The Common Sense Philosophy of Thomas Reid

thomas_reidMost people don’t think of the philosopher David Hume as having much influence over Reformed Christianity, but in an indirect way his influence has been quite profound.  Most known for his skeptical epistemology, he argued with such force that he compelled reactions from two other philosophers: Immanuel Kant and Thomas Reid.  Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” – in which the mind imposes order on objects rather than conforms to them – changed the course of philosophy, and was subsequently borrowed in various ways by Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, and Van Til, insofar as they promote the idea that basic ideas or presuppositions are filters through which we see all things. The “transcendental argument” of Bahnsen also flowed from Kant’s ideas.

Although it is a matter of some scholarly debate, many argue that Old Princetonians such as Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield followed the “common sense” philosophy of Thomas Reid, later cited by Alvin Plantinga as he developed his idea of “basic beliefs.”  The title of “common sense” sounds simple and naïve, but Reid was no simpleton and his ideas should not be confused with the popular notion of common sense.

So what was Reid’s common sense philosophy? In the belief that primary sources are typically the best sources, the following is taken from An Inquiry into the Human Mind.

 A man who has grown up in all the prejudices of education, fashion, and philosophy will need great caution and great concentration if he is to unravel his notions and opinions until he finds out the simple and original forces of his constitution, which can’t be explained except in terms of the will of our maker. This may be truly called an analysis of the human faculties; and until it is performed we have no chance of finding a sound theoretical account of the mind—that is, a list of the original powers and laws of our constitution, and an explanation in terms of them of the various phenomena of human nature.

…Even those who have never closely examined it have grounds for conjecturing that contemporary philosophy concerning the mind and its faculties is in a very low state. Are any principles regarding the mind settled with the clarity and evidentness that the principles of mechanics, astronomy and optics have?

…Descartes, Malebranche and Locke have all used their talents and skill to prove the existence of a material world; and with very little success! Poor uneducated folk believe unquestioningly that there is a sun, moon and stars; an earth that we inhabit; country, friends and relations that we enjoy; land, houses and furniture that we possess. But philosophers, pitying the credulity of the vulgar, resolve not to trust anything that isn’t founded on reason.

…I despise philosophy and renounce its guidance; let my soul dwell with common sense.

…In this unequal contest between common sense and philosophy the latter will always come off with both dishonour and loss; nor can she ever prosper until this rivalry is dropped, philosophy gives up encroaching on the territory of common sense, and a cordial friendship is restored; for the fact is that common sense doesn’t need philosophy’s help. On the other side (if I may be permitted to change the metaphor), philosophy’s only root is the principles of common sense; it grows out of them, and draws its nourishment from them; when it is cut off from this root its honours wither, its sap is dried up, it dies and rots.

…It is a bold philosophy that unceremoniously rejects principles which irresistibly govern the belief and the conduct of all mankind in the common affairs of life—principles to which the philosopher himself must surrender after he imagines he has refuted them. Such principles are older than philosophy, and have more authority than she does; she is based on them, not they on her. If she could overturn them, she would inevitably be buried in their ruins; but all the siege-machines that philosophical subtlety can create are too weak for this purpose; and the attempt is just as ridiculous as it would be for a mechanic to construct a windlass for winching the earth out of its circuit, or for a mathematician to claim he could demonstrate that things equal to the same thing are not equal to one another.

…But is it absolutely certain that this fair lady [philosophy] does belong to the scepticism party? Isn’t it possible that she has been misrepresented? Haven’t brilliant men in earlier times often passed off their own dreams as philosophy’s pronouncements? Should we, then, condemn her without any further hearing? This would be unreasonable. I have found her in all other matters to be an agreeable companion, a faithful counsellor, a friend to common sense and to the happiness of mankind. In fairness, this entitles her to have me stay in touch with her, and to trust her until I find infallible proofs that she is not to be trusted.

[Here, for the majority of the Inquiry, Reid argues for the validity of trusting the five senses]

 …The way to avoid both these extremes is to admit the existence of things of which we are conscious…

…I have already called attention to several original forces for belief in the course of this Inquiry; and when other faculties of the mind are examined we shall find others that haven’t come up in the examination of the five senses. Such original and natural judgments are therefore a part of the provision nature has made for the human understanding. Just as much as our notions or simple apprehensions, they are put into our minds by God. They serve to direct us in the everyday affairs of life, where our reasoning faculty would leave us in the dark. They are a part of our constitution, and all the discoveries of our reason are based on them. They make up what is called ‘the common sense of mankind’; and what is plainly contrary to any of them is what we call ‘absurd’.

