Thomas Reid (Fraser)/Chapter IV
OLD ABERDEEN: A REGENT IN KING’S COLLEGE
Reid’s movement from New Machar to the academic home opened for him in Old Aberdeen placed him and his young family amidst surroundings that touch imagination by their natural beauty and historic associations. For centuries the College, founded by Bishop Elphinstone, and at first presided over by Hector Boece, with its chapel and crowned tower, in the
|old university town,|
|Between the Don and the Dee,|
|Looking over the grey sand dunes,|
|Looking out on the cold North Sea,|
has shed intellectual light over the North of Scotland, especially among the Celts in the Highlands. At King’s College one sees a miniature Oxford almost under the shadow of the Grampians. Perhaps Reid’s temperament was too prosaic to contemplate his new surroundings with the sentiment which the city at the mouth of the Don afterwards called forth in Thackeray, who, in ‘a delightful tour in the north, was charmed with Inverness, and fell in love with Old Aberdeen—an elderly decayed mouldering old beauty who lives quietly on the seashore, near her grand new granite sister of a city.’ The affectionate recollection with which Sir James Mackintosh recalled his student days at King’s College, and the companionship there of Robert Hall, is another testimony to its charms. The arena in which these two, called by their fellow-students ‘Plato and Herodotus,’ encountered one another most frequently was in morals and metaphysics. ‘After having sharpened their weapons by reading, they often repaired to the spacious sands upon the seashore, and still more to the picturesque scenery on the banks of the Don above the old town and the Brig of Balgownie, to discuss with eagerness the problems of existence. There was scarcely an important position in Berkeley’s Minute Philosopher, in Butler’s Analogy, or in Edwards on the Will, over which they did not debate with the utmost intensity.’ From these discussions in the environs of the ‘old university town,’ Mackintosh was wont to say that he ‘learned more than from all the books he ever read.’
It was in the canonist’s manse, pleasantly placed nearly in front of the College, immediately north of the Snow Church, at the entrance to Powis House, that Reid found himself in the winter of 1751. It was rented by him from the University. The quaint manse, nestled among trees, with its low thatched roof, has disappeared, and with it other picturesque old houses, which added charm to the neighbourhood when Reid taught in King’s College nearly a hundred and fifty years ago. The crown tower of the College chapel rose almost in front of the manse, the rival of St. Giles’s at Edinburgh and of St. Nicholas’s at Newcastle, unique in Scottish academical architecture. Eastwards in the quadrangle was the Hall in which the students dined, a memorial of Bishop Elphinstone, and the dormitories of the students, which were of later date. General Monk’s tower stood in the eastern corner; behind the Hall was the kitchen, and near it the College well, whence the links stretched to the shore, ‘the grey sand dunes’ in those days unbroken by tame streets and modern villas.
The professorial system of divided work, which assigns special departments of learning to supposed experts, had not superseded in King’s College the method of regency which prevailed in the early history of all the universities of Scotland. The regent was intrusted with the education of his pupils from the first matriculation to graduation; or when Latin, Greek, and pure mathematics were each provided for professorially, regents in philosophy each taught in successive sessions the various branches of natural and physical science, and of moral and metaphysical philosophy. This system was followed in all the Scottish universities until last century. It was modified by the Commission of 1690, which ordained that, besides a separate professor of Latin, one of the four regents should profess Greek only, and take charge of undergraduates in their first year. By about the middle of the century ‘regenting’ was wholly abolished in four of the five Universities—in Edinburgh in 1708, in Glasgow in 1727, in St. Andrews in 1747, and in Marischal College and University in 1753. But in King’s College the various branches of Philosophy, natural and moral, were still regented when Reid began to teach. He was thus required to teach mathematics and the sciences of matter, as well as psychology and moral philosophy. He thus gave lectures on the philosophy of mind only every third year. One of the other two years was given to natural history and the easier parts of physical science; the second to mathematics and natural philosophy.
During 1751-52, which was his first session, Reid as regent taught natural philosophy to undergraduates of the third year; in the following winter the same students, in their fourth year, were still in his charge. His full sequence, accordingly, did not commence till 1753-54, when for the first time he took the second class, consisting of those beginning philosophical studies. So his successive three years courses ran thus:—1753-56, 1756-59, 1759-62. In the last year of each course, as ‘promoter,’ he presented his undergraduates to receive the Master’s degree, and also delivered a graduation thesis. His theses (still extant in manuscript at Birkwood) were in Latin; they deal chiefly with the methods and human conditions of philosophical inquiry.
