Thomas Reid.

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

. (page 82 of 114)
Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 82 of 114)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

to the very thing I had forgot, and recol-
lect distinctly what the commission was.

Aristotle says, that brutes have not re-



[essay iv

miniscence ;* and this I think is probable ;
but, says he, they have memory. It cannot,
indeed, be doubted but they have something
very like to it, and, in some instances, in a
very great degree. A dog knows his master
after long absence. A. horse will trace back
a road he has once gone, as accurately as a
man ; and this is the more strange, that the
train of thought which he had in going must
be reversed in his return. It is very like
to some prodigious memories we read of,
where a person, upon hearing an hundred
names or unconnected words pronounced,
can begin at the last, and go backwards to

the first, without losing or misplacing one.
Brutes certainly may learn much from ex-
perience, which seems to imply memory.

Yet, I see no reason to think that brutes
measure time as men do, by days, months,
or years ; or that they have any distinct
knowledge of the interval between things
which they remember, or of their distance
from the present moment If we could not
record transactions according to their dates,
human memory would be something very
different from what it is, and, perhaps, re-
semble more the memory of brutes. [357]





Conceiving, imagining,-^ apprehending, un-
derstanding, having a notion of a thing, are
common words, used to express that opera-
tion of the understanding which the logi-
cians call simple apprehension. The having
an idea of a thing, is, in common language,
used in the same sense, chiefly, I think,
since Mr Locke's time. J

Logicians define Simple Apprehension to
be the bare conception of a thing without
any judgment or belief about it. If this
were intended for a strictly logical definition,
it might be a just objection to it, that con-
ception and apprehension are only synony-
mous words ; and that we may as well
define conception by apprehension, as appre-
hension by conception ; but it ought to be

* This is a question which may be differently an-
swered, according as we attribute a different meaning
to the terms employed.— H.

t Imagining should not be confounded with Con.
ceiving, &c. ; though some philosophers, as Gassendi,
have not attended to the distinction. The words
Conception, Concept, Jiotion, should be limited to the
thought of what cannot be represented in the imagin-
ation, as the thought .suggested by a general term.
The Leibnitians call this symbolical in contrast' to
intuitive knowledge. This- is the sense 'in which
conceptio&ria conceptus have been usually and cor-
rectly employed. Mr Stewart, on the other band,
arbitrarily limits Conception to the reproduction, in
imagination, of an object of sense as actually per-
ceived. See Elements, vol. L, ch. iii. I cannot
enter on a general criticism of Reid's nomenclature,
though I may say something more of this In the
sequel. See below, under pp. 371, 483.— H.

X In this country should be added. Locke only
introduced into English philosophy the term idea in
ils Cartesian universality. Prior to him, the word
was only used with us in its Platonic signification.
Before Des Cartes, David Buchanan, a Scotch philo-
sopher, who sojourned in France, had, however, em-
ployed Idea in an. equal latitude. See Note G.- H.

remembered that the most simple operations
of the mind cannot be logically defined. To
have a distinct notion of them, we must
attend to them as we feel them in our own
minds. He that would have a distinct
notion of a scarlet colour, will never attain
it by a definition ; he must set it before bis
eye, attend to it, compare it with the colours
that come nearest to it, and observe the
specific difference, which he will in vain
attempt to define.* [358]

Every man is conscious that he can con-
ceive a thousand things, of which he believes
nothing at all — as a horse with wings, a
mountain of gold ; but, although concep-
tion may be without any degree of belief,
even the smallest belief cannot be without
conception. He that believes must have
some conception of what he believes.

Without attempting a definition of this
operation of the mind, I shall endeavour to
explain some of its properties ; consider the
theories about it ; and take notice of some
mistakes of philosophers concerning it.

