What’s so good about Reid?
- Thomas Reid’s ‘Inquiry’: The Geometry of Visibles and the Case for Realism by Norman Daniels
Stanford, 160 pp, £25.00, May 1989, ISBN 0 8047 1504 1
- Common Sense by Lynd Forguson
Routledge, 193 pp, £30.00, November 1989, ISBN 0 415 02302 5
- Thomas Reid and the ‘Way of Ideas’ by Roger Gallie
Reidel, 287 pp, £42.00, July 1989, ISBN 0 7923 0390 3
- Philosophy and Science in the Scottish Enlightenment edited by Peter Jones
John Donald, 230 pp, £20.00, October 1989, ISBN 0 85976 225 4
- Studies in the Philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment edited by M.A. Stewart
Oxford, 328 pp, £37.50, January 1990, ISBN 0 19 824967 5
- Thomas Reid by Keith Lehrer
Routledge, 311 pp, £35.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 415 03886 3
According to the ‘analytic’ tradition, modern philosophy begins with Descartes (b. 1596), Spinoza (b. 1632), Locke (b. 1632), Leibniz (b. 1646), Berkeley (b. 1685), Hume (b. 1711) and Kant (b. 1724). This is the canonical list of great philosophers, and it is not very likely to change. But there are two others whose claims for inclusion are regularly pressed: Nicholas Malebranche (b. 1638), to be inserted between Leibniz and Locke; and Thomas Reid (1710-96), best inserted between Hume and Kant rather than between Berkeley and Hume, on the grounds that his major works are a response to Hume, who was his junior by exactly one year.
Rebounding passionately from Hume, Reid founded the Scottish ‘common sense’ school of philosophy. He published his first and unostentatiously brilliant book, an Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, in 1764, the year in which he succeeded Adam Smith in the chair of moral philosophy at Glasgow. At 70 he retired to prepare his lectures for publication. They appeared as the Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man and the Essays on the Active Powers of Man, in 1785 and 1788 respectively.
Reid had notable disciples in men like Dugald Stewart and Thomas Brown (who became one of his sharpest critics), and he was much favoured by the German Popularphilosophen, who provided most of the initial resistance to Kant. Victor Cousin enlisted him in his campaign against the extreme empiricism which surrounded him in France, and he enjoyed a vogue among the ‘Ontologists’ in Italy and Belgium. Sidgwick had a high regard for him, but he was always more popular in the United States than in England, being particularly admired by C.S. Peirce, and more recently by Roderick Chisholm and Keith Lehrer. G.E. Moore read him, learnt from him, quoted him in his early work and then forgot the debt, while transmitting some of his ideas to Wittgenstein. Gareth Evans was a forceful advocate of his views. But today he is known to most analytical philosophers only for one obvious objection to Locke’s theory of personal identity which partly misses the point, and for a theory of memory which is arguably one of the less successful applications of his general principles. He is, in effect, forgotten – in spite of the fact that he appears, viewed from the present, as the natural and unacknowledged father, and astonishing anticipator, of the correctly moderate wing of the 20th-century ‘direct realist’ approach to the problem of perception, and indeed of the whole increasingly innatist or ‘nativist’ trend in present-day cognitive psychology.
Various reasons for his invisibility may be given. In the first place, he had the misfortune to be appropriated, edited and ‘Hamiltonised’, as Keith Lehrer puts it, by the respectable but inferior philosopher Sir William Hamilton. In the second place, he suffered greatly in the collapse of the great tradition of Scottish philosophy, caused principally by an influx of scholars from south of the border. In the third place and fourth place, it may be noted that, although he was not always entirely consistent, he was incapable of the obscurity which inspires the love of commentators and feeds their industry; and that he was so fantastically level-headed that he failed to make any of the great mistakes which earn philosophers an enduring place in the history of their subject: he failed to adopt any of the perennially attractive and mutually repellent extravagant positions which together structure philosophical space and (obscurely) triangulate truth.
The fourth point is connected with the fifth and perhaps principal point. Both Reid and Kant were shaken from their very clever dogmatic slumbers by Hume (Reid was an orthodox Berkeleyan as well as a Presbyterian minister). Both felt that Hume’s philosophy posed an intolerable sceptical threat – e.g. to such things as our claim to know that there is an external physical world. Both responded to this threat with great intellectual passion. Both insisted that we have knowledge of this physical world which is direct and non-inferential and in that sense ‘immediate’. And both sought to meet Hume’s challenge partly by elaborating a detailed theory of the innate and constitutive principles of the human mind. But there the similarity ends. For Reid was driven, no doubt willingly, into an intense defence of what may (in spite of its sophisticated moments) reasonably be called common-sense realism; while Kant moved on into a new and exotic form of partial idealism which he called ‘transcendental’.
The outcome is well-known. Kant expanded and became a whole climate of opinion. Reid dwindled and became a scholarly footnote to the British Empiricists. And yet there are very strong reasons for thinking that Reid’s response to Hume was, despite some faults and weaknesses, a much better response that Kant’s. Indeed it is arguable that these reasons are decisive, and that Reid got the dialectical response to Hume essentially right, while Kant got it wrong – so long as it is added that Hume is in important ways closer to finding the correct philosophical balance than either.
The fact remains that Reid’s response was far less splendid than Kant’s. And although the famous first attack on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, by the Gottingen Popularphilosophen Garve and Feder in 1782, was written in part from an explicitly Reidian standpoint, it was Kant’s abreaction to Hume which entered the philosophical canon at the expense of Reid’s. Ever since, the ninth major planetary body of Early Modern philosophy (in the analytical version) has been particularly hard to discern; its gravitational influence has been masked by a brilliant neighbouring monster, the magnificent and many-mooned planet Kant. (The gas giant Hegel lies in the next century.)
Multiple-Choice Metaphysics: A Contentious Guide
Vol. 12 No. 5 · 8 March 1990
There was a typesetting error in the Contentious Guide to Metaphysics which I offered in the last issue. As it stands, it says that Hume took the existence of mind-independent tables and chairs to be highly improbable but unprovable. It should say that he took their existence to be highly probable but unprovable. Being a sensible man, he naturally believed that there were such things; he was ‘morally certain’ of their existence, in Descartes’s terms; but he knew he couldn’t prove it. (Descartes, by contrast, claimed that we could be absolutely certain about it.) This correction doesn’t make the Guide any less contentious. From one philosophical corner I hear dim cheers for the typesetter. From another, angrier corner comes the protest that neither of the two views of Hume is correct, because the poor man thought that the notion of mind-independent tables and chairs was unintelligible. But Hume’s considered view is that it is a simple if undecidable ‘question of fact, whether the perceptions of the senses be produced by external objects, resembling them’.
Jesus College, Oxford
Vol. 12 No. 6 · 22 March 1990
Promoting the virtues of Thomas Reid in the 22 February issue, Galen Strawson states that Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume all held similar and incorrect opinions about sensory information. We are told that they ‘hold, with much terminological variation, that there is a fundamental sense in which the only things we ever “immediately” or “directly” perceive are mental items – ideas, or images, or representations. I will call this Premise One.’ This proffered description of the chosen villains is singularly unconvincing. First, the word ‘idea’ is a key term in the writings of all four writers, but does not have the same meaning in any two of them. The terminological variation that Strawson permits himself is simply misleading. Second, the historical relationship between Locke and Berkeley, and between Berkeley and Hume, is obscured by the suggestion in Premise One that all three can safely be netted and labelled together. It is a matter of record that the Berkeleyan idea made a significant departure from Locke’s account of ideas and was not subsequently adopted by Hume.
The phrase esse est percipi appears first in Berkeley’s manuscript Notebooks and signals some features peculiar to the Berkeleyan idea. In the Notebooks too, Berkeley provided a counterpoise to his ideas with a theory of notions which includes minds and concepts. In this manner, Berkeley allowed a theory of representation quite separate from his theory of ideas. His subsequent publications, beginning with An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision, reflect both these theories, though they are distributed unevenly because the surviving Principles is only Part One of a larger work also mentioned first in the Notebooks.
On the evidence, then, Berkelyan ideas escape Strawson’s net. Moreover, when they are properly analysed, ideas remain of interest, not least because they show a way of clarifying empirical descriptions by carefully separating sensory information from theories about it, including theories of representation.
