Thomas Reid.

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

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immutable existence.

The sceptics, on the contrary, (for there
were sceptical philosophers in those early
days,) maintained that all things are mu-
table and in a perpetual fluctuation ; and,
from this principle, inferred that there is

no science, no truth ; that all is uncertain

Plato, and his masters of the Pythagorean
school, yielded this with regard to objects
of sense, and acknowledged that there could
be no science or certain knowledge con-
cerning them. But they held that there
are objects of intellect of a superior order
and nature, which are permanent and im-
mutable. These are ideas, or universal
natures, of which the objects of sense are
only the images and shadows.

To these ideas they ascribed, as I have
already observed, the most magnificent
attributes. Of man, of a rose, of a circle,
and of every species of things, they believed
that there is one idea or form, which ex-
isted from eternity, before any individual of
the species was formed ; that this idea is
the exemplar or pattern, according to which
the Deity formed the individuals of the
species ; that every individual of the species
participates of this idea, which constitutes
its essence ; and that this idea is likewise
an object of the human intellect, when, by
due abstraction, we discern it to be one in
all the individuals of the species.

Thus the idea of every species, though
one and immutable, might be considered in
three different views or respects : first, As
having an eternal existence before there
was any individual of the species ; secondly,
As existing in every individual of that spe-
cies, without division or multiplication, and
making the essence of the species ; and,
thirdly, As an object of intellect and of science
in man. [477]

Such I take to be the doctrine of Plato,
as far as I am able to comprehend it. His
disciple Aristotle rejected the first of these
views of ideas as visionary, but differed
little from his master with regard to the
two last. He did not admit the existence
of universal natures antecedent to the ex-
istence of individuals : but he held that
every individual consists of matter and
form ; that the form (which I take to be
what Plato calls the idea) is common to all
the individuals of the species ; and that the
human intellect is fitted to receive the forms
of things as objects of contemplation. Such
profound speculations about the nature of
universals, we find even in the first ages of
philosophy.* I wish I could make them
more intelligible to myself and to the reader.

The division of universals into five
classes — to wit, genus, species, specific
difference, properties, and accidents — is
likewise very ancient, and I conceive was
borrowed by the Peripatetics from the
Pythagorean school. +

* Different philosophers have maintained that
Aristotle was a Kealist, a Conceptualist, and a No-
minalist, in the strictest sense. — H.

f This proceeds on the supposition that the 6iip>
posititious Pythagorean treatises are genuine. — tl.



essay v.

Porphyry has given us a very distinct
treatise upon these, as an introduction to
Aristotle's categories. But he has omitted
the intricate metaphysical questions that
were agitated about their nature : such aa,
whether genera and species do really exist
in nature, or whether they are only con-
ceptions of the human mind. If they exist
in nature, whether they are corporeal or
incorporeal ; and whether they are inherent
in the objects of sense, or disjoined from
them. These questions, he tells us, for
brevity's sake, he omits, because they are
very profound, and require accurate discus-
sion. It is probable that these questions
exercised the wits of the philosophers till
about the twelfth century. [478]

About that time, Roscelinus or Rusce-
linus, the master of the famous Abelard,
introduced a new doctrine — that there is
nothing universal but words or names.
For this, and other heresies, he was much
persecuted. However, by his eloquence
and abilities, and those of his disciple Abe-
lard, the doctrine spread, and those who
followed it wore called Nominalists. * His
antagonists, who held that there are things
that are really universal, were called Realists.
The scholastic philosophers, from the be-
ginning of the twelfth century, were divided
into these two sects. Some few took a
middle road between the contending parties.
That universality which the Realists held
to be in things themselves, Nominalists in
names only, they held to be neither in things
nor in names only, but in our conceptions.
On this account they were called Concep-
tualists : but, being exposed to the batteries
of both the opposite parties, they made no
great figure, f

When the sect of Nominalists was like
to expire, it received new life and spirit
from Occam, the disciple of Scotus, in the
fourteenth century. Then the dispute about
universals, a parte rei, was revived with
the greatest animosity in the schools of
Britain, France, and Germany, and carried
on, not by arguments only, but by bitter
reproaches, blows, and bloody affrays, until
the doctrines of Luther and the other Re-
formers turned the attention of the learned
world to more important subjects.

