Thomas Reid.

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

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figures of speech. When we speak of the
extent of knowledge, the steadiness of virtue,
the tenderness of affection, the perspicuity
of expression, no man conceives these to be
metaphorical expressions ; they are as pro-
per as any in the language : yet it appears
upon the very face of them, that they
must have been metaphorical in those who
used them first ; and that it is by use and
prescription that they have lost the deno-
mination of figurative, and acquired a right
to be considered as proper words. This
observation will be found to extend to a
great part, perhaps the greatest part of the
words of the most perfect languages. Some-
times the name of an individual is given to
a general conception, and thereby the in-
dividual in a manner generalised ; as when
the Jew Shylock, in Shakespeare, says —
" A Daniel come to judgment ; yea, a
Daniel !" In this speech, " a Daniel" is
an attribute, or an universal. The character
of Daniel, as a man of singular wisdom,
is abstracted from his person, and considered
as capable of being attributed to other per-
sons. [451]

Upon the whole, these two operations of
abstracting and generalising appear com-
mon to all men that have understanding.
The practice of them is, and must be, fami-
liar to every man that uses language ; but
it is one thing to practise them, and another
to explain how they are performed ; as it is
one thing to see, another to explain how we
see. The first is the province of all men,
and is the natural and easy operation of the
faculties which God hath given us. The
second is the province of philosophers, and,
though a matter of no great difficulty in it-
self, has been much perplexed by the ambi-
guity of words," and still more by the
hypotheses of philosophers.

Thus, when I consider a billiard ball,

its colour is one attribute, which I signify
by calling it white ; its figure is another,
which is signified by calling it spherical
the firm cohesion of its parts is signified by
calling it hard ; its recoiling, when it strikes
a hard body, is signified by its being called
elastic ; its origin, as being part of the tooth
of an elephant, is signified by calling it
ivory ; and its use by calling it a billiard bah.

The words by which each of those attri-
butes is signified, have one distinct meaning,
and in this meaning are applicable to many
individuals. They signify not any indivi-
dual thing, but attributes common to many
individuals ; nor is it beyond the capacity
of a child to understand them perfectly, and
to apply them properly to every individual
in which they are found.

As it is by analysing a complex object
into its several attributes that we acquire
our simplest abstract conceptions, it may be
proper to compare this analysis with that
which a chemist makes of a compounded
body into the ingredients which enter into
its composition ; for, although there be such
an analogy between these two operations,
that we give to both the name of analysis
or resolution, there is, at the same time, so
great a dissimilitude in some respects, that
we may be led into error, by applying to one
what belongs to the other. [452]

It is obvious that the chemical analysis
is an operation of the hand upon matter,
by various material instruments. The an-
alysis we are now explaining, is purely an
operation of the understanding, which re-
quires no material instrument, nor produces
any change upon any external thing ; we
shall, therefore, call it the intellectual or
mental analysis.

In the chemical analysis, the compound
body itself is the subject analysed. A sub-
ject so imperfectly known that it may be
compounded of various ingredients, when
to our senses it appears perfectly simple ;*
and even when we are able to analyse it
into the different ingredients of which it is
composed, we know not how or why the
combination of those ingredients produces
such a body.

Thus, pure sea-salt is a body, to appear-
ance as simple as any in nature. Every the
least particle of it, discernible by our senses,
is perfectly similar to every other particle in
all its qualities. The nicest taste, the quick-
est eye, can discern no mark of its being
made up of different ingredients; yet, by
the chemical art, it can be analysed into an
acid and an alkali, and can be again pro-
duced by the combination of those two in-
gredients. But how this combination pro-
duces sea-salt, no man has been able to dis-
cover. The ingredients are both as unlike

* Something teems wanting in this clause H.


the compound as any bodies we know. No
man could have guessed, before the thing
was known, that sea-salt is compounded of
those two ingredients ; no man could have
guessed that the union of those two ingre-
dients should produce such a compound as
sea-salt. Such, in many cases, are the
pheenomena of the chemical analysis of a
compound body. [453]

If we consider the intellectual analysis of
an object, it is evident that nothing of this
kind can happen ; because the thing ana-
lysed is not an external object imperfectly
known ; it is a conception of the mind it-
self. And, to suppose that there can be
anything in a conception that is not con-
ceived, is a contradiction.

