Thomas Reid

Thomas Reid

Thomas Reid
Thomas Reid
Born (1710-04-26)26 April 1710
Strachan, Scotland
Died 7 October 1796(1796-10-07) (aged 86)
Glasgow, Scotland
Era 18th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Scottish School of Common Sense, Scottish Enlightenment
Main interests
Metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of Mind, ethics
Notable ideas
Direct realism, epistemological externalism

Thomas Reid FRSE (; 26 April 1710 – 7 October 1796) was a religiously trained Scottish philosopher, a contemporary of David Hume as well as "Hume's earliest and fiercest critic."[1] He was the founder of the Scottish School of Common Sense and played an integral role in the Scottish Enlightenment. The early part of his life was spent in Aberdeen and he graduated from the University of Aberdeen. He began his career as a Minister of the Church of Scotland but ceased to be a Minister (or called 'Reverend') when he was given a professorship at King's College, Aberdeen in 1752. He obtained his doctorate and wrote An Inquiry Into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (published in 1764). He and his colleagues founded the 'Aberdeen Philosophical Society' which was popularly known as the 'Wise Club' (a literary-philosophical association).[2] Shortly after the publication of his first book, he was given the prestigious Professorship of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow when he was called to replace Adam Smith. He resigned from this position in 1781, after which he prepared his university lectures for publication in two books: Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785) and Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind (1788). Reid was buried at Blackfriars Church in the grounds of Glasgow College and when the university moved to Gilmorehill in the west of Glasgow, his tombstone was inserted in the main building. See separate article on Thomas Reid's tombstone.

Reid believed that George Berkeley, who asserted that the external world is merely ideas in the mind. By contrast, Reid claimed that the foundations upon which our sensus communis are built justify our belief that there is an external world.

In his day and for some years into the 19th century, he was regarded as more important than Hume.[4] He advocated direct realism, or common sense realism, and argued strongly against the Theory of Ideas advocated by John Locke, René Descartes, and (in varying forms) nearly all Early Modern philosophers who came after them. He had a great admiration for Hume and had a mutual friend send Hume an early manuscript of Reid's Inquiry. Hume responded that the "deeply philosophical" work "is wrote in a lively and entertaining matter," but that "there seems to be some defect in method," and criticized Reid for implying the presence of innate ideas.[5]


  • Thomas Reid's theory of common sense 1
    • Exploring Sense and Language 1.1
    • Influences 1.2
  • Other philosophical positions 2
  • See also 3
  • Reid's works 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7

Thomas Reid's theory of common sense

His theory of knowledge had a strong influence on his theory of morals. He thought epistemology was an introductory part to practical ethics: When we are confirmed in our common beliefs by philosophy, all we have to do is to act according to them, because we know what is right. His moral philosophy is reminiscent of Roman stoicism in its emphasis on the agency of the subject and self-control. He often quotes Cicero, from whom he adopted the term "sensus communis". Reid's answer to Hume's skeptical and naturalist arguments was to enumerate a set of principles of common sense (sensus communis) which constitute the foundations of rational thought. Anyone who undertakes a philosophical argument, for example, must implicitly presuppose certain beliefs like, "I am talking to a real person," and "There is an external world whose laws do not change," among many other positive, substantive claims. For Reid, the belief in the truth of these principles is not rational; rather, reason itself demands these principles as prerequisites, as does the innate "constitution" of the human mind. It is for this reason (and possibly a mocking attitude toward Hume and Berkeley) that Reid sees belief in the principles of common sense as a litmus test for sanity. For example, in The Intellectual Powers of Man he states, "For, before men can reason together, they must agree in first principles; and it is impossible to reason with a man who has no principles in common with you." One of the first principles he goes on to list is that "qualities must necessarily be in something that is figured, coloured, hard or soft, that moves or resists. It is not to these qualities, but to that which is the subject of them, that we give the name body. If any man should think fit to deny that these things are qualities, or that they require any subject, I leave him to enjoy his opinion as a man who denies first principles, and is not fit to be reasoned with."

Reid also made positive arguments based in phenomenological insight to put forth a novel mixture of direct realism and ordinary language philosophy. In a typical passage in the Intellectual Powers he asserts that when he has a conception of a centaur, the thing he conceives is an animal, and no idea is an animal; therefore, the thing he conceives is not an idea, but a centaur. This point relies both on an account of the subjective experience of conceiving an object and also on an account of what we mean when we use words. Because Reid saw his philosophy as publicly accessible knowledge, available both through introspection and the proper understanding of how language is used, he saw it as the philosophy of common sense.

Exploring Sense and Language

Reid started out with a 'common sense' based on a direct experience of an external reality, but then proceeded to explore in two directions - external to the senses, and internal to human language - to find a more rational basis.

