Thomas Reid On Common Sense

Thomas Reid On Common Sense

Daniel woke up one Saturday and stretched after he got out of bed, then looked out his small window to see the sun blanketing the green grass below. He quickly got dressed and began his long walk to the café. Normally, he would drive his car, but today was a beautiful day to walk. As he crossed a street, he noticed many people wrapped up in the hurly-burly of every day business, a state that is hard to overcome in the United States. Without a thought of reflection, people put one foot in front of the other, checking signs for when they can cross or not. Everything was structured so well because all the signs seemed intuitive to follow. Arriving at the café, Daniel ordered a black coffee and sat at a table for two. He got there a bit early as usual. Daniel always enjoyed moments of pause to reflect and take in his surrounding as he sipped his coffee.

Daniel, seeing an old friend, stood up to greet him, “Good to see you, Frank. Thank you for coming out here.”

Frank then smiled and grabbed Daniel’s hand, “O Daniel, I have a lot in store for you today.”

              “Of that I’m certain of, and have no worries. I did my homework thoroughly. These old titles sure make me want to take a breath in between.”

“Long titles were the fashion, just like the 180-character count the youngsters tweet these days, O how the times change,” Frank replied, “But let us get down to business and learn a unique man’s position who critiqued Early Modern philosophy. Thomas Reid (1710-1796) is the father of common sense philosophy. His work An Inquiry into the Human Mind: On the Principles of Common Sense was released in 1764, and was held with high esteem, especially among the founding fathers. However, over time his philosophy has lost influence. I suspect it was due to Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which might have overshadowed Reid’s work, but interestingly, Kant’s work didn’t prove Reid wrong. Rather there is a kind of symmetry between them. Nevertheless, Reid was Hume’s most successful critic, and shines light on the original defect of Early Modern philosophy. Reid even turns the table against Early Modern philosophy. However, with that rebellious act there comes new terms alien to the mind.”

“I read and reread the chapter on touch and the Geometry of the Visibles to get a clearer comprehension of Reid’s arguments.”

“Ah, well, that’s where things get interesting isn’t it? When trying to tackle a new idea the mind often needs breaks to digest and entertain. Sometimes new ideas can be so challenging that we have trouble accepting them. Let me give you a review of what Reid was getting at. The stakes of philosophy are often high. How we answer the three fundamental problems of philosophy: the problem of knowledge, conduct, and governance, can have a governing effect on our way of life for those that live according to their own philosophy.

The original defect of Early Modern philosophy began with Descartes (1596-1650). He started his work, Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), with absolute skepticism, to which he used the tools of reason alone while brushing aside common sense. With leaving common sense by the curb, we get the possibility of an inauthentic life where we have reason to disbelieve our own senses, which nature has pragmatically and universally endowed us with. I want to dilate on this point, because, with only reason as our guide, the great scandal of Early Modern philosophy began. It was that the philosophers couldn’t really prove, with certainty, that the external world actually existed! Every age has their scandal suppose, today it’s that philosophers have so receded that they don’t care to prove their own consciousness, and hide in their holes content with that fact, while the rest of civilization laughs at them.

“That’s interesting, but let us focus on what is common sense is.”

“Common sense,” Frank replied, “is what is universally and pragmatically applied to the animal kingdom. One of Reid’s examples is when he notices the life of a caterpillar:

which nature intended to live upon the leaf of one species of plant, travel over a hundred leaves of other kinds without tasting one, till it comes to that which is its natural food, which it immediately falls on, and devours greedily.[1]

So even the lowly caterpillar has common sense. So, I ask, what must a caterpillar innately know so that it can be suited out to function and survive? There are certain principles we must know intuitively in order to function in the world that surrounds and summons us: that I exist, that there is an external world, that we have agentic powers, and the like.”

“How does one come to know these sorts of things?” Daniel asked. 

“It’s intuitive, it comes prewired in our minds. We just live with this knowledge as we wake up, and go to work, then go to the market, and find ourselves a way back home.”

Daniel showed a furrow brow and said, “Well, how come so many philosophers think otherwise, that an external world is so difficult to prove, and that we do not have freewill?”

“I’ll get to that, but to briefly reply, it’s because our reason has limitations, limitations that the Early Modern philosophers fought tooth and nail with, but couldn’t find a way out of to prove the external world properly. As clever as they were, they couldn’t defeat Descartes’ evil genius. The evil genius Descartes conceived of could be manipulating him every step along the way—his entire life could be a delusion or illusions played out for the evil genius’ bemusement—like a puppet master pulling his strings, and creating a backdrop that is the only thing he has ever known. Fixated on defeating the evil genius, Descartes started his journey with absolute skepticism. It was his goal to come to some certainty, some kernel of truth, he could begin with, that the evil genius couldn’t trick him of. If he could find some kernel of truth, maybe he could follow that method further to discover life’s other mysteries. So, he came to the undeniable conclusion ‘cogito ergo sum,’ which translates to ‘I think, therefore I am. With this kernel of truth, he proceeded to find his way out of this mental labyrinth with ‘ideas’ impressed upon the mind that were clear and distinct. However, since his system of philosophy was built upon ‘ideas impressed upon the mind,’ that means he can’t directly perceive what is out there, for all that the senses pick up are always mediated, copied,orre-presented. This could have us come to the absurd conclusion, like most Early Modern philosophers did, that we might be living the brain in a vat existence, with electrical signals being sent to our brain, and that whatever the evil genius desires, he can  create in order to construct an illusion and play on us like a concertina.

