Who Was Thomas Reid and Why Does His “Common Sense” Philosophy Still Matter? (Part 1)

Thomas Reid (1710–1796) is best known as the founder and principal philosopher of “common sense,” or more properly, “Scottish Common Sense Realism” (SCSR). Reid was highly respected and quite influential in the days of the eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment, but the popularity of Reid and his common sense philosophy quickly faded in subsequent generations. Although destined for relative obscurity, Reid’s influence remained strong in several quarters. Of late, there has been a Reidian resurgence of sorts, reflected in several volumes about Reid’s philosophy, the publication of a new critical edition of his works (by the University of Edinburgh), and through favorable treatment by so-called Reformed Epistemologists, Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff.

The purpose of this essay is to introduce Thomas Reid’s philosophy of common sense, which, I believe, has been far too long misunderstood and therefore neglected, and which still has an important role to play in formulating a common sense apologetic for the Christian religion—an apologetic which centers on the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christianity’s chief truth claim.

The Life and Times of Thomas Reid1

Reid was born and raised in Strachan, near Aberdeen, Scotland. The son of a Church of Scotland minister (the Rev. Lewis Reid, 1676–1762), Reid’s mother was Margaret Gregory, one of twenty-nine children, and from the famed Gregory clan. Her first cousin, James Gregory (1638–1675), was a respected mathematician and astronomer who invented the reflecting telescope. Reid began attending Marischal College in Aberdeen in 1723, and graduated Master in 1726. Reid was only sixteen, but this was typical for the time. Reid was greatly influenced by his teacher, George Turnbull. Turnbull was a follower of idealist philosopher Bishop George Berkeley—Reid later came to oppose the bishop with great vigor, as he did the empiricist philosophers John Locke and David Hume. During his time at Marischal, Reid became thoroughly acquainted with Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, and showed much appreciation for Newton throughout his career.

Before becoming a philosopher, Reid served as a parish minister. He was licensed to preach by the Church of Scotland in 1731, and briefly pursued theological studies after licensure. In 1737, Reid was ordained and took a pastoral call to a small church in New Machar (near Aberdeen). While in New Machar (1740) Reid married his wife, Elizabeth. Together they had nine children—eight of whom, sadly, Reid outlived. Little is known about Reid’s ministry in New Machar, but the story circulates that he was not nearly as popular in the parish as his wife. This was due to rumors that Reid was given his call through patronage—an unpopular practice in small, rural parishes like New Machar.

It is likely that Reid belonged to the moderate party of Hugh Blair (a popular Scottish minister). The so-called Moderates focused on Christian morality rather than on the Calvinistic doctrines found in the Westminster Standards to which all ministers of the Church of Scotland were required to give to affirmation. Reid’s sermons are lost to us, but Reid’s deep personal faith and piety is expressed through a prayer in which he praised God for his providential mercy after Elizabeth was spared during a serious illness.

While in New Machar, Reid continued to read and study philosophy, specifically the work of Glasgow moral philosopher Francis Hutcheson and his influential book, Inquiry into the Origins of the Ideas of Beauty and Virtue. Reid also read and digested fellow Scot David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature (1738–1740). Reid’s first publication, an essay On Quantity, was published for the Royal Society in October of 1748. This is a good indication that philosophical interests—not theological matters—were driving Reid’s intellectual life even while serving in the parish.

In 1751, Reid took a professorship at King’s College Aberdeen, becoming a teacher, lecturer, and regent. In accepting this call, Reid was required to give up his ordination and did so in 1752. Along with John Gregory and other notable intellectuals, Reid founded the Aberdeen Philosophical Society (popularly known as the “Wise Club”), which continued meeting until 1773. During this time, Reid completed his doctoral work, but did not publish his first book, An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, until 1764 at the age of 54. As was the case with Immanuel Kant, who claimed to be awakened from his “dogmatic slumbers” after reading a German translation of David Hume’s Treatise, Reid too was stirred by Hume—in Reid’s case by Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, first published in 1748. Hume’s published works were a continual source of discussion within the Wise Club, and Reid’s Inquiry is thought to be largely based upon lectures developed for Wise Club discussions.

