What’s so good about Reid?

Galen Strawson

  • 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

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