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Source: Thomas Reid, Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense, edited, with an introduction by G.A. Johnston (Chicago: Open Court, 1915).
The Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense originated as a protest against the philosophy of the greatest Scottish philosopher. Hume’s sceptical conclusions did not excite as much opposition as might have been expected. But in Scotland especially there was a good deal of spoken criticism which was never written; and some who would have liked to denounce Hume’s doctrines in print were restrained by the salutary reflection that if they were challenged to give reasons for their criticism they would find it uncommonly difficult to do so. Hume’s scepticism was disliked, but it was difficult to see how it could be adequately met.
At this point Reid stepped into the field. He was the only man of his time who really understood the genesis of Hume’s scepticism and succeeded in locating its sources. At first sight it would seem that this discovery required no peculiar perspicuity. It would seem that nobody could help seeing that Hume’s sceptical conclusions were based on Locke’s premises, and that Hume could never be successfully opposed by any critic who accepted Locke’s assumptions. But this is precisely one of those obvious things that is noticed by nobody. And in fact Reid was the first man to see it clearly. It thus became his duty to question the assumptions on which all his own early thought had been based. The result of this reflection was the conclusion that, since the “ideal theory” of Locke and Berkeley logically led to Hume’s scepticism, and since scepticism was intolerable, that theory would have to be amended, or, if necessary, abandoned.
Reid himself gives an admirable account of the way in which he was roused from his dogmatic slumbers. “I acknowledge,” he says in the Dedication of the Inquiry, “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 in the year 1739. The ingenious author of that treatise upon the principles of Locke—who was no sceptic—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 to admit the conclusion.” Reid was determined not to acquiesce in the sceptical conclusion. And that for three reasons. Scepticism, he says, is trebly destructive. It destroys the science of a philosopher, it undermines the faith of a Christian, and it renders nugatory the prudence of a man of common understanding. Thus he was forced to undertake a criticism of the assumptions on which that sceptical conclusion was based. “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.” This hypothesis is to be found in Locke and Descartes, and consists in the postulation of a world of ideas intermediate between the knower and the object known. It is from this hypothesis, says Reid, that Hume’s scepticism directly results. Reid therefore really criticises Hume via Locke. He takes up the position that if Locke’s assumption be proved untenable, Hume’s conclusion will fall to the ground. Thus, while it is true that it was Hume who elicited Reid’s philosophy, that philosophy is not so much a direct “answer to Hume” as an answer to Locke.
Now, Locke’s doctrine admitted of two, and only two, answers. One of these was given by Berkeley, and led to the scepticism of Hume. The other was given by Reid. For Locke perception involves three elements: the percipient, the idea perceived, and the thing; and it is assumed that the idea is somehow a copy of the external reality. Both Berkeley and Reid saw clearly the difficulties of the doctrine of Representative Perception. If the mind is confined to its own ideas and is cut off from immediate knowledge of the real world, how is it to know if its ideas do or do not agree with things? In order to compare two things, it is necessary to know both. Thus we cannot compare ideas with the things which they represent, because we can never escape the circle of our own ideas. And the further objection is advanced that if the external world does exist, it cannot be like our ideas, for nothing but an idea can be like an idea. Both Berkeley and Reid saw these difficulties in Locke’s doctrine. They both agreed that Locke had gone wrong. How he had gone wrong was the question on which they differed. They agreed, it is true, that Locke had obscured the nature of knowledge by interpolating a spurious factor. But they differed toto cœlo with regard to the question which of Locke’s factors was unreal. By Berkeley it was maintained that Locke’s third factor—the material world—had no real existence. But Reid denied the existence of Locke’s second factor. Locke’s imitative and intermediate ideas are simply creatures of phantasy: they have no real existence. Thus Berkeley is left with mind plus ideas, and Reid with mind plus matter. For both, the relation between mind and its object is immediate.
