Thomas Reid.

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

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plex notions until there was use for them.

What is peculiar to a nation in its cus-
toms, manners, or laws, will give occasion
to complex notions and words peculiar to
the language of that nation. Hence it is
easy to see why an impeachment, and an
attainder, in the English language, and
ostracism in the Greek language, have not
names answering to them in other lan-

I apprehend, therefore, that it is utility,
and not the associating qualities of the ideas,
that has led men to form only certain com-
binations, and to give names to them in
language, while they neglect an infinite
number that might be formed.

The common occurrences of life, in the
intercourse of men, and in their occupa-
tions, give occasion to many complex no-
tions. We see an individual occurrence,
which draws our attention more or less,
and may be a subject of conversation.
Other occurrences, similar to this in many
respects, have been observed, or may be
expected. It is convenient that we should
be able to speak of what is common to
them all, leaving out the unimportant cir-

* "Tu, Caasar, civitatem «dare potes hominibuB,
verbis non poles." See Suetonius De Illuit.'Oram-
mo£,c. 22 H.

[462, 163]



cumstances of time, place, and persons.
This we can do with great ease, by giving
a name to what is common to all those
individual occurrences. Such a name is a
great aid to language, because it compre-
hends, in one word, a great number of
simple notions, which it would be very
tedious to express in detail. [464]

Thus, men have formed the complex
notions of eating, drinking, sleeping, walk-
ing, riding, running, buying, selling, plough-
ing, sowing, a dance, a feast, war, a battle,
victory, triumph ; and others, without

Such things must frequently be the sub-
ject of conversation ; and, if we had not a
more compendious way of expressing them
than by a detail of all the simple notions
they comprehend, we should lose the benefit
i of speech.

The different talents, dispositions, and
habits of men in society, being interesting
to those who have to do with them, will in
every language have general names — such
as wise, foolish, knowing, ignorant, plain,
cunning. In every operative art, the tools,
instruments, materials, the work produced,
and the various excellencies and defects of
these, must have general names. •

i The various relations of persons, and of

things which cannot escape the observation
of men in society, lead us to many complex
general notions ; such as father, brother,
friend, enemy, master, servant, property,
theft, rebellion.

The terms of art in the sciences make
another class of general names of complex
notions ; as in mathematics, axiom, defini-
tion, problem, theorem, demonstration.

I do not attempt a complete enumeration
, even of the classes of complex general con-

' ceptions. Those I have named as a speci-
men, I think, are mostly comprehended
under what Mr Locke calls mixed modes
and relations ; which, he justly observes,
have names given them in language, in
preference to innumerable others that might
be formed ; for this reason only, that they
are useful for the purpose of communicat-
ing our thoughts by language. [465]

In all the languages of mankind, not only
the writings and discourses of the learned,
but the conversation of the vulgar, is almost
entirely made up of general words, which
are the signs of general conceptions, either
simple or complex. And in every language,
we find the terms signifying complex no-
tions to be such, and only such, as the use
of language requires.

There remains a very large class of com-
plex general terms, on which I shall make
some observations ; I mean those by which
we name the species, genera, and tribes of
natural substances.

It is utility, indeed, that leads ns to give-
; [464.-466]

general names to the various species of na»
tural substances ; but, in combining the
attributes which are included under the
specific name, we are more aided and di-
rected by nature than in forming other com-
binations of mixed modes and relations. In
the last, the ingredients are brought to-
gether in the occurrences of life, or in the
actions or thoughts of men. But, in the
first, the ingredients are united by nature in
many individual substances which God has
made. We form a general notion of those
attributes wherein many individuals ajjrec.
We give a specific name to this combina-
tion, which name is common to all sub-
stances having those attributes, which
either do or may exist. The specific name
comprehends neither more nor fewer attri-
butes than we find proper to put into its
definition. It comprehends not time, nor
place, nor even existence, although there
can be no individual without these.

This work of the understanding is abso-
lutely necessary for speaking intelligibly of
the productions of nature, and for reaping
the benefits we receive, and avoiding the
dangers we are exposed to from them. The
individuals are so many, that to give a
proper name to each would be beyond the
power of language. If a good or bad qua-
lity was observed in an individual, of how
small use would this be, if there was not a
species in which the same quality might be
expected ! [466]

Without some general knowledge of the
qualities of natural substances, human life
could not be preserved. And there can be
no general knowledge of this kind without
reducing them to species under specific
names. For this reason, among the rudest
nations, we find names for fire, water, earth,
air, mountains, fountains, rivers ; for the
kinds of vegetables they use ; of animals
they hunt or tame, or that are found useful
or hurtful.

Each of those names signifies in general
a substance having a certain combination of
attributes. The name, therefore, must be
common to all substances in which those
attributes are found.

