Thomas Reid.

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

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his rashness what reason would have pre-
vented : but his suffering proves a salutary
discipline, and makes him for the future
avoid the cause of it. Sometimes he is
imposed upon by his credulity ; but it is of
infinite benefit to him upon the whole. His
activity and credulity are more useful qua-
lities and better instructors than reason
would be ; they teach him more in a day
than reason would do in a year ; they furnish
a stock of materials for reason to work upon ;
they make him easy and happy in a period
of his existence when reason could only
serve to suggest a thousand tormenting
anxieties and fears : and he acts agreeably
to the constitution and intention of nature
even when he does and believes what reason
would not justify. So that the wisdom and
goodness of the Author of nature is no less
conspicuous in withholding the exercise of
our reason in this period, than in bestowing
it when we are ripe for it. [298]

A third class of errors, ascribed to the
fallacy of the senses, proceeds from igno-
rance of the laws of nature.

The laws of nature (I mean not moral
but physical laws) are learned, either from
our own experience, or the experience of
others, who have had occasion to observe
the course of nature.

Ignorance of those laws, or inattention
to them, is apt to occasion false judgments
with regard to the objects of sense, especial-
ly those of hearing and of sight; which
false judgments are often, without good
reason, called fallacies of sense.

Sounds affect the ear differently, accord-
ing as the sounding body is before or behind
us, on the right hand or on the left, near or
at a great distance. We learn, by the
manner in which the sound affects the ear,
on what hand we are to look for the sound-
ing body ; and in most cases we judge right.
But we are sometimes deceived by echoes,
or by whispering galleries, or speaking
trumpets, which return the sound, or alter
its direction, or convey it to a distance with-
out diminution.

The deception is still greater, because




more uncommon, which is said to be pro-
duced by Gastriloquists — that is, persons
who have acquired the art of modifying
their voice, so that it shall affect the ear of the
V-arers, as if it came from another person,
or from the clouds, or from under the earth-

I never had the fortune to be acquainted
with any of these artiste, and therefore can-
not say to what degree of perfection the art
may have bi en carried.

I apprehend it to be only such an im-
perfect imitation as may deceive those who
are inattentive, or under a panic. For, if
it could be carried to perfection, a Gastrilo-
quist would be as dangerous a man in so-
ciety as was the shepherd Gyges,* who, by
turning a ring upon his finger, could make
himself invisible, and, by that means, from
being the king's shepherd, became King of
Lydia. [299]

If the Gastriloquists have all been too
good men to use their talent to the detri-
ment of others, it might at least be expected
that some of them should apply it to their
own advantage. If it could be brought to
any considerable degree of perfection, it
seems to be as proper an engine for draw-
ing money by the exhibition of it, as leger-
demain or rope-dancing. But I have never
heard of any exhibition of this kind, and
therefore am apt to think that it is too
coarse an imitation to bear exhibition, even
to the vulgar.

Some are said to have the art of imitat-
ing the voice of another so exactly that in
the dark they might be taken for the person
whose voice they imitate. I am apt to
think that this art also, in the relations
made of it, is magnified beyond the truth, as
wonderful relations are apt to be, and that
an attentive ear would be able to distinguish
the copy from the original-
It is indeed a wonderful instance of the
accuracy as well as of the truth of our senses,
in things that are of real use in life, that we
are able to distinguish all our acquaintance
by their countenance, by their voice, and
fcy their handwriting, when, at the same
time, we are often unable to say by what
minute difference the distinction is made ;
and that we are so very rarely deceived in
matters of this .kind, when we give proper
attention to the informations of sense.

