Thomas Reid, Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense


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An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense - Edinburgh University Press

Nook , pages. More Details Other Editions 1. Friend Reviews. To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up. To ask other readers questions about Selections from the Scottish philosophy of common sense , please sign up. Be the first to ask a question about Selections from the Scottish philosophy of common sense. Lists with This Book. This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Reid did not write his own sermons, instead beginning to work on developing his philosophical views having read the work of Bishop George Berkeley , as well as Hume's masterwork, the Treatise on Human Nature when it was published in Despite having only one publication, Reid developed a reputation that led to an appointment as Professor of Philosophy at King's College at the University of Aberdeen in He lectured in mathematics, physics, logic and ethics , and founded the Aberdeen Philosophical Society.

The Society served as a focal point for various proponents of common-sense philosophy including James Beattie. The papers that Reid presented to the Society were eventually published in as his first major philosophical publication, An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense.


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Hume was shown a copy of the manuscript of the Inquiry , and wrote to Reid that he found the work impressive and challenging. There, his philosophical productivity increased, and Reid eventually resigned the position so as to focus on his work. With the publication of the latter, Reid's activity slowly began to wane. He died peacefully in Reid's approach to the traditional philosophical problems stems from a specific view of the nature of philosophical inquiry.

As Reid saw it, all human inquiry have a starting place, and the natural starting place is a set of principles, implanted by God, that make up 'common sense'. Because philosophy, like any other branch of knowledge, is dependent on those principles, any attempts it makes to find foundations for them, or challenge them, will be incoherent.

The failure to realize this, Reid claimed, was responsible for many of the debates and absurd conclusions reached by his predecessors. When men attempt to deduce such self-evident principles from others more evident, they always fall into inconclusive reasoning: and the consequence of this has been, that others, such as Berkeley and Hume, finding the arguments brought to prove such first principles to be weak and inconclusive, have been tempted first to doubt of them, and afterwards to deny them.

Today, Reid's best-known application of this approach concerns perception, but he extended to it a wide variety of other issues as well.


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In every case, Reid resists any philosophical attempt to undermine something common-sensical. Given the scope of Reid's writings, it is not possible to review all of his claims. Instead, we can focus on three of the topics for which Reid is best known: perception, causation, and the foundations of morality.

As Reid understood it, many of his seventeenth and eighteenth-century predecessors the clearest case may be Locke had accepted a view along the following lines: in perception, external objects such as rocks and cats causally affect our sense organs. The sense organs in turn affect the probably, non-material mind, and their effect is to produce a certain type of entity in the mind, an 'idea. The ideas may or may not resemble the objects that caused them in us, but their causal relation to the objects makes it the case that we can immediately perceive the objects by perceiving the ideas. Reid noted that, as soon as this picture is in place, the question naturally arises as to just how far our ideas might diverge from their causes.

Common Sense

Indeed, it begins to seem that we are completely cut off from reality, stuck behind a veil of ideas. This is a counter-intuitive conclusion, and Reid thinks it indicates that the original positing of ideas, as things we perceive that are distinct from the objects was misguided here, the view echoes that of Antoine Arnauld in his debate with Nicolas Malebranche. Common sense, he argues, dictates that what we perceive just are objects and their qualities. Ideas, then, are a philosopher's fabrication. Reid's picture, however, is more complex than such general statements of it may suggest.

For Reid continues to accept Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities of objects. Locke held that, among our ideas of objects, some such as shape do resemble qualities of the objects that produce them, while others such as color do not. Of course, Reid cannot accept the distinction in those terms, so he does so in terms of 'sensations.

The Scottish School of Common Sense Philosophy

Sensations are the effects of the causal influence of objects on us, and these are what lead the mind to perceive the object. Yet sensations themselves, being feelings, cannot resemble their objects in this, Reid echoes Berkeley's famous claim that nothing can be like an idea except another idea. When, for instance, we perceive though touch that some object is hot, we feel a certain sensation. We know that feature of the object caused us to have that sensation, but we may not know anything about the feature other than that unlike the case of the extension of the object, which we perceive directly.

The feature of the object which produces the sensation of heat is a secondary quality, and all other secondary qualities are individuated in the same manner: via some sensation we have. One of Hume's most famous claims argued for both in the Treatise and in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding was his assertion that our only conception of causation was of the constant conjunction of two types of event, accompanied by some feeling of expectation on our part.

In particular, we have no true conception of the sort of objective quality Locke called 'power'—a feature of an object in virtue of which it necessarily produced certain effects. Reid replied that it is a principle of common sense that each of us is a genuine cause of our actions. That is, for any given action, we have the power to originate it, or to not originate it, and this is not the result of our being causally determined to do so in which case, Reid thinks, we wouldn't truly be causes at all.

It is just in virtue of this contingency that we are responsible for willing the actions we do, and this capacity is what Reid called an 'active power. The starting point for Reid's moral views, unsurprisingly, is again the powerful theories of Hume. Hume staunchly defended the empiricist claim that all of our concepts originate in either external sensory impressions, or else in the awareness of our own minds and sentiments. He traced moral concepts to certain feelings of approbation and disapproval that we feel when we perceive when we see others acting in certain ways.

As Reid interprets him, Hume's position is what is today is called 'emotivism'—the position a moral judgment like "That action was wrong" does nothing more than express our disapproval of the action and so might be equivalent to "Boo! Reid held that Hume was right in thinking that there certain feelings of approval and disapproval that accompany our moral judgments.

Thomas Reid, Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense Thomas Reid, Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense
Thomas Reid, Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense Thomas Reid, Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense
Thomas Reid, Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense Thomas Reid, Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense
Thomas Reid, Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense Thomas Reid, Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense
Thomas Reid, Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense Thomas Reid, Selections from the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense

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