Reid, Thomas

, a Scotch divine, whose life, however barren of incidents, fixes an aera in the history of modern philosophy, was born April 26, J7 10, at Strachen in Kincardineshire, a country parish, situated about twenty miles from Aberdeen, on the north side of the Grampian mountains. His father, the rev. Lewis Reid, was minister of that parish for fifty years. His mother was Margaret Gregory, one of the twenty-nine children of David Gregory of Kinnardie, and sister to James Gregory, the inventor of the reflecting telescope, and to David Gregory, Savilian professor of astronomy at Oxford. After two years spent at the parish school at Kincardine, our author was sent to Aberdeen, where he had the advantage of prosecuting his classical studies under an able and diligent teacher; so that about the age of twelve or thirteen he was entered a student in Marischal College, under Dr. George Turnbull. The sessions of the college were at that time very short, and the education, according to Dr. Reid’s own account, slight and superficial.

It does not appear that Dr. Reid gave any early indications of future eminence. His industry, however, and modesty, were conspicuous from his childhood; and it was foretold of him by the parish schoolmaster, who initiated him in the first principles of learning, “that he would turn out to be a man of good and well-wearing parts,” a prediction which, although it implied no flattering hopes of those more brilliant endowments which are commonly regarded as the constituents of genius, touched not unhappily on that capacity of patient thought, which contributed so powerfully to the success of his philosophical researches. His residence at the university was prolonged beyond the usual term, in consequence of his appointment to the office of librarian, which had been endowed by one of his ancestors about a century before. The situation was acceptable to him, as it afforded an opportunity of indulging his passion for study, and united the charms of a learned society with the quiet of an academical retreat.

In 1736, he resigned this office, and, accompanied by | Dr. John Stewart, afterwards professor of mathematics in Marischal college, and author of a “Commentary on Newton’s Quadrature of Curves,” on an excursion to England. They visited together London, Oxford, and Cambridge, and were introduced to the acquaintance of many persons of the first literary eminence. His relation to David Gregory procured him a ready access to Martin Folkes, whose house concentrated the most interesting objects which the metropolis had to offer to his curiosity. At Cambridge he saw Dr. Bentley, who delighted him with his learning, and amused him with his vanity; and enjoyed repeatedly the conversation of the blind mathematician Saunderson; a phenomenon in the history of the human mind, to which he has referred more than once in his philosophical speculations. With the learned and amiable Dr. Stewart he maintained an uninterrupted friendship till 1766, when Mr. Stewart died of a malignant fever. His death was accompanied with circumstances deeply affecting to Dr. Reid’s sensibility; the same disorder proving fatal to his wife and daughter, both of whom were buried with him the same day in the same grave.

In 1737, Dr. Reid was presented by the King’s college of Aberdeen to the living of New Machar in that county; but the circumstances in which he entered on his preferment were far from auspicious. The intemperate zeal of one of his predecessors, and an aversion to the law of patronage, had so inflamed the minds of his parishioners against bim^ that in the first discharge of his clerical functions, he had not only to encounter the most violent opposition, but was exposed to personal danger. His unwearied attention, however, to the duties of his office, the mildness and forbearance of his temper, and the active spirit of his humanity, soon overcame all these prejudices; and not many years afterwards, when he was called to a different situation, the same persons who had suffered themselves to be so far misled, as to take a share in the outrages against him, followed him on his departure with their blessings and tears.

Dr. Reid’s popularity at New Machar increased greatly after his marriage, in 1740, with Elizabeth, daughter of his uncle Dr. George Reid, physician in London. The accommodating manners of this excellent woman, and her good offices among the sick and necessitous, were long remembered with gratitude, and so endeared the family to | the neighbourhood, that its removal was regarded as a general misfortune. The simple and affecting language in which some old men expressed themselves on this subject deserves to be recorded: “We fought against Dr. Reid when he came, and would have fought for him when he went away.

It is mentioned, that long after he became minister of New Machar, he was accustomed, from a distrust in his own powers, to preach the sermons of Dr.Tillotson and Dr. Evans, and that he had neglected the practice of composition in a more than ordinary degree, in the earlier part of his studies. The fact, says his biographer, is curious, when contrasted with that ease, perspicuity, and purity of style, which he afterwards attained. Yet during his residence at this place, the greater part of his time was spent in the most intense study; particularly in a careful examination of the laws of external perception, and of the other principles which form the ground-work of human knowledge. His chief relaxations were gardening and botany, to both of which pursuits he retained his attachment even in old age.

