Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man/Essays on the Active Powers of Man

by Thomas Reid

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 127

At the age of seventy-one, Thomas Reid resigned from his University of Glasgow professorship to prepare for publication his celebrated classroom lectures on mental and moral philosophy. The intellectual world already knew the general thrust of the new Scottish Realism through his Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764); however, the full articulation and defense of the system awaited the appearance of his two books of essays, works so lucid and so plausible that they became almost at once the basis of the orthodox philosophy of the English-speaking world. Reid’s philosophy is everything that a “public philosophy” should be. Although it lacks the graceful style of certain eighteenth century philosophers, it has a masculine strength and a directness that still arouses admiration.

Intellectual Powers

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Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man contains eight essays of rather unequal length, each (except the Introduction) concerning one of humankind’s intellectual powers or faculties. It is characteristic of Reid’s philosophy that, like those of Joseph Butler and Francis Hutcheson, it makes no effort to reduce the different activities to a common denominator. Sense perception, memory, conception (imagination), abstraction, judgment, reason, and taste are so many distinct and irreducible activities, although they may also occur in combination. Reid begins each essay by identifying the power in question and explaining its typical features. There follows a historical account telling how other philosophers have dealt with the subject. Often, in addition, one of the British empiricists is selected for quotation and detailed refutation—not the least profitable part of the work.

Reid was a conscientious empiricist, pledged to carry out the program of English philosopher Francis Bacon for the mental and moral sciences. By observation and investigation, he hoped to arrive at fundamental laws comparable to those that English physicist Isaac Newton had found in natural philosophy. His method is basically introspective: One can learn to attend to one’s own mental activities, describe them, and relate them to one another. In this manner, people can map out the “human constitution.” Description, however, is all that humanity can attain, because humankind is not given to know the causes of things. In fact, with Reid, as with most of his contemporaries, the underlying assumption (as basic to them as evolution was to the late nineteenth century) was that by a perfect wisdom, all the parts of the world are adjusted to one another.

In addition to his appeals to introspection, Reid makes frequent appeal to common speech to support what he takes to be the witness of humanity’s constitution. An example is this: Is beauty properly said to be an emotion in the mind of the perceiver, or a property of the object viewed? Language witnesses the latter. Are heat, hardness, and the like perceived as ideas in the mind or as qualities in bodies? People’s speech testifies that they are perceived as qualities.

Reid’s attitude toward the history of philosophy (which he regarded as the history of error) is central to his own “common sense” point of view. He shared the optimism of the eighteenth century, which held that the truth is always near at hand and that the first step toward enlightening humankind is to clear away ignorance, prejudice, and artificiality. In Reid’s view, all the complications in mental philosophy stem from the very old error of thinking of the mind after the analogy of body. People observe that, in the physical world, there is no action at a distance, and they suppose that similarly the mind can act and be acted on only by what is immediately present to it. The ancient philosophers taught that bodies give off films that, passing through the sense organs, leave impressions on the mind. The moderns, following French philosopher René Descartes, refined their doctrine and retained the old “phantasms” under the new name of “ideas.” According to Reid, the progress of philosophy is ensured if the “ideal hypothesis” (which remains to plague the writings of Cartesians and Lockeans alike) is relegated to the rubbish heap along with other scholastic notions.

Perception and the Senses

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In Reid’s theory of knowledge, there is no intermediate between the mental act and the object of knowledge. Perception is the direct experience of things present to the senses, memory is the experience of things past, consciousness is experience of the mind’s own activity, and sensation and emotion are pure states of consciousness. It is characteristic of all these powers that they include, first, a notion or apprehension of some content, and second, a judgment or belief about existence. Reid is full of scorn for Scottish philosopher David Hume’s suggestion that belief is simply a degree of the vivacity of an object.

