Front Page Titles (by Subject) JAMES BEATTIE - Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
JAMES BEATTIE - Thomas Reid, Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense 
Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense, edited, with an introduction by G.A. Johnston (Chicago: Open Court, 1915).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
OF THE PERCEPTION OF TRUTH IN GENERAL
On hearing these propositions,—I exist, things equal to one and the same thing are equal to one another, the sun rose to-day, there is a God, ingratitude ought to be blamed and punished, the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, etc.—I am conscious that my mind admits and acquiesces in them. I say, that I believe them to be true; that is, I conceive them to express something conformable to the nature of things. Of the contrary propositions I should say, that my mind does not acquiesce in them, but disbelieves them, and conceives them to express something not conformable to the nature of things. My judgment in this case, I conceive to be the same that I should form in regard to these propositions, if I were perfectly acquainted with all nature, in all its parts, and in all its laws.
If I be asked, what I mean by the nature of things, I cannot otherwise explain myself than by saying, that there is in my mind something which induces me to think, that every thing existing in nature is determined to exist, and to exist after a certain manner, in consequence of established laws; and that whatever is agreeable to those laws is agreeable to the nature of things, because by those laws the nature of all things is determined. Of those laws I do not pretend to know any thing except so far as they seem to be intimated to me by my own feelings, and by the suggestions of my own understanding. But these feelings and suggestions are such, and affect me in such a manner, that I cannot help receiving them, and trusting in them, and believing that their intimations are not fallacious, but such as I should approve if I were perfectly acquainted with every thing in the universe, and such as I may approve, and admit of, and regulate my conduct by, without danger of any inconvenience.
It is not easy on this subject to avoid identical expressions. I am not certain that I have been able to avoid them. And perhaps I might have expressed my meaning more shortly and more clearly, by saying, that I account that to be truth which the constitution of our nature determines us to believe, and that to be falsehood which the constitution of our nature determines us to disbelieve. Believing and disbelieving are simple acts of the mind; I can neither define nor describe them in words; and therefore the reader must judge of their nature from his own experience. We often believe what we afterwards find to be false; but while belief continues, we think it true; when we discover its falsity, we believe it no longer.
Hitherto I have used the word belief to denote an act of the mind which attends the perception of truth in general. But truths are of different kinds; some are certain, others only probable: and we ought not to call that act of the mind which attends the perception of certainty, and that which attends the perception of probability, by one and the same name. Some have called the former conviction, and the latter assent. All convictions are equally strong; but assent admits of innumerable degrees, from moral certainty, which is the highest degree, downward, through the several stages of opinion, to that suspense of judgment which is called doubt.
We may, without absurdity, speak of probable truth, as well as of certain truth. Whatever a rational being is determined, by the constitution of his nature, to admit as probable, may be called probable truth; the acknowledgment of it is as universal as that rational nature, and will be as permanent. But, in this enquiry, we propose to confine ourselves chiefly to that kind of truth which may be called certain, which enforces our conviction, and the belief of which, in a sound mind, is not tinctured with any doubt or uncertainty.
The investigation and perception of truth is commonly ascribed to our rational faculties; and these have by some been reduced to two,—Reason and Judgment; the former being supposed to be conversant about certain truths, the latter chiefly about probabilities. But certain truths are not all of the same kind; some being supported by one sort of evidence and others by another: different energies of the understanding must therefore be exerted in perceiving them; and these different energies must be expressed by different names, if we would speak of them distinctly and intelligibly. The certainty of some truths, for instance, is perceived intuitively; the certainty of others is perceived not intuitively, but in consequence of a proof. Most of the propositions of Euclid are of the latter kind; the axioms of geometry are of the former. Now, if that faculty by which we perceive truth in consequence of a proof, be called Reason, that power by which we perceive self-evident truth ought to be distinguished by a different name. It is of little consequence what name we make choice of, provided that in choosing it we depart not from the analogy of language; and that, in applying it, we avoid equivocation and ambiguity. Some philosophers of note have given the name of Common Sense to that faculty by which we perceive self-evident truth; and, as the term seems proper enough, we shall adopt it.1
The term Common Sense has several different significations. 1. Sometimes it seems to be synonymous with prudence. Thus we say, that a man has a large stock of common sense, who is quick in perceiving remote consequences, and thence instantaneously determines concerning the propriety of present conduct. 2. We often meet with persons of great sagacity in most of the ordinary affairs of life, and very capable of accurate reasoning, who yet, without any bad intention, commit blunders in regard to decorum; by saying or doing what is offensive to their company, and inconsistent with their own character; and this we are apt to impute to a defect in common sense. But it seems rather to be owing to a defect in that kind of sensibility, or sympathy, by which we suppose ourselves in the situations of others, adopt their sentiments, and in a manner perceive their thoughts; and which is indeed the foundation of good breeding. It is by this secret, and sudden, and (to those who are unacquainted with it) inexplicable communication of feelings, that a man is enabled to avoid what would appear incongruous or offensive. They who are prompted by inclination, or obliged by necessity, to study the art of recommending themselves to others, acquire a wonderful facility in perceiving and avoiding all possible ways of giving offence; which is a proof, that this kind of sensibility may be improved by habit; although there are, no doubt, in respect of this, as well as of some other modifications of perception, original and constitutional differences in the frame of different minds. 3. Some men are distinguished by an uncommon acuteness in discovering the characters of others; they seem to read the soul in the countenance, and with a single glance to penetrate the deepest recesses of the heart. In their presence, the hypocrite is detected, notwithstanding his specious outside; the gay effrontery of the coxcomb cannot conceal his insignificance; and the man of merit appears conspicuous under all the disguises of an ungainly modesty. This talent is sometimes called Common Sense; but improperly. It is far from being common; it is even exceedingly rare: it is to be found in men who are not remarkable for any other mental excellence; and we often see those who in other respects are judicious enough, quite destitute of it. 4. Neither ought every common opinion to be referred to common sense. Modes in dress, religion, and conversation, however absurd in themselves, may suit the notions or the taste of a particular people: but none of us will say, that it is agreeable to common sense, to worship more gods than one; to believe that one and the same body may be in ten thousand different places at the same time; to like a face the better because it is painted, or to dislike a person because he does not lisp in his pronunciation. Lastly, the term Common Sense has been used by some philosophers to signify that power of the mind which perceives truth, or commands belief, not by progressive argumentation, but by an instantaneous and instinctive impulse; derived neither from education nor from habit, but from nature; acting independently on our will, whenever its object is presented, according to an established law, and therefore not improperly called Sense; and acting in a similar manner upon all mankind, and therefore properly called Common Sense. It is in this signification that the term Common Sense is used in the present enquiry.
