We are sad to learn that Robin, valued contributor and friend of SR for many years, died on Tuesday 14 February. Our thoughts are with his family and friends
Thomas Reid is much less known in Scotland than David Hume or Adam Smith and yet his philosophical views are much closer to a characteristically Scottish outlook than those of Hume or Smith. He is more celebrated in the US or France than in his native country.
He was born in the village of Strachan in Kincardineshire on 26 April 1710 to Lewis Reid, minister of the Kirk in Strachan, and Margaret Gregory, member of one of the most remarkable intellectual dynasties that Scotland has produced. In 1723, Reid matriculated at Marischal College, Aberdeen, and graduated with a MA in 1726, before going on to study divinity. In 1737, he took up the post of Kirkminister in New Machar, Aberdeenshire, where for 14 years he ministered to his flock while also finding time to delve deeply into philosophy, mathematics and the physical sciences.
He had long studied the sceptical philosophy of David Hume, a philosophy whose logical rigour he admired but whose conclusions he thought wrong-headed, and in 1764 he published the Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense
, which was the first of his responses to Hume's scepticism, and the work that quickly established him as the leading voice in the defence of common sense against the sceptical attack by Hume. In that same year, he was elected Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University in succession to Adam Smith, and remained in post till his death on 7 October 1796.
Reid was not exclusively an academic. As well as the 14 years he spent as a parish minister, he participated frequently in discussions in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland as a representative first of King's College and then of Glasgow University. He played a role in the anti-slavery movement and gave strong support to John Howard, the penal reformer. Very late in life he was, at least initially, an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution.
In 1780, he withdrew from teaching duties, perhaps because of his increasing deafness, and dedicated himself to developing his philosophy. There were two major outcomes to these endeavours: Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man
(1785) and Essays on the Active Powers of Man
(1788). During the latter half of the 18th century and during the first half of the 19th, Scotland was home to a school of common sense philosophy and Reid's works formed the central texts of the school.
The most important use of the term 'common sense' in Reid occurs in the context of his epistemology and his philosophical method. Here it refers to a select set of intuitive judgements we all make. Reid calls these variously 'first principles, principles of common sense, common notions,
[or] self-evident truths
'. A common sense judgement is 'necessary to all men for their being and preservation, and therefore it is unconditionally given to all men by the Author of Nature'. Common sense intuitive judgements are 'no sooner understood than they are believed. The judgement follows the apprehension of them necessarily, and both are equally the work of nature, and the result of our original powers'.
Common sense principles possess 'the consent of ages and nations, of the learned and unlearned, [which] ought to have great authority with regard to first principles, where every man is a competent judge'. Common sense principles are common sense because they are common to humanity.
The point that common sense principles are 'common to humanity' is important in Reid's interpretation of common sense. He frequently emphasises empirical generalisations from observable data about what people believe and how they behave. For example, he writes: 'The universality of these opinions, and of many such that might be named, is sufficiently evident, from the whole tenor of human conduct, as far as our acquaintance reaches, and from the history of all ages and nations of which we have any records'.
Reid also appeals to the structure of languages as evidence for generalisations about human cognition, belief and descriptive metaphysics. Language, being something very widely shared, offers an abundance of data for observation. Reid finds many commonalities across languages. He says there is an important difference between the active and the passive, since 'all languages have a passive and active voice'. All languages distinguish between qualities of things and the things themselves. This suggests that certain universal features of the syntactic structure of languages inform us of a common sense cognitive commitment, even if it is implicit.
Most of Reid's first principles take the form of his principle 5, which reads: 'That those things do really exist which we distinctly perceive by our senses, and [they] are what we perceive them to be'. Such common sense first principles are intended to be more than merely generalisations about how humans across cultures form beliefs. Reid intends these general principles to provide evidence for particular beliefs. For example, principle 5 leads to the self-evident belief that I perceive a kettle before me. Reid's philosophical method accords with common sense insofar as everyday perceptual beliefs are self-evidently correct.
An implication of Reid's application of his common sense method to first principles is that Reid is not concerned to answer questions concerning the justification of beliefs, although justification of that kind has traditionally appeared central to philosophers.
Reid believes he can refute sceptical hypotheses – such as Descartes's hypothesis of an evil demon who can deceive us about all our beliefs concerning the world. He points out that such a hypothesis is no more likely to be true than the commonsensical belief that the world is much the way we perceive it to be. Since the belief in the external world is a dictate of common sense, Reid thinks it is as justified as it needs to be; it is on the same footing as any alternative.
Justification therefore does not necessarily require providing positive reasons in favour of commonsensical beliefs; common sense beliefs can be adequately justified simply by undermining the force of the reasons in favour of alternatives to common sense. Common sense constrains, rather than dictates, acceptable philosophical positions.
Reid's criticism of the specifically moral philosophy of both Hutcheson and Hume is easily summed up. Both philosophers (and many contemporary philosophers) take the view that moral right and wrong are matters of feelings of approval or disapproval, that is, they are passive reactions to situations. Reid's position is that moral judgements are just that – they are judgements. He makes the witty point that a judge is not a 'feeler'; to make a moral judgement is to be active rather than just passively having a feeling.
At the start I noted that Reid was, through his mother, a member of the Gregory family, Scotland's greatest dynasty in the field of mathematics and the empirical sciences. Reid's membership of that family was part of his self-image. In fact, he carried out important research into mathematics which led him to construct a non-Euclidean system of geometry a century before non-Euclidean geometry became a significant area of mathematics. His non-Euclidean system is nowadays the subject of research on both sides of the Atlantic.
Reid's philosophy was received enthusiastically in France, where the minister of education, Victor Cousin, was the dedicatee of the first complete edition of The Works of Thomas Reid
. He decreed that Reid's Inquiry into the Human Mind
should be a compulsory text for the baccalaureate
, so generations of students in France in the 19th century were familiar with Reid's main ideas. Those ideas also found a welcome in Germany and America and elsewhere in the 19th century, and today Reid's ideas are still alive and full of vigour, even if not in Scotland.
Reid hoped that Hume would reply to his criticisms, but Hume's patronising response was to recommend him to avoid Scotticisms and improve his English. I do not think 'le bon David' comes out of that very well.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow