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Thomas Reid

Thomas Reid
Full name Thomas Reid
Born 26 April 1710(1710-04-26)
Strachan, Kincardineshire, Scotland
Died 7 October 1796 (aged 86)
Glasgow, Scotland
Era 18th-century philosophy,
Region Western Philosophy
School Scottish School of Common Sense,
Scottish Enlightenment
Main interests Metaphysics, Epistemology, Mind, Ethics
Notable ideas direct realism, proper functionalism (later made popular by Alvin Plantinga)

Thomas Reid (26 April 1710 – 7 October 1796), Scottish philosopher, and a contemporary of David Hume, was the founder of the Scottish School of Common Sense, and played an integral role in the Scottish Enlightenment. The early part of his life was spent in Aberdeen, Scotland, where he created the 'Wise Club' (a literary-philosophical association) and graduated from the University of Aberdeen. He was given a professorship at King's College, Aberdeen in 1752, where he wrote An Inquiry Into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (published in 1764). Shortly afterward he was given the prestigious Professorship of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow when he was called to replace Adam Smith. He resigned from this position in 1781.

Reid believed that common sense (in a special philosophical sense of sensus communis) is, or at least should be, at the foundation of all philosophical inquiry. He disagreed with Hume, who asserted that we can never know what an external world consists of as our knowledge is limited to the ideas in the mind, and George Berkeley, who asserted that the external world is merely ideas in the mind. By contrast, Reid claimed that the foundations upon which our sensus communis are built justify our belief that there is an external world.

In his day and for some years into the 19th century, he was regarded as more important than David Hume.[citation needed] He advocated direct realism, or common sense realism, and argued strongly against the Theory of Ideas advocated by John Locke, René Descartes, and (in varying forms) nearly all Early Modern philosophers who came after them. He had a great admiration for Hume and had a mutual friend send Hume an early manuscript of his (Reid's) Inquiry. Hume responded that the "deeply philosophical" work "is wrote in a lively and entertaining matter," but that "there seems to be some defect in method," and criticized Reid for implying the presence of innate ideas.[1]


Thomas Reid's Theory of Common Sense

His theory of knowledge had a strong influence on his theory of morals. He thought epistemology was an introductory part to practical ethics: When we are confirmed in our common beliefs by philosophy, all we have to do is to act according to them, because we know what is right. His moral philosophy is reminiscent of the Latin stoicism mediated by the scholastics, St. Thomas Aquinas and the Christian way of life. He often quotes Cicero, from whom he adopted the term "sensus communis".

He set down six axioms which he regarded as an essential basis for reasoning, all derived from "sensus communis":

  • That the thoughts of which I am conscious are thoughts of a being which I call myself, my mind, my person;
  • That those things did really happen that I distinctly remember; [2]
  • That we have some degree of power over our actions, and the determination of our will;
  • That there is life and intelligence in our fellow men with whom we converse;
  • That there is a certain regard due to human testimony in matters of fact, and even to human authority in matters of opinion;
  • That, in the phenomena of nature, what is to be, will probably be like what has been in similar circumstances. [2]

It has been claimed that these axioms did not so much answer the testing problems set by David Hume and, earlier, René Descartes, as simply deny them. Contemporary philosopher Roy Sorensen writes "Reid's common sense looks like an impression left by Hume; concave where Hume is convex, convex where Hume is concave. One explanation is that common sense is reactive... Without a provocateur, common sense is faceless."

Reid's own answer to Hume's testing problems was to enumerate a set of principles of common sense (sensus communis) which constitute the foundations of rational thought. Anyone who undertakes in a philosophical argument, for example, must implicitly presuppose certain beliefs like, "I am talking to a real person," and "There is an external world whose laws do not change," among many other positive, substantive claims. For Reid, the belief in the truth of these principles is not rational; rather, reason itself demands these principles as prerequisites. It is for this reason (and possibly a mocking attitude toward Hume and Berkeley) that Reid sees belief in the principles of common sense as a litmus test for sanity. For example, in The Intellectual Powers of Man he states, “For, before men can reason together, they must agree in first principles; and it is impossible to reason with a man who has no principles in common with you.” One of the first principles he goes on to list is that “qualities must necessarily be in something that is figured, coloured, hard or soft, that moves or resists. It is not to these qualities, but to that which is the subject of them, that we give the name body. If any man should think fit to deny that these things are qualities, or that they require any subject, I leave him to enjoy his opinion as a man who denies first principles, and is not fit to be reasoned with.”

