Thomas Reid (Fraser)/Chapter VII
PHILOSOPHICAL RETIREMENT: AUTHORSHIP IN OLD AGE
Dugald Stewart, when illustrating the changes in human memory that are connected with disease and old age, refers thus to Reid:—‘One old man I have myself had the good fortune to know, who, after a long, an active, and an honourable life, having begun to feel some of the usual effects of advanced years, has been able to find resources in his own sagacity against most of the inconveniences with which they are commonly attended; and who, by watching his gradual decline with the courage of an indifferent observer, and employing his ingenuity to retard its progress, has converted even the infirmities of old age into a source of philosophical amusement.’ For sixteen years Reid had been discharging that part of the duties of a professor which belongs to the class-room: the remaining sixteen years of his life, devoted to original research and authorship, illustrate the words of Stewart. He continued, after the appointment of Arthur, to live as before in the Professors’ Court in old Glasgow College—a placid, methodical life, steadily industrious, a sagacious interpreter of nature and of man, still active in the academic senate—with occasional recreation in visits to the country. The year 1780 was saddened by another of those domestic sorrows which formed the chief interruption to the tranquil happiness of his life; for his eldest son, George, died in Newfoundland in February, at the age of twenty-five. Two years later the only remaining son, David, was taken away; after which his daughter, Mrs. Carmichael, alone survived of the nine sons and daughters.
Very soon after he had been released from the public work of the professorship, letters to his cousin, Dr. James Gregory, then an Edinburgh Professor of Medicine, speak of activity in transforming the lectures into the form of philosophical essays for publication. This enterprise was indeed Reid’s principal employment for the next eight years. The Essays appeared in two instalments, in 1785 and 1788. The first instalment was a matter-of-fact inquiry into the intellectual power of man; the second was a matter-of-fact inquiry into man’s moral power: the ‘facts’ inquired about and appealed to were the invisible ones of which men are conscious, not those that can be seen and touched—above all, the final convictions of which the Common Sense consists. Both instalments appeared in the same decade of last century in which Kant’s ‘Kritiks’ of Pure and Practical Reason were given to the world.
Reid’s Essays form, as it were, the inner court of the temple of which the Aberdonian Inquiry is the vestibule. But the vestibule is a more finished work of constructive skill than the inner court, for the aged architect appears at last as if embarrassed by accumulated material. The Essays, greater in bulk, perhaps less deserve a place among modern philosophical classics than the Inquiry, notwithstanding its narrower scope, confined as it is to man’s perception of the extended world, as an object-lesson in the method of appeal to the common sense. In the Essays an advance is made towards a finally ethical interpretation of man and the universe.
We have no longer the light of letters to Lord Kames in this closing stage of Reid’s life; for Kames died in 1782. Reid’s retiring modesty deprived him of that large literary intercourse to which his philosophical position might otherwise have led. His correspondence with men eminent in letters or philosophy seems almost confined to Kames, the Gregories, Dugald Stewart, and Dr. Price. I find no trace of correspondence with his Aberdeen friends Campbell and Beattie, whose pursuits had so much in common with his own. But letters to Dr. James Gregory take the place in the ‘eighties’ which those to Lord Kames took in the ‘seventies’; they reveal an old age given to proofsheets, scientific experiments, and benignant interest in social progress. One dated ‘Glasgow College, April 7, 1783,’ tells of the Essays on the Intellectual Powers in the press:—‘I shall be much obliged if you will continue to favour me with your observations; therefore I have put off examining those you have sent until the manuscripts be returned, which I expect about the end of this month, along with Dugald Stewart’s observations.’ Again he writes in June:—‘I cannot get more copied of my papers till next winter, and indeed have not much more ready. This parcel goes to page 658. I believe what you have got before may be one-half of all I intend. The materials of what is not yet ready for the copier are partly discourses read in our Literary Society, partly notes of my lectures. Your judgment of what you have seen flatters me very much, and adds greatly to my own opinion of it; though authors seldom are deficient in a good opinion of their works. I am at a loss to express my obligations to you for the pains you have taken.’ He refers in another letter to what he regards as the source of the fashionable agnosticism against which his life was a continued philosophical protest:—‘I have often thought of what you propose—to give a History of the Ideal System and what I have to say against it, by itself; and I am far from being satisfied that it stands in the most proper place [in the Essays]. I have endeavoured to put it in separate chapters [e.g. Essay ii. ch. 7-15], whose titles may direct those who have no taste for it to pass over them. I observe that Bayle and others, who at the reformation of Natural Philosophy gave new light, found it necessary to contrast their own discoveries with the Aristotelian notions which then prevailed. We may now wish their works purged of this controversial part; but perhaps it was necessary at the time they wrote, when men’s minds were full of the old system, and prepossessed in its favour. What I take to be the genuine Philosophy of the Human Mind is in so low a state, and has so many enemies, that I apprehend those who would make any improvement in it must, for some time at least, build with one hand, and hold a weapon with the other.’ So Reid claimed the office of modern reformer of the philosophy of human mind, as Bacon and others had been the reformers of the sciences which interpret external nature.