However, if any case should happen, in
which sounds produced by different causes
are not distinguishable by the ear, this may
prove that our senses are imperfect, but not
that they are fallacious. The ear may not
be able to draw the just conclusion, but it
is only our ignorance of the laws of sound
that leads us to a wrong conclusion. [300]

Deceptions of sight, arising from igno-

* See Cicero, Be Oficiit. The story told by Hero-
dotus is different— H.

ranee of the laws of nature, are more numer-
ous and more remarkable than those oi

The rays of light, which are the means
of seeing, pass in right lines from the object
to the eye, when they meet with no obstruc-
tion ; and we are by nature led to conceive
the visible object to be in the direction of
the rays that come to the eye. But the
rays may be reflected, refracted, or inflected
in their passage from the object to the eye,
according to certain fixed laws of nature,
by which means their direction may be
changed, and consequently the apparent
place, figure, or magnitude of the object.

Thus, a child seeing himself in a mirror,
thinks he sees another child behind the
mirror, that imitates all his motions. But
even a child soon gets the better of this de-
ception, and knows that he sees himself only.

AH the deceptions made by telescopes,
microscopes, camera obscuras, magic lan-
thorns, are of the same kind, though not so
familiar to the vulgar. The ignorant may
be deceived by them ; but to those who are
acquainted with the principles of optics,
they give just and true information ; and the
laws of nature by which they are produced,
are of infinite benefit to mankind.

There remains another class of errors,
commonly called deceptions of sense, and
the only one, as I apprehend, to which that
name can be given with propriety : I mean
such as proceed from some disorder or pre-
ternatural state, either of the external organ
or of the nerves and brain, which are in-
ternal organs of perception.

In a delirium or in madness, perception,
memory, imagination, and our reasoning
powers, are strangely disordered and con-
founded. There are likewise disorders which
affect some of our senses, while others are
sound. Thus, a man may feel pain in his
toes after the leg is cut off. He may feel a
little ball double by crossing his fingers. [301]
He may see an object double, by not direct-
both eyes properly to it. By pressing the
ball of his eye, he may see colours that ar«
not real. By the jaundice in his eyes, he
may mistake colours. These are more
properly deceptions of sense than any of the
classes before mentioned.

We must acknowledge it to be the lot of
human nature, that all the human faculties
are liable, by accidental causes, to be hurt
and unfitted for their natural functions,
either wholly or in part : but as this imper-
fection is common to them all, it gives no
just ground for accounting any of them

Upon the whole, it seems to have been a
common error of philosophers to account
the senses fallacious. And to this error
they have added another — that one use of
reason is to detect the fallacies of sense.






It appears, I think, from what has been
said, that there is no more reason to account
our senses fallacious, than our reason, our
memory, or any other faculty of judging
which nature hath given us. They are all
limited and imperfect ; but wisely suited to
the present condition of man. We are
liable to error and wrong judgment in the
use of them all ; but as little in the inform-
ations of sense as in the deductions of
reasoning. And the errors we fall into with
regard to objects of sense are not corrected
by reason, but by more accurate attention
to the informations we may receive by our
senses themselves.

Perhaps the pride of philosophers may
have given occasion to this error. Reason
is the faculty wherein they assume a supe-
riority to the unlearned. The informations
of sense are common to the philosopher and
to the most illiterate : they put all men
upon a level ; and therefore are apt to be
undervalued. We must, however, be be-
holden to the informations of sense for the
greatest and most interesting part of our

knowledge. [302] The wisdom of nature
has made the most useful things most com-
mon, and they ought not to be despised on
that account. Nature likewise forces our
belief in those informations, and all the
attempts of philosophy to weaken it are
fruitless and vain.

I add only one observation to what has
been said upon this subject. It is, that thei e
seems to be a contradiction between what
philosophers teach concerning ideas, and
their doctrine of the fallaciousness of the
senses. We are taught that the office of
the senses is only to give us the ideas of
external objects. If this be so, there can
be no fallacy in the senses. Ideas can
neither be true nor false. If the senses
testify nothing, they cannot give false testi-
mony. If they are not judging faculties, no
judgment can be imputed to them, whether
false or true. There is, therefore, a contra-
diction between the common doctrine con-
cerning ideas and that of the fallaciousness
of the senses. Both may be false, as I believe
they are, but both cannot be true. [303]





In the gradual progress of man, from
infancy to maturity, there is a certain order
in which his faculties are unfolded, and this
seems to be the best order we can follow in
treating of them.

