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CHAPTER VI.: Of Man, as an Individual. - James Wilson, Collected Works of James Wilson, vol. 1 
Collected Works of James Wilson, edited by Kermit L. Hall and Mark David Hall, with an Introduction by Kermit L. Hall, and a Bibliographical Essay by Mark David Hall, collected by Maynard Garrison (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). Vol. 1.
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The Introduction, Collector’s Foreword, Collector’s Acknowledgments, Annotations, Bibliographical Essay are the copyright of Liberty Fund 2007. The Bibliographical Glossary in volume 2 is reprinted by permission of the copyright holders the President and Fellows of Harvard College 1967.
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Of Man, as an Individual.
“Know thou thyself,” is an inscription peculiarly proper for the porch of the temple of science. The knowledge of human nature is of all human knowledge the most curious and the most important. To it all the other sciences have a relation; and though from it they may seem to diverge and ramify very widely, yet by one passage or another they still return.
In every art and in every disquisition, the powers of the mind are the instruments, which we employ; the more fully we understand their nature and their use, the more skilfully and the more successfully we shall apply them. In the sublimest arts, the mind is not only the instrument, but the subject also of our operations and inquiries. The poet, the orator, the philosopher work upon man in different ways and for different purposes. The statesman and the judge, in pursuit of the noblest ends, have the same dignified object before them. An accurate and distinct knowledge of his nature and powers, will undoubtedly diffuse much light and splendour over the science of law. In truth, law can never attain either the extent or the elevation of science, unless it be raised upon the science of man.
The knowledge of human nature is not more distinguished by its importance, than it is by its difficulty. Though the mind—the noblest work of God, which reason discovers—is of all objects the nearest to us, and seems the most within our view; yet it is no easy matter to attend to its operations and faculties, in such a manner as to obtain clear, full, and distinct conceptions concerning them. The consequence has been, that in no branch of knowledge have greater errours, and even absurdities, insinuated themselves, than in the philosophy of the human mind. Instead of proceeding slowly and cautiously by observation and experience, those who have written on this subject have adopted the more easy, but the less certain mode of process by hypothesis and analogy. The event has been such as might have been expected: those who have cultivated other sciences, have made progress, because they have set out in the right road, and have consulted the proper guides: those who have speculated on human nature have, too many of them, been involved in a dark and inextricable labyrinth, because they commenced their journey in an improper direction, and have listened to the information of those, whose information was the result of conjecture and not of experience. But this darkness will not last for ever. Some future sun of science will arise, and illuminate this benighted part of the intellectual globe. When the powers of the human mind shall be delineated truly and according to nature, those, whose vision is not distorted by prejudice, will recognise their own features in the picture. They will be surprised that things, in themselves so clear, could be so long involved in absurdity; and, when the truth is to be found in their own breasts, that they have been led so far from it by false systems and theories.
The only instrument, by which we can have any distinct notion of the faculties of our own and of others minds, is reflection. By this power, the mind makes its own operations the object of its attention, and views and examines them on every side. This power of reflection or self-examination, so absolutely indispensable in the investigation of what is so near and so important to us, is neither soon nor easily acquired or exerted. The mind, like the eye, contemplates, with facility, every object around it; but is with difficulty turned inward upon its own operations. Whoever has attempted to experiment on the philosophy of the mind—the only legitimate way in which a knowledge of it can be acquired—must have found how utterly impossible it is to make any clear and distinct observations on our faculties of thought, unless the passions, as well as the imagination, be silent and still. The materials on which we reflect are so minute, so mixed, and so volatile, that the strongest minds alone can, in any degree, arrange them, even in their quietest state. The least breath of passion moves and agitates them, so as to render every thing distorted and deformed.
Reflection, like all our other powers, is greatly improved by exercise: it thus becomes habitual; the difficulty attending it daily diminishes; and the advantages resulting from it are many and great. One who is accustomed habitually to reflection, can think and speak with accuracy on every subject; and can judge and discriminate for himself in many cases, in which others must trust to notions borrowed, confused, and indistinct.
Assisting and subservient to accurate reflection, is the structure of language, which is of much use in developing the operations of the mind. The language of mankind is expressive of their thoughts. The various operations of the understanding, will, and passions have various forms of speech corresponding to them, in all languages; a due attention to the signs, throws light on the things signified by them. There are, in all languages, modes of speech, by which men signify their judgment, or give their testimony, or accept, or refuse, or command, or threaten, or supplicate, or ask information or advice, or plight their faith in promises or contracts. If such operations were not common to mankind, we should not find, in all languages, forms of speech by which they are expressed.
A system of human nature is not expected from this chair. The undertaking, indeed, is too vast for me; it is too vast for any one man, however great his genius or abilities may be. But it comes directly within our plan, to consider it so far as to have just conceptions of man in two most important characters, as an author, and as a subject of law; as accountable for his own conduct, as capable of directing the conduct both of himself and of others. The laws, which God has given to us, are strictly agreeable to our nature; they are adjusted with infallible correctness to our perfection and happiness. On those, which we make for ourselves, the same characters, as deeply and as permanently as possible, ought to be impressed. But how, unless we study and know our nature, shall we make laws fit for it, and calculated to improve it?
I mean not—for it would be uninstructive—to give you an account of the divisions and subdivisions, into which metaphysicians have attempted to class and arrange our mental powers and principles. No division has been more common, and, perhaps, less exceptionable, than, that of the powers of the mind into those of the understanding and those of the will. And yet even this division, I am afraid, has led into a mistake. The mistake I believe to be this; it has been supposed, that in the operations ascribed to the will, there was no employment of the understanding; and that in those ascribed to the understanding, there was no exertion of the will. But this is not the case. It is probable, that there is no operation of the understanding, in which the mind is not in some degree active; in other words, in which the will has not some share. On the other hand, there can be no energy of the will, which is not accompanied with some act of the understanding. In the operations of the mind, both faculties generally, if not always, concur; and the distinction between them can be of no farther use, than to arrange each operation under that faculty, which has the largest share in it. Thus by the perceptive powers, we are supposed to acquire knowledge, and by the powers of volition, we are said to exert ourselves in action.
If even this division, long and generally received as it has been, has given occasion to a mistake; we have no great reason to indulge a partiality for others. The truth is, that they have been generally superficial and inaccurate; they have depended more on fancy than on nature; and have proceeded more from presumptuous attempts to accommodate the mind to a system, than from respectful endeavours to accommodate a system to the mind. Abhorrent from the first, restrained by propriety from aiming at the second; let my humble task be to select and make such observations concerning our powers, our dispositions, our principles, and our habits, as will illustrate the intimate connexion and reciprocal influence of religion, morality, and law.
Simplicity is the favourite object of system. In the material world, attachment to this simplicity misled the penetrating Des Cartes.1 Even the great Newton, patient, faithful, and attentive as he was in tracing Nature’s footsteps, was, on one occasion, almost seduced, by the same attachment, to follow hypothesis, the ape of Nature. A body of morality, pretending to be complete, has sometimes been built on a single pillar of the inward frame: the entire conduct of life has been accounted for, at least the attempt has been made to account for it, from a single quality or power. Many systems of this kind have appeared, calculated merely to flatter the mind. According to some writers, man is entirely selfish; according to others, universal benevolence is the highest aim of his nature. One founds morality upon sympathy solely: another exclusively upon utility. But the variety of human nature is not so easily comprehended or reached. It is a complicated machine; and is unavoidably so, in order to answer the various and important purposes, for which it is formed and designed.
How wretched are oftentimes the representations and the imitations of Nature’s works! A puppet may make a few motions and gesticulations; but how unlike it is to that, which it represents! How contemptible, when compared to the body of a man, whose structure the more we know, the more we discover its wonders, and the more sensible we are of our ignorance! Is the mechanism of the mind so easily comprehended, when that of the body is so difficult? Yet, by some systems, which are offered to us, with pretensions the most lofty and magnificent, a few laws of association, joined to a few original feelings, explain the whole mechanism of sense, imagination, memory, belief, and of all the actions and passions of the mind. Is this the man that Nature made? It is a puppet surely, contrived to mimick her work. The more we know of other parts of nature, the more we approve and admire them. But when we look within, and consider the mind itself, which makes us capable of all our prospects and enjoyments; if it is indeed what some late systems of high pretensions make it, we find we have only been in an enchanted castle, imposed upon by spectres and apparitions. We blush to think how we have been deluded; we are ashamed of our frame; and can hardly forbear expostulating with our destiny. Is this thy pastime, O Nature, to put such tricks upon a silly creature, and then take off the mask, and show him how he has been befooled? If this is the philosophy of human nature; my soul! enter thou not into her secrets. It is surely the forbidden tree of knowledge: I no sooner taste of it, than I perceive myself naked.—Such, in substance, has been the well founded expostulationa against some of the late and famed theories concerning the human mind. The theory, which we adopt, because we think it grounded in truth and reality, will open very different—the most enrapturing prospects.