After the revival of learning, Mr Hobbes
adopted the opinion of the Nominalists. $

* Abelard was not a Nominalist like Roscelinus ;
but held a doctrine, intermediate between absolute
Nominalism and Realism, corresponding to the
opinion since called Conceptualism. A flood of light
has been thrown upon Abelard's doctrines, by M.
Cousin's introduction to his recent publication of

the unedited works of that illustrious thinker


t The later Nominalists, of the school of Occam,
were really Conceptualists in our sense of the term.
— H.

% Hobbes is justly said by Leibnitz to have been
>7wu Nowinattbus vominalior. Tlim were really
Conceptualists H

" Human Nature," chap 5, § 6 — " It is
plain, therefore," says he, "thatthereis no-
thing universal but names." And in his
" Leviathan," part i. chap 4, " There being
nothing universal but names, proper names
bring to mind one thing only ; universals
recall any one of many."

Mr Locke, according to the division he-
fore mentioned, I think, may be accounted
a Conceptualist. He does not maintain
that there are things that are universal;
but that we have general or universal ideas
which we form by abstraction ; and this
power of forming abstract and general ideas,
he conceives to be that which makes the
chief distinction in point of understanding,
between men and brutes. [479]

Mr Locke's doctrine about abstraction
has been combated by two very powerful
antagonists, Bishop Berkeley and Mr Hume,
who have taken up the opinion of the Nom-
inalists. The former thinks, " That the
opinion that the mind hath a power of form-
ing abstract ideas or notions of things, has
had a chief part in rendering speculation
intricate and perplexed, and has occasioned
innumerable errors and difficulties in almost
all parts of knowledge." That " abstract
ideas are like a fine and subtile net, which
has miserably perplexed and entangled tha
minds of men, with this peculiar circum-
stance, that by how much the finer and
more curious was the wit of any man, by
so much the deeper was he like to be en-
snared, and faster held therein." That,
" among all the false principles that have
obtained in the world, there is none hath a
more wide influence over the thoughts of
speculative men, than this of abstract gene-
ral ideas."

The good bishop, therefore, in twenty-
four pages of the introduction to his " Prin-
ciples of Human Knowledge," encounters
this principle with a zeal proportioned to
his apprehension of its malignant and ex-
tensive influence.

That the zeal of the sceptical philosopher
against abstract ideas was almost equal to
that of the bishop, appears from his words,
" Treatise of Human Nature," Book I.
part i. § 7 : — " A very material question
has been started concerning abstract or
general ideas — whether they be general oi
particular, |in the mind's conception of them.
A great philosopher" (he means Dr Berke-
ley) " has disputed the received opinion in
this particular, and has asserted that all
general ideas are nothing but particular ones
annexed to a certain term, which gives them
a more extensive signification, and makes
them recall, upon occasion, other individuals
which are similar to them. As I look upon
this to be one of the greatest and most
valuable discoveries that have been made
of late years in the republic of letters, I
f478, 479"|

AP. VI.]



ill here endeavour to confirm it by some
piments, which, I hope, will put it beyond
doubt and controversy." [480]
I shall make an end of this subject, with
ne reflections on what has been said upon
by these two eminent philosophers.
1. First, I apprehend that we cannot,
th propriety, be said to have abstract and
aeral ideas, either in the popular or in the
ilosophical sense of that word. In the
pular sense, an idea is a thought ; it is
3 act of the mind in thinking, or in con-
iving any object. This act of the mind
always an individual act, and, therefore,
ere can be no general idea in this sense,
the philosophical sense, an idea is an
age in the mind, or in the brain, which,
Mr Locke's system, is the immediate ob-
it of thought ; in the system of Berkeley
d Hume, the only object of thought. I
lieve there are no ideas of this kind, and,
erefore, no abstract general ideas. In-
ed, if there were really such images in
a mind or in the brain, they could not
general, because everything that really
ists is an individual. Universals are
ither acts of the mind, nor images in the

