Thomas Reid.

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

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conception of it. See below, p. 48*.— H.

false according as they agree or disagree
with it. Thus, my conception of felony is
true and just, when it agrees with the
meaning of that word in the laws relating
to it, and in authors who understand the
law. The meaning of the word is the
thing conceived ; and that meaning is the
conception affixed to it by those who best
understand the language.

An individual is expressed in language
either by a proper name, or by a general
word joined to such circumstances as dis-
tinguish that individual from all others ; if
it is unknown, it may, when an object of
sense, and within reach, be pointed out to
the senses ; when beyond the reach of the
senses, it may be ascertained by a descrip-
tion, which, though very imperfect, may be
true, and sufficient to distinguish it from
every other individual. Hence it is, that,
in speaking of individuals, we are very little
in danger of mistaking the object, or tak-
ing one individual for another. [368]

Yet, as was before observed, our concep-
tion of them is always inadequate and lame.
They are the creatures of God, and there
are many things belonging to them which
we know not, and which cannot be deduced
by reasoning from what we know. They
have a real essence, or constitution of
nature, from which all their qualities flow ;
but this essence our faculties do not com-
prehend. They are therefore incapable of
definition ; for a definition ought to com-
prehend the whole nature or essence of the
thing defined.

Thus, Westminster Bridge is an indi-
vidual object; though I had never seen
or heard of it before, if I am only made
to conceive that it is a bridge from West-
minster over the Thames, this concep-
tion, however imperfect, is true, and is
sufficient to make me distinguish it, when
it is mentioned, from every other object
that exists. The architect may have an
adequate conception of its structure, which
is the work of man ; but of the materials,
which are the work of God, no man has an
adequate conception ; and, therefore, though
the object may be described, it cannot be

Universals are always expressed by gene-
ral words ; and all the words of language,
excepting proper names, are general words ;
they are the signs of general concep-
tions, or of some circumstance relating
to them. These general conceptions are
formed for the purpose of language and
reasoning ; and the object from which they
are taken, and to which they are intended
to agree, is the conception which other men
join to the same words ; they may, there-
fore, be adequate, and perfectly agree with
the thing conceived. This implies no more
than that men who speak the same language



may perfectly agree in the meaning of
many general words.

Thus mathematicians have conceived
what they call a plane triangle. They
have defined it accurately ; and, when I
conceive it to be a plane surface, bounded
by three right lines, I have both a true and
an adequate conception of it. [369] There
is nothing belonging to a plane triangle
which is not comprehended in this conception
of it, or deducible from it by just reasoning.
This definition expresses the whole essence
of the thing defined, as every just definition
ought to do ; but this essence is only what
Mr Locke very properly calls a nominal
essence ; it is a general conception formed
by the mind, and joined to a general word
as its sign.

If all the general words of a language had
a precise meaning, and were perfectly un-
derstood, as mathematical terms are, all
verbal disputes would be at an end, and
men would never seem to differ in opinion,
but when they differ in reality ; but this is
far from being the case. The meaning of
most general words is not learned, like that
of mathematical terms, by an accurate
definition, but by the experience we happen
to have, by hearing them used in conversa-
tion. From such experience, we collect
their meaning by a kind of induction ; and,
as this induction is, for the most part, lame,
and imperfect, it happens that different per-
sons join different conceptions to the same
general word ; and, though we intend to
give them the meaning which use, the
arbiter of language, has put upon them,
this is difficult to find, and apt to be mis-
taken, even by the candid and attentive.
Hence, in innumerable disputes, men do not
really differ in their judgments, but in the
way of expressing them.

Our conceptions, therefore, appear to be
of three kinds. They are either the concep-
tions of individual things, the creatures of
God ; or they are conceptions of the mean-
ing of general words ; or they are the crea-
tures of our own imagination : and these
different kinds have different properties,
which we have endeavoured to describe.

5. Our conception of things may be strong
and lively, or it may be faint and languid in
all degrees. These are qualities which pro-
perly belong to our conceptions, though we
have no names for them but such as are
analogical. Every man is conscious of such
a difference in his conceptions, and finds his
lively conceptions most agreeable, when the
object is not of such a nature as to give
pain. |370]

Those who have lively conceptions, com-
monly express them in a lively manner —
that is, in such a manner as to raise lively
conceptions and emotions in others. Such
persons are the most agreeable companions

in conversation, and the most acceptable in
their writings.

The liveliness of our conceptions proceeds
from different causes- Some objects, from
their own nature, or from accidental asso-
ciations, are apt to raise strong emotions in
the mind. Joy and hope, ambition, zeal,
and resentment, tend to enliven our con-
ceptions ; disappointment, disgrace, grief,
and envy, tend rather to flatten them. Men
of keen passions are commonly lively and
agreeable in conversation ; and dispassion-
ate men often make dull companions. There
is in some men a natural strengthtand vigour
of mind which gives strength to their con-
ceptions on all subjects, and in all the occa-
sional variations of temper.

It seems easier to form a lively concep-
tion of objects that are familiar, than of
those that are not ; our conceptions of visible
objects are commonly the most lively, when
other circumstances are equal. Hence,
poets not only delight in the description of
visible objects, but find means, by meta-
phor, analogy, and allusion, to clothe every
object they describe with visible qualities.
The lively conception of these makes the
object appear, as it were, before our eyes.
Lord Karnes, in his Elements of Criticism,
has shewn of what importance it is in
works of taste, to give to objects described,
what he calls ideal presence.* To produce
this in the mind, is, indeed, the capital aim
of poetical and rhetorical description. It
carries the man, as it were, out of himself,
and makes him a spectator of the scene
described. This ideal presence seems to me,
to be nothing else but a lively conception of
the appearance which the object would make
if really present to the eye. [371]

Abstract and general conceptions are
never lively, though they may be distinct ;
and, therefore, however necessary in philo-
sophy, seldom enter into poetical descrip-
tion without being particularised or clothed
in some visible dress. •(■

It may be observed, however, that our
conceptions of visible objects become more
lively by giving them motion, and more
still by giving them life and intellectual
qualities. Hence, in poetry, the whole crea-
tion is animated, and endowed with sense
and reflection.

Imagination, when it is distinguished
from conception, seems to me to signify
one species of conception — to wit, the con.

* The 'Ev^eyUAt 'Ttrarwrmiris, $«*r«W«t "Otytt
EiSaAoaW*, Visi&nes, of the ancient Rhetoricians —

t They thus cease to be aught abstract and general.
and become merely individual representations. In
precise language, they are no longer vofaiarx, but
pmTair^KT* ; no longer Begriffe, but Anscnauungen ;
no longer notions or concepts^ but images. Thewor'1
" particularised" ought to have been individualised
— H.




ception of visible objects.* Thus, in a
mathematical proposition, I imagine the
figure, and I conceive the demonstration ;
it would not, I think, be improper to say,
I conceive both ; but it would not be so
proper to say, I imagine the demonstration.

6". Our conceptions of things maybe clear,
distinct, and steady; or they may be ob-
scure, indistinct, and wavering. The live-
liness of our conceptions gives pleasure,
but it is their distinctness and steadiness
that enables us to judge right, and to
express our sentiments with perspicuity.

If we inquire into the cause, why, among
persons speaking or writing on the same
subject, we find in one so much darkness,
in another so much perspicuity, I believe
the chief cause will be found to be, that
one had a distinct and steady concep-
tion of what he said and wrote, and the
other had not. Men generally find means
to express distinctly what they have con-
ceived distinctly. Horace observes, that
proper words spontaneously follow distinct
conceptions — " Verbaqtie provisam rem non
invita sequuntur." But it is impossible
that a man should distinctly express what
he has not distinctly conceived. [372]

We are commonly taught that perspicuity
depends upon a proper choice of words, a
proper structure of sentences, and a proper
order in the whole composition. All this
is very true ; but it supposes distinctness in
our conceptions, without which there can
be neither propriety in our words, nor in
the structure of our sentences, nor in our

Nay, 1 apprehend that indistinct con-
ceptions of things are, for the most part,
the cause, not only of obscurity in writing
and speaking, but of error in judging.