Reid naturally regarded his own answer to Locke as better than Berkeley’s, partly because Hume had argued that Berkeley’s criticisms of Locke’s material substance could with equal force be levelled against Berkeley’s own spiritual substance; and partly because he believed that a world which consists of minds plus matter is more “consentaneous” with common sense than one which contains only minds plus ideas. Neither of these reasons, in point of fact, is sound, though both would have been perfectly valid if Berkeley had really meant what Hume and Reid thought that he meant. It ought to be remembered, when Reid is criticised for his vulgar failure to appreciate the point of Berkeley’s argument, that Hume also did not fully understand it. Berkeley takes special pains in the Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous to answer precisely the criticisms that Reid and Hume advanced. He points out, for instance, that his arguments against material substance cannot be successfully used against spiritual substances, for spirits are not inert and passive, but are active beings, which are not known as ideas, but are apprehended through notions. Hume’s criticism of Berkeley simply makes the unjustifiable assumption that spirits are on the same level as ideas, and that they are known in the same way. Reid’s misapprehension of Berkeley’s meaning is neither more nor less egregious. He assumes that in denying the existence of matter, and in asserting that the world consists solely of spirits and ideas, Berkeley is proclaiming the non-existence of the world to which common sense bears testimony. Now, Reid knew that Berkeley was never weary of insisting that his doctrine denied nothing that common sense admitted. The material world which Berkeley destroyed was not a conviction of common sense, but a philosophical hypothesis. For him the world remained as real as ever. If Hume and Reid had been less eager to criticise Berkeley and more anxious to understand him, they might have seen the importance of the suggestions made by him—e.g. in the second edition of the Principles and in Siris—towards an interpretation of the world based on the concurrence of both reason and sense. Hume entirely failed to appreciate Berkeley’s suggestions towards a notional system of knowledge, and, if Reid noticed them, he made no use of them in the development of his own system.
The great merit of Reid’s answer to Locke lay in its immunity from criticism along Hume’s lines. By denying the existence of ideas in Locke’s sense, it entirely cut the ground away from Hume. Reid himself points out that his own doctrine, in one aspect, forms the reductio ad absurdum of the whole “ideal theory.” Locke starts with minds, ideas, and matter. Berkeley disproves matter and retains minds and ideas. Hume denies the existence of minds and preserves only ideas. And Reid in turn denies ideas. Thus the development of thought has, by a necessary process, led to the destruction of the whole apparatus with which Locke started. Reid therefore resolves to begin afresh, not with hypotheses postulated by philosophy, but with principles guaranteed by common sense.
It may have been noticed that in this account of the development of Reid’s thought with reference to his immediate predecessors, two slightly different views have been implied. So far these have purposely not been distinguished. For it is probable that the actual development of Reid’s own views was determined in the way sketched above, partly by direct opposition to Hume and partly by criticism of Locke. It is probable that he was not clearly conscious how far his views owed their origin to criticism of Locke, and how far to antagonism to Hume. But it is worth while to make the difference clear. If we regard Reid’s doctrine as developed mainly by criticism of Locke’s assumptions, it can be shewn that it retains more of the Descartes-Locke assumptions than it denies. In particular, Reid preserves, though he restates, the two-substance doctrine, which was one of the most important elements in the Locke-Descartes Gemeingut. In one aspect, then, Reid may be regarded as Locke purged and Locke re-created. It is only a mild exaggeration to say that Reid’s system is a critical reconstruction of Locke.
But when Reid’s work is considered in its direct application to Hume, it assumes a somewhat different tinge. It then appears more closely related to the uncritical appeals to common sense made by Reid’s contemporaries and successors. Reid saw that some of Hume’s conclusions were ridiculous, and he believed that others were impious; and he was apt to assume that their apparent absurdity and impiety supplied adequate grounds for denying them. Reid appealed from the hypotheses of philosophy to the “principles of common sense.” Common sense secured to him the belief in the existence of mind and matter. From this naïve dualism was developed his Natural Realism. Such is another view that may be taken of the genesis of Reid’s doctrine.
The truth lies somewhere between the two sharply contrasted views. The distinction between them was almost certainly hardly present to Reid’s own mind. But the former is nearer the truth than the latter. It cannot be denied that there is a Reid who in the Inquiry and even in the Essays appeals from philosophy, in the manner of Beattie and Oswald, to vulgar common sense. There is a Reid who condemns a theory by consigning its author to the mad-house. There is a Reid who gets rid of difficulties by simply laughing at them. But this is not the normal Reid. When the normal Reid appeals to common sense, it is an appeal not to blind feeling, but to permanent principles of human nature. He makes an appeal, as Sir William Hamilton has said, “from the heretical conclusions of particular philosophies to the catholic principles of all philosophy.” Further, while it is perfectly true that Reid’s nisus to independent philosophical inquiry was due to his desire to rebut Hume’s conclusions, and while he did criticise Hume directly, he had acuteness enough to see that the only really successful criticism of Hume must be Higher Criticism, in the strict sense of that much-abused term, i.e. criticism higher upstream, nearer the source.
