Thomas Reid



Thomas Reid (; 7 May ( O.S. 26 April) 1710 – 7 October 1796) was a religiously trained Scottish philosopher. He was the founder of the Scottish School of Common Sense and played an integral role in the
Scottish Enlightenment The Scottish Enlightenment ( sco, Scots Enlichtenment, gd, Soillseachadh na h-Alba) was the period in History of Scotland#18th century, 18th- and early-19th-century Scotland characterised by an outpouring of intellectual and scientific accomplis ...
. In 1783 he was a joint founder of the
Royal Society of Edinburgh The Royal Society of Edinburgh is Scotland's national academy of science and letters. It is a registered charity that operates on a wholly independent and non-partisan basis and provides public benefit throughout Scotland. It was established i ...
. A contemporary of
David Hume David Hume (; born David Home; 7 May 1711 New Style, NS (26 April 1711 Old Style, OS) – 25 August 1776)Maurice Cranston, Cranston, Maurice, and T. E. Jessop, Thomas Edmund Jessop. 2020 999avid Hume" ''Encyclopædia Britannica''. Retrieve ...
, Reid was also "Hume's earliest and fiercest critic".


Reid was born in the manse at Strachan, Aberdeenshire, on 26 April 1710 O.S., the son of Lewis Reid (1676–1762) and his wife Margaret Gregory, first cousin to James Gregory. He was educated at Kincardine Parish School then the O'Neil Grammar School in Kincardine. He went to the
University of Aberdeen The University of Aberdeen ( sco, University o' 'Aiberdeen; abbreviated as ''Aberd.'' in post-nominals; gd, Oilthigh Obar Dheathain) is a public research university in Aberdeen, Scotland. It is an ancient university founded in 1495 when Wil ...
in 1723 and graduated MA in 1726. He was licensed to preach by the
Church of Scotland The Church of Scotland ( sco, The Kirk o Scotland; gd, Eaglais na h-Alba) is the national church in Scotland. The Church of Scotland was principally shaped by John Knox, in the Scottish Reformation, Reformation of 1560, when it split from t ...
in 1731 when he came of age. He began his career as a minister of the
Church of Scotland The Church of Scotland ( sco, The Kirk o Scotland; gd, Eaglais na h-Alba) is the national church in Scotland. The Church of Scotland was principally shaped by John Knox, in the Scottish Reformation, Reformation of 1560, when it split from t ...
but ceased to be a minister when he was given a professorship at
King's College, Aberdeen King's College in Old Aberdeen, Scotland, the full title of which is The University and King's College of Aberdeen (''Collegium Regium Abredonense''), is a formerly independent university founded in 1495 and now an integral part of the Universi ...
, in 1752. He obtained his doctorate and wrote ''An Inquiry Into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense'' (published in 1764). He and his colleagues founded the 'Aberdeen Philosophical Society, popularly known as the 'Wise Club' (a literary-philosophical association). Shortly after the publication of his first book, he was given the prestigious Professorship of Moral Philosophy at the
University of Glasgow The University of Glasgow (abbreviated as ''Glas.'' in Post-nominal letters, post-nominals; ) is a Public university, public research university in Glasgow, Scotland. Founded by papal bull in , it is the List of oldest universities in continuous ope ...
when he was called to replace
Adam Smith Adam Smith (baptized 1723 – 17 July 1790) was a Scottish economist and philosopher who was a pioneer in the thinking of political economy and key figure during the Scottish Enlightenment. Seen by some as "The Father of Economics"——— ...
. He resigned from this position in 1781, after which he prepared his university lectures for publication in two books: ''Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man'' (1785) and ''Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind'' (1788). However, in 1787 he is still listed as "Professor of Moral Philosophy" at the university, but his classes were being taught by Archibald Arthur. In 1740 Thomas Reid married his cousin Elizabeth, daughter of the London physician George Reid. His wife and "numerous" children predeceased him, except for a daughter who married Patrick Carmichael. Reid died of palsy, in Glasgow. He was buried at Blackfriars Church in the grounds of Glasgow College and when the university moved to Gilmorehill in the west of Glasgow, his tombstone was inserted in the main building.

