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Significant Scots
Dr Thomas Reid

REID, (DR) THOMAS, an eminent metaphysician and moral philosopher, and professor of the latter science in the universities of Aberdeen and Glasgow successively, was born at Strachan, in Kincardineshire, in the neighbourhood of Aberdeen, on the 26th of April, 1710, as shown by the minute researches of professor Dugald Stewart, who affectionately wrote the life of his eminent friend. The family of Reid had been ornamented by producing different authors of considerable eminence in their age. [Stewart’s Biographical Memoirs, p. 400.] One of his ancestors, James Reid, was the first minister of Banchory-Ternan (a parish in the neighbourhood of Strachan) after the Reformation. His son Thomas has been commemorated by Dempster, (whose praises of a protestant clergyman’s son may be deemed worthy of credit,) as a man of great eminence. He collected in a volume the Theses he had defended at foreign universities; and some of his Latin poems were inserted in the Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum. He was Greek and Latin secretary to James I., and bequeathed to Marischal college a sum for the support of a librarian, which has since disappeared, or been directed to other purposes. Alexander, a brother of Thomas, was physician to king Charles I., and published some forgotten works on medicine and surgery. Another brother translated Buchanan’s History of Scotland into English. The father of the subject of our memoir was the reverend Lewis Reid, for fifty years minister of the parish of Strachan; and his mother was daughter to David Gregory of Kinnairdie, elder brother of James Gregory, the inventor of the reflecting telescope.

After spending two years at the parish school of Kincardine O’Neil, Thomas Reid was sent, for the farther prosecution of his studies, to Aberdeen, where, at the age of twelve or thirteen, he was entered as a student of Marischal college. Little is known of his early studies or qualifications, with the exception of the not very flattering remark of his master, "That he would turn out to be a man of good and well-wearing parts." In a letter to a friend, written late in life, he has stated some circumstances connected with his habits of body in youth, which he appears to have recollected merely as the data of some of his philosophical speculations. They are perhaps not the least interesting, as showing that the physical state of the body produces effects in the procedure of the mind, different from what might be presumed as the mental characteristics of the individual, as derivable from his opinions. "About the age of fourteen," he says, "I was almost every night unhappy in my sleep from frightful dreams, sometimes hanging over a dreadful precipice, and just ready to drop down; sometimes pursued for my life, and stopped by a wall, or by a sudden loss of all strength; sometimes ready to be devoured by a wild beast. How long I was plagued with such dreams, I do not recollect. I believe it was for a year or two at least; and I think they had quite left me before I was sixteen. In those days, I was much given to what Mr Addison, in one of his Spectators, calls castle-building: and in my evening solitary walk, which was generally all the exercise I took, my thoughts would hurry me into some active scene, where I generally acquitted myself much to my own satisfaction; and in these scenes of imagination, I performed many a gallant exploit. At the same time, in my dreams I found myself the most arrant coward that ever was. Not only my courage, but my strength failed me in every danger; and I often rose from my bed in the morning in such a panic, that it took some time to get the better of it. I wished very much to get free of these uneasy dreams, which not only made me unhappy in sleep, but often left a disagreeable impression in my mind for some part of the following day. I thought it was worth trying whether it was possible to recollect that it was all a dream, and that I was in no real danger, and that every fright I had was a dream. After many fruitless attempts to recollect this when the danger appeared, I effected it at last, and have often, when I was sliding over a precipice into the abyss, recollected that it was all a dream, and boldly jumped down. The effect of this commonly was, that I immediately awoke. But I awoke calm and intrepid, which I thought a great acquisition. After this, my dreams were never very uneasy; and, in a short time, I dreamed not at all." That a mind such as Reid’s should have been subject to "castle-building," and to singular dreams, must be accounted for from the state of his body; while the strong active powers of his mind are shown in the mastership which he at length acquired over the propensity.

