Thomas Reid.

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

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where he converses with the ghosts of
Homerand Orpheus. The philosopher makes
a tour through the planetary system, or
goes down to the centre of the earth, and
examines its various strata. In the devout
man likewise, the great objects that possess
his heart often play in his imagination :
sometimes he is transported to the regions
of the blessed, from whence he looks down
with pity upon the folly and the pageantry
of human life; or he prostrates himself
before the throne of the Most High with
devout veneration ; or he converses with
celestial spirits about the natural and moral
kingdom of God, which he now sees only
by a faint light, but hopes hereafter to view
with a steadier and brighter ray. [413]

In persons come to maturity, there is,
even in these spontaneous sallies of fancy,
some arrangement of thought ; and I con-
ceive that it will be readily allowed, that in
those who have the greatest stock of know-
ledge, and the best natural parts, even the
spontaneous movements of fancy will be
the most regular and connected. They
have an order, connection, and unity, by
which they are no less distinguished from
the dreams of one asleep, or the ravings of
one delirious on the one hand, than from
the finished productions of art on the other.

How is this regular arrangement brought
about ? It has all the marks of judgment
and reason, yet it seems to go before judg-
ment, and to spring forth spontaneously.

Shall we believe with Leibnitz, that the
mind was originally formed like a watch
wound up ; and that all its thoughts, pur-
poses, passions, and actions, are effected
by the gradual evolution of the original
spring of the machine, and succeed each
other in order, as necessarily as the motions
and pulsations of a watch ?

If a child of three or four years were put
to account for the pbaenomena of a watch,
he would conceive that there is a little man
within the watch, or some other little animal,
tliat beats continually, and produces the

motion. Whether the hypothesis of this
young philosopher, in turning the watch-
spring into a man, or that of the German
philosopher, in turning a man into a watch-
spring, be the most rational, seems hard to

To account for the regularity of our first
thoughts, from motions of animal spirits,
vibrations of nerves, attractions of ideas, or!
from any other unthinking cause, whether*
mechanical or contingent, seems equally
irrational. [414]

If we be not able to distinguish the
strongest marks of thought and design from
the effects of mechanism or contingency, the
consequence will be very melancholy ; for
it must necessarily follow, that we have no
evidence of thought in any of our fellow
men — nay, that we have no evidence of
thought or design in the structure and go-
vernment of the universe. If a good period
or sentence was ever produced without
having had any judgment previously em-
ployed about it, why not an Iliad or ^Eneid ?
They differ only in less and more ; and we
should do injustice to the philosopher of
Laputa, in laughing at his project of making
poems by the turning of a wheel, if a con-
currence of unthinking causes may produce
a rational train of thought.

It is, therefore, in itself highly probable
to say no more, that whatsoever is regular
and rational in *. train of thought, which
presents itself spontaneously to a man's
fancy, without any study, is a copy of what
had been before composed by his own ra-
tional powers, or those of some other person.

We certainly judge so in similar cases.
Thus, in a book I find a train of thinking,
which has the marks of knowledge and
judgment. I ask how it was produced ? It
is printed in a book. This does not satisfy
me, because the book has no knowledge nor
reason. I am told that a printer printed
it, and a compositor set the types. Neither
does this satisfy me. These causes, per-
haps, knew very little of the subject. There
must be a prior cause of the composition.
It was printed from a manuscript. True.
But the manuscript is as ignorant as the
printed book. The manuscript was written
or dictated by a man of knowledge and
judgment. This, and this only, will satisfy
a man of common understanding ; and it
appears to him extremely ridiculous to be-
lieve that such a train of thinking could
originally be produced by any cause that
neither reasons nor thinks. [415]

Whether such a train of thinking be
printed in a book, or printed, so to speak,
in his mind, and issue spontaneously from
his fancy, it must have been composed with

* The theory of* our mental associations owecmudl
to the philosopher! ol the Leibnitzian school.— H.



judgment by himself, or by some other
rational being.

This, I think, will be confirmed by tracing
the progress of the human fancy as far
back as we are able.