The first work published by Dr. Reid was in the Philosophical Transactions of London in 1748. It was entitled “An Essay on Quantity, occasioned by a Treatise in which simple and compound Ratios are applied to Virtue and Merit,” and shews plainly, that although he had not yet entirely relinquished the favourite researches of his youth, he was beginning to direct his thoughts to other objects. The treatise alluded to in the title of this paper was Dr. Hutcheson’s “Inquiry into the origin of our ideas of beauty and virtue.” In 1752, the professors of King’s college, Aberdeen, elected Dr. Reid professor of philosophy, in testimony of the high opinion they had formed of his learning and abilities. Soon after his removal to Aberdeen, he projected (in conjunction with his friend Dr. John Gregory) a literary society, which subsisted many years, and produced that spirit of philosophical research to which we owe the writings of Reid, Gregory, Campbell, Beattie, and Gerard, who communicated, in this society, sketches of their works, and profited by the remarks mutually offered. In 1763 he was invited by the university of Glasgow, and accepted, the office of professor of moral philosophy. In 1764 he published his “Inquiry into the Human Mind;” which was succeeded, after a long interval, | in 1785, by his “Essays on the intellectual Powers of Man;” and that again, in 1788, by the “active Powers.” These, with a masterly “Analysis of Aristotle’s Logic,” which forms an appendix to the third volume of lord Karnes’s Sketches, comprehend the whole of Dr. Reid’s publications. The interval between the dates of the first and last of these amount to no less than forty years, although he had attained to the age of thirty-eight before he ventured to appear as an author. Even in very advanced life, he continued to prosecute his studies with unabated ardour and activity. The modern improvements in chemistry attracted his particular notice; and he applied himself, with his wonted diligence and success, to the study of these and its new nomenclature. He amused himself, also, at times, in preparing for a philosophical society, of which he was a member, short essays on particular topics, which happened to interest his curiosity. The most important of these were, “An examination of Dr. Priestley’s opinion concerning Matter and Mind;” “Observations on the Utopia of sir Thomas More;” and “Physiological reflections on Muscular motion.” This last essay appears to have been written in the eighty-sixth year of his age, and was read by the author to his associates, a few months before his death.

While he was thus enjoying an old age, happy in some respects beyond the usual lot of humanity, his domestic comfort suffered a deep and incurable wound by the death of Mrs. Reid. He had had the misfortune too of surviving, for many years, a numerous family of promising children; four of whom (two sons and two daughters) died after they had attained to maturity. One only was left to him, Mrs. Carmichael, then the wife, now the widow, of Patrick Carmichael, M. D. His situation at this period cannot be better described than by himself. “By the loss,” says he, “of my bosom friend, with whom I lived fifty-two years, I am brought into a new world at a time of life when old habits are not easily forgot, or new ones acquired. But every world is God’s world, and I am thankful for the comforts he has left me. Mrs. Carmichael has now the care of two old deaf men, and does every thing in her power to plcse them; and both are very sensible of her goodness. I have more health than at my time of life I had any reason to expect. I walk about; entertain myself with reading what I soon forget; can converse with one | person, if he articulates distinctly, and is within tea inches of my left ear; go to church without hearing one word that is said. You know I never had any pretensions to vivacity; but I am still free from languor and ennui

The actual and useful life of Dr. Reid was now drawing to a conclusion. A violent disorder attacked him about the end of September 1796; but does not seem to have occasioned much alarm to those about him, till he was visited by Dr. Cleghorn, who soon communicated his apprehensions in a letter to Dr. Gregory. Among other symptoms, he mentioned particularly “that alteration of voice and features, which, though not easily described, is so well known to all who have opportunities of seeing life close.” Dr. Reid’s own opinion of his case was probably the same with that of his physician; as he expressed to him on his first visit, his hope that he was “soon to get his dismission.” After a severe struggle, attended with repeated strokes of palsy, he died on the 7th of October following.