In the case of the latter, Reid saw this as based on an innate capacity pre-dating human consciousness, and acting as an instrument for that consciousness. Also, language then becomes a means of examining the original form of human cognition. Reid notes that current human language contains two distinct elements: first, the acoustic element and secondly the meanings which seem to have nothing to do with the sounds as such. This state of language, which he calls 'artificial', cannot be the primeval one, which he terms 'natural', wherein sound was not an abstract sign, but a concrete gesture or natural sign. Reid looks to the way a child learns language, by imitating sounds, becoming aware of them long before it understands the meaning accorded to the various groups of sounds in the artificial state of contemporary adult speech. If, says Reid, the child were to understand immediately the conceptual content of the words it hears, it would never learn to speak at all. Here Reid distinguishes between natural and artificial signs.

'It is by natural signs chiefly that we give force and energy to language; and the less language has of them, it is the less expressive and persuasive. ... Artificial signs signify, but they do not express; they speak to the intellect, as algebraic characters may do, but the passions and the affections and the will hear them not: these continue dormant and inactive, till we speak to them in the language of nature, to which they are all attention and obedience.' (p. 52) [6]

As regards the former, Reid was led to his critical distinction between 'sensation' and 'perception'. While we become aware of an object through the senses, the content of that perception is not identical with the sum total of the sensations caused in our consciousness. Thus, while we tend to focus on the object perceived, we pay no attention to the process leading from sensation to perception, which contains the knowledge of the thing as real. How, then, do we receive the conviction of the latter's existence? Reid's answer is, by entering into an immediate intuitive relationship with it, as a child does. In the case of the adult, the focus is on perceiving, but with the child it is on receiving of the sensations in their living nature. For Reid, the perception of the child is different from the adult, and he states that man must become like a child to get past the artificial perception of the adult, which leads to Hume's view that what we perceive is an illusion. Also, the artist provides a key to the true content of sense experience, as he engages the 'language of nature'.

'It were easy to show, that the fine arts of the musician, the painter, the actor, and the orator, so far as they are expressive... are nothing else but the language of nature, which we brought into the world with us, but have unlearned by disuse and so find the greatest difficulty in recovering it. (p. 53)[7]
That without a natural knowledge of the connection between these [natural] signs and the things signified by them, language could never have been invented and established among men; and, That the fine arts are all founded upon this connection, which we may call the natural language of mankind." (p. 59) [8]

Thus, for Reid, common sense was based on the innate capacity of man in an earlier epoch to directly participate in nature, and one we find to some extent in the child and artist, but one that from a philosophical and scientific perspective, we must re-awaken at a higher level in the human mind above nature.

Reid also claimed that this discovery of the link between the natural sign and the thing signified was the basis of natural philosophy and science, as pointed out by Bacon in his new method of discovery of the innate laws of nature.

The great Lord Verulam had a perfect comprehension of this, when we called it an interpretation of nature. No man ever more distinctly understood, or happily expressed the nature and foundation of the philosophic art. What is all we know of mechanics, astronomy, and optics, but connections established by nature and discovered by experience or observation, and consequences deduced from them? …What we commonly call natural causes might, with more propriety, be called natural signs, and what we call effects, the things signified…[as]all we can certainly affirm, is, that nature hath established a constant conjunction between them and the things called their effects." (p. 59)[9]


It has been claimed that his reputation waned after attacks on the Scottish School of Common Sense by Immanuel Kant (although Kant, only 14 years Reid's junior, also bestowed much praise on Scottish philosophy) and by John Stuart Mill. But Reid's was the philosophy taught in the colleges of North America during the 19th century and was championed by Victor Cousin, a French philosopher. Justus Buchler has shown that Reid was an important influence on the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, who shared Reid's concern to revalue common sense and whose work links Reid to pragmatism. To Peirce, conceptions of truth and the real involve the notion of a community without definite limits (and thus potentially self-correcting as far as needed), and capable of a definite increase of knowledge.[10] Common sense is socially evolved, open to verification much like scientific method, and constantly evolving, as evidence, perception, and practice warrant, albeit with a slowness that Peirce came only in later years to see, at which point he owned his "adhesion, under inevitable modification, to the opinion of...Thomas Reid, in the matter of Common Sense"[11] (Peirce called his version "critical common-sensism"). By contrast, on Reid's concept, the sensus communis is not a social evolutionary product but rather a precondition of the possibility that humans could reason with each other.

Reid's reputation has revived in the wake of the advocacy of common sense as a philosophical method or criterion by G. E. Moore early in the 20th century, and more recently because of the attention given to Reid by contemporary philosophers, in particular philosophers of religion in the school of Reformed epistemology such as William Alston,[12] Alvin Plantinga, and Nicholas Wolterstorff,[13] seeking to rebut charges that theistic belief is irrational where it has no doxastic foundations (that is, where that belief is not inferred from other adequately grounded beliefs).