“Like Neo jacked into the matrix?” Daniel asked.

“Exactly. It’s the ultimate skeptical argument. It states that we can’t know anything for certain about the external world, or even that there is an external world. However, I believe we must be inclined towards some counter-argument to challenge this skepticism, for the human mind demands consistency, clarity, and understanding. Pragmatically, we must make a decision to base our beliefs on, for all our actions are based on premises, even if we are unconscious of them. Let me ask you, would you ever choose to live an inauthentic form of life where the external world, as you know it, could all be but a dream?”

Daniel thought for a moment and then quickly replied, “That’s absurd! The hero would never choose to live a life without others, for then he couldn’t give aid to those in need. This delusion, the evil genius weaves, for a hero, is a truly inauthentic form of life, because that would mean that all of his actions would never better the lives of those he cares about. In other words, since my brain might be in a vat, with electric signals being sent into it, a hero, conscious of this dreadful fact, would have no reason to give aid to anyone or anything!” Daedalus then gestured to his surrounding and his own personal drives within.

“That’s exactly the point. However, one thing I would point out is the question: is there such a thing as a victimless crime. A crime committed may not hurt another, but it may hurt one’s character. But let us continue with the subject of today. Thomas Reid unravels and challenges the ‘idea’ theory, which states that all we see are ‘ideas’ in the mind. He sees the thread of it weaving its way through Early Modern philosophy: in Locke, Malebranche, Berkeley, and he is startled by the ultimate conclusions in the great skepticism of David Hume.

For memory purposes, let me give you the backdrop about Thomas Reid (1710-1796). He was born in Scotland during the Scottish Enlightenment. His mother was from the famous Gregory family who had strong intellectual roots. His uncle, David Gregory, was a professor of astronomy at Oxford and a friend of Sir Isaac Newton. Thomas studied theology at Mariscal College at Aberdeen at age twelve, and was parish minister (1737-51) at New Machar, where people held him in high esteem. Afterwards, he went to King’s College in Aberdeen (1751-64), where he was a founder of the philosophical society called ‘The Wise Club’ in 1758, which often discussed Locke, Berkeley and Hume. He held a position at a university as professor of moral philosophy.

In 1764 Reid wrote his first book An Inquiry into the Human Mind: On the Principles of Common Sense. Shortly after he wrote the book, when Adam Smith left his moral philosophy seat at Glasgow University, Reid took his position. He taught there at Glasgow until 1780. When he retired, he focused on his publications of two major works titled Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785) and Essays on the Active Powers of Man (1788). He passed away in 1790. He was thought to be a man who had complete control over his passions. He had five children. He was a man concerned about his friends. The stable life he lived helped him in acquiring a depth of thought that shined a bright light on his inner world which was rich and wide.

To understand Reid, one must understand the context of the history of Early Modern philosophy in which he was brought up in and actively debated. In Reid’s An Inquiry into the Human Mind, he discusses how Descartes began it with absolute skepticism. Reid then explains how Locke and Hume’s theory was built upon Descartes’ system of how all we can know are but finally ‘ideas’ impressed upon the mind. Furthermore, Locke used Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation for his own theory of mind; the association of ideas, Locke used, acted as gravity that knitted simple, indivisible ideas, together to compound them and make complex ideas.”

“I’m having trouble following you. What’s a complex idea?” Daniel Asked.

“Look all around you,” Frank replied. “Look at this table. It’s a composite, meaning it has many features to it. It’s smooth to the touch, yet hard when pressed upon, it’s dark brown because of the stain applied to the wood’s grain, it’s flat in shape, and cool to the touch. Each individual quality of this table is a simple idea. Hume, who also used a remarkably similar theory of mind, wrote that through the law of resemblance, the law of contiguity, and the law of cause and effect—which was contiguity through time—these ideas are able to associate, thereby build complex ideas of how we have the complete picture of the table as a whole. These association theories sets the picture for the rest of Early Modern philosophy which has been Des-Carted by those who followed in his footsteps.

Daniel then asked, “What’s it mean to be Des-Carted?”

Frank replied, “Descartes’ philosophy hinges upon two methods which leads us towards a dualism, that being ‘mind’ and the other being ‘body’ which has the property of extension. However, if we follow Descartes’ thread of reasoning through the rest of the great thinkers that followed him in the Early Modern period, such as Locke and Berkeley, it ultimately leads to David Hume, who argues that all we can know are these ‘ideas’ in the mind. This skepticism, which psychologizes the mind, Hume argued, concludes with the fact that we can’t see out there directly. This ‘idea’ theory is just what Reid wants to lay to rest. He wants to lay the foundation for a common sense philosophy that is an intuitionist philosophy, prewired in the whole animal economy, that suits us out with the means to perceive and function in the world out there, which ought to be on equal grounding as our faculty of reason, for they both were made in the same shop, and if one is faulty, then they might both be faulty.

