Thomas Reid.

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

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* That Locke did not (as even Mr Stewart sup-
poses) introduce Hi flection, either name or thing,
into the philosophy of mind, see Note I. Not
was he even the first explicitly to enunciate Sense
and Reflection as the two sources of our knowledge ;
for I can shew that this had been done in a far more
philosophical manner by some of the schoolmen j
Inflection with them not being merely, as with
Locke, a source of adventitious, empirical, or a pos-
teriori knowledRo, but the mean by which we dis-
close aU-o the native, pure, or a prion cognitions
which the intellect itself contains.— H.

T321, 322"!


understanding, by any quickness or variety
of thought, to invent or frame one new
simple idea in the mind, not taken in by
the two ways before- mentioned. [323] That,
as our power over the material world reaches
only to the compounding, dividing, and
putting together, in various forms, the
matter which God has made, but reaches
not to the production or annihilation of a
single atom ; so we may compound, com-
pare, and abstract the original and simple
ideas which Nature has given us ; but are
unable to fashion in our understanding any
simple idea, not received in by our senses
from external objects, or by reflection from
the operations of our own mind about them."

This account of the origin of all our ideas
is adopted by Bishop Berkeley and Mr
Hume; but some very ingenious philoso-
phers, who have a high esteem of Locke's
Essay, are dissatisfied with it.

Dr Hutcheson of Glasgow, in his " In-
quiry into the Ideas of Beauty and Virtue,"
lias endeavoured to shew that these are
original and simple ideas, furnished by
original powers, which he calls the sense of
beauty and the moral sense.

Dr Price, in his " Review of the Principal
Questions and Difficulties in Morals," has
observed, very justly, that, if we take the
words sensation and n flection, as Mr Locke
has defined them in the beginning of his
excellent Essay, it will be impossible to
derive some of the most important of our
ideas from them ; and that, by the under-
standing — that, is by our j udging and reason-
ing power — we are furnished with many
simple and original notions.

Mr Locke says that, by reflection, he
would be understood to mean " the notice
which the mind takes of its own operations,
and the manner of them." This, I think, we
commonly call consciousness ; from which,
indeed, we derive all the notions we have
of the operations of our own minds ; and he
often speaks of the operations of our own
minds, as the only objects of reflection.

When reflection is taken in this confined
sense, to say that all our ideas are ideas
either of sensation or reflection, is to say
that everything we can conceive is either
some object of sense or some operation of
our own minds, which is far from being
true. [324]

But the word reflection is commonly used
in a much more extensive sense ; it is ap-
plied to many operations of the mind, with
more propriety than to that of conscious-
ness. We reflect, when we remember, or
call to mind what is past, and survey it
with attention. We reflect, when we define,
when we distinguish, when we judge, when
we reason, whether about things material
or intellectual.

When reflection is taken in this sense,

which is more common, and therefore more
proper* than the sense which Mr Locke
has put upon it, it may be justly said to be
the only source of all our distinct and ac-
curate notions of things. For, although our
first notions of material things are got by
the external senses, and our first notions of
the operations of our own minds by con-
sciousness, these first notions are neither
simple nor clear. Our senses and our con-
sciousness are continually shifting from one
object to another ; their operations are tran-
sient and momentary, and leave no distinct
notion of their objects, until they are re-
called by memory, examined with attention,
and compared with other things.

This reflection is not one power of the
mind ; it comprehends many ; such as re-
collection, attention, distinguishing, com-
paring, judging. By these powers our minds
are furnished not only with many simple
and original notions, but with all ournotions,
which are accurate and well defined, and
which alone are the proper materials of
reasoning. Many of these are neither no-
tions of the objects of sense, nor of the
operations of our own minds, .and therefore
neither ideas of sensation, nor of reflection,
in the sense that Mr Locke gives to reflec-
tion. But, if any one chooses to call them
ideas of reflection, taking the word in the
more common and proper sense, I have no
objection. [325]

Mr Locke seems to me to have used the
word reflection sometimes in that limited
sense which he has given to it in the defi-
nition before mentioned, and sometimes to
have fallen unawares into the common sense
of the word ; and by this ambiguity his ac-
count of the origin of our ideas is darkened
and perplexed.

