Thomas Reid.

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

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know or be conscious that he is the same, all his
laborious descants and extravagant consequences
which are built upon this supposition, that conscious-
ness individuates the person, can need no farther

The same objection was also made by Leibniti in
his strictures on Locke's Essay. Inter alia, he says—
*' Pour ce qui est du soi il sera bon de le riistinguer
de Vapparence du soi et de la consciosite Le soi fait
Videntite reeUe et physique, et 1'apparence du soi,
accompagnee de la verite, y joint l'identite personelle.
Ainsi ne voulant point dire, que l'identite personelle
ne s'etend pas plus loin que le snuvenir, je dirois encore
moins que le soi ou l'identite physique en depend.
L'identite reeleet personelle seprouvele plus certain-
ment qu'il se.peut en malierc de fait, par la reflexion
presente et immediate ; elle se prouve sunisament pour
1'ordinaire par notre souvenir d'intervalle ou par le
temeignage conspirant des autres. Mais si Dieu
changeoit extraordinairment l'identite reele, la per.
sonelle demeuroit, pourvu que fhomme conservat
les apparences d'identite, tant les internes, (e'esf^
dire de la-conscience,) que les externes, comme celles
qui consistent dans ce qui paroit aux autres. Ainsi
la conscience n'est pas le seul moyen Ue constituer
l'identite personelle, et le rapport d'autrui ou meme
d'autres marques y peuvent suppleer. Mais il y a dela
difficulte, fi'il se trnuve contradiction entre ces diver.
ses apparences. La conscience se peut taire comme
dans I'oubll; mais-si elle disoit bien clairmerit des
choses, qui Jussent contrairesaux autres apparences,
on seroit embarasse dans la decision et. comme sus-
pendu quelques Ibis entre deux possibilites, celle de
i'srreur du notre souvenir et celle de quelque decep-
tion dans les apparences externes."

For the best criticism of Locke's doctrine of Perso-
nal Identity, I may, however, refer the reader to M.
Cousin's '■ Cours de Philosophic," t. ii. f Lecon xviii.,
p. 1BO-19B.— H.
[33i, 335]

he was conscious of his having been flogged
at school, and that when made a general he
was conscious of his taking the standard,
but had absolutely lost the consciousness ol
his flogging. [334]

These things being supposed, it follows,
from Mr Locke's doctrine, that he who was
flogged at school is the same person who
took the standard, and that he who took the
standard is the same person who was made
a general. Whence it follows, if there be
any truth in logic, that the general is the
same person with him who was flogged
at school. But the general's consciousness
does not reach so far back as his flogging —
therefore, according to Mr Locke's doctrine,
he is not the person who was flogged.
Therefore, the general is, and at the same
time is not the same person with him who
was flogged at school.*

Leaving the consequences of this doctrine
to those who have leisure to trace them, we
may observe, with regard to the doctrine

First, That Mr Locke attributes to con-
sciousness the conviction we have of our
past actions, as if a man may now be con-
scious of what he did twenty years ago.
It is impossible to understand the meaning
of this, unless by consciousness be meant
memory, theonly faculty by which we havean
immediate knowledge of our past actions, ■f

Sometimes, in popular discourse, a man
says he is conscious that he did such a
thing, meaning that he distinctly remembers
that he did it. It is unnecessary, in com-
mon discourse, to fix accurately the limits
between consciousness and memory. This
was formerly shewn to be the case with re-
gard to sense and memory : and, therefore,
distinct remembrance is sometimes called
sense, sometimes consciousness, without
any inconvenience.

But this ought to be avoided in philoso-
phy, otherwise we confound the different
powers of the mind, and ascribe to one what
really belongs to another. If a man can be
conscious of what he did twenty years or
twenty minutes ago, there is no use for
memory, nor ought we to allow that there
is any such faculty. [335] The faculties of
consciousness and memory are chiefly dis-
tinguished by this, that the first is an im-
mediate knowledge of the present, the second
an immediate knowledge of the past. J

When, therefore, Mr Locke's notion of

* Compare BurBer's " Traitedes premieres VeriUz"
(Remarques sur Locke, $ 5ti5J who makesta similar
criticism. — H.