The mind itself, indeed, is one internal principle: but its operations many, various, connected, and complicated: its perceptions are mixed, compounded, and decompounded, by habits, associations, and abstractions: its powers both of action and perception, on account either of a diversity in their objects, or in their manner of operating, are considered as separate and distinct faculties. This I take to be a just state of things with regard to the mind, and its perceptions, operations, and powers. But I think it is highly probable, that, in opposition to this account, the mind has been too often considered as distributed into different divisions and departments: and that the operations, in each department, have been considered as simple and unmixed. Each one of you, by recalling to remembrance your manner of thinking upon these subjects, will be able to say whether this has not been the case.
Again; the mind is an active principle. It has been the opinion of some modern philosophers, that, in thinking and sensation, the mind is merely passive. In all ages, and in all languages, the various modes of thinking have been expressed by words of active signification; such as seeing, hearing, reasoning, willing. It seems, therefore, to be the natural judgment of mankind, that the mind is active in its various ways of thinking; and for this reason, they are called its operations, and are expressed by active verbs. Sensation, imagination, memory, and judgment have, in all ages, been considered, by the vulgar, as acts of the mind. This is shown by the manner, in which they are expressed in all languages. When the mind is much employed in them, we say it is very active; whereas, if they were impressions only, as the ideal philosophy would lead us to conceive, we ought, in such a case, rather to say, that the mind is very passive. The paper which I hold in my hand was not active, when it received the characters written on it.
Man is composed of a body and a soul intimately connected; but at what time and in what manner connected, we do not know. In consequence of this connexion, the body lives and performs the functions necessary to life for a certain time; increases for a certain time in stature and in strength; is nourished with food, and is refreshed by sleep. In consequence of the same connexion, the body moves; the hands fulfil their various and active offices; the tongue expressive speaks; and the eyes sometimes still more expressive look. The body, and the things of the body, are far from being beneath our regard. In its present state, it is a mansion well fitted for the temporary residence of its noble inhabitant: in its renewed state, it will be endowed with the power of retaining that fitness for ever.
The fabrick of the human mind, however, is more astonishing still. The faculties of this are, with no less wisdom, adapted to their several ends, than the organs of the other. Nay, as the mind is of an order higher than that of the body, even more of the wisdom and skill of the divine Architect is displayed in its structure. In all respects, fearfully and wonderfully are we made.
From experience we find, that when external things are within the sphere of our perceptive powers, they affect our organs of sensation, and are perceived by the mind. That they are perceived we are conscious; but the manner in which they are perceived, we cannot explain; for we cannot trace the connexion between our minds and the impressions made on our organs of sense; because we cannot trace the connexion which subsists between the soul and the body. Frequent and laborious have been the attempts of philosophers to investigate the manner, in which things external are perceived by the mind. Let us imitate them, neither in their fruitless searches to discover what cannot be known; nor in framing hypotheses which will not bear the test of reason, or of intuition; nor in rejecting selfevident truths, which, though they cannot be proved by reasoning, are known by a species of evidence superiour to any that reasoning can produce.
Many philosophers allege that our mind does not perceive external objects themselves; that it perceives only ideas of them; and that those ideas are actually in the mind. When it has been intimated to them, that, if this be the case; if we perceive not external objects themselves, but only ideas; the necessary consequence must be, that we cannot be certain that any thing, except those ideas, exists; the consequence has been admitted in its fullest force. Nay, it has been made the foundation of another theory, in which it has been asserted, that men and other animals, the sun, moon, and stars, every thing which we think we see, and hear, and feel around us, have no real existence; that what we dignify with such appellations, and what we suppose to be so permanent and substantial, are nothing more than “the baseless fabrick of a vision”—are nothing more than ideas perceived in the mind. The theory has been carried to a degree still more extravagant than this; and the existence of mind has been denied, as well as the existence of body. We shall have occasion to examine these castles, which have not even air to support them. Suffice it, at present, to observe, that the existence of the objects of our external senses, in the way and manner in which we perceive that existence, is a branch of intuitive knowledge, and a matter of absolute certainty; that the constitution of our nature determines us to believe in our senses; and that a contrary determination would finally lead to the total subversion of all human knowledge. For this belief we cannot, we pretend not to assign an argument; it is a simple and original, and therefore an inexplicable act of the mind. It can neither be described nor defined. But one thing we shall engage to do, though, at present, we are not prepared for it. When those philosophers prove by argument, that we ought to receive the testimony of reason; we then will prove, by argument, that we ought to receive the testimony of sense. Till that time, let us receive the testimony of both, as of faculties, with which we have been endowed, for wise and benevolent purposes, by him who is all-true. The senses were intended by him to give us all that information of external objects, which he saw to be proper for us in our present state. This information they convey without reasoning, without art, without investigation on our part. They are five in number. Tastes are referred to the sense of tasting: odours, to that of smelling: sounds, to that of hearing: light and colours, to that of seeing: all other bodily sensations, to that of touch.
Our external senses are not indeed the most exalted of our powers; but they are powers of real use and importance; and, to powers of a more dignified nature, they are most serviceable and necessary instruments. It has been the endeavour of some philosophers to degrade them below that rank, in which they ought to be placed. They have been represented as powers, by which we receive sensations only of external objects. Even this part of their service is far from being unimportant. The perception of external objects is a principal link of that mysterious chain, which connects the material with the intellectual world. But this, as I before mentioned,b is not the whole of the functions discharged by the senses: they judge, as well as inform: they are not confined to the task of conveying impressions; they are exalted to the office of deciding concerning the nature and the evidence of the impressions, which they convey.
The senses are the vehicles of pleasures, less elevated indeed than those which are intellectual, still less elevated than those which are moral, but pleasures not beneath the regard of a rational and a moral mind. The pleasures of sense, it is true, ought, like every thing else that is subordinate, to be prevented from transgressing their natural and proper bounds: but that is no reason why they should be either neglected or despised. To be without the senses even of tasting and smelling, would be a real misfortune, because it would be a real inconvenience, and would be attended with the loss of sensations innocent and agreeable. The organ of smelling is often the speediest and the surest instrument to prevent or to recover a person from a fainting fit. The senses are susceptible of improvement; and they ought to be improved; for they are the sources both of pleasures and of advantage. Some of the senses are the sources of pleasures of a very elegant kind. The ear is the welcome messenger of melody and harmony, as well as of sound: the eye, of beauty, as well as of light and colours: and the man who feels not agreeable emotions from the contemplation of beauty, and is not moved with concord of sweet sounds—I will not finish the fine poetical description—I will only say, that he has no reason to exult in the absence of those enjoyments. Both the eye and the ear are capable of being refined to a very great height. For this I need only appeal to judges of musick, of painting, of statuary, of architecture. In many mechanick arts, a good eye, as it is called, is of excellent service. Gentlemen of the military profession—a profession which has something singular in it; a profession which should be learned, that it may never be used—know the importance of a military eye.
It is not without design that I have said thus much concerning the utility and importance of our senses. It has been the custom of certain philosophers, and, I must here add, of certain divines, to represent human nature as in a state of hostility endless and uninterrupted, internal as well as external. According to these philosophers, and according to these divines, he is at war with all the world, as well as with himself. The senses have been considered as incorrigible rebels, who aspired to be tyrants: the inference has been, that they ought to be treated as the vilest slaves. The monk, who built a dead wall before his window, that he might not be seduced by the beauties of creation, introduced no new doctrine; he only carried to an unusual height a doctrine already received. This doctrine embraces the two vicious extremes, and excludes the golden mean. Whence this sombre system derives its origin, I care and inquire not. Of one thing I am certain; it is not that wisdom which cometh from above: for the ways of that wisdom are the ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. Our senses ought to be deemed, as they really are, and as they are intended to be, the useful and pleasing ministers of our higher powers. Let it be remembered, however, that, of the pleasures of sense, temperance and prudence are the necessary and inseparable guides and guardians; detached from whom, those pleasures lose themselves in another nature and in other names: they become vices and pains.