Reid writes about original perception and how it gives us primary qualities of bodies such as hardness, softness, roughness, smoothness, figure, motion, and extension. Then there are secondary qualities such as color, pain, hot and cold, and some smell, and some taste:

If the original perceptions and notions of the mind were to make their appearance single and unmixed, as we first received them from the hand of nature, one accustomed to reflection would have less difficulty in tracing them; but before we are capable of reflection, they are so mixed, compounded, and decompounded, by habits, associations, and abstractions, that it is hard to know what they were originally. The mind may in this respect be compared to an apothecary or a chemist, whose materials indeed are furnished by nature; but for the purposes of his art, he mixes, dissolves, evaporates, and sublimes them, till they put on a quite different appearance; so that it is very difficult to know what they were at first, and much more to bring them back to their original and natural form.[2]

To further drive the point home, what Reid is saying is that we don’t see ‘simple ideas’ of just hard, just rectangular figure, just extension, just cold, just the smell of pine. Not a bit of it. we sense the complexity of a wooden table in front of us with all of its mixed aspects at once. It’s reason and reflection that separates the external world’s mixed aspects and divides it into simple ideas such as if it were sort of round, red, have the quality of firmness, with a waxy feel, and tastes sweet as soon as we take a bite, all of which might amounts to the experience of an apple. The theory of simple ideas, that compound to make complex ideas, acting like a mysterious force, such as gravity, is a false analogy. We see the world as it is, richly variegated, never simple! Furthermore, it can’t be as mechanistic as the Newtonian theory of mind that Locke wants us to believe.

Reid argues there must be common principles given in our constitution that makes sense of the external world around us:  

It must therefore require great caution, and great application of mind, for a man that is grown up in all the prejudices of education, fashion, and philosophy, to unravel his notions and opinions, till he finds out the simple and original principles of his constitutions, of which no account can be given but the will of our Maker. This may be truly called an analysis of the human faculties; and till this is performed, it is in vain we expect any just system of the mind; that is, an enumeration of the original powers and laws of our constitution, and an explication from them of the various phaenomena of nature.

Reid is saying that philosophy of mind is limited until we can enumerate the powers and laws of our constitution, of which we ought to call common sense, which is universally and pragmatically shared in the animal economy. Reid, in future publications, goes on to write about these intellectual and active powers of man that tries to dilate enumerate these faculties

Descartes finding nothing established in this art of philosophy, in order to lay the foundation of it deep, resolved not to believe his own existence till he should be able to give good reason for it… [B]ut if he could indeed have effected his purpose, and really become diffident of his existence, his case would have been deplorable, and without any remedy from reason or philosophy. A man that disbelieves his own existence, is surely as unfit to be reasoned with, as a man that believes he is made of glass.

In this quote, Reid wants us to recognize that Descartes may have started with absolute skepticism, however, not even he could be a complete skeptic, or else his position would have been deplorable to begin with! Descartes chose at will to believe in his cogito, yet never in common sense. This was his first error, which negates the very reliable basis with which we all get to the market and back safetly. 

In this unequal contest betwixt Common Sense and Philosophy, the latter will always come off both with dishonor and loss; nor can she ever thrive till this rivalship is dropt, these encroachments given up, and a cordial friendship restored: for, in reality, Common Sense holds nothing of Philoosphy, nor needs her aid. But, on the other hand, Philosophy… has no other root but the principles of Common Sense; it grows out of them, and draws its nourishments from them: severed from this root, its honours wither, its sap is dried up, it dies and rots.

Therefore, if it’s between common sense or philosophical theorizing, it better be philosophical theorizing that rethinks its positions, because common sense is foundational and has proven its worth through experience throughout our entire lives—indeed, throughout the entire animal kingdom!

In this next passage he continues, once again, on the follies of Early Modern philosophy’s ‘idea theory’ later given to us by Berkeley and Hume:

The present age, I apprehend, has not produced two more acute or more practiced in this part of philosophy, than the Bishop of Cloyne [George Berkeley], and the author of the Treatise of Human Nature [David Hume]. The first was no friend to skepticism, but had that warm concern for religious and moral principles which became his order: yet the result of his inquiry was, a serious conviction, that there is no such thing as a material world; nothing in nature but spirits and ideas; and that the belief of material substances, and of abstract ideas, are the chief causes of all our errors in philosophy, and of all infidelity and heresy in religion. His arguments are founded upon principles which were formerly laid down by Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke, and which have been very generally received. … The second [David Hume] proceeds upon the same principles, but carries them to their full length; and as the Bishop undid the whole material world, this author upon the same grounds, undoes the world of spirits, and leaves nothing in nature but ideas and impressions, without any subject on which they may be impressed.  (pg. 19-20)

Berkeley destroyed the material world when he collapsed primary qualities with secondary qualities, and exclaimed all that exists is but what is in the mind—which has ultimate reality within the mind of God. But Hume took empiricism, based on ideas and impressions, to its fated conclusion—that neither exists! For Hume, there wasn’t even a self center-stage. He believed that all we can know are a bundle of perceptions that move at an unconceivable rate. This left Early Modern philosophers with major limitations towards what they could know, and ultimately leaving metaphysics barred from access to further knowledge.

Reid recounts the legend of the ancient Greek sceptic named Pyrrho:

[T]he great pyrrho himself forgot his principles on some occasions; and is said once to have been in such a passion with his cook, who probably had not roasted his dinner to his mind, that with the spit in hand, and the meat upon it pursued him even into the market-place.

So, even Pyrrho drew the line of skepticism, his being his the evening meal.