■(■Locke, it. will be remembered, does not, like
Reid, view consciousness as a co-ordinate faculty with
memory ; but under consciousness he properly com-
prehends the various faculties as so 'many special
modifications.— H.

$ As already frequently stated, an immediate
know ledge of the past is ^contradictory. This ub-
servation I cannot again repeat. See Note B.— H.



[essay III.

personal identity is properly expressed, it is
that personal identity consists in distinct
remembrance ; for, even in the popular
sense, to say that I am conscious of a past
action, means nothing else than that I dis-
tinctly remember that 1 did it.

Secondly, It may be observed, that, in
this doctrine, not only is consciousness con-
founded with memory, but, which is still
more strange, personal identity is confounded
with the evidence which we have of our
personal identity.

It is very true that my remembrance
that I did such a thing is the evidence I
have that I am the identical person who did
it. And this, I am apt to think, Mr Locke
meant. But, to say that my remembrance
that I did such a thing, or my conscious-
ness, makes me the person who did it, is, in
my apprehension, an absurdity too gross to
be entertained by any man who attends to
the meaning of it ; for it is to attribute to
memory or consciousness, a strange magi-
cal power of producing its object, though
that object must have existed before the
memory or consciousness which produced it.

Consciousness is the testimony of one
faculty ; memory is the testimony of another
faculty. And, to say that the testimony is
the cause of the thing testified, this surely
is absurd, if anything be, and could not
have been said by Mr Locke, if he had not
confounded the testimony with the thing

When a horse that was stolen is found
and claimed by the owner, the only evidence
he can have, or that a judge or witnesses
can have that this is the very identical horse
which was his property, is similitude. [336]
But would it not be ridiculous from this to
infer that the identity of a horse consists in
similitude only ? The only evidence I have
that I am the identical person who did such
actions is, that I remember distinctly I did
them ; or, as Mr Locke expresses it, I am
conscious I did them. To infer from this,
that personal identity consists in conscious-
ness, is an argument which, if it had any
force, would prove the identity of a stolen
horse to consist solely in similitude.

Thirdly, Is it not strange that the same-
ness or identity of a person should consist
in a thing which is continually changing,
and is not any two minutes the same ?

Our consciousness, our memory, and
every operation of the mind, are still flow-
ing, like the water of a river, or like time
itself. The consciousness I have this
moment can no more be the same conscious-
ness I had last moment, than this moment
can be the last moment. Identity can only
be affirmed of things which have a continued
existence. Consciousness, and every kind
of thought, is transient and momentary, and
has no continued existence ; and, there-

fore, if personal identity consisted in con-
sciousness, it would certainly follow that no
man is the tame person any two moments
of his life ; and, as the right and justice of
reward and punishment is founded on per-
sonal identity, no man could he responsible
for his actions.

But, though I take this to be the una-
voidable consequence of Mr Locke's doc-
trine concerning personal identity, and
though some persons may have liked the
doctrine the better on this account, I am
far from imputing anything of this kind to
Mr Locke. He was too good a man not to
have rejected with abhorrence a doctrine
which he believed to draw this consequence
after it. [337]

Fourthly, There are many expressions
used by Mr Locke, in speaking of personal
identity, which, to me, are altogether unin-
telligible, unless we suppose that he con-
founded that sameness or identity which we
ascribe to an individual, with the identity
which, in common discourse, is often ascribed
to many individuals of the same species.

When we say that pain and pleasure,
consciousness and memory, are the same in
all men, this sameness can only mean simi-
larity, or sameness of kind ; but, that the
pain of one man can be the same individual
pain with that of another man, is no less
impossible than that one man should be
another man ; the pain felt by me yester-
day can no more be the pain I feel to-day,
than yesterday can be this day; and the
same thing may be said of every passion
and of every operation of the mind. The
same kind or species of operation may be
in different men, or in the same man at
different times ; but it is impossible that the
same individual operation should be in dif-
ferent men, or in the same man at different

When Mr Locke, therefore, speaks of " the
same consciousness being continued through
a succession of different substances ;" when
he speaks of " repeating the idea of a past
action, with the same consciousness we had
of it at the first," and of " the same con-
sciousness extending to actions past and to
come" — these expressions are to me unin-
telligible, unless he means not the same in-
dividual consciousness, but a consciousness
that is similar, or of the same kind.