1. It may be observed that conception
enters as an ingredient in every operation
of the mind. Our senses cannot give us the
belief of any object, without giving some
conception of it at the same time. No man
can either remember or reason about things
of which he hath no conception. When
we will to exert any of our active powers,
there must be some conception of what we
will to do. There can be no desire nor
aversion, love nor hatred, without some con-
ception of the object. We cannot feel pain
without conceiving it, though we can con-
ceive it without feeling it. These things
are self-evident.

In every operation of the mind, there-

* We do not define the specific difference, but w»
define by it,— H.

[357, 368]



fore, in everything we call thought, there
must be conception. When we analyse the
various operations either of the understand-
ing or of the will, we shall always find this
at the bottom, like the caput mortuum of
the chemists, or the materia prima of the
Peripatetics ; hut, though there is no opera-
tion of mind without conception, yet it may
be found naked, detached from all others,
and then it is called simple apprehension, or
the bare conception of a thing.

As all the operations of our mind are ex-
pressed by language, every one knows that
it is one thing to understand what is said,
to conceive or apprehend its meaning,
whether it be a word, a sentence, or a dis-
course ; it is another thing to judge of it,
to assent or dissent, to be persuaded or
moved. The first is simple apprehension,
and may be without the last ; but the last
cannot be without the first. „ [359]

2. In bare conception there can neither
be truth nor falsehood, because it neither
affirms nor denies. Every judgment, and
every proposition by which judgment is
expressed, must be true or false ; and the
qualities of true and false, in their proper
sense, can belong to nothing but to judg-
ments, or to* propositions which express
judgment. In the bare conception of a
thing there is no judgment, opinion, or be-
lief included, and therefore it cannot be
either true or false.

But it may be said, Is there anything
more certain than that men may have true
or false conceptions, true or false appre-
hensions, of things ? I answer, that such
ways of speaking are indeed so common,
and so well authorized by custom, the arbiter
of language, that it would be presumption
to censure them. It is hardly possible to
avoid using them. But we ought to be
upon our guard that we be not misled by
them, to confound things which, though
often expressed by the same words, are
really different. We must therefore re-
member what was before observed, Essay I. '
chap. I — that all the words by which we
signify the bare conception of a thing, are
likewise used to signify our opinions, when
we wish to express them with modesty and
diffidence. And we shall always find, that,
when we speak of true or false' conceptions,
we mean true or false opinions. An opinion,
though ever so wavering, or ever so mo-
destly expressed, must be either true or
false ; but a bare conception, which ex-
presses no opinion or judgment, can be

If we analyse those speeches in which
men attribute truth or falsehood to our
conceptions of things, we shall find in every
case, that there is some opinion or judgment
implied in what they call conception. [360]
A child conceives the moon to be flat, and a

foot or two broad — that is, this is his opinion :
and, when we say it is a false notion or a
false conception, we mean that it is a false
opinion. He conceives the city of London
to be like his country village — that is, he
believes it to be so, till he is better instructed.
He conceives a lion to have horns ; that is,
he believes that the animal which men call
a lion, has horns. Such opinions language
authorizes us to call conceptions ; and they
may be true or false. But bare conception,
or what the logicians call simple apprehen-
sion, implies no opinion, however slight,
and therefore can neither be true nor false.

What Mr Locke says of ideas (by which
word he very often means nothing but con-
ceptions) is very just, when the word idea
is so understood. Book II., chap, xxxii., § L
" Though truth and falsehood belong in
propriety of speech only to propositions, yet
ideas are often termed true or false (as
what words are there that are not used with
great latitude, and with some deviation
from their strict and proper signification ?)
though I think that when ideas themselves
are termed true or false, there is still some
secret or tacit proposition, which is the
foundation of that denomination : as we shall
see, if we examine the particular occasions
wherein they come to be called true or false ;
in all which we shall find some kind of
affirmation or negation, which is the reason
of that denomination ; for our ideas, being
nothing but bare appearances, or perceptions
in our minds, cannot properly and simply
in themselves be said to be true or false, no
more than a simple name of anything can
be said to be true or false."

