Thomas Reid.

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

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t See above, p. 20?, h, note \, and Note B.— H.

$ On this, and the subsequent reasoning in the
present chapter, see Note B. — H.

an animal. I know what it is to conceive
an image of an animal, and what it is to
conceive an animal ; and I can distinguish
the one of these from the other without
any danger of mistake. The thing I con-
ceive is a body of a certain figure and
colour, having life and spontaneous motion.
The philosopher says, that the idea is an
image of the animal ; but that it has neither
body, nor colour, nor life, nor spontaneous
motion. This I am not able to comprehend.

Thirdly, I wish to know how this idea
comes to be an object of my thought, when
I cannot even conceive what it means ;
and, if I did conceive it, this would be no
evidence of its existence, any more than
my conception of a centaur is of its exist-
ence. Philosophers sometimes say that we
perceive ideas, sometimes that we are con-
scious of them. I can have no doubt of
the existence of anything which I either
perceive or of which I am conscious ;* but
I cannot find that I either perceive ideas
or am conscious of them.

Perception and consciousness are very
different operations, and it is strange that
philosophers have never determined by
which of them ideas are discerned + This
is as if a man should positively affirm that
he perceived an object ; but whether by his
eyes, or his ears, or his touch, he could not

But may not a man who conceives a
centaur say, that he has a distinct image of
it in his mind ? I think he may. And if he
means by this way of speaking what the
vulgar mean, who never heard of the phi-
losophical theory of ideas, I find no fault
with it. [392] By a distinct image in the
mind, the vulgar mean a distinct concep-
tion ; and it is natural to call it so, on
account of the analogy between an image of
a thing and the conception of it. On ac-
count of this analogy, obvious to all man-
kind, this operation is called imagination,
and an image in the mind is only a peri-
phrasis for imagination. But to infer from
this that there is really an image in the
mind, distinct from the operation of con-
ceiving the object, is to be misled by an
analogical expression ; as if, from the
phrases of deliberating and balancing things
in the mind, we should infer that there is
really a balance existing in the mind for
weighing motives and arguments.

The analogical words and phrases used
in all languages to express conception, do,
no doubt, facilitate their being taken in a
literal sense. But, if we only attend care-

* This is not the case, unless it be admitted that
we are conscious of what we perceive— iD other words,
immediately cognitive of the non-ego — H.

f But the philosophers did not, like Rrid, make
Consciousness one special faculty, and Perception
ami! her; nor did they and I'ecception
the same thing.— H.

[ 390-392]




fully to what we are conscious of in this
operation, we shall find no more reason to
think that images do really exist in our
minds, than that balances and other me-
chanical engines do.

We know of nothing that is in the mind
but by consciousness, and we are conscious
of nothing but various modes of thinking ;
such as understanding, willing, affection,
passion, doing, suffering. If philosophers
choose to give the name of an idea to any
mode of thinking of which we are conscious,
I have no objection to the name, but that
it introduces a foreign word into our lan-
guage without necessity, and a word that is
very ambiguous, and apt to mislead. But,
if they give that name to images in the
mind, which are not thought, but only
objects of thought, I can see no reason to
think that there are such things in nature.
If they be, their existence and their nature
must be more evident than anything else,
because we know nothing . but by their
means. I may add, that, if they be, we
can know nothing besides them. For, from
the existence of images, we can never, by
any just reasoning, infer the existence of
anything else, unless perhaps the existence
of an intelligent Author of them. In this,
Bishop Berkeley reasoned right. [393]

In every work of design, the work must
be conceived before it is executed— that is,
before it exists. If a model, consisting of
ideas, must exist in the mind, as the ob-
ject of this conception, that model is a work
of design no less than the other, of which
it is the model ; and therefore, as a work of
design, it must have been conceived before
it existed. In every work of design, there-
fore, the conception must go belore the
existence. This argument we applied be-
fore to the Platonic system of eternal and
immutable ideas, and it may be applied with
equal force to all the systems of ideas.