Reid makes use of the distinction between primary and secondary qualities of things, even though he does not hold to the existence of ideas. Perception is a complex act that includes sensation but is not reducible to it. Thus, says Reid, when one touches a table, one has a sensation that, however, one does not ordinarily attend to; the mind passes over it to attend to the quality of the thing—that is to say, such characteristics as hardness or smoothness. There is, according to Reid, a natural symbolism here that people cannot understand: The Creator has attached the perception of the quality to the particular sensation, and this is a mystery—just as it is a mystery that certain vibrations in the brain are regularly attached to certain sensations. The case is otherwise with secondary qualities. When people smell an odor, Reid says, the sensation is likely to be mistaken for the physical object, although introspection reveals that when people smell, say, a rose, all that is really attested is the existence of some external cause of the characteristic sensation: People learn to connect the odor with the object of their other senses. This is partly true of vision as well; however, the purely mental experiences of color are inseparably blended with spatial properties.

Perception and memory, besides the notion of and belief in the object toward which they are directed, carry with them other truth. As Reid says, one knows that one exists as knower, and that some external cause exists adequate to give rise to one’s perceptions and memories. Through perception, one comes to know the reality of space, and through memory, one knows the reality of time—these are presupposed by extension and by duration, of which people have immediate experience. These are examples of what Reid calls intuitive truths. They serve as first principles for people’s knowledge of the world and humankind. Other truths follow from them by reasoning or demonstration, but the first principles (requisite to every science) must be known immediately.

The principles so far mentioned all have to do with existence. By means of conception and abstraction, it is possible for the mind to invent objects of a different order. These could be called “ideas” without offense—Platonic, rather than Cartesian, ideas. They are objects of the mind and do not represent anything beyond themselves. They do not, as Greek philosopher Plato supposed, exist apart from the mind but are pure essences completely discerned by the mind. Among these theoretical objects, axioms of a different sort are discovered. People call them intuitive also, but they differ from those axioms dealing with contingent truths in that they are seen to be necessary.

Two Kinds of Knowledge

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The two kinds of principles previously mentioned yield two kinds of knowledge: Necessary truths (for example, mathematics) yield demonstrative knowledge, and contingent truths (astronomy) yield probable knowledge. Reid is dissatisfied with Hume’s suggestion that probable knowledge is less certain than demonstrative knowledge and accuses that philosopher of using the word “probability” in a strange fashion. One’s knowledge, for instance, that the capital of France is Paris is no less certain than a demonstration in geometry.

Discussing demonstrative knowledge, Reid takes issue with English philosopher John Locke’s contention that moral judgments are of this sort because the terms of moral judgments are not real essences but nominal ones. According to Reid, moral judgments are judgments about contingent matters, and they flow not from definitions but from intuitions. They depend on moral axioms, more or less clearly discerned by all civilized peoples, and they are properly discussed under the actual rather than the intellectual powers of the mind.

Problems of taste, however, which very much interested philosophers of the eighteenth century, are dealt with under intellectual powers. Reid is interested in the power of the mind to combine images in meaningful patterns—he is dissatisfied with the purely mechanistic account of thinking expounded under the name of associationism. Here, in the broadest sense, is the basis for art: purposiveness. People not only invent meaningful combinations but also recognize them and rejoice in them in the handiwork of other people and in nature.

Reid follows the usual division of aesthetic objects into those of curiosity, grandeur, and beauty. The perception of any of these is a complex act involving both an emotion and a notion and judgment respecting the object. There is an analogy between this and his analysis of sense perception: as sensation is to physical quality, so emotion is to aesthetic quality. Curiosity (like smell, for example) is almost entirely subjective. Not so with grandeur and beauty: People are aware of a property in the thing. It may be that the property is “occult”—in which case people’s judgment of beauty is like their perception of color, and they do not understand what it is in the object that gives rise to their pleasant emotion. Sometimes, however, the property is perfectly intelligible, in which case judgment of beauty is analogous to perception of primary qualities.

Reid’s philosophy radiates confidence and good will. He is not nervous about his position, and although he indulges in ridicule (he justifies it as one of the ways in which common sense asserts itself), it is never cruel or malicious as is so much eighteenth century wit. Reid does have a genuine enemy: skepticism. He thanks Hume for carrying the “spirit of modern philosophy” (Reid’s own expression) out to its logical conclusion: If one hypothesizes “ideas,” skepticism is inevitable. Skepticism, in Reid’s eyes, is merely defeatism of the sort that prevailed in natural philosophy until the miasmas of peripateticism were cleared away by such men as Galileo and Newton. Happily, a return to common sense makes possible new experimental gains in mental and moral philosophy.