Having premised these things in general
of Mr Locke's theory of the origin of our
ideas or notions, I proceed to some observ-
ations on his account of the idea of dura-

" Reflection," he says, " upon the train of
ideas, which appear one after another in our
minds, is that which furnishes us with the
idea of succession ; and the distance between
any two parts of that succession, is that we
call duration."

If it be meant that the idea of succession
is prior to that of duration, either in time
or in the order of nature, this, I think, is
impossible, because succession, as Dr Price
justly observes, presupposes duration, and
can in no sense be prior to it ; and there-

* This is not 'correct ; and the employment of
Reflection in another meaning than that of iris-pop*
*pie eeturo — the reflex knpwledge or consciousness
which the mind has of its own affections— is wholly a
■econdary and less proper signification. See Note I.
1 may again notice, that Rein vacillates in the mean-
ing he gives to the term Reflection. Compare above,
p. 232, note *, and below, under p. 510.— H.



[essay III

fore it would be more proper to derive the
idea of succession from that of duration.

But how do we get the idea of succession ?
[t is, says he, by reflecting uponthe train
of ideas which appear one after another in
our minds.

Reflecting upon the train of ideas can be
nothing butrememberingit, and giving atten-
tion to what our memory testifies concern-
ing it ; for, if we did not remember it, we
could not have a thought about it. So that
it is evident that this reflection includes
remembrance, without which there could be
no reflection on what is past, and conse-
quently no idea of succession. [326]

It may here be observed, that, if we speak
strictly and philosophically, no kind of suc-
cession can be an object either of the senses
or of consciousness ; because the operations
of both are confined to the present point of
time, and there can be no succession in a
point of time ; and on that account the mo-
tion of a body, which is a successive change
of place, could not be observed by the senses
alone without the aid of memory,

As this observation seems- to contradict
the common sense and common language of
mankind, when they affirm that they see a
body move, and hold motion to be an. object
of the senses, it is proper to take notice, that
this contradiction between the philosopher
and the vulgar is apparent only, and not
real. It arises from this, that philosophers
and the vulgar differ in the meaning they
put upon what is called the present time,
and are thereby led to make a different limit
between sense and memory.

Philosophers give the name of the pre-
sent to that indivisible point of time, which
divides the future from the past : but the
vulgar find it more convenient in the affairs
of life, to give the name of present to a por-
tion of time, which extends more or less,
according to circumstances, into the past or
the future. Hence we say, the present
hour, the present year, the present century,
though one point only of these periods can
be present in the philosophical sense.

It has been observed by grammarians,
that the present tense in verbs is not con-
fined to an indivisible point of time, but is
so far extended as to have a beginning, a
middle, and an end ; and that, in the most
copious and accurate languages, these dif-
ferent parts of the present are distinguished
by different forms of the verb.

As the purposes of conversation make it
convenient to extend what is called the pre-
sent, the same reason leads men to extend
the province of sense, and to carry its limit
as far back as they carry the present. Thus
a man may say, I saV such a person just
now : it would be ridiculous to find fault
with this way of speaking, because it is
authorizod by custom, and has a distinct

meaning. [327] But, if we speak philoso.
phically, the senses do not testify what we
saw, but only what we see ; what I saw
last moment I consider as the testimony of
sense, though it is now only the testimony
of memory.

There is no necessity in common life of
dividing accurately the provinces of sense
and of memory ; and, therefore ,we assign to
sense, not an indivisible point of time, but
that small portion of time which we call the
present, which has a beginning, a middle,
and an end.