We have not the means of knowing how
the fancy is employed in infants. Their
time is divided between the employment of
their senses and sound sleep : so that there
is little time left for imagination, and the
materials it has to work upon are probably
very scanty. A few days after they are
born, sometimes a few hours, we see them
smile in their sleep. But what they smile
at is not easy to guess ; for they do not
smile at anything they see, when awake,
for some months after they are born. It
is likewise common to see them move their
lips in sleep, as if they were sucking.

These things seem to discover some
working of the imagination; but there is
no reason to think that there is any regular
train of thought in the mind of infants.

By a regular train of thought, I mean
that which has a beginning, a middle, and
an end, an arrangement of its parts, ac-
cording to some rule, or with some inten-
tion. Thus, the conception of a design,
and of the means of executing it ; the con-
ception of a whole, and the number and
order of the parts. These are instances of
the most simple trains of thought that can
be called regular.

Man has undoubtedly a power (whether
we call it taste or judgment is not of any
consequence in the present argument)
whereby he distinguishes between a com-
position and a heap of materials ; between
a house, for instance, and a heap of stones ;
between a sentence and a heap of words 5
between a picture and a heap of colours.
[416J It does not appear to me that chil-
dren have any regular trains of thought
until this power begins to operate. Those
who are born such idiots as never to shew
any signs of this power, shew as little any
signs of regularity of thought. It seems,
therefore, that this power is connected with
all regular trains of thought, and may be
the cause of them.

Such trains of thought discover them-
selves in children about two years of age.
They can then give attention to the opera-
tions of older children in making their
little houses, and ships, and other such
things, in imitation of the works of men.
They are then capable of understanding a
little of language, which shews both a
regular train of thinking, and some degree
of abstraction. I think we may perceive a
distinction between the faculties of children
of two or three years of age, and those of
the most sagacious brutes. They can then
perceive design and regularity in the works
of others, especially of older children ; their
T416, 417]

little minds are fired with the discovery ;
they are eager to imitate it, and never at
rest till they can exhibit something of the
same kind.

When a child first learns by imitation
to do something that requires design, how
does he exult ! Pythagoras was not more
happy in the discovery of his famous theo-
rem. He seems then first to reflect upon
himself, and to swell with self-esteem. His
eyes sparkle. He is impatient to shew his
performance to all about him, and thinks
himself entitled to their applause. He is
applauded by all, and feels the same emo-
tion from this applause, as a Roman Con-
sul did from a triumph. He has now a
consciousness of some worth in himself. He
assumes a superiority over those who are
not so wise, and pays respect to those who
are wiser than himself. He attempts
something else, and is every day reaping
new laurels.

As children grow up, they are delighted
with tales, with childish games, with designs
and stratagems. Everything of this kind
stores the fancy with a new regular train of
thought, which becomes familiar by repeti-
tion, so that one part draws the whole after
it in the imagination. [417]

The imagination of a child, like the hand'
of a painter, is long employed in copying
the works of others, before it attempts any
invention of its own.

The power of invention is not yet brought
forth ; but it is coming forward, and, like
the bud of a tree, is ready to burst its
integuments, when some accident aids its

There is no power of the understanding
that gives so much pleasure to the owner,
as that of invention, whether it be employed
in mechanics, in science, in the conduct of
life, in poetry, in wit, or in the fine arts.
One who is conscious of it, acquires thereby
a worth and importance in his own eye
which he had not before. He looks upon
himself as one who formerly lived upon the
bounty and gratuity of others, but who has
now acquired some property of his own.
When this power begins to be felt in the
young mind, it has the grace of novelty
added to its other charms, and, like the
youngest child of the family, is caressed
beyond all the rest.

We may be sure, therefore, that, as soon
as children are conscious of this power,
they will exercise it in such ways as are
suited to their age, and to the objects they
are employed about. This gives rise to
innumerable new associations, and regular
trains of thought, which make the deeper
impression upon the mind, as they are its
exclusive property.

