Thomas Reid.

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

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tion of words which are employed vaguely
in common discourse, it is always dangerous
to give to a. word a scientific meaning
essentially distinct from that in which it is
usually understood. It has, at least, the
effect of misleading those who do not enter
deeply into the subject ; and of giving a
paradoxical appearance to doctrines which,
if expressed in more unexceptionable terms,
would be readily admitted.

It appears to me that this has actually
happened in the present instance. The
phrase Common Sense, as it is generally
understood, is nearly synonymous with
mother-wit; denoting that degree of sagacity
(depending partly on original capacity, and
partly on personal experience and observa-
tion) which qualifies an individual for those
simple and essential occupations which all
men are called on to exercise habitually by
their common nature. In this acceptation,
it is opposed to those mental acquirements
which are derived from a regular education,
and from the study of books ; and refers, not
to the speculative convictions of the under-
standing, but to that prudence and discretion
which are the foundation of successful con-
duct. Such is the idea which Pope annexes
to the word, when, speaking of good sense,
(which means only a more than ordinary

share of common sense,) he calls it

" The gift of Heaven,

And, though no science, fairly worth the seven."

To speak, accordingly, of appealing from
the conclusions of philosophy to common
sense, had the appearance, to title-page
readers, of appealing from the verdict of the
learned to the voice of the multitude ; or of
attempting to silence free discussion by a
reference to some arbitrary and undefinable
standard, distinct from any of the intel-
lectual powers hitherto enumerated by logi-
cians. Whatever countenance may be sup-
posed to have been given by some writers
to such an interpretation of this doctrine, I
may venture to assert that none is afforded
by the works of Dr Reid. The standard to
which he appeals is neither the creed of a
particular sect, nor the inward light of 1

enthusiastic presumption, but that constitu-
tion of human nature without which all the
business of the world would immediately
cease ; and the substance of his argument
amounts merely to this, that those essential
laws of belief to which sceptics have
objected, when considered in connection
with our scientific reasonings, are implied in
every step we take as active beings ; and if
called in question by any man in his prac-
tical concerns would expose him universally
to the charge of insanity.

In stating this important doctrine, it were
perhaps to be wished that the subject had
been treated with somewhat more of ana-
lytical accuracy ; and it is certainly to be
regretted that a phrase should have been
employed, so well calculated by its ambiguity
to furnish a convenient handle to misre-
presentations; but, in the judgment of those
who have perused Dr Eeid's writings with
an intelligent and candid attention, these
misrepresentations must recoil on their
authors ; while they who are really inter-
ested in the progress of useful science, will
be disposed rather to lend their aid in sup-
plying what is defective in his views than
to reject hastily a doctrine which aims, by
the developement of some logical principles
overlooked in the absurd systems which
have been borrowed from the schools, to vin-
dicate the authority of truths intimately and
extensively connected withhuman happiness.

In the prosecution of my own speculations
on the human mind, I shall have occasion
to explain myself fully concerning this, as
well as various other questions connected -
with the foundations of philosophical evi-
dence. The new doctrines and newphrase-
ology on that subject, which have lately
become fashionable among some metaphy-
sicians in Germany, and which, in my
opinion, have contributed not a little to
involve it in additional obscurity, are a
sufficient proof that this essential and funda-
mental article of logic is not as yet com- ,
pletely exhausted.

In order to bring the foregoing remarks
within some compass, I have found it
necessary to confine myself to such objec-
tions as strike at the root of Dr Reid's
philosophy, without touching on any of his ,
opinions on particular topics, however im-
portant. I have been obliged also to com-
press what I have stated within narrower
limits than were perhaps consistent with j
complete perspicuity ; and to reject many
illustrations which crowded upon me at
almost every step of my progress.

