Thomas Reid.

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

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sense was.

" If," said he, " by the word sense, we
were to understand opinion and judgment,
and by the word common, the generality or
any considerable part of mankind, it would
be hard to discover where the subject of
common sense could lie ; for that which
was according to the sense of one part of
mankind, was against the sense of another.
And if the majority were to determine com-
mon sense, it would change as often as
men changed. That in religion, common
sense was as hard to determine as catholic
or orthodox. What to one was absurdity,
to another was demonstration.

" In policy, if plain British or Dutch
sense were right, Turkish and French must
certainly be wrong. And as mere non-
sense as passive obedience seemed, we
found it to be the common sense of a great
party amongst ourselves, » greater party
in Europe, and perhaps the greatest part
of all the world besides. As for morals,
the difference was still wider ; for even the
philosophers could never agree in one and
the same system. And some even of our
most admired modern philosophers had
fairly told us that virtue and vice had no
other law or measure than mere fashion and
vogue." [526]

This is the substance of the gentleman's
speech, which, I apprehend, explains the
meaning of the word perfectly, and contains
all that has been said or can be said against
the authority of common sense, and the
propriety of appeals to it.

As there is no mention of any answer
immediately made to this speech, we might
be apt to conclude that the noble author
adopted the sentiments of the intelligent
gentleman whose speech he recites. But
the contrary is manifest, from the title of
Sensus Communis given to his Essay, from
his frequent use of the word, and from the
whole tenor of the Essay.

The author appears to have a double in-
tention in that Essay, corresponding to the
double title prefixed to it. One intention




is, to justify the use of wit, humour, and
ridicule, in discussing among friends the
gravest subjects. " I can very well sup-
pose," says he, " men may be frighted
out of their wits ; but I have no apprehen-
sion they should be laughed out of them.
I can hardly imagine that, in a pleasant
way, they should ever be talked out of their
love for society, or reasoned out of humanity
and common sense.' 1

The other intention, signified by the title
Sensus Communis, is carried on hand in
hand with the first, and is to shew that
common sense is not so vague and uncertain
a thing as it is represented to be in the
sceptical speech before recited. " I will
try," says he, " what certain knowledge or
assurance of things may be recovered in
that very way, (to wit, of humour,) by
which all certainty, you thought, was lost,
andanendlessscepticismintroduced." [527]

He gives some criticisms upon the word
sensus communis in Juvenal, Horace, and
Seneca ; and, after shewing, in a facetious
way throughout the treatise, that the fun-
damental principles of morals, of polities, of
criticism, and of every branch of knowledge,
are the dictates of common sense, he sums
up the whole in these words : — " That some
moral and philosophical truths there are
so evident in themselves that it would be
easier to imagine half mankind run mad,
and joined precisely in the same species of
folly, than to admit anything as truth
which should be advanced against such
natural knowledge, fundamental reason ;
and common sense. " And, on taking leave,
he adds : — " And now, my friend, should
you find I had moralised in any tolerable
manner, according to common sense, and
without canting, I should be satisfied with
my performance."

Another eminent writer who has put the
question what common sense is, is Fenelon,
the famous Archbishop of Cambray.

That ingenious and pious author, having
had an early prepossession in favour of the
Cartesian philosophy, made an attempt to
establish, on a. sure foundation, the meta-
physical arguments which Des Cartes had
invented to prove the being of the Deity.
For this purpose, he begins with the Carte-
sian doubt. He proceeds to find out the
truth of his own existence, and then to ex-
amine wherein the evidence and certainty
of this and other such primary truths con-
sisted. This, according to Cartesian prin-
ciples, he places in the clearness and dis-
tinctness of the ideas. On the contrary,
he places the absurdity of the contrary pro-
positions, in their being repugnant to his
clear and distincfideas.

To illustrate this, he gives various ex-
amples of questions manifestly absurd and
ridiculous, which every man of common

understanding would, at first sight, perceive
to be so ; and then goes on to this purpose.

