Thomas Reid.

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

. (page 81 of 114)
Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 81 of 114)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

* This is .hardly correct. See Note K.— H.

are laid up when not perceived, and again
brought forth as there is occasion, I take
this to be popular and rhetorical. [344]
For the author tells us, that when they are
not perceived, they are nothing, and no-
where, and therefore can neither be laid up
in a repository, nor drawn out of it.

But we are told, " That this laying up of
our ideas in the repository of the memory
signifies no more than this, that the mind
has a power to revive perceptions, which it
once had, with this additional perception
annexed to them, that it has had them
before." This, I think, must be understood
literally and philosophically.

But it seems to me as difficult to revivr
things that have ceased to be anything, as
to lay them up in a repository, or to bring
them out of it. When a thing is once
annihilated, the same thing cannot be again
produced, though another thing similar to
it may. Mr Locke, in another place,
acknowledges that the same thing cannot
have two beginnings of existence ; and that
things that have different beginnings are
not the same, but diverse. From this it
follows, that an ability to revive our ideas
or perceptions, after they have ceased to be,
can signify no more but an ability to create
new ideas or perceptions similar to those we
had before.

They are said " to be revived, with this
additional perception, that we have had them
before." This surely would be a fallacious
perception, since they could not have two
beginnings of existence : nor could we be-
lieve them to have two beginnings of exist-
ence. We can only believe that we had
formerly ideas or perceptions very like to
them, though not identically the same. But
whether we perceive them to be the same,
or only like to those we had before, this
perception, one would think, supposes a
remembrance of those we had before, other-
wise the. similitude or identity could not be

Another phrase is used to explain this
reviving] of our perceptions — " The mind,
as it were, paints them anew upon itself.''
[345] There may be something figurative
in this ; but, making due allowance for that,
it must imply that the -mind, which paints
the things that have ceased to exist, must
have the memory of what they were, since
every painter must have a copy either before
his eye, or in his imagination and memory.
These remarks upon Mr Locke's account
of memory are intended to shew that his
system of ideas gives no light to this faculty,
but rather tends to darken it ; as little does
it make us understand how we remember,
and by that means have the certain know-
ledge of things past.

Every man knows what memory is, and
has a distinct notion of it. But when Mi
2 a 3



Qessay in

Locke speaks of a power to revive in the
mind those ideas which, after imprinting,
have disappeared, or have been, as it were,
laid out of sight, one would hardly know
this to he memory, if he had not told us.
There are other things which it seems to
resemble at least as much. I see before
me the picture of a friend. I shut my eyes,
or turn them another way, and the picture
disappears, or is, as it were, laid out of sight.
I have a power to turn my eyes again to-
wards the picture, and immediately the per-
ception is revived. But is this memory ?
No surely ; yet it answers the definition as
well as memory itself can do. "

We may observe, that the word percep-
tion is used by Mr Locke in too indefinite
a way, as well as the word idea.

Perception, in the chapter upon that sub-
ject, is said to be the first faculty of the
mind exercised about our ideas. Here we
are told that- ideas are nothing but percep-
tions. Yet, I apprehend, it would sound
oddly to say, that perception is the first
faculty of the mind exercised about percep-
tion ; and still more strangely to say, that
ideas are the first faculty of the mind ex-
ercised about our ideas. But why should
not ideas be a faculty as well as perception,
if both are the same ?f [346]

Memory is said to be a power to revive
our perceptions. Will it not follow from
this, that everything that can be remem-
bered is a perception ? If this be so, it will
be difficult to find anything in nature but

Our ideas, we are told, are nothing but
aotual perceptions ; but, in many places of
the Essay, ideas are said to be the objects
of perception, and that the mind, in all its
thoughts and reasonings, has no other im-
mediate object which it does or can con-
template but its own ideas. Does it not
appear from.this, either that Mr Locke neld
the operations of the mind to be the same
thing with the objects of those operations, §
or that he used the word idea sometimes in
one sense and sometimes in another, with-
out any intimation, and probably without
any apprehension of its ambiguity ? It is
an article of Mr Hume's philosophy, that
there is no distinction between the opera-
tions of the mind and their objects.§ But
I see no reason to impute this opinion to
Mr Locke. I rather think that, notwith-

* To Koroe of the preceding stricture* on Locke's
account of memory, excuses might competently be
pleaded.— H .

t This criticum only shews the propriety of the
distinction of perception and percept Locke and
other.philosophers use the word perception, l\ for
the act or faculty of perceiving; v>, for that which if
perceived— the idea in their doctrine j and 3°, for
either or both indifferently H.

