The Scottish philosopher, Thomas Reid, was born on the 26th of April [O.S.], 1710.
Thomas Reid is considered to be the founder of the ‘Common Sense Scottish School’ in opposition to the empirical philosophy of David Hume who rejected a priori reasoning (as derived by logic; without observed facts) as unreliable. Reid is best known for his ‘Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense’, which considered ‘common sense’ in various contexts and blended philosophy with science. Significantly, Reid played an integral role in the Scottish Enlightenment. Reid believed that common sense (in a philosophical sense) is, or at least should be, at the foundation of all philosophical inquiry. Reid also saw belief in the principles of common sense as a litmus test for sanity. In his day, he was regarded as more important than David Hume and his philosophy had significant influence in France, Germany and the USA. Since his time, the popularity of Reid’s philosophy has waxed and waned, to some extent due to Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, but it has never disappeared and remains entirely topical.
Thomas Reid was born on the 26th of April, 1710, in Strachan, Kincardineshire. He entered Marischal College, Aberdeen, in 1722, on a four-year general arts course before going on to study divinity. Thomas Reid completed his theological training, in 1731, and was admitted to the ministry of the Church of Scotland. After a brief spell as Presbytery Clerk, he was employed by Marischal College as Librarian and became Minister of New Machar, in 1737. Reid was appointed Regent at King’s College, in 1751, which position meant that he had to teach the whole of the arts curriculum except Greek. In Aberdeen, Reid was one of the founders and leading lights of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, better known as the ‘Wise Club’. Then, in 1764, in what was considered to be a bit of a promotion, Reid was appointed to the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow, in succession to another famous Scot, Adam Smith. In that same year of 1764, albeit he’d done most of his work in the ‘Granite City’, Reid published his first major work, ‘An Inquiry into the Human Mind, on the Principles of Common Sense’.
Hume asserted that we can never know what an external world consists of, since, in the first place, our knowledge is limited to the ideas in the mind. Reid, on the other hand, asserted the existence of external objects by denying that simple ‘ideas’ are our primary data. He claimed that common sense or sensus communis (a term he borrowed from Cicero, from whom he often quoted) should be a part of our philosophical inquiry foundation to justify our belief that there is indeed an external world. The philosophy of common sense took its point of departure from Hume’s skepticism toward impressions and ideas.
One of the chief tenets of modern classical philosophy is the representative theory of perception, which assumes that the immediate object of sensation is, in fact, a mental image that presents man with a world of material objects. Likewise, the relations between conceptual ideas are brought about by associations from past experience, which are imaginatively projected into the future. Hume’s skepticism led him to conclude that inferences on the basis of impressions and ideas are a matter of custom and belief rather than logical inference or demonstration. Reid’s purpose was to reject such analysis as ‘shocking to common sense’ and to rely on a description of the way in which perception, conception, and belief work together to produce an instinctive conviction of the validity of man’s sensations of the external world and of other selves.
Although Reid founded ‘common sense philosophy’ in reaction to David Hume's teachings of sceptical empiricism, it is not true that there was any antagonism between them. Indeed, Reid had a great admiration for Hume and asked him to correct the first manuscript of his ‘Inquiry’. Hume responded that the “deeply philosophical” work “is wrote in a lively and entertaining matter” but that “there seems to be some defect in method” and criticized Reid for implying the presence of innate ideas. Hume also added the mischievous recommendation that Reid avoid ‘Scottishisms’ and improve his English. And, while David Hume claimed that his own major work, ‘A Treatise on Human Nature’, “fell stillborn from the press”, Reid seems to have been one of its few original readers. The two Scots, who were contemporaries, conducted an infrequent, but complimentary correspondence, and Reid wrote, “I shall always avow myself as your disciple in metaphysics.”
Thomas Reid retired from teaching, in 1780, and, in 1785, he published his ‘Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man’ and, in 1788, ‘Essays on the Active Powers of Man’. In his ‘Intellectual Powers’, he advocated direct realism or common sense realism and argued strongly against the ‘Theory of Ideas’ advocated by John Locke, Rene Descartes and (in varying forms) nearly all ‘Early Modern’ philosophers who came after them. Although Reid does not entirely disagree with Locke’s assumption that there is “some” intimate connection between personal identity and memory, he claims that Locke’s blunder is in confusing the primary evidence with reality, which the person’s identity consists of.
Thomas Reid’s theory of knowledge also had a strong influence on his theory of morals. He himself thought all epistemology was an introductory part to practical ethics, “When we are confirmed in our common beliefs by philosophy, all we have to do is to act accordingly to them, because we know what is right.” Apart from his epistemology of sensation, Reid is best known for his view of free will in that he held that the only free actions are those that come about through a causal process (a cause and its consequential effect) originated by the agent. Perhaps he would’ve liked to have heard the lyrics to ‘Freewill’ by the Canadian rock band, Rush, the chorus of which follows:
“You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice.
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill;
I will choose a path that's clear
I will choose freewill.”
Thomas Reid died in Glasgow on the 7th of October, 1796.