As, therefore, there are no general ideas
either of the senses in which the word
;a is used by the moderns, Berkeley and
ume have, in this question, an advantage
er Mr Locke ; and their arguments against
m are good ad hominem. They saw
rther than he did into the just conse-
ences of the hypothesis concerning ideas,
lich was common to them and to him ;
d they reasoned justly from this hypo-
esis when they concluded from it, that
ere is neither a material world, nor any
ch power in the human mind as that of
straction. [481]

A triangle, in general, or any other uni-
rsal, might be called an idea by a Plato-
3t; but, in the style of modern philo-
phy, it is not an idea, nor do we ever
cribe to ideas the properties of triangles,
is never said of any idea, that it has
ree sides and three angles. We do not
eak of equilateral, isosceles, or scalene
3as, nor of right-angled, acute-angled, or
tuse-angled ideas. And, if these attri-
tes do not belong to ideas, it follows,
cessarily, that a triangle is not an idea,
le same reasoning may be applied to
ery other universal.

Ideas are said to have a real existence in
e mind, at least while we think of them ;
t universals have no real existence,
hen we ascribe existence to them, it is
t an existence in time or place, but exist-
ce in some individual subject ; and this
istence means no more but that they are
ily attributes of such a subject. Their
istence is nothing but predicability, or the

capacity of being attributed to a subject.
The name of predicables, which was given
them in ancient philosophy, is that which
most properly expresses their nature.

2. I think it must be granted, in the
second place, that universals cannot be the
objects of imagination, when we take that
word in its strict and proper sense. " I
find," says Berkeley, " I have a faculty of
imagining or representing to myself the
ideas of those particular things I have per-
ceived, and of variously compounding and
dividing them. I can imagine a man with
two heads, or the upper parts of a man
joined to the body of a horse. I can imagine
the hand, the eye, the nose, each by itself,
abstracted or separated from the rest of the
body. But then, whatever hand or eye I
imagine, it must have some particular shape
or colour. Likewise, the idea of a man that
I frame to myself must be either of a white,
or a black, or a tawny ; a straight or a
crooked ; a tall, or a low, or a middle-sized

I believe every man will find in himself
what this ingenious author found — that he
cannot imagine a man without colour, or
stature, or shape. [482]

Imagination, as we before observed, pro-
perly signifies a conception of the appear'
ance an object would make to the eye it
actually seen." An universal is not an
object of any external sense, and therefore
cannot be imagined ; but it may be dis-
tinctly conceived. When Mr Pope says,
" The proper study of mankind is man," i
conceive his meaning distinctly, though I
neither imagine a black or a white, a
crooked or a straight man. The distinction
between conception and imagination is real,
though it be too often overlooked, and the
words taken to be synonimous. I can con-
ceive a thing that is impossible, ■(■ but I
cannot distinctly imagine a thing that is
impossible. I can conceive a proposition or
a " demonstration, but I cannot imagine
either. I can conceive understanding and
will, virtue and vice, and other attributes of
mind, but I cannot imagine them. In like
manner, I can distinctly conceive uni-
versals, but I cannot imagine them. J

As to the manner how we conceive uni>
versals, I confess my ignorance. I know
not how I hear, or see, or remember, and
as little do I know how I conceive things
that have no existence. In all our original

* See above, p. 366, a, note.— H.

t See above, p. 377, b, note.— H.

X Imagination and Conception are distinguished,
but tbe latter ought not to be used in the vague and
extensive signification of Reid. The discrimination
in question is best made in the German language of
philosophy, where the terms Begriffe (Conceptions)
are strongly contrasted with Amchauungen (Intui-
tions), Bilden (Images), &c See above, p. 360, a, note
I ; p. 365, b, note -f. The reader may compare
Stewart's " Elements," I. p. 196 H.




faculties, the fabric and manner of operation
is, I apprehend, beyond our comprehension,
and perhaps is perfectly understood by him
only who made them.