That there is a real and essential difference between these two faculties; that common sense cannot be accounted for, by being called the perfection of reason, nor reason, by being resolved into common sense, will perhaps appear from the following remarks. 1. We are conscious, from internal feeling, that the energy of understanding which perceives intuitive truth, is different from that other energy which unites a conclusion with a first principle, by a gradual chain of intermediate relations. We believe the truth of an investigated conclusion, because we can assign a reason for our belief; we believe an intuitive principle, without being able to assign any other reason but this, that we know it to be true; or that the law of our nature, or the constitution of the human understanding, determines us to believe it. 2. We cannot discern any necessary connection between reason and common sense: they are indeed generally connected; but we can conceive a being endued with the one who is destitute of the other. Nay, we often find, that this is in fact the case. In dreams, we sometimes reason without common sense. Through a defect of common sense, we adopt absurd principles; but supposing our principles true, our reasoning is often unexceptionable.1
In the science of body, glorious discoveries have been made by a right use of reason. When men are once satisfied to take things as they find them; when they believe Nature upon her bare declaration, without suspecting her of any design to impose upon them; when their utmost ambition is to be her servants and interpreters; then, and not till then, will philosophy prosper. But of those who have applied themselves to the science of human nature, it may truly be said, (of many of them at least), that too much reasoning hath made them mad. Nature speaks to us by our external, as well as by our internal, senses; it is strange that we should believe her in the one case, and not in the other; it is most strange, that supposing her fallacious, we should think ourselves capable of detecting the cheat. Common sense tells me, that the ground on which I stand is hard, material, and solid, and has a real, separate, independent existence. Berkeley and Hume tell me, that I am imposed upon in this matter; for that the ground under my feet is really an idea in my mind; that its very essence consists in being perceived; and that the same instant it ceases to be perceived, it must also cease to exist; in a word, that to be, and to be perceived, when predicated of the ground, the sun, the starry heavens, or any corporeal object, signify precisely the same thing. Now, if my common sense be mistaken, who shall ascertain and correct the mistake? Our reason, it is said. Are then the inferences of reason in this instance clearer, and more decisive, than the dictates of common sense? By no means: I still trust to my common sense as before; and I feel that I must do so. But supposing the inferences of the one faculty as clear and decisive as the dictates of the other; yet who will assure me, that my reason is less liable to mistake than my common sense? And if reason be mistaken, what shall we say? Is this mistake to be rectified by a second reasoning, as liable to mistake as the first?—In a word, we must deny the distinction between truth and falsehood, adopt universal scepticism, and wander without end from one maze of uncertainty to another; a state of mind so miserable, that Milton makes it one of the torments of the damned;—or else we must suppose, that one of these faculties is of higher authority than the other; and that either reason ought to submit to common sense, or common sense to reason, whenever a variance happens between them:—in other words, that no doctrine ought to be admitted as true that exceeds belief, and contradicts a first principle.
It has been said, that every enquiry in philosophy ought to begin with doubt;—that nothing is to be taken for granted, and nothing believed, without proof. If this be admitted, it must also be admitted, that reason is the ultimate judge of truth, to which common sense must continually act in subordination. But this I cannot admit; because I am able to prove the contrary by incontestable evidence. I am able to prove, that “except we believe many things without proof, we never can believe any thing at all; for that all sound reasoning must ultimately rest on the principles of common sense; that is, on principles intuitively certain or intuitively probable; and consequently, that common sense is the ultimate judge of truth, to which reason must continually act in subordination.”—This I mean to prove by a fair induction of particulars.1
[1 ]Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, pp. 22-27.
[1 ]Ibid., pp. 31-35.
[1 ]Ibid., pp. 38-40.