Wolfson College, Oxford
Vol. 12 No. 7 · 5 April 1990
Galen Strawson’s article ‘What’s so good about Reid?’ (LRB, 22 February) will be welcomed by admirers of Thomas Reid for making accessible to common readers some of Reid’s interesting and important philosophical views. Even so, Strawson misrepresents some of the most important facets of Reid’s philosophy. Strawson makes it appear that because Hume and Reid agree that our basic concepts and beliefs are forced upon us by ‘the constitution of our nature’ and have an irresistible authority over us, they are in no fundamental disagreement. He quotes with approval the exchange between Sir James Mackintosh and Thomas Brown. Mackintosh remarked that Reid and Hume ‘differed more in words than in opinion’, and Brown replied: ‘Yes, Reid bawled out, We must believe in an outward world; but added in a whisper, We can give no reason for our belief. Hume cries out, We can give no reason for such a notion; and whispers, I own we cannot get rid of it.’ In fact, Hume and Reid are in fundamental disagreement on this matter. One, but not the only, matter in contention is their very different conceptions of common sense. Hume thinks of common sense as a blind mechanical instinct operating in the imagination through non-cognitive rules of association of ideas; the beliefs produced by this instinct are non-rational, even irrational, on Hume’s account. Reid rejects Hume’s view of common sense, and regards common sense as the lowest common office or degree of reason – that lowest common degree of reason that entitles people to the denomination of reasonable creatures and without which a person is mentally defective. If Reid is right, then contra Hume, the dictates of common sense, such as our basic external world beliefs, are ipso facto dictates of reason. Reid rejects Hume’s narrow conception of reason as a mere calculative faculty that cannot give rise to any ‘original’ (i.e. constitutional) ideas. Indeed, Reid thinks that the faculty of reason produces a great many concepts and beliefs a priori, e.g. the concepts of premise, conclusion, inference, fallacy and various of our logical beliefs based upon such concepts. None of these can be traced to the only other source of concepts or beliefs, viz sense-perception.
Many people are now strongly inclined to think that Hume’s assimilation of common sense to mechanical instinct is less philosophically helpful or fruitful than Reid’s view of common sense as an office/degree of reason. Certainly, believing in the existence of realities distinct from and independent of the mind does seem more like the intellectual act of affirming a proposition than like anything that can reasonably be understood as mechanically instinctive like breathing, sucking or swallowing, and just as surely Hume’s inclusion of this belief with hunger, lust, benevolence, the love of life, kindness to children, and the desire for punishment of our enemies, as instincts, renders his conception of instinct problematic if not downright suspect.
Finally, it is clear that Hume’s doctrine that we can give no reasons in support of our external world beliefs is entirely sceptical. For Hume, our inability to give any reasons for believing in an external world is itself ground for doubt. But for Reid our inability to doubt that there is an external world makes the sceptical effort to doubt irrational; it is always irrational to attempt to do something that one knows to be impossible. For Reid, rational doubt is evidence-based doubt. The mere logical possibility that some contingent propositions are false (that there are other minds, that there is an external world etc) is not only not good evidence that such propositions are false, or even might be: it is no evidence at all. That is partly why Reid regards scepticism as unreal, pretended doubt.
Simon Fraser University,
Vol. 12 No. 8 · 19 April 1990
I love Berkeley, and Désirée Park misreads me (Letters, 22 March). Here are three points. 1. I claimed that Locke, Berkeley and Hume all ‘hold, with much terminological variation, that there is a fundamental sense in which all we ever “immediately” or “directly” perceive are mental items.’ I then offered the words ‘ideas, or images, or representations’ as possible words for these ‘mental items’. In response, Park observes that the word ‘idea’ meant something different to each of these philosophers, and she means this to be an objection to what I say. In fact, it is just an illustration of the ‘terminological variation’ I mentioned, and thought it appropriate to put aside in a review in your journal.
2. I think the above-italicised claim about the three philosophers is true. I’m not sure whether Park wants to disagree, but it looks as if she does, because she says that it is a ‘singularly unconvincing’ description of ‘the chosen villains’ (they’re my heroes). I very much hope somebody will support her in this. She goes on to say mat Locke, Berkeley and Hume can’t be ‘netted … together’ like this, and that ‘Berkeleyan ideas escape Strawson’s net.’ I infer that she thinks that Berkeley did not hold that there is a ‘fundamental sense in which all we ever “immediately” … perceive are mental items’, and I admire her for this.