.J See above p. 222, b, note * j p. 280, a. note*.— H.
^ The term object being then . used tor the imme-
diate object— viz., that of which we are conscious.
— H

standing his 'great judgment and candour,
his understanding was entangled by the
ambiguity of the word idea, and that most
of the imperfections of his Essay are owing
to that cause.

Mr Hume saw farther into the conse-
quences of the common system concerning
ideas than any author had done before him.
He saw the absurdity of making every obj ect
of thought double, and splitting it into a
remote object, which has a separate and
permanent existence, and an immediate -
object, called an idea or impression, which
is an image of the former, and has no ex-
istence, but when we are conscious of it.
According to this system, we have no in-
tercourse with the external world, but by
means of the internal world of ideas, which
represents the other to the mind.

He saw it was necessary to reject one
of these worlds as a fiction, and the question
was, Which should be rejected? — whether
all mankind, learned and unlearned, had
feigned the existence of the external world
without good reason ; or whether philoso-
phers had feigned the internal world of ideas,
in order to account for the intercourse of
the mind with the external ? [347] Mr
Hume adopted the first of these opinions,
and employed his reason and eloquence in
support of it.

Bishop Berkeley had gone so far in the
same track as to reject the material world
as fictitious ; but it was left to Mr Hume
to complete the system.

According to his system, therefore, im-
pressions and ideas in his own mind are
the only things a man can know or can
conceive. Nor are these ideas representa-
tives, as they were in the old system.
There is nothing else in nature, or, at least,
within the reach of our faculties, to be re-
presented. What the vulgar call the per-
ception of an external object, is nothing but
a strong impression upon the mind. What
we call the remembrance of a past event,
is nothing but a present impression or idea,
weaker than the former. And what we call
imagination, is still a present idea, but
weaker than that of memory.

That I may not do him injustice, these
are his words in his " Treatise of Human
Nature," [vol. I.] page 193. -

" We find by experience that, when any
impression has been present with the mind,
it again makes its appearance there as an
idea ; and this it may do after two different
ways, either when in its new appearance it
retains a considerable degree of its first
vivacity and is somewhat intermediate be-
twixt an impression and anjdea, or when it
entirely loses that vivacity, and is a perfect
idea. The faculty by which we repeat our
impressions in the first manner, is called
the memory, and the other the imagination."
[316. 347




Upon this account of memory and imagi-
nation, I shall make some remarks. [348]

First, I wish to know what we are here
to understand by experience ? It is said,
we find all this by experience ; and I con-
ceive nothing can be meant by this expe-
rience but memory — not that memory
which our author defines, but memory in
the common acceptation of the word. Ac-
cording to vulgar apprehension, memory is
an immediate knowledge of something past.
Our author does not admit that there is
any such knowledge in the human mind.
He maintains that memory is nothing but
a present idea or impression. But, in de-
fining what he takes memory to be, he takes
for granted that kind of memory which he
rejects. For, can we find by experience,
that an impression, after its first appearance
to the mind, makes a second and a third, with
different degrees of strength and vivacity,
if we have not so distinct a remembrance of
its first appearance as enables us to know
it upon its second and third, notwithstand-
ing that, in the interval, it has undergone
a very considerable change ?*

All experience supposes memory; and
there can be no such thing as experience,
without trusting to our own memory, or
that of others. So that it appears, from
Mr Hume's account of this matter, that he
found himself to have that kind of memory
which he acknowledges and defines, by ex-
ercising that kind which he rejects.