As the external senses convey to us information of what passes without us; we have an internal sense, which gives us information of what passes within us. To this we appropriate the name of consciousness. It is an immediate conception of the operations of our own minds, joined with the belief of the existence of those operations. In exerting consciousness, the mind, so far as we know, makes no use of any bodily organ. This operation seems to be purely intellectual. Consciousness takes knowledge of every thing that passes within the mind. What we perceive, what we remember, what we imagine, what we reason, what we judge, what we believe, what we approve, what we hope, all our other operations, while they are present, are objects of this.
This, like many other operations of the mind, is simple, peculiar, inaccessible equally to definition and analysis. For its existence every one must make his appeal to himself. Are you conscious that you remember, or that you think? We have already seen, that the existence of the objects of sense is one great branch of intuitive knowledge: of the same kind of knowledge, the existence of the objects of consciousness is another branch, more extensive and important still. When a man feels pain, he is certain of the existence of pain; when he is conscious that he thinks, he is certain of the existence of thought. If I am asked to prove that consciousness is a faithful and not a fallacious sense; all the answer which I can give is—I feel, but I cannot prove; I can find no previous truth more certain or more luminous, from which this can derive either evidence or illustration. But some such antecedent truth is necessarily the first link in a chain of proof. For proof is nothing else than the deduction of truths less known or less believed, from others that are more known or better believed. “What can we reason, but from what we know?”c The immediate and irresistible conviction, which I have of the real existence of those things, of whose existence I am conscious, is a conviction produced by intuition, not by reason. He who doubted, or pretended to doubt, concerning every other information, deemed himself justified in taking for granted the veracity of that information, which was given to him by his consciousness. He was conscious that he thought; and therefore he was satisfied that he really thought.—“Cogito”2 was a first principle, which he who pronounced it dangerous and unphilosophical to assume any thing else, judged it safe and wise to assume. And when he had once assumed that he thought, he gravely set to work to prove, that because he thought he existed. His existence was true, but he could not prove it; and all his attempts to prove it have been shown, by a succeeding philosopher, to be inconsistent with the rules of sound and accurate logick. But even this succeeding philosopher, who showed that Des Cartes had not proved his existence, and who, from the principles of his own philosophy could not assume this existence without proof—even this philosopher has assumed the truth of the information given by consciousness. “Mr. Hume,3 after annihilating body and mind, time and space, action and causation, and even his own mind, acknowledges the reality of the thoughts, sensations, and passions, of which he is conscious.”d He has left them—how philosophically I will not pretend to say—to “stand upon their own bottom, stript of a subject, rather than call in question the reality of their existence.”e Let us felicitate ourselves, that there is, at least, one principle of common sense, which has never been called in question. It is a first principle, which we are required and determined, by the very constitution of our nature and faculties, to believe. Perhaps we shall find other first principles, which, by the same constitution of our nature and faculties, we are equally required and determined to believe. Such principles are parts of our constitution, no less than the power of thinking: reason can neither make nor destroy them: like a telescope, it may assist, it may extend, but it cannot supply natural vision.
Possessed of the senses and of consciousness; and believing, as we must believe, the truth of the information, which they give, we cannot complain that our knowledge is a baseless fabrick; but if we were possessed only of those powers, we might well complain, that our knowledge was a fleeting fabrick. The moment that an external object is removed from the operation of our senses, that moment our perception of it is lost: the moment our attention is withdrawn from the consideration of any of the powers of the mind, that moment our immediate conception of it is gone. The external object may, indeed, return; but it will return as a stranger: the internal power may become again the object of our consciousness; but it will appear as an object hitherto unknown. As to the purpose of accumulating knowledge, every succeeding moment would be as the first moment of our existence. We should perceive what is present; but we should have no power of connecting what is present, with what is past. Without this connecting power, we should have no means of forming any conjecture concerning what is to come. But the divine hand that made us, leaves not its workmanship unfinished. We are endowed with a power, by which we have an immediate knowledge of things past. We are provided with a storehouse, fitted to preserve things new and old. And of this storehouse it is the extraordinary property, that the more it is filled with treasure, the more capacious and retentive it becomes. You know I speak of the memory. Much might be usefully said concerning this necessary and important power; but my plan, which comprehends such a variety of parts, forbids me to enlarge upon each of them.
Of the immediate cause of remembrance we know nothing: and all attempts to trace and discover that cause have, to say the least of them, proved vain and illusory: it is one of those things, of which we must be contented to remain ignorant. But while of some things we ought to acquiesce in our ignorance; of others, we should be satisfied with our knowledge: though we cannot assign a cause why we remember, we know the fact that we do remember; and we know likewise another fact, that our remembrance is true. What we distinctly remember, we believe as strongly as what we distinctly perceive. To give a reason why we believe the information of our perceptions, I have already declared myself incapable: the same declaration I now make, concerning the information of our memory. By the constitution of our nature, it is always accompanied with belief.
I had occasion to rescue the senses from the unjust disparagement, which they have sometimes suffered: let me now perform the same just office to the memory. You know it to be the fashion of some to exclaim, with a degree of affectation, how wretched their memories are. The design is not declared; but it is obvious. At the expense of their memory, they insinuate a compliment to their judgment: for it has somehow been received as an opinion, that a strong memory and a strong judgment have seldom been united in the same mind. Perhaps the beautiful lines of Mr. Pope may have contributed to give a currency to this sentiment: but the sentiment is ill founded. I will, indeed, admit, on one hand, that a great memory is often found without a great genius: but I will not admit, on the other, that a great genius is often found without a great memory. The contrary I believe to be generally, I will not say always, the case. Men of the most extensive abilities have been men also of the most extensive memories: witness Themistocles, Cicero, Caesar, Bolingbroke. If these remarks be true, the compliment to judgment at the cost of memory is but a left-handed one. Instead of being rivals, judgment and memory are mutual assistants. Memory furnishes the materials which judgment selects, adjusts, and arranges. Those materials selected, adjusted, and arranged are more at the call of memory than before: for it is a well known fact, that those things, which are disposed most methodically and connected most naturally, are the most distinct, as well as the most lasting objects of remembrance: hence, in discourse, the utility as well as beauty of order. Strength, as well as clearness in our perceptions greatly aids the memory: hence, in discourse, the utility as well as beauty of vivacity. Agreeable emotions, attending our perceptions, contribute to render them both clear and strong: hence, in discourse, the utility as well as beauty of every chaste and elegant ornament. That which is conveyed through the channel of two senses makes a stronger and more lasting impression, than that which is conveyed through the channel of one: hence, in discourse, the utility as well as beauty of just and expressive action. To associate the pleasing with the useful, is Nature’s example as well as precept.
I have already intimated that memory is greatly susceptible of improvement: it is so to a surprising degree. This improvement is acquired by vigorous but prudent exercise; and by habitual but lively attention. I assign limitations both to exercise and attention, because both are liable to run into excess. A memory overloaded will make but little useful progress either in literature or business. An attention overstrained is apt to degenerate into what is, with singular propriety, termed absence of thought. To counterfeit this absent kind of thoughtfulness, has been the affectation of those, who wish to be deemed deep thinkers, without the trouble of thinking. To feel it is frequently the lot of those, who think too much. But it is a failing, not an excellence: it is to be avoided, not to be courted. When it begins to steal upon a studious person, he should relieve his attention by changing its object.