I am aware that the power of invention
is distributed among men more unequally




than almost any other. When it is able to
produce anything that is interesting to man-
kind we call it genius ; a talent which is the
lot of very few. But there is, perhaps, a
lower kind or lower degree of invention that
is more common. However this may be, it
must be allowed that the power of invention
in those who have it, will produce many
new regular trains of thought ; and these
being expressed in works of art, in writing,
or in discourse, will be copied by others.

Thus, I conceive the minds of children,
as soon as they have judgment to distin-
guish what is regular, orderly, and connected,
from a mere medley of thought, are fur-
nished with regular trains of thinking by
these means.

First and chiefly, by copying what they
see in the works and in the discourse of
others. Man is the most imitative of all
animals ; he not only imitates with inten-
tion, and purposely, what he thinks has any
grace or beauty, but even without intention,
he is led, by a kind of instinct, which it is
difficult to resist, into the modes of speaking,
thinking, and acting, which he has been ac-
customed to see in his early years. The
more children see of what is regular and
beautiful in what is presented to them, the
more they are led to observe and to imitate

This is the chief part of their stock, and
descends to them by a kind of traditiou
from those who came before them ; and we
shall find that the fancy of most men is
furnished from those they have conversed
with, as well as their religion, language,
and manners.

Secon-lly, By the additions or innovations
that are properly their own, these will be
greater or less, in proportion to their study
and invention ; but in the bulk of mankind
are not very considerable.

Every profession and every rank in life,
has a manner of thinking, and turn of fancy
that is proper to it ; by which it is character-
ised in comedies and works of humour.
The bulk of men of the same nation, of the
same rank, and of the same occupation, are
cast, as it were, in the same mould. This
mould itself changes gradually, but slowly,
by new inventions, by intercourse with
strangers, or by other accidents.* [419]

The condition of man requires a longer
infancy and youth than that of other ani-
mals ; for this reason, among others, that
almost every station in civil society requires
a multitude of regular trains of thought, to

" * Non ad sed adsimilitudinemcompo-

nimur,'' flays Seneca; and Schiller—

•* Man— he is aye an Imitative creature,
And he who is the foremost leads the flock."

There would be no end of quotations to the same

eSect.— H.

be not only acquired, but to be made sc
familiar by frequent repetition, as to pre-
sent themselves spontaneously when there
is occasion for them.

The imagination even of men of good
parts never serves them readily but in
things wherein it has been much exercised.
A minister of state holds a conference with
a foreign ambassador with no greater emo-
tion than a professor in a college prelects to
his audience. The imagination of each
presents to him what the occasion requires
to be said, and how. Let them clxinge
places, and both would find themselves at a

The habits which the human mind is
capable of acquiring by exercise are won-
derful in many instances; in none more
wonderful than in that versatility of imagin-
ation which a well-bred man acquires by
being much exercised in the various scenes
of life. In the morning he visits a friend
in affliction. Here his imagination brings
forth from its store every topic of consola-
tion ; everything that is agreeable to the
laws of friendship and sympathy, and no-
thing that is not so. From thence he drives
to the minister's levee, where imagination
readily suggests what is proper to be said
or replied to every man, and in what man-
ner, according to the degree of acquaint-
ance or familiarity, of rank or dependence,
of opposition or concurrence of interests, of
confidence or distrust, that is between them.
Nor does all this employment hinder him
from carrying on some design with much
artifice, and endeavouring to penetrate into
the views of others through the closest dis-
guises. From the levee he goes to the
House of Commons, and speaks upon the
affairs of the nation ; from thence to a ball
or assembly, and entertains the ladies. His
imagination puts on the friend, the courtier,
the patriot, the fine gentleman, with more
ease than we put off one suit and put on
another. [420]

This is the effect of training and exer-
cise. For a man of equal parts and know-
ledge, but unaccustomed to those scenes of
public life, is quite disconcerted when first
brought into them. His thoughts are put
to flight, and he cannot rally them.

There are feats of imagination to be
learned by application and practice, as won-
derful as the feats of balancers and rope-
dancers, and often as useless.

When a man can make a hundred verses
standing on one foot, or play three or four
games at chess at the same time without
seeing the board, it is probable he hath
spent his life in acquiriug such a feat How-
ever, such unusual phamomena shew what
habits of imagination may be acquired.

When such habits are acquired and per-
fected, they are exercised without any labo-
rs 18-420]



rious effort ; like the habit of playing upon
an instrument of music. There are innu-
merable motions of the fingers upon the
stops or keys, which must be directed in
one particular train or succession. There
is only one arrangement of those motions
that is right, while there are ten thousand
that are wrong, and would spoil the music.
The musician thinks not in the least of the
arrangement of those motions ; he has a dis-
tinct idea of the tune, and wills to play it.
The motions of the fingers arrange them-
selves so as to answer bis intention.

In like manner, when a man speaks upona
subject with which he is acquainted, there is
a certain arrangement of his thoughts and
words necessary to make his discourse sen-
sible, pertinent, and grammatical. In every
sentence there are more rules of grammar,
logic, and rhetoric, that may be transgressed,
than there are words and letters. He
speaks without thinking of any of those
rules, and yet observes them all, as if they
were all in his. eye. [421]

This is a habit so similar to that of a
player on an instrument, that I think both
must be got in the same way — that is, by
much practice, and the power of habit.

When a man speaks well and methodi-
cally upon a subject without study and with
perfect ease, I believe we may take it for
granted that his thoughts run in a beaten
track. There is a mould in his mind —
which has been formed by much practice, or
by study — for this very subject, or for some
other so similar and analogous that his
discourse falls into this mould with ease,
and takes its form from it.

Hitherto we have considered the opera-
tions of fancy that are either spontaneous,
or, at least, require no laborious effort to
guide and direct them, and have endeav-
oured to account for that degree of regu-
larity and arrangement which is found even
in them. The natural powers of judgment
and invention, the pleasure that always
attends the exercise of those powers, the
means we have of improving them by imi-
tation of others, and the effect of practice
and habits, seem to me sufficiently to
account for this phsenomenon, without sup-
posing any unaccountable attractions of ideas
by which they arrange themselves.

But we are able to direct our thoughts in
a certain course, so as to perform a destined

Every work of art has its model framed
in the imagination. Here the " Iliad" of
Homer, the " Republic" of Plato, the
" Principia" of Newton, were fabricated.
Shall we believe that those works took the
form in which they now appear of them-
selves ? — that the sentiments, the manners,
and the passions arranged themselves at
once in the mind of Homer, so as to form
421-4.23] *

the " Iliad ?" Was there no more effort
in the composition than there is in telling a
well-known tale, or singing a favourite
song ? This cannot be believed. [422]

Granting that some happy thought first
suggested the design of singing the wrath of
Achilles, yet, 6urely, it was a matter of
judgment and choice where the narration
should begin and where it should end.

Granting that the fertility of the poet's
imagination suggested a variety of rich ma-
terials, was not judgment necessary to select
what was proper, to reject what was im-
proper, to arrange the materials into a just
composition, and to adapt them to each
other, and to the design of the whole ?

No man can believe that Homer's ideas,
merely by certain sympathies and antipa-
thies, by certain attractions and repulsions
inherent in their natures, arranged them-
selves according to the most perfect rules of
epic poetry; and Newton's, according to
the rules of mathematical composition.

I should sooner believe that the poet,
after he invoked his muse, did nothing at
all but listen to the song of the goddess.
Poets, indeed, and other artists, must make
their works appear natural ; but nature is
the perfection of art, and there can be no
just imitation of nature without art. When
the building is finished, the rubbish, the
scaffolds, the tools and engines are carried
out of sight ; but we know it could not have
been reared without them.

The train of thinking, therefore, is capable
of being guided and direoted, much in the
same maimer as the horse we ride. The
horse has his strength, his agility, and his
mettle in himself ; he has been taught cer-
tain movements, and many useful habits,
that make him more subservient to our
purposes and obedient to our will ; but to
accomplish a journey, he must be directed
by the rider.