Such general names of substances being
found in all vulgar languages, before philo-
sophers began to make accurate divisions
and less obvious distinctions, it is not to be
expected that their meaning should be more
precise than is necessary for the common
purposes of life.

As the knowledge of nature advances,
more species of natural substances are
observed, and their useful qualities dis-
covered. In order that this important part
of human knowledge may be communicated,
and handed down to future generations, it
is not sufficient that the species have names,
j Such is the fluctuating state of language.




that a general name will not always retain
the same precise signification, unless it have
a definition in which men are disposed tc

There was undoubtedly a great fund of
natural knowledge among the Greeks and
Romans in the time of Pliny. There is a
great fund in his Natural History ; but
much of it is lost to us — for this reason
among others, that we know not what
species of substance he means by such a

Nothing could have prevented this loss
but an accurate definition of the name, by
which the species might have been distin-
guished from all others as long as that name
and its definition remained. [467]

To prevent such loss in future times,
modern philosophers have very laudably
attempted to give names and accurate defin-
itions of all the known species of sub-
stances wherewith the bountiful Creator
hath enriched our globe.

This is necessary, in order to form a
copious and distinct language concerning
them, and, consequently, to facilitate our
knowledge of them, and to convey it to
future generations.

Every species that is known to exist
ought to have a name ; and that name
ought to be defined by such attributes as
serve best to distinguish the species from
all others.

Nature invites to this work, by having
formed things so as to make it both easy
and important.

For, first, We perceive numbers of indi-
vidual substances so like in their obvious
qualities, that the most unimproved tribes
of men consider them as of one species, and
give them one common name.

Secondly, The more latent qualities of
substances are generally the same in all
the individuals of a species ; so that what,
by observation or experiment, is found in
a few individuals of a species, is presumed
and commonly found to belong to the
whole. By this we are enabled, from par-
ticular facts, to draw general conclusions.
This kind of induction is, indeed, the mas-
ter-key to the knowledge of Nature, without
which we could form no general conclu-
sions in that branch of philosophy.

And, thirdly, By the very constitution
of our nature, we are led, without reason-
ing, to ascribe to the whole species what
we have found to belong to the individuals.
It is thus we come to know that fire burns
and water drowns ; that bodies gravitate
and bread nourishes. [468]

The species of two of the kingdoms of
Nature— to wit, the animal and the vege-
table — seem to be fixed by Nature, by the
power they have of producing their like.
And, in these, men, in all ages and nations,

have accounted the parent and the progeny
of the same species. The differences among
Naturalists, with regard to the species of
these two kingdoms, are very inconsider-
able, and may be occasioned by the changes
produced by soil, climate, and culture, and
sometimes by monstrous productions, which
are comparatively rare.

In the inanimate kingdom we have not
the same means of dividing things into
species, and, therefore, the limits of species
seem to be more arbitrary. But, from the
progress already made, there is ground to
hope that, even in this kingdom, as the
knowledge of it advances, the various
species may be so well distinguished and
defined as to answer every valuable pur-

When the species are so numerous as to
burden the memory, it is greatly assisted
by distributing them into genera, the genera
into tribes, the tribes into orders, and the
orders into classes.

Such a regular distribution of natural
substances, by divisions and subdivisions,
has got the name of a system.

It is not a system of truths, but a system
of general terms, with their definitions;
and«it is not only a great help to memory,
but facilitates very much the definition of
the terms. For the definition of the genus
is common to all the species of that genus,
and so is understood in the definition of
each species, without the trouble of repeti-
tion. In like manner, the definition of a
tribe is understood in the definition of every
genus, and every species of that tribe ; and
the same may be said of every superior
division. [469]

The effect of such a systematical distri-
bution of the productions of Nature is seen
in our systems of zoology, botany, and min-
eralogy ; in which a species is commonly
defined accurately in a line or two, which,
without the systematical arrangement, could
hardly be denned in a page.

With regard to the utility of systems of
this kind, men have gone into contrary ex-
tremes ; some have treated them with con-
tempt, as a mere dictionary of words;
others, perhaps, rest in such systems as all
that is worth knowing in the works of

On the one hand, it is not the intention
of such systems to communicate all that is
known of the natural productions which
they describe. The properties most fit for
defining and distinguishing the several
species, are not always those that are most
useful to be known. To discover and to
communicate the uses of natural substances
in life and in the arts, is, no doubt, that
part of the business of a naturalist which is
the most important ; and the systematical
arrangement of them is chiefly to be valued
" [467-4CB]



for its subserviency to this end. This every
judicious naturalist will grant.

But, on the other hand, the labour is not
to be despised, by which the road to an use-
ful and important branch of knowledge is
made easy in all time to come; especially
when this labour requires both extensive
knowledge and great abilities.

