
he has stated as ultimate facts in our con-
stitution, might be analyzed into the same
general principle differently modified, ac-
cording to circumstances, there can, in my
opinion, be little doubt. This, however,
(as I have elsewhere observed,*) notwith-
standing the stress which has been some-
times laid upon it, is chiefly a question
of arrangement. Whether we suppose
these affections to be all ultimate facts, or
some of them to be resolvable into other
facts more general, they are equally to be
regarded as constituent parts of human
nature ; and, upon either supposition, we
have equal reason to admire the wisdom
with which that nature is adapted to the
situation in which it is placed. The laws
which regulate the acquired perceptions of
sight, are surely as much a part of our
frame as those which regulate any of our
original perceptions ; and, although they
require, for their developement, a certain
degree of experience and observation in
the individual, the uniformity of the result
shews that there is nothing arbitrary nor
accidental in their origin. In this point of
view, what can be more philosophical, as
well as beautiful, than the words of Mr
Ferguson, that " natural affection springs
up in the soul of the mother, as the milk
springs in her breast, to furnish nourish-
ment to her child!" "The effect is here
to the race," as the same author has excel-
lently observed, " what the vital motion of
the heart is to the individual ; too neces-
sary to the preservation of nature's works,
to be intrusted to the precarious will or
intention of those most nearly concerned."+

The question, indeed, concerning the
origin of our different affections, leads to
some curious analytical disquisitions; but
is of very subordinate importance to those
inquiries which relate to their laws, and
uses, and mutual references. In many
ethical systems, however, it seems to have
been considered as the most interesting
subject of disquisition which this wonder-
ful part of our frame presents.

In Dr Reid's " Essays on the Intellec-
tual Powers of Man," and in his " Inquiry
into the Human Mind," I recollect little

• " Outlines of Moral Philosophy," pp. 19, 80,
2d edit. Edinburgh, 1801 .

t '* Principles of Moral anil Political Science,"
part I. chap. I. sect 3. " Of the Principles of Society
in Human Nature." The whole discussion unites, in
a singular degree, the.soundest philosophy with the
most eloquent description.

that can justly incur a similar censure,
notwithstanding the ridicule which Dr
Priestley has attempted to throw on the
last of these performances, in his " Table
of Reid's Instinctive Principles."* To
examine all the articles enumerated in that
table, would require a greater latitude of
disquisition than the limits of this memoir
allow; and, therefore, I shall confine my
observations to a few instances, where the
precipitancy of the general criticism seems
to me to admit of little dispute. In this
light I cannot help considering it, when
applied to those dispositions or determina-

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 7 of 114)