Philosophical work


Reid believed that
common sense ''Common Sense'' is a 47-page pamphlet written by Thomas Paine in 1775–1776 advocating independence from Kingdom of Great Britain, Great Britain to people in the Thirteen Colonies. Writing in clear and persuasive prose, Paine collected variou ...
(in a special philosophical sense of '' sensus communis'') is, or at least should be, at the foundation of all philosophical inquiry. He disagreed with Hume, who asserted that we can never know what an external world consists of as our knowledge is limited to the ideas in the mind, and
George Berkeley George Berkeley (; 12 March 168514 January 1753) – known as Bishop Berkeley (Bishop of Cloyne of the Anglican Church of Ireland) – was an Anglo-Irish philosopher whose primary achievement was the advancement of a theory he called "immateri ...
, who asserted that the external world is merely ideas in the mind. By contrast, Reid claimed that the foundations upon which our ''sensus communis'' are built justify our belief that there is an external world. In his day and for some years into the 19th century, he was regarded as more important than Hume. He advocated
direct realism Direct may refer to: Mathematics * Directed set, in order theory * Direct limit of (pre), sheaves * Direct sum of modules, a construction in abstract algebra which combines several vector spaces Computing * Direct access (disambiguation), a ...
, or common sense realism, and argued strongly against the Theory of Ideas advocated by
John Locke John Locke (; 29 August 1632 – 28 October 1704) was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Age of Enlightenment, Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the "father of liberalism ...
René Descartes René Descartes ( or ; ; Latinisation of names, Latinized: Renatus Cartesius; 31 March 1596 – 11 February 1650) was a French people, French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician, widely considered a seminal figure in the emergence of m ...
, and (in varying forms) nearly all Early Modern philosophers who came after them. He had a great admiration for Hume and had a mutual friend send Hume an early manuscript of Reid's ''Inquiry.'' Hume responded that the work "is wrote in a lively entertaining manner," although he found "there seems to be some Defect in Method", and he criticized Reid's doctrine for implying the presence of innate ideas. (pp. 256–257)Thomas Reid. ''An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense.'' Ed. Derek R Brookes. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press Edinburgh University Press is a scholarly publisher of academic books and academic journal, journals, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. History Edinburgh University Press was founded in the 1940s and became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Univers ...
, 1997. pp. 256–257

Thomas Reid's theory of common sense

Reid's theory of knowledge had a strong influence on his theory of morals. He thought
epistemology Epistemology (; ), or the theory of knowledge, is the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge. Epistemology is considered a major subfield of philosophy, along with other major subfields such as ethics, logic, and metaphysics. Epis ...
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 according to them, because we know what is right. His moral philosophy is reminiscent of Roman
stoicism Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rd century Common Era, BCE. It is a philosophy of personal virtue ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world, asser ...
in its emphasis on the agency of the subject and self-control. He often quotes
Cicero Marcus Tullius Cicero ( ; ; 3 January 106 BC – 7 December 43 BC) was a Ancient Rome, Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar, philosopher, and Academic skepticism, academic skeptic, who tried to uphold optimate principles during crisis of ...
, from whom he adopted the term "sensus communis". Reid's answer to Hume's sceptical and naturalist arguments was to enumerate a set of principles of ''common sense'' (''sensus communis'') which constitute the foundations of rational thought. Anyone who undertakes a philosophical argument, for example, must implicitly presuppose certain beliefs like, "I am talking to a real person," and "There is an external world whose laws do not change," among many other positive, substantive claims. For Reid, the belief in the truth of these principles is not rational; rather, reason itself demands these principles as prerequisites, as does the innate "constitution" of the human mind. It is for this reason (and possibly a mocking attitude toward Hume and Berkeley) that Reid sees belief in the principles of common sense as a litmus test for sanity. For example, in ''The Intellectual Powers of Man'' he states, "For, before men can reason together, they must agree in first principles; and it is impossible to reason with a man who has no principles in common with you." One of the first principles he goes on to list is that "qualities must necessarily be in something that is figured, coloured, hard or soft, that moves or resists. It is not to these qualities, but to that which is the subject of them, that we give the name body. If any man should think fit to deny that these things are qualities, or that they require any subject, I leave him to enjoy his opinion as a man who denies first principles, and is not fit to be reasoned with." Reid also made positive arguments based in phenomenological insight to put forth a novel mixture of
direct realism Direct may refer to: Mathematics * Directed set, in order theory * Direct limit of (pre), sheaves * Direct sum of modules, a construction in abstract algebra which combines several vector spaces Computing * Direct access (disambiguation), a ...
and ordinary language philosophy. In a typical passage in ''The Intellectual Powers of Man'' he asserts that when he has a conception of a centaur, the thing he conceives is an animal, and no idea is an animal; therefore, the thing he conceives is not an idea, but a centaur. This point relies both on an account of the subjective experience of conceiving an object and also on an account of what we mean when we use words. Because Reid saw his philosophy as publicly accessible knowledge, available both through introspection and through the proper understanding of how language is used, he saw it as the philosophy of common sense.

