Thomas Reid.

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

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line, an angle, a square, a circle, of ratios
direct and inverse, and others of that kind,
can find no admittance into a mind that has
not some degree of judgment. They are
not properly ideas of the senses, nor are
they got by compounding ideas of the
senses, but by analysing the ideas or no-
tions we get by the senses into their simplest
elements, and again combining these ele-
ments into various accurate and elegant
forms, which the senses never did nor can

Had Mr Hume attended duly to this, it
ought to have prevented a very bold attempt,
which he has prosecuted through fourteen
pages of his " Treatise of Human Nature,"
to prove that geometry isfounded upon ideas
that are not exact, and axioms that are not
precisely true.

A mathematician might be tempted to
think that the man who seriously under-
takes this has no great acquaintance with
geometry ; but I apprehend it is to be im-
puted to another cause, to a zeal for his own
system. We see that even men of genius
may be drawn into strange paradoxes, by
an attachment to a favourite idol of the
understanding, when it demands so costly a

We Protestants think that the devotees
of the Roman Church pay no small tribute
to her authority when they renounce their
five senses in obedience to her decrees. Mr
Hume's devotion to his system carries him

even to trample upon mathematical demon-
stration. [515]

The fundamental articles of his system
are, that all the perceptions of the human
mind are either impressions or ideas, and
that ideas are only faint copies of impres-
sions. The idea of a right line, therefore, ip
only a faint copy of some line that has been
seen, or felt by touch ; and the faint copy
cannot be more perfect than the original.
Now of such right lines, it is evident that
the axioms of geometry are not precisely
true ; for two lilies that are straight to our
sight or touch may include a space, or they
may meet in more points than one. If,
therefore, we cannot form any notion of a
straight line more accurate than that which
we have from the senses of sight and touch,
geometry has no solid foundation. If, on
the other hand, the geometrical axioms are
precisely true, the idea of a right line is not
copied from any impression of sight or touch,
but must have a different origin and a more
perfect standard.

As the geometrician, by reflecting only
upon the extension and figure of matter,
forms a set of notions more accurate and
scientific than any which the senses exhi-
bit, so the natural philosopher, reflecting
upon other attributes of matter, forms
another set, such as those of density, quan-
tity of matter, velocity, momentum, fluidity,
elasticity, centres of gravity, and of oscilla-
tion. These notions are accurate and
scientific ; but they cannot enter into a
mind that has not some degree of judg-
ment, nor can we make them intelligible to
children, until they have some ripeness of

In navigation, the notions of latitude,
longitude, course, leeway, cannot be made
intelligible to children ; and so it is with
regard to the terms of every science, and
of every art about which we can reason.
They have had their five senses as perfect
as men for years before they are capable
of distinguishing, comparing, and perceiv-
ing the relations of things, so as to be able
to form such notions. They acquire the
intellectual powers by a slow progress, and
by imperceptible degrees ; and by means
of them, learn to form distinct and accurate
notions of things, which the senses could
never have imparted. [516]

Having said so much of the notions we
get from the senses alone of the objects of
sense, let us next consider what notions we
can have from consciousness alone of the
operations of our minds.

Mr Locke very properly calls conscious-
ness an internal sense. It gives the like
immediate knowledge of things in the mind —
that is, of our own thoughts and feelings —
as the senses give us of things external.
There is this difference, however, that an
2k 2



[essay VI

external object may be at rest, and the
sense may be employed about it for some
time. But the objects of consciousness
are never at rest : the stream of thought
flows like a river, without stopping a mo-
ment ; the whole train of thought passes in
succession under the eye of consciousness,
which is always employed about the present.
But is it consciousness that analyses com-
plex operations, distinguishes their different
ingredients, and combines them in distinct
parcels under general names ? This surely
is not the work of consciousness, nor can it
be performed without reflection,* recollect-
ing and judging of what we were conscious
of, and distinctly remember. This reflec-
tion does not appear in children. Of all
the powers of the mind, it seems to be of
the latest growth, whereas consciousness is
coeval with the earliest.-)-