This mediational theory of mind, which Descartes first constructed, based on ideas, can act as a wedge that pries the door open to skepticism about the external world. If all you see are ideas—mental re-presentations—then we can’t be about certain what the external world really is like. Instead, we get shadows and distractions, and not reality as it is itself. We would be strangers to the world. This idea system is what Reid wants to topple. He wants us to believe that we can, somehow—by the mint of nature—directly perceive the world out there, that we can see objects outside. In fact, to make a clear distinction, Reid wants to make a distinction between perceptions and sensations. Sensations are held in the mind. They arise from within ourselves. Perceptions have an object external to the mind that is its focus. Instead of seeing impressions and re-presentations that seem ‘clear’ and ‘distinct’, Reid wants us to believe that the external world makes impressions on our sense organs—not our minds—and we directly perceive what the senses pick up, leaving no room for Descartes’ deceptive, evil genius.

When talking of the Early Modern philosophers that doubted common sense, such as Locke and Hume, Reid writes:

But when they condescend to mingle again with the human race, and to converse with a friend, a companion, or a fellow-citizen, the ideal system vanishes; common sense, like an irresistible torrent, carries them along; and, in spite of all their reasoning and philosophy, they believe their own existence, and the existence of other things.

Indeed, it is happy they do so; for if they should carry their closet-belief into the world, the rest of mankind would consider them as diseased, and send them to the infirmary. Therefore, as Plato required certain previous qualifications of those who entered his school, I think it would be prudent for the doctors of this ideal philosophy to do the same, and to refuse admittance to every man who is so weak, as to imagine that he ought to have the same belief in solitude and in company, or that his principles ought to have any influence upon his practice: for this philosophy is like a hobby-horse, which a man in bad health may ride in his closet, without hurting his reputation; but if he should take him abroad with him to church, or to the exchange, or to the play-house, his heir would immediately call a jury, and seize his estate.[3]

Reid here is putting a heavy burden on philosophers, requesting that they live in accordance to their own philosophy, and if this were so, most of the skeptics would leave town almost immediately.”

“How could one live with such skepticism,” Daniel asked. “It would be like thinking life is some strange fiction. It would leave one to believe that one’s actions meant nothing.”

“That’s exactly what is at stake, good friend. No reasonable person would let slack and take for granted that all of their actions and beliefs might not have an actual impact on the real world.

Hume’s theory of causation is constant conjunction. To elaborate on a billiard table, ball ‘A’ moves, then, ball ‘B’ moves. Seeing this many times we come to the idea that ball ‘A’ is the cause of ball ‘B’ moving. This constant conjunction is how we psychologize cause and effect. However, Reid wants us to think about how everyday events don’t lead us to believe that ‘A’ is the cause of ‘B’. Reid challenges Hume’s constant conjunction theory. Reid writes that no two events in human history have been as reliable as day and night, but no one believes that one caused the other.[4] Instead, we have active powers within ourselves from a young age when we can darken the world by closing our eyes, do you see? By our own understanding of agentic powers of our causing things to happen in the world, we extend those same powers to the external world. So, here is a hole in Hume’s theory of causation.”

Daniel sat back in his chair and paused for a moment with a look of contemplative awe, but then nodded, and then said, “Yes, that makes complete sense. It’s a subtle observation to make, but when its made… well it made me sit back in my chair at least!”

Frank then smiled, and said, “Hume’s theory of causation also effects his theory of personal identity. Hume writes that the self is:

[N]othing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.[5]

The parade formation of a bundle of perceptions and ideas in rapid motion are what make the self, perceptions having special citizenship in the mind as being ideas themselves. Reid softly chides Hume by writing:

Whether thinking beings were of an ethereal or igneous nature, whether material or immaterial, was variously disputed; but that thinking is an operation of some kind of being or other, was always taken for granted, as a principle that could not possibly admit doubt.

For there to be a Treatise of Human Nature, there needs to be a self that actively, organizes, and creatively produces it who takes ownership of it all. To think about this differently on the Humeian account, imagine a boy who becomes a solder, who becomes a general. However, the boy not be the general. Something is amiss, as the general could be a traitor of his past as a boy.

 These theories proposed by Early Modern philosophers, Reid believes, are not founded on the same principles that Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton used in order to discover facts about reality. These men were devoted to the use of common sense to discover nature’s inner workings. Reid let’s God shine through in this next passage:

Conjectures and theories are the creatures of men, and will always be found very unlike creatures of God. If we would know the works of God, we must consult themselves with attention and humility, without daring to add any thing of ours to what they declare. A just interpretation of nature is the only sound and orthodox philosophy: whatever we add of our own, is apocryphal, and of no authority. (pg. 12)

Wise men now agree, or ought to agree in this, that there is but one way to the knowledge of nature’s works; the way of observation and experiment. (pg. 11)

Reid is talking about how the conjectures of Descartes, by doubting common sense principles, using only one axiom—the cogito—started this mess. Furthermore, how the following Early Modern philosophers, like Locke and Hume, used a false analogy with the Newtonian theory of mind, which would have us believe ideas are as mechanical as the laws of gravity. Finally, these philosophers were hypocrites because eventually they had to leave their theoretical armchairs and go out into the world where common sense prevailed them every step along the way with nearly absolute reliability!

If there are certain principles, as I think there are, which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them; these are what we call the principles of common sense.