On ‘March 14, 1784,’ he mentions the progress of the book:—‘I send you now the remainder of what I propose to print with respect to the Intellectual Powers of the Mind. It may perhaps be a year before what relates to the Active Powers be ready; and therefore I think the former might be published by itself, as it is very uncertain whether I shall live to publish the latter. I think the title may be Essays on the Intellectual Powers of the Human Mind. It will easily divide into eight Essays; but with regard to this, as well as whether the two parts may be published separately, I wish to have your advice and Mr. Stewart’s. I apprehend that the Second Part—I mean what relates to the Active Powers—will not be near so large as the First.’ On ‘2nd May 1785’ he announces that the Essays on the Intellectual Powers are ready for publication, dedicated to Dr. Gregory and to Dugald Stewart:—‘I send you enclosed what I propose as the title of my Essays, with an Epistle which I hope you and Mr. Stewart will allow me to prefix to them. Whether your name should go first, on account of your doctor’s degree, or Mr. Stewart’s, I leave you to adjust between yourselves. I know not how to express my obligations to you both, for the aid you have given me.’
The book thus ushered into the world in 1785 treats of those constituents of the common sense that are implied, not only in perception of things through the five senses and memory, but also in imagination and in the experimental sciences that deal with the past, the distant, and the future. One of them contains the rudiments of a criticism of the common sense principles that finally regulate all abstract reasonings, and above all, those that determine our judgments of truths contingent upon Will—human and divine; in all of which what philosophers called ‘ideas’ seemed to him to spoil the genuine common sense and its inspirations. The fifth Essay deals with the office and relations of our abstract conceptions. Of this Essay Schopenhauer remarks that ‘the best and most intelligent exposition of the nature and essence of conceptions which I have been able anywhere to find is in Thomas Reid’s Essays on the Powers of the Human Mind. This was afterwards condemned by Dugald Stewart in his Philosophy of the Human Mind. Not to waste paper, I will briefly remark with regard to Stewart, that he belongs to that large class who have obtained an undeserved reputation through favour and friends, and therefore I can only advise that not an hour should be wasted over the scribbling of this shallow writer.’ This unworthy criticism of Stewart is far removed from the calm judgment of Reid.
That our perceptions are not related to their objects as effects are related to their causes, is insisted on in the Essays, in opposition to Priestley, who treats cognitive acts as the issue of power which belongs to matter. ‘Men,’ Reid says, ‘have been prone to imagine that, as bodies are put in motion by some impulse or impression made upon them by contiguous bodies, so the mind is made to think and perceive by some impression made upon it by contiguous objects. But to say that an object which I see with perfect indifference makes an impression upon my mind is not good English. It is evident from the manner in which this phrase is used by modern philosophers that they mean, not barely to express by it my perceiving an object, but to explain the manner of perception. They think that the object perceived acts upon the mind in some way similar to that in which one body acts upon another. The impression upon the mind is conceived to be something wherein the mind is altogether passive. But this is a hypothesis which contradicts the common sense of mankind. When I look upon the wall of my room, the wall does not act at all, nor is capable of acting: the perceiving it is an act or operation in me.’ In short, the relation between perceptions and their objects is a unique relation, not to be confounded with the causal, the only causality involved being the percipient power that is in me.
Those Essays of Reid which treat of the constituents of the common sense that are implied in the Intellect power of man, appeared in the early summer of 1785. In September he informed Dr. Gregory of the opinion of Dr. Price, the most eminent contemporary English metaphysician:—‘I had a letter from Dr. Price lately, thanking me for a copy of the Essays I ordered to be presented to him; which he has read, and calls a work of the first value; commends me particularly for treating Dr. Priestley so gently, who, he says, had been unhappily led to use me ill.’ He then refers to his own health, which seems to have suffered from the mental strain, now relieved by the issue of his book:—‘As you are so kind as to ask me about my distemper, I think it is almost quite gone, so as to give me no uneasiness. I abstain from fruit and malt liquor, and take a little port wine, mostly noon and night, not above two bottles a week when alone. The more I walk or ride, or even talk or read audibly, I am the better.’
