Thomas Reid.

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

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only a conception, but a firm belief and
assurance of things which it concerns us to

* This is a marvellous doctrine. The difficulty in
the two cases is not the same. The past, as past,
whether it has been the action of a free agent or not,
is now necessary ; and, though we may be unable to
iinderstard how it can be remembered', the supposi-
tion of its rf membrance involves no contradiction.
On the contrary, the future action of a free agent is
ex hypotheH not a necessary event. J tit an event
cannot be now certainly foreseen, except it is now
cc. lainly lobe ; and to say that what is certainly to be
in not necessarily to be, s-.ems a contradiction H.

T If by intuitivebcmeintimmcdiate, such a know-
leogei. impossible. in either esse; for we can know
neither the past nor the/uhwvin themselves, but
only in Hie present— that i*, mediately.— H.



From the principles laid down in the
first chapter of this Essay, I think it appears
that our notion of duration, as well as our
belief of it, is got by the faculty of memory. *
It is essential to everything remembered
that it be something which is past ; and we
cannot conceive a thing to be past, without
conceiving some duration, more or less, be-
tween it and the present. [311] As soon
therefore as we remember anything, we
must have both a notion and a 'belief of
duration. It is necessarily suggested by
every operation of our memory ; and to that
faculty it ought to -be ascribed. This is,
therefore, a proper place to consider what
is known concerning it-
Duration, Extension, and Number, are
the measures of all things subject to men-
suration. When we apply them to finite
things which are measured by them, they
seem of all things to be the most distinctly
conceived, and most within the reach of
human understanding.

Extension having three dimensions, has
an endless variety of modifications, capable
of being accurately defined ; and their
various relations furnish the human mind
with its most ample field of demonstrative
reasoning. Duration having only one di-
mension, has fewer modifications ; but these
are clearly understood — and their relations
admit of measure, proportion, and demon-
strative reasoning.

Number is called discrete quantity, be-
cause it is compounded of units, which are
all equal and similar, and it can only be
divided into units. This is true, in some
sense, even of fractions of unity, to which
we now commonly give the name of num-
ber. For, in every fractional number, die
unit is supposed to be subdivided into a
certain number of equal parts, which are
the units of that denomination, and the
fractions of that denomination are only di-
visible into units of the same denomination.
Duration and extension are not discrete,
but continued quantity. They consist of
parts perfectly similar, but divisible without

In order to aid our conception of the mag-
nitude and proportions of the various inter-
vals of duration, we find it necessary to give
a name to some known portion of it, such
as an hour, a day, a year. These we con-
sider as units, and, by the number of them
contained in a larger interval, we form a
distinct conception of its magnitude. [312]
A similar expedient we find necessary to give

* Rcid thus apparently makes Time an empirical
oi generalized notion. — H.





us a distinct conception of the magnitudes
and proportions of things extended. Thus,
number is found necessary, as a common
measure of extension and duration. But
this perhaps is owing to the weakness of our
understanding. It has even been disco-
vered, by the sagacity of mathematicians,
that this expedient does not in all cases
answer its intention. For there are pro-
portions of continued quantity, which can-
not be perfectly expressed by numbers ;
such as that between the diagonal and side
of a square, and many others.

The parts of duration have to other parts
of it the relations of prior and posterior,
and to the present they have the relations
of past and future. The notion of past is
immediately suggested by memory, as has
been before observed. And when we have
got the notions of present and past, and of
prior and posterior, we can from these
frame a notion of the future ; for the future
is that which is posterior to the present.
Nearness and distance are relations equally
applicable to time and to place. Distance in
time, and distance in place, are things to
different in their nature and so like in their
relation, that it is difficult to determine
whether the name of distance is applied to
both in the same, or an analogical sense.