Consciousness, being a kind of internal
sense, can no more give us distinct and
accurate notions of the operations of our
minds, than the external senses can give
of external objects. Reflection upon the
operations of our minds is the same kind of
operation with that by which we form dis-
tinct notions of external objects. They
differ not in their nature, but in this only,
that one is employed about external, and
the other about internal objects ; and both
may, with equal propriety, be called reflec-
tion. [517]

Mr Locke has restricted the word reflec-

* See above, p. 2'I2, a, note *.— H.

t See above, p. 239, b. — As a corollary of this truth,
Mr Stewart makes the following observations, in
which he is supported by every competent authority
in education. The two northern universities have
long withdrawn themselves from the reproach of
placing Physics last in their curriculum of arts. In
that of Edinburgh, no order is prescribed ; but in St
Andrew's and Glasgow, the class of Physics still stands
after those of Mental Philosophy. This absurdity is,
it is to be observed, altogether of a modern intro-
duction. For, when our Scottish universities were
founded, and long after, the philosophy of mind was
taught by the Professor of Physics. " I apprehend,"
says Mr Stewart, "that the study of the mind should
form the last branch of the education of youth j an
order which nature herself seems to point out, by
what I have already remarked with respect to the
developement of our faculties. After the under,
standing is well stored with particular facts, and
has been conversant with particular scientific pur-
suits, it will be enabled to speculate concerning its
own powers with additional advantage, and will run
no hazard in indulging too far in such inquiries.
Nothing can be more absurd, on this as well as on
many other accounts, than the common practice
which is followed in our universities, r_in some only, 3
of beginning a course of philosophical education with
the study of Logic. If thisorder were completely re-
versed ; and if the study of Logic were delayed till
after the mind of the student was well stored with
particular fact6 in Physics, in Chemistry, in Natural
and Civil History, his attention might be led with
the most important advantage, and without any dan-
ger to his power of observation, to an examination
of his own faculties, which, besides opening to him
a new and pleasing field of speculation, would enable
him to form an estimate of his own powers, of the
acquisitions he has made, of the habits he has formed,
and of the farther improvements of which his mind
u susceptible." — H-

tion to that which is employed about the
operations of our minds, without any
authority, as I think, from custom, the
arbiter of language. For, surely, I may
reflect upon what I have seen or heard, as
well as upon what I have thought.* The
word, in its proper and common meaning,
is equally applicable to objects of sense,
and to objects of consciousness.-)- He has
likewise confounded reflection with con-
sciousness, and seems not to have been
aware that they are different powers, and
appear at very different periods of life.$

If that eminent philosopher had been
aware of these mistakes about the meaning
of the word reflection, he would, I think,
have seen that, as it is by reflection upon
the operations of our own minds that we
can form any distinct and accurate notions
of them, and not by consciousness without
reflection, so it is by reflection upon the
objects of sense, and not by the senses
without reflection, that we can form dis-
tinct notions of them. Reflection upon any-
thing, whether external or internal, makes
it an object of our intellectual powers, by
which we survey it on all sides, and form
such judgments about it as appear to be
just and true.

I proposed, in the third place, to consi-
der our notions of the relations of things :
and here I think, that, without judg-
ment, we cannot have any notion of rela-

There are two ways in which we get the
notion of relations. The first is, by com-
paring the related objects, when we have
before had the conception of both. By this
comparison, we perceive the relation, either
immediately, or by a process of reasoning.
That my foot is longer than my finger, 1
perceive immediately; and that three is
the half of six. This immediate perception
is immediate and intuitive judgment. That
the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle
are equal, I perceive by a process of reason-
ing, in which it will be acknowledged there
is judgment.