Reid’s Inquiry was a primary response to Hume, but Reid also took aim at other advocates of the so-called ideal theory. According to Reid, in addition to Hume, those who held the “ideal theory” included Rene Descartes, John Locke, and George Berkeley. Ideal theorists placed the mind and ideas between the sensation of the external world and our knowledge of it. Ideal theorists were necessarily skeptical of even the possibility of direct knowledge of the external world—although they never expressed their skepticism as boldly as the logic of their theories dictated. Reid, who quickly became Hume’s most powerful critic, sought to challenge what he identified as the “monster of skepticism” given life by Hume.2 If anything characterizes Reid’s philosophical work, it is his fierce opposition to all forms of epistemological skepticism typified by his Inquiry. Reid’s challenge to the ideal theorist still stands. “Can your philosophy actually assure us of the existence of the external world?” Or does the author (however unintentionally) ultimately drive us to skepticism by placing a representational or mental “theory of ideas” between the world which exists and our perception of it.

Shortly before Reid’s Inquiry was published, he was offered the prestigious professorship of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, where he became the immediate successor to Adam Smith (1723–1790), the author of the influential Wealth of Nations (1776). Reid accepted this call and remained at Glasgow until his retirement in 1781. Productive in his retirement, Reid turned his university lectures into the books, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785) and Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind (1788).

In these volumes on intellectual and active (or agentic) powers, Reid defends a libertarian notion of human freedom—that is, that human agency is responsible for the free actions of men and women who are morally accountable for their choices. But Reid thought his view perfectly compatible with the Westminster Standards which prescribes the agency, but not the causality of human action in light of the mystery of “the predestination and foreknowledge of God in conjunction with the liberty of man.”3

Reid also directly attacked Hume’s notion of personal identity, in which Hume famously held that human identity is nothing but the ongoing memory of our experiences over time. Hume once wondered whether he still existed while he slept, and if his existence was reconstituted each morning upon awakening. Reid appreciated Hume’s wit, but held that any sequence of memories we may have is grossly insufficient to ground personal identity and self-awareness, which are common sense beliefs held by all—even by those like Hume, though the latter candidly admitted to doubting them.

One of Reid’s most effective methods of criticism was to argue that philosophers like Hume often raised provocative questions in the safety of their private studies, boldly going against widely accepted common sense human convictions of the day (i.e., causality and ongoing personal identity). As Reid pointed out, such men cannot live out their philosophical convictions in the real world they actually inhabit. Reid playfully jabbed Hume, stating that if he (Reid) chooses not to believe his 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 clapped into a madhouse.”4 Hume may question whether there is a third thing (causality) between the billiard ball and the cue which strikes it, but presumably, such skepticism never stopped Hume from playing billiards. Hume’s theory does not stop us (nor Hume) from trusting our senses.

By all accounts, Reid was a modest and humble man, well-liked, and widely respected. His obituary (in the Glasgow Courier) describes his as “a life distinguished by an ardent love of truth, an assiduous pursuit of it in various sciences, by the most amiable simplicity in manners, gentleness of temper, strength of affection, candour, and liberality of expression.”5

Part two of this series will explore Reid’s perspective on first principles

Notes

  1. The biographical details associated with the life of Thomas Reid in the following section are taken from: A. Campbell Fraser, Thomas Reid (Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1898); and Dugald Stewart, “Life of Thomas Reid, D. D.” The Works of Thomas Reid, seventh edition, with notes by Sir William Hamilton (Edinburgh: MacLachlan and Stewart, 1872), I.3–38.
  2. Reid, Inquiry, in Works of, 1:206.
  3. Reid, Prescience and Liberty, in Works of, II.977.
  4. Reid, Inquiry, in Works of, 1:184.
  5. Fraser, Thomas Reid, 129–130.

©Kim Riddlebarger. All Rights Reserved.

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Posted by Kim Riddlebarger | Tuesday, November 7, 2023 | Categorized Apologetics | Tagged , Bookmark the permalink.

About Kim Riddlebarger

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.

9 comments

  1. Have you investigated the influence Thomas Reid’s ideas had on the topics and interests of writer’s of Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales?

    Thank you for your investigation.

  2. Catherine:

    I trace Reid’s history briefly in a later section–especially the reasons for the decline of SCSR after Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was published.