Dr. Beattie writes thus to the Bishop of Chester in October:—
‘Has your lordship read Dr. Reid’s Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man? Those readers who have been conversant in the modern philosophy of mind, as it appears in the writings of Descartes, Malebranche, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, will be much entertained with this work, which does great honour to the sagacity and patience of the author. It contains the principles of his Inquiry, laid down on a larger scale, and applied to a greater variety of subjects. Dr. Reid treats his opponents and their tenets with a respect and a solemnity that sometimes tempt me to smile. His style is clear and simple; and his aversion to the word idea is so great, that I think he never once uses it in delivering his own opinions. It was not without reason that Stillingfleet took the alarm at Mr. Locke’s indiscreet use of that word. It was indeed an ignis fatuus that decoyed him in spite of his excellent understanding into a thousand pits and quagmires. Berkeley it bewildered still more. And it reduced David Hume to the condition of a certain old gentleman of whom we read, that—
‘Fluttering his pinions vain,
Whether our power of conceiving is so far a test of possibility, as that what is distinctly conceived must be concluded to be possible, and what cannot be conceived impossible, was a question which interested Reid. It is discussed in the Essays on the Intellectual Powers, and also in the draft of a letter to Dr. Price, preserved among the manuscripts at Birkwood; in which it is argued that our power of conception cannot be a criterion of what is possible. The argument turns much on the meanings of ‘conception,’ ‘possibility,’ and ‘impossibility.’ He thus addresses Dr. Price:—‘I would willingly suggest some subject on which I might have the favour of your thoughts when you have leisure and are disposed for such correspondence. What occurs to my thoughts just now is a metaphysical axiom very generally adopted, and, I think, occasionally adopted by you in your Review of the Principal Questions in Morals—That what we distinctly conceive is possible. From this axiom D. Hume infers that it is possible that an universe may start into existence without a cause, and other like extravagancies. The use he makes of it led me to consider it a good many years ago, and I have a strong suspicion that there is some fallacy in it, which has imposed on men’s understandings, owing to the ambiguity of the word conceive.
‘As to the history of this axiom, I suspect it to have taken its rise from what Descartes laid down as the criterion of truth, which he maintained to be clear and distinct conception. Quidquid clare et distincte concipio esse verum, id est verum. Cudworth seems to have followed him in this, making the criterion of verity to be clear, self-consistent intelligibility. Those who came after, judging it difficult to maintain that everything is true which is clearly conceivable or intelligible, have maintained that everything that can be clearly conceived is at least possible. This seemed to be the proper correction of Descartes’ maxim, and it has passed from one hand to another without strict examination.
‘Whatever is true or false, whatever is possible or impossible, may be expressed by a proposition. Now, what do we mean when we say that we conceive a proposition? I think no more is meant, if we speak properly, than that we understand what is meant by that proposition. If this be so, it must surely be granted that we may understand the meaning of a proposition which expresses what is impossible. He who understands the meaning of this proposition, “Two and two make four,” must equally understand the meaning of this other, “Two and two do not make four.” Both are equally understood; that is, the conception of both is equally clear; yet the first is necessarily true, and the second impossible.
‘Perhaps it will be said, that we may not merely conceive the meaning of a proposition, but we may conceive it to be a true proposition, and that it is our being able to conceive it to be true that gives us ground to think it possible. In answer to this, I beg you would attend very carefully to the meaning of these words—“Conceiving a proposition to be true.” I can put no other meaning upon them but judging it to be true, that is, giving some degree of assent to it. Judgment or assent admits of various degrees, from the slightest suspicion to the most deliberate conviction; from the most modest and diffident assent to the most pertinacious and dogmatical. I conceive there may be inhabitants in the moon; that is, my judgment leans a little that way. I would not use that expression unless the probability, however small, seemed to be on that side of the question.
‘If this be the meaning of conceiving a proposition to be true, then the meaning of the axiom will be, that a proposition which appears to us to have any degree of probability, however small, must at least be possible. But the axiom, taken in this sense, is surely false. It would be superfluous to give instances of this to a mathematician.