In point of bodily constitution, few men have been more indebted to nature than Dr. Reid. His form was vigorous and athletic; and his muscular force (though he was somewhat under the middle size) uncommonly great; advantages to which his habits of temperance and exercise, and the unclouded serenity of his temper, did ample justice. His countenance was strongly expressive of deep and collected thought; but when brightened up by the face of a friend, what chiefly caught the attention was a look of good will and of kindness. A picture of him, for which he consented, at the particular request of Dr. Gregory, to sit to Mr. Raeburn during his last visit to Edinburgh, is generally and justly ranked among the happiest performances of that excellent artist.

The most prominent features of Dr. Reid’s character were intrepid and inflexible rectitude, a pure and devoted attachment to truth, and an entire command over his passions. In private life, no man ever maintained more eminently or more uniformly, the dignity of philosophy; combining with the most amiable modesty and gentleness, the noblest spirit of independence. As a public teacher, he was distinguished by unwearied assiduity in inculcating principles, which he conceived to be of essential importance to human happiness. In his elocution and mode of instruction, there was nothing peculiarly attractive. Such, | however, were the simplicity and perspicuity of his style; such the gravity and authority of his character, that he was always listened to with profound respect, and, in his latter years, with a veneration, which age added to great wisdom always inspires.

All that is valuable in this sketch has been taken from Mr. Dugald Stewart’s life of Dr. Reid, the most elaborate part of which is the view of the spirit and scope of Dr. Reid’s philosophy. We have long regretted, says another able critic, that the writings of this philosopher, the first who in the science of Mind deserves the title of interpreter of nature, should be so little known, especially in the southern part of this kingdom; and we fondly hope that the illustration afforded by Mr. Stewart of their high merits, and the exposure of the prejudices which have been raised against them by bold censurers, who never took the pains to understand them, will pave the way to a more general diffusion among our countrymen of the advantages which a careful study of them cannot fail to produce.

The distinguishing characteristic of the philosophy of Reid is this; that whereas all his predecessors in the study of Mind employed themselves in forming arbitrary theories, as Descartes in the study of the material world accounted by vortices for the motions of the heavenly bodies, Dr. Reid, on the other hand, adopted the inductive method followed by sir Isaac Newton, and by an examination of the phenomena of mind of which we are conscious, endeavoured to rise to the general laws which regulate our mental operations. The illustrations which Mr. Stewart has stated of the absolute necessity of following this method exclusively in the study of mind as well as of matter, of the merit of Dr. Reid in setting the first example of this just mode of inquiry, and of his success in the prosecution of it,deserve the greatest attention. Mr. Stewart has classed the objections stated to the philosophy of Reid under four heads, 1. That he has assumed gratuitously, in all his reasonings, that theory concerning the human soul which the scheme of materialism calls in question.

2. That his views tend to damp the ardour of philosophical curiosity, by stating, as ultimate facts, phenomena which may be resolved into principles more simple and general.

3. That by an unnecessary multiplication of original or instinctive principles, he has brought the science of mind into a state more perplexed and unsatisfactory than that in | which it was left by Locke and his successors. 4. That his philosophy, by sanctioning an appeal from the decisions of the learned to the voice of the multitude, is unfavourable to a spirit of free inquiry, and lends additional stability to popular errors. In his reply to these objections, Mr. Stewart has not only set the merit of the writings which he defends in a clearer light, but has taken occasion to add various illustrations, which will not a little facilitate the study of these writings to those who for the first time undertake it.

The merit of the writings of Reid, with regard to the future labours of the philosopher, and the progress of the science of mind, by illustrating the true mode of philosophising, and setting the first example of the practice, is the chief point which Mr. Stewart has endeavoured to illustrate. But there is another species of utility possessed by these writings whi x ch deserves to be pointed out; their unrivalled efficacy in leading a young mind to think. By the perspicuity of expression which Reid employs, and the uncommon clearness of his conceptions, he excites the reflection of his readers upon their own mental operations so skilfully, that they are scarcely sensible of the exertion. And unquestionably the finest school for this most important and difficult of all acquirements, the powe.r of reflecting on the operations of our own minds, is the writings of Dr. Reid. 1


Life by Mr. Stewart. Other valuable remarks and particulars may be seen in Dr. Gleig’s Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica and Forbes’s Life of Beanie. Baldwin’s Literary Journal, &c. &c. &c.