Thomas Reid’s Common Sense Philosophy Part 4: The Decline of SCSR

Although more influential during his lifetime than Hume, one question lurking throughout this discussion is why Reid and SCSR fell into such relative obscurity so quickly if common sense is self-evident? The obvious reason is that Reid’s Inquiry was completely overshadowed soon after its publication by Immanuel Kant’s ground-breaking Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Reid’s philosophy of common sense (along with the Scottish school associated with him), was openly maligned by Kant, who did not read English. Kant curtly labeled common sense philosophy as mere opinion. It did not help that the notoriously poor translation of Reid’s work Kant had read erroneously translated common sense as public rumor.1

Kant dismissed any attempt to establish a rigorous systematic philosophy based upon the opinions of the unlearned masses utilizing something as crude as public rumor (i.e., public opinion). Common sense had much in common, Kant noted, with the Popularphilosophie, as it was then known and taught in Germany. Kant, who claimed to be troubled by his personal mania for systematizing, expressed open disdain for the popular philosophy then in vogue. Kant was a vocal champion of the so-called Schulphilosophie (the philosophy of the schools—i.e., that of professional philosophers).2 Kant complained that a philosophy like SCSR could be used by any “wind-bag” to confound even the most sophisticated philosopher—a point which to my mind actually works in Reid’s favor!3 Kant’s criticism of SCSR boils down to the fact that common sense is not sophisticated, too simplistic, and amounts to nothing but a herd mentality. This is a charge which has been repeated often by critics of SCSR since the days of Reid. No doubt, such a back-handed dismissal by someone as influential as Kant pushed Reid and SCSR deep into philosophical backwater.

But as recent Kant scholarship has convincingly shown (i.e., Manfred Kuehn, Karl Ameriks, Daniel Robinson),4 Kant’s negative assessment of SCSR widely misses the mark. Several of Kant’s proposals were actually quite similar to those previously advocated by Reid. Many of Kant’s German contemporaries were greatly influenced by the Scottish philosophy and Reid in particular.5 When pressed to explain how it was that the a priori categories of his “transcendental idealism” were necessary to explain human sense perception, Kant defaulted to Mutterwitz, i.e., to mother nature6—a notion virtually identical to that of Reid, who spoke of his first principles as coming from the mint of nature (i.e., from God who made us with such capacities). At the end of the day, Kant, quite ironically, ends up where Reid begins—we must utilize a priori categories because we are made this way. But Kant has no explanation for “mother wit,” while Reid does.

Reid scholars have catalogued additional reasons for the diminished impact of SCSR after Reid’s death.7 These include the fact that Reid’s philosophy came under withering attack from a significant English philosopher who came to prominence two generations later, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). Mill was the chief proponent of utilitarianism, which held that moral philosophy must give due consideration to the greater good for individuals and society, and as such cannot be grounded in moral first principles as Reid insisted. Mill complained that Reid’s appeal to intuition was just another way of promoting self-interest, not the common good.

Yet, another reason suggested for SCSR’s decline is that the compiler of Reid’s Works, Sir William Hamilton, ham-fistedly attempted to merge his own Kantian affinities with Reid’s SCSR, a matter compounded by the fact that Hamilton was not anywhere near the capable spokesman for SCSR that Reid was. Finally, some have noted the Scottish Enlightenment simply had run its course, especially when Scottish Universities began to hire non-Reidian professors more inclined to utilitarianism, or the Continental philosophies of Kant and Hegel. Wolterstorff attributes this, in part, to the rise of Hegel’s imprint upon modern philosophical development which left Reid behind under a wave of continental rationalists, British empiricists (Wolterstorff defends the notion that Reid was neither), and the Kantian-Hegelian synthesis.8 No doubt, the chief reason for the decline of Reid’s prior wide influence was the triumph of Kant’s transcendental idealism over Reid’s common sense.

Reid’s On-Going Influence and Resurgence

Reid and SCSR may have been relegated to the philosophical backwater by Kant’s Critique, but Reid’s influence never entirely abated, especially in America, where Reid was widely read and greatly appreciated.9 Thomas Jefferson was glowing in his praise for Dugald Stewart, the Scottish philosopher who did much to popularize Reid and SCSR throughout the English-speaking world. Several early United States Supreme Court cases make appeals to the “eminent Dr. Reid” when wrestling with the nature of facts and their interpretation. Scottish-American philosopher and president of Princeton College, James McCosh (1811–1894), and Yale professor and president Noah Porter (1811–1892) maintained a strong interest in Reid and SCSR since both were concerned about the objectivity of truth, especially in matters of moral philosophy

Since Kant’s and Hegel’s philosophical systems never became mainstream in America (with several notable exceptions such as Josiah Royce), it was the uniquely American school of philosophy, Pragmatism, which ultimately displaced Reid’s SCSR in America. Charles Sanders Pierce (1839–1914), the father of American pragmatism, agreed with Reid to a point, and argued that a universal common sense (as expressed by Reid) was worth recovering as a philosophical category, although Pierce thought common sense should be tied to experimental verification and the scientific method in the evolutionary sense of unfolding truth, and not grounded in first principles.