It has been claimed that his reputation waned after attacks on the Scottish School of Common Sense by Immanuel Kant (although Kant, only 14 years Reid's junior, also bestowed much praise on Scottish philosophy) and John Stuart Mill. But Reid's was the philosophy taught in the colleges of North America, during the 19th century, and was championed by Victor Cousin, a French philosopher. Justus Buchler showed that Reid was an important influence on the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, who shared Reid's concern to revalue common sense and whose work links Reid to pragmatism. To Peirce, the closest we can get to truth in this world is a consensus of millions that something is so. Common sense is socially constructed truth, open to verification much like scientific method, and constantly evolving as evidence, perception, and practice warrant. By contrast, Reid's concept of a sensus communis is not a social construct but rather a precondition of the possibility that humans could reason with each other.

Reid's reputation has revived in the wake of the advocacy of common sense as a philosophical method or criterion by G. E. Moore early in the 20th century, and more recently due to the attention given to Reid by contemporary philosophers, in particular those seeking to defend Christianity from philosophical attacks, such as William Alston and Alvin Plantinga.

He wrote a number of important philosophical works, including Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764, Glasgow & London), Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785) and Essays on the Active Powers of Man (1788). In 1844, Schopenhauer praised Reid for explaining that the perception of external objects does not result from the raw data that is received through the five senses:

Thomas Reid's excellent book, Inquiry into the Human Mind… affords us a very thorough conviction of the inadequacy of the senses for producing the objective perception of things, and also of the non-empirical origin of the intuition of space and time. Reid refutes Locke's teaching that perception is a product of the senses. This he does by a thorough and acute demonstration that the collective sensations of the senses do not bear the least resemblance to the world known through perception, and in particular by showing that Locke's five primary qualities (extension, figure, solidity, movement, number) cannot possibly be supplied to us by any sensation of the senses…

The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II, Ch. 2

See also

Further reading

  • Stephen Barker & Tom Beauchamp, eds., "Thomas Reid: Critical Interpretations" (1976).
  • Steffen Ducheyne, Reid’s Adaptation and Radicalization of Newton’s Natural Philosophy, History of European Ideas 32, 2006, pp. 173-189.
  • Davis, William C., Thomas Reid’s Ethics: Moral Epistemology on Legal Foundations, Continuum International, 2006. ISBN 0-826488-09-9
  • Wolterstorff, N., Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.


  1. ^ Thomas Reid. An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense. Ed. Derek R Brookes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997. p. 255
  2. ^ a b Science and Religion in America, 1800-1860, Herbert Hovenkamp, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978 ISBN 0812277481 p. 9