Must not they who conceive things in the
same manner form the same judgment of
their agreements and disagreements ? Is
it possible for two persons to differ with
regard to the conclusion of a syllogism who
have the same conception of the premises ?

Some persons find it difficult to enter
into a mathematical demonstration. I be-
lieve we shall always find the reason to be,
that they do not distinctly apprehend it.
A man cannot be convinced by what he
does not understand. On the other hand,
I think a man cannot understand a de-
monstration without seeing the force of it.
I speak of such demonstrations as those
of Euclid, where every step is set down, and
nothing left to be supplied by the reader.

* It is to be regretted that Reid did not more fully
develope the distinction of Imagination and Concep-
tion, on which he here and elsewhere Inadequately
touches. Imagination is not, though in conformity
to the etymology of the term, to be limited to the
representation of visible objects. See below, under
p. 462. Neither ought the term conceive to be used
in the extensive sense of understand.— H.

Sometimes one who has got through the
first four books of Euclid's " Elements,"
and sees the force of the demonstrations,
finds difficulty in the fifth. What is the
reason of this ? You may find, by a little
conversation with him, that he has not a
clear and steady conception of ratios, and
of the terms relating to them. When the
terms used in the fifth book have become
familiar, and readily excite in his mind a
clear and steady conception of their mean-
ing, you may venture to affirm that he will
be able to understand the demonstrations
of that book, and to see the force of them.

If this be really the case, as it seems to
be, it leads us to think that men are very
much upon a level with regard to mere
judgment, when we take that faculty apart
from the apprehension or conception of the
things about which we judge; so that a
sound judgment seems to be the inseparable
companion of a clear and steady apprehen-
sion. And we ought not to consider these
two as talents, of which the one may fall to
the lot of one man, and the other to the lot
of another, but as talents which always go

It may, however, be observed, that some
of our conceptions may be more subservient
to reasoning than others which are equally
clear and distinct. It was before observed,
that some of our conceptions are of indi-
vidual things, others of things general and
abstract. It may happen that a man who
has very clear conceptions of things in-
dividually, is not so happy in those of
things general and abstract. And this I
take to be the reason why we find men
who have good judgment in matters of
common life, and perhaps good talents for
poetical or rhetorical composition, who find
it very difficult to enter into abstract reas-

That I may not appear singular in put-
ting men so much upon a level in point of
mere judgment, I beg leave to support this
opinion by the authority of two very think
ing men, Des Cartes and Cicero. The
former, in his dissertation on Method, ex-
presses himself to this purpose ; — " Nothing
is so equally distributed among men as
judgment.* Wherefore, it seems reasonable
to believe, that the power of distinguishing
what is true from what is false, (which we
properly call judgment or right reason,) is
by nature equal in all men ; and therefore
that the diversity of our opinions does not
arise from one person being endowed with
a greater power of reason than another, but
only from this, that we do not lead our

* «* Judgment," bona mens, in the authentic
Latin translation. I cannot, at the moment, lay
hands on my copy of the French original •, but, if 1

recollect aright, it is there le ton sent H.




thought in the same track, nor attend to
the same things."

Cicero, in his third hook'" De Oratore,"
makes this observation — " It is wonderful
when the learned and unlearned differ so
much in art, how little they differ in judg-
ment. For art being derived from Nature,
is good for nothing, unless it move and
delight Nature." [374]

From what has been said in this article,
it follows, that it is so far in our power to
write and speak perspicuously, and to reason
justly, as it is in our power to form clear
and. distinct conceptions of the subject on
which we speak or reason. And, though
Nature hath put a wide difference between
one man and another in this respect, yet
that it is in a very considerable degree in
our power to have clear and distinct appre-
hensions of things about which we think
and reason, cannot be doubted.