While he remained at Marischal college, Reid was appointed to the librarianship, which his ancestor had founded. During this period, he formed an intimacy with John Stewart, afterwards professor of mathematics in Marischal college. In 1736, he accompanied this gentleman to England, and they together visited London, Oxford, and Cambridge, enjoying an intercourse with Dr David Gregory, Martin, Folkes, and Dr Bentley. In 1737, the King’s college, as patrons, presented Dr Reid with the living of New Macbar, in Aberdeenshire. An aversion to the law of patronage, which then strongly characterized many districts of Scotland, excited hostile feelings against a man, who, if the parishioners could have shown their will as well in making a choice as in vituperating the person chosen, would have been the very man after their heart. In entering on his cure, he was even exposed to personal danger. "His unwearied attention, however," says professor Stewart, "to the duties of his office; the mildness and forbearance of his temper, and the active spirit of his humanity, soon overcame all these prejudices: and, not many years afterwards, when he was called to a different situation, the same persons who had suffered themselves to be so far misled, as to take a share in the outrages against him, followed him, on his departure, with their blessings and tears." On his departure, some old men are said to have observed, "We fought against Dr Reid when he came, and would have fought for him when he went away." It is said that, for at least a considerable portion of the time which he spent at New Machar, he was accustomed to preach the sermons of Dr Tillotson and Dr Evans, instead of his own; a circumstance which his biographer attributes to modesty and self-diffidence. In 1740, he married Elizabeth, the daughter of his uncle, Dr George Reid, physician in London. About this period, he is said to have spent his time in intensely studying moral philosophy, and in making those observations on the organs of sense, and their operation on the external world, which formed the broad basis of his philosophy. Reid was not a precocious genius; and whatever he wrote in early life, is said to have been defective in style: but he busied himself in planting good seed, which, in the autumn of his days, produced to himself and to the world a rich and abundant harvest. His first public literary attempt was an "Essay on Quantity, occasioned by reading a Treatise, in which Simple and Compound Ratios are applied to Virtue and Merit," published in the Transactions of the Royal Society, in 1748. This paper is levelled at the "Inquiry into the Origin of our ideas of Beauty and Virtue," by Dr Hutcheson, who had committed the venial philosophical sin, of making use of a science, which can only be brought to bear on moral science as a means of illustrating it, and abbreviating the method of reasoning, as affording grounds for reasoning by analogy. Perhaps, on a fair consideration, Hutcheson may not have intended to carry his system to the extent presumed in this valuable little treatise, most of the arguments of which are made to meet the application of the mathematics, not only as forming a regular series of analogies fit to be used in moral science as a means of illustrating it, and abbreviating the method of reasoning, as affording grounds for reasoning by analogy. Perhaps, on a fair consideration, Hutcheson may not have intended to carry his systems to the extent presumed in this valuable little treatise, most of the arguments of which are made to meet the application of the mathematics, not only as forming a regular series of analogies fit to be used in moral science, but likewise as so accurately corresponding, that, as it is all mensurable itself, it serves the purpose of a measurer in moral science. The following sentence contains the essence of his argument on this last point, and it is conclusive. "It is not easy to say how many kinds of improper quantity may, in time, be introduced into the mathematics, or to what new subjects measures may be applied: but this, I think, we may conclude, that there is no foundation in nature for, nor can any valuable end be served by, applying measure to any thing but what has these two properties: First, it must admit of degrees of greater and less; secondly, it must be associated with or related to something that has proper quantity, so as that when one is increased, the other is increased; when one is diminished, the other is diminished also; and every degree of the one must have a determinate magnitude or quantity of the other corresponding to it." [Reid’s Essays, (1820) vi.] Reid seems not to have been very certain whether the person whom he opposes, (styled by him Dr M.,) did actually maintain mathematics as being a proper measure in the moral sciences, or that it merely afforded useful analogies; and perhaps some who are disposed to agree with Reid as to the former alternative, may not be prepared to join him in attacking the latter. He continues: "Though attempts have been made to apply mathematical reasoning to some of these things, and the quantity of virtue and merit in actions has been measured by simple and compound ratios; yet Dr M. does not think that any real knowledge has been struck out this way: it may, perhaps, if discreetly used, be a help to discourse on these subjects, by pleasing the imagination, and illustrating what is already known; but till our affections and appetites shall themselves be reduced to quantity, and exact measures of their various degrees be assigned, in vain shall we essay to measure virtue and merit by them. This is only to ring changes on words, and to make a show of mathematical reasoning, without advancing one step in real knowledge." [Essays, viii. Stewart, who praises the principles of this Essay, (Life ut sup. 510.) was moe than most philosophers of his eminence, addicted to the vice detected in one of its forms, viz. comparison between mental and physical nature, not merely to the extent of illustration, but of analogy.]