In all the ways, in which the objects of our thoughts have hitherto presented themselves to us, they have been necessarily attended with the act or operation of belief. But they may be presented to us in another way, unaccompanied with that act or operation. Let me exemplify this by a set of very familiar instances: for things may be exemplified, that cannot be defined. You see this handkerchief. You are necessarily determined to believe that you see it. You remember that, but a moment ago, I showed you a handkerchief. You are now necessarily determined to believe that you saw it. In the first instance, the handkerchief was seen: that was necessarily accompanied with the belief of its then present existence. In the second instance, the handkerchief was remembered: that was necessarily accompanied with the belief of its past existence. You may hereafter think of a handkerchief, certainly without seeing, probably without recollecting, the handkerchief, which I just now showed you. In the first instance, the perception was accompanied with the belief of present existence: in the second instance, the remembrance was accompanied with the belief of past existence: in the third and last instance, the conception is not accompanied with any belief at all. Conception is an operation of the mind, by which we apprehend a thing, without any belief or judgment concerning it, without referring it to present or past existence. Every one is conscious that he can conceive a thousand things, of whose present or past existence he has not the least belief. You have seen a mountain: you have seen gold: you can conceive a golden mountain: but can you believe its existence?
Conception enters into every operation of the mind. Our senses and our consciousness cannot convey to us information concerning any object, without, at the same time, giving some conception of that object. If we remember any thing, we must have some conception of that, which we remember. In conception there is neither truth nor falsehood; for conception neither affirms nor denies. But though all the other operations of the mind include conception; conception itself may exist, detached from all the others, excepting consciousness. By logicians, conception is frequently called simple apprehension.
The powers of sensation, of consciousness, and of memory are exerted upon objects which exist, or have existed. Conception is often exerted upon objects, which have neither past, nor present, nor even future existence. The creative powers of conception and description possessed by Shakespeare were, by no means, confined to actual existence, past, present, or to come.
Judgment is an important operation of the mind; and is employed upon the materials of perception and knowledge. It is generally described to be, that act of the mind, by which one thing is affirmed or denied of another. But this description is, in one respect, too limited; in another, it is too extensive. It is too limited in this respect, that though our judgments, when expressed, are indeed expressed by affirmation or denial, yet it is not necessary to a judgment that it be expressed at all. Men may judge without affirming or denying any thing; nay, they may judge contrary to what they affirm or deny. The description is too extensive in this respect, that it includes testimony as well as judgment. When a judge pronounces his decree, he delivers it in the affirmative or negative: when a witness delivers his testimony, he uses the affirmative or negative likewise. Judgment and testimony are, however, operations very different from one another: wrong judgment is only an errour: false testimony is something more.
In persons arrived at the years of discretion, their perceptions, their consciousness, their memory are objects of their judgment. Evidence is the ground of judgment; and where evidence is, it is impossible not to judge.
To every determination of the mind concerning what is true or what is false, the name of judgment may be assigned. Some consider knowledgef as a separate faculty, conversant about truth and falsehood: perhaps it is more accurate to consider it as a species of judgment; for without judgment, how can there be any knowledge? Judgments are intuitive, as well as discursive, founded on truths that are selfevident, as well as on those that are deduced from demonstration, or from reasoning of a less certain kind. The former, or intuitive judgments, may, in the strictest sense, be called the judgments of nature.
Sense and judgment are sometimes used, especially by some modern philosophers, in contradistinction to each other—very improperly. In common language, and in the writings of the best authors, sense always implies judgment: a man of sense is a man of judgment: common sense is that degree of judgment, which is to be expected in men of common education and common understanding.
With the power of judging, the power of reasoning is very nearly connected. Both powers are frequently included under the general appellation of reason. But reasoning is strictly the process, by which we pass from one judgment to another, which is the consequence of it. In all reasoning, there must be one proposition, which is inferred, and another, at least, from which the inference is made.
Reason, as well as judgment, has truth and falsehood for its objects: both proceed from evidence; both are accompanied with belief.
The power of reasoning is frequently selected as the characteristick quality, which distinguishes the human race from the inferiour part of the creation. From nature the capacity of reasoning is unquestionably derived; but it may be wonderfully strengthened, improved, and extended by art. Imitation and exercise are the two great instruments of improvement.
In a chain of reasoning, the evidence must proceed regularly and without interruption from link to link: the evidence of the last conclusion can be no greater than that of the weakest link in the chain; because if even the weakest link fails, the whole chain is broken.
In reasoning, the most useful and the most splendid talent is the invention of intermediate proofs. In all productions of the understanding, invention is entitled to the highest praise. It implies a luminous view of the object proposed, and sagacity and quickness in discerning, selecting, and employing, to the utmost advantage, the means that are best fitted for accomplishing that object. In the assemblage of those qualities consists that superiority of understanding, which is denominated genius.
Reasoning is distinguished into two kinds; that, which is demonstrative; and that, which is only probable. In demonstrative reasoning there are no degrees; the inference, in every step of the series, is necessary; and it is impossible but that, from the premises, the conclusion must flow. Hence demonstrative reasoning can be applied only to such truths as are necessary; not to such as are contingent.
With regard to reasoning, which is only probable, the connexion between the premises and the conclusion is not a necessary connexion. Probability is susceptible of numerous and widely differing degrees of strength and weakness. The degrees of evidence are measured by their effect upon a clear, a sound, and an unprejudiced understanding. Every degree of evidence produces a proportioned degree of knowledge and belief.
Probable evidence may be distributed into a number of different kinds. One, and a very important one, is that of human testimony. On this a great part of human knowledge depends. History and law resort to it for the materials of decision and faith. To examine, to compare, and to appreciate this kind of evidence is the business of the judge, the juryman, the counsel, and the party. Without some competent discernment concerning it, no man can act with common prudence or safety in the ordinary occurrences of life.
Another kind of probable evidence is, the opinion of those, who are professional judges of the point in question. In England, a reference is sometimes made to the judges for their opinions in a matter of law. On a trial, recourse is frequently had to the professional sentiments of a physician. A shoemaker could point out to Apelles4 himself a defect in the picture of a shoe. A tyrant, nurtured and practised in the tyrant’s art, could, at the first glance, discover a mistake in the representation of a decollated head.
A third kind of probable evidence is that, by which we recognise the identity of the same thing, and the diversity of different things. This kind of evidence is of the greatest consequence in the affairs of life. By it, the identity of persons and things is determined in courts of justice. In acquiring, retaining, and applying this kind of evidence, there is a wonderful diversity of talents in different men. Some will recollect and distinguish almost all the faces they have ever seen: others are much more slow, and much less retentive in this species of recollection and discrimination.
There are many other kinds of probable evidence, that well deserve the study of the lawyer, the philosopher, and the man. But this is not the proper occasion to attempt an enumeration of them.
Every free action has two causes, which cooperate in its production. One is moral; the other is physical: the former is the will, which determines the action; the latter is the power, which carries it into execution. A paralytick may will to run: a person able to run, may be unwilling: from the want of will in one, and the want of power in the other, each remains in his place.
Our actions and the determinations of our will are generally accompanied with liberty. The name of liberty we give to that power of the mind, by which it modifies, regulates, suspends, continues, or alters its deliberations and actions. By this faculty, we have some degree of command over ourselves: by this faculty we become capable of conforming to a rule: possessed of this faculty, we are accountable for our conduct.
But the existence of this faculty has been boldly called in question. It has been asserted, that we have no sense of moral liberty; and that, if we have such a sense, it is fallacious.
With regard to the first question, let every one ask it of himself. Have I a sense of moral liberty? Have I a conviction that I am free? If you have; this sense—this conviction is a matter of fact, or an object of intuition; and vain it is to reason against its truth or existence.
If it exists; why is it to be deemed fallacious? Are there peculiar marks of deception discoverable in it? Can any reason be assigned why we should suspect it, and not every other sense or power of our nature? He that made one, made all. If we are to suspect all; we ought to believe nothing.
But by what one especial power are we told that we ought to suspect all others? On which is this exclusive character of veracity impressed? If Nature is fallacious; how do we learn to detect the cheat? If she is a juggler by trade; is it for us to attempt to penetrate the mysteries of her art, and take upon us to decide when it is that she presents a true, and when it is that she presents a false appearance? If she is false in every other instance, how can we believe her, when she says she is a liar?
But she does not say so. She is, and she claims to be honest; and the law of our constitution determines us to believe her. When we feel, or when we perceive by intuition, that we are free; we may assume the doctrine of moral liberty, as a first and selfevident, though an undemonstrable principle.