He wrote a number of important philosophical works, including Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764, Glasgow & London), Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785) and Essays on the Active Powers of Man (1788). In 1844, Schopenhauer praised Reid for explaining that the perception of external objects does not result from the raw data that is received through the five senses:

Other philosophical positions

Though known mainly for his epistemology, Reid is also noted for his views in the theory of action and the metaphysics of personal identity. Reid held an incompatibilist or libertarian notion of freedom, holding that we are capable of free actions of which we are the cause, and for which we are morally appraisable.[14] Regarding personal identity, he rejected Locke's account that self-consciousness in the form of memory of one's experiences was the basis of a person's being identical with their self over time. Reid held that continuity of memory was neither necessary nor sufficient to make one numerically the same person at different times.[15]

See also

Reid's works

  • 1764. An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (translated to modern English). (Faksimile of the 1823 edition)
  • 1785. Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man. (Faksimile)
  • 1788. Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind. Faksimile)

Until recently the standard edition of the Inquiry and the Essays has been the sixth edition of William Hamilton (ed.), Edinburgh: Maclachlan and Stewart, 1863. A new critical edition of these titles, plus correspondence and other important material, is being brought out by Edinburgh University Press as The Edinburgh Edition of Thomas Reid. An accessible selection from Hamilton's 6th ed. is Thomas Reid's Inquiry and Essays, ed. Ronald Beanblossom and Keith Lehrer, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1983.


  1. ^ See Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, Christian Philosophy page 138 (Baker Academic, 2013).
  2. ^ See H. Lewis Ulman, The Minutes of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society 1758-1773 (Aberdeen University Press for Aberdeen University Studies Committee, 1990).
  3. ^ "Thomas Reid". 
  4. ^ See Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, Christian Philosophy page 138 (Baker Academic, 2013).
  5. ^ Thomas Reid. An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense. Ed. Derek R Brookes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997. p. 255
  6. ^ Thomas Reid. An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense. Ed. Derek R Brookes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997
  7. ^ Thomas Reid. An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense. Ed. Derek R Brookes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997
  8. ^ Thomas Reid. An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense. Ed. Derek R Brookes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997
  9. ^ Thomas Reid. An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense. Ed. Derek R Brookes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997
  10. ^ Peirce, C. S. (1868), "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities", Journal of Speculative Philosophy 2, pp. 140–157, see p. 155 via Google Books. Reprinted, Collected Papers v. 5, paragraphs 264–317 (see 311), Writings v. 2, pp. 211–42 (see 239), Essential Peirce v. 1, pp. 28–55 (see 52).
  11. ^ Peirce, C. S. (1905), "Issues of Pragmaticism", The Monist, v. XV, n. 4, pp. 481–99, see pp. 484–5 via Google Books. Reprinted, Collected Papers v. 5, paragraphs 438–63 (see 444), Essential Peirce v. 2, pp. 346–59 (see 349).
  12. ^ Alston invokes Reid in his Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 19991) pp. 151–155; 162–165.
  13. ^ For Wolterstorff's use of Reid in aid of Reformed Epistemology, see his "Can Belief in God be Rational if it has no Foundations?" in Faith and Rationality (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1983)
  14. ^ Essays on the Active Powers, "Essay Four: Of the Liberty of Moral Agents"
  15. ^ Essays on the Intellectual Powers, "Essay Three: Of Memory".

Further reading

  • Barker, Stephen and Tom Beauchamp, eds., "Thomas Reid: Critical Interpretations" (1976).
  • Daniels, Norman. Thomas Reid's Inquiry:The Geometrey of Visibles and the Case for Realism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Davis, William C., Thomas Reid’s Ethics: Moral Epistemology on Legal Foundations. Continuum International, 2006. ISBN 0-8264-8809-9
  • Ducheyne, Steffen. "Reid’s Adaptation and Radicalization of Newton’s Natural Philosophy". History of European Ideas 32 (2006) 173–189.
  • Haldane, John. "Reid, Scholasticism, and Current Philosophy of Mind" in M. Delgano and E. Matthews, eds., The Philosophy of Thomas Reid. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1989.
  • Lehrer, Keith. Thomas Reid. London: Routledge, 1989.
  • Rowe, William. Thomas Reid on Freedom and Morality. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.
  • Wolterstorff, N. Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

External links

  • The Reid Project at the University of Aberdeen.
  • The Papers of Thomas Reid at the University of Aberdeen.
  • Thomas Reid entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Reid's Inquiry into the Human Mind, Essays on the Active Powers..., and Essays on the Intellectual powers..., slightly modified for easier reading.
  • Thomas Reid at Google Books
  • The Edinburgh Edition of Thomas Reid – critical edition of Reid's philosophical treatises and previously unpublished materials