So common sense is what is universally and pragmatically represented in nature. It’s the foundation of understanding from the simple caterpillar to man which Nature suits out with the ability to crafts words to reflect, and understand, and create a better life with. In his chapter of hearing he has interesting thoughts:

One of the noblest purposes of sound undoubtedly is language; without which mankind would hardly be able to attain any degree of improvement above the brutes. Language is commonly considered as purely an invention of men, who by nature are no less mute than the brutes, but having superior degree of invention and reason, have been able to control artificial signs of their thoughts and purposes, and to establish them by common consent.[6]

[I] think it is demonstrable, that if mankind had not a natural language, they could never have invented an artificial one by their reason and ingenuity. For all artificial language supposes some compact or agreement to affix a certain meaning to certain signs; therefore there must be compacts or agreements before the use of artificial signs; but there can be no compact or agreement without signs, nor without language; and therefore there must be a natural language before any artificial language can be invented: Which was to be demonstrated.

The elements of this natural language of mankind, or the signs that are naturally expressive of our thoughts, may, I think, be reduced to these three kinds: modulations of the voice, gestures, and features. By means of these, two savages who have no common artificial language, can converse together.

‘Man, by nature, is a social animal inclined towards the company of others,’ Aristotle wrote. This is part of what it is to be essentially man. Reid is making a remarkable observance with his natural and artificial language statement that Wittgenstein will later suggest in a similar manner. That without the natural language of using one’s voice to emphasize, without smiles and grimaces, and without body postures, we could not communicate at all; there could not be an artificial language of words which our books and speeches are made from without a natural language. Words are what sets human beings apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, it’s what we uniquely do, and the more expressive our language the more natural it is.

We now move to the next chapter on touch.

The simplest man that hath common sense, does not imagine the sensation of heat, or any thing that resembles that sensation, to be in the fire. He only imagines, that there is something in the fire, which makes him and other sentient beings feel heat. Yet as the name of heat, in common language, more frequently and more properly signifies this unknown something in the fire, than the sensation occasioned by it, he justly laughs at the philosopher, who denies that there is any heat in the fire, and thinks that he speaks contrary to common sense.[7]

Signs are the cause and the thing signified are the effect. We jump from one to the other without the use of reason. It’s conception and belief are immediate. So, fire is the sign and heat the thing instantaneously signified. However, Reid’s direct realism is when the sign makes an impression on our sense organs, and we are directly made aware of them by how they are signified. With secondary qualities, such as hotness and coldness, we get shadows of what the sensation is like, but not a direct one. Still, there is something in the object, external to us, that is causing such sensations. With the sensations of primary qualities of hardness, extension, figure, and roughness and smoothness, when taking touch into account, we do directly perceive the external world around us. Thomas Reid wants us to consider hardness for a moment, and asks if it is in our head, or if is it felt in the object? Reid has us imagining ourselves running into a stone pillar. After doing so, he writes:

The attention of the mind is here entirely turned towards the painful feeling; and, to speak in the common language of mankind, he feels nothing in the stone, but feels a violent pain in his head. It is quite otherwise when he leans his head gently against the pillar; for then he will tell you that he feels nothing in his head, but feels hardness in the stone.

When he gently rests his head against the pillar he feels hardness in the object. It is immediate and goes away as soon as his head leaves it. He feel hardness in the stone, whereas the pain he felt was a secondary quality in his head.

Hardness of bodies is a thing that we conceive as distinctly, and believe as firmly, as any thing in nature. We have no way of coming at this conception and belief, but by means of a certain sensation of touch. (pg. 57)

Hardness is a conception, the thing signified. Reid wants us to understand Hardness is divorced and distinct from the sensation of pain:  

[S]upposing we have got the conception of hardness, how come we by the belief of it? … Shall we then throw off this belief as having no foundation in reason? Alas! It is not in our power; it triumphs over reason, and laughs at all the arguments of a philosopher. Even the author of the Treatise of Human Nature, though he saw no reason for this belief, but many against it, could hardly conquer it in his speculative and solitary moments; at other times he fairly yielded to it, and confesses that he ground himself under a necessity to do so.

What shall we say then of this conception, and this belief, which are so unaccountable and untraceable? I see nothing left, but to conclude, that by an original principle of our constitution, a certain sensation of touch both suggests to the mind the conception of hardness, and creates the belief of it: or, in other words, that this sensation is a natural sign of hardness.

Reid’s theory of perception is threefold when it comes to the sign to the thing signified: conception, immediacy, and belief, none of which include reason:

It is now proper to observe, that there are different orders of natural signs, and to point out the different classes into which they may be distinguished, that we may more distinctly conceive the relation between our sensations and the things they suggest, and what we mean by calling sensations signs of external things.

