Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Reid, Thomas (1710-1796)
REID, THOMAS (1710–1796), philosopher, born 26 April 1710, at Strachan, Kincardineshire, was the son of Lewis Reid (1676–1762), minister of the parish for fifty years. He was a descendant of James Reid, the first minister of Banchory Ternan after the Reformation, whose son and his son's grandson succeeded him as ministers of Banchory. Alexander and Thomas, also sons of James Reid, are separately noticed. Lewis Reid, grandson of the third minister of Banchory, married Margaret, daughter and one of twenty-nine children of David Gregory (1627–1720) [q. v.] She was niece of James Gregory (1638–1675) [q. v.] and sister of David Gregory (1661–1708) [q. v.], the Savilian professor, and of two other professors of mathematics at St. Andrews and Edinburgh. Thomas, son of Lewis and Margaret Reid, was educated at the parish school of Kincardine, and in 1722 became a student at Marischal College. He read philosophy for three years under George Turnbull, a writer upon ‘moral philosophy’ and ‘ancient painting,’ and was in the Greek class of Thomas Blackwell (1660?–1728) [q. v.]; Colin Maclaurin [q. v.] was professor of mathematics at the same time. The teaching, however, was superficial, and Reid showed industry rather than brilliance. He graduated in 1726. He then studied divinity, and was licensed to preach by the presbytery of Kincardine O'Neil on 22 Sept. 1731. He probably resided at his father's manse until, in 1733, he was appointed to the librarianship of Marischal College, endowed by his collateral ancestor, secretary Reid, and resided at the university until 1736. He formed a close friendship with John Stewart, afterwards professor of mathematics at Marischal College, which lasted till Stewart's death in 1766. In 1736 Reid resigned his librarianship, and travelled with Stewart to England. At Cambridge he saw Bentley and the blind mathematician, Saunderson, who is occasionally noticed in his writings. In 1737 he was presented by King's College, Aberdeen, to the living of New Machar, twelve miles from Aberdeen. Disputes as to patronage had made his parishioners so hostile that he is said to have been in personal danger. They hinted their dislike, if a tradition mentioned by Dr. McCosh be correct, by ducking him in a pond. One of his uncles, it is added, had to guard the pulpit stairs with a sword. He gradually overcame their prejudices, and won a popularity which was increased by his marriage in 1740 to Elizabeth, daughter of his uncle, George Reid, a London physician. Their benevolence, according to Dugald Stewart, was remembered with gratitude after Reid's death. Reid showed his modesty by preaching the sermons of ‘Tillotson and Evans’ (probably John Evans, D.D., 1680?–1730 [q. v.]). He was accused of concealing his obligations, but it is added that he industriously practised himself in original composition. He was also engaged in speculative studies, and in 1748 he contributed to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ an ‘Essay upon Quantity,’ attacking Hutcheson's application of mathematical formulæ to ethical questions. On 28 Oct. 1751 Reid succeeded Alexander Rait in a ‘regentship’ at King's College, Aberdeen. The old system of ‘regenting’ was changed at this time with Reid's co-operation. He became ‘professor of philosophy,’ but each class went through its whole course for the last three of the four years under the same professor. Reid's course of lectures included ‘mathematics and physics’ as well as ‘logic and ethics.’ He appears to have been an active mover in measures adopted at this time to improve the studies and discipline of the college. New regulations were issued in 1753. They provided that less time should be devoted than hitherto to the scholastic writers. A large part of the course was to be given to studies of Greek, in which Reid appears to have been much interested (Works, ed. Hamilton, p. 38 n.); the third year was to be given to mathematics and ‘natural philosophy,’ and the fourth to the ‘philosophy of the human mind,’ of which a very wide definition, due apparently to Reid, is given. The length of the session was increased from five to seven months; residence within the college walls enforced; and the students were seen regularly ‘nine or ten times throughout the day’ by Reid or ‘other of the masters’ (Rait, Universities of Aberdeen, pp. 199–203, 223). A student's notes of a course of Reid's lectures are in possession of Mr. R. S. Rait. They include statics, dynamics, astronomy, magnetism, electricity, hydrostatics, pneumatics, and optics, some of these topics being of course in a very elementary stage.