In 1752, the professors of King’s college in Aberdeen, elected Dr Reid professor of moral philosophy, "in testimony of the high opinion they had formed of his learning and abilities." After having taken up his residence in Aberdeen, he became one of the projectors of that select society of philosophers, which then dignified the northern city. It is perhaps partly to the influence of this association, that, among many other works, we owe the "Inquiry into the Human Mind upon the Principles of Common Sense," which Dr Reid published in 1764. As this work developed an argument against the sceptical philosophy of Mr Hume, the author, with more magnanimity than some members of his profession displayed at the time, procured, by the interposition of Dr Blair, a perusal of the manuscript by Hume, in order that any of those disputes, from mere misunderstanding of words, so pernicious to philosophical discussion, might be avoided. Hume at first displayed some disinclination, founded on previous experience of others, to encourage this new assailant. "I wish," he said, "that the parsons would confine themselves to their old occupation of worrying one another, and leave philosophers to argue with temper, moderation, and good manners." But his liberal mind did not permit him, on seeing the manuscript, and knowing the worth of its author, to yield to his hasty anticipations. Writing personally to Reid, he said, "By Dr Blair’s means I have been favoured with the perusal of your performance, which I have read with great pleasure and attention. It is certainly very rare, that a piece so deeply philosophical, is wrote with so much spirit, and affords so much entertainment to the reader, though I must still regret the disadvantages under which I read it, as I never had the whole performance at once before me, and could not be able fully to compare one part with another. To this reason chiefly I attribute some obscurities, which, in spite of your short analysis or abstract, still seem to hang over your system. For I must do you the justice to own, that, when I enter into your ideas, no man appears to express himself with greater perspicuity than you do; a talent which, above all others, is requisite in that species of literature which you have cultivated. There are some objections, which I would willingly propose, to the chapter Of Sight, did I not suspect that they proceed from my not sufficiently understanding it; and I am the more confirmed in this suspicion, as Dr Black tells me that the former objections I had made, had been derived chiefly from that cause. I shall, therefore, forbear till the whole can be before me, and shall not at present propose any farther difficulties to your reasonings. I shall only say, that if you have been able to clear up these abstruse and important subjects, instead of being mortified, I shall be so vain as to pretend to a share of the praise; and shall think that my errors, by having at least some coherence, had led you to make a more strict review of my principles, which were the common ones, and to perceive their futility."

It may be as well here to pass over the intervening events of Dr Reid’s life, and give a brief sketch of the principles of his philosophy, as developed in his other works, to which, as Mr Stewart has properly remarked, the Inquiry into the Human Mind forms an introduction. In 1785, he published his "Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man," and in 1788, those on the "Active Powers." These two have been generally republished together, under the well known title, "Essays on the Powers of the Human Mind;" a work which has gradually gained ground in the estimation of intelligent thinkers, and is now used as a text book by many eminent teachers of philosophy. When it is said that Dr Reid’s philosophy is entirely, or intended to be entirely synthetical, and that it adopts no theory, except as an induction from experiment, it will readily be understood, that a view of its general principles and tendency cannot be given; but it is not on this account very difficult to describe the method by which he reasoned, and came to the different conclusions he has adopted. Reid has generally received, and probably with justice, the praise of having been the first to extend, by a general system, the process of reasoning from experiment, so strongly recommended by Bacon in natural science, to the operations of the mind. In this he was, to a certain extent, anticipated by Hume, who, especially in his arguments on cause and effect, and his essay on miracles, proceeded on analyses of our experience: but the two philosophers followed a different method; the sceptic using his experience to show the futility of any systems of philosophy which had been raised; while Reid made use of them to redeem, as it were, mental science, by eschewing these systems, and founding one of his own on that experience which he saw had enabled the sceptic to demolish the systems, destitute of such a support. But to accomplish his purpose--and