The talent of arranging properly and
defining accurately, is so rare, and at the
same time so useful, that it may very justly
be considered as a proof of real genius, and
as entitled to a high degree of praise. There
is an intrinsic beauty in arrangement, which
captivates the mind, and gives pleasure,
even abstracting from its utility ; as in most
other things, so in this particularly, Nature
has joined beauty with utility. The arrange-
ment of an army in the day of battle is a
grand spectacle. The same men crowded
in a fair, have no such effect. It is not
more strange, therefore, that some men
spend their days in studying systems of
Nature, than that other men employ their
lives in the study of languages. The most
important end of those systems, surely, is
to form a copious and an unambiguous lan-
guage concerning the productions of Nature,
by which every useful discovery concerning
them may be communicated to the present,
and transmitted to all future generations,
without danger of mistake. [470]

General terms, especially such as are
complex in their signification, will never
keep one precise meaning, without accurate
definition ; and accurate definitions of such
terms can in no way be formed so easily and
advantageously as by reducing the things
they signify into a regular system.

Very eminent men in the medical profes-
sion, in order to remove all ambiguity in
the names of diseases, and to advance the
healing art, have, of late, attempted to re-
duce into a systematical order the diseases
of the human body, and to give distinct
names and accurate definitions of the seve-
ral species, genera, orders, and classes, into
which they distribute them ; and I appre-
hend that, in every art and science, where
the terms of the art have any ambiguity
that obstructs its progress, this method will
be found the easiest and most successful for
the remedy of that evil.

It were even to be wished that the gene-
ral terms which we find in common lan-
guage, as well as those of the arts and
sciences, could be reduced to a systematical
arrangement, and defined so as that they
might be free from ambiguity ; but, per-
haps, the obstacles to this are insurmount-
able. I know no man who has attempted it
but Bishop Wilkins in his Essay towards a
real character and a philosophical language. *

* In this attempt Wilkins was preceded by our

The attempt was grand, and worthy of a
man of genius.

The formation of such systems, therefore,
of the various productions of Nature, in-
stead of being despised, ought to be ranked
among the valuable improvements of modern
ages, and to be the more esteemed that its
utility reaches to the most distant future
times, and, like the invention of writing,
serves to embalm a most important branch
of human knowledge, and to preserve it from
being corrupted or lost. [471]



Having now explained, as well as I am
able, those operations of the mind by which
we analyse the objects which nature pre-
sents to our observation, into their simple
attributes, giving a general name to each, and
by which we combine any number of such
attributes into one whole, and give a general
name to that combination, I shall offer some
observations relating to our general notions,
whether simple or complex.

I apprehend that the names given to
them by modern philosophers, have contri-
buted to darken our speculations about them,
and to render them difficult and abstruse.

We call them general notions, concep-
tions, ideas. The words notion and con-
ception, in their proper and most common
sense, signify the act or operation of the
mind in conceiving an object. In a figura-
tive sense, they are sometimes put for the
object conceived. And I think they are
rarely, if ever, used in this figurative sense,
except when we speak of what we call
general notions or general conceptions. The
word idea, as it is used in modern times,
has the same ambiguity.

Now, it is only in the last of these senses,
and not in the first, that we can be said to
have general notions or conceptions. The
generality is in the object conceived, and.
not in the act of the mind by which it is
conceived. Every act of the mind is an in-
dividual act, which does or did exist. [472]
But we have power to conceive things which
neither do nor ever did exist. We have
power to conceive attributes without regard
to their existence. The conception of such
an attribute is a real and individual act of
the mind ; but the attribute conceived is
common to many individuals that do or may
exist. We are too apt to confound an ob-
ject of conception with the conception of

countryman Dalgarno : and from Dalgarno it is
highly probable that Wilkiirs borrowed the idea.
But even Dalgarno was not the first who conceived
the project. — H.

2 D 2




that object. But the danger of doing this
must be much greater when the object of
conception is called a conception.

The Peripatetics gave to such objects of
conception the names of universals, and of
predicables. Those names had no ambi-
guity, and I think were much more fit to
express what was meant by them than the
names we use.

It is for this reason that I have so often
used the word attribute, which has the same
meaning with predicable. And, for the same
reason, I have thought it necessary repeat-
edly to warn the reader, that when, in com-
pliance with custom, I speak of general
notions or general conceptions, I always
mean things conceived, and not the act of
the mind in conceiving them.

The Pythagoreans and Platonists gave
the name of ideas to such general objects of
conception, and to nothing else. As we
borrowed the word idea from them, so that
it is now familiar in all the languages of
Europe, I think it would have been happy
if we had also borrowed their meaning, and
had used it only to signify what they meant
by it. I apprehend we want an unambigu-
ous word to distinguish things barely con-
ceived from things that exist. If the word
idea was used for this purpose only, it would
be restored to its original meaning, and
supply that want.

