Reid-ing Hume, or Ex-hume-ing Reid
Philosophy of Mind
Thomas Hume and David Reid were both British Empiricists, and
contemporaries of each other. Reid was a critic of Hume's work,
yet his theories contain many parallels to Hume's. In this paper,
I shall compare and contrast the contents of two essays--Hume's
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, and Reid's
An Inquiry into the Human Mind. There is much in common
between the two works besides the titles. I will attempt to
distill the two presentations of similar precepts to their
underlying archetypal essences.
Hume differentiates between his notion of thoughts or
ideas and that of impressions. He calls ideas
"conscious" phenomena of the "less forcible and lively"
variety than impressions, which he defines as being "what we
hear, or fear, or see, or love, or hate, or desire, or will."
Given these definitions he then proceeds to state that while at
first the capacity of human imagination my seem unbounded, we are
indeed limited to conjuring up concepts of that with which we have
had experience, or combinations thereof. For us to invent new
thoughts without precedent is impossible since we are creatures of
experience. That with which we have had no experience is foreign
(unknown) to us. Not only is it unknown, Hume argues that it
cannot be known because it is not representable by
anything with which we are familiar. As an example he cites a
blind person's inability to imagine ideas pertaining to the sense
of sight and the experience of vision. He then shuns generality
(embraced by Reid) in an interesting attempt to offer an
exception to his own theorem of the impossibility of original
thought. While I found this to be a laudable attempt at
self-doubt, I believe it to be a fallacy, as proved by Calculus'
infinitesmals. Consider a man having experienced many shades of
blue. It stands to reason that since he has not experienced
all shades of blue, there will be at least one (actually,
an infinite number) of shades he has not encountered. Thus, for
him to envision shades of blue he has never seen is impossible,
according to Hume. Since this doesn't correspond with everyday
experience very well, he feels it might be an exceptional case.
I disagree. I do not think we have ideas of an infinite number of
colors, or of anything else; that would mean that we know an
infinite number of things, which sounds like omniscience to
me... Rather, I propose that ideas are more general;
e.g., blueness (hue), greyness (saturation), and
Reid postulates that human understanding is a product of our
propensity to deductively generalize attributes from one instance
of an entity to the class of entities as a whole. He
indicates the role of common sense in the theory and practice of
science and other endeavors of reason. He then posits that Man's
theories about the workings of the universe must necessarily be
very different from whatever laws govern its operation ("the
works of God"). Given the existence of said rational theories,
Reid debunks the concept of objects having "secondary qualities"
(championed by Locke) as nonsensical: pigments do not
have color, nor does food have taste; those are
simply mental products (res cogitans) of our senses
interpreting the objects' physicalities (res extensa).
Reid then writes that the senses are the pathways by which
sensations or ideas of external things are conveyed to our minds.
Channelling Hume, he hypothesizes that no material thing can be
thought of by the mind until it has been represented to the
senses (Were he given the chance, he might also mention
complex thoughts as composites of simpler thoughts, ala
Hume.) Given the preceding, he again ridicules Locke and his
philosophical progeny for the Quixotic notion of objects having
secondary qualities. Reid's coup de grâce is the
mention of Berkeley's notion that all that exists is thought, and
that what appears to be physical exists only in the mind.
To conclude, Hume and Reid were contemporary Empiricists who were
substantially influenced by each other's ideas. However, they
also pioneered distinct philosophical paths and gained their own
followers. Perhaps then, the soundest philosophy of all would be
to mix and match their ideas to create your own perspective of the
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