Following Pierce, the emerging pragmatists understood that outcomes in philosophy and the sciences were directly tied to verifiable consequences, most notably experiential cash value. William James (1842–1910), perhaps America’s most notable pragmatist, gave a well-received lecture on “Pragmatism and Common Sense” (James, Pragmatism, 63–75). James argued that common sense was compatible with pragmatism because James believed that without any prior self-reflection on such matters people naturally tended to gravitate toward ideas and systems of thought which produced concrete results. Since pragmatism is grounded in outcomes, there was little interest in anything like Reid’s first principles among the pragmatists. Pragmatism may make an appeal to common sense, but such an appeal is actually a negation of common sense as understood by Reid. Yet, it was an easy intellectual move for Americans to give up SCSR for pragmatism, the nouveau cutting-edge philosophy of the day.

Reid’s common sense was popularized on the Continent by French philosopher Victor Cousin (1792–1867) and was begrudgingly praised by Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900), a moral philosopher in the utilitarian tradition and the Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. G. E. Moore (1873–1958) one of the founders of the analytic school of philosophy, cites Reid throughout his works. Reid’s work also had a significant influence upon American philosopher Roderick Chisholm (1916–1999) who trained a number of leading American philosophers, and who acknowledged that his own defense of common sense was indebted to Reid. More than one philosopher (i.e., Lehrer, Wolterstorff) has noted that in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, Wittgenstein is addressing what he calls “our shared world picture” in a manner strikingly similar to Reid’s common sense but without making appeal to our nature (first principles).10

Perhaps those who have done the most to rescue Reid from the irrelevance of the philosophical backwater, are the so-called “Reformed Epistemologists,” Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Along with philosopher William Alston, they have done much to rekindle current interest in Reid and SCSR, especially within the broader Reformed tradition. Reformed epistemologists contend that belief in God is “properly basic.” That is, it is rational to believe in God without any evidence or proof for doing so.11 According to Plantinga, religious belief is grounded in what John Calvin identified as an innate human awareness of God’s existence (the so-called sensus divinitatis).12

Looking for philosophical antecedents, Reformed Epistemologists make an appeal to Reid’s notion that beliefs arise in us spontaneously because we are born with them. These basic beliefs function like common sense—people believe in God without any prior reflection—but such simple beliefs can be further cultivated through instruction and maturation through the experiences of life. We may not be able to give a reason for God’s existence, and any reasons we might offer to prove God’s existence, presuppose the very capability of reasoning with which we have been created by God. For the Reformed Epistemologist, belief in God as properly basic functions as a first principle. Such belief is rational (and therefore warranted) every bit as much as is our belief in the existence of other minds, or our memory of past events.13

Reformed Critics of Reid

When I mention Thomas Reid in the course of teaching apologetics, or in connection with the philosophical influences of SCSR upon Old Princeton (and the principal theologians who taught there—Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield), many people admit that they have never heard of Reid, or know very little about him. This is not surprising—given Reid’s unfortunate obscurity. Others in conservative and confessional Reformed circles have a quite negative impression of Reid, describing his philosophy as rationalistic or as a species of Thomism. These responses are an indication that the party is not very familiar with Reid’s philosophy, has not read Reid, nor understands him correctly—not a surprise given the bad press Reid often gets. Reid, as we have seen, is not a rationalist, anything but. With the recent re-discovery of Reid among Reformed Epistemologists, Roman Catholic defenders of Thomism have sought to distance themselves from Reid’s epistemology, seeing his “common sense” formulation as incompatible with the foundationalism of St. Thomas.14

Much of this criticism of Reid and SCSR comes from the camp of the followers of Cornelius Van Til, who contend that Reid’s philosophy lay behind B. B. Warfield’s unwitting compromise of the defense of the faith through Old Princeton’s advocacy of an apologetic method naively grounded in Christian evidences. Van Tilians are quite correct right to connect Warfield to Reid and SCSR (with certain modifications in the direction of Reformed orthodoxy made by Warfield). Yet, they regard Warfield’s approach as necessarily entailing an appeal to right reason which, to their minds, is an impossibility in light of the damage done to humanity (and to our a priori categories and interpretive abilities) as a consequence of the fall. Unregenerate people cannot utilize reason rightly. Warfield, supposedly concedes too much to unbelieving thought—a self-defeating move.