We may surely agree with the Platonists
in the meaning of the word idea, without
adopting their theory concerning ideas. We
need not believe, with them, that ideas are
eternal and self-existent, and that they
have a more real existence than the things
we see and feel. [473]

They were led to give existence to ideas,
from the common prejudice that everything
which is an object of conception must
really exist ; and, having once given exist-
ence to ideas, the rest of their mysterious
system about ideas followed of course ; for
things merely conceived have neither be-
ginning nor end, time nor place ; they are
subject to no change ; they are the patterns
and exemplars according to which the
Deity made everything that he made ; for
the work must be conceived by the artificer
before it is made.

These are undeniable attributes of the
ideas of Plato ; and, if we add to them that
of real existence, we have the whole myste-
rious system of Platonic ideas. Take away
the attribute of existence, and suppose
them not to be things that exist, but
things that are barely conceived, and all
the mystery is removed ; all that remains
is level to the human understanding.

The word essence came to be much used
among the schoolmen, and what the Pla-
tonists called the idea of a species, they
called its essence. The word essentia is

said to have been made by Cicero ; but
even his authority could not give it cur-
rency, until long after his time. It came
at last to be used, and the schoolmen fell
into much the same opinions concerning
essences, as the Platonisto held concerning
ideas. The essences of things were held to
be uncreated, eternal, and immutable.

Mr Locke distinguishes two kinds of
essence, the real and the nominal. By the
real essence, he means the constitution of
an individual, which makes it to be what it
is. This essence must begin and end with
the individual to which it belongs. It is
not, therefore, a Platonic idea. But what
Mr Locke calls the nominal essence, is the
constitution of a species, or that which
makes an individual to be of such a species ;
and this is nothing but that combination of
attributes which is signified by the name of
the species, and which we conceive without
regard to existence. [474]

The essence of a species, therefore, is
what the Platonists called the idea of the

If the word idea be restricted to the
meaning which it bore among the Plato-
nists and Pythagoreans, many things which
Mr Locke has said with regard to ideas
will be just and true, and others will not.

It will be true that most words (in-
deed all general words) are the signs of
ideas ; but proper names are not : they
signify individual things, and not ideas. It
will be true not only that there are general
and abstract ideas, but that all ideas are
general and abstract. It will be so far
from the truth, that all our simple ideas
are got immediately, either from sensation
or from consciousness, that no simple
idea is got by either, without the co-opera-
tion of other powers. The objects of sense,
of memory, and of consciousness, are not
ideas but individuals ; they must be anal-
ysed by the understanding into their simple
ingredients, before we can have simple
ideas ; and those simple ideas must be
again combined by the understanding, in
distinct parcels, with names annexed, in
order to give us complex ideas. It will be
probable not only that brutes have no ab-
stract ideas, but that they have no ideas at all.

I shall only add that the learned author
of the origin and progress of language, and,
perhaps, his learned friend, Mr Harris, are
the only modern authors I have met with
who restrict the word idea to this meaning.
Their acquaintance with ancient philosophy
led them to this. What pity is it that a
word which, in ancient philosophy, had a
distinct meaning, and which, if kept to
that meaning, would have been a real ac-
quisition to our language, should be used
by the moderns in so vague and ambiguous
a manner, that it is more apt to perplex




and darken our speculations, than to convey
useful knowledge !

From all that has been said about ab-
stract and general conceptions, I think we
may draw the following conclusions con-
cerning them. [475]

First, That it is by abstraction that the
mind is furnished with all its most simple
and most distinct notions. The simplest
objects of sense appear both complex and
indistinct, until by abstraction they are
analysed into their more simple elements ;
and the same may he said of the objects of
memory and of consciousness.

Secondly, Our most distinct complex
notions are those that are formed by com-
pounding the simple notions got by abstrac-

Thirdly, Without the powers of abstract-
ing and generalising, it would be impossible
to reduce things into any order and method,
by dividing them into genera and species.

Fourthly, Without those powers there
could be no definition ; for definition can
only be applied to universals, and no indi-
vidual can be defined.

Fifthly, Without abstract and general
notions there can neither be reasoning nor

Sixthly, As brute animals shew no signs
of being able to distinguish the various
attributes of the same subject; of being
able to class things into genera and species ;
to define, to reason, or to communicate
their thoughts by artificial signs, as men
do — I must think, with Mr Locke, that they
have not the powers of abstracting and
generalising, and that, in this particular,
nature has made a specific difference be-
tween them and the human species.



In the ancient philosophy, the doctrine of
universals — that is, of things which we ex-
press by general terms — makes a great figure.
The ideas of the Pythagoreans and Pla-
tonists, of which so much has been already
said, were universals. [476] All science is
employed about universals as its object. It
was thought that there can be no science,
unless its object be something real and
immutable ; and therefore those who paid
homage to truth and science, maintained
that ideas or universals have a real and

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 91 of 114)