Reid’s work was both constructive and critical. He did not start absolutely de novo with the convictions of common sense. What he did was to take over, in large measure, the results of Locke’s work, at the same time subjecting it to examination in the light of all the information he could himself acquire by a common-sense investigation of mental processes. Nothing could be truer than Sidgwick’s statement, “If Locke is the first founder of the distinctively British science, Empirical Psychology, of which the primary method is introspective observation and analysis, I think Reid has a fair claim to be regarded as a second founder.”
Much less favourable was the judgment that Kant passed on Reid. In the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic, Kant declares that Reid entirely missed the point of Hume’s problem. What Reid ought to have done, says Kant, was to “probe more deeply into the nature of reason.” But, instead of doing this, he “discovered a more convenient means of putting on a bold face without any proper insight into the question, by appealing to the common sense of mankind.” Such an appeal to common sense, Kant continues, had the effect of enabling the emptiest babbler without an atom of insight to attack with some show of success a thinker of Hume’s calibre. Now, it seems inconceivable that, if Kant had really read Reid, he could have written about him in such a strain. And it has been suggested that in all probability Kant had no first - hand knowledge of Reid. In the Prolegomena he mentions Reid along with Oswald, Beattie, and Priestley, making no distinction between them. But if Kant had himself read the writings of these men, he could hardly have bracketed them, for Reid is altogether in a different class from the other three. Hence the very plausible suggestion, supported by the way in which Kant mentions the names (“Reid, Oswald, Beattie, and even Priestley”), that Kant’s knowledge of Reid was derived solely from the criticisms in Priestley’s Examination.
But Hume had certainly read Reid, and it is interesting to compare his criticism with Kant’s. Hume received, from a common friend (Dr Blair), parts of the manuscript of Reid’s Inquiry. He started to read it with no enthusiasm, muttering a wish “that the parsons would confine themselves to their old task of worrying one another, and leave philosophers to argue with moderation, temper, and good manners.” But the book itself entirely dissolved Hume’s prejudice, and elicited a generous and appreciative letter to Reid. “It is certainly very rare,” Hume writes, “that a piece so deeply philosophical is wrote with so much spirit, and affords so much entertainment to the reader. . . . There are some objections that I would propose, but I will forbear till the whole can be before me. I will only say that if you have been able to clear up these abstruse and important topics, instead of being mortified, I shall be so vain as to pretend to a share of the praise.” The point specially worth noticing in this testimony is the fact that Hume remarks on the “deeply philosophical” character of Reid’s work. He does not dream of talking of “empty babblers”: in particular, it does not occur to him that Reid had appealed from scientific philosophy to vulgar common sense. He recognises that Reid’s attack on him is a damaging criticism, made on the strictly philosophical level.
The analogies between Reid’s work and Kant’s are many and striking. Reid began, as Kant did, by comparing the slow progress made by philosophy with the rapid advance of physical science. And, like Kant, Reid determined that, if philosophy were to advance, the attitude of physical science must be adopted. Like Kant, Reid was a competent mathematician and physicist, with a great respect for Newton. But his general philosophical method differs from that of Kant. While Kant’s work is written, in the main, from the epistemological standpoint, Reid remains true to the traditional British psychological method. The philosopher must undertake an examination of the operations of the mind. He is an anatomist of the mind. His task is much more difficult than that of the student of the anatomy of the body, “for it is his own mind only that he can examine with any degree of accuracy and distinctness.” Philosophy is based on the results of our introspective observation of the working of our own minds.
Reid’s critique of knowledge, like Kant’s, opposes any sensationalism such as Hume’s. Hume maintained that the mind and its objects can be reduced to a series of particular sensations, and that these individual sensations may be known, each independent of the other. Reid criticises this view, to which he gives the scholastic name “simple apprehension.” It is a mistake to think, he says, that knowledge consists originally in simple apprehension. It is a mistake to think that we start originally with simple sensations and then refer them to their subjects and their objects. On the contrary, the simplest act of the mind is already a judgment. Judgment is both logically and psychologically prior to simple apprehension. Judgment is the unit of knowledge. By a process of analysis, it is possible to differentiate elements within the judgment. But these elements are elements merely; and they can be regarded separately only by a process of abstraction. Thus even simple apprehension is not really simple: it is reached by abstraction from the natural unit of knowledge. If we analyse even the simplest sensation, we find that it always implies judgment.