7. It has been observed by many authors,
that, when we barely conceive any object,
the ingredients of that conception must
either be things with which we were before
acquainted by some other original power of
the mind, or they must be parts or attri-
butes of such things. Thus, a man cannot
conceive colours if he never saw, nor sounds
if he never heard. If a man had not a con-
science, he could not conceive what is meant
by moral obligation, or by right and wrong
in conduct.

Fancy may combine things that never
were combined in reality. It may enlarge
or diminish, multiply or divide, compound
and fashion the objects which nature pre-
sents ; but it cannot, by the utmost effort
of that creative power which we ascribe to
it, bring any one simple ingredient into its
productions which Nature has not framed
and brought to our knowledge by some
other faculty.

This Mr Locke has expressed as beauti-
fully as justly. The dominion of man, in
this little world of his own understanding,
is much the same as in the great world of
visible things ; wherein his power, however
managed by art and skill, reaches no farther
than to compound and divide the materials
that are made to his hand, but can do no-
thing towards making the least particle of
matter, or destroying one atom that is
already in being. [375] The same inability
will every one find in himself, to fashion in his
understanding any simple idea not received
by the powers which God has given him.
' I think all philosophers agree in this senti-
ment. Mr Hume, indeed, after acknow-
ledging the truth of the principle in general,
mentions what he thinks a single exception
to it — That a man, who had seen all the
shades of a particular colour except one,
might frame in his mind a conception of
that shade which he never saw. I think
[374-376] {

this is not an exception ; because a parti-
cular shade of a colour differs not specifically,
but only in degree, from other shades of the
same colour.

It is proper to observe, that our most
simple conceptions are not those which
nature immediately presents to us. When
we come to years of understanding, we have
the power of analysing the objects of nature,
of distinguishing their several attributes
and relations, of conceiving them one by
one, and of giving a name to each, whose
meaning extends only to that single attri-
bute or relation : and thus our most simple
conceptions are not those of any object in
nature, but of some single attribute or rela-
tion of such objects.

Thus, nature presents to our senses
bodies that are extended in three dimensions,
and solid. By analysing the notion we have
of body from our senses, we form to our-
selves the conceptions of extension, solidity,
space, a point, a line, a surface — all which
are more simple conceptions than that of a
body. But they are the elements, as it
were, of which our conception of a body is
made up, and into which it may be analysed.
This power of analysing objects we propose
to consider particularly in another place.
It is only mentioned here, that what is said
in this article may not be understood so as
to be inconsistent with it. [376]

8. Though our conceptions must be con-
fined to the ingredients mentioned in the
last article, we are unconfined with regard
to the arrangement of those ingredients.
Here we may pick and choose, and form
an endless variety of combinations and com-
positions, which we call creatures of the
imagination. TheBe may be clearly con-
ceived, though they never existed : and,
indeed, everything that is made, must have
been conceived before it was made. Every
work of human art, and every plan of con-
duct, whether in public or in private life,
must have been conceived before it was
brought to execution. And we cannot avoid
thinking, that the Almighty, before he
created the universe by his power, had a
distinct conception of the whole and of every
part, and saw it to be good, and agreeable
to his intention.

It is the business of man, as a rational
creature, to employ this unlimited power of
conception, for planning his conduct and
enlarging his knowledge. It seems to be
peculiar to beings endowed with reason to
act by a preconceived plan. Brute animals
seem either to want this power, or to have
it in a very low degree. They are moved
by instinct, habit, appetite, or natural affec-
tion, according as these principles are stirred
by the present occasion. But I see no
reason to think that they can propose to
themselves a connected plan of life, or form




general rules of conduct Indeed, we see
that many of the human species, to whom
God has given this power, make little use
of it. They act without a plan, as the pas-
sion or appetite which is strongest at the
time leads them.