The extension of bodies which we per-
ceive by our senses, leads us necessarily to
the conception and belief of a space which
remains immoveable when the body is re-
moved. And the duration of events which
we remember leads us necessarily to the
conception and belief of a duration which
would have gone on uniformly though the
event had never happened. •

Without space there can be nothing that
is extended. And without time there
can be nothing that hath duration. This I
think undeniable ; and yet we find that ex-
tension and duration are not more clear and
intelligible than space and time are dark and
difficult objects of contemplation. [313]

As there must be space wherever any-
thing extended does or can exist, and time

* If Space and Time be necessary generalizations
(ri'Tn experience, this is contrary to Reid's own doc-
trine, that experience can give us no necessary know,
ledge. If, again, they be necessary- and original
notions, the account of their origin here given, is in.
correct. It-should have been said that experience is
not the source of their existence, but only the occa-
sion' of their manifestation. On this subject, see,
instar omnium. Cousin on Locke, in his ** Cours
de Philosophie," (t. ii., Lecons 17 and. IS.) This
admirable work has been well translated into Eng-
lish, by an American, philosopher, Mr Henry; but
the eloquence and precision of the author can only
be properly appreciated by those who study the work
in the original language. The reader may, however,
consult likewise Stewart's " Philosophical Essays."
(Essay ft, "chap. «,) .and Hoyer Collard's "Frag-
ments," (ix. and x.) These authors, from their more
limited acquaintance witli the si leculations of the Ger-
man philosophers, are, however, lesson a level with
the problem. — H.
[313, 314]

when there is or can be anything that has
duration, we can set no bounds to either,
even in our imagination. They defy all
limitation. The one swells in our concep-
tion to immensity, the other to eternity.

An eternity past is an object which we
cannot comprehend ; but a beginning of
time, unless we take it in a figurative sense,
is a contradiction. By a common figure of
speech, we give the name of time to those
motions and revolutions by which we mea-
sure it, such as days and years. We can
conceive a beginning of these sensible mea-
sures of time, and say that there was a time
when they were not, a time undistinguished
by any motion or change ; but to say that
there was a time before all time, is a con-

All limited duration is comprehended in
time, and all limited extension in space.
These, in their capacious womb, contain all
finite existences, but are contained by none.
Created things have their particular place
in space, and their particular place in time ;
but time is everywhere, and spaceat all'times.
They embrace each the other, and have that
mysterious union which the schoolmen con-
ceived between soul and body. The whole
of each is in every part of the other.

We are at a loss to what category or class
of things we ought to refer them. They
are not beings, but rather the receptacles
of every created being, without which it
could not have had the possibility of exist-
ence. Philosophers have endeavoured to
reduce all the objects of human thought to
these three classes, of substances, modes,
and relations. To which of them shall we
refer time, space, and number, the most
common objects of thought ? [314]

Sir Isaac Newton thought that the Deity,
by existing everywhere and at all times,
constitutes time and space, immensity and
eternity. This probably suggested to his
great friend, Dr Clarke, what he calls the
argument a priori for the existence of an
immense and eternal Being. Space and
time, he thought, are only abstract or par-
tial conceptions of an immensity and eter-
nity which forces itself upon our belief.
And as immensity and eternity are not
substances, they must be the attributes of a
Being who is necessarily immense and
eternal. These are the speculations of men
of superior genius. But whether they be
as solid as they are sublime, or whether
they be the wanderings of imagination in a
region beyond the limits of human under-
standing, I am unable to determine.

The schoolmen made eternity to be a
nunc staits — that is, a moment of time that
stands still. This was to put a spoke into
the wheel of time, and might give satisfac-
tion to those who are to be satisfied by
words without meaning. But I can as



[essav mi

easily believe a circle to be a square as
time to stand still.