But we ought not to deny a fact of which
we are conscious, though we know not how
it is brought about. And I think we may
be certain that universals are not conceived
by means of images of them in our minds,
because there can be no image of an uni-

3. It seems to me, that on this question
Mr Locke and his two antagonists have
divided the truth between them. He saw
very clearly, that the power of forming ab-
stract and general conceptions is one of the
most distinguishing powers of the human
mind, and puts a specific difference between
man and the brute creation. But he did
not see that this power is perfectly irrecon-
cileable to his doctrine concerning ideas.

His opponents saw this inconsistency ;
but, instead of rejecting the hypothesis of
ideas, they explain away the power of ab-
straction, and leave no specific distinction
between the human understanding and that
of brutes.

4. Berkeley,* in his reasoning against
abstract general ideas, seems unwillingly
or unwarily to grant all that is necessary
to support abstract and general concep-

*' A man," he says, " may consider a
figure merely as triangular, without attend-
ing to the particular qualities of the angles,
or relations of the sides- So far he may
abstract. But this will never prove that
he can frame an abstract general inconsist-
ent idea of a triangle."

If a man may consider a figure merely
as triangular, he must have some concep-
tion of this object of his consideration ; for
no man can consider a thing which he does
not conceive. He has a conception, there-
fore, of a triangular figure, merely as such.
I know no more that is meant by an abstract
general conception of a triangle.

He that considers a figure merely as tri-
angular, must understand what is meant by
the word triangular. If, to the conception
he joins to this word, he adds any particu-
lar quality of angles or relation of sides, he
misunderstands it, and does not consider
the figure merely as triangular. Whence,
I think, it is evident, that he who considers
a figure merely as triangular must have the
conception of a triangle, abstracting from
any quality of angles or relation of sides.

The Bishop, in like manner, grants,
" That we may consider Peter so far forth
as man, or so far forth as animal, without

* On Reid's criticism of Berkeley, see Stewart,
[Elements, II. p. 110, tq )— H.

framing the forementioned abstract idea, in
as much as all that is perceived is not
considered." It may here be observed,
that he who considers Peter so far forth as
man, or so far forth as animal, must con-
ceive the meaning of those abstract genera
words man and animal, and he who con-
ceives the meaning of them has an abstract
general conception. [484]

From these concessions, one would be
apt to conclude that the Bishop thinks that
we can abstract, but that we cannot frame
abstract ideas ; and in this I should agree
with him. But I cannot reconcile his con-
cessions with the general principle he lavs
down before. " To be plain," says he, "I
deny that I can abstract one from another,
or conceive separately those qualities which
it is impossible should exist so separated."
This appears to me inconsistent with the
concessions above mentioned, and incon-
sistent with experience.

If we can consider a figure merely as
triangular, without attending to the parti-
cular quality of the angles or relation of the
sides, this, I think, is conceiving separately
things which cannot exist so separated:
for surely a triangle cannot exist without
a particular quality of angles and relation
of sides. And it is well known, from ex-
perience, that a man may have a distinct
conception of a triangle, without having
any conception or knowledge of many of
the properties without which a triangle
cannot exist.

Let us next consider the Bishop's notion
of generalising.* He does not absolutely
deny that there are general ideas, but only
that there are abstract general ideas. " An
idea," he says, " which, considered in it-
self, is particular, becomes general, by be-
ing made to represent or stand for all other
particular ideas of the same sort. To make
this plain by an example : Suppose a geo-
metrician is demonstrating the method of
cutting a line in two equal parts. He
draws, for instance, a black line, of an inch
in length. This, which is in itself a parti-
cular line, is, nevertheless, with regard to
its signification, general ; since, as it is
there used, it represents all particular lines
whatsoever ; so that what is demonstrated
of it, is demonstrated of all lines, or, in
other words, of a line in general. And as
that particular line becomes general by be-
ing made a sign, so the name line, which,
taken absolutely, is particular, by being a
sign, is made general." [485]

Here I observe, that when a particular
idea is made a sign to represent and stand
for all of a sort, this supposes a distinction
of things into sorts or species. To be of a
sort implies having those attributes which

* See Stewart, (Elements, II p. 1250— H.