Hence, it is easy to see that, though, in
common language, we speak with perfect
propriety and truth, when we say that we
see a body move, and that motion is an ob-
ject of sense, yet when, as philosophers, we
distinguish accurately the province of sense
from that of memory, we can no more see
what is past, though but a moment ago,
than we can remember what is present ; so
that, speaking philosophically, it is only by
the aid of memory that we discern motion,
or any succession whatsoever. We see the
present place of the body ; we remember
the successive advance it made to that
place : the first can then only give us a
conception of motion when joined to the last.

Having considered the account given by
Mr Locke, of the idea of succession, we
shall next consider how, from the idea of
succession, he derives the idea of duration.

" The distance," he says, " between any
parts of that succession, or between, the
appearance of any two ideas in our minds,
is that we call duration."

To conceive this the more distinctly, let
us call the distance between an idea and
that which immediately succeeds it, one ele-
ment of duration ; the distance between an
idea, and the second that succeeds it, two
elements, and so on : if ten such elements
make duration, then one must make dura-
tion, otherwise duration must be made up of
parts that have no duration, which is im-
possible. [328]

For, suppose a succession of as many
ideas as you please, if none of these ideas
have duration, nor any interval of duration
be between one and another, then it is
perfectly evident there can be no interval
of duration between the first and the last,
how great soever their number be. I con-
clude, therefore, that there must be dura-
tion in every single interval or element of
which the whole duration is made up.
Nothing indeed, is more certain, than that
every elementary part of duration must
have duration, as every elementary part of
extension must have extension.

Now, it must be observed that, in these

elements of duration, or single intervals of

successive ideas, there is no succession of

ideas ; yet we must conceive them to have



duration ; whence we may conclude with
certainty, that there is a conception of du-
ration, where there is no succession of ideas
in the mind.

We may measure duration by the suc-
cession of thoughts in the mind, as we mea-
sure length by inches or feet ; but the notion
or idea Of duration must be antecedent to
the mensuration of it, as the notion of
length is antecedent to its being measured-
Mr Locke draws some conclusions from
his account of the idea of duration, which
may serve as a touchstone to discover how
far it is genuine. One is, that, if it were
possible for a waking man to keep only one
idea in his mind without variation, or the
succession of others, he would have no per-
ception of duration at all ; and the moment
he began to have this idea, would seem to
have no distance from the moment he
ceased to have it.

Now, that one idea should seem to have
no duration, and that amultiplication of that
no duration should seem to have duration,
appears to me as impossible as that the
multiplication of nothing should produce
something. [329]

Another conclusion which the author
draws from this theory is, that the same
period of duration appears long to us when
the succession of ideas in our mind is quick,
and short when the succession is slow.

There can be no doubt but the same
length of duration appears in some circum-
stances much longer than in others ; the
time appears long when a man is impatient
under any pain or distress, or when lie is
eager in the expectation of some happiness.
On the other hand, when he is pleased and
happy in agreeable conversation, or delighted
with a variety of agreeable objects that
strike his senses or his imagination, time
flies away, and appears short.

According to Mr Locke's theory, in the
first of these cases, the succession of ideas
is very quick, and in the last very slow. I
am rather inclined to think that the very
contrary is the truth. When a man is racked
with pain, or with expectation, he can
hardly think of anything but his distress ;
and the more his mind is occupied by that
sole object, the longer the time appears.
On the other hand, when he is entertained
with cheerful music, with lively conversa-
tion, and brisk sallies of wit, there seems
to be the quickest succession of ideas, but
the time appears shortest.

I have heard a military officer, a man of
candour and observation, say, that the time
he was engaged in hot action always, ap-
peared to him much shorter than it really
was. Yet I think it cannot be supposed
that the succession of ideas was then slower
than usual. *

* In travelling, the time seems very short while
["329, 330]

If the idea of duration were got merely
by the succession of ideas in our minds,
that succession must, to ourselves, appear
equally quick at all times, because the only
measure of duration is the number of suc-
ceeding ideas ; but I believe every man
capable of reflection will be sensible, that
at one time his thoughts come slowly and
heavily, and at another time have a much
quicker and livelier motion. [330]

I know of no ideas or notions that have
a better claim to be accounted simple and
original than those of Space and Time. It
is essential both to space and time to be
made up of parts ; but every part is similar
to the whole, and of the same nature. Dif-
ferent parts of space, as it has three dimen-
sions, may differ both in figure and in mag-
nitude ; but time having only one dimen-
sion, its parts can differ only in magnitude ;
and, as it is one of the simplest objects of
thought, the conception of it must be purely
the effect of our constitution, and given us
by some original power of the mind.