External links


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

THOMAS REID (1710-1796), Scottish philosopher, was born at Strachan in Kincardineshire, on the 26th of April 1710. His father was minister of the place for fifty years, and traced his descent from a long line of Presbyterian ministers on Deeside. His mother belonged to the brilliant Gregory family (q.v.), which, in the 18th century, gave so many representatives to literature and science in Scotland. Reid graduated at Aberdeen in 1726, and remained there as librarian to the university for ten years, a period which he devoted largely to mathematical reading. In 1737 he was presented to the living of Newmachar near Aberdeen. The parishioners, violently excited at the time about the law of patronage, received him with open hostility; and tradition asserts that his uncle defended him on the pulpit stair with a drawn sword. Though not distinguished as a preacher, he was successful in winning the affections of his people. The publication of Hume's treatise turned his attention to philosophy, and in particular to the theory of external perception. His first publication, however, dealt with a question of philosophical method suggested by the reading of Hutcheson. The "Essay on Quantity, occasioned by reading a Treatise in which Simple and Compound Ratios are applied to Virtue and Merit," denies the possibility of a mathematical treatment of moral subjects. The essay appeared in the Transactions of the Royal Society (1748). In 1740 Reid married a cousin, the daughter of a London physician. In 1752 the professors of King's College, Aberdeen, elected him to the chair of philosophy, which he held for twelve years. The foundation of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society (the "Wise Club"), which numbered among its members Campbell, Beattie, Gerard and Dr John Gregory, was mainly owing to the exertions of Reid, who was secretary for the first year (1758). Many of the subjects of discussion were drawn from Hume's speculations; and during the last years of his stay in Aberdeen Reid propounded his new point of view in several papers read before the society. The results of these papers were embodied in the Enquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764). The Enquiry does not go beyond an analysis of sense perception, and is therefore more limited in scope than the later Essays; but if the latter are more mature, there is more freshness about the earlier work. In this year, Reid succeeded Adam Smith as professor of moral philosophy in the university of Glasgow. After seventeen years of active teaching, he retired in order to complete his philosophical system. As a lecturer, he was inferior in charm and eloquence to Brown and Stewart; the latter says that "silent and respectful attention" was accorded to the "simplicity and perspicuity of his style" and "the gravity and authority of his character." His philosophical influence was exerted largely through the writings of Dugald Stewart and Sir William Hamilton. The Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man appeared in 1785, and their ethical complement, the Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, in 1788. These, with an account of Aristotle's Logic appended to Lord Kames's Sketches of the History of Man (1774), conclude the list of works published in Reid's lifetime. Hamilton's edition of Reid also contains an account of the university of Glasgow and a selection of Reid's letters, chiefly addressed to his Aberdeen friends the Skenes, to Lord Kames, and to Dr James Gregory. With the two last named he discussed the materialism of Priestley and the theory of necessitarianism. He reverted in his old age to the mathematical pursuits of his earlier years, and his ardour for knowledge of every kind remained fresh to the last. He died of paralysis on the 7th of October 1796, his wife and all his children save one having predeceased him. His portrait by Raeburn is the property of Glasgow University, and in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, there is a good medallion by Tassie, taken in his eighty-first year. His character was marked by independence, economy and generosity.