Secondly, What is it we find by expe-
rience or memory ? It is, " That, when an
impression has been present with the mind,
it again makes its appearance there as an
idea, and that after two different ways."

If experience informs us of this, it cer-
tainly deceives us ; for the thing is impos-
sible, and the author shews it to be so.
Impressions and ideas are fleeting, perish-
able things, which have no existence but
when we are conscious of them. If an im-
pression could make a second and a third
appearance to the mind, it must have a
continued existence during the interval of
these appearances, which Mr Hume ac-
knowledges to be a gross absurdity. [349]
It seems, then, that we find, by experience,
a thing which is impossible. We are im-
posed upon by our experience, and made to
believe contradictions.

Perhaps it may be said, that these dif-
ferent appearances of the impression are not
to be understood literally, but figuratively ;
that the impression is personified, and made
to appear at different times and in different
habits, when no more is meant but that an
impression appears at one time ; afterwards
a thing of a middle nature, between an im-
pression and an idea, which we call memory ;


* See Note B H.

and, last of all, a perfect idea, which we call
imagination : that this figurative meaning
agrees best with the last sentence of the
period, where we are told that memory and
imagination are faculties, whereby we repeat
our impresions in a more or less lively
manner. To repeat an impression is a figur-
ative way of speaking, which signifies making
a new impression similar to the former.

If, to avoid the absurdity implied in the
literal meaning, we understand the philo-
sopher in this figurative one, then his defini-
tions of memory and imagination, when
stripped of the figurative dress, will amount
to this, That memory is the faculty of
making a weak impression, and imagination
the faculty of making an impression still
weaker, after a corresponding strong one.
These definitions of memory and imagina-
tion labour under two defects : First, That
they convey no notion of the thing defined ;
and, Secondly, That they may be applied to
things of a quite different nature from those
that are defined.

When we are said to have a faculty of
making a weak impression after a corre-
sponding strong one, it would not be easy
to conjecture that this faculty is memory.
Suppose a man strikes his head smartly
against the wall, this is an impression ;
now, he has a faculty by which he can
repeat this impression with less force, so
as not to hurt him : this, by Mr Hume's
account, must be memory. [350] He
has a faculty by which he can just touch
the wall with his head, so that the impres-
sion entirely loses its vivacity. This surely
must be imagination ; at least, it comes as
near to the definition given of it by Mr
Hume as anything I can conceive.

Thirdly, We may observe, that, when we
are told that we have a faculty of repeating
our impressions in a more or less lively
manner, this implies that we are the effi-
cient causes of our ideas of memory and
imagination ; but this contradicts what the
author says a little before, where he proves,
by what he calls a convincing argument,
that impressions are the cause of their cor-
responding ideas. The argument that proves
this had need, indeed, to be very con-
vincing ; whether we make the idea to be
a second appearance of the impression, or a
new impression simil ar to the formes.

If the first be true, then the impression
is the cause of itself. If the second, then
the impression, after it is gone and has no
existence, produces the idea. Such are the
mysteries of Mr Hume's philosophy.

It may be observed, that the common
system, that ideas are the only immediate
objects of thought, leads to scepticism with
regard to memory, as well as with regard 1 to
the objects of sense, whether those ideas
are placed in the mind or in the brain.



Qessay 111

Ideas are said to be tilings internal and
present, which have no existence but during
the moment they are in the mind. The
objects of sense are things external, which
hare a continued existence. When it is
maintained that all that we immediately
perceive is only ideas or phantasms, how
can we, from the existence of those phan-
tasms, conclude the existence of an external
world corresponding to them ?

This difficult question seems not to have
dccurred to the Peripatetics.* Des Cartes
saw the difficulty, and endeavoured to find
out arguments by which, from the existence
of our phantasms or ideas, we might infer
the existence of external objects. [351] The
same course was followed by Malebranche,
Arnauld, and Locke; but Berkeley and
Hume easily refuted all their arguments,
and demonstrated that there is no strength
in them.