Two-thirds of Reid’s lectures at King’s College were in this way concerned with natural history and applied mathematics: only one-third was given to the central object of his intellectual interest at New Machar. I have examined a manuscript volume of notes of the lectures in ‘Natural Philosophy’ which he gave in 1757-58. They comprehend, after an introductory exposition of the province and methods of physics, the laws of motion, astronomy, optics, electricity, and hydrostatics. The notes show that Reid was well abreast of the physical science of his time.
At the time of Reid’s appointment as a regent of philosophy in King’s College, the alternative of regency or professoriate was discussed in the University. He entered readily into this and other questions of University reform, and prevailed on his colleagues to make some important changes. Largely through his influence the teaching session was extended from five to seven months; the Humanity or Latin class was better organised; the bursary endowments were redistributed for competition; and in the order of undergraduate study, the sciences concerned with the outward world were made to precede psychology and ethics, which were reserved for the last year, as more consistent with the development of the human mind in its natural ascent from external observation to reflection. An account of the changes was published in 1754.
It is curious that it was through Reid’s influence that the regency system was retained in King’s College, in preference to the professorial, which, in order to secure division of labour among the teachers, under the growth of knowledge, had been already adopted in the other Universities. His hand may be traced in the following statement of reasons for this conservative policy:—‘Every professor of philosophy in this University is also tutor to those who study under him; and it seems to be generally agreed that it must be detrimental to a student to change his every session. And though it be allowed that a professor who has only one branch of philosophy for his province may have more leisure to make improvements in it for the benefit of the learned world, yet it does not seem extravagant to suppose that a [regent] professor ought to be sufficiently qualified to teach all that his pupils can learn in philosophy [natural and moral] in the course of three sessions.’ Half a century later the higher academical ideal implied in a professoriate prevailed, according to which the professor is responsible for promoting his branch of human knowledge, as well as for the instruction of youth—in educating influence more powerful, when he incites to study by the vitality which original research is apt to communicate to his lectures. The development of a university, it has been remarked, is prompt and easy when each department of its cyclopaedia is separately taught by an able professor; whereas a university which abandons instruction to regenttutors must be content not only to teach little, and that little ill, but to continue to teach what is elsewhere obsolete and exploded.
In a letter of Reid’s in 1755, an account is given of the reformed, if somewhat officious, academical discipline which then prevailed:—
‘The students here,’ he says, ‘have lately been compelled to live within the College. We need but look out at our windows to see when they rise and when they go to bed. They are seen nine or ten times throughout the day statedly, by one or other of the Masters—at public prayers, school-hours, meals, in their rooms, besides occasional visits which we can make with little trouble to ourselves. They are shut up within walls at nine at night. This discipline hath indeed taken some pains and resolution, as well as some expense, to establish it. The board of the first table is 50 marks per quarter, i.e. 54s. 2d., and the second 40. The rent of a room is from 7 shillings to 20 shillings in the session. There is no furniture in their rooms but a bedstead, tables, chimney-grate, and fender; the rest they must buy for themselves. All other perquisites from 12 to 17 shillings.’
This discipline was more or less in vogue during the remainder of last century. Nearly twenty years after the date of Reid’s letter, when Johnson and Boswell visited Aberdeen, Johnson says that ‘in King’s College there is kept a public table, but the scholars in the Marischal College are boarded in the town.’ ‘The abandonment of this custom,’ Mr. Rait tells us, ‘seems to have been a gradual process, and to have taken place during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The restraint of collegiate residence had become exceedingly irksome.’ With the increasing age of entrants, schoolboy discipline might seem less expedient.
Instruction in the art of dancing was, it seems, provided by the University under the reformed regulations, to add manly grace to the rude bodily vigour of the Scottish undergraduate. Reid in advocating this may have remembered Locke’s advice in his Thoughts on Education: ‘Dancing being that which gives graceful motions all the life, and above all things manliness and a becoming confidence, I think it cannot be learned too early. But you must be sure to have a good master, that knows and can teach what is graceful and becoming, and that gives a freedom and ease to all the motions of the body. One that teaches not this is worse than none at all.’ How long this civilising art was cultivated in Reid’s College I have not discovered.