  3. Kim – another question if I may: Where does Reid’s SCSR fit in with Soren Kierkegaard’s existentialism? Or does it?

  4. Dr. Riddlebarger,
    I am re-reading your organized ‘lecture notes’ on Thomas Reid to understand the significance and application of his philosophical stance against skepticism.

    “Reid’s Inquiry was a primary response to Hume, but Reid also took aim at other advocates of the so-called ideal theory. According to Reid, in addition to Hume, those who held the “ideal theory” included Rene Descartes, John Locke, and George Berkeley. Ideal theorists placed the mind and ideas between the sensation of the external world and our knowledge of it. Ideal theorists were necessarily skeptical of even the possibility of direct knowledge of the external world”

    Based on your study of Thomas Reid’s ‘Inquiry’, how do you see his philosophical perspectives (refuting/opposing skepticism) supporting our ability, as believers in Christ, to see and perceive evidence. In the first case I am thinking about the special revelation of Scripture. We hear for instance John 3:16, and believe God’s Promise of His Son. Or we read the evidence of election in Ephesians 1. Romans 1: 16-17, and believe. Or we read Romans 1: 18-32 and from the evidence understand the condition of man is completely hopeless.

    Also the case of Intelligent Design – the evidence in Nature that requires a Designer (God) presented across fields of Science. Signature in the Cell/Stephen Meyer; The Priveleged Planet/Guillermo Gonzalez; Irreducible Complexity/Michael Behe; Relationship between Science and God/John Lennox. These are only a few of the Scientists who refute Darwinism with evidence – this process began in 1997.

    • Catherine:

      Reid is not doing Christian apologetics, but discussing epistemology in response to Hume’s skepticism.

      But in the context of apologetic argument, Reid’s point would likely be that God speaks and acts in such a manner that the truth of his word means that the events recorded in it really happened, The facts of the gospel (Christ’s death and resurrection) are proclaimed as factual events (i.e., as “true” in the ordinary sense of the term). Jesus rose from the dead, the tomb was empty, and his claims and preaching are therefore authenticated. This is a “common sense” sort of thing–either these things happened or they didn’t. We go through life accepting most things on testimony or our experience of them (Reid’s point). We don’t doubt such things until we encounter a philosopher.

      As I explain in part five, the noetic effects of sin (which Reid does not discuss) does not make the evidences God gives unintelligible, but rather makes us unwilling to embrace them as true or meaningful to us. We suppress the truth in unrighteousness until regenerate when we embrace through faith what we knew to be true all along but prejudicially rejected. Faith in Jesus is grounded in our acceptance that he did what the NT says he did and that he is who the NT says he is. This does not happen until the Spirit grants us the subjective capacity (regeneration) to believe what is objectively true (God-given evidences).

      It is not that we can’t perceive things properly after the Fall–we do. For the most part, we navigate the world just fine. But due to the Fall, we are sinfully predisposed to reject what we know to be true about God, which is why we are guilty for doing so (Paul’s point in Romans 1:18-32.

  5. Dr. Riddlebarger,

    As I study the History and Theology of the Westminster Standards (J.Fesko) and the minutes of the meetings, it is clear that the contributors were vast in terms of historical time and varied with many contributors not only Calvin. Yet you write the statement –

    “It is likely that Reid belonged to the moderate party of Hugh Blair (a popular Scottish minister). The so-called Moderates focused on Christian morality rather than on the Calvinistic doctrines found in the Westminster Standards to which all ministers of the Church of Scotland were required to give to affirmation. Reid’s sermons are lost to us, but Reid’s deep personal faith and piety is expressed through a prayer in which he praised God for his providential mercy after Elizabeth was spared during a serious illness.”

    Where does the idea that the Standards are John Calvin’s?

    • Catherine:

      Not sure what you mean . . .

      The Westminster Standards teach what is commonly called “Calvinism.” I did not say the standards are Calvin’s (as though he wrote them).

      The moderates in the CofC did not like the sharp edges of the Westminster Standards, and were largely preachers of morality. Reid’s sermons are lost to us, though there is some anecdotal evidence he would often read aloud the sermons of others on the Lord’s Day. His philosophical interests were driving him to the Academy and away from the parish.

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