The key to Reid's philosophy is to be found in his revulsion from the sceptical conclusions of Hume. In several passages of his writings he expressly dates his philosophical awakening from the appearance of the Treatise of Human Nature. In the dedication of the Enquiry, he says: "The ingenious author of that treatise upon the principles of Locke - who was no sceptic - hath built a system of scepticism which leaves no ground to believe any one thing rather than its contrary. His reasoning appeared to me to be just; there was, therefore, a necessity to call in question the principles upon which it was founded, or to admit the conclusion." Reid thus takes Hume's scepticism as, on its own showing, a reductio ad impossibile (see Hume, ad fin.) of accepted philosophical principles, and refuses, accordingly, to separate Hume from his intellectual progenitors. From its origin in Descartes and onwards through Locke and Berkeley, modern philosophy carried with it, Reid contends, the germ of scepticism. Embracing the whole philosophic movement under the name of "the Cartesian system," Reid detects its fundamental error in the unproved assumption shared by these thinkers "that all the objects of my knowledge are ideas in my own mind." This doctrine or hypothesis he usually speaks of as "the ideal system" or "the theory of ideas"; and to it he opposes his own analysis of the act of perception. In view of the results of this analysis, Reid's theory (and the theory of Scottish philosophy generally) has been dubbed natural realism or natural dualism, in contrast to theories like subjective idealism and materialism or to the cosmothetic idealism or hypothetical dualism of the majority of philosophers. But this unduly narrows the scope of Scottish philosophy, which does not exhaust itself, as is sometimes supposed, in uncritically reasserting the independent existence of matter and its immediate presence to mind. The real significance of Reid's doctrine lies in its attack upon Hume's fundamental principles, (1) that all our perceptions are distinct existences, and (2) that the mind never perceives any real connexion among distinct existences (cf. Appendix to the third volume of the Treatise, 1740). It is here that the danger of "the ideal system" really lies - in its reduction of reality to "particular perceptions," essentially unconnected with each other. This theory admitted, nothing is left for philosophy save to explain the illusion of necessary connexion. Reid, however, attacks the fundamental assumption. In logical language, he denies the actuality of the abstract particular. The unit of knowledge is not an isolated impression but a judgment; and in such a judgment is contained, even initially, the reference both to a permanent subject and to a permanent world of thought, and, implied in these, such judgments, for example, as those of existence, substance, cause and effect. Such principles are not derived from sensation, but are "suggested" on occasion of sensation, in such a way as to constitute the necessary conditions of our having perceptive experience at all. Thus we do not start with "ideas," and afterwards refer them to objects; we are never restricted to our own minds, but are from the first immediately related to a permanent world. Reid has a variety of names for the principles which, by their presence, lift us out of subjectivity into perception. He calls them "natural judgments," "natural suggestions," "judgments of nature," "judgments immediately inspired by our constitution," "principles of our nature," "first principles," "principles of common sense." The last designation, which became the current one, was un doubtedly unfortunate, and has conveyed to many a false impression of Scottish philosophy. It has been understood as if Reid had merely appealed from the reasoned conclusions of philosophers to the unreasoned beliefs of common life. But Reid's actions are better than his words; his real mode of procedure is to redargue Hume's conclusions by a refutation of the premises inherited by him from his predecessors. For the rest, as regards the question of nomenclature, Reid everywhere unites common sense and reason, making the former "only another name for one branch or degree of reason." Reason, as judging of things self-evident, is called common sense to distinguish it from ratiocination or reasoning. And in regard to Reid's favourite proof of the principles in question by reference to "the consent of ages and nations, of the learned and unlearned," it is only fair to observe that this argument assumes a much more scientific form in the Essays, where it is almost identified with an appeal to "the structure and grammar of all languages." "The structure of all languages," he says, "is grounded upon common sense." To take but one example, "the distinction between sensible qualities and the substance to which they belong, and between thought and the mind that thinks, is not the invention of philosophers; it is found in the structure of all languages, and therefore must be common to all men who speak with understanding" (Hamilton's Reid, pp. 229 and The principles which Reid insists upon as everywhere present in experience evidently correspond pretty closely to the Kantian categories and the unity of apperception. Similarly, Reid's assertion of the essential distinction between space or extension and feeling or any succession of feelings may be compared with Kant's doctrine in the Aesthetic. " Space," he says, "whether tangible or visible, is not so properly an object [Kant's" matter "1 as a necessary concomitant of the objects both of sight and touch." Like Kant, too, Reid finds in space the source of a necessity which sense, as sense, cannot give (Hamilton's Reid, p. 323). In the substance of their answer to Hume, the two philosophers have therefore much in common. But Reid lacked the art to give due impressiveness to the important advance which his positions really contain. Although at times he states his principles with a wonderful degree of breadth and insight, he mars the effect by looseness of statement, and by the incorporation of irrelevant psychological matter. And, if Kant was overridden by a love of symmetry, Reid's indifference to form and system is an even more dangerous defect. Further, Reid is inclined to state his principles dogmatically rather than as logical deductions. The transcendental deduction, or proof from the possibility of experience in general, which forms the vital centre of the Kantian scheme, is wanting in Reid; or, at all events, if the spirit of the proof is occasionally present, it is nowhere adequately developed. Nevertheless, Reid's insistence on judgment as the unit of knowledge and his sharp distinction between sensation and perception must still be recognized as of the highest importance.

The relativism or phenomenalism which Hamilton afterwards adopted from Kant and sought to engraft upon Scottish philosophy is wholly absent from the original Scottish doctrine. One or two passages may certainly be quoted from Reid in School. which he asserts that we know only properties of things and are ignorant of their essence. But the exact meaning which he attaches to such expressions is not quite clear; and they occur, moreover, only incidentally and with the air of current phrases mechanically repeated. Dugald Stewart, however, deliberately .emphasizes the merely qualitative nature of our knowledge as the foundation of philosophical argument, and thus paves the way for the thoroughgoing philosophy of nescience elaborated by Hamilton. But since Hamilton's time the most typical Scottish thinkers have repudiated his relativistic doctrine, and returned to the original tradition of the school. For Reid's ethical theory, see Ethics.

The complete edition of the works by Sir William Hamilton, published in two volumes with notes and supplementary dissertations by the editor (6th ed. 1863), has superseded all others. For Reid's life see D. Stewart's Memoir prefixed to Hamilton's edition of Reid's works. See also McCosh, Scottish Philosophers (1875); Rait, Universities of Aberdeen, pp. 199-203, 223; A. C. Fraser, Monograph (1898); A. Bain, Mental Science, p. 207, p. 422 (for his theory of free will), and Appendix, pp. 29, 63, 88, 89.

(A. S. P.-P.; X.)

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