It may not, perhaps, be superfluous to
add, that, supposing some of these objections
to possess more force than I have ascribed
to them in my reply, it will not therefore
follow, that little advantage is to be derived



from a careful perusal of the speculations
against which they are directed. Even they
who dissent the most widely from Dr Reid's
conclusions, can scarcely fail to admit, that,
as a writer, he exhibits a striking contrast
to the most successful of his predecessors,
in u, logical precision and simplicity of
language — his statement of facts being
neither vitiated by physiological hypothesis,
nor obscured by scholastic mystery. Who-
ever has reflected on the infinite importance,
in such inquiries, of a skilful use of words
as the essential instrument of thought,
must be aware of the influence which his
works are likely to have on the future pro-
gress of science, were they to produce no
other effect than a general imitation of his
mode of reasoning, and of his guarded

It is not, indeed, every reader to whom
these inquiries are accessible ; for habits of
attention in general, and still more habits
of attention to the phmnomena of thought,
require early and careful cultivation ; but
those who are capable of the exertion will
soon recognise, in Dr Reid's statements,
the faithful history of their own minds, and
will find their labours amply rewarded by
that satisfaction which always accompanies
the discovery of useful truth. They may
expect, also, to be rewarded by some intel-
lectual acquisitions not altogether useless in
their other studies. An author well quali-
fied to judge, from his own experience, of
whatever conduces to invigorate or to em-
bellish the understanding, has beautifully
remarked, that " by turning the soul inward
on itself, its forces are concentrated, and are
fitted for stronger and bolder flights of
science ; and that, in such pursuits, whether
we take, or whether we lose the game, the
chase is certainly of service."* In this
respect, the philosophy of the mind (ab-
stracting entirely from that pre-eminence
which belongs to it in consequence of its
practical applications) may claim a distin-
guished rank among those preparatory dis-
ciplines which another writer, of no less
eminence, has happily compared to " the
crops which are raised, not for the sake of
the harvest, but to be ploughed in as a dress-
ing to the land."-)-



The three works to which the foregoing
remarks refer — together with the Essay on
Quantity, published in the " Philosophical

* Preface to Mr Burke's " Essay on the Sublime
and Beautiful."
t Bishop Berkeley's " Querist."

Transactions of the Royal Society of Lon-
don," and a short but masterly Analysis
of Aristotle's Logic, which forms an ap-
pendix to the third volume of Lord Karnes'
" Sketches" — comprehend the whole of Dr
Reid's publications. * The interval between
the dates of the first and last of these amounts
to no lees than forty years, although he had
attained to the age of thirty-eight before he
ventured to appear as an author.

With the " Essays on the Active Powers
of Man," he closed his literary career ; but
he continued,, notwithstanding, to prosecute
his studies with unabated ardour and activity.
The more modern improvements in chemis-
try attracted his particular notice ; and he
applied himself, with his wonted diligence
and success, to the study of its new doctrines
and new nomenclature. He amused him-
self also, at times, in preparing, for a philo-
sophical society of which he was a member,
short essays on particular topics which
happened to interest his curiosity, and on
which he thought he might derive useful
hints from friendly discussion. The most
important of these were — " An Examination
of Priestley's Opinions concerning Matter
and Mind ;" " Observations on the ' Utopia'
of Sir Thomas More ;" and " Physiologi-
cal Reflections on Muscular Motion." This
last essay appears to have been written in
the eighty-sixth year of his age, and was
read by the author to his associates, a few
months before his death. His " thoughts
were led to the speculations it contains,"
(as he himself mentions in the conclusion,)
" by the experience of some of the effects
which old age produces on the muscular
motions." '* As they were occasioned,
therefore," he adds, " by the infirmities of
age, they will, I hope, be heard with the
greater indulgence."

Among the various occupations with
which he thus enlivened his retirement, the
mathematical pursuits of his earlier years
held a distinguished place. He delighted
to converse about them with his friends ;
and often exercised his skill in the investi-
gation of particular problems. His know-
ledge of ancient geometry had not probably
been, at any time, very extensive ; but he
had cultivated diligently those parts of
mathematical science which are subservient
to the study of Sir Isaac Newton's works.
He had a predilection, more particularly,
for researches requiring the aid of arith-
metical calculation, in the practice of which
he possessed uncommon expertness and
address. I think I have sometimes ob-
served in him a slight and amiable vanity,
connected with this accomplishment.

* Reid's " History of the University of Glasgow"
was published, after his death, in the " Sratistical
Account of Scotland." It is how, for the first time,
added to his other works.— H.