The sense of seeing, by itself, gives us
the conception and belief of only two dimen-
sions of extension, but the sense of touch
discovers three ; and reason, from the con-
templation of finite extended things, leads
us necessarily to the belief of an immensity
that contains them." In like manner, me-
mory gives us the conception and belief of
finite intervals of duration. From the con-
templation of these, reason leads us neces-
sarily to the belief of an eternity, which
comprehends all things that have a begin-
ning and end.* Our conceptions, both of
space and time, are probably partial and
inadequate,-)- and, therefore, we are apt to
lose ourselves, and to be embarrassed in
our reasonings about them.

Our understanding is no less puzzled
when we consider the minutest parts of
time and space than when we consider the
whole. We are forced to acknowledge
that in their nature they are divisible with-
out end or limit ; but there are limits be-
yond which our faculties can divide neither
the one nor the other.

It may be determined by experiment,
what is the least angle under which an
object may be discerned by the eye, and
what is the least interval of duration that
may be discerned by the ear. I believe
these may be different in different persons :
But surely there is a limit which no
man can exceed: and what our faculties
can-tio longer divide is still divisible in it-

passing; very long n retrospect. The cause is ob-
vious. — H.

* See above, p. 343, rotn *.— H.

t They are not probably but necessarily partial

, and inadequate. For we are unable positively ti

conceive 'lime or Space, either asinfinile, (?'. c,

without limits,) or as not infinite (i. e., as limited.]

— H.



[[essay III.

self, and, by beings of superior perfection,
may be divided into thousands of parts.

I have reason to believe, that a good eye
in the prime of life may see an object under
an angle not exceeding half a minute of a
degree, and I believe there are some human
eyes still more perfect. But even this de-
gree of perfection will appear great, if we
consider how small a part of the retina of
the eye it must be which subtends an angle
of half a minute.

Supposing the distance between the centre
of the eye and the retina to be six or seven
tenths of an inch, the subtense of an angle
of half a minute to that radius, or the
breadth of the image of an object seen under
that angle, will not be above the ten thou-
sandth part of an inch. This shews such
a wonderful degree of accuracy in the re-
fracting power of a good eye, that a pencil
of rays coming from one point of the object
shall meet in one point of the retina, so as
not to deviate from that point the ten
thousandth part of an inch. It shews,
likewise, that such a motion of an object as
makes its image on the retina to move the
ten thousandth part of an inch, is discern-
ible by the mind.

In order to judge to what degree of ac-
curacy we can measure short intervals of
time, it may be observed that one who has
given attention to the motion of a Second
pendulum, will be able to beat seconds for
a minute with a very small error. When
he continues this exercise long, as for five
or ten minutes, he is apt to err, more even
than in proportion to the time— for this
reason, as I apprehend, that it is difficult to
attend long to the moments as they pass,
without wandering after some other object
of thought.

I have found, by some experiments, that
a man may beat seconds for one minute,
without erring above one second in the
whole sixty ; and I doubt not but by long
practice he might do it still more accurately.
From this I think it follows, that the six-
tieth part of a second of time is discernible
bv the human mind. [332]


of MR Locke's account of our personal


In a long chapter upon Identity and
Diversity, Mr Locke has made many in-
genious and just observations, and some
which I think cannot be defended. I shall
only take notice of the account he gives of
our own Personal Identity. His doctrine
upon this subject has been censured by
Bishop Butler, in a short essay subjoined to

his " Analogy," with whose sentiments I
perfectly agree.