Exploring sense and language

Reid started out with a 'common sense' based on a direct experience of an external reality but then proceeded to explore in two directions—external to the senses, and internal to human language—to account more effectively for the role of rationality. Reid saw language as based on an innate capacity pre-dating human consciousness, and acting as an instrument for that consciousness. (In Reid's terms: it is an 'artificial' instrument based on a 'natural' capacity.) On this view, language becomes a means of examining the original form of human cognition. Reid notes that current human language contains two distinct elements: first, the acoustic element, the sounds; and secondly the meanings—which seem to have nothing to do with the sounds as such. This state of the language, which he calls 'artificial', cannot be the primeval one, which he terms 'natural', wherein sound was not an abstract sign, but a concrete gesture or natural sign. Reid looks to the way a child learns language, by imitating sounds, becoming aware of them long before it understands the meaning accorded to the various groups of sounds in the artificial state of contemporary adult speech. If, says Reid, the child needed to understand immediately the conceptual content of the words it hears, it would never learn to speak at all. Here Reid distinguishes between natural and artificial signs: :"It is by natural signs chiefly that we give force and energy to language; and the less language has of them, it is the less expressive and persuasive. ... Artificial signs signify, but they do not express; they speak to the intellect, as algebraic characters may do, but the passions and the affections and the will hear them not: these continue dormant and inactive, till we speak to them in ''the language of nature'', to which they are all attention and obedience." (p. 52) His external exploration, regarding the senses, led Reid to his critical distinction between ' sensation' and '
perception Perception () is the organization, identification, and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the presented information or environment. All perception involves signals that go through the nervous syste ...
'. While we become aware of an object through the senses, the content of that perception is not identical with the sum total of the sensations caused in our consciousness. Thus, while we tend to focus on the object perceived, we pay no attention to the process leading from sensation to perception, which contains the knowledge of the thing as real. How, then, do we receive the conviction of the latter's existence? Reid's answer is, by entering into an immediate intuitive relationship with it, as a child does. In the case of the adult, the focus is on perceiving, but with the child, it is on receiving of the sensations in their living nature. For Reid, the perception of the child is different from the adult, and he states that man must become like a child to get past the artificial perception of the adult, which leads to Hume's view that what we perceive is an illusion. Also, the artist provides a key to the true content of sense experience, as he engages the 'language of nature': :"It were easy to show, that the fine arts of the musician, the painter, the actor, and the orator, so far as they are expressive .. are nothing else but the language of nature, which we brought into the world with us, but have unlearned by disuse and so find the greatest difficulty in recovering it." (p. 53) :"That without a natural knowledge of the connection between these aturalsigns and the things signified by them, the language could never have been invented and established among men; and, That the fine arts are all founded upon this connection, which we may call the natural language of mankind." (p. 59) Thus, for Reid, common sense was based on the innate capacity of man in an earlier epoch to directly participate in nature, and one we find to some extent in the child and artist, but one that from a philosophical and scientific perspective, we must re-awaken at a higher level in the human mind above nature. Why does Reid believe that perception is the way to recognize? Well, to