Another way in which we get the notion
of relations (which seems not to have occur-
red to Mr Locke) is, when, by attention to
one of the related objects, we perceive or
judge that it must, from its nature, have a
certain relation to something else, which
before, perhaps, we never thought of; and
thus our attention to one of the related ob-

* See note before last, and note at p. 347, b H.

t Mr Stewart makes a curious mistatement of the
meaning attached by Reid to the word Reflection, if
this passage and others are taken into account. — See
Elements, I. p. 106, note +. — H.

t Consciousness and Reflection cannot be analysed
into different powers. Reflection is only, in Locke's
meaning of the word, (and this is the more correct,)
Consciousness, concentrated by an act of Will on the
phtenomena of mind— i. e., internal Attention ; In
Reid's, what is it but Attention in general ?— H.





jects produces the notion of a correlate, and
of a certain relation between them. [518]
Thus, when I attend to colour, figure,
weight, I cannot help judging these to be
qualities which cannot exist without a sub-
ject ; that is, something which is coloured,
figured, heavy. If I had not perceived such
things to be qualities, I should never have
had any notion of their subject, or of their
relation to it.

By attending to the operations of think-
ing, memory, reasoning, we perceive or
judge that there must be something which
thinks, remembers, and reasons, which we
call the mind. When we attend to any
change that happens in Nature, judgment
informs us that there must be a cause of
this change, which had power to produce
it; and thus we get the notions of cause
and effect, and of the relation between
them. When we attend to body, we per-
ceive that it cannot exist without space ;
hence we get the notion of space, (which is
neither an object of sense nor of conscious-
ness,) and of the relation which bodies
have to a certain portion of unlimited space,
as their place.

I apprehend, therefore, that all our no-
tions of relations may more properly be
ascribed to judgment as their source and
origin, than to any other power of the
mind. We must first perceive relations
by our judgment, before we can conceive
them without judging of them ; as we must
first perceive colours by sight, before we
can conceive them without seeing them. I
think Mr Locke, when he comes to speak
of the ideas of relations, does not say that
they are ideas of sensation or reflection,
but only that they terminate in, and are
concerned about, ideas of sensation or re-
flection. [519]

The notions of unity and number are so
abstract, that it is impossible they should
enter into the mind until it has some degree
of judgment. We see with what difficulty,
and how slowly, children learn to use, with
understanding, the names even of small
numbers, and how they exult in this acqui-
sition when they have attained it. Every
number is conceived by the relation which
it bears to unity, or to known combinations
of units ; and upon that account, as well
as on account of its abstract nature, all
distinct notions of it require some degree
of judgment^

In its proper place, I shall have occasion
to shew that judgment is an ingredient in
all determinations of taste, in all moral
determinations, and in many of our pas-
sions and affections. So that this opera-
tion, after we come to have any exercise of
judgment, mixes with most of the operations
of our minds, and, in analysing them, cannot
be overlooked without confusion and error.



The word sense, in common language,
seems to have a different meaning from that
which it has in the writings of philosophers ;
and those different meanings are apt to be
confounded, and to occasion embarrassment
and error.

Not to go b^ck to ancient philosophy upon
this point, modern philosophers consider
sense as a power that has nothing to do with
judgment. Sense they consider as the power
by which we receive certain ideas or im-
pressions from objects ; and judgment as
the power by which we compare those
ideas, and perceive their necessary agree-
ments and disagreements. [520]

The external senses give us the idea of
colour, figure, sound, and other qualities of
body, primary or secondary. Mr Locke
gave the name of an internal sense to con-
sciousness, because by it we have the ideas
of thought, memory, reasoning, and other
operations of our own minds. Dr Hutche-
son of Glasgow, conceiving that we have
simple and original ideas which cannot be
imputed either to the external senses or to
consciousness, introduced other internal
senses ; such as the sense of harmony, the
sense of beauty, and the moral sense.
Ancient philosophers also spake of internal
senses, of which memory was accounted one.

But all these senses, whether external or
internal, have been represented by philo-
sophers as the means of furnishing our
minds with ideas, without including any
kind of judgment. Dr Hutcheson defines
a sense to be a determination of the mind
to receive any idea from the presence of an
object independent on our will.