Reid, with his cousin, John Gregory (1724–1773) [q. v.], ‘mediciner’ at the university, founded in 1758 the Philosophical Society, nicknamed the ‘Wise Club,’ which lasted till 1773, and held weekly meetings at the Red Lion inn. Beattie and George Campbell were members. The minutes are preserved in the Aberdeen University library. A list of many of the topics discussed is given by McCosh. Several books published by members appear to have been suggested at these meetings, and Reid's last papers were parts of his first book which was soon to be published. Hume's ‘Treatise,’ published in 1739, had naturally provided topics. Reid tells Hume that if he gave up writing, the society would be at a loss for subjects; and one result was Reid's ‘Inquiry into the Human Mind,’ which was published in 1764. The book, which was the fruit of long study, made an impression from the first. Reid communicated his book before publication to Hume, through their common friend, Dr. Blair; and Hume wrote a courteous letter to his opponent, who frankly acknowledged that his speculations had been suggested by Hume's writings. The ‘Inquiry’ was well received as an answer to Hume's scepticism, and soon reached a second edition. It apparently led to Reid's election in the same year, 22 May 1764, to the professorship of moral philosophy at Glasgow, vacated by Adam Smith's resignation. He had, 18 Jan. 1762, received the honorary degree of D.D. from Marischal College.
Reid held his professorship at Glasgow until his death. He appears to have discharged his duties industriously and efficiently. He lectured five days a week for two and sometimes three hours. The number of students at Glasgow was about three hundred in 1764, and rose to over six hundred by the end of the century. Many of them were Irish presbyterians, preparing for the ministry. Reid wished that there could be one professor for the dunces, and another for the clever. He was at first, however, in some awe of the older students, who often attended classes for four or five years. According to Dugald Stewart, who attended his lectures in 1772, his simplicity, clearness, and earnestness always secured for him the most respectful attention. The salary depended chiefly upon fees, a system which he warmly praises as stimulating the professors to energy (Works, p. 733). He had a class of one hundred at starting, and expected to make about 100l. in fees in the session. The subjects of the lectures were natural theology, ethics, and political science, to which Reid voluntarily added a course of ‘rhetoric’ (Works, pp. 10, 40, 46, 721–39).
Reid had some distinguished colleagues, especially Joseph Black and John Millar (1735–1801) [q. v.] Black explained to Reid his discovery of latent heat before it was generally published; and Reid took a keen interest through life in scientific questions. He describes in 1765 some of the improvements in the steam engine lately made by Watt in Glasgow. Millar was a disciple of Hume, and with him Reid had lively discussions at a philosophical club which held weekly meetings. The fourteen professors, however, were anything but an harmonious body. In his letters to the Skenes (Works, pp. 40–7), Reid complains of their intrigues and factions. There were, he says, often five or six college meetings a week, which were made very disagreeable by ‘the evil spirit of party’ (Works, p. 43). John Anderson, professor of natural philosophy, was constantly quarrelling with his colleagues, and was described to some students by the professor of humanity as a ‘detestable member of society.’ Lawsuits ultimately resulted from these quarrels, and Reid was frequently appealed to as an authority. He seems to have acted with impartiality and dignity. He also served upon many committees for managing the college property and other business (Notes from the university records kindly sent by the Rev. Professor Dickson).