‘If it should be said that conceiving a proposition to be true means, neither barely to understand the meaning of the proposition, nor the giving any degree of assent to it, I would be glad to know what it really does mean. For I am at a loss to know what power of the understanding we mean by the conceiving a proposition to be true, if it is neither simple apprehension, by which we barely understand the meaning of a proposition, nor judgment, by which we assent to the proposition or dissent from it. I know of no power of the understanding intermediate between these two. And if there is none, I think the axiom must be false.
‘There are many propositions which, by the faculties God has given us, we perceive to be not only true, but necessarily true; and the contradictions of these must be impossible. So that our knowledge of what is impossible keeps pace with our knowledge of necessary truth.
‘By our senses and our memory, by testimony and other means, we have the certain knowledge of many truths which we do not perceive to be necessary; their contraries therefore may be possible for aught we know. But we know that whatever is true, whether necessary or not, is possible. Our knowledge therefore of what is possible keeps pace with our knowledge of truth, whether contingent or necessary. Beyond this, I am afraid our knowledge of what is possible is conjectural. And although we are apt to think everything to be possible which we do not perceive to be impossible, yet in this we may be greatly deceived. You know well, sir, that mathematics affords many instances of impossibilities in the nature of things, which no man would have dreamed of or believed, until they were discovered by accurate and subtle reasoning. Perhaps if we were able to reason demonstratively to as great an extent in other subjects as in mathematics, we might discover many things to be impossible which we now take to be possible. We are apt to think it possible that God might have made an universe of sensible and rational creatures, into which neither natural nor moral Evil should ever enter. It may be so for what I know. But how are you certain that this is possible? I can distinctly conceive it, say you; therefore it is possible. I do not admit this argument. May not a man who is a mathematician as distinctly conceive that in the infinite variety of numbers gradually ascending, there is no ratio whatsoever which is not equal to the ratio of some one whole number to some other whole number? Yet the mathematician can demonstrate that there are innumerable ratios which are not equal to the ratio of some one number to another. Many mathematicians, taking it for granted that it was possible to square the circle, have spent their lives in a fruitless pursuit. May not our taking things to be possible, in matters of higher moment, when we can show no good reason that they are so, lead us into unnecessary disputes and vain theories? Ought we to admit that as a just argument in reasoning, or even as a pressing difficulty, which is grounded on the supposition that such a thing is possible, when in reality we have no good evidence of its being possible, and for anything we can show to the contrary, it may be impossible?’A letter to Dr. Gregory in March 1786 shows the Essays on the Active or Moral Powers in the press:—‘I am proud of the approbation you express of the Essays. I have made some corrections and additions, but such as I hope will not make it necessary to write the book over again. But I wish, if I find health and leisure in summer, to add some Essays to go before that on “Liberty of the Will,” in order to give some further elucidation of the principles of morals. I expect your remarks and D. Stewart’s on what is in hand. It will be no inconvenience to wait two, three, or even four months.’ Two years later, early in 1788, when he was in his seventy-eighth year, the five Essays on the Active Powers of Man were published. This was Reid’s last appearance as a philosophical author. The eight Essays of 1785, and the five Essays of 1788, all relate to human Power—power immanent or intellectual, and power overtly operative or moral.
In March, a few weeks after the book appeared, Beattie writes to Sir W. Forbes:—
‘I have been looking into Dr. Reid’s book on The Active Powers of Man. It is written with his usual perspicuity and acuteness; is in some parts very entertaining; and to me, who have been obliged to think much on those subjects, is very interesting throughout. The question concerning Liberty and Necessity [of the Will] is very fully discussed, and very ably, and I think nothing more need be said about it. I could have wished that he had given a fuller examination of the passions, and been a little more practical in illustrating the duties of morality. But his manner in all his writings more turned to speculative than to practical philosophy; which may be owing to his having employed himself so much in the study of Locke, Hume, Berkeley, and other theorists; and partly, no doubt, to the habits of study and modes of conversation which were fashionable in this country in his younger days. If I were not personally acquainted with the Doctor, I should conclude from his books that he was rather too warm an admirer of Mr. Hume. He confutes, it is true, some of his opinions; but pays them much more respect than they are entitled to.’
To Beattie’s less profound intelligence, indignant sentiment was more acceptable, in defence of fundamental faith, than the calm inquiry and sympathetic criticism of Reid.