him "an experience is purely subjective and purely negative. It supports the validity of a proposition, only on the fact that I find that it is impossible for me not to hold it for true, to suppose it therefore not true" (Reid, 753). To understand this better, it is important to know that Reid divides his definition of perception into two categories: conception, and belief. "Conception is Reid's way of saying to visualize an object, so then we can affirm or deny qualities about that thing. Reid believes that beliefs are our direct thoughts of an object, and what that object is" (Buras, The Functions of Sensations to Reid). So, to Reid, what we see, what we visualize, what we believe of an object, is that object's true reality. Reid believes in direct objectivity, our senses guide us to what is right since we cannot trust our own thoughts. "The worlds of common sense and of philosophy are reciprocally the converse of each other" (Reid, 841). Reid believes that Philosophy overcomplicates the question of what is real. So, what does Common Sense actually mean then? Well, "common sense is the senses being pulled all together to form one idea" (Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid, 164). Common sense (all the senses combined) is how we truly identify the reality of an object; since all that can be perceived about an object, are all pulled into one perception. How do people reach the point of accessing common sense? That's the trick, everyone is born with the ability to access common sense, that is why it is called common sense. "The principles of common sense are common to all of humanity," (Nichols, Ryan, Yaffe, and Gideon, Thomas Reid). Common sense works as such: If all men observe an item and believe the same qualities about that item, then the knowledge of that item is universally true. It is common knowledge, which without explanation is held true by other people; so, what is universally seen is universally believed. "The real, then, is that which, sooner or later, information and reasoning would finally result in, and which is therefore independent of the vagaries of me and you. Thus, the very origin of the conception of reality shows that this conception essentially involves the notion of a community, without definite limits, and capable of a definite increase of knowledge," (Reid, 155). The combination of the same ideas, of a thing, by multiple people, is what confirms the reality of an object. Reid also believes that the philosophers of his time exaggerated what is truly real. Where most philosophers believe that what we see is not fully what that thing is, for example, Descartes, Reid counters this argument simply by stating that "such a hypothesis is no more likely to be true than the common-sensical belief that the world is much the way we perceive it to be," (Nichols, Ryan, Yaffe, and Gideon, Thomas Reid). Reality is what we make it out to be, nothing more. Reid also claimed that this discovery of the link between the natural sign and the thing signified was the basis of natural philosophy and science, as proposed by
Bacon Bacon is a type of Curing (food preservation), salt-cured pork made from various cuts of meat, cuts, typically the pork belly, belly or less fatty parts of the back. It is eaten as a side dish (particularly in breakfasts), used as a central in ...
in his radical method of discovery of the innate laws of nature: :The great Lord Verulam had a perfect comprehension of this, when he called it ''an interpretation of nature''. No man ever more distinctly understood, or happily expressed the nature and foundation of the philosophic art. What is all we know of mechanics, astronomy, and optics, but connections established by nature and discovered by experience or observation, and consequences deduced from them? (..) What we commonly call natural ''causes'' might, with more propriety, be called natural ''signs'', and what we call ''effects'', the things signified. The causes have no proper efficiency or causality, as far as we know; and all we can certainly affirm, is, that nature hath established a constant conjunction between them and the things called their effects; (..). (p. 59)


