Thomas Reid (Fraser)/Chapter X
RETROSPECTIVE AND CRITICAL
We find truth, as Pascal says, not only by logical reasoning but by an act of immediate reason, not to be effaced by all the subtleties of the speculative sceptic, who is thus confounded by the resistance of rational human nature. This is a general expression of Reid’s more elaborate reply to sceptical distrust in all human knowledge and belief. That genuine human nature, when awakened into conscious life, is practically irresistible, is what Reid insists on; for no sane man acts in contradiction to the common sense of which he is conscious, although he can speculate sceptically in an abstract way, and may even serve truth in doing so. For this scepticism may amend philosophical systems in which the constituent principles of human nature are not theoretically recognised in their integrity; and it may also stimulate the unphilosophical to a deeper and truer insight of what the natural principles are on which men must proceed in their actions. But the principles themselves are not reached by reasoning: they are the inspiration of God; and it is this divine inspiration that makes experience and reasoning at all possible for men.
That I am an individual self-conscious person, to whom something other than, and independent of, my individual self is presented in my senses—so independent of me individually that it can inform me of the existence of other persons whose conscious life is numerically different from mine; that the free agency of a person is the only sort of power that we are obliged to recognise, persons being revealed as responsible powers in and through our moral nature; and that the powerless things of sense, of which we are immediately percipient in our sense perceptions, are interpretable for purposes of common life and science, inasmuch as their changes must be determined by natural laws, all reasoning being otherwise impossible—these I think are the chief ‘inspirations’ or ‘revelations’ of the Common Sense on which Reid enlarges. This account of those inspirations is not offered as complete; only as results, more or less fragmentary, reached by the deep and steady reflection of a long life.
Reid’s philosophical appeal to the divine inspirations of the common sense, without which nothing can be proved, on behalf of truths which do not admit of direct logical proof, but only of a sort of philosophical justification, has been disparaged as an ignoble retreat from the standpoint of the philosopher, in the interest of popular prejudices and blind authority. It has been spoken of as an appeal from the reasoned judgments of the reflecting minority to the unreasoned opinions of the unreflecting majority, an opening for arbitrary dogmas to enter and crush free inquiry. This is the drift of the criticism of Priestley in last century, and of Ferrier in this, while Kantian critics complain of Reid’s lazy arrest of philosophy at the level of ordinary beliefs. Besides this, what Reid claims as ‘the chief merit of his philosophy’—that of questioning the common assumption that external things cannot present themselves in our perceptions, but only unauthenticated representations of them—proceeds, according to Priestley, on a misinterpretation of the metaphorical language of philosophers: to refute it is an idle waste of controversial labour, taking figures of speech for serious science.
If ‘common sense’ in this philosophy means only unintelligent opinion, as opposed to the judgments of thinkers, Reid’s response to the sceptic may well be regarded as an arrest of intelligence,—blind dogmatism instead of philosophy. But candid critics interpret words in the meaning intended by those who use them. This appeal to the judgments named those of the common sense, is intended as an appeal to reason itself—reason, that is to say, in its final form in a finite intelligence, whose experience of the universe is incomplete, and working under conditions imposed upon its exercise in intelligent beings who are not omniscient. Reid’s Common Sense is the final perception of a being who can know the universe of reality only in part, and is therefore needed by man in that intermediate position in which an absolute beginning or end of things must be to him incomprehensible. It is an appeal to that which must in reason be final, in an intelligence that only partly shares in divine omniscient reason. Although its judgments are not evolved from premises, they are nevertheless what all men, except infants and lunatics, more or less distinctly acknowledge in their individual actions, although they may misconstrue them in their uneducated opinions, or spoil them by indulgence in purely speculative systems. The divine inspiration of the common sense is therefore man’s final support, amidst the so-called ‘contingencies’ of temporal change in himself and his surroundings. A philosophical appeal to it is of practical importance in reference to what, at the human point of view, are contingent truths of moral reasoning: the necessary truths of abstract thought, it has been well said, ‘sufficiently guard themselves.’
Accordingly the judgments of the common sense which chiefly interested Reid are what he calls first principles of ‘contingent’ truths, as distinguished from abstract necessities the opposites of which are self-contradictory or unthinkable. Contingent truths, on the other hand, may be rejected in thought; but those who reject them speculatively must proceed upon them in their actions and reasonings, including even sceptical reasonings. The man whose scepticism involves a practical surrender of the common judgment, that what we call the outward world is independent enough of his individual existence to make it a trustworthy medium of intercourse for him with other living persons; and who acts accordingly on the belief that ‘other persons’ are only conscious states of his own individual mind, would be pronounced a lunatic. Again, the fatalist, who rejects practically the moral judgment that refers the issues of a deliberate voluntary determination to the voluntary or personal agent as its responsible centre, insanely sits still in the midst of danger, and refrains from exerting a power which he denies. And he who refuses to proceed upon the logically undemonstrable postulate of universal natural order, by ceasing to reason about wholly uninterpretable chaos, is inevitably crushed by the Universal Power that he ignores.
