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

ClaimsLockeBerkeleyReidKantHume
We directly perceive tables and chairsNoYesYesYesHighly improbable but irrefutable
We directly perceive only ideasYesYesNoYes(?)Yes
There are mind-independent tables and chairsYesNoYesNo(?)Highly improbable but unprovable

What is so good about Reid? It is hard to explain to non-philosophers, because many of his claims seem like the most ordinary common sense – ‘the common sense of mankind, expressed in the structure of all languages’ – and not everyone finds it easy to accept that philosophy’s fundamental glory consists precisely in its proliferation of contexts in which common-sense claims get into complicated trouble and have to struggle to survive (they do not always do so). The consequence is that Reid’s merits as a defender of common sense are likely to be apparent only to those who have studied philosophy and have a proper sense of the (intensely imaginative) opposition. Here I will say something simple about his realism; something about his important distinction between sensation and perception, and simultaneous demolition of the crude empiricist view that the content of our concepts is in some way directly derived from the content of our sensations; and something about his relation to Hume. I will say nothing about his strong claim to be the discoverer of non-Euclidean geometry, which is ably defended by Norman Daniels in his book Thomas Reid’s ‘Inquiry’ (now reissued with a useful new Afterword); nor about many of the finer details of his epistemology and metaphysics, such as his most excellent defence of the primary/secondary quality distinction, or his powerful, if not entirely consistent development of the theory of ‘natural signs’. Nor will I say anything about his unremarkable moral philosophy, his temptation – it was common at the time – to suppose that all causal power must be mental in character, his automatic theism or his lazy dualism.

The philosophies of Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume have one unquestioned premise in question. 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. It is now widely scorned, but it is in certain respects very well motivated. The sceptical problem it is usually thought to create – the problem of how we can ever hope to know that there is an external world – is genuine, unavoidable, dream-inspiring and, on its own terms, insoluble. Nevertheless it is greatly to Reid’s credit that he rejected this premise. He insisted that it is correct to say that we directly perceive objects in having the sensory experiences we have – once we have taken it that there are indeed such objects, and that we are in sensory contact with them. This is the foundation of his common-sense realism. He does not claim to be able to prove conclusively that there are such objects; he assumes it as part of common sense. ‘If we are deceived, we are deceived by him that made us, and there is no remedy.’

Why should this be seen as an important achievement? It is best understood by contrast with the views of Locke and Berkeley (as understood by Reid: some have argued that Locke is often misrepresented, and that Reid, a great misreader of others, is largely responsible for this). Locke couples Premise One, the premise that all we ever directly perceive are ideas, with the premise (Premise Two) that there are indeed mind-independent physical objects. He inexorably reaches the conclusion that we never directly perceive physical objects, only mental representations of objects. Berkeley couples Premise One with the common-sense premise (Premise Three) that we do indeed directly perceive objects (when you look over there you do indeed directly perceive a chair, not an image of a chair). He inexorably reaches the conclusion that physical objects are nothing but ideas, and so becomes an idealist.

These conclusions seem pretty unattractive, and Locke and Berkeley reach them by proceeding from just three premises, of which Two and Three look extremely plausible. Obviously the thing to do is to reject Premise One and hold on to Premises Two and Three. Rejecting Premise One allows one to be a realist about mind-independent physical objects like newspapers and hands, and to hold that we directly perceive such objects, and not just mere mental representations. (In fact, Premises Two and Three together entail the falsity of Premise One.)

This is what Reid saw, after he had been bumped out of Berkeleyanism by Hume. The remarkable thing is that nobody else at the time could bring themselves to drop Premise One. Reid did so, observing that it ‘carried in its belly death and destruction to science and common sense’. He became a common-sense realist (preceded in many respects by Father Buffier in his 1724 Traité des Vérités Premières), remarking, with the special acerbity of the convert, that a philosophy which rejects the principles of common sense is really just a way of showing off, ‘at the expense of disgracing reason and human nature, and making mankind Yahoos’. And so he took up a position which has been enthusiastically endorsed in the 20th century with little or no reference to his work, although he formulated it as well as any and better than most – he was, as remarked, never so foolish as to think that he could refute scepticism. On this last point he disagreed with Kant (on one natural reading of him), and agreed with Heidegger. The former thought it ‘a scandal to philosophy ... that the existence of things outside us ... must be accepted merely on faith, and that if any one sees fit to doubt their existence we are unable to counter his doubts by any satisfactory proof.’ The latter rightly replied that ‘the “scandal of philosophy” is not that this proof has yet to be given, but that such proofs are expected and attempted again and again.’