Reid retired from the active duties of his professorship in 1780, when Archibald Arthur [q. v.] was appointed to be his assistant with part of the salary. Reid occupied himself in preparing for publication the substance of his lectures. They appeared as essays on the ‘Intellectual Powers’ (1785), and upon the ‘Active Powers’ (1788). He continued to live in Glasgow, where in 1792 his wife died. They had had a ‘numerous family;’ two sons and two daughters died after reaching maturity. The only survivor was the wife of Patrick Carmichael, M.D., son of Gerstom Carmichael, Hutcheson's predecessor at Glasgow, and, according to Sir W. Hamilton, the ‘real founder of the Scottish school of philosophy’ (Reid, Works, p. 30 n.). Mrs. Carmichael took care of her father, who suffered from deafness and loss of memory. He continued, however, to take an interest in science, and rubbed up his old mathematical knowledge. In 1796 he paid a visit to his friend, Dr. James Gregory, at Edinburgh, and saw something of Playfair and Dugald Stewart. He was in apparently good health, and after returning to Glasgow amused himself with gardening and with algebraical problems. He had an attack in September, and died of paralysis on 7 Oct. 1796.
Reid was below the middle size, but had great athletic power. His portrait, painted by Raeburn during his last visit to Edinburgh, belongs to Glasgow University; and a medallion by Tassie, taken in his eighty-first year, in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, is said to be a very good likeness. Reid's obvious characteristic was the strong and cautious ‘common sense’ which also dictated his philosophy. He was thoroughly independent, strictly economical, and uniformly energetic in the discharge of his duties. He was amiable in his family, delighted in young children, some of whom, it is said, ‘noticed the peculiar kindness of his eye;’ and was as charitable as his means permitted. Stewart mentions a gift to his former parishioners of New Machar, during a scarcity of 1782, which would have been out of proportion to his means had it not been for his rigid economy, and of which he endeavoured to conceal the origin. From the few letters preserved, he appears to have been remarkable for the warmth and steadiness of his friendships.
Reid is the leading representative of the school of ‘common sense.’ This phrase had been frequently used by previous writers (many references are given in Sir W. Hamilton's elaborate note A in Reid's Works, pp. 742–803). Among them was Buffier, whose ‘Traité des Premières Vérités’ was published in 1717; an English translation appeared in 1780, with a title-page and preface accusing Reid, Oswald, and Beattie of plagiarism. Reid had probably not seen Buffier when his ‘Inquiry’ was published, and the accusation only shows the accuser's ignorance (see Hamilton in Reid's Works, pp. 786–9). By ‘common sense’ Reid meant to imply, not vulgar opinion, but the beliefs common to rational beings as such. Reid's scientific tastes led him to an unqualified admiration of the doctrines associated with the names of Bacon and Newton. He held that philosophy might be pursued as successfully as the physical sciences if treated by the same methods. He agrees, therefore, with Locke in appealing to ‘experience,’ and follows Locke's lead in basing philosophy upon psychology investigated as a science of observation and by inductive methods. Hume, as he held, had been misled into scepticism, because, while attempting to apply scientific methods, he had accepted the ‘ideal system’ due to Des Cartes. Reid's great merit, according to himself (Works, p. 86), was his attack upon this system. He modestly adds that his own theory was due not to genius but to ‘time’ and to the arguments of Berkeley and Hume themselves. The assumption that we could only know ‘ideas’ as representative of external realities had led them to dispense with anything beyond the ideas themselves and consequently produced scepticism as to any knowledge of realities. Reid's ‘Inquiry,’ his most original work, therefore endeavours to prove that our belief in an external world is intuitive or immediate. Our perceptions cannot, as he argues, be constructed out of the sensations of sight and touch, which are only the occasions, not the materials, of our construction. Hence our belief in an external world of space must be accepted as an original datum of ‘common sense.’ Reid's inductive process having thus yielded intuitions, as implied in all experience, he applies the same method in his late books to provide a basis for philosophical, theological, and ethical doctrines. In these speculations, however, he is in great measure a disciple of Bishop Butler, Hutcheson, Shaftesbury, and other predecessors.