The same difficulty with regard to mem-
ory naturally arises from the system of
ideas ; and the only reason why it was not
observed by philosophers, is, because they
give less attention to the memory than to
the senses ; for, since ideas are things pre-
sent, how can we, from our having a certain
idea piesently in our mind, conclude that an
event really happened ten or twenty years
ago, corresponding to it ?

There is the same need of arguments to
prove, that the ideas of memory are pictures
of things that really did happen, as that the
ideas of sense are pictures of external objects
which now exist. In both cases, it will be
impossible to find any argument that has
real weight. So that this hypothesis leads
us to absolute scepticism, with regard to
those things which we most distinctly re-
member, no less than with regard to the
external objects of sense.

It does not appear to have occurred either
to Locke or to Berkeley, that their system
has the same tendency to overturn the tes-
timony of memory as the testimony of the

Mr Hume saw farther than both, and
found this consequence of the system of
ideas perfectly corresponding to his aim of
establishing universal scepticism. His sys-
stem is therefore more consistent than
theirs, and the conclusions agree better with
the premises.

But, if we should grant to Mr Hume that
our ideas of memory afford no just ground
to believe the past existence of things which
we remember, it may still be asked, How it

* This is not correct. See above, p. 2R5, note f.
To that note I. may add, that no orViodox Catholic
could be an Idealist. It was only the doctrine of
transsubstantiation that prevented Malebranche from
pre-occupying the theory of Berkeley and Collier,
which was in fact his own, with the transcendent
reality of a material world left out, as a Protestant
hors d'atuvre. This, it is curious, has never been
observed. See Note P.— H,

comes to pass that perception and memory
are accompanied with belief, while bare ima-
gination is not ? Though this belief can-
not be justified upon his system, it ought to
be accounted for as a phenomenon of hu-
man nature. [352]

This he has done, by giving us a new
theory of belief in general ; a theory which
suits very well with that of ideas, and seems
to be a natural consequence of it, and which,
at the same time, reconciles all the belief
that we find in human nature to perfect

What, then, is this belief? It must
either be an idea, or some modification of
an idea ; we conceive many things which we
do not believe. The idea of an object is
the same whether we believe it to exist, or
barely conceive it. The belief adds no new
idea to the conception ; it is, therefore, no-
thing but a modification of the idea of the
thing believed, or a different manner of
conceiving it. Hear himself : —

" All the perceptions of the mind are of
two kinds, impressions and ideas, which
differ from each other only in their different
degrees of force and vivacity. Our ideas
are copied from our impressions, and repre-
sent them in all their parts. When you
would vary the idea of a particular object,
you can only increase or d iminis h its force
and vivacity. If you make any other change
upon it, it represents a different object or
impression. The case is the same as in
colours. A particular shade of any colour
may acquire a new degree of liveliness or
brightness, without any other variation ;
but, when you produce any other variation,
it is no longer the same shade or colour. So
that, as belief does nothing but vary the
manner in which we conceive any object, it
can only bestow on our ideas an additional
force and vivacity. An opinion, therefore,
or belief, may be most accurately defined a
lively idea, related to or associated with a
present impressinn."

This theory of belief is very fruitful of
consequences, which Mr Hume traces with
his usual acuteness, and brings into the
service of his system. [353] A great part
of his system, indeed, is built upon it ; and
it is of itself sufficient to prove what he
calls his hypothesis, " that belief is more
properly an act of the sensitive than of
the cogitative part of our natures."

It is very difficult to examine this ac-
count of belief with the same gravity with
which it is proposed. It puts one in
mind of the ingenious account given by
Martinus Scriblerus of the power of syllo-
gism, by making the major the male, and
the minor the female, which, being couplea
by the middle term, generate the conclusion.
There is surely no science in which men ol
great parts and ingenuity have fallen into




such gross absurdities as in treating of the
powers of the mind. I cannot help think-
ing that never anything more absurd was
gravely _ maintained by any philosopher,
than this account of the nature of belief,
and of the distinction of perception, memory,
and imagination.