The Literary Society which met monthly in the College was occasionally a channel for his thoughts through all the years of the Glasgow professorship, as the more famous ‘Wise Club’ had been at Aberdeen. Principal Leechman, Black, Moor, Arthur, and Dr. Thomas Hamilton were also members. Some of Reid’s contributions before 1788 seem to have been incorporated in the Essays. After that he still found vent for his thoughts in papers for the Society, and in letters to Dr. Gregory, chiefly about Power and Causation. Among the most important of those submitted to the Society in his last years, I find ‘Some Observations on the Modern System of Materialism,’ in which the impotence of matter is maintained; as also in another, entitled ‘Miscellaneous Reflections on Priestley’s account of Hartley’s Theory of the Human Mind.’ Then we have ‘Observations on the Utopia of Sir Thomas More.’ A short essay ‘On Power,’ in March 1792, was his last metaphysical performance: it sums up his conclusions regarding our conception of causation, as regulated by the Common Sense. ‘Observations on the Danger of Political Innovation,’ suggested by the Revolution in France, were read in the Society on November 1794.
This last Essay is characteristic. It presses a distinction between two political attitudes that are apt to be confounded—the one speculative, dealing with abstractions, treating the facts of the case and history as irrelevant; the other practical, taking account of the actual conditions, therefore disposed to modify its ideals by a due regard to what has been and now is. The first asks what that organisation of society is, which, abstractly considered, is most favourable to progress: the other cautiously considers how the inherited political organism may with least friction be adapted to the changed conditions of the social evolution. Reid assumes this last as his attitude, arguing that the British Constitution encourages continuous orderly evolution, not sudden revolution, and that this is illustrated in its history since 1688. At first, he had looked with sanguine hope to the French Revolution, but, like Edmund Burke, who shortly before had been Rector of Glasgow University, his hope gave place to fear. It is interesting that it was the Vindiciae Gallicae of Sir James Mackintosh that had inspired him with the hope; for, according to his daughter, Mrs. Carmichael, he was struck with admiration on reading the book, and used often to speak of it as one of the most ingenious essays in political philosophy he had ever met with.
Jeremy Bentham as well as Mackintosh was known to Reid by his writings, as appears in this letter to Dr. Gregory, in September 1788, which refers to Bentham’s Defence of Usury, published the year before:—
‘I am much pleased with the tract you sent me on Usury. I think the reasoning unanswerable, and have long been of the author’s opinion, though I suspect that the general principle—that bargains ought to be left to the judgment of the parties, may admit of some exceptions; when the buyers are the many, the poor, the simple, and the sellers few, rich, and cunning. The former may need the aid of the magistrate to prevent their being oppressed by the latter. It seems to be upon this principle that postage, freight, the hire of chairs and coaches, and the price of bread, are regulated in most great towns. But with regard to the loan of money in a commercial state, the exception can have no place—the borrowers and lenders are upon an equal footing, and each may be left to take care of his own interest.’
Three years before his death Reid is found preparing the Account of the University of Glasgow, which appeared three years after his death, in the Statistical Account of Scotland published by Sir John Sinclair. It was not communicated by him to Sir John, but transmitted by Professor Jardine, in name of the Principal and Professors, at whose request Reid seems to have engaged in this work. It was an anonymous publication, but it has been attributed to him, and it bears internal evidence of his hand. His colleague, Professor Richardson, in his biographical account of Professor Arthur, Reid’s successor, published in 1803, mentions that ‘the Statistical Account of the University was all written by Dr. Reid, except the statements respecting the business of particular classes.’ It shows intelligence then uncommon in Scotland of the mediaeval constitution of Universities, and appreciation of the true academical ideal. The life begun at King’s College forty years before in projects of University reform, was fitly closed by this account of the great western seat of learning.
Mrs. Reid died early in 1792. His feelings were thus expressed in a letter to Dugald Stewart:—
‘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 deaf old 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; I can converse with one person if he articulates distinctly and within ten inches of my left ear; I go to church without hearing a word of what is said. You know I had never any pretensions to vivacity, but I am still free from languor and ennui.’
After this sorrow, his daughter, Mrs. Carmichael, lived much in his house in the Professors’ Court. She became a widow in the same year, for her husband died a few months after Mrs. Reid. Elizabeth Leslie, daughter of his stepsister Margaret, was also an inmate, and added to the comfort of the closing years. Soon after her father’s death Mrs. Carmichael went to live at Aberdeen.