" What is it that makes these questions
ridiculous? Wherein does this ridicule
precisely consist ? It will, perhaps, be
replied, that it consists in this, that they
shock common sense. But what is this
same common sense ? It is not the first
notions that all men have equally of the
same things. [528] This common sense,
which is always and in all places the same j
which prevents inquiry ; which makes in-
quiry in some cases ridiculous ; which, in-
stead of inquiring, makes a man laugh
whether he will or not ; which puts it out
of a man's power to doubt: this sense,
which only waits to be consulted — which
shews itself at the first glance, and imme-
diately discovers the evidence or the absurd-
ity of a question — is not this the same that
I call my ideas ?

" Behold, then, those ideas or general
notions, which it is not in my power either
to contradict or examine, and by which I
examine and decide in every case, insomuch
that I laugh instead of answering, as often
as anything is proposed to me, which is evi-
dently contrary to what these immutable
ideas represent."

I shall only observe upon this passage,
that the interpretation it gives of Des
Cartes' criterion of truth, whether just or
not, is the most intelligible and the most
favourable I have met with.

I beg leave to mention one passage from
Cicero, and to add two or three from late
writers, which shew that this word is not
become obsolete, nor has changed its

"De Oratore," lib. 3 — "Omnes enim
tacito quodam sensu, sine ulla arte aut
ratione, in artibus ac rationibus, recta ac
prava dijudicant. Idque cum faciant in
picturis, et in signis, et in aliis operibus, ad
quorum intelligentiam a natura minus hab-
ent instrumenti, turn multo ostendunt magis
in verborum, numerorum, vocumque judi-
cio ; quod ea sint in communibus infixa
sensibus ; neque earurn rerum quemquam
funditus natura voluit expertem."

" Hume's " Essays and Treatises," vol.
I. p. 5 — " But a philosopher who proposes
only to represent the common sense of
mankind in more beautiful and more engag-
ing colours, if by accident he commits a
mistake, goes no farther, but, renewing his
appeal to common sense, and the natural
sentiments of the mind, returns into the
right path, and secures himself from any
dangerous illusion." [529]

Hume's " Enquiry concerning the Prin-
ciples of Morals," p. 2 — " Those who have
refused the reality of moral distinctions may
be ranked among the disingenuous dis-
putants. The only way of converting an
•527-529 |




antagonist of this kind is to leave him to
himself : for, finding that nobody keeps up
the controversy with him, it is probable he
will at last, of himself, from mere weariness,
come over to the side of common sense and

Priestley's " Institutes," Preliminary
Essay, vol. i. p. 27 — " Because common
sense is a sufficient guard against many
errors in religion, it seems to have been
taken for granted that that common sense
is a sufficient instructor also, whereas in
fact, without positive instruction, men would
naturally have been mere savages with
respect to religion ; as, without similar in-
struction, they would be savages with re-
spect to the arts of life and the sciences-
Common sense can only be compared to a
judge; but what can a judge do without
evidence and proper materials from which
to form a judgment ?"

Priestley's " Examination of Dr Reid,"
&c. page 127. — " But should we, out of
complaisance, admit that what has hitherto
been called judgment may be called sense,
it is making too free with the established
signification of words to call it common
sense, which, in common acceptation, has
long been appropriated to a very different
thing — viz., to that capacity for judging of
common things that persons of middling
capacities are capable of." Page 129. — " I
should, therefore, expect that, if a man was
so totally deprived of common sense as not
to be able to distinguish truth from false-
hood in one case, he would be equally in-
capable of distinguishing it in another."

From this cloud of testimonies, to which
hundreds might be added, I apprehend,
that whatever censure is thrown upon those
who have spoke of common sense as a prin-
ciple of knowledge, or who have appealed to
it in matters that are self-evident, will fall
light, when there are so many to share in
it. Indeed, the authority of this tribunal
is too sacred and venerable, and has pre-
scription too long in its favour to be now
wisely called in question. Those who are
disposed to do so, may remember the shrewd
saying of Mr Hobbes-^" When reason is
against a man, a man will be against rea-
son." This is equally applicable to com-
mon sense.

From the account I nave given of the
meaning of this term, it is easy to judge
both of the proper use and of the abuse
of it.