If now it should be asked, What is the
idea of a circle ? I answer, It is the con-
ception of a circle. What is the immediate
object of this conception ? The immediate
and the only object of it is a circle. But
where is this circle ? It is nowhere. If
it was an individual, and had a real ex-
istence, it must have a place ; but, being an
universal, it has no existence, and therefore
no place. Is it not in the mind of him that
conceives it ? The conception of it is in
the mind, being an act of the mind ; and in
common language, a thing being in the
mind, is a figuratiTe expression, signify-
ing that the thing is conceived or remem-

It may be asked, Whether this concep-
tion is an image or resemblance of a. circle ?
I answer, I have already accounted for its
bciiiir, in a figurative sense, called the image
of a circle in the mind. If the question is

meant in the literal sense, we must observe,
that the word conception has two meanings.
Properly it signifies that operation of the
mind which we have been endeavouring to
explain ; but sometimes it is put for the
object of conception, or thing conceived.

Now, if the question be understood in tho
last of these senses, the object of this con-
ception is not an image or resemblance of
a circle ; for it is a circle, and nothing can
be an image of itself. [394]

If the question be -Whether the opera-
tion of mind in conceiving a circle be an
image or resemblance of a circle ? I think
it is not ; and that no two things can be
more perfectly unlike, than a species of
thought and a species of figure. Nor is it
more strange that conception should have
no resemblance to the object conceived,
than that desire should have no resem-
blance to the object desired, or resentment
to the object of resentment.

I can likewise conceive an individual
object that really exists, such as St Paul's
Church in London. I have an idea of it ;
that is, I conceive it. The immediate
object of this conception is four hundred
miles distant ; and I have no reason to think
that it acts upon me, or that I act upon it ;
but I can think of it notwithstanding. I
can think of the first year or the last year
of the Julian period.

If, after all, it should be thought that
images in the mind serve to account for this
faculty of conceiving things most distant in
time and place, and even things which do
not exist, which otherwise would be alto-
gether inconceivable ; to this I answer,
that accounts of things, grounded upon
conjecture, have been the bane of true
philosophy in all ages. Experience may
satisfy us that it is an hundred times more
probable that they are false than that they
are true.

This account of the faculty of conception,
by images in the mind or in the brain,
will deserve the regard of those who have
a true taste in philosophy, when it is proved
by solid arguments— First, That there are
images in the.mind, or in the brain, of the
things we conceive. Secondly, That there
is a faculty in the mind of perceiving such
images. Thirdly, That the perception of
such images produces the conception of
things most distant, and even of things that
have no existence. And, fnurthly, That
the perception of individual images in the
mind, or in the brain, gives us the concep-
tion of universals, which are the attributes
of many individuals. [395] Until this is
done, the theory of images existing in the
mind or in the brain, ought to be placed in
the same category with the sensible species,
materia prima of Aristotle, and the vortices
of Dcs Cartes.






1. Writers on logic, after the example
of Aristotle, divide the operations of the
understanding into three : Simple Appre-
hension, (which is another word for Con-
ception,) Judgment, and Reasoning. They
teach us, that reasoning is expressed by a
syllogism, judgment by a proposition, and
simple apprehension by a term only — that
is, by one or more words which do not
make u fall proposition, but only the sub-
ject or predicate of a proposition. If, by
this they mean, as I think they do, that a
proposition, or even a syllogism, may not
be simply apprehended,* I believe this is a
mistake. .

In all judgment and in all reasoning,
conception is included. We can neither
judge of a proposition, nor reason about it,
unless we conceive or apprehend it. We
may distinctly conceive a proposition, with-
out judging of it at all. We may have no
evidence on one side or the other ; we may
have no concern whether it be true or false.
In these cases we commonly form no judg-
ment about it, though we perfectly under-
stand its meaning, -f

A man may discourse, or plead, or write,
for other ends than to find the truth. His
learning, and wit, and invention may be
employed, while his judgment is not at all,
or very little. When it is not truth, but
some other end he pursues, judgment would
be an impediment, unless for discovering
the means of attaining his end ; and, there-
fore, it is laid aside, or employed solely for
that purpose. [3!>6]

The business of an orator is said to be,
to find out what is fit to persuade. This a
man may do with much ingenuity, who
never took the trouble to examine whether
it ought to persuade or not. Let it not be
thought, therefore, that a man judges of
the truth of every proposition he utters, or
hears uttered. In our commerce with the
world, judgment is not the talent that bears
the greatest price ; and, therefore, those who
are not sincere lovers of truth, lay up this
talent where it rusts and corrupts, while
they carry others to market, for which
there is greater demand.