Reid’s Moral Philosophy

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Essays on the Active Powers of Man carries the investigation from mental philosophy into the field of moral philosophy. This work is only half as long as Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man; hence, it can be inferred that it was not Reid’s major field of interest, but not that he considered the active life less important than the speculative one. On the contrary, he glows with enthusiasm for those remarkable endowments that set humankind above the other animals and give humans the means of remaking the world in the interests of human happiness. The intellectual powers are only instruments in the service of humankind’s active powers.

Moral philosophy, almost until the present, included the psychology of motives as well as the principles of normative action. In Reid’s philosophy, these can scarcely be disjoined. The clue to his system may be found in Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man (1733-1734) as well as in Joseph Butler’s Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel (1726). It lies in the belief that humanity’s constitution has been fashioned by a wise and benevolent Creator who always orders the part with a view to the perfection of the whole. There are many motives in humankind and, though they often seem to be at odds, careful examination reveals a hierarchy among them. Every motive is good at the right time and place, and there are superior principles that determine when and where the inferior are intended to function. Thus, a purely descriptive account of human nature contains by implication a moral code. In practice, however, people have a readier guide. One of the higher principles with which people are endowed is conscience, which gives them an intuitive sense of right and wrong. Because it is bestowed on them by the Creator, the architect of their being, it can be trusted to lead them toward their proper end.

By the same token, interest and duty are seen to be complementary. It is part of the office of reason to judge between desires and to steer the course that promises to be good for humanity on the whole. The person who follows reason is said to be prudent, and insofar as that person is successful, he or she achieves a happy life. Such intelligence, however, never extends very far, and for humankind as a whole, it is not an adequate guide. In addition to calculating their interest, people should study duty, disclosed to them through the moral sense. Here they are not merely provided with moral truth, from which they may infer their obligation; the deliverances of conscience are also attended with strong feelings of approval and disapproval, which add greatly to its effectiveness as a guide. Although there can be no opposition between these two principles, the rule should be to follow duty rather than interest, on the reasonable presumption that under a wise and benevolent Administration it is impossible that doing what is right should ever result in anything but happiness.

In somewhat the same way, egoistic and altruistic motives are proved not to be in conflict. People’s animal impulses, whether appetites or desires, by themselves are neither selfish nor unselfish, neither bad nor good. It is only with reference to larger considerations that they become one or the other. Rightly ordered, they promote both the happiness of the person and that of fellow humans. Reason would, if it were perfect, so regulate them. Because of the limits of humankind’s reasoning power, however, God has taken the precaution of undergirding his intention and, to secure people’s social well-being, has implanted in them certain affections that are above the particular desires but beneath reason and conscience. Benevolence, the first of these, is the source of such affections as filial love, gratitude, compassion, friendship, and public spirit. There is also malevolent affection, however, which manifests itself in emulation and resentment. (Reid is not sure that they should be called “malevolent.”) In themselves, they are not evil, being the basis for such honest attitudes as the desire to excel and the disposition to resist and retaliate injury. If they are not brought under the government of reason or conscience, they become evil, but this is also true of people’s benevolent affections.

Moral Liberty

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The question of moral liberty inevitably finds a place in Reid’s discussion. The problem, as he sees it, is not whether a person has the power to act, but only whether he or she has the power to will. Seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who defined the question in the former manner, equated liberty with freedom from external impediment; at the same time, he held that all human actions are causally determined. For Reid, it is this last contention that needs to be examined. The matter is complex. Reid holds it to be a self-evident truth that every event in the material world, including the motion of a person’s body, must have an efficient cause, but that the nature of the causal nexus is mysterious. Presumably, the divine Spirit is the source of the motions in nature at large. The question is whether the human spirit has received a somewhat analogous power. Reid holds that it has; otherwise, all human notions of duty and responsibility, and of praise and blame, would be without foundation. As he looks for the source of this freedom in the human constitution, it seems to him to lie on the side of reason as opposed to passions. The latter are impressions on the mind that have their origin in matter, but the former seems to be independent of these motives and free to direct its attention from one object to another, to weigh their respective merits, to select a goal, and to plan a course of action. Insofar as reason is externally motivated, the things that influence it are final (not efficient) causes, together with such considerations as truth and duty.