The reason of observing this difference
between those two kinds of analysis is, that
some philosophers, in order to support their
systems, have maintained that a complex
idea may have the appearance of the most
perfect simplicity, and retain no similitude
of any of the simple ideas of which it is
compounded ; just as a white colour may
appear perfectly simple, and retain no
similitude to any of the seven primary
colours of which it is compounded ; or as a
chemical composition may appear perfectly
simple, and retain no similitude to any of
the ingredients.

From which those philosophers have drawn
this important conclusion, that a cluster of
the ideas of sense, properly combined, may
make the idea of a mind ; and that all the
ideas which Mr Locke calls ideas of re-
flection, are only compositions of the ideas
which we have by our five senses. From
this the transition is easy, that, if a proper
composition of the ideas of matter may
make the idea of a mind, then a proper
composition of matter itself may make a
mind, . and that man is only a piece of
matter curiously formed.

In this curious system, the whole fabric
rests upon this foundation, that a complex
idea, which is made up of various simple
ideas, may appear to be perfectly simple,
and to have no marks of composition, be-
cause a compound body may appear to our
senses to be perfectly simple.

Upon this fundamental proposition of
this system I beg leave to make two re-
marks. [454]

1. Supposing it to be true, it affirms only
what may be. We are, indeed, in most
cases very imperfect judges of what may
be. But this we know, that, were we ever
so certain that a thing may be, this is no
good reason for believing that it really is.
A may-be is a mere hypothesis, which may
furnish matter of investigation, but is not
entitled to the least degree of belief. The
transition from what may be to what really
is, is familiar and easy to those who have a

predilection for a hypothesis ; but to a man
who seeks truth without prejudice or pre-
possession, it is a very wide and difficult
step, and he will never pass from the one
to the other, without evidence not only that
the thing may he, but that it really is.

2. As far as I am able to judge, this,
which it is said may be, cannot be. That
a complex idea should be made up of simple
ideas ; so that to a ripe understanding re-
flecting upon that idea, there should he no
appearance of composition, nothing similar
to the simple ideas of which it is com-
pounded, seems to me to involve a contra-
diction. The idea is a conception of the
mind. If anything more than this is meant
by the idea, I know not what it is ; and I
wish both to know what it is, and to have
proof of its existence. Now, that there
should be anything in the conception of an
object which is not conceived, appears to
me as manifest a contradiction as that
there should be an existence which does
not exist, or that a thing should be con-
ceived and not conceived at the same time.

But, say these philosophers, a white
colour is produced by the composition of
the primary colours, and yet has no resem-
blance to any of them. I grant it. But
what can be inferred from this with regard
to the composition of ideas ? To bring this
argument home to the point, they must
say, that because a white colour is com-
pounded of the primary colours, therefore
the idea of a white colour is compounded of
the ideas of the primary colours. This
reasoning, if it was admitted, would lead
to innumerable absurdities. An opaque
fluid may be compounded of two or more
pellucid fluids. Hence, we might infer,
with equal force, that the idea of an opaque
fluid may be compounded of the idea of two
or more pellucid fluids. [455]

Nature's way of compounding bodies,
and our way of compounding ideas, are so
different in many respects, that we cannot
reason from the one to the other, unless it
can be found that ideas are combined by
fermentations and elective attractions, and
may be analysed in a furnace by the force
of fire and of menstruums. Until this dis-
covery he made, we must hold those to be
simple ideas, which, upon the most atten-
tive reflection, have no appearance of com-
position ; and those only to be the ingre-
dients of complex ideas, which, by attentive
reflection, can be perceived to be contained
in them.