Identity, as was observed. Chap. IV. ol
this Essay, supposes the continued existence
of the being of which it is affirmed, and
therefore can be applied only to things which
have a continued existence. While any
being continues to exist, it is the same being :
but two beings which have a different be-
ginning or a different ending of their exist-
ence, cannot possibly be the same. To this
I think Mr Locke agrees.

He observes, very justly, that to know
what is meant by the same person, we must
consider what the word person stands for ;
and he defines a person to be an intelligent
being, endowed with reason and with con-
sciousness, which last he thinks inseparable
from thought.

From this definition of a person, it must
necessarily follow, that, while the intelligent
being continues to exist and to be intelli-
gent, it must be the same person. To say
that the intelligent being is the person, and
yet that the person ceases to exist, while
the intelligent being continues, or that the
person continues while the intelligent being
ceases to exist, is to my apprehension a
manifest contradiction. [333]

One would think that the definition of a
person should perfectly ascertain the nature
of personal identity, or wherein it consists,
though it might still be a question how we
come to know and be assured of our per-
sonal identity.

Mr Locke tells us, however, " that per-
sonal identity — that is, the sameness of a
rational being — consists in consciousness
alone, and, as far as this consciousness can
be extended backwards to any past action
or thought, so far reaches the identity of
that person So that, whatever hath the
consciousness of present and past actions,
is the same person to whom they belong."*

* See Essay, (Book ii. c'\ 27, §. 9.) The passage
given as a quotat on in the .text, is the sum »i
Locke's doctrine, but not exactly in his words. Long
before Butler, to whom the merit is usually ascribed,
Lr cke's doctrine of Personal Identity had been
attacked and refuted. This was done even by his
earliest critic, John Sergeant, whose words, as he
is .an author wholly unknown to all historian- of phi.
losophy, and his works of the rarest, I shall quote
He thus argues : — «« The former distinction forelaid,
he ( Locke) proceeds to make personal identity in man
to consist in the consciousness that we are the saint
thinking thing in different times and places. He
proves it, because consciousness is inseparable from
thinking, and, as it seems to him, essential to it
Perhaps he may have had second thoughts, since hi
writ his 19th Chapter, where, ^ 4, he thought il
probable that Thinking is but the action, andnotthi
essence of the souL His reason here is — * Becausi
'tis impossible for any to perceive, without perceivinf
that he does perceive,' which 1 have shewn above ti
be so far from impossible, that the contrary is such
Bat, to speak to the point : Consciousness of an;
action or other accident we have now, or have had
isnothing but our knowledge that it belonged to us
and, since we both vgree that we have no.innati
knowledges, it follows, that all, tooth actual and habi
tual knowledges, which we have, are acquired orac


This doctrine hath some strange conse-
quences, which the author was aware of,
Such as, that, if the same consciousness can
be transferred from one intelligent being to
another, which he thinks we cannot shew
to be impossible, then two or twenty intel-
ligent beings may be the same person. And
if the intelligent being may lose the con-
sciousness of the actions done by him, which
surely is possible, then ho is not the person
that did those actions ; so that one intelli-
gent being may be two or twenty different
persons, if he shall so often lose the con-
sciousness of his former' actions.

There is another consequence of this
doctrine, which follows no less necessarily,
though Mr Locke probably did not see it.
It is, that a man may be, and at the same
time not be, the person that did a particular

Suppose a brave officer to have been
flogged when a boy at school, for robbing
an orchard, to have taken a standard from
the enemy in his first campaign, and to have
been made a general in advanced life : Sup-
pose also, which must be admitted to be
possible, that, when he took the standard,

cidental to the subject or knower. Whereforesthe
man, or that thing, which, it to be the knower, must
have had individuality ■ or personality, from other
principles, antecedently to' this knowledge, called
consciousness : and, consequently, he will retain his
identity, or continue the same man, or (which ■ is
equivalent) the same person, as long as he has those
individuating principles. What those principles are
which constitute this man, or this knowing •indivi-
duum, I have shewn above, %\ 6,7. It being then
most evident, that a man must be the same, ere he can

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 79 of 114)