There is some variation in Reid’s formulations of his views about perception, both within and between the Inquiry and the later Essays. As a result he has been charged with inconsistency, and the question of whether he is really a ‘direct realist’ about perception, or whether he is really some kind of indirect realist, has been seen as the central question of Reid scholarship ever since Hamilton. It is arguable, however, that his variations are exactly appropriate to his subject. Partly by virtue of the tensions they express, they serve to present the problem of perception in the best possible way. At the same time they provide all the materials for its correct solution, central to which is a clear distinction between sensation, perception, conception and belief.

The first three of these things, and sometimes all four, had been hopelessly, if instructively, hashed together by Reid’s immediate predecessors. At the heart of their confusion sat a great toad: the classical empiricist account of ‘ideas’. They thought that these ‘ideas’ could somehow manage to be both images – mere sensory contents – and also full-blown concepts. Reid saw that one could not hope to give an adequate account of the content of concepts merely in terms of the content of sensations, and sliced through the muddle: the relation between sensation and conception is essentially less simple; the truth is rather that we are innately so disposed that sensory experience causes us to develop and deploy concepts of an objective world whose content essentially outruns mere sensory content.

There is some irony in the fact that Hume really agrees with this last point. He holds the same view about many of our most fundamental concepts and beliefs, but he is led by his empiricist commitments to suggest that these concepts and beliefs (or apparent concepts and beliefs) are therefore defective or deceptive or lacking in a proper warrant. Faced with the disparity between the content of our sensations and the content of our concepts or apparent concepts (e.g. our concepts of objects, or solidity, or causation), he puts the disparity down to the innately-determined and irrepressible creative energies of the imagination, commenting that it is ‘a kind of magical faculty in the soul, which ... is ... inexplicable by the utmost efforts of human understanding’. At bottom Reid agrees with this. He simply takes a very different – more positive-attitude to it. Instead of saying that a fundamental concept – like the concept of a physical object, for example – is cast into doubt if its content cannot be traced back to the content of sensations, he says that we can be confident that there is nothing wrong with the concept, and that what the lack of suitably corresponding sensations shows is merely that the content of the concept is essentially irreducible to the content of sensations. Instead of saying that such a concept owes its origin to the imagination – with the implication that there is something rather dubious about its aetiology – he says that it owes its origin to the natural and proper functioning of the innate ‘first principles’ of the human constitution, and that there can be no more respectable aetiology than that, for this is how we are designed (in Reid’s view by God, but otherwise by Godless evolution by natural selection). These ‘first principles’ deliver concepts that enable us to understand reality and get at truth. If these concepts are to be called, in Hume’s phrase, ‘fictions of the imagination’, then so much the better for the imagination. It is itself a ‘first principle’ of the human constitution, and a source of truth.

Reid even agrees with Hume about the magic, remarking that the innate first principles which give rise to our fundamental concepts of (and beliefs about) objects do so ‘by a natural kind of magic’ – a magic now subject to intense investigation by cognitive psychology. Hume and Reid both hold that we cannot help reacting to our sensory experiences by coming to believe in the existence of a law-governed world of mind-independent objects. And they both hold that this is because nature has not left these conceptual and epistemic reactions to chance, given that they are so necessary to our survival. As Hume says, discussing our natural and irresistible belief that nature is governed by causal laws, it is ‘part of the ordinary wisdom of nature to secure so necessary an act of the mind by some instinct or mechanical tendency [i.e. some Reidian ‘first principle’], which may be infallible in its operations, may discover itself at the first appearance of life and thought, and may be independent of all the laboured deductions of the understanding’.

On this, as on so many other questions, there is a sense in which Reid merely rotates Hume through 90 degrees: a fact noted by Sir James Mackintosh in 1812, when he remarked to Thomas Brown that on the question of the existence of the external world Reid and Hume ‘differed more in words that in opinion’. ‘Yes,’ answered Brown. ‘Reid bawled out, We must believe 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.’

