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Brown, Thomas (1778–1820)


Thomas Brown, a philosopher on the periphery of the common sense school, was born at Kirkmabreck in Scotland. Radically opposed eighteenth-century traditions met in him. He shared with the common sense school, which derived from Thomas Reid, a number of its metaphysical doctrines and its appeal to intuitive truths; and he was also Reid's tireless critic. Philosophy, for Brown, was very largely "analysis": analysis of what he regarded as darkened notions, designed to exhibit their character free from spurious mystery and complication; analysis of the genuinely complex into its elementary constituents and of the deceptively simple into its real complexity. He saw Reid as a great resister of analysis. In the procedure of analysis Brown was influenced by French empiricism in the line of descent from Étienne Bonnot de Condillac.

During the course of his studies at the University of Edinburgh, Brown attended the lectures given by Dugald Stewart, Reid's close adherent. He subsequently graduated in medicine. In 1798 he published a criticism of the Zoonomia of Erasmus Darwin and in 1804 a defense of David Hume's account of causal relations (enlarged in 1806 and again in 1818, when it appeared under the title Inquiry into the Relation of Cause and Effect ). Brown was among the first of the contributors to the Edinburgh Review (he attacked Immanuel Kant in the second number of the Review ). In 1810 he was appointed conjoint professor of moral philosophy with Stewart and took over the teaching duties of the chair. His lectures were a dazzling success; they were published after his death and went through many editions in a few years.

Cause and Effect

Brown's views on causation typically combined an empiricist analysis with what he called a principle of intuitive belief. He defined a cause as "that which immediately precedes any change, and which, existing at any time in similar circumstances, has been always, and will be always, immediately followed by a similar change" (Cause and Effect, p. 13). Brown thought that if we reflect with sufficient patience and imagination, we can see that this definition exhausts the notion of a cause. To suppose that a cause is something more than the antecedent of an invariable consequent is to suppose that we might know all the unfailing regularities of nature and yet have no conception of a causal connection. Material and volitional agents, Brown argued in detail, do not differ in agency; all agency is the same. The omnipotence of God resides simply in the fact that whenever he wills anything, his will is "immediately and invariably followed by the existence of its object" (p. 103).

In tracing the sources of the complex illusion which, he thought, hangs over the relation of cause and effect, Brown emphasized the power of metaphor to mislead. Thus, things that are connected or bound together dependably go together; from this circumstance various figurative expressions enter the language and their figurative character is unnoticed. No bond or connection between causally connected events ever presents itself; yet unless we shift our attention from words to things, we shall easily suppose that it must be insensibly present. Experience (coupled with a kind of negative insight) enables us to see that the causal relation is merely one of sequence; but on what authority do we import the notion of invariableness into this sequence? Brown maintained that we are intuitively certain that the same antecedents will always be followed by the same consequents.

The Will

Under Brown's analysis, mystery vanished from the will: will is an amalgam of desire and the belief that one has it in one's power to realize the desire; there is no further, indefinable operator in our voluntary actions. Brown was not impressed by denials of the identity of will and desire on the ground that there can be opposition between themReid had said, "We may desire what we do not will, and will what we do not desire." When the types of situation referred to are looked at more carefully, Brown said, the opposition is seen to lie between desire and desire, and to be terminated by the desire upon which action immediately depends.


The examination of consciousness that provides data for the philosophy of mind is not, in Brown's opinion, conducted by consciousness. Once again, he saw entities as having been multiplied beyond necessity and, in this case, beyond possibility. He maintained that consciousness is not, as some philosophers have supposed, a surveyor of the mind's various states as they occur; rather, it is constituted by them. To suppose that "the same indivisible mind" could exist at the same time in two different states, one of them an object to the other, is "a manifest absurdity" (Philosophy of the Human Mind, Lectures XI and XII). What is thought of as an introspective examination of mental phenomena is therefore, strictly speaking, retrospective.

Below the phenomena of the mind, analysis encounters metaphysical bedrock. Let us imagine, Brown said, a man born with fully matured powers and a completely blank mind. Let him now be allowed a single sensation. This will be his total consciousness. Let a second sensation be added and let him be made to recall the first. He will then come to a recognition of something different from eitherof himself as their common subject. The conviction that we exist with an "absolute" identity through time is intuitive and irresistible; only the circumstances in which it arises afford matter for inquiry. This identity is the prerogative of our minds; "some sort of identity of the body" is associated with it in our ordinary ideas about "sameness of person" (Lecture XII).


Brown's most subtle analyses occur in his theory of perception. His general problems were to explain how we come to know of the existence of an external, physical world and to specify the precise content of this knowledge. He was very conscious of the danger of question-begging assumptions; he maintained that at every turn we take externality for granted, and that all our language implies it. ("There is no distinct vocabulary of scepticism." Lecture XXII). Brown considered that our original awareness of things in their externalitytheir independence of our perceptionis brought about by means of sensations commonly but inaccurately ascribed to touch. The sensations belonging to other senses acquire an external reference by association with these.

Brown proceeded first to reductive simplification: the various tangible qualities were maintained to be various modifications of either extension or resistance. He then went on to disclose and systematize the complexity of sensations involved in our tactual relations with things. He argued that sensations of mere touch do not primitively inform us of extension and externality. We derive the notion of spatial extension from our repeated experience of the temporal succession of muscular feelings in the movements of arms and fingers. When a familiar series of these feelings is interrupted by feelings of resistance to muscular effortas, for example, our fingers closed around an objectwe become aware for the first time of something separate from ourselves and learn something of its dimensions. Physical objects were, for Brown, essentially extended, resisting objects; but before his argument has ended, extension and resistance seem to have become merely phenomenal and, in their unperceived existence, to have disappeared into their unknown causes.

Moral Theory

Brown's zeal for simplification is nowhere more conspicuous than in his moral theory. The distinctions, for example, between the obligatoriness, rectitude, and merit of an action are simply a matter of tense: contemplated before performance, the action is "obligatory"; in performance, it is "right"; and it is "meritorious" afterward. And what makes it so is the "emotion" of approval it arouses in us when we are in a fit state of mind to form a moral judgmentan emotion in no way arbitrary, for as morally definitive it proceeds from constitution of human nature. The strength and elevation of Brown's moral sentiments assisted his great, brief reputation.

See also Common Sense; Condillac, Étienne Bonnot de; Darwin, Erasmus; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Reid, Thomas; Stewart, Dugald.


Principal works by Thomas Brown are Inquiry into the Relation of Cause and Effect (Edinburgh, 1818); and Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind (Edinburgh, 1820). Selections from Brown appear in Daniel Sommer Robinson, The Story of Scottish Philosophy (New York: Exposition Press, 1961).

For literature on Brown, see David Welsh, Account of the Life and Writings of Thomas Brown (Edinburgh: W. and C. Tait, 1825), and François Réthoré, Critique de la philosophie de Thomas Brown (Paris, 1863). Sir William Hamilton, Discussions on Philosophy and Literature, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1853), pp. 3999, attacks Brown in defense of Reid. Brown is defended against Hamilton by John Stuart Mill in An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts and Green, 1865), Ch. 10.

There are chapters on Brown in James McCosh, The Scottish Philosophy (New York: R. Carter, 1875), and in Henry Laurie, Scottish Philosophy in Its National Development (Glasgow: J. Maclehose, 1902). An indication of Brown's influence in America can be found in Terence Martin, The Instructed Vision (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1961).

S. A. Grave (1967)

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