3. According to Park, I said that the philosophers were ‘incorrect’ in holding the italicised view. In fact, I said that although it is ‘now widely scorned, it is in certain respects very well motivated,’ and that the ‘sceptical problem it … creates is genuine, dream-inspiring … and, on its own terms, insoluble.’ Let me go further: I think it is an entirely defensible view, given the technical slipperiness of the words ‘perceive’, ‘immediately’ and ‘directly’. But this doesn’t stop me thinking that it is greatly to Reid’s credit that he rejected it. It was very important that someone should do so, given the style of the contemporary debate. It introduced an important new way of taking the slippery terms, and of thinking about our epistemic predicament.
D.D.Todd argues correctly (Letters, 5 April) that I ignore important differences between Hume and Reid, and all the points he makes are worthwhile. I have no disagreement with him. It is precisely because Hume and Reid are profoundly opposed in philosophical outlook that it is illuminating to override important differences of detail and indicate respects in which they are in agreement. This is a popular pursuit when discussing Hume and Kant, and I think it is also worth doing with Hume and Reid.
Let me add that I don’t find myself unable to doubt that there is an external world, if by that is meant a mind-independent world. The feeling comes over me quite often in tutorials. I gaze out of the window, and the world is ideas.
Jesus College, Oxford
Vol. 12 No. 11 · 14 June 1990
Galen Strawson is not entitled to introduce ‘mental items’ and then to complain about ‘slippery terms’. There are two problems in talking about ‘mental items’ as Strawson does (Letters, 19 April) when discussing the opinions of Locke, Berkeley and Hume, and, in his original review, Descartes as well. The first is that the phrase ‘mental items’ is ambiguous, and it is not made clearer by the selection which Strawson offers: that is, ‘ideas’ or ‘images’ or ‘representations’. Ideas, as I pointed out in my letter (Letters, 22 March), is a key term in the writing of all four philosophers, but does not have the same meaning in any two of them. The ‘representations’ admitted by this group, similarly, are of incompatible kinds, a fact obscured by simply calling them ‘mental items’. For instance, in the case of Berkeley, an idea cannot be a representation at all, since representations belong to his theory of concepts. It happens too that Berkeley uniquely perceives Berkeleyan ideas, which are quite unlike the ideas of the other three. It is true only of Berkeleyan ideas that esse est percipi.
The second, related problem arises from Strawson’s objection to ‘slippery terms’ in his praise of Reid. There was, of course, much confusion about terminology then as now, but for a given writer major terms can be identified and defined. This takes time, but it remains true that discussion is not enhanced by introducing free-wheeling ‘mental items’ and bypassing crucially distinctive ‘ideas’.
Finally, ‘notions’ is a technical term in Berkeley’s writing, a fact that your printing practices obscured in my original letter. Notions allowed for a theory of representation distinct from Berkeley’s theory of ideas.
Concordia University, Montreal
Vol. 12 No. 13 · 12 July 1990
In my piece about Thomas Reid (LRB, 22 February), I wrote that Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume all ‘hold, with much terminological variation, that there is a fundamental sense in which all we ever “immediately” or “directly” perceive are mental items.’ Désirée Park finds this well-known view ‘singularly unconvincing’ in her first letter (Letters, 22 March), but she doesn’t say why in her second (Letters, 14 June). Instead she objects that the phrase ‘mental items’ is ‘ambiguous’, and that I am ‘not entitled to use [it] and then complain about “slippery terms” ’.
The phrase ‘mental items’ is no more ambiguous than the word ‘animal’. It is merely indefinite – like ‘animal’ as opposed to ‘lion’ or ‘turkey’. That is why I used it. I chose a non-committal term in order to state an interesting generalisation about four philosophers as concisely as possible without using any of their own semi-technical terms like ‘idea’, which are (to repeat it) mightly slippery. I think this is something which I am entitled to do. Park says that ‘for a given writer major terms can be identified and defined.’ I agree – although what the definition may reveal is in-eliminable slipperiness. She says that such identification and definition ‘takes time, but it remains true that discussion is not enhanced by introducing free-wheeling “mental items” and bypassing crucially distinctive “ideas”.’ I say – what discussion? There are many discussions. Some are for the ‘learned journals’. Some are for the LRB. I was engaging in a discussion in which I thought it worth pointing out a striking resemblance between four great philosophers, and I hoped I had found an amazingly neutral way of doing so that would not offend any textual scholars. My friends say that this hope was forlorn.
Jesus College, Oxford