The revival, at this period, of Dr Reid's
first scientific propensity, has often recalled
to me a favourite remark of Mr Smith's

that of all the amusements of old age,

the most grateful and soothing is a renewal
of acquaintance with the favourite studies
and favourite authors of our youth ; a re-
mark which, in his own case, seemed to be
more particularly exemplified, while he was
re-perusing, with the enthusiasm of a stu-
dent, the tragic poets of ancient Greece.
I heard him, at least, repeat the observa-
tion more than once, while Sophocles or
Euripides lay open on his table.

In the case of Dr Reid, other motives
perhaps conspired with the influence of the
agreeable associations to which Mr Smith
probably alluded. His attention was always
fixed on the state of his intellectual facul-
ties ; and for counteracting the effects of
time on these, mathematical studies seem
to be fitted in a peculiar degree. They are
fortunately, too, within the reach of many
individuals, after a decay of memory dis-
qualifies them for inquiries which involve
a multiplicity of details. Such detached
problems, more especially, as Dr Reid com-
monly selected for his consideration — pro-
blems where all the data are brought at once
under the eye, and where a connected train
of thinking is not to be carried on from
day to day — will be found, (as I have wit-
nessed with pleasure in several instances,)
by those who are capable of such a recrea-
tion, a valuable addition to the scanty re-
sources of a life protracted beyond the or-
dinary limit.

While he was thus enjoying an old age
happy in some respects beyond the usual
lot of humanity, his domestic comfort suf-
fered a deep and incurable wound by the
death of Mrs Reid. He had had the mis-
fortune, too, of surviving, for many years,
a numerous family of promising children ;
four of whom (two sons and two daughters)
died after they attained to maturity. One
daughter only was left to him when he lost
his wife ; and of her affectionate good offices
he could not always avail himself, in con-
sequence of the attentions which her own
husband's infirmities required. Of this
lady, who is still alive, (the widow of
Patrick Carmichael, M. D.,*) I shall have
occasion again to introduce the name, be-
fore I conclude this narrative.

* A learned and worthy physician, who, after a
long residence in Holland, where he practised medi-
cine, retired to Glasgow. He was a younger 6on of
Professor Gerschom Carmichael, who published,
about the year 1720, an edition of Puffendorff, De
Officio Hominis et Civis, and who is pronounced by
Dr Hutcheson, " by far the best commentator on
that book." [Carmichael was Hutcheson's imme-
diate predecessor in the chair of Moral Philosophy in
the University of Glasgow, and may be regarded,
on good grounds, as the real founder of the Scottish
school of philosophy. — H.]

A short extract from a letter addressed
to myself by Dr Reid, not many weeks
after his wife's death, will, I am persuaded,
be acceptable to many, as an interesting
relic of the writer.

" By the loss of my bosom friend, with
whom I lived fifty-two years, I am brought
into a kind of new world, at a time of life
when old habits are not easily forgot, or new
ones acquired. But every world is God's
world, and I am thankful for the comforts
he has left me. Mrs Carmichael has now
the care of two old deaf men, and does every
thing in her power to please them; and
both are very sensible of her goodness. I
have more health than, at my time of life,
I had any reason to expect. I walk about;
entertain myself with reading what I soon
forget ; can converse with one person, if he
articulates distinctly, and is within ten
inches of my left ear ; go to church, without
hearing one word of what is said. You
know I never had any pretensions to viva-
city, but I am still free from languor and

" If you are weary of this detail, impute
it to the anxiety you express to know the
state of my health. I wish you may have
no more uneasiness at my age, — being yours
most affectionately."