I have frequently mentioned first principles. The evidence, on which they ought to be received, well deserves discussion and attention. This is a subject which has been greatly misunderstood, and, perhaps, misrepresented. It is a subject, in which inferences, destructive of all knowledge and virtue, have been drawn, with all the pomp and parade of metaphysical sagacity. It is a subject, concerning which proper conceptions are essentially necessary to the progress of all science, that is truly valuable. They are peculiarly necessary in the study of law, in which evidence bears such an active and distinguished part. To believe our senses—to give credit to human testimony, has been considered as unphilosophical, and, consequently, irrational, if not absurd. The connexion, on this subject, between the principles of law, of philosophy, and of human nature has never, so far as I know, been sufficiently traced or explained.
Of some philosophers of no small fame, and of no small influence in propagating a certain fashionable—creed, I was going to say; but that would be peculiarly improper—system I will call it, by a particular indulgence—Of such philosophers it has been the favourite doctrine, that reason is the supreme arbitress of human knowledge; that by her solely we ought to be governed; that in her solely we ought to place confidence; that she can establish first principles; that she can ascertain and correct the mistakes of common sense.
Reason is a noble faculty, and when kept within its proper sphere, and applied to its proper uses, exalts human creatures almost to the rank of superiour beings. But she has been much perverted, sometimes to vile, sometimes to insignificant purposes. By some, she has been chained like a slave or a malefactor; by others, she has been launched into depths unknown or forbidden.
Are the dictates of our reason more plain, than the dictates of our common sense? Is there allotted to the former a portion of infallibility, which has been denied to the latter? If reason may mistake; how shall the mistake be rectified? shall it be done by a second process of reasoning, as likely to be mistaken as the first? Are we thus involved, by the constitution of our nature, in a labyrinth, intricate and endless, in which there is no clue to guide, no ray to enlighten us? Is this true philosophy? is this the daughter of light? is this the parent of wisdom and knowledge? No. This is not she. This is a fallen kind, whose rays are merely sufficient to shed a “darkness visible” upon the human powers; and to disturb the security and ease enjoyed by those, who have not become apostates to the pride of science. Such degenerate philosophy let us abandon: let us renounce its instruction: let us embrace the philosophy which dwells with common sense.
This philosophy will teach us, that first principles are in themselves apparent; that to make nothing selfevident, is to take away all possibility of knowing any thing; that without first principles, there can be neither reason nor reasoning; that discursive knowledge requires intuitive maxims as its basis; that if every truth would admit of proof, proof would extend to infinity; that, consequently, all sound reasoning must rest ultimately on the principles of common sense—principles supported by original and intuitive evidence.
In the investigation of this subject, we shall have the pleasure to find, that those philosophers, who have attempted to fan the flames of war between common sense and reason, have acted the part of incendiaries in the commonwealth of science; that the interests of both are the same; that, between them, there never can be ground for real opposition: that, as they are commonly joined together in speech and in writing, they are inseparable also, in their nature.
We assign to reason two offices, or two degrees. The first is, to judge of things selfevident. The second is, from selfevident principles, to draw conclusions, which are not selfevident. The first of these is the province, and the sole province, of common sense, and, therefore, in its whole extent, it coincides with reason; and is only another name for one branch or one degree of reason. Why then, it may be said, should it have a particular name assigned to it, since it is acknowledged to be only a degree of reason? To this it may be answered, why would you abolish a name, which has found a place in all civilized languages, and has acquired a right by prescription? But this degree of reason ought to be distinguished by a particular name, on two accounts. 1. In the greatest part of mankind, no other degree of reason is to be found. It is this degree of reason, and this only, which makes a man capable of managing his own affairs, and answerable for his conduct towards others. 2. This degree of reason is purely the gift of heaven; and where heaven has not given it, no education can supply it; though, where it is given, it may, in a certain degree, be improved. But the second degree of reason is learned by practice and rules, where the first is wanting.
From the age of Plato down to the present century, it has been the opinion of philosophers, that nothing is perceived but what is in the mind which perceives it: that the mind takes no direct cognizance of external things; but that it perceives them through the medium of certain shadows or images of them: those images were called by the ancients species, forms, phantasms; by the moderns they are called ideas.
On this foundation the systems of Des Cartes and Locke have been built. The doctrines of Mr. Locke have been received, not only in England, but in many other parts of Europe, with unbounded applause; and to his theory of the human understanding the same kind of respect and deference has been paid, as to the discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton in the natural world.
In the extension of Mr. Locke’s principles, the Bishop of Cloyne7 conceived that he saw reason to deny the reality of matter; and to resolve all existence into mind. In his own sublime language, he thought he discovered, “that all the choir of heaven and furniture of the earth; all those bodies that compose the frame of the universe, are merely ideas, and exist only in the mind.”
Mr. Hume, proceeding on the same principles of reasoning, advances boldly a step farther: he thinks he sees reason for denying the existence of mind as well as of matter; he annihilates spirit as well as body; and reduces mankind—I use his own words—to “a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.” “There is properly no simplicity in the mind at one time; nor identity in it at different times; whatever natural propensity”—tis indeed natural—“we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity: they are successive perceptions only, that constitute the mind.”g
On the other hand, Dr. Hartley, assuming the existence of an immaterial principle, and of an external world, has endeavoured to trace the connexion between them. By a chain of hypotheses, he has attempted to illustrate the nature of the impressions, which the senses receive from external objects; the laws, by which those impressions influence our ideas; and the rules of association, by which these ideas are connected in our mind. He has thus formed a system, which, in the opinion of some enlightened men, explains, in a satisfactory manner, most of the operations of the thinking faculty.
Dr. Priestley has embraced these doctrines with his usual warmth; and has propagated them with his well known zeal. He is of opinion, however, that they ought to be further simplified. A principle, separate from body, he contends is an incumbrance on Dr. Hartley’s system. On the principles of deduction, satisfactory to him, he asserts, that to matter, we should ascribe the capacity of intelligence, as well as the property of gravitation. Thought he believes to arise necessarily from a certain organization of the brain; and, resting on this, he denies the existence of an immaterial principle.
Different—exceedingly different indeed—nay, totally irreconcilable are these illustrious men in the conclusions, which they draw. But however widely they differ, however impracticable it may be to reconcile them with regard to their conclusions; they all agree concerning their fundamental principles. They all agree in assuming the existence of ideas. This is the fundamental principle of Mr. Locke’s philosophy.
Strange has been the fate of this principle! Strange have been the vicissitudes, with which it has been attended! Strange have been the revolutions, which it has been thought capable of producing! What a powerful engine it has been! In skilful and experienced hands, how tremendous have been its operations! Wielded by one philosopher, it attaches itself solely to matter, and destroys mind. Wielded by another, it attaches itself solely to mind, and destroys matter. Wielded by a third, it becomes equally fatal to matter and mind: by a single fiat of uncreating omnipotence, it strikes body and spirit, time and space into annihilation; and leaves nothing remaining but impressions and ideas!
We have hitherto been apt, perhaps, with unphilosophick credulity, to imagine, that thought supposed a thinker; and that treason implied a traitor. But correct philosophy, it seems, discovers, that all this is a mistake; for that there may be treason without a traitor, laws without a legislator, punishment without a sufferer. If, in these cases, the ideas are the traitor, the legislator, the sufferer; the author of this discovery ought to inform us, whether ideas can converse together; whether they can possess rights, or be under obligations; whether they can make promises, enter into covenants, fulfil, or break them; whether, if they break them, damages can be recovered for the breach. If one set of ideas make a covenant; if another successive set—for be it remembered they are all in succession—break the covenant; and if a third successive set are punished for breaking it; how can we discover justice to form any part of this system? These professional questions naturally suggest themselves.
Will these philosophers forgive me, if, from this dreary prospect—if a view of nothing can be called a prospect—I turn my eyes, and direct them to another scene, not indeed so solemn or awful, but such as, in one particular, bears to it a certain strong, though, perhaps, a ridiculous analogy. I would wish to pay all becoming deference to a system, venerable by its high antiquity, and fortified by the authority of philosophers without number. The images, and species, and phantasms of the ancients, and the ideas of the moderns, I wish to contemplate and treat with all imaginable respect. But there is an unlucky object of comparison, which constantly presents itself to my view. I cannot think of this doctrine of ideas, so versatile in its nature and application, without thinking, at the same time, of another doctrine, which has likewise been uncommonly powerful in its operations and effects. Shall I be forgiven?—I repeat the question—if, upon this occasion, I introduce—my Lord Peter’s brown loaf.8 His lordship presented it once: it was excellent mutton. He presented it a second time: it was delicious beef. He presented it a third time: it was exquisite plumb pudding.