If our personal identity consists in con-
sciousness, as this consciousness cannot be
the same individually any two moments,
but only of the same kind, it would follow
that we are not for any two moments the
same individual persons, hut the same kind
of persons.

As our consciousness sometimes ceases

to exist, as in sound sleep, our personal

identity must cease with it. Mr Locke

allows, that the same thing cannot have

[336, 337]




two beginnings of existence ; so that our
identity would be irrecoverably gone every
time we cease to think, if it was but for a
a moment.* [338]



The common theory of ideas — that is,
of images in the brain or in the mind, of
all the objects of thought — has been very
generally applied to account for the facul-
ties of memory and imagination, as well as
that of perception by the senses.

The sentiments of the Peripatetics are
expressed by Alexander Aphrodisiensis,
one of the earliest Greek commentators on
Aristotle, in these words, as they are trans-
lated by Mr Harris in his " Hermes :" —
" Now, what Phancy or Imagination is, we
may explain as follows : — We may conceive
tobe'formed within us, from the operations of
our senses about sensible objects, some Im-
pression, as it were, or Picture, in our origi-
nal Sensorium, being a relict of that motion
caused within us by the external object ; a
relict which, when the external object is
no longer present, remains, and is still
preserved, being, as it were, its Image,

* It is here proper to insert Reid's remarks on
Personal Identity, as published by Lord Karnes, in
his " Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural
Religion," (third edition, p. 204.) These, perhaps,
might have more appropriately found their place in
the Correspondence of our Author.

" To return to our subject," says his Lordship,
" Mr Locke, writing on personal identity, has fallen
short of his usual accuracy. He inadvertently jumbles
together the identity that is nature's work, with
our knowledge of it Nay, he expresses himself some.
times as if identity had no other foundation than
that knowledge. 1 am favoured by Dr Reid with the
following thoughts on personal identity :—

" ' All men agree that personality is indivisible ; a
part of a person is an absurdity. A man who loses
his estate, his health, an arm, or a leg, continues still
to be the same person. My personal identity, therefore,
is the continued existence of that .indivisible thing
which I call myself. lam not thought; 1 am not
action ; I am not feeling; but I think, and act, and
feel. Thoughts, actions, feelings, change every
moment ; but self, to which they belong, is perman-
ent If it be asked how I know that it is permanent,
the answer is, that I know it from memory. Every,
thing I remember to have seen, or heard, or done, or
suffered, convinces me that I existed at the time
remembered. But, though it is from memory that I
have the knowledge of ray personal identity, yet per.
sonal identity must exist in nature, independent of
memory ; otherwise, I should only be the same per-
son as far as my memory serves me ; and what would
become of my existence during the intervals wherein
my memory has failed me ? My rememberance of any
of my actions does not make me to be the person who
did the action, but only makes me know that I was
the person who did it. And yet it was Mr Locke's
opinion, that my remembrance of an action is what
makes me to be the person who did it ; a pregnant
instance that even men of the greatest genius may
sometimes fall into an absurdity. Is it not an obvious
torollary, from Mr Locke's opinion, that he never
was born ? He could not remember his birth ; and,
therefore, was not the person born at such a place
and at such a time.' " — H.

T338, 339]

and which, by being thus preserved, be-
comes the cause of our having Memory.
Now, such a sort of relict, and, as it were,
impression, they call Phancy or Imagina-

Another passage from Alcinous Of the
Doctrines of Plato, chap. 4, shews the agree-
ment of the ancient Platonists and Peripa-
tetics in this theory : — " When the form or
type of things is imprinted on the mind by
the organs of the senses, and so imprinted
as not to be deleted by time, but preserved
firm and lasting, its preservation is called
Memory."* [339]

Upon this principle, Aristotle imputes the
shortness of memory in children to this
cause — that their brain is too moist and soft
to retain impressions made upon it : and
the defect of memory in old men he imputes,
on the contrary, to the hardness and rigidity
of the brain, which hinders its receiving
any durable impression. -f-

This ancient theory of the cause of
memory is defective in two respects : First,
If the cause assigned did really exist, it by
no means accounts for the phaenomenon ;
and, secondly, There is no evidence, nor
even probability, that that cause exists.