If the idea of mind and its operations,
may be compounded of the ideas of matter
and its qualities, why may not the idea of
matter be compounded of the ideas of
mind ? There is the same evidence for the
last may-be as for the first. And why may
not the idea of sound be compounded of the



[essay v.

ideas of colour ; or the idea of colour of
those of sound ? Why may not the idea of
wisdom be compounded of ideas of folly ;
or the idea of truth of ideas of absurdity ?
But we leave these mysterious may-bes to
them that have faith to receive them.



As, by an intellectual analysis of objects,
we form general conceptions of single attri-
butes, (which, of all conceptions that enter
into the human mind, are the most simple,)
so, by combining several of these into one
parcel, and giving a name to that combina-
tion, we form general conceptions that may
be very complex, and, at the same time,
very distinct. [456]

Thus, one who, by analysing extended
objects, has got the simple notions of a
point, a line, straight or curve, an angle, a
surface, a solid, can easily conceive a plain
surface, terminated by four equal straight
lines, meeting in four points at right angles.
To this species of figure he gives the name
of a square. In like manner, he can con-
ceive a solid terminated by six equal squares,
and give it the name of a cube. A square,
a cube, and every name of mathematical
figure, is a general term, expressing a com-
plex general conception, made by a certain
combination of the simple elements into
which we analyse extended bodies.

Every mathematical figure is accurately
defined, by enumerating the simple ele-
ments of which it is formed, and the man-
ner of their combination. The definition
contains the whole essence of it. And
every property that belongs to it may be
deduced by demonstrative reasoning from
its definition. It is not a thing that
exists, for then it would be an individual ;
but it is a thing that is conceived without
regard to existence.

A farm, a manor, a parish, a county, a
kingdom, are complex general conceptions,
formed by various combinations and modi-
fications of inhabited territory, under cer-
tain forms of government.

Different combinations of military men
form the notions of a company, a regiment,
an army.

The several crimes which are the objects
of criminal law, such as theft, murder,
robbery, piracy, what are they but certain
combinations of human actions and inten-
tions, which are accurately defined in
criminal law, and which it is found con-
venient to comprehend under one name,
and consider as one thing ?

When we observe that nature, in her

animal, vegetable, and inanimate produc-
tions, has formed many individuals that
agree in many of their qualities and attri-
butes, we are led by natural instinct to
expect their agreement in other qualities,
which we have not had occasion to perceive.
[457] Thus, a child who has once burnt
his finger, by putting it in the flame of one
candle, expects the same event if he puts it
in the flame of another candle, or in any
flame, and is thereby led to think that the
quality of burning belongs to all flame.
This instinctive induction is not justified
by the rules of logic, and it sometimes leads
men into harmless mistakes, which expe-
rience may afterwards correct ; but it pre-
serves us from destruction in innumerable
dangers to which we are exposed.

The reason of taking notice of this prin-
ciple in human nature in this place is, that
the distribution of the productions of na-
ture into genera and species becomes, on
account of this principle, more generally

The physician expects that the rhubarb
which has never yet been tried will have
like medical virtues with that which he has
prescribed on former occasions. Two par-
cels of rhubarb agree in certain sensible
qualities, from which agreement they are
both called by the same general name
rhubarb. Therefore it is expected that
they will agree in their medical virtues.
And, as experience has discovered certain
virtues in one parcel, or in many parcels,
we presume, without experience, that the
same virtues belong to all parcels of rhubarb
that shall be used.

If a traveller meets a horse, an ox, or a
sheep, which he never saw before, he is
under no apprehension, believing these ani-
mals to be of a species that is tame and in-
offensive. But he dreads a Hon or a tiger,
because they are of a fierce and ravenous

We are capable of receiving innumerable
advantages, and are exposed to innumer-
able dangers, from the various productions
of nature, animal, vegetable, and inanimate.
The life of man, if an hundred times longer
than it is, would be insufficient to learn
from experience the useful and hurtful qua-
lities of every individual production of na-
ture taken singly. [458]

The Author of Nature hath made pro- ,
vision for our attaining that knowledge of
his works which is necessary for our subsist- j
ence and preservation, partly by the consti-
tution of the productions of nature, and partly
by the constitution of the human mind.