Shall I be permitted to ask one question—I think, a very natural one—did the brown loaf ever exist? If it never existed at all; my Lord Peter was equally infallible, when he called it mutton, as when he called it plumb pudding; and when he called it plumb pudding, as when he called it mutton or beef.
Shall I be permitted to ask another question—equally natural as the former? These images, and species, and phantasms of the ancients; these ideas of the moderns—did they ever exist? You will unquestionably be surprised when I tell you, that though, from the time of Plato and Aristotle to the time of Berkely and Hume, ideas and species have been supposed to lie at the foundation of the philosophy of the human mind, and, consequently, of all philosophy and knowledge; yet that foundation has never, till lately, been examined; but that the existence of ideas and species has always been assumed as a doctrine taken for granted. You will, perhaps, be further surprised, on being told, that, when lately the rubbish, which, during the long course of two thousand years, had covered and concealed the foundations of philosophy, was removed; and when those foundations were examined by an architect of uncommon discernment and skill; no such things as the ideas of the moderns, or the species of the ancients were to be discovered there.
“I acknowledge,” says the enlightened and candid Dr. Reid,h “that I never thought of calling in question the principles commonly received with regard to the human understanding, until the Treatise of Human Nature was published.” This is the performance of Mr. Hume, from which I cited a passage a little while ago. It appeared in the year 1739. “The ingenious author,” continues Dr. Reid, “of that treatise, upon the principles of Locke, who was no sceptick, 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 admit the conclusion.
“But can any ingenious mind admit this sceptical system without reluctance? I truly could not: for I am persuaded that absolute scepticism is not more destructive of the faith of a christian, than of the science of a philosopher, and of the prudence of a man of common understanding.”—I may add—or the sound principles of a lawyer or statesman. “I am persuaded,” continues the Doctor, “that the unjust live by faith, as well as the just; and that, if all belief could be laid aside, piety, patriotism, friendship, parental affection, and private virtue would appear as ridiculous as knight errantry; and that the pursuits of pleasure, of ambition, and of avarice must be grounded upon belief, as well as those that are honourable and virtuous.
“For my own satisfaction, I entered into a serious examination of the principles, upon which this sceptical system is built; and was not a little surprised to find, that it leans with its whole weight upon a hypothesis, which is ancient indeed and hath been very generally received by philosophers; but of which I could find no solid proof. The hypothesis I mean is, that nothing is perceived but what is in the mind, which perceives it; that we do not really perceive things that are external, but only certain images and pictures of them imprinted upon the mind, which are called impressions and ideas.
“If this be true; supposing certain impressions and ideas to exist in my mind, I cannot, from their existence, infer the existence of any thing else; my impressions and ideas are the only existences, of which I can have any knowledge or conception, and they are such fleecting and transitory beings, that they can have no existence at all, any longer than I am conscious of them. So that, upon this hypothesis, the whole universe about me, bodies and spirits, sun, moon, stars and earth, friends and relations, all things without exception which I imagined to have a permanent existence, whether I thought of them or not, vanish at once,
“I thought it unreasonable, upon the authority of philosophers, to admit a hypothesis, which, in my opinion, overturns all philosophy, all religion and virtue, and all common sense; and finding that all the systems concerning the human understanding, which I was acquainted with, were built upon this hypothesis, I resolved to inquire into this subject anew, without regard to any hypothesis.”
The fruits of his inquiries have been published; and richly deserve your perusal and attention. Others have sown and cultivated the same seeds of knowledge, with the most encouraging success; and there is reason to hope, that the philosophy of human nature will not much longer continue the reproach of the human understanding.
Monopoly and exclusive privilege are the bane of every thing—of science as well as of commerce. The sceptical philosophers claim and exercise the privilege of assuming, without proof, the very first principles of their philosophy; and yet they require, from others, a proof of every thing by reasoning. They are unreasonable in both points. Some things, which ought to be believed, ought to be believed without proof. The first principle of their philosophy—the existence of ideas—is none of those things. If it be true; it is a discursive, not an intuitive truth; and, therefore, it can be proved. For this reason, unless it be proved, it should not be believed.
After having mentioned the sceptical philosophers, it is with a degree of reluctance that I so soon introduce the respected name of Mr. Locke. I introduce him not as one of those philosophers, but as one, who has unfortunately given a sanction to principles, the consequences of which he certainly did not foresee. But from his principles, those consequences have been ably and unanswerably drawn by others. His principles, therefore, ought to be minutely examined, that we may see whether, on a strict examination, they will stand the test.
I shall examine his leading principle by the very test, which he himself proposes for its trial. Cautious and candid as he was, it is very remarkable, that, while he recommends it to others to be careful in the admission of principles, he admits his own leading principle without sufficient examination and care. “I take leave to say”—I use his own wordsi —“I take leave to say, that every one ought very carefully to beware what he admits for a principle, to examine it strictly, and see whether he certainly knows it to be true of itself by its own evidence; or whether he does only, with assurance, believe it to be so upon the authority of others.” And yet he begins his observations on ideas and their original, by assuming their existence, as his leading principle. “Every man being conscious to himself that he thinks; and that which his mind is applied about, whilst thinking, being the ideas that are there, tis past doubt, that men have in their minds several ideas.” “It is, in the first place, then, to be inquired how he comes by them.”j
With all deference for the character and talents of Mr. Locke—and I have, indeed, a high respect for them—I think that a previous inquiry ought to have been made—Does he come by them? To assume, without proving, that the things, which the mind is applied about, whilst thinking, are the ideas that are there ; is certainly to assume too much.
In another place,k he expresses a hope, that it will be received as an intuitive truth—as one of that species of intuitive truths, which arise from consciousness. “I presume,” says he, “it will be easily granted me, that there are such ideas in men’s minds.” Why so easily granted? Why should the leading principle of a philosophy, which, if true, necessarily draws us to such consequences as have been represented—why should such a leading principle be taken on trust? “Because,” continues Mr. Locke,l “every one is conscious of them in himself.”
Here is a fair and candid appeal: for if every one is conscious of ideas in his own mind, he must believe that such ideas are there: for consciousness is unquestionably a first principle of evidence. In this appeal I have the pleasure of joining with Mr. Locke. In one thing we certainly agree—the object of both is to discover the truth. Of this truth, you shall be the judges, or rather the triers between us; for consciousness is a matter of fact.
But before we enter upon the trial of this appeal, let us be sure that the point to be tried is clearly ascertained and understood: let us not be misled by verbal ambiguity, nor drawn into the field of verbal disputation. Many errours, and some of no inconsiderable importance, have arisen from the vague, the doubtful, or the inaccurate application of the term idea.
By ideas are sometimes meant the acts or operations of our minds in perceiving, remembering, or imagining objects. In this sense, the existence of ideas is far from being called in question. We are conscious of them every day and every hour of our lives.
Sometimes idea is used to denote opinion—Thus, when we speak of the ideas of Cicero; we mean his opinions or doctrines.
But there is a third sense, in which the term idea has been used. It has been used to denote those images and pictures of things, which, and not the things themselves, are the immediate objects perceived by the mind. Those, who speak the most intelligibly, explain their doctrine in this manner. Suppose me to look at a mirrour; and, while I am looking at it, suppose a person to come behind me; I see, in the mirrour, not the person himself, but his image. In the same manner, when, without a mirrour, I am supposed to see a house or a tree; I see only an image of those objects in my mind. This image is the immediate object of my perception.
It is in this last sense, now explained, that an appeal is made to your consciousness for the truth of the existence of ideas.
You look at me: now I call for your conscious verdict. Are you conscious, that you really see me: or are you conscious, that you see, not me, but only a certain image or picture of me, imprinted upon your own minds? If the latter; your consciousness decides in favour of Mr. Locke: if the former; it decides in favour of me. In whose favour does your verdict decide? Before you finally declare it, it may, perhaps, be urged, that you perceive me by means of intervening resemblances of me, distinctly painted on the retinae of your eyes.