[ 1.83-485] VI J



characterise the sort, and are common to
all the individuals that belong to it. There
cannot, therefore, be a sort without general
attributes, nor can there be any conception
of a sort without a conception of those
general attributes which distinguish it. The
conception of a sort, therefore, is an ab-
stract general conception.

The particular idea cannot surely be made
a sign of a thing of which we have no con-
ception. I do not say that you must have
an idea of the sort, but surely you ought
to understand or conceive what it means,
when you make a particular idea a repre-
sentative of it ; otherwise your particular
idea represents, you know not what.

When I demonstrate any general pro-
perty of a triangle, such as, that the three
angles are equal to two right angles, I must
understand or conceive distinctly what is
common to all triangles. I must distinguish
the common attributes of all triangles from
those wherein particular triangles may differ.
And, if I conceive distinctly what is common
to all triangles, without confounding it with
what is not so, this is to form a general con-
ception of a triangle. And without this, it
is impossible to know that the demonstra-
tion extends to all triangles.

The Bishop takes particular notice of this
argument, and makes this answer to it : —
•* Though the idea I have in view, whilst
I make the demonstration, be, for instance,
that of an isosceles rectangular triangle,
whose sides are of a determinate length, I
may nevertheless be certain that it extends
to all other rectilinear triangles, of what
sort or bigness soever; and that because
neither the right angle, nor the equality or
determinate length of the sides, are at all
concerned in the demonstration." [486]

But, if he do not, in the idea he has in
view, clearly distinguish what is common
to all triangles from what is not, it would
be impossible to discern whether something
that is not common be concerned in the
demonstratien or not. In order, therefore,
to perceive that the demonstration extends
to all triangles, it is necessary to have a
distinct conception of what is common to
all triangles, excluding from that concep-
tion all that is not common- And this is
all I understand by an abstract general
conception of a triangle.

Berkeley catches an advantage to his side
of the question, from what Mr Locke ex-
presses (too strongly indeed) of the difficulty
of framing abstract general ideas, and the
pains and skill necessary for that purpose.
From which the Bishop infers, that a thing
so difficult cannot be necessary for com-
munication by language, which is so easy
and familiar to all sorts of men.

There may be some abstract and general
conceptions that are difficult, or even be-

yond the reach of persons of weak under-
standing ; but there are innumerable which
are not beyond the reach of children. It
is impossible to learn language without
acquiring general conceptions; for there
cannot be a single sentence without them.
I believe the forming these, and being able
to articulate the sounds of language, make
up the whole difficulty that children find in
learning language at first.

But this difficulty, we see, they are able
to overcome so early as not to remember
the pains it cost them. They have the
strongest inducement to exert all their
labour and skill, in order to understand
and to be understood ; and they no doubt
do so. [487]

The labour of forming abstract notions, is
the labour of learning to speak, and to
understand what is spoken. As the words
of every language, excepting a few proper
names, are general words, the minds of
children are furnished with general con-
ceptions, in proportion as they learn the
meaning of general words. I believe most
men have hardly any general notions but
those which are expressed by the general
words they hear and use in conversation.
The meaning of some of these is learned
by a definition, which at once conveys a
distinct and accurate general conception.
The meaning of other general words we
collect, by a kind of induction, from the
way in which we see them used on various
occasions by those who understand the
language. Of these our conception is often
less distinct, and in different persons is
perhaps not perfectly the same.

" Is it not a hard thing," says the Bishop,
" that a couple of children cannot prate to-
gether of their sugar-plumbs and rattles,
and the rest of their little trinkets, till they
have first tacked together numberless in-
consistencies, and so formed in their minds
abstract general ideas, and annexed them
to every common name they make use of?"

However hard a thing it may be, it is an
evident truth, that a couple of children,
even about their sugar- plumbs and their
rattles, cannot prate so as to understand
and be understood, until they have learned
to conceive the meaning of many general
words — and this, I think, is to have general

5. Having considered the sentiments of
Bishop Berkeley on this subject, let us
next attend to those of Mr Hume, as they
are expressed Part I. § 7, " Treatise of

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 92 of 114)