The external senses appear first ; me-
mory soon follows — which we are now to

It is by memory that we have an imme-
diate knowledge of things past.* The
senses give us information of things only as
they exist in the present moment ; and this
information, if it were not preserved by
memory, would vanish instantly, and leave
us as ignorant as if it had never been.

Memory must have an object. Every
man who remembers must remember some-

* An immediate knowledgeof a pithing is a con-
tradiction. For we can only know a thing imme-
diately, if we know it in itself, or as existing ; hut
what is past cannot be known in itself, for it is non.
existent. — H.

thing, and that which he remembers is
called the object of his remembrance. I n
this, memory agrees with perception, but
differs from sensation, which has no object
but the feeling itself.* [304]

Every man can distinguish the thing re-
membered from the remembrance of it.
We may remember anything which we have
seen, or heard, or known, or done, or suf-
fered ; but the remembrance of it is a par-
ticular act of the mind which now exists,
and of which we are conscious. To con-
found these two is an absurdity, which a
thinking man could not be led into, but by
some false hypothesis which hinders him
from reflecting upon the thing which he
would explain by it.

In memory we do not find such a train
of operations connected by our constitution
as in perception. When we perceive an
object by our senses, there is, first, some
impression made by the object upon the
organ of sense, either immediately, or by
means of some medium. By this, an im-


* But have we only such a mediate knowledge of
the real object in perception, as we have of the real
object in memory ? On Reid's error, touching the
object of memory, see, in general. Note B. — H.
z 2



[_ESSAY hi

pression is made upon the nerves and brain,
in consequence of which we feel some sensa-
tion ; and that sensation is attended by that
conception and belief of the external object
which we call perception. These opera-
tions are so connected in our constitution,
tl iat it is difficult to disjoin them in our con-
ceptions, and to attend to each without con-
founding it with the others. But, in the
operations of memory, we are free from this
embarrassment ; they are easily distin-
guished from all other acts of the mind, and
the names which denote them are free from
all ambiguity.

The objeet of memory, or thing remem-
bered, must be something that is past ; as
the objeet of perception and of conscious-
ness must be something which is present.
What now is, cannot be an object of
memory ; neither can that which is past
and gone be an object of perception or of

Memory is always accompanied with the
belief of that which we remember, as per-
ception is accompanied with the belief of
that which we perceive, and consciousness
with the belief of that whereof we are con-
scious. Perhaps in infancy, or in a disorder
of mind, things remembered may be con-
founded with those which are merely ima-
gined ; but in mature years, and in a sound
state of mind, every man feels that he must
believe what he distinctly remembers,
though he can give no other reason of his
belief, but that he remembers the thing dis-
tinctly ; whereas, when he merely imagines
a thing ever so distinctly, he has no belief
of it upon that account- [305]

This belief, which we have from distinct
memory, we account real knowledge, no
less certain than if it was grounded on de-
monstration ; no man in his wits calls it in
question, or will hear any argument against
it.* The testimony of witnesses in causes
of life and death depends upon it, and all
the knowledge of mankind of past events is
built on this foundation.

There are cases in which a man*s me-
mory is less distinct and determinate, and
where he is ready to allow that it may have
failed him ; but this does not in the least
weaken its credit, when it is perfectly dis-

Memory implies a conception and belief
of past duration ; for it is impossible that a
man should remember a thing distinctly,
without believing some interval of duration,
more or less, to have passed between the
time it happened, and the present moment ;
and I think it is impossible to shew how
we could acquire a notion of duration if we
had no memory. Things remembered
must be things formerly perceived or

* But see below, p. 9S2.—H.

known. I remember the transit of Venus
over the sun in the year 1769. I. must
therefore have perceived it at the time it
happened, otherwise I could not now re-
member it. Our first acquaintance with
any object of thought cannot be by remem-
brance. Memory can only produce a con-
tinuance or renewal of a former acquaint-
ance with the thing remembered.

The remembrance of a past event is ne-
cessarily accompanied with the conviction
of our own existence at the time the event
happened. I cannot remember a thing
that happened a year ago, without a con-
viction as strong as memory can give, that
I, the same identical person who now re-
member that event, did then exist. [306]

What I have hitherto said concerning
memory, I consider as principles which ap-
pear obvious and certain to every man who
will take the pains to reflect upon the oper-
ations of his own mind. They are facts of
which every man must judge by what he
feels ; and they admit of no other proof
but an appeal to every man's own reflec-
tion. I shall therefore take them for
granted in what follows, and shall, first,
draw some conclusions from them, and
then examine the theories of philoso-
phers concerning memory, and concerning
duration, and our personal identity, of
which we acquire the knowledge by me-



First, I think it appears, that memory
is an original faculty, given us by the
Author of our being, of which we can give
no account, but that we are so made.

The knowledge which I have of things
past, by my memory, seems to me as unac-
countable as an immediate knowledge
would be of things to come ; * and I can
give no reason why I should have the one
and not the other, but that such is the will
of my Maker. I find in my mind a distinct
conception, and a firm belief of a series of
past events ; but how this is produced I
know not. I call it memory, but this is
only giving a name to it — it is not an ac-
count of its cause. I believe most firmly,
what I distinctly remember ; but I can

* An immediate knowledge of things to come, is
equally a contradiction as an immediate knowledge of
things past. See the first note of last page. But if,
ai Reid himself allows, memory depend upon cer-
tain enduring affections of the brain, determined by
past cognition, it seems a strange assertion, on this
as on other accounts, that the possibility of a know-
ledge of the future is not more inconceivable than
of a knowledge of the past. Maupertuis, how ver,
has advanced a similar doctrine ; and some, also, oi
) tfie advocates of animal magnetism H.

[305, 3061




give no reason of this belief. It is the in-
spiration of the Almighty that gives me
this understanding.* [307]

When I believe the truth of a mathema-
tical axiom, or of a mathematical proposi-
tion, I see that it must be so : every man
who has the same conception of it sees the
same. There is a necessary and an evident
connection between the subject and the pre-
dicate of the proposition ; and I have all
the evidence to support my belief which I
can possibly conceive.

When I believe that I washed my hands
and face this morning, there appears no ne-
cessity in the truth of this proposition. It
might be, or it might not be. A man may
distinctly conceive it without believing it at
all. How then do I come to believe it ? I
remember it distinctly. This is all I can
say. This remembrance is an act of my
mind. Is it impossible that this act should
be, if the event had not happened ? I con-
fess I do not see any necessary connection
between the one and the other. If any man
can shew such a necessary connection, then
I think that belief which we have of what
we remember will be fairly accounted for ;
but, if this cannot be done, that belief is un-
accountable, and we can say no more but
that it is the result of our constitution.

Perhaps it may be said, that the ex-
perience we have had of the fidelity of me-
mory is a good reason for relying upon its
testimony. I deny not that this maybe a
reason to those who have had this expe-
rience, and who reflect upon it. But 1 be-
lieve there are few who ever thought of this
reason, or who found any need of it. It
must be some very rare occasion that leads
a man to have recourse to it ; and in those
who have done so, the testimony of memory
was believed before the experience of its
fidelity, and that belief could not be caused
by the experience which came after it.

We know some abstract truths, by com-
paring the terms of the proposition which
expresses them, and perceiving some ne-
cessary relation or agreement between them.
It is thus I know that two and three make
five ; that the diameters of a circle are all
equal. [308] Mr Locke having discovered
this source of knowledge, too rashly con-
cluded that all human knowledge might be
derived from it ; and in this he has been
followed very generally — by Mr Hume in

But I apprehend that our knowledge of
the existence of things contingent can never
be traced to this source. I know that such
a thing exists, or did exist. This know-
ledge cannot be derived from the perception
of a necessary agreement between existence

* " The inspiration of the Almighty giveth them
understanding." — Job. — H.

and the thing that exists, because there is
no such necessary agreement ; and there-
fore no such agreement can be perceived
either immediately or by a chain of reason-
ing. The thing does not exist necessarily,
but by the will and power of him that made
it ; and there is no contradiction follows from
supposing it not to exist.