For, first, In the productions of nature,
great numbers of individuals are made so
like to one another, both in their obvious
and in their more occult qualities, that we
are not only enabled, but invited, as it were,
[45fi-458 7



to reduce them into classes, and to give a
general name to a class ; a name which is
common to every individual of the class,
because it comprehends in its signification
those qualities or attributes only that are
common to all the individuals of that class.

Secondly, The human mind is so framed,
that, from the agreement of individuals in
the more obvious qualities by which we
reduce them into one class, we are naturally
led to expect that they will be found to
agree in their more latent qualities — and in
this we are seldom disappointed.

We have, therefore, a strong and rational
inducement, both to distribute natural sub-
stances into classes, genera and species,
under general names, and to do this with all
the accuracy and distinctness we are able.
For the more accurate our divisions are
made, and the more distinctly the several
species are defined, the more securely we
may rely that the qualities we find in one or
in a few individuals will be found in all of
the same species.

Every species of natural substances which
has a name in language, is an attribute of
many individuals, and is itself a combination
of more simple attributes, which we observe
to be common to those individuals. [459]

We shall find a great part of the words
of every language — nay, I apprehend, the
far greater part — to signify combinations of
more simple general conceptions, which
men have found proper to be bound up, as
it were, in one parcel, by being designed by
one name.

Some general conceptions there are, which
may more properly be called compositions
or works than mere combinations. Thus,
one may conceive a machine which never
existed. He may conceive an air in music,
a poem, a plan of architecture, a plan of
government, a plan of conduct in public or
in private life, a sentence, a discourse, u,
treatise. Such compositions are things
conceived in the mind of the author, not
individuals that really exist ; and the same
general conception which the author had,
may be communicated to others by language.

Thus, the " Oceana" of Harrington was
conceived in the mind of its author. The
materials of which it is composed are things
conceived, not things that existed. His
senate, his popular assembly, his magis-
trates, his elections, are all conceptions of
his mind, and the whole is one complex
conception. And the same may be said of
every work of the human understanding.

Very different from these are the works
of God, which we behold. They are works
of creative power, not of understanding
only. They have a real existence. Our
best conceptions of them are partial and
imperfect. But of the works of the -human
understanding our conception may be per-

feet and complete. They are nothing but
what the author conceived, and what he can
express by language, so as to convey his
conception perfectly to men like himself.

Although such works are indeed complex
general conceptions, they do not so properly
belong to our present subject. They are
more the objects of judgment and of taste,
than of bare conception or simple appre-
hension. [460]

To return, therefore, to those complex
conceptions which are formed merely by
combining those that are more simple.
Nature has given us the power of combin-
ing such simple attributes, and such a num-
ber of them as we find proper ; and of
giving one name to that combination, and
considering it as one object of thought.

The simple attributes of things, which
fall under our observation, are not so nume-
rous but that they may all have names in a
copious language. But to give names to
all the combinations that can be made of
two, three, or more of them, would be im-
possible. The most copious languages have
names but for a very small part.

It may likewise be observed, that the
combinations that have names are nearly
though not perfectly, the same in the dif-
ferent languages of civilized nations that
have intercourse with one another. Hence
it is, that the Lexicographer, for the most
part, can give words in one language answer-
ing perfectly, or very nearly, to those of
another ; and what is written in a simple
style in one language, can be translated al-
most word for word into another. *

From these observations we may con- (
elude that there are either certain common
principles of human nature, or certain com-
mon occurrences of human life, which dis- '
pose men, out of an infinite number that
might be formed, to form certain combina- /
tions rather than others.