It may be here observed, by the way, that,
in this passage, as in many others, Mr
Locke uses the word perception, as well as
the word idea, to signify what I call con-
ception, or simple apprehension. And in
his chapter upon perception, Book II., chap.
ix., he uses it in the same sense. Percep-
tion, he says, " as it is the first faculty of
the mind, exercised about our ideas, so it
is the first and simplest idea we have from
reflection, and is by some called thinking
in general. [361] It seems to be that
which puts the distinction betwixt the ani-
mal kingdom and the inferior parts of nature.
It is the first operation of all our faculties,
and the inlet of all knowledge into our

Mr Locke has followed the example given
by Des Cartes, Gassendi, and other Carte-
sians,* in giving the name of perception to
the bare conception of things : and he has
been followed in this by Bishop Berkeley,

* Gassendrvvas not a Cartesian, but an Anti-Car
tesian, though he adopted several points in his phi.
losoohy from Des Cartes — for example, the employ-
ment of the term Idea not in its Platonic limitation
— B.



Qf.ssay IV.

Mr Hume, and many late philosophers,
when they treat of ideas. They have pro-
bably been led into this impropriety, by the
common doctrine concerning- ideas, which
teaches us, that conception, perception by
the senses, and memory, are only different
ways of perceiving ideas in our own minds. "
If that theory be well founded, it will in-
deed be very difficult to find any specific
distinction between conception ;and percep-
tion, -f But there is reason to distrust any
philosophical theory when it leads men to
corrupt language, and to confound, under
one name, operations of the mind which
common sense and common language teach
them to distinguish.

I grant that there are some states of the
mind, wherein a man may confound his
conceptions with what he perceives or re-
members, and mistake the one for the other ;
as in the delirium of a fever, in some cases
of lunacy and of madness, in dreaming, and
perhaps in some momentary transports of
devotion, or of other strong emotions, which
cloud his intellectual faculties, and, for a
time, carry a man out of himself, as we
usually express it.

Even in a sober and sound state of mind,
the memory of a thing may be so very weak
that we may be in doubt whether we only
dreamed or imagined it.

It may be doubted whether children,
when their imagination first begins to work,
can distinguish what they barely conceive
from what they remember. [362] I have
been told, by a man "of knowledge and ob-
servation, that one of his sons, when he
began to speak, very often told lies with
great assurance, without any intention, as
far as appeared, or any consciousness of
guilt. From which the father concluded,
that it is natural to some . children to lie-
I am rather inclined to think that the child
had no intention to deceive, but mistook the
rovings of his own fancyfor things which
he remembered. J This, however, I take
to be very uncommon, after children can
communicate their sentiments by language,
though perhaps not so in a more early

Granting all this, if any man will affirm
that they whose intellectual faculties are
sound, and sober, and ripe, cannol with
certainty distinguish what they perceive or
remember, from what they barely conceive,
when those operations have any degree of
strength and distinctness, he may enjoy his

* But see-above, p. 280, a, note* etalibL—H.

[ Yet Reid himself defines Perception, a Concep-
tion (imagination) accompanied with a belief in the
existence of its object; and Mr Stewart reduces the
specific difference, at best only a concomitant, to an
accidental circumstance, in holding that our im-
aginations are themselves conjoined with a tempo-
rary belief in their objective reality.— H.

t But compare above, p. 340, col. a H.

opinion ; I know not how to reason with
him. Why should philosophers confound
those operations in treating of ideas, when
they would be ashamed to do it on other
occasions? To distinguish the various
powers of our minds, a certain degree of
understanding is necessary. And if some,
through a defect of Understanding, natural
or accidental, or from unripeness of under-
standing, may be apt to confound different
powers, will it follow that others cannot
clearly distinguish them ?

To return from this digression — into which
the abuse oPrhe word perception, by philo-
sophers, has led me — it appears evident that
the bare conception of an object, which
includes no opinion or judgment, can neither
be true nor false. Those qualities, in their
proper sense, are altogether inapplicable to
this operation of the mind.

3. Of all the analogies between the opera-
tions of body and those of the mind, there
is none so strong and so obvious to all man-
kind as that which there is between paint-
ing, or other plastic arts, and the power of
conceiving objects in the mind. Hence, in
all languages, the words by which this power
of the mind and its various modifications
are expressed, are analogical, and borrowed
from those arts. [363] We consider this
power of the mind as a plastic power, by
which we form to ourselves images of the
objects of thought.

In vain should we attempt to avoid this
analogical language, for we have no other
language upon the subject ; yet it is danger-
ous, and apt to mislead. All analogical and
figurative words have a double meaning ;
and, if we are not very much upon our
guard, we slide insensibly from the bor-
rowed and figurative meaning into the pri-
mitive. We are prone to carry the parallel
between the things compared farther than it
will hold, and thus very naturally to fall
into error.

To avoid this as far as possible in the pre-
sent subject, it is proper to attend to the
dissimilitude between conceiving a thing in
the mind, and painting it to the eye, as well
as to their similitude. The similitude strikes
and gives pleasure. The dissimilitude we
are less disposed to observe ; but the philo-
sopher ought to attend to it, and to carry it
always in mind, in his reasonings on this
subject, as a monitor, to warn him against
the errors into which the analogical lan-
guage is apt te draw him.

When a man paints, there is some work
done, which remains when his hand is taken
off, and continues to exist though he should
think no more of it. Every stroke of his
pencil produces an effect, and this effect is
different from his action in making it; for
it remains and continues to exist when the
action ceases. The action of painting is

1 362, ear



one thing ; the picture produced is another
thing. The first is the cause, the second is
the effect.

Let us next consider what is done when
he only conceives this picture. He must
have conceived it before he painted it ; for
this is a maxim universally admitted, that
every work of art must first be conceived in
the mind of the operator. What is this
conception ? It is an act of the mind, a kind
of thought. This cannot be denied. [364]
But does it produce any effect besides the
act itself ? Surely common sense answers
this question in the negative ; for every
one knows that it is one thing to conceive,
another thing to .bring forth into effect. It
is one thing to project, another to execute.
A man may think for a long time what he
is to do, and after all do nothing. Con-
ceiving, as well as projecting or resolving,
are what the schoolmen called immanent acts
of the mind, which produce nothing beyond
themselves. But painting is a transitive
act, which produces an effect distinct from
the operation, and this effect is the picture.
Let this, therefore, be always remembered,
that what is commonly called the image of
a thing in the mind, is no more than the
act or operation of the mind in conceiving

That this is the common sense of men
who are untutored by philosophy, appears
from their language. If one ignorant of the
language should ask, What is meant by
conceiving a thing ? we should very natur-
ally answer, that it is having an image of
it in the mind — and perhaps we could not
explain the word better. This shews that
conception, and the image of a thing in the
mind, are synonymous expressions. The
image in the mind, therefore, is not the
object of conception, nor is it any effect
produced by conception as a cause. It is
conception itself. That very mode of think-
ing which we call conception, is by another
name called an image in the mind.*

Nothing more readily gives the concep-
tion of a thing than the seeing an image of
it Hence, by a figure common in language,
conception is called an image of the thing
conceived. But to shew that it is not a
real but a metaphorical image, it is called
an image in the mind. We know nothing
that is properly in the mind but thought ;
and, when anything else is said to be in the
mind, the expression must be figurative,
and signify some kind of thought. [365]

I know that philosophers very unani-
mously maintain, that in conception there

* We ought, however, to distinguish Imagination
and Image, Conception and Concept. Imagination
and Conception ought to be- employed in speaking of
the mental modification, one 1 and indivisible, con-
sidered as an act ; Image and Concept, in speaking
of it, considered as a product or immediate object. —



is a real image in the mind, which is the
immediate object of conception, and distinct
from the act of conceiving it. I beg the
reader's indulgence to defer what may be
said for or against this philosophical opinion
to the next chapter ; intending in this only
to explain what appears to me to belong to
this operation of mind, without considering
the theories about it. I think it appears,
from what has been said, that the common
language of those who have not imbibed any
philosophical opinion upon this subject,
authorizes us to understand the conception
of a thing, and an image of it in the mind,
not as two different things, but as two dif-
ferent expressions, to signify one and the
same thing ; and I wish to use common
words in their common acceptation.