It is absurd to conceive that there can be
any opposition between reason and com-
mon sense.* It is indeed the first-born of
Season ; and, as they are commonly joined

* See above, p. 10O, b, note f ; and Mr Stewart's
■■ Elements," II. p. 92.— H.
530, 531]

together in speech and in writing, they are
inseparable in their nature.

We ascribe to reason two offices, or two
degrees. The first is to judge of things
self-evident ; the second to draw conclusions
that are not self-evident from those that
are. The first of these is the province, and
the sole province, of common sense ; and,
therefore, it coincides with reason in its
whole extent, and is only another name for
one branch or one degree of reason. Per-
haps it may be said, Why then should you
give it a particular name, since it is acknow-
ledged to be only a degree of reason ? It
would be a sufficient answer to this, Why
do you abolish a name which is to be found
in the language of all civilized nations, and
has acquired a right by prescription ? Such
an attempt is equally foolish and ineffectual.
Every wise man will be apt to think that
a name which is found in all languages as
far back as we can trace them, is not with-
out some use. 1531]

But there is an obvious reason why this
degree of reason should have a name ap-
propriated to it ; and that is, that, in the
greatest part of mankind, no other degree of
reason is to be found. It is this degree
that entitles them to the denomination of
reasonable creatures. It is this degree of
reason, and this only, that makes a man
capable of managing his own affairs, and
answerable for his conduct towards others.
There is therefore the best reason why it
should have a name appropriated to it.

These two degrees of reason differ in
other respects, which would be sufficient to
entitle them to distinct names.

The first is purely the gift of Heaven.
And where Heaven has not given it, no
education can supply the want. The se-
cond is learned by practice and rules, when
the first is not wanting. A man who has
common sense may be taught to reason.
But, if he has not that gift, no teaching will
make him able either to judge of first prin-
ciples or to reason from them.

I have only this farther to observe, that
the province of common sense is more ex-
tensive in refutation than in confirmation.
A conclusion drawn by a train of just rea-
soning from true principles cannot possibly
contradict any decision of common sense,
because truth will always be consistent
with itself. Neither can such a conclu-
sion receive any confirmation from com-
mon sense, because it is not within its juris-

But it is possible that, by setting out
from false principles, or by an error in
reasoning, a man may be led to a conclu-
sion that contradicts the decisions of com-
mon sense. In this case, the conclusion
is within the jurisdiction of common sense,
though the reasoning on which it was




grounded be not ; and a man of common
sense may fairly reject the conclusion with-
out being able to shew the error of the rea-
soning that led to it. [532]

Thus, if a mathematician, by a process
of intricate demonstration, in which some
false step was made, should be brought to
this conclusion, that two quantities, which
are both equal to a third, are not equal to
each other, a man of common sense, with-
out pretending to be a judge of the demon-
stration, is well entitled to reject the con-
clusion, and to pronounce it absurd.



A difference about the meaning of a
word ought not to occasion disputes among
philosophers ; but it is often very proper to
take notice of such differences, in order to
prevent verbal disputes. There are, in-
deed, no words in language more liable to
ambiguity than those by which we express
the operations of the mind ; and the most
candid and judicious may sometimes he led
into different opinions about their precise

I hinted before what I take to be a pecu-
liarity in Mr Locke with regard to the
■meaning of the word judgment, and men-
tioned what, I apprehend, may have led
him into it. But let us hear himself, Essay,
book iv. chap. 14 : — " The faculty which
God has given to man to supply the want
of clear and certain knowledge, where that
cannot be had, is judgment ; whereby the
mind takes its ideas to agree or disagree ;
or, which is the same, any proposition to
be true or false, without perceiving a de-
monstrative evidence in the proofs. Thus
the mind has two faculties conversant about
truth and falsehood. First, Knowledge,
whereby it certainly perceives, and is un-
doubtedly satisfied of, the agreement or
disagreement of any ideas. Secondly,
Judgment, which is the putting ideas to-
gether, or separating them from one an-
other in the mind, when their certain agree-
ment or disagreement is not perceived, hut
presumed to be so" [533]

Knowledge, I think, sometimes signifies
things known ; sometimes that act of the
mind by which we know them. And in like
manner opinion sometimes signifies things
believed ; sometimes the act of the mind
by which we believe them. But judgment
is the faculty which is exercised in both
these acts of the mind. In knowledge, we
judge without doubting ; in opinion, with
some mixture of doubt. But I know no
~w.L,iuniy, besides that of Mr Locke, for

calling knowledge a faculty, any more than
for calling opinion a faculty.