It has been claimed that Reid's reputation waned after attacks on the Scottish School of Common Sense by
Immanuel Kant Immanuel Kant (, , ; 22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804) was a German Philosophy, philosopher and one of the central Age of Enlightenment, Enlightenment thinkers. Born in Königsberg, Kant's comprehensive and systematic works in epistemolo ...
(although Kant, only 14 years Reid's junior, also bestowed much praise on Scottish philosophy—Kant attacked the work of Reid, but admitted he had never actually read his works) and by
John Stuart Mill John Stuart Mill (20 May 1806 – 7 May 1873) was an English philosopher, Political economy, political economist, Member of Parliament (United Kingdom), Member of Parliament (MP) and civil servant. One of the most influential thinkers in the ...
. But Reid's was the philosophy taught in the colleges of North America during the 19th century and was championed by
Victor Cousin Victor Cousin (; 28 November 179214 January 1867) was a French philosopher A philosopher is a person who practices or investigates philosophy Philosophy (from , ) is the systematized study of general and fundamental questions, such ...
, a French philosopher. Justus Buchler has shown that Reid was an important influence on the American philosopher
Charles Sanders Peirce Charles Sanders Peirce ( ; September 10, 1839 – April 19, 1914) was an American philosopher, logician, mathematician and scientist who is sometimes known as "the father of pragmatism". Educated as a chemist and employed as a scientist for t ...
, who shared Reid's concern to revalue common sense and whose work links Reid to
pragmatism Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that considers words and thought as tools and instruments for prediction, problem solving, and action (philosophy), action, and rejects the idea that the function of thought is to describe, represent, ...
. To Peirce, conceptions of truth and the real involve the notion of a community without definite limits (and thus potentially self-correcting as far as needed), and capable of a definite increase of knowledge. Common sense is socially evolved, open to verification much like scientific method, and constantly evolving, as evidence, perception, and practice warrant, albeit with a slowness that Peirce came only in later years to see, at which point he owned his "adhesion, under inevitable modification, to the opinion of...Thomas Reid, in the matter of Common Sense". (Peirce called his version "critical common-sensism"). By contrast, on Reid's concept, the ''sensus communis'' is not a social evolutionary product but rather a precondition of the possibility that humans could reason with each other. The work of Thomas Reid influenced the work of Noah Porter and James McCosh in the 19th century United States and is based upon the claim of universal principles of objective truth. Pragmatism is not the development of the work of the Scottish "Common Sense" School—it is the negation of it. There are clear links between the work of the Scottish Common Sense School and the work of the Oxford Realist philosophers Harold Prichard and Sir William David Ross in the 20th century. Reid's reputation has revived in the wake of the advocacy of common sense as a philosophical method or criterion by G. E. Moore early in the 20th century, and more recently because of the attention given to Reid by contemporary philosophers, in particular philosophers of religion in the school of Reformed epistemology such as William Alston, Alvin Plantinga, and Nicholas Wolterstorff, seeking to rebut charges that theistic belief is irrational where it has no doxastic foundations (that is, where that belief is not inferred from other adequately grounded beliefs). He wrote a number of important philosophical works, including ''Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense'' (1764, Glasgow & London), ''Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man'' (1785) and ''Essays on the Active Powers of Man'' (1788). In 1844,
Schopenhauer Arthur Schopenhauer ( , ; 22 February 1788 – 21 September 1860) was a German philosopher. He is best known for his 1818 work ''The World as Will and Representation'' (expanded in 1844), which characterizes the Phenomenon, phenomenal world ...
praised Reid for explaining that the perception of external objects does not result from the raw data that is received through the five senses:

