Philosophy of Thomas Reid

Brief biography of British philosopher Thomas Reid, known for his book Inquiry into the Human Mind.

Thomas Reid is considered founder of ‘Common Sense Scottish School’ in opposition to the empirical philosophy of David Hume who rejected a priori reasoning as unreliable. Reid is best known for his Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense.

Thomas Reid (April 26, 1710 – October 7, 1796) was born in Strachan, Kincardineshire. He was educated at Aberdeen, and appointed minister of New Machar in Aberdeenshire in 1737, later, as professor of philosophy also at Aberdeen in 1751. From 1764, he succeeded Adam Smith as professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow. After 16 years in Glasgow, he retired to write.

Scottish School of Common Sense

Reid was a leader of the group known as the ‘Common Sense’ or the ‘Scottish’ school. This was in opposition to the empirical philosophy of David Hume in which Reid asserted the existence of external objects by denying that simple ‘ideas’ are our primary data. He claimed that common sense or sensus communis should be a part of our philosophical inquiry foundation to justify our belief that there is indeed an external world.

Reid versus Hume and Berkeley

Reid disagrees with Hume, who asserts 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 also disagrees with George Berkeley, Irish Anglican Bishop and philosopher, who asserts that the external world is merely ideas in the mind.

Reid versus John Locke

In Reid’s essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, he offers several possible “reduction to the absurd” accounting of personal identity by John Locke, an English empirical philosopher. Although Reid does not entirely disagree to Locke’s assumption that there is ‘some’ intimate connection between personal identity and ‘memory,’ Reid claims that Locke’s blunder is in confusing the primary evidence with reality, which the person’s identity consists of.

Reid’s primary objection to Locke’s claim is that the latter is committed to the logical consequence that ‘a man may be, and at the same time may not be, the person that did a particular action.’

Quantified to an equation, Thomas Reid’s transitivity of identity is the principle that:

If A = B, and B = C, then A = C.

Works by Thomas Reid

Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, 1764
Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 1785
Essays on the Active Powers of Man, 1788

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