Reid's successor, Dugald Stewart, accepted his main doctrines with slight modifications. Brown, as Stewart's assistant, sharply criticised Reid, and abandoned some of his chief positions. Sir W. Hamilton condemned Brown severely, and endeavoured to combine Reid's teaching with the doctrines of Kant. The English empiricists found in Reid and Stewart the representatives of the ‘intuitionism’ which they opposed; and Mill's criticism of Hamilton includes some discussion of Hamilton's version of Reid's doctrine. In Germany Reid's influence was eclipsed by Kant, whose answer to Hume's scepticism proceeded on different lines, though with some points of resemblance. Schopenhauer in ‘Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung’ declares that Reid's book is ‘ten times more worth reading than all the philosophy together that has been written since Kant,’ and thinks that his argument against the possibility of deducing space and time from sensation was conclusive. He also regards Reid's account of the nature of conception as the best he has found (translation by Haldane and Kemp, ii. 186, 240). The Scottish philosophy was transplanted into France by Royer-Collard (1763–1845). His pupil and assistant, Victor Cousin (1792–1867), was converted by him from Condillac, and Cousin's philosophy, though he was afterwards attracted by Schelling and Hegel, was much influenced by Reid. Jouffroy (1796–1842), a disciple of Cousin, adopted the Scottish philosophy and translated Reid's works into French. The French ‘spiritualist’ school had thus a considerable infusion of the Scottish doctrine. The Italian philosopher Rosmini (1797–1855) was in some degree influenced by Reid, whose works, with those of Dugald Stewart, are criticised in his ‘Saggio sull' Origine delle Idee,’ 1830 (English translation of vol. i. 1883). Other criticisms of Reid may be found in Hamilton's elaborate annotations, in McCosh's ‘Scottish Philosophy’ (1875), in Cousin's ‘Philosophie Morale, École Écossaise’ (1840), pp. 184–282, and in Professor A. Seth's ‘Balfour Lectures on Scottish Philosophy’ (1890).
Reid's works are: 1. ‘An Essay on Quantity, on occasion of reading a Treatise in which simple and compound ratios are applied to Virtue and Merit,’ in ‘Philosophical Transactions’ for 1748. 2. ‘An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense,’ 1764; 2nd edit. 1765; 3rd edit. 1769; 4th edit. 1785; a French version of this was published in 1768. 3. ‘A Brief Account of Aristotle's Logic’ in the second volume of Kames's ‘Sketches of the History of Man,’ 1774. 4. ‘Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man,’ 1785. 5. ‘Essays on the Active Powers of Man,’ 1788. 6. ‘A Statistical Account of the University of Glasgow,’ in the twenty-first volume of Sinclair's ‘Statistical Account of Scotland,’ 1799.
Some other editions of the philosophical works separately appeared before 1830. A collective edition by G. N. Wright was published in 1843. The standard edition, by Sir William Hamilton, appeared in an imperfect state in 1846, and was issued with additions in 1863 under the editorship of H. L. Mansel.
A French translation by Jouffroy, entitled ‘Œuvres Complètes de Thomas Reid, chef de l'École Écossaise, avec des Fragments de M. Royer-Collard et une Introduction de l'Editeur,’ was published in six volumes (1828–36).[The original authority is the Life of Reid by Dugald Stewart, read before the Royal Society of Edinburgh, published in 1803, and prefixed to Hamilton's and other editions of Reid's works. See also McCosh's Scottish Philosophy and R. S. Rait's Universities of Aberdeen. The writer has specially to thank Mr. Rait for information as to Reid's career at Aberdeen, derived from various manuscript records at Aberdeen, minutes of the presbytery of Kincardine O'Neil and the Aberdeen synod, and Anderson's Fasti Ac. Mariscallanæ and Officers of King's College, both published by the New Spalding Club. See also Scott's Fasti, iii. 509, 545. The Rev. Professor Dickson of Glasgow has kindly given information from university records as to Reid's Glasgow career.]