Mr Hume, in order to account for this
phaenomenon, has recourse to what he calls
the associating qualities of ideas ; to wit,
causation, contiguity in time and place, and
similitude. He conceives — " That one of
the most remarkable effects of those associa-
ting qualities, is the complex ideas which
are the common subjects of our thoughts.
That this also is the cause why languages
so nearly correspond to one another ; Nature
in a manner pointing out to every one those
ideas which are most proper to be united
into a complex one." [461]

I agree with this ingenious author, that
Nature in a manner points out those simple
ideas which are most proper to be united
into a complex one : but Nature does this,
not solely or chiefly by the relations between
the simple ideas of contiguity, causation,

* This is only strictly true of the words relative tn
objects of sense.— H.



[essay V

causation, and resemblance ; but rather by
the fitness of the combinations we make, to
aid our own conceptions, and to convey
them to others by language easily and

The end and use of language, without
regard to the associating qualities of ideas,
will lead men that have common under-
standing to form such complex notions as
are proper for expressing their wants, their
thoughts, and their desires : and in every
language we shall find these to be the com-
plex notions that have names.

In the rudest state of society, men must
have occasion to form the general notions of
man, woman, father, mother, son, daughter,
sister, brother, neighbour, friend, enemy,
and many others, to express the common
relations of one person to another.

If they are employed in hunting, they
must have general terms to express the
various implements and operations of the
chase. Their houses and clothing, however
simple, will furnish another set of general
terms, to express the materials, the work-
manship, and the excellencies and defects
of those fabrics. If they sail upon rivers
or upon the sea, this will give occasion to a
great number of general terms, which other-
wise would never have occurred to their

The same thing may be said of agricul-
ture, of pasturage, of every art they prac-
tise, and of every branch of knowledge they
attain. The necessity of general terms for
communicating our sentiments is obvious ;
and the invention of them, as far as we find
them necessary, requires no other talent
but that degree of understanding which is
common to men. [462]

The notions of debtor and creditor, of
profit and loss, of account, balance, stock
on hand, and many others, are owing to
commerce. The notions of latitude, longi-
tude, course, distance, i-un, and those of
ships, and of their various parts, furniture,
and operations, are owing to navigation.
The anatomist must have names for the
various similar and dissimilar parts of the
human body, and words to express their
figure, position, structure, and use. The
physician must have names for the various
diseases of the body, their causes, symp-
toms, and means of cure.

The like may be said of the grammarian,
the logician, the critic, the rhetorician, the
moralist, the naturalist, the mechanic, and
every man that professes any art or science.

When any discovery is made in art or in
nature, which requires new combinations and
new words to express it properly, the in-
vention of these is easy to those who have
a distinetnotion of the thingtobe expressed ;
and such words will readily be adopted, and
receive the public sanction.

If, on the other hand, any man of emi-
nence, through vanity or want of judgment,
should invent new words, to express com-
binations that have neither beauty nor
utility, or which may as well be expressed
in the current language, his authority may
give them currency for a time with servile
imitators or blind admirers ; but the judi-
cious will laugh at them, and they will soon
lose their credit. So true was the observa-
tion made by Pomponius Marcellus, an
ancient grammarian, to Tiberius Caesar : —
" You, Caesar, have power to make a man
a denizen of Rome, but not to make a word
a denizen of the Roman language."*

Among nations that are civilized, and
have intercourse with one another, the most
necessary and useful arts will be common j
the important parts of human knowledge
.will be common ; their several languages
will be fitted to it, and consequently to one
another. [463]

New inventions of general use give an
easy birth to new complex notions and new
names, which spread as far as the inven-
tion does. How many new complex notions
have been formed, and names for them
invented in the languages of Europe, by the
modern inventions of printing, of gun-
powder, of the mariner's compass, of opti-
cal glasses ? The simple ideas combined
in those complex notions, and the associat-
ing qualities of those ideas, are very an-
cient ; but they never produced those com-

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 90 of 114)