" By this term (sense) philosophers, in
general, have denominated those faculties
in consequence of which we are liable to
feelings relative to ourselves only, and from
which they have not pretended to draw any
conclusions concerning the nature of things ;
whereas truth is not relative, but absolute

and real (Dr Priestly's " Examination of

Dr Reid," &c, p. 123.)

On the contrary, in common language,
sense always implies judgment. A man of
sense is a man of judgment. Good sense
is good judgment. Nonsense is what is
evidently contrary to right j udgment. Com-
mon sense is that degree of judgment which
is common to men with whom we can con-
verse and transact business.

Seeing and hearing, by philosophers, are
called senses, because we have ideas by

* On Common Sente. name and thing] ree Note A.
— H.




them ; by the vulgar they are called senses,
because we judge by them. We judge of
colours by the eye ; of sounds by the ear ;
of beauty and deformity by taste ; of right
and wrong in conduct, by our moral sense
or conscience. [521]

Sometimes philosophers, who represent
it as the sole province of sense to furnish
us with ideas, fall unawares into the popu-
lar opinion that they are judging faculties.
Thus Locke, Book IV. chap. 2 :— " And of
this, (that the quality or accident of colour
doth really exist, and hath a being without
me,) the greatest assurance I can possibly
have, and to which my faculties can attain,
is the testimony of my eyes, which are the
proper and sole judges of this thing."

This popular meaning of the word sense
is not peculiar to the English language.
The corresponding words in Greek, Latin,
and, I believe, in aU the European languages,
have the same latitude. The Latin words
sentire, sententia, sensa* sensus, from the
last of which the English word sense is
borrowed, express judgment or opinion, and
are applied indifferently to objects of exter-
nal sense, of taste, of morals, and of the

I cannot pretend to assign the reason why
a word, which is no term of art, which is
familiar in common conversation, should
have so different a meaning in philosophical
writings. I shall only observe, that the
philosophical meaning corresponds perfectly
with the account which Mr Locke and other
modern philosophers give of judgment. For,
if the sole province of the senses, external
and internal, be to furnish the mind with
the ideas about which we judge and reason,
it seems to be a natural consequence, that
the sole province of judgment should be to
compare those ideas, and to perceive their
necessary relations.

These two opinions seem to be so con-
nected, that one may have been the cause
of the other. I apprehend, however, that,
if both be true, there is no room left for any
knowledge or judgment, either of the real
existence of contingent things, or of their
contingent relations.

To return to the popular meaning of the
word sense. I believe it would be much
more difficult to find good authors who never
use it in that meaning, than to find such
as do. [522]

We may take Mr Pope as good authority
for the meaning of an English word. He
uses it often, and, in his " Epistle to the
Earl of Burlington," has made a little de-
scant upon it.

* What does sensa mean ? Is it an erratum, or
does he refer to sensa, once only, I believe, employed
by Cicero, and interpreted by Nonius Marcellus, as
■" qua? sentiuntur 9" — H.

" Oft have you hinted to your brother Peer,
A certain truth, which many buy too dear:
Something there is more needful than expense,
And something previous ev'n to taste — 'tis sense.
Good sense, which only is the gifW>f heaven,
And, though no science, fairly worth the seven ;
A light which in yourself you must perceive,
Jones and Le Notre have it not to give,"

This inward light or sense is given by
heaven to different persons in different de-
grees. There is a certain degree of it which
is necessary to our being subjects of law and
government, capable of managing our own
affairs, and answerable for our conduct
towards others : this is called common
sense, because it is common to all men with
whom we can transact business, or call to
account for their conduct.

The laws of all civilised nations distin-
guish those who have this gift of heaven,
from those who have it not. The last may
have rights which ought not to be violated,
but, having no understanding in themselves
to direct their actions, the laws appoint them
to be guided by the understanding of others.
It is easily discerned by its effects in men's
actions, in their speeches, and even in their
looks ; and when it is made a question
whether a man has this natural gift or not,
a judge or a jury, upon a short conversation
with him, can, for the most part, determine
the question with great assurance.

