Thomas Reid.

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

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nature, and the origin of those immediate

We have considered what has been said in
the support of this principle, Essay II. chap.
14, to which the reader is referred, to
prevent repetition.

I shall only add to what is there said,
That there appears no shadow of reason
why the mind must have an object imme-
diately present to it in its intellectual oper-
ations, any more than in its affections and
passions. Philosophers have not said that
ideas are the immediate objects of love or
resentment, of esteem or disapprobation.
It is, I think, acknowledged, that persons
and not ideas, are the immediate objects of
those affections ; persons, who are as far
from being immediately present to the mind
as other external objects, and, sometimes,
persons who have now no existence, in this
world at least, and who can neither act
upon the mind, nor be acted upon by it.

The second principle, which I conceive
to be likewise a prejudice of philosophers,
grounded upon analogy, is now to be

It contradicts directly what was laid down
in the last article of the preceding chapter
— to wit, that we may have a distinct con-
ception of things which never existed. This
is undoubtedly the common belief of those
who have not been instructed in philosophy ;
and they will think it as ridiculous to defend
it by reasoning, as to oppose it. [380]

The philosopher says, Though there
may be a remote object which does not ex-
ist, there must be an immediate object
which really exists ; for that which is not,
cannot be an object of thought. The idea
must be perceived by the mind, and, if it
does not exist there, there can be no per-
ception of it, no operation of the mind
about it.*

This principle deserves the more to be
examined, because the other before men-
tioned depends upon it ; for, although the
last may be true, even if the first was false,
yet, if the last be not true, neither can the
first. If we can conceive objects which
have no existence, it follows that there may
be objects of thought which neither act upon
the mind, nor are acted upon by it ; because
that which has no existence can neither act
nor be acted upon.

It is by these principles that philosophers
have been led to think that, in every act of
memory and of conception, as well as of
perception, there are two objects — the
one, the immediate object, the idea, the
species, the form ; the other, the mediate
or external object. The vulgar know only

* In relation to this and what follows, see above.
». 293, b, note t ; p. 2TO, a, note t ; and Note B.


of one object, which, in perception, is some-
thing external that exists ; in memory,
something that did exist ; and, in concep-
tion, may be something that never existed.*
But the immediate object of the philo-
sophers, the idea, is said to exist, and to be
perceived in all these operations.

These principles have not only led philo-
sophers to split objects into two, where
others can find but one, but likewise have
led them to reduce the three operations now
mentioned to one, making memory and con-
ception, as well as perception, to be the per-
ception of ideas. But nothing appears more
evident to the vulgar, than that what is
only remembered, or only conceived, is not
perceived ; and, to speak of the perceptions
of memory, appears to them as absurd as
to speak of the hearing of sight. [301 ]

In a word, these two principles carry us
into the whole philosophical theory of ideas,
and furnish every argument that ever was
used for their existence. If they are true,
that system must be admitted with all its
consequences. If they are only prejudices,
grounded upon analogical reasoning, the
whole system must fall to the ground with

It is, therefore, of importance to trace
those principles, as far as we are able, to
their origin, and to see, if possible, whether
they have any just foundation in reason, or
whether they are rash conclusions, drawn
from a supposed analogy between matter
and mind.

The unlearned, who are guided by the
dictates of nature, and express what they
are conscious of concerning the operations
of their own mind, believe that the object
which they distinctly perceive certainly
exists ; that the object which they distinctly
remember certainly did exist, but now may
not ; but as to things that are barely con-
ceived, they know that they can conceive a
thousand things that never existed, and that
the bare conception of a thing does not so
much as afford a presumption of its exist-
ence. They give themselves no trouble to
know how these operations are performed, or
to account for them from general principles.

But philosophers, who wish to discover
the causes of things, and to account for
these operations of mind, observing that in
other operations there must be not only an
agent, but something to act upon, have
been led by analogy to conclude that it
must be so in the operations of the mind.

