Kim Slawson
19990519 0200
Philosophy of Mind

Reid-ing Hume, or Ex-hume-ing Reid

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 lightness (value).

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 world.

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