2. The division commonly made by logi-

* Does Reid hero mean, by apprehending pimply,
apprehending in one simple and indivisible aft ? — H.

T There is no conception po..s ; ble without a judg-
ment affirming its (ideal) existence. "There is no
consciousness, in fact, possible without judgment.
See above, p. 243, a, note *. It is to be observed,
that Reid uses conception in the course of this chap-
ter as convertible with understanding or comprehen-
sion,- and, therefore, as we shall see, in a vaguer or
m^re extensive meaning than the philosophers whose
opinion he controvei t.- — H.

cians, of simple apprehension, into Sensation,
Imagination, and Pure Intellection, seems
to me very improper in several respects.

First, Under the word sensation, they
include not only what is properly so called,
but the perception of external objects by
the senses. These are very different opera-
tions of the mind ; and, although they are
commonly conjoined by nature, ought to be
carefully distinguished by philosophers.

Secondly, Neither sensation northe percep-
tion of external objects, is simple apprehen-
sion. Both includejudgmentand belief, which
are excluded from simple apprehension.*

Thirdly, They distinguish imagination
from pure intellection by this, that, in
imagination, the image is in the brain ;•!- in
pure intellection, it is in the intellect. This
is to ground a distinction upon an hypo-
thesis. We have no evidence that there
are images either in the brain or in the in-
tellect. [397]

I take imagination, in its most proper
sense, to signify a lively conception of
objects of sight. J This is a talent of im-
portance to poets and orators, and deserves
a proper name, on account of its connection
with those arts. According to this strict
meaning of the word, imagination is dis-
tinguished from conception as a part from
the whole. We conceive the objects of the
other senses, but it is not so proper to say
that we imagine them. We conceive judg-
ment, reasoning, propositions, and argu-
ments ; but it is rather improper to say
that we imagine these things.

This distinction between imagination and
conception, may be illustrated by an ex-
ample, which Des Cartes uses to illus-
trate the distinction between imagination
and pure intellection. We can imagine a
triangle or a square so clearly as to
distinguish them from every' other figure.
But we cannot imagine a figure of a thou-
sand equal sides and angles so clearly. The
best eye, by looking at it, could not distin-
guish it from every figure of more or fewer
sides. And that conception of its appear-
ance to the eye, which we properly call im-
agination, cannot be more distinct than the
appearance itself; yet we can conceive a
figure of a thousand sides, and even can
demonstrate the properties which distinguish
it from all figures of more or fewer sides.
It is not by the eye, but by a superior fa-
culty, that we form the notion of a great

* See the last note.— H.'

f But not the image, of which the mind :s con-
scious. By image or idea in the brain, species im-
prcssa, 8)C, was meant only the unknown corporeal
antecedent of' the known mental consequent, -the
image or idea in the mind, the species expressa, S;c.
Reid here refers principally to the Cartesian doctrine
— H.

t See above, p. 3C>6, a, note * ; and, below, unde.
p. 4a.'.- H.

f396, 397"|




number, such as a thousand. And a distinct
notion of this number of sides not being to
be got by the eye, it is. not imagined, but
it is distinctly conceived, and easily distin-
guished from every other number. •

3. Simple apprehension is commonly re-
presented as the first operation of the
understanding ; and judgment, as being a
composition or combination of simple appre-

This mistake has probably arisen from the
taking sensation, and the perception of
objects by the senses, to be nothing but
simple apprehension. They arc, very pro-
bably, the first operations of the mind ; but
they are not simple apprehensions, f [398]

It is generally allowed, that we cannot
conceive sounds if we have never heard,
nor colours if we have never seen ; and the
.same thing may be said of the objects of
the other senses. In like manner, we must
have judged or reasoned before we have
the conception or simple apprehension of
j ttdgment and of reasoning.