The relation between the mind and its
conceptions bears a very strong and obvious
analogy to the relation between a man and
his work. Every scheme he forme, every
discovery he makes by his reasoning powers,
is very properly called the work of his mind.
These works of the mind are sometime s
* See references in precedrng note.— .H.



say ir.

great and important works, and draw the
attention and admiration of men. [382]

It is the province of the philosopher to
consider how such works of the mind are
produced, and of what materials they are
composed. He calls the materials ideas.
There must therefore be ideas, which the
mind can arrange and form m into a regular
structure. Everything that is produced,
must be produced of something ; and from
nothing, nothing can be produced.

Some such reasoning as this seems to me
to have given the first rise to the philoso-
phical notions of ideas. Those notions were
formed into a system by the Pythagoreans,
two thousand years ago ; and this system
was adopted by Plato, and embellished with
all the powers of a fine and lofty imagina-
tion. I shall, in compliance with custom,
call it the Platonic system of ideas, though
in reality it was the invention of the Pytha-
gorean school. "

The most arduous question which em-
ployed the wits of men in the infancy of
the Grecian philosophy was — What was the
origin of the world ? — from what principles
and causes did it proceed ? To this ques-
tion very different answers were given in
the different schools. Most of them appear
to us very ridiculous. The Pythagoreans,
however, judged, very rationally, from the
order and beauty of the universe, that it
must be the workmanship of an eternal, in-
telligent, and good being : and therefore
they concluded the Deity to be one first
principle or cause of the universe.

But they conceived there must be more.
The universe must be made of something.
Every workman must have materials to
work upon. That the world should be made
out of nothing seemed to them absurd, be-
cause everything that is made must be made
of something.

Nullam rem e nihilo gigni divimtus unquam. — LucR.
L)e nibilo nihil, in nihilum nil posse reverti.— Peiih.

This maxim never was brought into doubt :
even in Cicero's time it continued to be
held by all philosophers. [383] What
natural philosopher (says that author in his
second book of Divination) ever asserted
that anything could take its rise from
nothing, or be reduced to nothing ? Be-
cause men must have materials to work
upon, they concluded it must be so with
the Deity. This was reasoning from analogy.
From this it followed, that an eternal
uncreated matter was another first prin-
ciple of the universe. But this matter they
believed had no form nor quality. It was

* Ideas in the Platonic, and Ideas in the modern
signification, hold, as I have already shewn, little
or no analogy to each other. See above, p. 204, a,
notes t t i p. 225, b, note * ; p. 202, b, note *.— H.

the same with the materia prima or first
matter of Aristotle, who borrowed this part
of his philosophy from his predecessors.

To us it seems more rational to think
that the Deity created matter with its qua-
lities, than that the matter of the universe
should be eternal and self-existent. But
so strong was the prejudice of the ancient
philosophers against what we call creation,
that they rather chose to have recourse to
this eternal and unintelligible matter, that
the Deity might have materials to work

The same analogy which led them to
think that there must be an eternal matter of
which the world was made, led them also
to conclude that there must be an eternal
pattern or model according to which it was
made- Works of design and art must be
distinctly conceived before they are made.
The Deity, as an intelligent Being, about
to execute a. work of perfect beauty and
regularity, must have had a distinct con-
ception of his work before it was made. ■
This appears very rational.

But this conception, being the work of
the Divine intellect, something must have
existed as its object. This could only be
ideas, which are the proper and immediate
object of intellect. [384]

From this investigation of the principles
or causes of the universe, those philoso-.
pliers concluded them to he three in number
— to wit, an eternal matter as the material .
cause, eternal ideas as the model or exem-
plary cause, and an eternal intelligent mind
as the efficient cause.

As to the nature of those eternal ideas,
the philosophers of that sect ascribed to
them the most magnificent attributes.
They were immutable and uncreated ;* the
object of the Divine intellect before the
world was made ; and the only object of
intellect and of science to all intelligent
beings. As far as intellect is superior to
sense, so far are ideas superior to all the
objects of sense. The objects of sense
being in a constant flux, cannot properly
be said to exist. Ideas are the things
which have a real and permanent exist-
ence. They are as various as the species of
things, there being one idea of every spe-
cies, but none of individuals. The idea is
the essence of the species, and existed be-
fore any of the species was made. It is
entire in every individual of the species,
without being either divided or multiplied.