In the Inquiry Reid proves this in detail, by an examination of the five external senses. He begins with smell, the simplest and least intellectual of these, and shows that even here a system of natural judgments is suggested. These natural judgments are not actually given in experience: they are suggested by experience. The natural judgments thus suggested are necessary for the constitution of experience. Were sense-experience not accompanied by these natural suggestions, it would itself be an impossibility. What are these constitutive natural judgments? There is the judgment, in the first place, of existence. Our sensations immediately suggest that what we now feel or perceive actually exists, and memory suggests that what we remember did actually exist. But this judgment of existence does not mean that what we feel exists only as a sensation. It implies the permanent existence of (a) minds and (b) the material world. Reid admits that we cannot logically infer the existence either of minds or of the external world. But he insists that they are principles of common sense, “They are judgments of nature—judgments not got by comparing ideas and perceiving agreements and disagreements, but immediately inspired by our constitution.”
Another natural judgment is that there is a real difference between primary and secondary qualities. Reid points out that Berkeley’s arguments against the distinction must be regarded as conclusive by all who agree with the “ideal theory.” “Yet, after all,” he says, “there appears to be a real foundation for it in the principles of our nature.” He draws a sharp distinction between sensible qualities and sensations. The almost universal tendency to confuse the external quality with the sensation is due to the fact that we have no name for the sensation, as distinct from the perceived quality. But Reid insists that, though we draw no distinction in language, the distinction does really exist. For example, our sensation of hardness is quite distinct from the hardness which really exists in bodies. “Hitherto, they have been confounded by the most acute enquirers into the principles of human nature, although they appear, upon accurate reflection, not only to be different things, but as unlike as pain is to the point of a sword.” In every case the sensible quality must be distinguished from the sensation; and in no case is the sensible quality dependent for its existence on the sensation. Reid really obscures the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, though in a different way from Berkeley. Berkeley had reduced all qualities to secondary qualities: Reid, in effect, makes all qualities primary. Thus colour means, he says, “not a sensation of the mind, which can have no existence when it is not perceived, but a quality or modification of bodies, which continues to be the same, whether it is seen or not.” Eventually, after considering in detail in the Inquiry various primary and secondary qualities, the only difference Reid finds between them is that there is a resemblance and a necessary connection between primary qualities and the sensations we have of them, but not between secondary qualities and our sensations. In the Essays Reid attacks the problem again, and adds that our senses give us a direct and distinct notion of primary qualities, but of secondary qualities only a relative and obscure notion. The important point is not so much Reid’s attempt to distinguish primary from secondary qualities as his insistence on the fact that in both cases our sensations are generically different from the qualities of things. Hence mere sensation can never give us knowledge of an object: for that, perception is necessary. Reid is far from consistent in maintaining the distinction between perception and sensation; but in the main he holds that while sensation is the condition of perception, yet bare sensation by itself neither is an object of knowledge nor can give complete knowledge of an object. In all knowledge, he holds, is involved the perceptual activity of the self, working in accordance with certain natural judgments. It will be evident how far this theory is in general agreement with Kant’s doctrine of the importance of judgment, and the indispensability for knowledge of the subject with its categories.
Reid’s contemporaries and successors in the Scottish School made little, if any, real contribution to the Philosophy of Common Sense. He was the greatest, as he was the first, of the School; and its other members were content, for the most part, to repeat in other words what he had already said. Reid was the most strictly philosophical member of the school. The extracts in this volume, though they reveal the other thinkers at their best, make that sufficiently clear.
Beattie in his own day far surpassed Reid in reputation: this was largely due to what may now be regarded as his most serious defects, the lack of “body” in his work, and his vulgar denunciations of Hume. Beattie’s popularity in his own day had a good deal to do, as Stewart points out, with the bad odour in which the Philosophy of Common Sense came to be held. Beattie was regarded as its chief exponent, and his uncritical work was considered typical of the Scottish philosophy. His Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth is a rather foolish and vulgar attack on Hume’s scepticism, but it was appreciated more than Reid’s work by those who, like George III., were not peculiarly intelligent.
Ferguson’s work betrays the same thinness and lack of originality as Beattie’s. He himself describes his Principles of Moral and Political Science as “much of what everybody knows about mind.” At the same time, it must be remembered that it was he who promulgated the “perfectibilianism” which had a considerable vogue at the time as an ethical theory.