This shows, that I am willing to give the cause an impartial trial, nay, an advantageous one, on the side of my admired antagonist. From those parts only of our knowledge, which are disclosed by the sense of seeing, could this objection be urged.
I admit, that the resemblances mentioned are distinctly painted on the retinae of your eyes. But suffer me to ask you—do you perceive those resemblances, so painted? I presume you do not: for the existence of those resemblances was never, so far as I know or have heard, perceived by any of the innumerable race of men: it was not so much as suspected, till in the last century. Then the discovery was made by Kepler: but even to Kepler the discovery was not disclosed by consciousness:9 it was the result of deep and accurate researches into the philosophy of vision.
But I have not yet done with my answer to this objection. That you do not perceive me by the intervention of any perception of the resemblances painted on the retinae of the eyes, is evident from two circumstances. In the first place, the resemblances of me are painted on the retinae of both eyes: therefore, if you saw me through the intervention of those resemblances, you would see me double. In the second place, the resemblances of me on the retinae are inverted: therefore, if you saw me through the intervention of those resemblances, you would see me turned upside down.
Are you now ready finally to declare your verdict? Do you perceive me? or do you only perceive, in your own minds, an image or picture of me?
I presume I may say, that the existence of ideas is not the dictate of consciousness. Is the existence of ideas entitled, in any other manner, or from any other source, to be considered as an intuitive truth? I have not heard it suggested. If it is a truth, and not an intuitive one; it is a truth capable of being proved: if it is capable of being proved; it ought to be proved, as we have already said, before it be believed.
A proof has been attempted: let us examine it. “No being, it is said, can act or be acted upon, but where it is; and, consequently, our mind cannot act upon, or be acted upon by any subject at a distance.”m
This argument possesses one eminent advantage: its obscurity, like that of an oracle, is apt to impose on the hearer, who is willing to consider it as demonstration, because he does not, at first, discover its fallacy. Let it undergo a fair examination; let it be drawn out of its obscurity: let it be stated and analyzed in a clear point of view. Then it will appear as follows.
“No subject can be perceived, unless it acts upon the mind, or is acted upon by the mind: but no distant object can act upon the mind, or be acted upon by the mind; for no being can act but where it is: therefore the immediate object of perception must be something in the mind, so as to be able to act upon, or to be acted upon by the mind.”
Now you see, fairly stated in all its parts, the argument, which is supposed to prove the necessity of phantasms or ideas in the mind, as the only objects of perception. It is singularly unfortunate for this argument, that it concludes directly against the very hypothesis, of which it is the only foundation: for how can phantasms or ideas be raised in the mind by things at a distance, if things at a distance cannot act upon, or be acted upon by the mind.
Again; the argument assumes a proposition as true, without evidence—that no distant subject can act upon, or be acted upon by the mind. This proposition requires evidence; for it is not intuitively certain. Till this proposition, therefore, be proved, every man may rationally rely upon the conviction of his senses, that he sees and hears objects at a distance.
But further; to render the foregoing argument conclusive, it ought to be proved, that when we perceive objects, either they act upon us, or we act upon them. This is not selfevident; nor is it proved. Indeed reasons may be well offered against its admission.
When we say, that one being acts upon another, we mean that some power is exerted by the agent, which produces, or tends to produce a change in the thing acted upon. Now, there appears no reason for asserting, that, in perception, either the object acts upon the mind, or the mind upon the object. An object, in being perceived, does not act at all. I perceive the desk before me; but it is perfectly inactive; and, therefore, cannot act upon my mind. Neither does the mind, in perception, act upon the object. To perceive an object is one thing: to act upon it is another thing. To say, that I act upon the paper before me, when I look at it, is an abuse of langauge. We have, therefore, no evidence, that, in perception, the mind acts upon the object, or the object upon the mind; but strong evidence to the contrary. The consequence is, that the very foundation of the only argument brought to prove the existence of ideas is sandy and unsound.
Thus the first principle of the ideal philosophy is supported neither by intuition nor by proof. On what pretension, then, can it lay any just claim to our regard?
And yet this principle, unsupported, absurd, and unphilosophical as it is, will, I believe, be found to be the sole foundation laid, so far as any is laid, in our law books, for the philosophy of the law of evidence. My Lord Chief Baron Gilbert,10 the most approved, and deservedly the most approved writer on this part of the law, grounds his general observations on the doctrine of Mr. Locke, that knowledge is nothing but the perception of the agreement or disagreement of our ideas.n
In one of my early lectures,o I made the following observations. “Despotism, by an artful use of ‘superiority’ in politicks; and scepticism, by an artful use of ‘ideas’ in metaphysicks, have endeavoured—and their endeavours have frequently been attended with too much success—to destroy all true liberty and sound philosophy. By their baneful effects, the science of man and the science of government have been poisoned to their very fountains. But those destroyers of others have met, or must meet with their own destruction.” I have put you in possession of materials to judge for yourselves whether these observations are or are not well founded.
At first sight, it would seem strange that the principles of law, as they are laid down in a book, which is very generally received for authority, should be destructive of liberty; and that the principles of the philosophy of the human mind, as they likewise are generally received and taught, should be subversive of all truth and knowledge. But after what we have seen; is it not as true as strange?
This investigation has cost me some trouble: to you I hope it will be attended with some advantage. I thought it my duty to make and to communicate it; because, without it, any superstructure of system, which I could build, would not satisfy me as resting on a solid foundation. Could I have been justified in palming upon you a system leaning on such principles as do not satisfy myself?
I know very well, that, in the business of life, the dictates of common sense will always, and that in the business of government, the spirit of liberty will sometimes prevail over false theories of politicks and philosophy. But is this a reason why those false theories should be received, or encouraged, or propagated? Ought not our conduct as men and as citizens to receive benefit instead of detriment from the systems of our education? One, whose practice is in diametrical opposition to his principles, stands always in an awkward, often in a painful, sometimes in a dangerous situation.
I have said, that the spirit of liberty will sometimes prevail over false theories of politicks. Unhappily I could not say more: I could not say, generally: far less could I say, always. Let us look around us and behold the sons of men, who inhabit this globe. What an immense proportion of them are the wretched slaves of perverted opinion, of perverted system, of perverted education, and of perverted example in matters relating to the principles of society, and the rights of the human kind!
I hope I have now shown, that the philosophers before mentioned unreasonably claimed the exclusive privilege of assuming the first principle of their philosophy, without proof: I now proceed to show, that they are equally unreasonable in requiring, from others, a proof of every thing by reasoning.
The defects and blemishes of the received philosophy, which have most exposed it to ridicule and contempt, have been chiefly owing to a prejudice of the votaries of this philosophy in favour of reason. They have endeavoured to extend her jurisdiction beyond its just limits; and to call before her bar the dictates of common sense. But these will not submit to this jurisdiction: they plead to its authority; and disdain its trial; they claim not its aid; they dread not its attacks.
In this unequal contest between reason and common sense, the former will always be obliged to retreat both with loss and with dishonour; nor can she ever flourish, till this rivalship is dropt, till these encroachments are given up, and till a cordial friendship is restored. For, in truth, reason has no other root than the principles of common sense: it grows out of them: and from them it draws its nourishment.
There are some common principles, which are the foundation of all science, and of all reasoning. Before men can argue together, they must agree in such principles; for it is impossible for two to reason, but from principles held by them in common. Such common principles seldom admit of direct proof; they need none; they are such as men of common understanding will acknowledge as soon as they are proposed and understood.
Such principles, when we have occasion to use them in science, are called axioms. Upon such, the finest, the most elaborate, and the most sublime reasonings in mathematicks are founded.
In every other science, as well as in mathematicks, there are some common principles, upon which all the reasonings in that science are grounded, and into which they may be resolved. If these were pointed out and considered, we should be better able to judge concerning the strength and certainty of the conclusions in that science.
It is not impossible, that what is only a vulgar prejudice may be mistaken for a first principle. Nor is it impossible, that what is really a first principle, may, by the enchantment of words, have such a mist thrown about it, as to hide its evidence, and make a man of candour doubt concerning it.
The peripatetick philosophy,11 instead of being deficient, was redundant in first principles; instead of rejecting those, which are truly such, it adopted, as such, many vulgar prejudices and rash judgments. This seems, in general, to have been the spirit of ancient philosophy.
