Reid, Thomas

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Reid, Thomas (1710-1796): Scottish Philosopher.

Thomas Reid was founder and leader of the Scottish Common Sense tradition in philosophy, which rejected the skepticism of David Hume in favor of a psychological study of the human mind and the beliefs implicit in its structure.

Thomas Reid was born 26 April, 1710 in Strachan, Kincardineshire, Scotland in a family of Presbyterian ministers. He was educated at Marischal College, Aberdeen. His philosophical training, supervised by George Turnbull, emphasized the idealism of Berkeley, George. Reid, sixteen at the time of his graduation, was later to reject Berkeley, George’s views when he saw that they led to Hume’s thoroughgoing skepticism. After further study of divinity he was licensed to preach by his father’s parish in 1731.

Reid remained at Marischal College, serving as it librarian. In 1737 he was assigned to the parish of New Machar, near Aberdeen, where a dispute over patronage made his parishioners so hostile as to endanger Reid’s life. He gradually brought the parish around through diligent service. He married his cousin, Elizabeth Reid, in 1740. His first publication, “An Essay on Quality,” (1748) was an attack on Hutcheson, Francis for using simplistic mathematical formulas in the Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725) to decide complex ethical questions.

In 1751 Reid was appointed as one of several regents at King’s College, also in Aberdeen. The college was changing to the professorial system, where faculty specialized in one subject rather than guiding a group of students over several years. Reid became Professor of Philosophy under the new system. He helped to make King’s College more rigorous, with longer terms and less emphasis on outdated Scholasticism.

To continue his own intellectual development, Reid helped found the Aberdeen Philosophical Society in 1758. This group frequently discussed Hume, David’s Treatise of Human Nature (1739 & 40), which had long stimulated Reid’s thinking. Reid published his response to Hume’s system in 1764, as Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense. This prompted his election that same year to the Moral Philosophy chair at Glasgow as Smith, Adam’s successor.

Hume had claimed that the only objects of thought are impressions or ideas, that is, immediate experiences of sensation, or memories of those sensations. In this, Hume was following John Locke, as well as Berkeley, George and Rene Descartes, in asserting that we are never directly aware of the external world, but only of the ideas within our own mind. This led Hume to question the existence of other minds, and the persistence of personal identity over time. In his most famous argument, Hume destroys a central assumption of our naïve world-view, denying that nature contains real causal connections. Reid rejected Hume’s epistemological doubts, arguing that we know that an external world exists by a direct application of our “common sense.” Similarly, we are directly aware of the existence of our own minds, and cannot seriously doubt (as Descartes suggested) the existence of other minds, or (as Hume argued) the possibility of causality and natural laws. By introspective study of our minds, we discover certain innate principles, which are universal and necessary for any further reasoning. These principles, and the beliefs most directly approved of by these principles (such as the belief that the external world exists), serve as preconditions for reasoning. Thus, we cannot find or demand any arguments for them, beyond their obviousness to anyone free from the perplexity caused by too much philosophical speculation. The Inquiry was soon translated into French, and was influential in France and Germany. Reid’s thoughtful critique of Hume was later eclipsed by the work of Kant, Immanuel, who substituted the doctrine of the synthetic a priori for Reid’s introspective empiricism.

At Glasgow, Reid taught natural theology, ethics and political science, as well as rhetoric. He had a long running but friendly intellectual conflict with one of Hume’s followers, James Millar, Professor of Civil Law. Given the demands of teaching, Reid published little while a professor, although he developed many of his views in lectures given to his students.

Reid entered semi-retirement in 1780, preparing his lectures for publication while an assistant took over his teaching duties. They appeared as Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785) and Essays on the Active Powers of Man (1788). The former consists of essays analyzing, in Reid’s thoughtful and methodical style, distinct faculties of the mind. These include the capacity to develop abstract general terms, which goes beyond the original principles described in the Inquiry into the Human Mind. The later volume of essays presents a theory of action that rejects determinism and asserts that humans have genuine free agency. Along with moral freedom, Reid believes that God has provided us with a moral faculty that reliably guides our discovery of certain self-evident moral principles. In ethics, as in metaphysics, Reid’s views can be understood as a repudiation of Hume, who believed that our moral standards are merely a codification of sentiments justified by their social usefulness.

Reid died in 1796, ending a productive, and relatively peaceful life. He had many followers in England, the United States and Europe, some directly and some through his disciple Stewart, Dugald. His work was a mainstay of American college education for more than a generation, and clearly influenced Jefferson, Thomas and Ralph Waldo Emerson. More recently, G. E. Moore revived Reid’s method of investigating mental operations by analyzing ordinary language.

Further Reading:

K. Lehrer, Thomas Reid, 1989.

P. Wood, “‘The Fittest Man in the Kingdom’: Thomas Reid and the Glasgow Chair of Moral Philosophy,” Hume Studies 23.2, 1997.


Nicholas Hunt-Bull

Southern New Hampshire University

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