Whence I think it follows, that our know-
ledge of the existence of our own thoughts
of the existence of all the material objects
about us, and of all past contingencies,
must be derived, not from a perception of
necessary relations or agreements, but from
some other source.

Our Maker has provided other means for
giving us the knowledge of these things —
means which perfectly answer their end,
and produce the effect intended by them.
But in what manner they do this, is, I fear,
beyond our skill to explain. We know our
own thoughts, and the operations of our
minds, by a power which we call conscious-
ness : but this is only giving a name to this
part of our frame. It does not explain its
fabric, nor how it produces in us an irre-
sistible conviction of its informations. We
perceive material objects and their sensible
qualities by our senses ; but how they give
us this information, and how they produce
our belief in it, we know not. We know
many past events by memory ; but how it
gives this information, I believe, is inex-

It is well known what subtile disputes
were held through all the scholastic ages,
and are still carried on about the prescience
of the Deity. [309] Aristotle had taught
that there can be no certain foreknowledge
of things contingent ; and in this he has
been very generally followed, upon no other
grounds, as I apprehend, but that we can-
not conceive how such things should be
foreknown, and therefore conclude it to be
impossible* Hence has arisen an opposi-
tion and supposed inconsistency between
divine prescience and human liberty. Some
have given up the first in favour of the last,
and others have given up the last in order
to support the first.

It is remarkable that these disputants
have never apprehended that there is any
difficulty in reconciling with liberty the
knowledge of what is past, but only of what
is future. It is prescience only, and not
memory, that is supposed to be hostile to
liberty, and hardly reconcileable to it.

Yet I believe the difficulty is perfectly
equal in the one case and in the other. I
admit, that we cannot account for prescience
of the actions of a free agent. But I main-
tain that we can as little account for me-
mory of the past actions of a free agent.
If any man thinks he can prove that the
j actions of a free agent cannot be foreknown.



[essay III

he will find the same arguments of equal
force to prove that the past actions of a free
agent cannot be remembered.* It is true,
that what is past did certainly exist. It is
no less true that what is future will cer-
tainly exist. I know no reasoning from the
constitution of the agent, or from his cir-
cumstances, that has not equal strength,
whether it be applied to his past or to his
future actions. The past was, but now is
not. The future will be, but now is not.
The present is equally connected or un-
connected with both.

The only reason why men have appre-
hended so great disparity in cases so per-
fectly like, I take to be this, That the faculty
of memory in ourselves convinces us from
fact, that it is not impossible that an in-
telligent being, even a finite being, should
have certain knowledge of past actions of
free agents, without tracing them from any-
thing necessarily connected with them.
[310] But having no prescience in our-
selves corresponding to our memory of what
is past, we find great difficulty in admitting
it to be possible even in the Supreme

A faculty which we possess in some de-
gree, we easily admit that the Supreme
Being may possess in a more perfect degree ;
but a faculty which has nothing corre-
sponding to it in our constitution, we will
hardly allow to be possible. We are so
constituted as to have an intuitive know-
ledge of many things past ; but we have no
intuitive knowledge of the future. -f* "We
might perhaps have been so constituted as
to have an intuitive knowledge of the future;
but not of the past ; nor would this consti-
tution have been more unaccountable than
the present, though it might be much more
inconvenient. Had this been our consti-
tution, we should have found no difficulty
in admitting that the Deity may know all
things future, but very much in admitting
his knowledge of things that are past.

Our original faculties are all unaccount-
able. Of these memory is one. He only
who made them, comprehends fully how they
are made, and how they produce in us not

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 77 of 114)