Stewart gave a very clear and scholarly restatement of the principles of the Common-Sense Philosophy. A man of great erudition and much personal charm, and easily the foremost philosopher of the day in Britain, he did more than anyone else not merely to popularise that philosophy, but to secure for it the respectful, and, in some cases, the admiring, attention of other philosophers. His rechauffé of Reid is often overburdened with illustration and analogy. But there are points on which he states the common views of the school in a more systematic and thorough way than Reid. In particular may be mentioned the sections on Taste, which show æsthetic appreciation and real originality, and the chapter on the “Fundamental Laws of Human Belief,” which contains a fresh restatement of the “principles of common sense.”
Other representatives of the Philosophy of Common Sense are Campbell and Oswald. George Campbell (1719-1796), one of the original members of Reid’s “Wise Club,” incorporated his contributions to the society in his Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776). James Oswald published in 1766-1772 An Appeal to Common Sense in behalf of Religion, a popular vindication of religion and morality. They simply follow Reid, and apply his views without making any real contributions to the Philosophy of Common Sense. Like his contemporaries, Lord Monboddo (1714-1799) was opposed to the Locke - Berkeley - Hume development of thought, but he did not agree with Reid that its sceptical conclusions could be met by an appeal to common sense. In his Antient Metaphysics he advocated a “return to Plato” as the only means of defeating scepticism. Thomas Brown (1778-1820) and Sir William Hamilton (1788-1856) are sometimes classed with the common-sense philosophers; but they both abandoned many of its most important positions. Brown’s philosophy has interest now mainly as an anticipation of the association psychology, and almost everything he added to the Scottish philosophy was inconsistent with it. Sir William Hamilton was much influenced by German philosophy, especially that of Kant. His “Natural Realism” is a strange mixture of Reid and Kant, and he should not be regarded as a representative of the Philosophy of Common Sense.
In Reid’s followers the weaknesses and defects of the Scottish philosophy emerge with special clearness, but even in Reid himself they are sufficiently noticeable. As they are so obvious, it is the less necessary to labour them. But three or four of them may be simply mentioned. The Scottish philosophers are apt to turn, in difficulties, to vulgar, uncritical common sense. They are apt to set up an opposition between philosophy and common sense, and to appeal from the verdict of philosophy to the bar of common sense. They are apt to regard as the principles of common sense simply those principles which to them seem to be self-evident. Again, they are too ready to acquiesce in the ultimate inexplicability of their principles. No attempt is made to prove or deduce the system of natural judgments. There seems to be no reason why there should be so many and no more. In the works of all the representatives of the school, again and again one meets with assertions of the final inability of philosophy to explain the why and wherefore of things. Further, they are very careless in the use of terms. While it is of fundamental importance for the school to distinguish between perception and sensation, and while every one of the writers does distinguish between them officially, they often use the terms indiscriminately and ambiguously. Perception and conception are often confused, and also conception and imagination. The school does have a definite terminology, but too often it uses its terms loosely.
The historical significance of the Philosophy of Common Sense is considerable. In England and Germany it has never been much appreciated, but in France it has exercised a great influence. Royer-Collard (1763-1845) introduced it to his country-men, and, through his great pupil Victor Cousin (1792-1867), made it the greatest power in the French philosophy of the period. Cousin’s work was supported by Jouffroy (1796-1842), who translated Reid’s works into French. For half a century the Philosophy of Common Sense was the dominant philosophy in the American Universities, and it is to the Scottish President of an American College that we owe the most comprehensive study of it. In recent years in France there has been a recrudescence of interest in the Scottish philosophy, an interest which has extended to the writings of Professor S. S. Laurie, who, in several able works, attempted what amounts to a critical reconstruction of the traditional Scottish Natural Realism.
The selections in this volume are reprinted from the following editions:—
Reid’s Works, edited by Sir William Hamilton, sixth edition, 1863.
Beattie’s Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, seventh edition, 1807.
Ferguson’s Principles of Moral and Political Science, 1792.
Stewart’s Collected Works, edited by Sir William Hamilton, 1854-1858.
The following books may be consulted:—
J. M‘Cosh, The Scottish Philosophy, London, 1875.
A. S. Pringle - Pattison, Scottish Philosophy, fourth edition, Edinburgh, 1907.
H. Laurie, Scottish Philosophy in its National Development, Glasgow, 1902.
A. Campbell Fraser, Thomas Reid, Edinburgh, 1898.