this is what distinguishes his philosophy from all other systems--Reid found it necessary to set bounds to his inquiries, which other philosophers had passed. He abstained from that speculation concerning the nature and essence of the mind itself, which, as followed by others, had formed the most convenient object of demolition to the sceptic, and limited himself to observations on the operations of the mind, as he saw them performed before him. Instead, therefore, of appealing to any theories of his own (which he knew would require to be founded on vague speculation, and independently of observation,) on the essence of the mind, when he tried the truth of his observations, he appealed to what he called "common sense," or that sense, however acquired, which prompts us to believe one thing, and disbelieve another. Hence it might be said, in common language, that, instead of making his inquiries by means of subtle and metaphysical reasonings, he stated his views, trusting that his readers would believe him from their common sense, and, if they did not choose to do so, knowing that the greater part of the world was on his side, despite of any fine-spun objections which might be produced by the sophist. The following, perhaps, more than most other passages in his works, bears a marked stamp of his method of reasoning: "Perhaps Des Cartes meant not to assume his own existence in this enthymeme, but the existence of thought, and to infer from that the existence of a mind, or subject of thought. But why did he not prove the existence of his thought? Consciousness, it may be said, vouches that. But who is voucher of the consciousness? Can any man prove that his consciousness may not deceive him? No man can: nor can we give a better reason for trusting to it, than that every man, while his mind is sound, is determined, by the constitution of his nature, to give implicit belief to it, and to laugh at, or to pity, the man who doubts its testimony. And is not every man in his wits as determined to take his existence upon trust, as his consciousness?" It is easier to find objections to, than to erect a system of metaphysical philosophy; and that of Reid affords ample room for controversy. Admitting that the only ground on which we can ever place metaphysical truths is, the general belief of men of sound mind, it must still, in every instance, be a very questionable matter, whether these men of sound mind have come to the right conclusion, and whether it may not be possible, by a little more investigation and argument, even though conducted by a sceptical philosopher, to show reasons for coming to a different conclusion, and to establish it upon the very same grounds, viz., the general belief of men of sound mind. When Galileo discovered that nature abhorred a vacuum, and was afterwards obliged to admit that this abhorrence did not extend above thirty-three feet, many men of sound mind probably felt themselves "determined, by the constitution of their nature, to give implicit belief" to both positions, until one discovered the effect of atmospheric pressure, and got men of common sense to admit that nature had no greater horror at a vacuum than at a plenum. It became a necessary consequence of this method of reasoning, that Reid’s first, or instinctive principles, were less simple and more numerous than those of other philosophers; and his opponents accused him of having by that means perplexed and complicated the science of mind. In simplifying this science, there are two evils to be avoided; a propensity to refine every thing into first principles, unsupported by reason; and the lesser vice of producing confusion, by not extending speculation so far towards the establishment of first principles, as there may be good reason for proceeding. It was probably in his anxiety to avoid the former, that Reid incurred not unjust censure for sometimes embracing the latter alternative. The "Principle of Credulity," and the "Principle of Veracity," are certainly objectionable. Reid has had many warm followers, and many who have looked on his philosophy with great contempt. Those who conceive that all systems of mental philosophy are merely useful for the exercise they give the mind, and the undoubted truths which they occasionally lay open, will perhaps make the fairest appreciation of his merit, and by such it may perhaps be allowed, that the broad method he followed, has enabled him to lay before the world a greater number of interesting circumstances connected with moral science, than most other philosophers have been enabled to display. Before leaving the subject of his works, it may be mentioned, that he composed, as a portion of lord Kames’ Sketches of the History of Man, "A brief Account of Aristotle’s Logic;" the chief defect of this production is, its professed brevity. It is very clear and distinct, and leads one to regret, that so accurately thinking and unprejudiced a writer, had not enriched the world with a more extensive view of the Aristotelian and other systems.