Neither do I think that knowledge is
confined within the narrow limits which
Mr Locke assigns to it; because the far
greatest part of what all men call human
knowledge, is in things which neither ad-
mit of intuitive nor of demonstrative proof.

I have all along used the word judgment
in a more extended sense than Mr Locke
does in the passage above-mentioned. I
understand by it that operation of mind by
which we determine, concerning anything
that may be expressed by a proposition,
whether it be true or false. Every propo-
sition is either true or false ; so is every
judgment. A proposition may be simply
conceived without judging of it. But when
there is not only a conception of the pro-
position, but a mental affirmation or nega-
tion, an assent or dissent of the understand-
ing, whether weak or strong, that is judg-

I think that, since the days of Aristotle,
logicians have taken the word in that sense,
and other writers, for the most part,
though there are other meanings, which
there is no danger of confounding with this.

We may take the authority of Dr Isaac
Watts, as a logician, as a man who under-
stood English, and who had a just esteem
of Mr Locke's Essay. Logic. Introd. page
5 — " Judgment is that operation of the
mind, wherein we join two or more ideas
together by one affirmation or negation;
that is, we either affirm or deny this to be
that. So: this tree is high ; that horse is not
swift ; the mind of man is a thinking being;
mere matter has no thought belonging to it;
God is just ; good men are often miserable in
this world ; a righteous governor will make
a difference betwixt the evil and the good;
which sentences are the effect of judgment,
and are called propositions." And, Part II.
chap. ii. § 9 — " The evidence of sense is,
when we frame a proposition according to
the dictate of any of our senses. So we
judge that grass is green ; that a trumpet
gives a pleasant sound ; that fire burnswood; ,
water is soft ; and iron hard."

In this meaning, judgment extends to
every kind of evidence, probable or certain
and to every degree of assent or dissent.
It extends to all knowledge as well as to all
opinion ; with this difference only, that in
knowledge it is more firm and steady, like
a house founded upon a rock. In opinion
it stands upon a weaker foundation, and is
more liable to be shaken and overturned.

These differences about the meaning of
words are not mentioned as if truth was on
one side and error on the other, but as an
apology for deviating, in this instance, from
the phraseology of Mr Locke, which is, for



the most part, accurate and distinct ; and
because attention to the different meanings
that are put upon words by different authors,
is the best way to prevent our mistaking
verbal differences for real differences of

The common theory concerning ideas
naturally leads to a theory concerning
judgment, which may be a proper test of its
truth; for, as they are necessarily con-
nected, they must stand or fall together.
Their connection is thus expressed by Mr
Locke, Book IV. chap. 1— " Since the
mind, in all its thoughts and reasonings,
hath no other immediate object but its own
ideas, which it alone does or can con-
template, it is evident that our knowledge is
only conversant about them. Knowledge
then seems to me to be nothing but the
perception of the connection and agreement,
or disagreement and repugnancy, of any of
our ideas. In this alone it consists." [535]

There can only be one objection to the
justice of this inference ; and that is, that
the antecedent proposition from which it is
inferred seems to have some ambiguity ;
for, in the first clause of that proposition,
the mind is said to have no other immediate
object but its own ideas; in the second,
that it has no other object at all ; that it
does or can contemplate ideas alone."

If the word immediate in the first clause
be a mere expletive, and be not intended to
limit the generality of the proposition, then
the two clauses will be perfectly consistent,
the second being only a repetition or expli-
cation of the first ; and the inference that
our knowledge is only conversant about
ideas will be perfectly just and logical.