In our present state, we have but an
imperfect conception of the eternal ideas ;
but it is the highest felicity and perfection
of men to be able to contemplate them.

* Whether, in the Platonic system, Ideas are, or
are not, independent of the Deity, I have already
stated, is, and always has Ven, a vexata quastio.—




While we are in this prison of the body, I
sense, as a dead weight, bears us down
from the contemplation of the intellectual
objects ; and it is only by a due purifica-
tion of the soul, and abstraction from sense,
that the intellectual eye is opened, and that
we are enabled to mount upon the wings of
intellect to the celestial world of ideas.

Such was the most ancient system con-
cerning ideas, of which we have any account.
And, however different from the modern,
it appears to be built upon the prejudices
we have mentioned — to wit, that in every
operation there must be something to work
upon ; and that even in conception there
must be an object which really exists.

For, if those ancient philosophers had
thought it possible that the Deity could
operate without materials in the formation
of the world, and that he could conceive
the plan of it without a model, they could
have seen no reason to make matter and
ideas eternal and necessarily existent prin-
ciples, as well as the Deity himself.

Whether they believed that the ideas
were not only eternal, but eternally, and
without a cause, arranged in that beautiful
and perfect order which they ascribe to this
intelligible world of ideas, I cannot say ;
but this seems to be -a, necessary conse-
quence of the system : for, if the Deity
could not conceive the plan of the world
which he made, without a model which
really existed, that model could not be his
work, nor contrived by his wisdom ; for, if
he made it, he must have conceived it
before it was made ; it must therefore have
existed in all its beauty and order inde-
pendent of the Deity ; and this I think
they acknowledged, by making the model
and the matter of this world, first princi-
ples, no less than the Deity.

If the Platonic system be thus understood,
(and I do not see how it can hang together
otherwise,) it leads to two consequences
that are unfavourable to it.

Firsl, Nothing is left to the Maker of
this world but the skill to work after a
model. The model had all the perfection
and beauty that appears in the copy, and
the Deity had only to copy after a pattern
that existed independent of him. Indeed,
the copy, if we believe those philosophers,
falls very far short of the original ; but this
they seem to have ascribed to the refracto-
riness of matter of which it was made.i

Secondly, If the world of ideas, without
being the work of a perfectly wise and good
intelligent being, could have so much beauty
and perfection, how can we infer from the
beauty and order of this world, which is
but an imperfect copy of the other, that it
must have been made by a perfectly wise
and good being ? [386] The force of this
£385-387 ]

reasoning, from the beauty and order of the
untvertc', to its being the work of a wise
being, which appears invincible to every
candid mind, and appeared so to those
ancient philosophers, is entirely destroyed
by the supposition of the existence of a
world of ideas, of greater perfection and
beauty, which never was made. Or, if the
reasoning be good, it will apply to the world
of ideas, which must, of consequence, have
been made by a wise and good intelligent
being, and must have been conceived before
it was made.

It may farther be observed, that all that
is mysterious and unintelligible in the Pla-
tonic ideas, arises from attributing existence
to them. Take away this one attribute, all
the rest, however pompously expressed,
are easily admitted and understood.

What is a, Platonic idea? It is the
essence of a species. It is the exemplar, the
model, according to which all the individuals
of that species are made. It is entire in
every individual of the species, without be-
ing multiplied or divided. It was an object
of the divine intellect from eternity, and is an
object of contemplation and of science to
every intelligent being. It is eternal, im-
mutable, and uncreated ; and, to crown all,
it not only exists, but has a more real and
permanent existence than anything that
ever God made.

Take this description altogether, and it
would require an GEdipus to unriddle it.
But take away the last part of it, and no-
thing is more easy. It is easy to find five
hundred things which answer to every
article in the description except the last.