`             The first class of natural signs are conceptions:

The first class of natural signs comprehends those whose connection with the thing signified is established by nature, but discovered only by experience [conception]. The whole of genuine philosophy consists in discovering such connections, and reducing them to general rules., The great Lord Verulam [Bacon] 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? All the knowledge we have in agriculture, gardening, chemistry, and medicine, is built upon the same foundation. (pg. 59)

What we commonly call natural causers 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. (pg. 59)

The scientific methods of Bacon and Newton are based on the foundation of the ability to have conceptions of the natural, causal sign and the thing effected signified. Without this natural interpretation of nature, which science depends upon, the discovery of the natural world would be deplorable

              The second class of natural signs are immediacy:

The second class is that where in the connection between the sign and thing signified [immediacy], is not only established by nature, but discovered to us by a natural principle, without reasoning or experience. Of this kind are the natural signs of human thoughts, purposes, and desires, which have been already mentioned as the natural language of mankind. An infant may be put into a fright by an angry countenance, and soothed again by smiles and blandishments. A child that has a good musical ear, may be put to sleep or to dance, may be made merry or sorrowful, by the modulation of musical sounds. The principles of all the fine arts, and of what we call a fine taste, may be resolved into connection of this kind. A fine taste may be improved by reasoning and experience; but if the first principles of it were not planted in our minds by nature, it could never be acquired. Nay we have already made it appear, that a great part of this knowledge which we have by nature, is lost by the disuse or natural signs, and the substitution of artificial in their place.

Principles of fine arts are prewired and then cultivated by natural signs—but diminished by use of artificial signs. Going back to Greek tragedy, the dialogue occurred later in its conceptions, but the chorus was already there, and in the modulations of the chorus’ voice, we get a certain natural expressiveness in tragedy.”

              “You are right, Frank, when I listen to a song I love, the heightened emotion is… you say expressive, but I would call it a certain rawness that captures my heart.”

“Yes! The same goes with dance, through how a dancer uses their their body, we come to a certain natural rawness of what the character intends, which we know of because of how we are prewired to experience bodily movements in a certain way, which gives a certain rise to certain emotional mental states.

The third stage of natural signs are beliefs:

A third class of natural signs [belief] comprehends those which, though we never before had any notion or conception of the things signified, do once give us a conception, and create a belief of it. I shewed formerly, that our sensations suggest to us a sentient being or mind to which they belong: a being which hath a permanent existence, although the sensations are transient and of short duration: a being which is still the same while its sensations and other operations are varied ten thousand ways: a being which hath the same relation to all that infinite variety of thoughts, purposes, actions, affections, enjoyments, and sufferings, which we are conscious of, or can remember. The conception of a mind is neither an idea of sensation nor of reflection; for it is neither like any of our sensations, nor like anything we are conscious of. The first conception of it, as well as the belief of it, and of the common relation it bears to all that we are conscious of, or remember, is suggested to every thinking being we do not know how.

The notion of hardness in bodies, as well as the belief of it, are got in a similar manner; being, by an original principle of our nature, annexed to that sensation which we have when we feel a hard body. And so naturally and necessarily does the sensation convey the notion and belief of hardness, that hitherto they have been confounded by the most acute inquirers in to the principles of human nature, although they appear, upon accurate reflection, not only to be different things, but as unlike as pain is to the point of a sword.

It may be observed, that as the first class of natural signs [conception] I have mentioned, is the foundation of true philosophy [that of Newton and Bacon’s empiricism and logic], and the second [immediacy], the foundation of the fine arts, or of taste; so the last is the foundation of common sense [belief]; a part of human nature which hath never been explained. … It appears as evident that this connection between our sensations and the conception and belief of external existences cannot be produced by habit, experience, education, or any principle of human nature that hath been admitted by philosophers. At the same time, it is a fact, that such sensations are invariably connected with the conception and belief of external existences. Hence, by all rules of just reasoning, we must conclude, that this connection is the effect of our constitution, and ought to be considered as an original principle of human nature, till we find some more general principle into which it may be resolved. (pg. 60-61)

When I grasp a ball in my hand, I perceive it at once hard, figured, and extended. The feeling is very simple, and hath not the least resemblance to any quality of body. Yet it suggests to us three primary qualities perfectly distinct from one another, as well as from the sensation which indicates them. When I move my hand along the table, the feeling is so simple, that I find it difficult to distinguish it into things of different natures; yet it immediately suggests hardness, smoothness, extension, and motion, things of very different natures, and all of them as distinctly understood as the feeling which suggests them.

We are commonly told by philosophers [such as Locke] that we get the idea of extension by feeling along the extremities of a body, as if there was no manner of difficulty in the matter. I have sought, with great pains, I confess, to find out how this idea can be got by feeling, but I have sought in vain. Yet it is one of the clearest and most distinct notions we have; nor is there anything whatsoever, about which the human understanding can carry on so many long and demonstrative trains of reasoning.

The notion of extension is so familiar to us from infancy, and so constantly obtruded by every thing we see and feel, that we are apt to think it obvious how it comes into the mind; but upon a narrow examination we shall find it utterly inexplicable. It is true we have feelings of touch, which every moment present extension to the mind; but how they come to do so, is the question; for those feelings do no more resemble extension, than they resemble justice or courage: nor can the existence of extended things be inferred from those feelings by any rules of reasoning: so that the feelings we have by touch, can neither explain how we get the notion, nor how we come by the belief of extended things. (pg. 63)

With a ball in our hand, or running our fingertips on a desk, we automatically detect extension, motion, and hardness and even smoothness if we try. We have entire arenas where athletes perfect the skill of running of in wet grass, of catching balls thrown at 100mph, of kicking a ball at just the right time, at the right place on the ball itself, in order to get it in the top-left hand side of the goal. They’ve honed their sense of touch, sight, and reflex, based on the field and the ball, to perfection. How we go from sensation to these qualities Reid is unsure of, but the fact that we can do so with complete perfection can’t be ignored.  

