Reid, Thomas

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Philosopher, founder of the scottish school of common sense; b. Strachan, near Aberdeen, April 26, 1710; d. Glasgow, Oct. 7, 1796. Reid was a professor at the University of Aberdeen from 1752 to 1764, when he succeeded Adam smith in the chair of moral philosophy at Glasgow.

The method of observation and analysis limited to sensorial experience is typical of Reid and his school: the mind knows itself by observing and analyzing the various faculties and constitutive principles of man, in order not to go beyond phenomena and thereby to renounce explaining their origins (metaphysical agnosticism). The validity of sensible knowledge, the existence of the perceiving subject, and belief in the existence of external objects are all inexplicable yet basic principles of human nature. "The mind has a certain faculty of inspiration or suggestion to which we are debtors for an infinite number of simple notions, which are neither impressions nor ideas, as well as for a good number of basic principles of belief" (Inquiry 2.7). Sensation and perception are basic acts of knowledge; through them man knows the primary (objective) and secondary (subjective) qualities of things. In perception, the immediate object of the mind is not the idea but the thing. Ideas do not exist, and to admit them is to accept the skeptical consequences of G. berkeley and D. hume that is, to deny matter, spiritual substance, and the principle of causalitytruths made indisputable by common sense (Essays 2.9). Sensation is infallible and attests to the objectivity of the qualities existing in an object, the essence of which man does not know, since he cannot know material or spiritual substance; he knows only extension, motion, etc., which are neither ideas nor impressions, nor can they exist without something extended or moved. Perception, moreover, has immediate evidence, not demanding reasoning for its proof. Man perceives an object and immediately there arises in him the invincible belief that he and the object exist. All reasoning is based upon this belief, which is first and independent of reasoning. It is an innate suggestion that, not explaining anything because man cannot explain anything, makes him believe in everything and gives him confidence in his faculties, without which he cannot think or act. Common sense should not conform to philosophy, but the latter to the former.

Thus, Reid thought that he had resolved the problem about the objectivity of knowledge and reality against the idealists or impressionists. Yet, like I. kant, he made dogmatic assumptions and thereby hardly departed from Kant's apriority.

Bibliography: Works. An Inquiry into the Human Mind, on the Principles of Common Sense (London 1764); Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (Edinburgh 1785); Essays on the Active Powers of Man (Edinburgh 1788). Literature. f. c. copleston, History of Philosophy (Westminister, Md. 1946) v. 5, Hobbes to Hume (1959) 364373. m. m. rossi, Enciclopedia filosofica, 4 v. (Venice-Rome 1957) 3:192835. m. f. sciacca, T. Reid (Brescia 1945); La filosofia di T. Reid (Naples 1935).

[m. f. sciacca]

Thomas Reid

views updated May 23 2018

Thomas Reid

The Scottish philosopher, clergyman, and teacher Thomas Reid (1710-1796) originated the school of thought known as the philosophy of common sense.

Thomas Reid was the son of Lewis and Margaret Reid. He was born on April 26, 1710, at Strachan, Kincardineshire. Until he was 12 years old, he was educated at home and in the local parish school; he then entered Marischal College, from which he graduated in 1726. During the next decade he studied theology and read widely, and in 1737 he became a Presbyterian minister of the Church of Scotland. In 1740 Reid married his cousin Elizabeth Reid, and during their long life together they raised nine children. In 1752 he gave up his ministry at New Machar to become a professor of philosophy at King's College, Aberdeen. His best-known work, An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764), was derived essentially from material he had presented to the local philosophical society, which he had established.

Although David Hume claimed that his own major work, A Treatise on Human Nature (1739), "fell stillborn from the press," Reid seems to have been one of its few original readers. The two Scots, who were contemporaries, conducted an infrequent but complimentary correspondence, and Reid wrote, "I shall always avow myself as your disciple in metaphysics." In 1753 Reid succeeded Adam Smith, the famous economist, as professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow. He continued teaching until he retired at the age of 71. For the remaining 15 years of his life Reid published extensively. The two most important works of this period were Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785) and Essays on the Active Powers of Man (1788). Reid died on Oct. 7, 1796.

The philosophy of common sense took its point of departure from Hume's skepticism toward impressions and ideas. One of the chief tenets of modern classical philosophy is the representative theory of perception, which assumes that the immediate object of sensation is, in fact, a mental image that presents man with a world of material objects. Likewise, the relations between conceptual ideas are brought about by associations from past experience that are imaginatively projected into the future. Hume's skepticism led him to conclude that inferences on the basis of impressions and ideas are a matter of custom and belief rather than logical inference or demonstration. Reid's purpose was to reject such analysis as "shocking to common sense" and to rely on a description of the way in which perception, conception, and belief work together to produce an instinctive conviction of the validity of man's sensations of the external world and of other selves.

Further Reading

Renewed interest in Reid's work is evident in Timothy Duggon's edition of Reid's An Inquiry into the Human Mind (1970). It partially supplements The Works of Thomas Reid, edited by Sir William Hamilton (2 vols., 1846-1863). This collection also contains Dugald Stewart's Account of the Life and Writings of Thomas Reid (1903). Studies of Reid include A. Campbell Fraser, Thomas Reid (1898), and Olin McKendree Jones, Empiricism and Intuitionism in Reid's Common Sense Philosophy (1927).

Additional Sources

Lehrer, Keith, Thomas Reid, London; New York: Routledge, 1991. □

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