Take, for an instance, the nature of a
circle, as it is defined by Euclid — an object
which every intelligent being may conceive
distinctly, though no circle had ever existed;
it is the exemplar, the model, according to
which all the individual figures of that
species that ever existed were made ; for
they are all made according to the nature of a
circle. [387] It is entire in every individual
of the species, without being multiplied or
divided. For , every circle is an entire
circle ; and all circles, in as far as they are
circles, have one and the same nature. It
was an object of the divine intellect from
all eternity, and may be an object of con-
templation and of science to every intelli-
gent being. It is the essence of a species,
and, like all other essences, it is eternal,
immutable, and uncreated. This means
no more but that a circle always was a
circle, and can never be anything but a
circle. It is the necessity of the thing,
and not any act of creating power, that
makes a circle to be a circle.

Tlie nature of every species, whether of
substance, of quality, or of relation, and in
general everything which the ancients called
2 B 2



L essay IV.

an universal, ai.swers to the description of
a Platonic idea, if in that description you
leave out the attribute of existence.

If we believe that no species of things
could be conceived by the Almighty with-
out a model that really existed, we must go
back to the Piatouic system, however mys-
terious. But, if it be true that the Deity
could have a distinct conception of things
wliich did notexist, and that other intelligent
beings may conceive objects which do not
e iist, the system has no better foundation
than this prejudice, that the operations of
mind must be like those of the body.

Aristotle rejected the ideas of his master
Piato as visionary ; but he retained the
prejudices that gave rise to them, and there-
fore substituted something in their place,
but under a different name,* and of a dif-
ferent origin.

He called the objects of intellect, intelli-
gible species ; those of the memory and
imagination, phantasms ; and those of the
senses, sensible species. This change of the
name* was indeed very small ; for the Greek
word of Aristotle [tXSer] which we translate
species or form, is so near to the Greek
word idea, both in its sound and significa-
tion, that, from their etymology, it would
not be easy to give them different meanings.
[388] Both are derived from theGreekword
which signifies to see, and both may signify a
vision or appearanee to the eye. Cicero, who
understood Greek well, often translates the
Greek word idea by the Latin word visio.
But both words being used as terms of art —
one in the Platonic system, the other in the
Peripatetic — the Latin writers generally
borrowed the Greek word idea to express the
Platonic notion, and translated Aristotle's
word, by the words species or forma ; and in
this they have been followed in the modern
languages. *

Those forms or species were called intelli-
gible, to distinguish them from sensible
speetes, which Aristotle held to be the imme-
diate objeets of sense.

He thought that the sensible species come
from the external object, and denned a sense
to be that which has the capacity to receive
the form of sensible things without the mat-
ter ; as wax receives the form of a seal with-
out any of the matter of it. In like manner,
he thought thai the intellect receives the
forms of things intelligible ; and he callsit
the place of forms.

* Reid seems not aware that Plato, and Aristotle
in relation to Plato, employed the terms iTSet and
litcc almost as convertible. In fact, the latter usually
combats the ideal theory of the former by the name
of sTSaj — e. e., t« ei'3»j x&'cim, Tt^r'nrfjutrx yxq Is"'.
M. Cousin, in a learned and ingenious paper of his
" Nouveaux Fragments" has endeavoured to shew
that iMaco did not apply the two terms indifferently ;
and the- same has been attempted by Richter. But
so many exceptions' must be admitted, that, appa-
rently, no determinate rule can be established H.