Reid writes, “[T]he wisdom of philosophy is set in opposition of the common sense of mankind.” What he means by this is that Descartes set Early Modern philosophy on the path of crowning reason as the sole achievement for us to discover the self and the world around us. However, even a mind so fruitful as Descartes’ failed in as much as his successors has failed. The failure was that too much was given to reason at the expense of chopping away at our common sense.

The theory of ideas, like the trojan horse, had a specious appearance both of innocence and beauty; but if those philosophers had known that it carried in its belly death and destruction to all science and common sense, they would not have broken down their walls to give it admittance.

The idea system of Descartes traces the outline among all theories in Early Modern philosophy which ultimately leads to solipsism.

The first-born of this union, and perhaps the most harmless, was, that the secondary qualities of body were mere sensations of the mind. To pass by Malebranche’s notion of seeing all things in the ideas of the divine mind, as a foreigner never naturalized in this island; the next was Berkeley’s system, That extension, and figure, and hardness, and motion; that land, and sea, and houses, and our own bodies, as well as those of our wives children, and friends, are nothing but ideas of the mind and that there is nothing existing in nature, but minds and ideas. (pg.94)

Here, Reid tells us the implication of the ‘idea system’, that it strips us of the things we are willing to die for, or more importantly, live for. That everything, even loved ones, are reduced to ideas in the mind, which results to mere figments of the imagination.

Next, in Reid’s later book titled, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, he distinguishes between primary and secondary qualities.

[T]here appears to me to be a real foundation for the distinction; and it is this: That our senses give us a direct and distinct notion of the primary qualities, and inform us what they are in themselves: But of the secondary qualities, our senses give us only a relative and obscure notion. They inform us only, that they are qualities that affect us in a certain manner, that is, produce in us a certain sensation; but as to what they are in themselves, our senses leave us in the dark.[8]

Our conception of a primary quality, such as a triangle for example, is direct. However, the concept of redness of a body isn’t direct. Something external to us in the body causes us to see it as red, but it remains a mystery to Reid why nature made it so. It’s of my belief that with color vision, nature has made a pragmatic shortcut for our sense of sight to tell color wavelengths by their subjective colorness, which aren’t impressions on the mind but on our sense organs. There wasn’t a clear understanding of color vision in Reid’s day. Today we know the first response to light is biochemical, and there are cones in the fovea, which resides in the retina of the eyes. Cones pick up wavelengths of three shades of color: blue, red, and green. Rods, in contrast to cones, gives us just the shade of black and white. Therefore, with rods, Reid argues, we get direct perception upon the sense organ of sight. To emphasize, an impression upon the mind is an unintelligible thing, which there is no account of. Rather, the impression is directly upon the sense organ.

The Geometry of the Visibles, in the chapter Of Seeing, is the lynch pin of Reid’s vision theory against mediation. In the patronage of Bacon and Newton, he gives us a thought experiment for us to ponder: If the image of a right-angle triangle is projected on the spherical lens of the eye, one should see a curved triangle. However, one sees a right-angle triangle instead. Therefore, there is a fitness between our physiology and mind that goes from the sign to the thing signified as it ought to be. He wants to argue that this is not mediated or copied, but direct and accurate.

Reid admits of the limitations of the science of his day. This limitation in neuroscience is still with us. The gap between mind and matter have been persistent in philosophy of mind because ideas, sensations, and feelings seem so different than apples, automobiles, and tables. Some have tried to bridge the divide by way of philosophical theories called dual-aspect theory and panpsychism, which claim that there is just one substance with two aspects: 1) that there is an aspect to matter, that we see with an objective, scientific eye, by which we can only see the extrinsic, physical nature of reality; 2) and then there is a subjective, conscious element in the intrinsic, mental nature of reality.

“Yes,” Daniel replied. “I see this in nature. It was subtle at first… I suspect Prometheus gave rise to something which has laid dormant in my mind for a long time. I now am beginning to see this duality within me. Cause and effect, in mind and body, is starting to make unravel…”

“Interesting,” Frank replied. “I must reflect on this, but let us continue for the sake of education right now… Reid wants to make a distinction between sensations and perceptions. Sensations are objectless, where a percept has an object—a tree for instance has an object external to focus upon. ‘Feel’ is grammatically the same thing as ‘pain’. Sensations are in the mind; perceptions are outside of the mind and have an object external to it.

The sceptic asks me, Why do you believe the existence of the external object which you perceive? This belief, Sir, is none of my manufacture; it came from the mint of Nature; it bears her image and superscription; and, if it is not right, the fault is not mine: I even took it upon trust, and without suspicion. Reason, says the sceptic, is the only judge of truth, and you ought to throw off every opinion and every belief that is not grounded in reason. Why, Sir, should I believe the faculty of reason more than that of perception; they came both from the same shop, and were made by the same artist; and if he puts one piece of false ware into my hands, what should hinger him from putting another?[9]

And so we come full circle. In reading this passage we must come to the conclusion that if there is to be a battle between our reason and our common sense, common sense will prevail, and reason will be broken and defeated. Not trusting common sense, which is an impossible thing to do in daily affairs, buries us in skepticism. This skepticism leaves us with the possibility that all we might be are but brains in vats with electrical signals being sent to the brain to create whatever illusion driven into it.