About four years after this event, ha
was prevailed on, by his friend and relation,
Dr Gregory, to pass a few weeks, during
the summer of 1796, at Edinburgh. He
was accompanied by Mrs Carmichael, who
lived with him in Dr Gregory's house ; a
situation which united under the same roof,
every advantage of medical care, of tender
attachment, and of philosophical inter-
course. As Dr Gregory's professional en-
gagements, however, necessarily interfered
much with his attentions to his guest, I
enjoyed more of Dr Reid's society than
might otherwise have fallen to my share.
I had the pleasure, accordingly, of spend-
ing some hours with him daily, and of
attending him in his walking excursions,
which frequently extended to the distance
of three or four miles. His faculties (ex-
cepting his memory, which was considerably
impaired) appeared as vigorous as ever;
and, although his deafness prevented him
from taking any share in general conversa-
tion, he was still able to enjoy the company
of a friend. Mr Playfair and myself were
both witnesses of the acuteness which he
displayed on one occasion, in detecting a
mistake, by no means obvious, in a manu-
script of his kinsman, David Gregory, on the
subject of " Prime and Ultimate Ratios."
Nor had his temper suffered from the hand
of time, either in point of gentleness or of
gaiety. " Instead of repining at the en-
joyments of the young, he delighted in pro-
moting them ; and, after all the losses he



had Sustained in his own family, he con-
tinued to treat children with such conde-
scension and benignity, that some very
young ones noticed the peculiar kindness
of his eye."» In apparent soundness and
activity of body, he resembled more a man
of sixty than of eighty-seven.

He returned to Glasgow in his usual
health and spirits ; and continued, for some
weeks, to devote, as formerly, a regular por-
tion of his time to the exercise both of body
and of mind. It appears, from a letter of
Dr Cleghorn's to Dr Gregory, that he was
still able to work with his own hands in his
garden ; and he was found by Dr Brown,
occupied in the solution of an algebraical
problem of considerable difficulty, in which,
after the labour of a day or two, he at last
succeeded. It was in the course of the
same short interval, that he committed to
writing those particulars concerning his an-
cestors, which I have already mentioned.

This active and useful life was now, how-
ever, drawing to a conclusion. A violent
disorder attacked him about the end of
September ; but does not seem to have
occasioned much alarm to those about him,
till he was visited by Dr Cleghorn, who
soon after communicated his apprehensions
in a letter to Dr Gregory. Among other
symptoms, he mentioned particularly "that
alteration of voice and features which,
though not easily described, is so well
known to all who have opportunities of
seeing life close." Dr Reid's own opinion
of his ease was probably the same with that
of his physician ; as he expressed to him on
his first visit his hope that he was "soon to
get his dismission." After a severe struggle,
attended with repeated strokes of palsy, he
died on the 7th of October following. Dr
Gregory had the melancholy satisfaction of
visiting his venerable friend on his death-
bed, and of paying him this Unavailing mark
of attachment before his powers of recol-
lection were entirely gone.

The only surviving descendant of Dr
Reid is Mrs Carmichael, a daughter worthy
in every respect of such a father — long the
chief comfort and support of his old age,
and his anxious nurse in his last moments, t

In point of bodily constitution, few men
have been more indebted to nature than Dr
Reid. His form was vigorous and athletic ;
and his muscular force (though he was
somewhat under the middle size) uncom-
monly great ; advantages to which his habits
of temperance and exercise, and the un-
clouded serenity of his temper, did ample

* I have borrowed this sentence from a just and
elegant-character of Dr .Reid, which appeared, a few
days after his death, in one of the Glasgow journals.
I had occasion frequently to verify the truth of the
observation during his visit to Edinburgh.

t Note F

justice. His countenance was strongly
expressive of deep and collected thought ;
but, when brightened up by the face of a
friend, what chiefly caught the attention
was a look of good- will and of kindness. A
picture of him, for which he consented, at
the particular request of Dr Gregory, to sit
to Mr Raeburn, during his last visit to
Edinburgh, is generally and justly ranked
among the happiest performances of that
excellent artist. The medallion of Tassie,
also, for which he sat in the eighty-first
year of his age, presents a very perfect