4. Taking along with us what is said in
the last article, to guard us against the se-
duction of the analogical language used on
this subject, we may observe a very strong
analogy, not only between conceiving and
painting in general, but between the dif-
ferent kinds of our conceptions, and the
different works of the painter. He either
makes fancy pictures, or he copies from the
painting of others, or he paints from the
life ; that is, from real objects of art or
nature which he has seen. I think our
conceptions admit of a division very similar.

First, There are conceptions which may
be called fancy pictures. They are com-
monly called, creatures of fancy, or of im-
agination. They are not the copies of any
original that exists, but are originals them-
selves. Such was the conception which
Swift formed of the island of Laputa, and
of the country of the Lilliputians ; Cer-
vantes of Don Quixote and his Squire ;
Harrington of the Government of Oceana ;
and Sir Thomas More of that of Utopia.
We can give names to such creatures of
imagination, conceive them distinctly, and
reason consequentially concerning them,
though they never had an existence. They
were conceived by their creators, and may
be conceived by others, but they never
existed. We do not ascribe the qualities
of true or false to them, because they are
not accompanied with any belief, nor do they
imply any affirmation or negation. [366]

Setting aside those creatures of imagina-
tion, there are other conceptions, which
may be called copies, because they have an
original or archetype to which they refer,
and with which they are believed to agree ;
and we call them true or false conceptions,
according as they agree or disagree with
the standard to which they are referred.
These are of two kinds, which have different
standards or originals.

The first kind is analogous to pictures
taken from the life. We have conceptions
of individual things that really exist, such



as the city of London, or the government
of Venice. Here the things conceived are
the originals ; and our conceptions are called
true when they agree with the thing con-
ceived. Thus, my conception of the city of
London is true, when I conceive it to be
what it really is.

Individual things which really exist,
being the creatures of God, (though some
of them may receive their outward form
from man,) he only who made them knows
their whole nature ; we know them but in
part, and therefore our conceptions of them
must in all cases be imperfect and inade-
quate ; yet they may be true and just, as
far as they reach.

The second kind is analogous to the copies
which the painter makes from pictures done
before. Such I think are the conceptions
we have of what the ancients called univer-
sals ; that is, of things which belong or may
belong to many individuals. These are
kinds and species of things ; such as man
or elephant, which are species of substances ;
wisdom or courage, which are species of
qualities ; equality or similitude, which are
species of relations.* It may be asked —
From what original are these conceptions
formed ? And when are they said to be
true or false ? [367]

It appears to me, that the original from
which they are copied — that is, the thing
conceived — is the conception or meaning
which other men, who understand the
language, affix to the same words.

Things are parcelled into kinds and sorts,
not by nature, but by men. The individual
things we are connected with, are so many,
that to give a proper name to every indi-
vidual would be impossible. We could
never attain the knowledge of them that is
necessary, nor converse and reason about
them, without sorting them according to
their different attributes. Those that agree
in certain attributes are thrown into one
parcel, and have a general name given
them, which belongs equally to every indi-
vidual in that parcel. This common name
must therefore signify those attributes
which have been observed to be common
to every individual in that parcel, and no-
thing else.

That such general words may answer
their intention, all that is necessary is, that
those who use them should affix the same
meaning or notion — that is, the same con-
ception to them. The common meaning is
the standard by which such conceptions are
formed, and they are said to be true or

* Of. all such we can have no adequate imagination.
A universal, when represented in imagination, is no
longer adequate, no longer a universal. We cannot
have an image of Horse, but only of some individual
of that species We may, however, have a notion or

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 82 of 114)