9. The last property I shall mention of
this faculty, is that which essentially dis-
tinguishes it from every other power of the
mind ; and it is, that it is not employed
solely about things which have existence.
I can conceive a winged horse or a centaur,
as easily and as distinctly as I can conceive
a man whom I have seen. Nor does this
distiuct conception incline my judgment in
the least to the belief that a winged horse
or a centaur ever existed. [377]

It is not so with the other operations of
our minds. They are employed about real
existences, and carry with them the belief
of their objects. When I feel pain, I am
compelled to believe that the pain that I
feel has a real existence. When I perceive
any external object, my belief of the real
existence of the object is irresistible. When
I distinctly remember any event, 'though
that event may not now exist, I can have
no doubt but it did exist. That conscious-
ness which we have of the operations of
our own minds, implies a belief of the real
existence of those operations.

Thus we see, that the powers of sensa-
tion, of perception, of memory, and of con-
sciousness, are all employed solely about
objects that do exist, or have existed. But
conception is often employed about objects
that neither do, nor did, nor will exist. This
is the very nature of this faculty, that its
object, though distinctly conceived, may
have no existence. Such an object we call
a creature of imagination ; but this creature
never was created.

That we may not impose upon ourselves
in this matter, we must distinguish between
that act or operation of the mind, which we
call conceiving an object, and the object
which we conceive. When we conceive
anything, there is a real act or operation of
the mind. Of this we are conscious, and
can have no doubt of its existence. But
every such act must have an obj ect ; • for he
that conceives must conceive something.
Suppose he conceives a centaur, he may
have a distiuct conception of this object,
though no centaur ever existed.

I am afraid that, to those who are unac-
quainted with the doctrine of philosophers
upon this subject, I shall appear in a very
ridiculous light, for insisting upon a point
so very evident as that men may barely
conceive things that never existed. They
will hardly believe that any man in his wits
ever doubted of it. Indeed, I know no

* See below, p. 390, and Note B.— H.

truth more evident to the common sense and
to the experience of mankind. But, if the
authority of philosophy, ancient and modern,
opposes it, as I think it does, I wish not
to treat that authority so fastidiously as not
to attend patiently to what may be said- in
support of it. [378]



The theory of ideas has been- applied to
the conception of objects, as well as to per-
ception and memory. Perhaps it will be
irksome to the reader, as it is to the writer,
to return to that subject, after so much has
been said upon it ; but its application to the
conception of objects, which could hot. pro-
perly have been introduced before, gives a
more comprehensive view of it, and of the
prejudices which have led philosophers so
unanimously into it.

There are two prejudices which seem to
me to have given rise to the theory of ideas
in all the various forms in which it has ap-
peared in the course of above two thousand
years ; and, though they have no support
from the natural dictates of our faculties,
or from attentive reflection upon their oper-
ations, they are prejudices which those who
speculate upon this subject are very apt to
be led into by analogy.

The first is — That, in all the operations of
the understanding, there must be some im-
mediate intercourse between the mind and
its object, so that the one may act upon the
other. The second, That, in all the opera-
tions of understanding, there must be an
object of thought, which really exists while
we think of it ; or, as some philosophers
have expressed it, that which is not cannot
be intelligible.

Had philosophers perceived that these are
prejudices grounded only upon analogical
reasoning, we had never heard of ideas in
the philosophical sense of that word. [379]

The first of these principles has led philo-
sophers to think that, as the external
objects of sense are too remote to act upon
the mind immediately, there must be some
image or shadow of them that is present to
the mind, and is the immediate object of
perception. That there is such an imme-
diate object of perception, distinct from
the external object, has been very unani-
mously held by philosophers, though they
have differed much about the name, the

* The reader will bear in mind what has been
already said of the limited meaning attached by
Reid to the term Idea, viz., something in, or present
to the mind, but not a mere modification of the
mind— and his error in supposing that all philosophers
admitted this crude hypothesis. See Notes B, C, L,
M, N, O, P, &c— H.



Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 83 of 114)