Reid is trying to break the brain in the vat existence, and the possibilities that some evil genius is capable of deceiving us. Ultimately, this skepticism toward common sense started as far back as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. It’s a bias philosophers have had and have tried to reason their way out of ever since, but the mines of reason have been dug deeper and deeper, and only lead us into further caves of ignorance and skepticism. Reid writes:   

If Nature intended to deceive me, and impose upon me by false appearances, and I, by my great cunning and profound logic, have discovered the imposture; prudence would dictate to me in this case, even to put up this indignity done me, as quality as I could, and not to call her an imposter to her face, lest she should be even with me in another way… But what is the consequence? I resolve not to believe my senses. I break my nose against a post that comes in my way; I step into a dirty kennel; and, after twenty such wise and rational actions, I am taken up and clapt into a mad-house.[10]

Reid’s theory of perception, as said before, is threefold: conception, immediacy, and belief—none of which are given by reason but direct. The value we must place on perception is akin to a mathematical axiom that we must take for granted or else reason will ebb and flow at the value of perception until we find ourselves cornered into solipsism, the likes of which Early Modern philosophy has found herself in.

here must be some action or impression upon the organ of sense, either by the immediate application of the object, or by the medium that goes between them. Thirdly, The nerves which go from the brain to the organ, must receive some impression by means of that which was made up the organ; and, probably, by means of the nerves, some impression must be made upon the brain. Fourthly, The impression made upon the organ, nerves, and brain, is followed by a sensation. And, last of all, This sensation is followed by the perception of the subject.[11]

This is Reid’s theory of direct realism given in his train of succession: 1) impression on a sense organ, 2) sensation of nerve fibers sending a signal, making an impression on the brain, 3) then by finally acquiring the perception. However, how the mind and body communicate through each stage is largely left unknown to Reid and the neuroscience of his age.

So, what are we to believe of Reid’s account on the follies of Early Modern philosophy? Hume, the great skeptic, is the evidential consequence of this ‘idea theory,’ which, brought it to its fated conclusion, shows we really can’t know much about anything, whether ourselves or the world. For Hume, we could be living the life of a brain in the vat existence, which, I, at least hope, no one would wantonly choose. However, as you said, a hero would never choose such a life, because heroes set out to make real, meaningful differences in the world, a difference that impacts real people. Our common sense, I assume, in day-to-day affairs, is impossible to deny unless we are mentally ill.

Hume and Reid had a correspondence before Reid published An Inquiry into the Human Mind in 1764. Hume’s first response was that clerics should stick to theology, but Hume was then pressed to read his book. Hume thought it was well reasoned, but he didn’t understand the section of the Geometry of the Visibles, which was the lynch pin of Reid’s experimental philosophy in the patronage of Bacon and Newton. Reid replies to Hume with Enlightenment sensibilities here:

Your Friendly Adversaries Drs Campbel and Gerard as well as Dr Gregory return their complements to you respectfully. A little philosophical Society here of which all the three are members, is much indebted to you for its Entertainment. Your Company would, although we are all good Christians, be more acceptable than that of Saint Athanasius. And since we cannot have you upon the bench, you are brought oftener than any other man, to the bar, accused and defended with great Zeal but without bitterness. If you write no more in morals politicks or metaphysicks, I am afraid we shall be at a loss for subjects.

              After Daniel’s meeting with Frank, he began his long journey home. On this trip, he started to look at the signs, and the words across them. He then looked at people’s fashions and what they meant. He then looked at the lines littered across the street. He then concluded that man was a master of signs—that was man’s unique task that. Man was so was brilliant with natural signs, that he also minted artificial signs with the alphabet of man, which expressed and articulated his own thoughts.

Yes, man was a peculiar animal with limits unheard of, but a reckoning was brewing as he constructed machines that ran on fossil fuels, which began to pollute the world with unbreathable air and undrinkable water. Was man an enlightened being, or will he sow his own destruction, with the fate of the planet, due to the baser vices of greed, ignorance, and power? With this thought, Daniel made a heavy sigh. How on Earth will humanity stop the apocalypse, he asked himself. He saw with a moral vision, but he couldn’t see with the clarity of his father just yet. Was Prometheus right in choosing such an unlikely candidate, or will his house of cards collapse? Time will tell, but the burden was on Daedalus to find the solution, for there was no other option for humanity or caterpillar alike. Meanwhile, the death clock keeps ticking as politicians and corporations make billions at the expense of every living creature humanity ever conceived here on Earth.

[1] Reid, Thomas. “Chapter I, On the Animal Principles of Action” Essay on the Active Powers of Man. 1788.

[2] Reid, Thomas. “Introduction” An Inquiry into the Human Mind: On the Principles of Common Sense. 1764.

[3] Chapter II, of Smelling

[4] Chapter VI, Of Seeing.

[5] Hume, David. Treatise of Human Nature. 1838. Pg. 32.

[6] Reid, Thomas. “Chapter IV, Of Hearing” An Inquiry into the Human Mind: On the Principles of Common Sense.

[7]   Reid, Thomas. “Chapter V, On Touch” An Inquiry into the Human Mind: On the Principles of Common Sense.

[8] Reid, Thomas. “Chapter XVII, Of the Object of Perception; And First, P Of Primary And Secondary Qualities” Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, pg. 201

[9] Chapter VI, Of Seeing.

[10] Chapter VI, Of Seeing.

[11] Chapter VI, Of Seeing.