Simple apprehension, therefore, though
it be the simplest, is not the first operation
of the understanding ; and, instead of say-
ing that the more complex operations of
the mind are formed by compounding sim-
ple apprehensions, we ought rather to say,
that simple apprehensions are got by ana-
lysing more complex operations.

A similar mistake, which is carried
through the whole of Mr Locke's Essay,
may be here mentioned. It is, that our
simplest ideas or conceptions are got im-
mediately by the senses, or by conscious-
ness, and the complex afterwards formed
by compounding them. I apprehend it is
far otherwise.

Nature presents no object to the senses,
or to consciousness, that is not complex.
Thus, by our senses we perceive bodies of
various kinds ; but every body' is a com-
plex object ; it has length, breadth, and
thickness; it has figure, and colour, and
various other sensible qualities, which are
blended together in the same subject ; and
1 apprehend that brute animals, who have
the same senses that we have, cannot sepa-
rate the different qualities belonging to the
same subject, and have only a complex
and confused notion of the whole. Such
also would be our notions of the objects of
sense, if we had not superior powers of
understanding, by which we can analyse
the complex object, abstract every parti-
cular attribute from the rest, and form a
distinct conception of it.

So that it is not by the senses imme-

* See above, p. 3(i6, a, note * H.

t They are not simple apprehensions, in one sense
— that is, the objects arc not incorapositc. Hut this
was not the meaning in which the expression was used |
by the Logicians.— H.

diately, but rather by the powers of ana-
lysing and abstraction, that we get the most
simple and the most distinct notions even
of the objects of sense. This will be more
fully explained in another place. [399]

4. There remains another mistake con-
cerning conception, which deserves to be
noticed. It is — That our conception of
things is a test of their possibility, so that,
what we can distinctly conceive, we may
conclude to be possible ; and of what is im-
possible, we can have no conception.

This opinion has been held by philoso-
phers for more than an hundred years,
without contradiction or dissent, as far as I
know ; and, if it be an error, it may be of
some use to inquire into its origin, and the
causes that it has been so generally re-
ceived as a maxim whose truth could not
be brought into doubt.

One of the fruitless questions agitated
among the scholastic philosophers in the
dark ages* was — What is the criterion of
truth ? as if men could have any other way
to distinguish truth from error, but by the
right use of that power of judging which
God has given them.

Des Cartes endeavoured to put an end to
this controversy, by making it a fundamen-
tal principle in his system, that whatever
we clearly and distinctly perceive, is true.y

To understand this principle of Des
Cartes, it must be observed, that he gave
the name of perception to every power of
the human understanding ; and in explain-
ing this very maxim, he tells us that sense,
imagination, and pure intellection, are only
different modes of perceiving, and, so the
maxim was understood by all his followers. J

The learned Dr Cudworth seems also to
have adopted this principle : — " The cri-
terion of true knowledge, says he, is only
to be looked for in our knowledge and con-
ceptions themselves : for the entity of all
theoretical truth is nothing else but clear
intelligibility, and whatever is clearly con-
ceived is an entity and a truth ; but that
which is false, divine power itself cannot
make it to be clearly and distinctly under-
stood. [400] A falsehood can never be
clearly conceived or apprehended to be
true." — " Eternal and Immutable Mora-
lity," p. 172, &c.

This Cartesian maxim seems to me to
have led the way to that now under con-
sideration, which seems to have been adopted
as the proper correction of the former.
When the authority of Des Cartes declined,
men began to seeithat we may clearly and
distinctly conceive what is not true, but

* This was more a question with the Greek ptailo.
sophers than with the schoolmen H.

f In this .he proposed nothing new. -H.

i That is, in Des Cartes' signification of the word,

different modes of being conscioMs. See above.— H.

[398-. 00'



thought, that our conception, though not in
all cases a test of truth, might be a test of

This indeed seems to be a necessary con-
sequence of the received doctrine of ideas ;
it being evident that there can be no dis-
tinct image, either in the mind or anywhere
else, of that which ie impossible. -f The
ambiguity of the word conceive, which we
observed, Essay I. chap* 1, and the com-
mon phraseology of saying we cannot con-
ceive such a thing, when we would signify
that we think it impossible, might likewise
contribute to the reception of this doctrine.

