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

Thomas Reid


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

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...

(The entire section is 553 words.)

Perception and the Senses

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 entire section is 556 words.)

Two Kinds of Knowledge

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:...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Reid’s Moral Philosophy

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...

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Moral Liberty

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 entire section is 525 words.)

Common Sense

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...

(The entire section is 379 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 189 words.)