But, if the word immediate in the first
clause be intended to limit the general pro-
position, and to imply that the mind has
other objects besides its own ideas, though
no other immediate objects, then it will not
be true that it does or can contemplate ideas
alone ; nor will the inference be justly
drawn that our knowledge is only conversant
about ideas-
Mr Locke must either have meant his
antecedent proposition, without any limita-
tion by the word immediate, or he must
have meant to limit it by that word, and to
signify that there are objects of the mind
which are not ideas.

The first of these suppositions appears to
me most probable, for several reasons.

First, Because, when he purposely de-
fines the word idea, in the introduction to
the Essay, he says it is whatsoever is the

* In reference to the polemic that follows, see, for
a solution, what has been said above in regard to the
ambiguity of the term object* and Note B. In regard
to the doctrine of Ideas, as held by the philosophers,
see above, and Note C, &c. — H.


object of the understanding when a man
thinks, or whatever the mind can be em-
ployed about in thinking. Here there is no
room left for objects of the mind that are
not ideas. The same definition is often
repeated throughout the Essay. Some-
times, indeed, the word immediate is added,
as in the passage now under consideration ;
but there is no intimation made that it ought
to be understood when it is not expressed.
Now, if it had really been his opinion that
there are objects of thought which are not
ideas, this definition, which is the ground-
work of the whole Essay, would have been
very improper, and apt to mislead his

Secondly, He has never attempted to
shew how there can be objects of thought
which are not immediate objects; and,
indeed, this seems impossible. For, what-
ever the object be, the man either thinks of
it, or he does not. There is no medium
between these. If he thinks of it, it is an
immediate object of thought while he thinks
of it. If he does not think of it, it is no
object of thought at all. Every object of
thought, therefore, is an immediate object
of thought, and the word immediate, joined
to objects of thought, seems to be a mere

Thirdly, Though Malebranche and Bishop
Berkeley believed that we have no ideas of
minds, or of the operations of minds, and
that we may think and reason about them
without ideas, this was not the opinion of
Mr Locke. He thought that there are
ideas of minds, and of their operations, as
well as of the objects of sense ; that the
mind perceives nothing but its own ideas,
and that all words are the signs of ideas.

A fourth reason is, That to suppose that
he intended to limit the antecedent proposi-
tion by the word immediate, is to impute to
him a blunder in reasoning, which I do not
think Mr Locke could have committed;
for what can be a more glaring paralogism
than to infer that, since ideas are partly,
though not solely, the objects of thought, it
is evident that all our knowledge is only
conversant about them. If, on the con-
trary, he meant that ideas are the only ob-
jects of thought, then the conclusion drawn
is perfectly just and obvious ; and he might
very well say, that, since it is ideas only that
the mind does or can contemplate, it is evi~
dent that our knowledge is only conversant
about them. [537]

As to the conclusion itself, I have only
to observe, that, though he extends it only to
what he calls knowledge, and not to what
he calls judgment, there is the same reason
for extending it to both.

It is true of judgment, as well as of
knowledge, that it can only be conversant
about objects of the mind, or about things



[essay vi,

which the mind can contemplate. Judg-
ment, as well as knowledge, supposes the
conception of the object about which we
judge ; and to judge of objects that never
were nor can be objects of the mind, is evi-
dently impossible.

This, therefore, we may take for granted,
that, if knowledge be conversant about ideas
only, because there is no other object of the
mind, it must be no less certain that judg-
ment is conversant about ideas only, for
the same reason.

Mr Locke adds, as the result of his rea-
soning, " Knowledge, then, seems to me to
be nothing but the perception of the con-
nection and agreement, or disagreement
and repugnancy, of any of our ideas. In
this alone it consists.'*

This is a very important point, not only
on its own account, but on account of its
necessary connection with his system con-
cerning ideas, which is such as that both
must stand or fall together ; for, if there is
any part of human knowledge which does
not consist in the perception of the agree-
ment or disagreement of ideas, it must fol-
low that there are objects of thought and
of contemplation which are not ideas.

This point, therefore, deserves to be care-
fully examined. With this view, let us
first attend to its meaning, which, I think,
can hardly be mistaken, though it may
need some explication.

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 96 of 114)