I have little to add to what the foregoing
pages contain with respect to his character.
Its most prominent features were, intrepid
and inflexible rectitude, a pure and devoted
attachment to truth, and an entire com-
mand (acquired by the unwearied exertions
of a long fife) over all his passions. Hence,
in those parts of his writings where his
subjectforces him to dispute the conclusions
of others, a, scrupulous rejection of every
expression calculated to irritate those whom
he was anxious to convince ; and a spirit of
liberality and good-humour towards his
opponents, from which no asperity on then-
part could provoke him for a moment to
deviate. The progress of useful knowledge,
more especially in what relates to human
nature and to human life, he believed to be
retarded rather than advanced by the in-
temperance of controversy ; and to be
secured most effectually when intrusted to
the slow but irresistible influence of sober
reasoning. That the argumentative talents
of the disputants might be improved by such
altercations, he was willing to allow ; but,
considered in their connection with the great
objects which all classes of writers profess
equally to have in view, he was convinced
" that they have done more harm to the
practice, than they have done service to the
theory, of morality.'*

In private life, no man ever maintained,
more eminently or more uniformly, the
dignity of philosophy ; combining with the
most amiable modesty and gentleness, the
noblest spirit of independence. The only
preferments which he ever enjoyed he owed
to the unsolicited favour of the two learned
bodies who successively adopted him into
their number ; and the respectable rank
which he supported in society was the well-
earned reward of his own academical la-
bours. The studies in which he delighted
were little calculated to draw on him the
patronage of the great ; and he was un-
skilled in the art of courting advancement
by " fashioning his doctrines to the varying

As a philosopher, his genius was more

* Preface to Pope's " Essay on Man."



peculiarly characterised by a sound, cautious,
distinguishing judgment, by a singular
patience and perseverance of thought, and
by habits of the most fixed and concentrated
attention to his own mental operations ;
endowments which, although not the most
splendid in the estimation of the multitude,
would seem entitled, from the history of
science, to rank among the rarest gifts of
the mind.

With these habits and powers, he united
(what does not always accompany them)
the curiosity of a naturalist, and the eye of
an observer ; and, accordingly, his inform-
ation about everything relating to physical
science, and to the useful arts, was exten-
sive and accurate. His memory for his-
torical details was not so remarkable ; and
he used sometimes to regret the imperfect
degree in which he possessed this faculty.
I am inclined, however, to think, that, in
doing so, he underrated his natural advan-
tages ; estimating the strength of memory,
as men commonly do, rather by the recol-
lection of particular facts, than by the pos-
session of those general conclusions, from a
subserviency to which such facts derive their
principal value.

Towards the close of life, indeed, his
memory was much less vigorous than the
other powers of his intellect ; in none of
which could I ever perceive any symptom
of decline. His ardour for knowledge, too,
remained unextinguished to the last ; and,
when cherished by the society of the young
and inquisitive, seemed even to increase
with his years. What is still more remark-
able, he retained, in extreme old age, all the
sympathetic tenderness and all the moral
sensibility of youth ; the liveliness of his
emotions, wherever the happiness of others
was concerned, forming an affecting con-
trast to his own unconquerable firmness
under the severest trials.

Nor was the sensibility which he retained
the selfish and sterile offspring of taste and
indolence. It was alive and active, wher-
ever he could command the means of re-
lieving the distresses or of adding to the
comforts of others ; and was often felt in its
effects, where he was unseen and unknown.
Among the various proofs of this which
have happened to fall under my own know-
ledge, I cannot help mentioning particularly
(upon the most unquestionable authority)
the secrecy with which he conveyed his
occasional benefactions to his former parish-
ioners at New-Machar, long after his esta-
blishment at Glasgow. One donation, in
particular, during the scarcity of 1782 —
a donation which, notwithstanding all his
precautions, was distinctly traced to his
beneficence — might perhaps have been
thought disproportionate to his limited in-
come, had not his own simple and moderate

habits multiplied the resources of hit

His opinions on the most important sub-
jects are to be found in his works ; and that
spirit of piety which animated every part
of his conduct forms the best comment on
their practical tendency. In the state in
which he found the philosophical world, he
believed that his talents could not be so
usefully employed as in combating the
schemes of those who aimed at the com-
plete subversion of religion, both natural
and revealed ; convinced, with Dr Clarke,
that, " as Christianity presupposes the
truth of Natural Religion, whatever tends
to discredit the latter must have a propor-
tionally greater effect in weakening the
authority of the former."* In his views of
both, he seems to have coincided nearly

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 9 of 114)