Other philosophical positions

Though known mainly for his epistemology, Reid is also noted for his views in the theory of action and the metaphysics of personal identity. Reid held an incompatibilist or libertarian notion of freedom, holding that we are capable of free actions of which we are the cause, and for which we are morally appraisable. Regarding personal identity, he rejected Locke's account that self-consciousness in the form of memory of one's experiences was the basis of a person's being identical with their self over time. Reid held that continuity of memory was neither necessary nor sufficient to make one numerically the same person at different times.''Essays on the Intellectual Powers'', "Essay Three: Of Memory". Reid also argued that the operation of our mind connecting sensations with belief in an external world is accounted for only by an intentional Creator. In his natural religion lectures, Reid provides five arguments for the
existence of God The existence of God (or more generally, the existence of deities) is a subject of debate in theology, philosophy of religion and popular culture. A wide variety of arguments for and against the existence of God or deities can be categorized ...
, focusing on two mainly, the cosmological and design. Reid loves and frequently uses Samuel Clarke's cosmological argument, which says, in short that the universe either has always been, or began to exist, so there must be a cause (or first principle) for both (Cuneo and Woudenberg 242). As everything is either necessary or contingent, an Independent being is required for contingency (Cuneo and Woudenberg 242). Reid spends even more time on his design argument, but is unclear exactly what he wanted his argument to be, as his lectures only went as far as his students needed. Though there is no perfect interpretation, Reid states that "there are in fact the clearest marks of design and wisdom in the works of nature" (Cuneo and Woudenberg 291) If something carries marks of design (regularity or variety of structure), there must be an intelligent being behind it (Reid EIP 66). This can't be known by experience, fitting with the casual excellence principle, but the cause can be seen in works of nature (Cuneo and Woudenberg 241).


* 1764.
An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (translated to modern English)
Facsimile of the 1823 edition
* 1785. ''Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man''.
* 1788. ''Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind''
Until recently the standard edition of the ''Inquiry'' and the ''Essays'' has been the sixth edition of William Hamilton (ed.), Edinburgh: Maclachlan and Stewart, 1863. A new critical edition of these titles, plus correspondence and other important material, is being brought out by Edinburgh University Press as The Edinburgh Edition of Thomas Reid. An accessible selection from Hamilton's 6th ed. is ''Thomas Reid's Inquiry and Essays'', ed. Ronald Beanblossom and Keith Lehrer, Indianapolis, In: Hackett, 1983.


Further reading

* Barker, Stephen and Tom Beauchamp, eds., ''Thomas Reid: Critical Interpretations'', University City Science Center, 1976. * Terence Cuneo, René van Woudenberg (eds.), ''The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid'', Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. * Daniels, Norman. ''Thomas Reid's'' Inquiry:''The Geometry of Visibles and the Case for Realism''. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. * Davis, William C., ''Thomas Reid's Ethics: Moral Epistemology on Legal Foundations''. Continuum International, 2006. * Ducheyne, Steffen. "Reid's Adaptation and Radicalization of Newton's Natural Philosophy". ''History of European Ideas'' 32 (2006) 173–189. * Roger D. Gallie, ''Thomas Reid and the Way of Ideas'', Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1989. * Haldane, John. "Reid, Scholasticism, and Current Philosophy of Mind" in M. Delgano and E. Matthews, eds., ''The Philosophy of Thomas Reid''. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1989. * Lehrer, Keith. ''Thomas Reid''. London: Routledge, 1989. * Rowe, William. ''Thomas Reid on Freedom and Morality''. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991. * Wolterstorff, N. ''Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology''. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

External links

* * *
The Papers of Thomas Reid
at the
University of Aberdeen The University of Aberdeen ( sco, University o' 'Aiberdeen; abbreviated as ''Aberd.'' in post-nominals; gd, Oilthigh Obar Dheathain) is a public research university in Aberdeen, Scotland. It is an ancient university founded in 1495 when Wil ...
The Edinburgh Edition of Thomas Reid
– critical edition of Reid's philosophical treatises and previously unpublished materials
Reid's Inquiry into the Human Mind, Essays on the Active Powers..., and Essays on the Intellectual powers...
slightly modified for easier reading.
Thomas Reid at Google Books
* *
Common Sense Philosophy
BBC Radio 4 discussion with A.C. Grayling, Melissa Lane & Alexander Broadie (''In Our Time'', 21 June 2007) {{DEFAULTSORT:Reid, Thomas 1710 births 1796 deaths Founder Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh Scottish philosophers Calvinist and Reformed philosophers British Christian theologians 18th-century Scottish writers 18th-century philosophers Enlightenment philosophers David Hume Alumni of the University of Aberdeen Academics of the University of Aberdeen Academics of the University of Glasgow Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 18th-century Ministers of the Church of Scotland People from Kincardine and Mearns Scottish mathematicians Scottish librarians Critics of atheism