In like manner, fancy has its original
powers, which are very different in different
persons ; it has likewise more regular mo-
tions, to which it has been trained by along
course of discipline and exercise, and by
which it may, extempore, and without much
effort, produce things that have a consid-
erable degree of beauty, regularity, and
design. [423]

But the most perfect works of design are
never extemporary. Our first thoughts are
reviewed ; we place them at a proper dis-
tance; examine every part, and take_ a
complex view of the whole. By our criti-
cal faculties, we perceive this part to be
redundant, that deficient ; here is a want
of nerves, there a want of delicacy ; this is
obscure, that too diffuse. Things are mar-
shalled anew, according to a second and
more deliberate judgment ; what was defi-
cient, is supplied ; what was dislocated, is
2 o



[essay IV.

put in joint ; redundances are lopped off,
and the whole polished.

Though poets, of all artists, make the
highest claim to inspiration ; yet, if we be-
lieve Horace, a competent judge, no pro-
duction in that art can have merit which
has not cost such labour as this in the

" VosO!
Fompilius sanguis, carmen reprehendite quod non
Multa dies, et multa litura coercuit, atque
Perfectum decies non castigavit ad unguem."

The conclusion I would draw from all
that has been said upon this subject is,
That everything that is regular in that
train of thought which we call fancy or
imagination, from the little designs and
reveries of children to the grandest pro-
ductions of human genius, was originally
the offspring of judgment or taste, applied
with some effort greater or less. What
one person composed with art and judg-
ment, is imitated by another with great
ease: What a man himself at first com-
posed with pains, becomes by habit so
familiar as to offer itself spontaneously to
his fancy afterwards. But nothing that is
regular was ever at first conceived without
design, attention, and care. [424]

I shall now make a few reflections upon a
theory which has been applied to account
for this successive train of thought in the
mind. It was hinted by Mr Hobbes, but
has drawn more attention since it was dis-
tinctly explained by Mr Hume.

That author* thinks that the train of
thought in the mind is owing to a kind of
attraction which ideas have for other ideas
that bear certain relations to them. He
thinks the complex ideas — which are the
common subjects of our thoughts and rea-
soning— are owing to the same cause. The
relations which produce this attraction of
ideas, he thinks, are these three only — to
wit, causation, contiguity in time or place,
and similitude. He asserts that these are
the only general principles that unite ideas.
And having, in another place, occasion to
take notice of contrariety as a principle of
connection among ideas, in order to recon-
cile this to his system, he tells us gravely,
that contrariety may perhaps be considered
as a mixture of causation and resemblance.
That ideas which have any of these three
relations do mutually attract each other, so
that one of them being presented to the
fancy, the other is drawn along with it —
this he seems to think an original property
of the mind, or rather of the ideas, and
therefore inexplicable, -t-

* He should have said this author, for Hume is
referred to.— H.

t S e above, p. 294, b, note +. The history of the
doctrine of Association has never yet been at all
adequately developed. Some of the most remark.

First, I observe, with regard to this
theory, that, although it is true that the
thought of any object is apt to lead us to
the thought of its cause or effect, of things
contiguous to it in time or place, or of
things resembling it, yet this enumeration
of the relations of things which are apt to
lead us from one object to another, is very

The enumeration is too large upon his
own principles ; but it is by far too scanty in
reality. Causation, according to his philo-
sophy, implies nothing more than a con-
stant conjunction observed between the
cause and the effect, and, therefore, conti-
guity must include causation, and his three
principles of attraction are reduced to two.

But when we take all the three, the enu-
meration is, in reality, very incomplete.
Every relation of things has a tendency,
more or less, to lead the thought, in a
thinking mind, from one to the other ; and
not only every relation, but every kind of
contrariety and opposition. What Mr
Hume says — that contrariety may perhaps
be considered as a mixture " of causation
and resemblance" — I can as little compre-

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 87 of 114)