To make the case that Van Til’s call for a correction of Old Princeton’s apologetic was necessary, Van Tilians often embrace the critical scholarly consensus (i.e., Ernest Sandeen, Jack Rogers, Donald McKim, and John C. Vander Stelt) which concludes that Warfield was a rationalist of sorts who departed from the biblicism of Calvin, even echoing the ill-founded critical observation that Warfield’s endorsement of right reason amounts to an implicit exaltation of human reason over divine revelation.15

But Warfield’s comments about right reason fully comport with the way in which the Reformed orthodox of prior generations (i.e., Turretin) spoke of a ministerial use of reason which was necessary to interpret the revelation which God gives, while at the same time rejecting a “magisterial” use of reason which determines the content of revelation.16 Warfield’s appeal to “right reason” amounts to nothing more than the proper utilization of those rational powers given us from birth by our Creator. To use right reason rightly, we must operate within an epistemological framework like that set out by Reid. Christians can make appeal to those evidences given by God through divine revelation, i.e., our Lord’s resurrection and self-attestation to be the very Son of God, because the Apostles did. The Christian evidences marshaled by Warfield for Christ’s resurrection have their origin in God’s revelation (Scripture), not in human reason.

Reid, Old Princeton, and Warfield are also sharply criticized by American church historians Mark Noll and George Marsden, who both follow the critical and Van Tilian party lines in assuming that Reid’s SCSR has rationalist tendencies which, they contend, are incompatible with Reformed orthodoxy.17 Marsden contends that SCSR was simply not up to the challenge raised by Darwinians regarding what it was exactly that was entailed by primitive common sense beliefs.18 Because Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield failed to realize this, Marsden and Noll conclude Old Princeton’s apologetic was severely, if unintentionally, handicapped by their failure to more closely follow Calvin and his true theological heirs, Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck—both of whom B. B. Warfield highly regarded, yet openly criticized for abandoning apologetics altogether.


  1. Daniel N. Robinson, How Is Nature Possible (New York: Continuum Books, 2012), 120, n. 6.
  2. Robinson, How Is Nature Possible, 19.
  3. Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic, edited Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1950), 6-8.
  4. Karl Ameriks, “A Common Sense Kant?”  Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Society (2005), 79(2), 19-45; Manfred Kuehn, Scottish Common-Sense in Germany, 1768-1800: A Contribution to the History of Critical Philosophy (Montreal: McGillQueen’s University Press, 1987); Robinson, How Is Nature Possible, (2012).
  5. See, for example, the compelling case made by Manfred Kuehn in, Scottish Common-Sense in Germany.
  6. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), A133-5, B172-4.
  7. Keith Lehrer, Thomas Reid (New York: Routledge, 1989), 5-7.
  8. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), x.
  9. Benjamin W. Redekop, “Reid’s Influence in Britain, Germany, France, and America,” in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid, 313-339.
  10. Lehrer, Thomas Reid, 6; Wolterstorff, Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology, 231249.
  11. According to Plantinga, “what the Reformers meant to hold is that it is entirely right, rational, reasonable and proper to believe in God without any evidence or argument at all.” Alvin Plantinga, “Reason and Belief in God,” in Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God, eds., Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 17.
  12. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 170-175.
  13. Kelly James Clark, Return to Reason (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, Publishing Company, 1990), 143-151.
  14. Thomas A. Russman, “Reformed Epistemology,” in Thomstic Papers IV, ed., Kennedy, (Houston:  Center for Thomistic Studies, 1988), 200.
  15. Kim Riddlebarger, Lion of Princeton: B. B. Warfield as Apologist and Theologian, (Bellingham WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 242–253.
  16. Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1:  Prolegomena to Theology, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 2003), 243.
  17. Riddlebarger, Lion of Princeton, 247–253.
  18. George Marsden, “The Collapse of American Evangelical Academia,” in Plantinga and Wolterstorff, eds., Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God, 244.

©Kim Riddlebarger. All Rights Reserved.

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    Kim is a graduate of Simon Greenleaf School of Law (M.A.), Westminster Seminary California (M.A., M. Div.), and Fuller Theological Seminary (Ph.D.). From 1995–2020 he was senior pastor of Christ Reformed Church (URCNA) in Anaheim. He was a long-time co-host of the White Horse Inn radio show and is currently Visiting Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary California. Follow his work at The Riddleblog.

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One comment

  1. What a helpful series. I for one deeply appreciated this assessment of Reid, and not just because it is rooted in “Scottish” CSR.

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