Such paradoxes and riddles, if I may so
call them, men are involuntarily led into
when they reason about time and space,
and attempt to comprehend their nature.
They are probably things of which the hu-
man faculties give an imperfect and inade-
quate conception. Hence difficulties arise
which we in vain attempt to overcome, and
doubts which we are unable to resolve.
Perhaps some faculty which we possess not,
is necessary to remove the darkness which
hangs over them, and makes us so apt to
bewilder ourselves when we reason about
them. [315]



The conviction which every man has of
his Identity, as far back as his memory
reaches, needs no aid of philosophy to
strengthen it ; and no philosophy can weaken
it, without first producing some degree of

The philosopher, however, may very
properly consider this conviction as a phje-
nomenon of human nature worthy of his
attention. If he can discover its cause, an
addition is made to his stock of knowledge.
If not, it must be held as a part of our ori-
ginal constitution, or an effect of that con-
stitution produced in a manner unknown
to us.

We may observe, first of all, that this con-
viction is indispensably necessary to all ex-
ercise of reason. The operations of reason,
whether in action or in speculation, are
made up of successive parts. The antece-
dent are the foundation of the consequent,
and, without the conviction that the ante-
cedent have been seen or done by me, I
could have no reason to proceed to the con-
sequent, in any speculation, or in any
active project whatever.

There can be no memory of what is past
without the conviction that we existed at
the time remembered. There may be good
arguments to convince me that I existed
before the earliest thing I can remember ;
but to suppose that my memory reaches a
moment farther back than my belief and
conviction of my existence, is a contradic-

The moment a man loses this conviction,
as if he had drunk the water of Lethe, past
things are done away; and, in his own
belief, he then begins to exist. [31 G]
Whatever was thought, or said, or doue,
or suffered before that period, may belong
to some other person ; but he can never
Impute it to himself, or take any subse-

quent step that supposes it to be his do-

From this it is evident that we must
have the conviction of our own continued
existence and identity, as soon as we are
capable of thinking or doing anything, on
account of what we have thought, or done,
or suffered before ; that is, as soon as we
are reasonable creatures.

That we may form as distinct a notion as
weareableof this phenomenon of the human
mind, it is proper to consider what is meant
by identity in general, what by our own
personal identity, and how we are led into
that invincible belief and conviction which
every man has of his own personal identity,
as far as his memory reaches.

Identity in general, I take to be a rela-
tion between a thing which is known to
exist at one time, and a thing which is
known to have existed at another time.*
If you ask whether they are one and the
same, or two different things, every man of
common sense understands the meaning of
your question perfectly. Whence we may
infer with certainty, that every man of
common sense has a clear and distinct no-
tion of identity.

If you ask a definition of identity, I con-
fess I can give none ; it is too simple a no-
tion to admit of logical definition. I can
say it is a relation ; but I cannot find words
to express the specific difference between
this and other relations, though I am in no
danger of confounding it with any other.
I can say that diversity is a contrary rela-
tion, and that similitude and dissimilitude
are another couple of contrary relations,
which every man easily distinguishes in his
conception from identity and diversity.

I see evidently that identity supposes
an uninterrupted continuance of existence.
That which hath ceased to exist, cannot be
the same with that which afterwards begins
to exist ; for this would be to suppose a
being to exist after it ceased to exist, and
to have had existence before it was produced,
which are manifest contradictions. Con-
tinued uninterrupted existence is therefore
necessarily implied in identity.

Hence we may infer that identity cannot,
in its proper sense, be applied to our pains,
our pleasures, our thoughts, or any opera-
tion of our minds. The pain felt this day
is not the same individual pain which I felt
yesterday, though they may be similar in
kind and degree, and have the same cause.
The same may be said of every feeling and
of every operation of mind : they are all

* Identity is a relation between our cognitions of
a thing, and not between.,things themselves. It
would, therefore, have been better in this sentence to
Have said, " a relation, le'ivcen a thing as known to
exist at one time, and a thing as known
another tinu'."— . H.






successive in their nature, like time itself,
no two moments of which can be the same

It is otherwise with the parts of absolute
space. They always are, and were, and
will be the same. So far, I think, we pro-
ceed upon clear ground in fixing the notion
of identity in general.