It is probable that in perception some
impression is made upon the brain as well
as upon the organ and nerves, because all
the nerves terminate in the brain, and be-
cause disorders and hurts of the brain are
found to affect our powers of perception
when the external organ and nerve are
found ; but we are totally ignorant of the
nature of this impression upon the brain :
it can have no resemblance to the object
perceived, nor does it in any degree ac-
count for that sensation and perception
which are consequent upon it. These things
have been argued in the second Essay, and
shall now be taken for granted, to prevent

If the impression upon the brain be insuf-
ficient to account for the perception of ob-
jects that are present, it can as little account
for the memory of those that are past.

So that, if it were certain that the im-
pressions made on the brain in perception
remain as long as there is any memory of
the object, all that could be inferred from
this, is, that, by the laws of Nature, there
is a connection established between that im-
pression, and the rememberance of that
object. But how the impression contributes

* The inference founded on these passages, is alto-
gether erroneous. See Note K. — H.

t In this whole statement Reid is wrong. In the
first place, Aristotle did not impute the defect of
memory in children and old persons to any constitu-
tion of the Brain ,• for, in his doctrine, the Heart,
and not the Brain, is the primary sensorium in which
the impression is made. In the second place, the
term impression (t(<t«), is used by Aristotle in jn
analogical, not in a literal signification S*e Note K.
— H.




[essay III

to this remembrance, we should be quite
ignorant ; it being impossible to discover
hew thought of any kind should be pro-
duced, by an impression on the brain, or
upon any part of the body. [340]

To say that this impression is memory, is
absurd, if understood literally. If it is only
meant that it is the cause of memory, it
ought to be shewn how it produces this
effect, otherwise memory remains as unac-
countable as before.

If a philosopher should undertake to ac-
count for the force of gunpowder in the
discharge of a musket, and then tell us
gravely that the cause of this phenomenon
is the drawing of the trigger, we should not
be much wiser by this account. As little
are we instructed in the cause of memory,
by being told that it is caused by a certain
impression on the brain. For, supposing
that impression on the brain were as neces-
sary to memory as the drawing of the trigger
is to the discharge of the musket, we. are
still as ignorant as we were how memory is
produced ; so that, if the cause of memory,
assigned by this theory, did really exist, it
does not in any degree account for memory.

Another defect in this theory is, that
there is no evidence nor probability that
the cause assigned does exist ; that is, that
the impression made upon the brain in per-
ception remains after the object is removed.

That impression, whatever be its nature,
is caused by the impression made by the
object upon the organ of sense, and upon
the nerve. Philosophers suppose, without
any evidence, that, when the object is re-
moved, and the impression upon the organ
and nerve ceases, the impression upon the
brain continues, and is permanent ; that is,
that, when the cause is removed, the effect
continues. The brain surely does not ap-
pear more fitted to retain an impression
than the organ and nerve.

But, granting that the impression upon
the brain continues after its cause is re-
moved, its effects ought to continue while
it continues ; that is, the sensation and
perception should be as permanent as the
impression upon the brain, which is sup-
posed to be their cause. But here again
the philosopher makes a second supposition,
with as little evidence, but of a contrary
nature — to wit, that, while the cause re-
mains, the effect ceases. [341]

If this should be granted also, a third
must be made — That the same cause which
at first produced sensation and perception,
does afterwards produce memory — an opera-
tion essentially different, both from sensa-
tion and perception.