But, whatever was the origin of this
opinion, it seems to prevail universally,
and to be received as a maxim.

" The bare having an idea of the propo-
sition proves the thing not to be impossible ;
for of an impossible proposition there can
be no idea." — Da Samuel Clarke.

"Of that which neither does nor can
exist we can have no idea." — Lor© Bolinu-


"The measure of impossibility t©> us is
iuconceivableness, that of which we can
have no idea, but that reflecting upon it, it
appears to be nothing, we pronounce to be
impossible."— Abkrnethy. [401]

" In every idea is implied the possibility
of the existence of its object, nothing being
clearer than that there can be no idea of
an impossibility, or conception of what can-
not exist." — Dr Price-

" Impossible est cujus nullam notionem
formare possumus ; possibile e contra, cui
aliqua respondet notio." — Wolfii Ontolo-

" It is an established maxim in metaphy-
sics, that whatever the mind conceives, in-
cludes the idea of possible existence, or, in
other words, that nothing we imagine is
absolutely impossible."—!). Hume.

It were easy to muster up many other
respectable authorities for this maxim, and
I have never found one that called it in

If the maxim be true in the extent which

* That is, of logical possibility— the absence of con-
tradiction.— H.

+ This is rather a strained inference.— ! I.

? These are not exactly Wolfs explosions. See
■• Ontologia," $§ 1()2, 103; " Philosophia nationalist'
( § h&i, 528. The fame doctrine is held by Tschirn-
hauseu and others. In so far, however, as it is said
that inconceivability is the criterion of impossibility,
it is manifestly erroneous. Of many contradictories,
we-are able to conceive neither; but, by the law of
thaughtt called that of Excluded Middle, one ot two
rontradictories must be admitted — must be true.
For example, we can neiiher conceive, on the one
hand, an ultimate minimum of space or of time; nor
ran we, on the o her, conceive their infinite divisibi.
lity. In like manner, we canno' conceive the absu-
Uite commencement of time or the utmost limit of
space, And are yet equally unable to conceive them
without any commencement or limit. Theabsu<dity
that would result from the assertion, that all that is
inconceivable is impossible, is thus obvious ; and so
Tar Reid's criticism -s jus 1 , though not new. —II.
[401, U)2]

the famous Wolfius has given it in the pas-
sage above quoted, we shall have a short
road to the determination of every question
about the possibility or impossibility of
things. We need only look into our own
breast, and that, like the Urim and
Thummim, will give an infallible answer.
If we can conceive the thing, it is possible ;
if not, it is impossible. And, surely, every
man may know whether he can conceive
what is affirmed or not.

Other philosophers have been, satisfied
with one half of the maxim of Wolfius.
They say, that whatever we can conceive is
possible ; but they do not say that whatever
we cannot conceive is impossible.

I cannot help thinking even this to be a
mistake, which philosophers have been un-
warily led into, from the causes before men-
tioned. My reasons are these : — [402]

1. Whatever is said to be possible or im-
possible, is expressed by a proposition.
Now, what is it to conceive a proposition ?
I think it is no more than to understand
distinctly its meaning.* I know no more

* Tn this sense of the word Conception, I make
bold to say that there is no philosopher who ev< r
held an opinion different from thai of our author.
The whole dispute arises from Reid giving a wider
signification to this term that which it has
generally received. In his view, it has two mean,
inps; in that of the philosophers whom he attacks,
it has only one. To illustrate this, take the propo i-
trou— a circle is square. Here we easily understand
the meaning of the aftirmat ion, because what is neces-
sary to an act of judgment is merely that the subject
and predicate should he brought into a unity of rela-
tion. A judgment is therefore possible, even where
the tw o terms are contradictory, Itut the philosophers
never expressed, hy the term conception, this under,
standing of the purport of a proportion. What they
meant by conception was not the unity of relation,
but the unity of representation ; and this unity ui
representation they made the interior! of ngieai pos-
sibility, lo take the example already given: they
diil not say a circle may possibly be square, because

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 85 of 114)