Reid thought Hume the most acute metaphysician of the age, and in 1763 wrote to him, ‘I shall always avow myself your disciple in metaphysics’; adding, truly: ‘I have learnt more from your writings in this kind than from all the others put together.’ But he was a captious disciple, and not unmischievous. When he mocks the inability of the sceptic to live by his own philosophical principles he belabours Hume with his own views (there are other examples), and some of his attacks on philosophical ingenuity are more boorish than witty. He also has a habit, noted by Thomas Brown and Priestley, of taking philosophical metaphors too literally, and thereby winning easy victories. Nevertheless his attack (Inquiry VI.24) on Hume’s suggestion that perceiving that p, remembering that p will happen, and imagining that p, believing that p, are to be distinguished only by the ‘vivacity’ of our ideas is not only devastating but also extremely funny. Hume saw an unfinished manuscript of the Inquiry and commended it for its ‘lively entertaining manner’. One does not know whether it already contained Reid’s claim that the Cartesian system had carried Hume’s conclusions ‘in its womb from the beginning ... although it did not bring forth this monster [Hume’s Treatise] until the year 1739’, or the following sprightly description of Hume’s views: ‘this philosophy is like a hobby-horse, which a man in bad health may ride in his closet, without hurting his reputation; but if he should take him abroad with him to church, or to the exchange, or to the play house, his heir would immediately call a jury and seize his estate.’ Hume was a lighter, deeper polemicist. But in any case he would have agreed with this comment.

The philosophy of common sense appears to be due for a revival, and in Common Sense Lynd Forguson provides a good general survey. Two useful chapters summarise the findings of cognitive psychologists who study the development of the ordinary common-sense conception of the world in the child, and although it is not a historical book Forguson includes chapters on G.E. Moore and Reid. Roger Gallie’s book Thomas Reid and the ‘Way of Ideas’ rambles most unhelpfully at times, and would have benefited considerably from the use of a spelling checker. Nevertheless it too may be saluted in passing as another sign of the increasing interest in Reid’s writings. Reid also crops up throughout Studies in the Philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, the first of a new Oxford series devoted to the history of philosophy; and only Hume collects more references in Philosophy and Science in the Scottish Enlightenment, which has a paper by Alexander Broadie on Reid’s pre-Reformation Scottish precursors. In general, Reid stands to benefit from the current upturn in the fortunes of the history of philosophy, which comes after several decades in which philosophers have tended to behave as if their subject had only just begun. Such behaviour is not always a bad thing, but philosophers have recently spent too much time rendering old ideas into barbarous modern idioms and thinking them brand new.

Keith Lehrer’s Thomas Reid is large, accurate, judicious and comprehensive in its treatment of most topics. It quotes very extensively from Reid’s writings, and sets out his philosophy in a well-ordered fashion. It cannot, however, be called a good introduction to Reid. This is not so much because it is insufficiently critical – there is too much mere report – or because it is, all things considered, damagingly unhistorical in its approach. The problem is that there is something extraordinarily grim about this book. It is a rigid, sapping act of advocacy, inert, mechanical, punctuated by bewildering synopses which appear to have been written by a computer. The decision to have no footnotes seems unwise; the book has no expository flow as it proceeds from quotation to comment to quotation. Anyone wishing to learn more about Reid would do better to start with C.J. McCracken’s lucid chapter in Malebranche and British Philosophy (1983), or with Forguson, or with the 1978 and 1987 issues of the Monist which are devoted to Reid, and to which Lehrer contributes.

It is also a great pity that Lehrer links his discussion so little to present-day issues, and that he makes almost no reference to present-day controversies about Reid’s views: if, like his subject, he had defended his own views by contrasting them explicitly with those with which he disagrees, his book would have had an argumentative energy and movement which he has been unable to supply on his own. His principal tactical mistake is to try to state the truth baldly, without the to and fro of argument. It is a mistake prefigured in a story he tells on page 1:

How great a philosopher is Reid? The answer is best conveyed by a story concerning Roderick Chisholm, [who] received a telephone call from a man saying that he was a busy man but had time to read one serious book on philosophy and wanted to do so. He said that he was not interested in entertainment but simply wanted to read a book with a greater amount of truth than any alternative. Chisholm, wishing to reflect on the matter, said the man should call back the next day, and he would give him his advice. The next day Chisholm recommended that the caller study Reid. It was a sound judgment.

Maybe it was a sound judgment, but it was a terrible idea. Chisholm should have told the caller that he had the wrong approach, and that he should read several books or none – perhaps Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume, and then Reid. Reid may well have been right to say that ‘it is genius, and not the want of it, that ... fills [philosophy] with error and false theory,’ but he was quite wrong to say that genius thereby ‘adulterates’ the subject. Philosophical understanding has a very strange dynamic, and makes progress only by means of the errors (it is not an adequate word) of genius. This is something Reid would probably have been the first to acknowledge: he owed his own philosophical achievement to the impact which Hume’s ‘errors’ were able to make on him given the enormous impact on him that Berkeley’s ‘errors’ had already made.