A fourth supposition must be made —
That this cause, though it be permanent,
does not produce its effect at all times ; it
must be like an inscription which is some-

times covered with rubbish, and on other
occasions made legible ; for the memory of
things is often interrupted for a long time,
and circumstances bring to our recollection
what had been long forgot. After all, many
things are remembered which were never
perceived by the senses, being no objects of
sense, and therefore which could make no
impression upon the brain by means of the

Thus, when philosophers have piled one
supposition upon another, as the giants piled
the mountains in order to scale the heavens,
all is to no purpose — memory remains unac-
countable ; and we know as little how we
remember things past, as how we are con-
scious of the present.

But here it is proper to observe, that,
although impressions upon the brain give
no aid in accounting for memory, yet it is
very probable that, in the human frame,
memory is dependent on some proper state
or temperament of the brain.*

Although the furniture of our memory
bears no resemblance to any temperament
of brain whatsoever, as indeed it is impos-
sible it should, yet nature may have sub-
jected us to this law, that a certain consti-
tution or state of the brain is necessary to
memory. That this is really the case,
many well-known facts lead us to con-
clude. [342]

It is possible that, by accurate observa-
tion, the proper means may be discovered
of preserving that temperament of the brain
which is favourable to memory, and of
remedying the disorders of that tempera-
ment. This would be a very noble im-
provement of the medical art. But, if it
should ever be attained, it would give no
aid to understand how one state of the brain
assists memory, and another hurts it.

I know certainly, that the impression
made upon my hand by the prick of a pin
occasions acute pain. But can any philo-
sopher shew how this cause produces the
effect ? The nature of the impression is
here perfectly known ; but it gives no help
to understand how that impression affects
the mind ; and, if we knew as distinctly that
state of the brain which causes memory,
we should still be as ignorant as before how
that state contributes to memory. We
might have been so constituted, for anything
that I know, that the prick of a pin in the
hand, instead of causing pain, should cause
remembrance ; nor would that constitution
be more unaccountable than the present.

The body and mind operate on each other,

* Nothing more was meant by the philosopher in
question, than that memory is, as Reid himself ad.
mits, dependent on a certain state ot the brain, and
on some unknown effect determined in it, to which
they gave the metaphorical name— impression, trace,
lyve, &c— H.




according to fixed taws of nature ; and it is
the business of a philosopher to discover
those laws by observation and experiment :
but, when he has discovered them, he must
rest in them as facts whose cause is in-
scrutable to the human understanding.

Mr Locke, and those who have followed
him, speak with more reserve than the
ancients,* and only incidentally, of impres-
sions on the brain as the cause of memory,
and impute it rather to our retaining in our
minds the ideas got either by sensation or

This, Mr Locke says, may be done two
ways—" First, By keeping the idea for some
time actually in view, which is called con-
templation ; Secondly, By the power to re-
vive again in our minds those ideas which,
after imprinting, have disappeared, or have
been, as it were, laid out of sight ; and this
is memory, which is, as it were, the store-
house of our ideas." [343]

To explain this more distinctly, he imme-
diately adds the following observation : —
" But our ideas being nothing but actual
perceptions in the mind, which cease to be
anything when there is no perception of
them, this laying up of our ideas in the
repository of the memory signifies no more
but this, that the mind has a power, in
many cases, to revive perceptions which it
once had, with this additional perception
annexed to them, that it has had them
before; and in this sense it is, that our ideas
are said to be in our memories, when indeed
they are actually nowhere; but only there
is an ability in the mind, when it will, to
revive them again, and, as it were, paint
them anew upon itself, though some with
more, some with less difficulty, some more
lively, and others more obscurely."

In this account of memory, the repeated
use of the phrase, as it were, leads one to
judge that it is partly figurative ; we must
therefore endeavour to distinguish the figu-
rative part from the philosophical. The
first, being addressed to the imagination,
exhibits a picture of memory, which, to
have its effect, must be viewed at a proper
distance and from a particular point of
view. The second, being addressed to the
understanding, ought to bear a near inspec-
tion and a critical examination.

The analogy between memory and a re-
pository, and between remembering and
retaining, is obvious, and is to be found in
all languages, it being very natural to ex-
press the operations of the mind by images
taken from things material. But, in phi-
losophy we ought to draw aside the veil of
imagery, and to view them naked.

When, therefore, memory is said to be a
repository or storehouse of ideas, where they

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 80 of 114)