The belief of a proposition is an opera-
tion of mind of which every man is con-
scious, and what it is he understands per-
fectly, though, on account of its simplicity,
he cannot give a logical definition of it. If
he compares it with strength or vivacity of
his ideas, or with any modification of ideas,
they are so far from appearing to be one
and the same, that they have not the least

That a strong belief and a weak belief
differ only in degree, I can easily compre-
hend ; but that belief and no belief should
differ only in degree, no man can believe
who understands what he speaks. For this
is, in reality, to say that something and
nothing differ only in degree ; or, that
nothing is a degree of something.

Every proposition that may be the ob-
ject of belief, has a contrary proposition
that may be the object of a contrary belief.
The ideas of both, according to Mr Hume,
are the same, and differ only in degrees of
vivacity — that is, contraries differ only in
degree ; and so pleasure may be a degree
of pain, and hatred a degree of love. [354]
But it is to no purpose to trace the absurd-
ities that follow from this doctrine, for none
of them can be more absurd than the doc-
trine itself.

Every man knows perfectly what it is to
see an object with his eyes, what it is to
remember a past event, and what it is to
conceive a thing which has no existence.
That these are quite different operations of
his mind, he is as certain as that sound
differs from colour, and both from taste ;
and I can as easily believe that sound, and
colour, and taste differ only in degree, as
that seeing, and remembering, and imagin-
ing, differ only in degree.

Mr Hume, in the third volume of his
" Treatise of Human Nature," is sensible
that his theory pi belief is liable to strong
objections, and seems, in some measure, to
retract it ; but in what measure, it is not
easy to say. He seems still to think that
belief is only a modification of the idea ;
but that vivacity is not a proper term to
express that modification. Instead of it,
he uses some analogical phrases, to explain
that modification, such as " apprehending
the idea more strongly, or taking faster
hold of it."

There is nothing more meritorious in a
philosopher than to retract an error upon
conviction ; but, in this instance, I hum-
bly apprehend Mr Hume claims that merit

upon too slight a ground. For I cannot
perceive that the apprehending an idea
more strongly, or taking faster hold of it,
expresses any other modification of the idea
than what was before expressed by its
strength and vivacity, or even that it ex-
presses the same modification more pro-
perly. Whatever modification of the idea
he makes belief to be, whether its vivacity,
or some other without a name, to make
perception, memory, and imagination to be
the different degrees of that modification,
is chargeable with the absurdities we have

Before we leave this subject of memory,
it is proper to take notice of a distinction
which Aristotle makes between memory
and reminiscence, because the distinction
has a real foundation in nature, though in
our language, I think, we do not distinguish
them by different names. [355]

Memory is a kind of habit which is not
always in exercise with regard to things we
remember, but is ready to suggest them
when there is occasion. The most perfect
degree of this habit is, when the thing pre-
sents itself to our remembrance spontane-
ously, and without labour, as often as there
is occasion. A second degree is, when the
thing is forgot for a longer or shorter time,
even when there is occasion to remember
it ; yet, at last, some incident brings it to
mind without any search. A third degree
is, when we cast about and search for what
we would remember, and so at last find it
out. It is this last, I think, which Ari-
stotle calls reminiscence, as distinguished
from memory.

Reminiscence, therefore, includes a will
to recollect something past, and a search for
it. But here a difficulty occurs. It may
be said, that what we will to remember we
must conceive, as there can be no will with-
out a conception of the thing willed. A
will to remember a thing, therefore, seems
to imply that we remember it already, and
have no occasion to search for it. But this
difficulty is easily removed. When we wil!
to remember a thing, we must remember
something relating to it, which gives us. a
relative conception of it ; but we may, at
the same time, have no conception what the
thing is, but only what relation it bears to
something else. Thus, I remember that a
friend charged me with a commission to lie
executed at such a place ; but I have forgot
what the commission was. By applying
my thought to what I remember concerning
it, that it was given by such a person, upon
such an occasion, in consequence of such a
conversation, I am led, in a train of thought,

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 81 of 114)