Desktop version

Home arrow Philosophy arrow The handy philosophy answer book


Why was Thomas Reid important?

Thomas Reid (1710-1796) was the founder of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy, which was prominent in English thought during the first half of the nineteenth century, and was revived by G.E. Moore (1873-1958) in his attack on idealism in the twentieth century. Reid's basic contribution was a criticism of the doctrine of ideas in philosophy, which in his own time was famously deployed by David Hume (1711-1776), although it had strong predecessors in John Locke (1632-1704) and George Berkeley (1685-1783).

Reid believed that it is impossible that what we know are sensations or ideas in the mind because this can't account for the immediacy of our experience of objects present to the senses, motion, or our experience of our own selves. Reid thought that we directly know real objects in the world, just like we assume in common sense. For example, when you look at a computer screen as you type, you do not perceive the idea of the screen, but rather the screen itself. His common sense was to insist on the location of the knower directly in the world, with no mediation in the mind by ideas, sensations, or impressions.

Did Thomas Reid have his own ideas, in addition to saying why the empiricists were wrong?

Yes, and Reid was highly influential for a while, although he is often overlooked as an Enlightenment philosopher. He lectured at King's College, Aberdeen, and held the chair of moral philosophy at Glasgow. His main publications were An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764), Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785), and Essays on the Active Powers of Man (1788).

After rejecting the empiricist representative theory of knowledge, Reid developed an intuitionist theory of knowledge in terms of mental faculties: Reid thought that we have innate powers of conception and conviction. There are first principles that we can identify by their early appearance, universality, and irresistibility. We could not

What can now be said about the dispute between Thomas Reid and the empiricists?

In terms of the process of knowledge, as a matter of physiological psychology concerning what goes on in the brain, there may well be ideas or representations in the brain, as the empiricists maintained. However, in the mind, our direct experience seems not to be of our ideas or sensations but of the objects we sense themselves, as Reid pointed out.

deny an irresistible principle. For instance, sensations are operations of the mind that, together with impressions made on our sense organs, cause our conceptions of primary and secondary qualities. A sensation of smell thus suggests that there is a quality in the object causing the sensation. In analyzing vision, Reid reasoned that the data are received on the round surface of the eye, but processed within it. He concluded that visual space must have a non-Euclidian geometry of curved space (he was about a century ahead of his time in postulating non-Euclidian geometry).

In addition to faculties of perception and memory, Reid posited a moral faculty resulting in conceptions of justice or injustice that may differ, depending on different people's conceptions of the same action. He also posited active powers, leading to action, according to principles of action. When Reid spoke of "powers" in this way, he seemed to mean capabilities in the mind. The principles of action were animal principles (such as appetites and physical desires) and rational principles that include understanding and will.

What did Thomas Reid believe about free will?

Reid believed that we are able to will something because we have a conception of the action and we will to do that thing. Concerning freedom, Reid thought it was not sufficient, as David Hume (1711-1776) had claimed, that we act according to our will, but that we must also have the power to choose what to will. This is because willing is instrumental to the goal of an action, and without the power over means there is no power over the end. Your free actions are those caused by you and you know that you are their cause because your conviction of your freedom arises from your faculties, as a first principle.

Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >

Related topics