In Aberdeen Reid found himself in the society of persons of more than provincial eminence, destined, indeed, to leave their mark on the thought and literature of Scotland. The Chair of Medicine in his College was occupied by his cousin, Dr. John Gregory, a successful observer of external nature and man. In Marischal College, Thomas Blackwell, the Professor of Greek when Reid was an undergraduate, was now Principal; soon followed by George Campbell, who became the philosophical theologian of the Church of Scotland, by his criticism of Hume’s reasoning about miracles, and a master in literary, biblical, and ecclesiastical criticism,—in his Philosophy of Rhetoric, his Translation of the Gospels, and his History of the development of the Christian Church. Campbell was nine years younger than Reid, like him an alumnus of Marischal College; he had been minister of Banchory-Ternan for nine years before he was called to Aberdeen. He rivalled Reid himself in analytic power and calm, candid, luminous reasoning. Alexander Gerard, like Reid, a University reformer, and author of essays on ‘Taste’ and on ‘Genius,’ was Professor of Philosophy in Marischal College, and then of Divinity there, and afterwards at King’s. There was William Duncan, too, whose Logic was for a time in vogue in Scottish Universities—a regent in Marischal College when Reid began to teach philosophy at King’s; and Reid’s lifelong friend Stewart was still in the Chair of Mathematics. Perhaps the most widely known Aberdonian when he lived was James Beattie, poet more than philosopher, Professor of Logic and Moral Philosophy in Marischal College, whose essay on ‘Truth’ gave him a name in the intellectual world, while the grace and pathos of the ‘Minstrel’ and the ‘Hermit’ appealed to a wider class, and secured a popular reputation. Aberdeen and its neighbourhood were then the home also of accomplished physicians and naturalists and scholars—Skenes and Ogilvies, Dunbars and Gordons.
As I have said, Reid’s first years at King’s College were much given to academical reform. His later years there were distinguished by his connection with a Society for philosophical inquiry, then quickened in Scotland by the fashionable scepticism of David Hume. Reid and Gregory originated this ‘Aberdeen Philosophical Society,’ or ‘Wise Club,’ as it was called. It was the parent of some of the most remarkable books in Scottish philosophical literature in the latter part of last century. The first meeting was on January 12, 1758, and the last was in February 1773. The original members were Dr. John Gregory, Dr. David Skene, Professor John Stewart, Mr. Robert Trail, the Rev. George Campbell, and Mr. Thomas Reid; to whom in the same year were added the Rev. Alexander Gerard, the Rev. John Farquhar, Mr. Charles Gordon, and Mr. John Kerr. James Beattie joined them in 1760, Dr. George Skene and Mr. William Ogilvie in 1763, Mr. James Dunbar in 1765, and Mr. William Trail in 1766. Reid was secretary of the Society, and the minutes for many years are in his handwriting. It met once a fortnight on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month. ‘The members,’ Sir W. Forbes tells us in his Life of Beattie, ‘met at five o’clock in the evening—for in those days at Aberdeen it was the custom to dine early—when one of the members, as president, took the chair, and left it at half an hour after eight, when they partook of a slight and inexpensive collation, and at ten o’clock they separated.’ At these meetings it appears that part of the evening’s entertainment was the reading of a short essay, composed by one of the members in his turn. Besides these discourses, a literary or philosophical question was proposed each night, for discussion at the next meeting. And it was the duty of the proposer of the question to open the discussion; by him, also, the opinions of the members who took a part in it were digested into an abstract, which was engrossed in the album of the Society. I am told that the Lion Inn, on the Spital Hill near Reid’s manse, and sometimes the Lemon Tree Inn, in the new town, were the usual places of meeting. The common attendance was five or six. One of the rules enjoined moderation and forbade toasts.
The meetings were given partly to essays by the members, and partly to oral discussions of proposed questions. ‘Philosophy,’ according to the rules, ‘comprehends every principle of science which may be deduced by just or lawful induction from the phenomena either of the human mind or of the material world.’ Perhaps no society of the kind in this country has fulfilled its end so well. The ‘Rankenian Club’ and the ‘Select Society’ in Edinburgh lasted longer, or enrolled more members, but neither of them was the parent of so much good literature. The ‘Inquiry’ of Reid, Beattie’s essay on ‘Truth,’ Gerard on ‘Taste’ and on ‘Genius,’ and Campbell’s books on ‘Miracles’ and on ‘Rhetoric’ appear in fragments or in germ in the minutes of the ‘Wise Club’ of Aberdeen. Its vitality was sustained and stimulated by the sceptical speculations of Hume, which were much in touch with educated opinion in the third quarter of last century, when spiritual philosophy was languid in Britain and throughout the world. The tone of those engaged in the philosophical vindication of belief appears in one of Reid’s letters, who writes thus to David Hume in 1763:—
‘Your friendly adversaries, Drs. Campbell and Gerard, as well as Dr. Gregory, return their compliments to you respectfully. A little Philosophical Society here, of which all three are members, is much indebted to you for its entertainment. Your company, although we are all good Christians, would be more acceptable than that of Athanasius; and since we cannot have you upon the bench, you are brought oftener than any other man to the bar; accused and defended with great zeal, but without bitterness. If you write no more in morals, politics, and metaphysics, I am afraid we shall be at a loss for subjects.’