It is thus that practical disregard of inspired final reason appears to Reid to be ‘destructive at once of the science of the philosopher, the prudence of the man of the world, and the faith of the Christian.’ The unjust as well as the just, so far as they live at all, must, he sees, live by faith in what cannot be either proved or disproved by direct demonstration. And if all those final judgments of practical reason were contradicted in daily action, as well as in academic theory, ‘piety, patriotism, parental affection, and private virtue would appear as ridiculous as knight-errantry: the pursuits of pleasure, ambition, and avarice must be grounded upon this sort of belief as well as those that are honourable and virtuous.’
On the other hand there are common prejudices which, while they last, are popularly dignified as ‘common sense.’ Some now universally admitted truths of science at first shocked men, although afterwards found to be in harmony with the general common sense to which philosophy appeals. That we are living on a material ball that revolves in space; that the revolving ball revolves also on its axis; that the sun does not rise and set, but is at rest; the existence of the antipodes; the invisibility of the distances of things—are a few examples. Instead of contradicting the common sense, the common sense, in the light of further experimental evidence, finally imposes them upon us. At any rate their contradictories cannot be justified by the universal intellectual paralysis which is the alternative to the rejection of a genuine judgment of the common sense. The assertion that the earth is in motion and the sun relatively at rest does not contradict sane human nature: that changes in nature are all wholly chaotic, and therefore wholly uninterpretable, can never become a scientific discovery, because it implies subversion of all science and makes scientific reasoning impossible. The invisibility of the distances of things, rightly understood in the light of its evidence, draws no protest from genuine human nature. Human nature or final reason protests, on the other hand, when the material world is believed to be so unreal that I cannot by means of it find that there are other human beings. The impotence of all things presented to the senses does not contradict reason in the common sense in the way the impotence, and consequent irresponsibility, of man does.
But Reid, I think, makes too little of the service of philosophical reflection, in quickening into conscious life in the individual the postulates on which human knowledge and conduct finally turn, and in developing their meaning. Such primary assumptions as the real existence of outward things; our own individual personal existence; and the existence of God, are held with very different degrees of intelligence, by the indolent and thoughtless and by those who reflect. Advance in philosophy is advance in interpreting the meaning of each of these three postulates, and of their mutual relations, as seen in an improved conception of what ‘matter’ means, what ‘self means, and what ‘God’ means. The common sense or final reason of man is developed in different degrees in different persons, in different places, at different periods of human history, and in the same person at different times in his life. It is not individually independent of evolutionary law; although its genuine constituents are latent in each man and may be made to respond to an adequate appeal. The practical reason of the common sense, while not founded on but presupposed in philosophy, may nevertheless be deepened and enlightened in each man by reflection and criticism. Its final action is therefore far from superseding the philosopher, who has to systematise man’s advancing experience of the universe in the light of an idealised common sense, or the common sense in the ideal man, which the philosopher tries to approach more nearly. In this intellectual progress the cruder conceptions of ‘matter’ and ‘self’ and ‘God,’ as well as of the final physical and the moral relations of the three postulated existences, are purified and expanded; but always without disparagement to the primary roots. Improvement of human knowledge, in harmony with the awakened common sense inspirations, is our intellectual ideal.
It may perhaps be said that Reid makes his appeal to the root principles of practical reason—the essential sanity of mankind—only on behalf of what no one seriously calls in question; and moreover that he attributes the scepticism with which he struggled to a speculative theory of philosophers, instead of to facts in nature and in man, which suggest distrust in the ‘inspirations’ on which human understanding depends, in its lack of omniscience. What need, it may be asked, for a prolonged endeavour to justify belief in the existence of the house in which we live, the planet on which it stands, or the human beings among whom we seem to play our parts? Only insane persons—really insane—can be found to doubt realities like these. Insanity cannot be cured by an elaborate disproof of the ‘ideal system’; and as for the sane, such common sense sanities as these are safe enough without this philosophical appeal to human sanity. As regards those beliefs—si non rogas intelligo. I know all that I need to know, as long as I am not asked to justify and explain my knowledge, logically or otherwise, and remain contented to enjoy the things that unpractical thinkers vainly try to understand.