It is, perhaps, more difficult to ascertain
with precision the meaning of Personality;
but it is not necessary in the present sub-
ject : it is sufficient for our purpose to
observe, that all mankind place their per-
sonality in something that cannot be divided,
or consist of parts. A part of a person is
a manifest absurdity.

When a man loses his estate, his health,
his strength, he is still the same person,
and has lost nothing of his personality. If
he has a leg or an arm cut off, he is the
same person he was before. The amputated
member is no part of his person, otherwise
it would have a right to a part of his
estate, and be liable for a part of his en-
gagements ; it would be entitled to a share of
his merit and demerit — which is manifestly
absurd. A person is something indivisible,
and is what Leibnitz calls a monad. [318]

My personal identity, therefore implies
the continued existence of that indivisible
thing which I call myself. Whatever this
self may be, it is something which thinks,
and deliberates, and resolves, and acts, and
suffers. I am not thought, I am not action,
I am not feeling; I am something that
thinks, and acts, and suffers. My thoughts,
and actions, and feelings, change every
moment — they have no continued, but a
successive existence ; but that self or /, to
which they belong, is permanent, and has the
same relation to all the succeeding thoughts,
actions, and feelings, which I call mine.

Such are the notions that I have of my
personal identity. But perhaps it may be
said, this may all be fancy without reality.
How do you know? — what evidence have
you, that there is such a permanent self
which has a claim to all the thoughts,
actions, and feelings, which you call yours ?

To this I answer, that the proper evi-
dence I have of all this is remembrance. I
remember that, twenty years ago, I conversed
with such a person ; I remember several
things that passed in that conversation;
my memory testifies not only that this was
done, but that it was done by me who now
remember it. If it was done by me, I must
have existed at that time, and continued to
exist from that time to the present : if the
identical person whom I call myself, had
net a part in that conversation, my memory
is fallacious — it gives a distinct and positive
testimony of wTiat is not true. Every man
in his senses believes what he distinctly
remembers, and everything he remembers

convinces him that he existed at the time

Although memory gives the most irre-
sistible evidence of my being the identical
person that did such a thing, at such a time,
I may have other good evidence of things
which befel me, and which I do not remem-
ber: I know who bare me and suckled me,
but I do not remember these events. [319]

It may here be observed, (though the
observation would have been unnecessary if
some great philosophers had not contra-
dicted it,) that it is not my remembering
any action of mine that makes me to be
the person who did it. This remembrance
makes me to know assuredly that I did it ;
but I might have done it though I did not
remember it. That relation to me, which
is expressed by saying that I did it, would
be the same though I had not the least re-
membrance of it. To say that my remem-
bering that I did such a thing, or, as some
choose to express it, my being conscious
that I did it, makes me to have done it,
appears to me as great an absurdity as it
would be to say, that my belief that the
world was created made it to be created.

When we pass judgment on the identity
of other persons besides ourselves, we pro-
ceed upon other grounds, and determine
from a variety of circumstances, which
sometimes produce the firmest assurance,
and sometimes leave room for doubt. The
identity of persons has often furnished mat-
ter of serious litigation before tribunals of
justice. But no man of a sound mind ever
doubted of his own identity, as far as he
distinctly remembered.

The identity of a person is a perfect
identity ; wherever it is real, it admits of no
degrees ; and it is impossible that a person
should be in part the same, and in part
different ; because a person is a monad, and
is not divisible into parts. The evidence of
identity in other persons besides ourselves
does indeed admit of all degrees, from what
we account certainty to the least degree of
probability. But still it is true that the
same person is perfectly the same, and can-
not be so in part, or in some degree only.

For this cause, I have first considered
personal identity, as that which is perfect
in its kind, and the natural measure of that
which is imperfect. [320]

We probably at first derive our notion of
identity from that natural conviction which
every man has from the dawn of reason of
his own identity and continued existence.
The operations of our minds are all succes-
sive, and have no continued existence. But
the thinking being has a continued exist-
ence ; and we have an invincible belief that
it remains the same when all its thoughts
and operations change.