It is interesting to find in the records of the Society the subjects of the dissertations contributed by Reid during the six years in which he was its mainspring, as well as the questions which he proposed for debate. They signally illustrate the course of his thoughts in these years. On May 24, 1758, ‘Mr. Reid intimat that he designed as the subject of his discourse some Observations on the Philosophy of the Mind, and particularly on the Perceptions we have by Sight.’ On June 17, 1758, he read a paper ‘On the Difficulty of a just Philosophy of the Human Mind; General Prejudices against D—d (sic) Hume’s System of the Mind; and some Observations on the Perceptions we have by Sight.’ On March 14, 1759, he presented an ‘Analysis of the Sensations of Smell and Taste.’ On 26th February 1760 ‘Mr. Reid intimat that in his discourse he was to continue his Analysis of the Senses’; and accordingly, on the 20th of August in the same year, he gave notice of his intention of ‘taking Dr. Gregory’s place and reading a paper on the Sense of Touch.’ In July 1761 he appears with a paper on the ‘Transit of Venus’ in that year; and on the 26th January 1762 he gives a ‘Valedictory Address,’ as first annual president of the Society (the members having previously taken the chair by rotation)—on ‘Euclid’s Definitions and Axioms,’ in which he returns to the favourite studies of his youth. In 1761 he had resumed his investigation of the Senses, for in September he is credited with another paper on the ‘Sense of Seeing.’ His last contribution, in October 1762, was on ‘Perception,’ which summed up his characteristic work in the Society. And after reading this paper, ‘Mr. Reid declined to give it for insertion in the Records, in regard that he proposed soon to send it to the press, along with some other discourses which he had read before the Society.’ A minute on 28th October 1764 announces that, ‘as Dr. Reid has left this country, no discourse is to be expected from him.’
The following Questions for debate were proposed by Reid during the six years of his membership:—1758, 13th and 26th July, ‘Are the Objects of the Human Mind properly divided into Impressions and Ideas; and must every Idea be a copy of a preceding Impression?’ This closely touches the fundamental assumption of the sceptical philosophy. Those which follow suggest a disposition to ethical and social discussion. 12th June 1759, ‘Whether Mankind with regard to Morals always was and is the same?’ 1st April 1760, ‘Whether it is proper to educate Children without instilling Principles into them of any kind whatever?’ (Beattie’s celebrated experiment in the education of his son may be connected with this.) 15th April 1761, ‘Whether Moral Character consists in Affections in which the Will is not concerned, or in fixed, habitual, and constant Purposes?’ 8th January 1762, ‘Whether by the encouragement of proper Laws the Number of Births in Great Britain might be nearly doubled, or at least greatly increased?’ Here we have a sort of inverted Malthusianism suggested. 22nd November 1763, ‘Whether every Action deserving Moral Approbation must be done from a persuasion of its being morally good?’
Beattie, in one of his letters to Sir W. Forbes, thus refers to the Society and to his own philosophical relation to Reid:—
‘I have of late been much engaged in metaphysics; at least, I have been labouring with all my might to overturn that visionary science. I am a member of a club in this town who style themselves the Philosophical Society. I hope you will not think the worse of this Society when I tell you, that to it the world is indebted for a Comparative View of the Faculties of Man, and an Inquiry into Human Nature on the Principles of Common Sense. I have shown that all genuine reasoning does ultimately terminate in principles which it is impossible to disbelieve, and as impossible to prove; that, therefore, the ultimate standard of truth to us is Common Sense, or that instinctive conviction into which all true reasoning does resolve itself; that therefore what contradicts Common Sense is in itself absurd, however subtle the arguments which support it. My principles in the main are not essentially different from Dr. Reid’s; but they seem to offer a more compendious method of destroying scepticism. I intend to show (and have already in part shown) that all sophistical reasoning is marked by certain characters which distinguish it from true investigation; and thus I flatter myself I shall be able to discover a method of detecting sophistry, even when one is not able to give a logical confutation of its arguments.’
Beattie argued more in the temper of a partisan than Reid, who criticised Hume in the spirit of a free and candid inquirer after truth.
On the 18th of January 1762 the honorary Doctorate of Divinity was conferred on Reid by Marischal College.
His fame was now more than local. In December 1763 he accepted the invitation of the University of Glasgow to fill the Chair of Moral Philosophy which Adam Smith had resigned. Before he entered on this new career he had given to the world an Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense. This classic work embodies the result of twenty years of steady reflection at New Machar and Aberdeen, in quest of the actual foundation of human knowledge. Before we follow him to Glasgow, we must examine this issue of his intellectual life in Aberdeenshire—due to the challenge of modern agnosticism in the person of David Hume.
- While he lived here, he seems to have retained the incumbency of New Machar till May 1752.
- Long ago removed. I have an engraving of it.
- These MS. dissertations have been lately recovered, and I have thus been able to compare them with the Inquiry, in which I find them mostly embodied.