How naturally one extreme produces its opposite! Des Cartes, at the head of modern reformers in philosophy, anxious to avoid the snare, in which Aristotle and the peripateticks had been caught—that of admitting things too rashly as first principles—resolved to doubt of every thing, till it was clearly proved. He would not assume, as a first principle, even his own existence. In what manner he supposed nonexistence could institute, or desire to institute a series of proof to prove existence or any thing else, we are not informed.
He thought he could prove his existence by his famous enthymem—Cogito, ergo sum. I think, therefore, I exist. Though he would not assume the existence of himself as a first principle, he was obliged to assume the existence of his thoughts as a first principle. But is this entitled to any degree of preference? Can one, who doubts whether he exists, be certain that he thinks? And may not one, who, without proof, takes it for granted that he thinks—may not such an one, without the imputation of unphilosophick credulity, take it for granted, likewise without proof, that he exists?
In every just proof, a proposition less evident is inferred from one, which is more evident. How is it more evident that we think, than that we exist? Both are equally evident: one, therefore, ought not to be first assumed, and then used as a proof of the other.
But further; if we attend to the strict rules of proof; the existence of Des Cartes was not legitimately inferred from the existence of his thoughts. If the inference is legitimate; it must become legitimate by establishing this proposition—that thought cannot exist without a thinking being. But did Des Cartes, or has any of his followers proved this proposition? They have not proved it: they cannot prove it. Mr. Hume has denied it; and has triumphantly challenged the world to establish it by proof. The basis of his philosophy is, as we have already seen—“that a train of successive perceptions constitute the mind.”
Let me not here be misunderstood. When I say, that the existence of a thinking principle, called the mind, has not been and cannot be proved; I am far from saying, that it is not true, that such a thinking principle exists. I know—I feel—it to be true; but I know it not from proof: I know it from what is greatly superiour to proof: I see it by the shining light of intuition.
Why will philosophers, by a preposterous pride, wish and endeavour to be indebted, for the discovery of every thing, to the feeble and glimmering rays of their own tapers, when they have only to throw the window open, and they will behold every thing illuminated by the splendour of the meridian sun?
Let me, upon this subject, further, observe, that strongly as Des Cartes was seized with this phobia of first principles, he was obliged, in one instance at least, to suffer the detested liquid to touch his lips. Cogito, says he: I think. You think! How do you prove that?. You, who will not believe your own existence without proof—can you consistently dispense with the proof of the existence of your thoughts? He is obliged to submit to the inconsistency. He assumes the existence of his thoughts, as a first principle. Why did he not pursue the same course with regard to other intuitive truths?
As the last observation on this subject, I beg leave to take notice, that, in this remarkable enthymem, Des Cartes assumed the very thing to be proved. Cogito. I think. Who are you? Existence is implied in the very proposition, that one thinks.
To the distinction between first principles and those principles, which may be ascribed to the power of reasoning, it is not a just objection, that there may be some judgments, concerning which we may be doubtful, to which class they should be referred. In painting and in nature, two colours, very different, may so run into one another, as to render it difficult to perceive where one ends and the other begins.
Let us then conclude—for we may safely conclude—that all knowledge, obtained by reasoning, must be built on first principles. When we examine, by analysis, the evidence of any proposition; we find, either that it is selfevident; or that it rests upon one or more propositions, which support it. The same thing may be said of the propositions, which support it; and of those again, which support them. But we cannot go back, in this tract, to infinity. Where, then, must the analysis stop? When we come to propositions, which support all that are built upon them, but are themselves supported by none: in other words, when we come to selfevident propositions.
All first principles must be the immediate dictates of our natural faculties; nor is it possible that we should have any other evidence of their truth. In different sciences, the faculties, which dictate these first principles, are very different: the eye, in astronomy and opticks: the ear, in musick: the moral sense, in morals.
Some first principles yield conclusions, which are certain; others yield such only as are probable. In just reasoning, the strength or weakness of the conclusion will always correspond to the strength or weakness of the principles, on which it is grounded. But the lowest degree of probability, as well as absolute certainty, must be grounded ultimately on first principles.
After hearing so much concerning first principles, the question will naturally suggest itself—are they ascertained and pointed out? That they were so, is most ardently to be desired. In mathematicks, they have been so, as far back as the annals of literature can carry us. And the consequence has been, that, in mathematicks, we find no sects, or contrary systems. This science, founded upon first principles, as upon a rock, has been increased from age to age, till it has become the loftiest and most solid fabrick, which human reason can boast.
Till within these two hundred years, natural philosophy was in the same fluctuating state with the other sciences. Every new system pulled up the old one by the roots. The great Lord Bacon first marked out the only foundation, on which natural philosophy could be built. His celebrated successour, Sir Isaac Newton, gave the first and noblest examples of that chaste induction, of which his guide in the principles of science could only delineate the theory. He reduced the principles of Lord Bacon into a few axioms, which he calls “regulae philosophandi,”—rules of philosophising. From these, together with the phenomena observed by the senses, which he likewise assumes as first principles, he deduces, by strict reasoning, the propositions of his philosophy; and, in this manner, has erected an edifice, which stands immovable upon the basis of first and self-evident principles. This edifice has been enlarged by the accession of new discoveries, made since his time; but it has not been subjected to alterations in the plan.
The other sciences have not, as yet, been so fortunate as those of mathematicks and natural philosophy. Indeed the other sciences, compared with these, have this disadvantage, that it is more difficult to form distinct and determinate conceptions of the objects, about which they are employed. But this difficulty, though great, is not insurmountable: it may afford a reason why the other sciences have had a longer infancy; but it can afford none, why they may not, at last, arrive at maturity by the same steps as those of a quicker growth.
If the same unanimity concerning first principles could be introduced into the other sciences, as in those of mathematicks and natural philosophy; this might be considered as a new era in the progress of human reason.p
Some first principles I have already had occasion to notice: in the course of my system, others will come forward into view; and will receive particular attention; especially in the important law of evidence, upon which the practical use of the whole municipal law entirely rests. For the facts must be ascertained by evidence, before they are susceptible of an application of the law. “Ex facto oritur jus.”12 How can facts be satisfactorily established, unless the genuine philosophy of evidence be known?
Investigation will, perhaps, disclose to us, that this part of philosophy has been best known, where the knowledge of it has been least expected.
[1. ]René Descartes (1596–1650) was an important French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist.
[a. ]Reid’s Inq. 26. 28.
[b. ]Ante. p. 520.
[c. ]Pope’s Ess. on Man. Ep. 1. v. 18.
[2. ]Cogito is short for Descartes’s famous first principle “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am).
[3. ]David Hume (1711–1776) was an important Scottish philosopher, economist, and historian.
[d. ]Reid’s Ess. Int. 579.
[e. ]Reid’s Inq. 39. 139.
[f. ]Locke on Hum. Und. b. 4. c. 14.
[4. ]Apelles (c. 352–308 bc) was a famous painter in ancient Greece.
[5. ]David Hartley (1705–1757) was an English philosopher and physician who founded the Associationist school of psychology.
[6. ]Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) was an English author, chemist, educator, and dissenting clergyman.
[7. ]I.e. George Berkeley.
[g. ]Tr. on hum. nat. 439. 440.
[8. ]Lord Peter is a proverbial character who threatens his brothers with a terrible curse if they don’t believe the lies he tells them. He then sets a loaf of brown bread before them and declares it to be mutton.
[h. ]Inq. Ded. 4–8.
[i. ]On Hum. Und. b. 4. c. 20. s. 8.
[j. ]Id. b. 2. c. 1. s. 1.
[k. ]Id. Introd.
[l. ]On Hum. Und. b. 1. c. 1. s. 8.
[9. ]Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) was a German mathematician and astronomer. He is best known for his laws of planetary motion, but he also made significant discoveries in the realm of optics.
[m. ]Reid’s Ess. Int. 203. 2 Elem. Crit. 513. n.
[10. ]Sir Geoffrey Gilbert (1674–1726) was an English judge and author.
[n. ]Gilb. Ev. 1–3.
[o. ]Ante. p. 472.
[11. ]I.e. Aristotelian philosophy.
[p. ]Reid’s Inq. 483.
[12. ]Law arises from fact.