Our judgments of the identity of objects



of sense seem to be formed much upon the
same grounds as our judgments of the
identity of other persons besides ourselves.
Wherever we observe great similarity,
we are apt to presume identity, if no reason
appears to the contrary. Two objects ever
so like, when they are perceived at the same
time, cannot be the same ; but, if they are
presented to our senses at different times,
we are apt to think them the same, merely
from their similarity.

Whether this be a natural prejudice, or
from whatever cause it proceeds, it cer-
tainly appears in children from infancy ;
and, when we grow up, it is confirmed in
most instances by experience ; for we rarely
find two individuals of the same species that
are not distinguishable by obvious differ-

A man challenges a thief whom he finds
in possession of his horse or his watch, only
on similarity. When the watchmaker
swears that he sold this watch to such a
person, his testimony is grounded on simi-
larity. The testimony of witnesses to the
identity of a person is commonly grounded
on no other evidence.

Thus it appears that the evidence we
have of our own identity, as far back as we
remember, is totally of a different kind from
the evidence we have of the identity of other
persons, or of objects of sense. The first
is grounded on memory, and gives un-
doubted certainty. The last is grounded on
similarity, and on other circumstances,
which in many cases are not so decisive as
to leave no room for doubt. [321]

It may likewise be observed, that the
ideutity of objects of sense is never perfect.
AH bodies, as they consist of innumerable
parts that may be disjoined from them by
a great variety of causes, are subject to
continual changes of their substance, in-
creasing, diminishing, changing insensibly.
When such alterations are gradual, because
language could not afford a different name
for every different state of such a change-
able being, it retains the same name, and
is considered as the same thing. Thus
we say of an old regiment that it did such a
thing a century ago, though there now is not
a man alive who then belonged to it. We say
a tree is the same in the seed-bed and in the
forest. A ship of war, which has successively
changed her anchors, her tackle, her sails,
her masts, her planks, and her timbers, while
she keeps the same name, is the same.

The identity, therefore, which we ascribe
to bodies, whether natural or artificial, is
not perfect identity ; it is rather some-
thing which, for the conveniency of speech,
we call identity. It admits of a great
change of the subject, providing the change
be gradual, sometimes even of a total
ebauue. And the changes which in com-

mon language are made consistent with
identity, differ from those that are thought
to destroy it, not in kind, but in number
and degree. It has no fixed nature when
applied to bodies ; and questions about the
identity of a body are very often questions
about words. But identity, when applied
to persons, has no ambiguity, and admits
not of degrees, or of more and less. It is
the foundation of all rights and obligations,
and of all accountablenegs ; and the notion
of it is fixed and precise. [322]



It was a very laudable attempt of Mr
Locke " to inquire into the original of those
ideas, notions, or whatever you please to
call them, which a man observes, and is
conscious to himself he has hi his mind,
and the ways whereby the understanding
comes to be furnished with them." No
man was better qualified for this investi-
gation ; and I believe no man ever en-
gaged in it with a more sincere love of

His success, though great, would, I ap-
prehend, have been greater, if he had not
too early formed a, system or hypothesis
upon this subject, without all the caution
and patient induction, which is necessary
in drawing general conclusions from facts.

The sum of his doctrine I take to be
this — " That all our ideas or notions may
be reduced to two classes, the simple and
the complex : That the simple are purely
the work of Nature, the understanding
being merely passive in receiving them :
That they are all suggested by two powers
of the mind — to wit, Sensation and Reflec-
tion;* and that they are the materials of
all our knowledge. That the other class of
complex ideas are formed by the under-
standing itself, which, being once stored
with simple ideas of sensation and reflec-
tion, has the power to repeat, to compare,
and to combine them, even to an almost
infinite variety, and so can make at pleasure
new complex ideas : but that is not in the
power of the most exalted wit, or enlarged

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 78 of 114)