Leitmotif

Reason as the Leading Motive

The Common Sense of Thomas Reid

Posted by Jerry on January 3, 2008

About the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, John Enright had this to say in a recent post:

I’ve long been a big fan. I think his criticisms of Hume had real merit. But hardly anyone seems to have read him, so I never get a chance to talk about him with anybody!

Thereafter, in a rather succinct series of rhymes, John hints at the substance of Reid’s philosophy:

“I saw an apple.”
That’s what I said.
Could it have been
A mere patch of red?

It tasted the apple,
I bit through its peel.
Could it be true
That it’s not really real?

I tossed the apple
In the sky.
Doubt its existence?
Please tell me why.

So now I was intrigued and wanted to discover more about the philosophy of Thomas Reid. I doubt that I’ll find any books by or about him in bookstores here; I read up his entry on the SEP and was really impressed with the account of his arguments against Humean and Lockean epistemologies. Reid does a brilliant job of shifting the burden of proof on to the skeptics and the idealists, and in doing so, reveals how incredibly contorted their theories actually are.

Reid was a staunch defender of the common sense method in philosophy; his epistemology can be described as direct realism, i.e., the mind can acquire direct knowledge of the external world via the interaction of the sense organs and external objects, which are the causes of mental acts or events.

Reid’s account of perception caught my interest in particular:

Colors, sounds, tastes and smells are powers to produce certain characteristic sensations in us in normal conditions; to ascribe such a quality to an object is not to perceive any intrinsic qualities of the object, but is, rather, to perceive that the object bears a certain relation to something else: namely, ourselves. So, for instance, say that the skin of the apple in front of me has a certain molecular structure that results in its reflecting light at a certain wavelength which in turn causes in me a certain characteristic visual sensation of red. If I am speaking correctly when I say, “That apple is red”, I am reporting the fact that I conceive of the apple as possessing a particular relational property: I am aware that the apple has the property of being-such-as-to-cause-in-me-sensations-of-red-in-normal-conditions.

The above comes very close to the principle and concept of objectivity in Objectivism:

Objectivity is both a metaphysical and an epistemological concept. It pertains to the relationship of consciousness to existence. Metaphysically, it is the recognition of the fact that reality exists independent of any perceiver’s consciousness. Epistemologically, it is the recognition of the fact that a perceiver’s (man’s) consciousness must acquire knowledge of reality by certain means (reason) in accordance with certain rules (logic).

Thus, while Kant and others argued that it is impossible to have direct knowledge of the external world precisely because we are conscious of it and since our consciousness has identity, Objectivism turns this challenge on its head: direct knowledge of the external world is possible precisely because our consciousness has an identity and the specific means by which to grasp existence, and that without a consciousness of a specific sort, there can be no concept of objectivity.

Reid illustrates the principle of objectivity with reference to colors by noting that the apple is red objectively precisely because it has in itself the objective properties that cause sensations of redness in the perceiver, who has in himself the properties of responding to such sensations with the awareness of the color red. Objectivity, like all other concepts (including the concept of the absolute) and the rest of human knowledge, is relational.

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6 Responses to “The Common Sense of Thomas Reid”

  1. Fesapo said

    Reid is on my “to be read, someday” list. Especially for his noting in Christianity Not Mysterious that unknowable dogmas are “Blictri,” i.e., meaningless sounds. I am, consequently, sympathetic to your claim that there is a similarity between the Scottish Common Sense school and Objectivism. However, in Objectivism, the concept of Objectivity doesn’t apply to sense-perception. There is no methodological requirement to volitionally adhere with reality in perception. Perception is inescapable to a consciousness. And its validity is not provable, but an axiomatic primary — the given. Notice that logic is irrelevant to perceiving the redness of an apple. There is merely an interaction between my sensory apparatus and the object, which can be analyzed into a form and a content. This may be a somewhat technical point, but it’s worth repeating. Peikoff, I believe, made just this error in his initial presentation of his lecture series on Objectivism. He later noted how Ayn Rand casually disabused him of the notion.

  2. Ergo said

    “Notice that logic is irrelevant to perceiving the redness of an apple.”

    You’re perfectly right, Fesapo. The point I intended to emphasize was how the various schools of philosophy *described* the epistemological processes—in particular, the process and experience of perception. In that sense, while Kantianism describes human perception as being inherently inhibited from the direct grasp of the noumenal world due to our perceptual apparatus, Objectivism provides the true and valid *description* of how human perception is objective by defining the correct concept of objectivity (i.e., what does “objectivity” properly mean) and the relation between the concept and the specific kind of consciousness that humans possess.

    Here, the description of how the principle of objectivity functions in the process of perception is not a description of a volitionally applied methodological process, but a description of the metaphysically-given process of perception at work. The higher methodological processes come to play at the cognitive and conceptual level, when perceptual data has to be integrated and conceptualized–volitionally. This latter process has to function in accordance to certain epistemological rules, but by the will of the perceiver.

    But I agree with the entirety of your comment. I wasn’t aware that Peikoff made some such error; I haven’t heard his lecture series, but if you had a quote or link, I’d be eager to read it.

  3. John Enright said

    Ergo, I’m glad you found that post interesting! -John

  4. martino said

    Check out Nick Humphrey who has done much to remind people today of Thomas Reid http://www.humphrey.org.uk/. Then, of course, your metaphysical/epistemological objectivities remind me of John Searle. I think Humphreys is more correct than Searle on consciousness for what its worth….

  5. Ergo said

    Thus far, I do prefer John Searle over some of the others I’ve read on consciousness. Haven’t read Humphrey. I’ll try to make some time to read a few of his papers available online. Thanks for the link.

  6. gurugeorge said

    It surprises me that Objectivists haven’t cottoned onto Reid more. His philosophy very close to Objectivism, his “Common Sense” is basically the axioms – existence, identity and consciousness being presupposed in any thought. He doesn’t call them “axioms” obviously, but he identifies them as the self-evident precondition for any subsequent reasoning. If Rand had never heard of Reid, it’s quite suggestive that they both hit on an internally consistent line of thought independently of each other.

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