The same degree of understanding which
makes a man capable of acting with com-
mon prudence in the conduct of life, makes
him capable of discovering what is true and
what is false in matters that are self-evident,
and which he distinctly apprehends. [523]

All knowledge, and all science, must be
built upon principles that are self-evident ;
and of such principles every man who has
common sense is a competent judge, when
he conceives them distinctly. Hence it is,
that disputes very often terminate in an
appeal to common sense.

While the parties agree in the first prin-
ciples on which their arguments are ground-
ed, there is room for reasoning ; but when
one denies what to the other appears too
evident to need or to admit of proof, rea-
soning seems to be at an end ; an appeal is
made to common sense, and each party is
left to enjoy his own opinion.

There seems to be no remedy for this,
nor any way left to discuss such appeals,
unless the decisions of common sense can
be brought into a code in which all reason-
able men shall acquiesce. This, indeed, if
it be possible, would be very desirable, and
would supply a desideratum in logic ; and
why should it be thought impossible that
reasonable men should agree in things that
are self-evident ?

All that is intended in this chapter is to

explain the meaning of common sense, that

it may not be treated, as it has been by

some, as a new principle, or as a word with-





out any meaning. I have endeavoured to
shew that sense, in its most common, and
therefore its most proper meaning, signifies
judgment, though philosophers often use it
in another meaning. From this it is natural
to think that common sense should mean
common judgment; and so it really does.

What the precise limits are which divide
common judgment from what is beyond it
on the one hand, and from what falls short
of it on the other, may be difficult to de-
termine ; and men may agree in the mean-
ing of the word who have different opinions
about those limits, or who even never
thought of fixing them. This is as intel-
ligible as, that all Rnglishmen should mean
the same thing by the county of York,
though perhaps not a hundredth part of
them can point out its precise limits. [524]

Indeed, it seems to me, that common
sense is as unambiguous a word and as well
understood as the county of York. We
find it in innumerable places in good writers ;
we hear it on innumerable occasions in con-
versation ; and, as far as I am able to judge,
always in the same meaning. And this is
probably the reason why it is so seldom
defined or explained.

Dr Johnson, in the authorities he gives,
to shew that the word sense signifies under-
standing, soundness of faculties, strength of
natural reason, quotes Dr Bentley for what
may be called a definition of common sense,
though probably not intended for that pur-
pose, but mentioned accidentally : " God
hath endowed mankind with power and
abilities, which we call natural light and
reason, and common sense."

It is true that common sense is a popular
and not a scholastic word ; and by most of
those who have treated systematically of
the powers of the understanding, it is only
occasionally mentioned, as it is by other
writers. But I recollect two philosophical
writers, who are exceptions to this remark.
One is Buffier, who treated largely of com-
mon sense, as a principle of knowledge,
above fifty years ago. The other is Bishop
Berkeley, who, I think, has laid as much
stress upon common sense, in opposition to
the doctrines of philosophers, as any philo-
sopher that has come after him. If the
reader chooses to look back to Essay II.
chap. 10, he will be satisfied of this, from
the quotations there made for another pur-
pose, which it is unnecessary here to repeat.

Men rarely ask what common sense is ;
because every man believes himself pos-
sessed of it, laid would take it for an imput-
ation upon his understanding to be thought
unacquainted with it. Yet I remember
two very eminent authors who have put
this question ; and it is not improper to hear
their sentiments upon a subjectso frequently
mentioned, and so rarely canvassed. [525]

It is well known that Lord Shaftesbury
gave to one of his Treatises the title of
" Sensus Communis; an Essay on the
Freedom of Wit and Humour, in a Letter
to a Friend ;" in which he puts his friend in
mind of a free conversation with some of
their friends on the subjects of morality
and religion. Amidst the different opinions
started and maintained with great life and
ingenuity, one or other would, every now and
then, take the liberty to appeal to common
sense. Every one allowed the appeal ; no
one would offer to call the authority of the
court in question, till a gentleman whose
good understanding was never yet brought
in doubt, desired the company, very gravely,
that they would tell him what common

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 95 of 114)