I take it to have been the opinion of Aris-
totle, that the intelligible forms in the hu-
man intellect are derived from the sensible
by abstraction, and other operations of the
mind itself- As to the intelligible forms in
the divine intellect, they must have had
another origin ; but I do not remember that
he gives any opinion about them. He cer-
tainly maintained, however, that there is no
intellection without intelligible species;*
no memory or imagination without phan-
tasms ; no perception without sensible
species. Treating of memory, he proposes
a difficulty, and endeavours to resolve it —
how a phantasm, that is a present object in
the mind, should represent a thing that is
past. [389]

Thus, I think, it appears that the Per-
ipatetic system of species and phantasms,
as well as the Platonic system of ideas, is
grounded upon this principle, that in every
kind of thought there must be some object
that really exists ; in every operation of the
mind, something to work upon. Whether
this immediate object be called an idea with
Plato, -f* or a phantasm or species with Aris-
totle — whether it be eternal and uncreated,
or produced by the impressions of external
objects — is of no consequence in the pre-
sent argument. In both systems, it was
thought impossible that the Deity could
make the world without matter to work
upon ; in both, it was thought impossible
that an intelligent Being could conceive
anything that did not exist, but by means
of a model that really existed.

The philosophers of the Alexandrian
school, commonly called the latter Flato-
nists, conceived the eternal ideas of things
to be in the Divine intellect, aud thereby
avoided tlie absurdity of making them a
principle distinct from and independent of
the Deity ; but still they held them to exist
really in the Divine mind as the objeets of
conception, and as the patterns and arche-
types of things that are made.

Modern philosophers, still persuaded that
of every thought there must be an imme-
diate object that really exists, have not
deemed it necessary to distinguish by dif-
ferent names the immediate objects of in-
tellect, of imagination, and of the senses,
but have given the common name of idea
to them all.

Whether these ideas be in the sensorium,
or in the mind, or partly hi the one and
partly in the other; whether they exist
when they are not perceived, or only when

* There is, even less reason to attribute such a
theory to Aristotle in relation to the intellect than
in relation to sense and imagination. See even his
oldest commentatw, the Aphrodisian, JltetWurvs,
f. 1:19, a. In fact, tue greater number of those Peri,
patetics who admitted species in this crude form lot
the latter, rejected -them for the former. H.

i Sec auoie, p. 26.', h, note * H.

f388 3S9~]




they are perceived ; whether they are the
workmanship of the Deity or of the mind
itself, or of external natural causes — with
regard to these points, different authors
seem to have different opinions, and the
same author sometimes to waver or be
diffident ; but as to their existence, there
seems to be great unanimity.* [390]

So much is this opinion fixed in the
minds of philosophers, that I doubt not but
it will appear to most a very strange para-
dox, or rather a contradiction, that men
should think without ideas.

That it has the appearance of a contra-
diction, I confess. But this appearance
arises from the ambiguity of the word idea.
If the idea 1 >f a thing means only the thought
of it, or the operation of the mind in think-
ing about it, which is the most common
meaning of the word, to think without ideas,
is to think without thought, which is un-
doubtedly a contradiction.

But an idea, according to the definition
given of it by philosophers, is not thought,
but an object of thought, which really exists
and is perceived. Now, whether is it a
contradiction to say, that a man may think
of an object that does not exist ?

I acknowledge that a man cannot per-
ceive an object that does not exist ; nor can
he remember an object that did not exist ;
but there appears to me no contradiction in
his conceiving an object that neither does
nor ever did exist.

Let us take an example. I conceive a,
centaur. This conception is an operation
of the mind, of which I am conscious, and
to which I can attend. The sole object of it
is a centaur, an animal which, I believe,
never existed. I can see no contradiction
in this. - )-

The philosopher says, I cannot conceive
a centaur without having an idea of it in
my mind. I am at a loss to understand
what he means. He surely does not mean
that I cannot conceive it without conceiving
it. This would make me no wiser. What
then is this idea f Is it an animal, half
horse and half man ? No. Then I am
certain it is not the thing I conceive. Per-
haps he will say, that the idea is an image
of the animal, and is the immediate object
of my conception, and that the animal is
the mediate or remote object. J [391 ]

To this I answer — First, I am certain
there are not two objects of this conception,
but one only ; and that one is as immediate
an object of my conception as any can be.

Secondly, This one object which I con-
ceive, is not the image of an animal — it is

* This, as already once and again stated, is not
correct.— H.

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 84 of 114)