That sceptical distrust in our original faculties, and in Power or Providence that is finally operative in the universe in which we have our being, lies deeper than the ‘ideal system’ which was Reid’s bugbear; and also that it arises mostly in connection with less obtrusive elements in the common sense than our perceptions through the five senses, is in harmony with the gradual development of Reid’s own thought which I have tried to trace. For he advanced, as we saw, from reflection upon those ‘inspirations’ of the common sense that are implied in our physical perceptions, to reflection upon those other data of the common sense that are implied in our perceptions of personal and morally responsible agency. It is in touching and seeing the material world that the common sense is first awakened; and thus the material world is the most obtrusive object in human experience, its perceptions affording the fittest preliminary object-lesson on the office of this final reason in the whole rational economy of man. External perceptions are the beginnings of all reasonings about concrete existence. They are the obvious examples of those original judgments, which are ‘the inspiration of the Almighty,’ more obvious than the often dormant ones that are moral and spiritual. All the discoveries of our reason are grounded on them. A remarkable deviation from them, arising from a disorder in the constitution, is called lunacy by all; as when a man believes that he is made of glass: but when a man suffers himself to be reasoned out of them by metaphysical arguments he would call this metaphysical lunacy; which differs from the other species of the distemper in this, that it is not continued, but intermittent. He thus tests reason in its final authority, as distinguished from reason in its innumerable inferential exercises: the authority may be logically vindicated as reasonable, but its judgments are not conclusions originally deduced from premises.
It must also be remembered that the Reidian protest on behalf of a philosophical recognition of the blended judgment and feeling which makes this common reason that is more or less consciously alive in all men, is a protest on behalf of the regulative authority of this reason in its genuine integrity. All philosophical systems, so far, proceed upon and acknowledge its judgments; but, as it seemed to Reid, often only after spoiling them. He made it his particular mission to restore them in their genuine integrity to philosophy as the prime factors of all true theories. In perception does the outward reality actually appear, extended as it really is, without any unextended medium interposed, exactly as the internal reality of a pain or a pleasure appears without a medium, when I am conscious of being pained or pleased? If so, let us then, Reid would say, accept this fact as final, even although we cannot account for it; instead of perverting it by supposing that the external reality is one thing, and the immediately perceived object of which alone we are curious a different thing;—dreaming that this supposed internal object, as its copy, explains our perception of the external object that is imperceptible. Again, according to genuine common sense, the ‘self’ which I am obliged to presuppose is invisible; my body or my brain is external to it, as much so as the sun and moon are; for they are all parts of the material world—all objects of my senses—unlike my proper personality, which is approached only through the inner consciousness, and not at all through perception of the senses. Here, too, Reid protests on behalf of the genuine common sense, and against the scientifically perverted common sense offered to him by Priestley. For the distinctive feature of Reidism is not vague acknowledgment of the common sense, but acknowledgment of it as it is found to be when steadfast reflection is applied to the final mental experience of man.
A modern critic may complain that Reid’s point of view is too narrow and special, and his method too matter-of-fact to entitle the result to be called philosophy. It looks unlike philosophy proper, which is concerned with the universe and universals, and is like a special science of human mind, having human mind for its finite object or province, as other special sciences have their limited provinces. For instance, astronomy has the stellar bodies; chemistry, the elementary constitution of bodies; geology, the phenomena in the strata of the earth’s crust; and so on. Now the final problem of universal reality, or at least universal reality in ultimate relation to man, is the proper business of the philosopher, who contemplates the all-comprehensive synthesis which sustains or explains each special science, and even the universe of nature and man; while, as human philosophy, it still recognises the inherent infinity that makes realities overleap the special sciences. For philosophy is the supreme speculation, concerned with Matter or outward Nature, Self or Spirit, and God or the final all-determining Power—and of this final inquiry Reid had hardly a conception. Yet we must allow that when Reid’s method is called ‘inductive,’ it is more than inductive in the ordinary meaning of the word induction in the natural sciences. He does not reach the several principles of the common sense by the way of probable generalisation from observed facts; rather as truths which arise out of latency into more or less distinct consciousness, in response to steadfast meditation. They are philosophically recognised ‘inspirations,’ or ‘revelations’—not tentative generalisations; and their justification must not be confounded with the ordinary verification with which we are familiar in sciences of outward nature. The common sense provides material to the philosopher, not ready made, but still not mere issue of empirical generalisation.
How far a philosophy akin to that of Reid admits of philosophical expansion, or of being brought up to date at the end of the nineteenth century, when the fundamental questions of religious thought are at the root of our doubts and perplexities, may be considered on a review of the fortunes of Reid’s appeal to the inspirations of final reason in the century which has passed since he died.