In 1763, while he was, it may be presumed, preparing his Inquiry for the press, a knowledge of what was expected to come from his pen, and his general fame, prompted the university of Glasgow to invite him to fill the chair of natural philosophy there. In this office, professor Stewart remarks, that "his researches concerning the human mind, and the principles of morals, which had occupied but an inconsiderable space in the wide circle of science, allotted to him by his former office, were extended and methodized in a course, which employed five hours every week, during six months of the year. The example of his illustrious predecessor, and the prevailing topics of conversation around him, occasionally turned his thoughts to commercial politics, and produced some ingenious essays on different questions connected with trade, which were communicated to a private society of his academical friends. His early passion for the mathematical sciences was revived by the conversation of Simson, Moor, and the Wilsons; and at the age of fifty-five, he attended the lectures of Black with a juvenile curiosity and enthusiasm." Dr Reid’s constant desire for the acquisition of facts on which to raise his deductions, kept him continually awake to all new discoveries; and he spent many, even of the latter days of his long life, in observing the truths which were developed by this illustrious chemist. The biographer, after observing that the greater part of the course of lectures delivered by Dr Reid at Glasgow, is to be found in his published works, proceeds: "Beside his speculations on the intellectual and active powers of man, and a system of practical ethics, his course comprehended some general views with respect to natural jurisprudence, and the fundamental principles of politics. A few lectures on rhetoric, which were read at a separate hour, to a more advanced class of students, formed a voluntary addition to the appropriate functions of his office, to which, it is probable, he was prompted rather by a wish to supply what was then a deficiency in the established course of education, than by any predilection for a branch of study so foreign to his ordinary pursuits." It may be right to quote, from the same authority, these observations as to his method of teaching, which none but an ear-witness can make. "In his elocution and mode of instruction, there was nothing peculiarly attractive. He seldom, if ever, indulged himself in the warmth of extempore discourse; nor was his manner of reading calculated to increase the effect of what he had committed to memory. Such, however, was the simplicity and perspicuity of his style; such the gravity and authority of his character; and such the general interest of his young hearers in the doctrines which he taught, that by the numerous audiences to which his instructions were addressed, he was heard uniformly with the most silent and respectful attention. On this subject, I speak from personal knowledge, having had the good fortune, during a considerable part of winter 1772, to be one of his pupils." In 1781, Dr Reid retired from the duties of his professorship; and while his labour and assiduity had earned for him a full right to enjoy his old age in literary retirement, his mental faculties remained unimpaired. After this period, he communicated some essays to the Philosophical Society. The most important were: "An Examination of Priestley’s Opinions concerning Matter and Mind;" "Observations on the Utopia of Sir Thomas More;" and "Physiological Reflections on Muscular Motion." By this time Reid had suffered considerable domestic affliction; four of his children had died after reaching the age of maturity, leaving one daughter married to Patrick Carmichael, M.D. After his retirement, his wife died. In a letter to professor Stewart, he thus affectingly describes his situation after that event: "By the loss of my bosom friend, with whom I lived fifty-two years, I am brought into a kind of new world, at a time of life when old habits are not easily forgot, or new ones acquired. But every world is God’s world, and I am thankful for the comforts he has left me. Mrs Carmichael has now the care of two old deaf men, and does everything in her power to please them; and both are very sensible of her goodness. I have more health than at my time of life I had any reason to expect. I walk about; entertain myself with reading what I soon forget; can converse with one person, if he articulates distinctly, and is within ten inches of my left ear; and go to church, without hearing one word of what is said. You know I never had any pretensions to vivacity, but I am still free from languor and ennui." In the summer of 1796, he spent a few weeks in Edinburgh, and his biographer, who was then his almost constant companion, mentions, that, with the exception of his memory, his mental faculties appeared almost unimpaired, while his physical powers were progressively sinking. On his return to Glasgow, apparently in his usual health and spirits, a violent disorder attacked him about the end of September; and, after repeated strokes of palsy, he died on the 7th October following. The affectionate biographer, in drawing a character of this eminent and excellent man, may be said to sum up the particulars of it in the words with which he commences. "Its most prominent features were—intrepid and inflexible rectitude;—a pure and devoted attachment to truth;—and an entire command (acquired by the unwearied exertions of a long life) over all his passions."

A book about him can be read here in pdf format

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