Although Reid regards the active powers as a natural endowment, he does not suppose that they occur full blown in any person. Conscience is a good example. It does not make itself felt at all in infants or in imbeciles, and even in the adult, it is extremely subject to education, both for weal and for woe. In this respect, moral competence is like other natural endowments, like the ability to dance or sing, or to reason logically. The unpleasant fact is that the great part of humankind in every age is sunk in gross ignorance and fettered to stupid and unprofitable customs. Even as the intellectual powers have a natural affinity for truth, however, so the active powers incline humanity toward virtue and well-being. This is manifest in the institutions of all civilized people and in the law of nature and of nations widely recognized as the foundation of political rights and duties.

Reid distinguishes between moral judgment and the theory of morals. Just as a person may have a good ear that has been improved by practice in the art of music and still be ignorant of the anatomy of hearing and the theory of sound, so one may have exact and comprehensive knowledge of what is right and wrong in human conduct and yet be ignorant of the structure of moral powers. Moral theory is important as a part of the philosophy of the human mind, but not as a part of morals.

Common Sense

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It is usual to think of Reid as the apostle of “common sense.” The term occurs frequently in his writings, not always with the same meaning. In some places, it means “good sense”—that degree of reason that makes a person capable of managing his or her own affairs and answerable in his or her conduct toward others. In other places, it refers to the opinions of the person in the street. In the technical sense that came to characterize the system of Reid and of the Scottish school, it stands for that part of people’s mental constitution by which they know the truth of the principles or axioms that underlie all experience and all inference and are the indispensable foundations of science and morality.We ascribe to reason two offices, or two degrees. The first is to judge of things self-evident; the second to draw conclusions that are not self-evident from those that are. The first of these is the province, and the sole province, of common sense; and, therefore, it coincides with reason in its whole extent, and is only another name for one branch or one degree of reason.

The most obvious difference between the two kinds of reason mentioned here is that, whereas the second is “learned by practice and rules,” the first is “purely natural, and therefore common to the learned and the unlearned, to the trained and the untrained.” Whatever the difficulties of formulating its deliverances, there is, native to the human mind, a capacity to grasp the essential truths concerning human existence.

Common sense, so understood, underlies the realism of Scottish philosophy. In his analysis of experience, Reid avoided sensationism and nominalism only because, at each critical juncture, he refused to wear the blinders of technical reason. He professed to repudiate metaphysics, and he agreed with his age that humans ought to content themselves with observed laws and phenomena. He was little disposed, however, to measure heaven with a span.A man who is possessed of the genuine spirit of philosophy will think it impiety to contaminate the divine workmanship, by mixing it with those fictions of human fancy, called theories and hypotheses, which will always bear the signature of human folly, no less than the other does of divine wisdom.


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Additional Reading

Beanblossom, Ronald E., and Keith Lehrer, eds. Thomas Reid’s Inquiry and Essays. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1983. This inexpensive paperback contains generous selections from Reid’s published writings.

Dalgarno, Melvin, and Eric Matthews, eds. The Philosophy of Thomas Reid. Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1989. The essays in this anthology are representative of the current interest in Reid’s philosophy.

Diamond, Peter J. Common Sense and Improvement: Thomas Reid as Social Theorist. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. A keen study of Reid’s thoughts on social theory.

Fraser, Alexander C. Thomas Reid. Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1993. An informative and thorough biography of Thomas Reid.

Gallie, Roger D. Thomas Reid: Ethics, Aesthetics, and the Anatomy of the Self. Boston: Klumer Academic, 1998. An important evaluation of Reid’s moral philosophy and his aesthetics aimed at the advanced undergraduate to graduate level.

Lehrer, Keith. Thomas Reid. New York: Routledge, 1989. An excellent introduction to Reid’s thought.

Rowe, William L. Thomas Reid on Freedom and Morality. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. In this fine study of Reid’s Essays on the Active Powers of Man, Rowe develops a defense of Reid’s theory of human freedom.

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