According to the The Philosophy Index, Reid argued that the following must be accepted by all:

  1. That the thoughts of which I am conscious are thoughts of a being which I call myself, my mind, my person;
  2. That those things did really happen that I distinctly remember;
  3. That we have some degree of power over our actions, and the determination of our will (That is, we have free will, at least to some degree);
  4. That there is life and intelligence in our fellow men with whom we converse;
  5. That there is a certain regard due to human testimony in matters of fact, and even to human authority in matters of opinion;
  6. That, in the phenomena of nature, what is to be, will probably be like what has been in similar circumstances. (That is, that the future will resemble the past.)


Filed under Epistemology

20 responses to “The Common Sense Philosophy of Thomas Reid

  1. Richard

    This prompted a reply by a dear member of my congregation: “If one were to reject the Noetic effect of sin, I guess Reid would have a point (1 point for Arminius). Also, I think the author creates a false parallel between Van Til and Kant. Reid’s philosophy was not all that different from Descartes’, which lead to Foundationalism, and hence, cannot be considered to be a “Reformed” understanding of epistemology. Not to mention, Reid’s “common senses” aren’t cross cultural (ie, eastern tribes do not think in terms of “I,” rather, they think in terms of the clan). They’re still very western, considering that the 5 senses were first articulated by Aristotle. Today, cognitive psychologists recognize two more: thermal and equilibrium.”

    • No fair, Richard – you disarm me as you tell me it is from a “dear” member of your congregation. Now I feel like I’d be hassling Aunt Bea from Mayberry RFD. So I’ll just say a few things 1) VanTil’s work would be impossible if Kant had not come before him. 2) It kills me how people discuss the noetic effects of sin as if it applies to other people but not themselves and not to whomever came up with their apologetic. Like presupps were free from the noetic effects of sin as they developed presupp? 3) You can read Reid at – he quite clearly is not following Descartes.

      • Richard

        I know, I know, but I’m an elder, so calling him a fathead a la Bertie Wooster is something I can’t do. You do realize you are stirring up a hornets’ nest, don’t you, not kissing the toe of van Til? Some of us would rather quote van Til than actually try to understand there are other views of Reformed apologetics/epistemology. And other views conflict with our cherished worldviewism.

      • You can hear some of VanTil’s classes online – quite charming and disarming. Also a devoted churchman. But he was engaged in the non-inspired work of apologetics under the long shadow of Kant – it’s just naive to think he came up with the undisputed apex of apologetics from now until the Lord returns. Some implicitly hold VanTilian apologetics as virtually another test of orthodoxy – absurd! I hope to explore CVT somewhat in the coming weeks

  2. Richard

    Looking forward to it! I’ve run into the same opinions on CVT in my dealings. Actually got to sit in a class at Westminster with him. If only I had known then what I know now.

  3. Interesting post MM. I am going to have to read it closely again before I ask some questions about it. Kim Riddlebarger wrote a long section on Thomas Reid in his Phd thesis on B.B. Warfield. Have you read Riddlebargers paper? It is at his website and well worth reading (at least it used to be). I know you are not too much of a fan of Gordon Clark but he thought the philosophy of Scottish Common Sense Realism was deeply flawed. Do you know why? I don’t, and that is why I am asking.

  4. So what I take from this post is that you are saying there is some place for philosophy in the Christians life. Or, it can be useful if used properly. Am I interpreting correctly? Many of the aggressive new atheists use philosphy and logic as the main means of refuting Christianity. How would you categorize and describe the useful and destructive uses of philosophy? You should have some thoughts about this since you have a degree in philosophy.

    • The point is not so much to advocate Reid as to explain a philosopher that seems to have had some significance in Presbyterianism. So at one level it’s an FYI. But it also indirectly explains that there are alternatives. The “worldview” perspective is a synthesis of a particular philosophic point of view – broadly speaking, Kantian – with certain scriptural doctrines. It didn’t come down from a mountain, and it’s not the only philosophic influence possible.

      There isn’t a univocal “philosophy” that clashes with a univocal “theology.” There are various philosophic perspectives, and everyone is influenced by them. Whether by choice or default, intricately developed or largely inchoate, we all have something akin to a philosophy. No, not everyone has to be a philosopher but it doesn’t hurt to spend a litle time in that field.

      Let’s go back to various mixes of theology and philosophy. Early Christians, like Augustine and Justin Martyr, were influenced by Platonism. Later Aristotle became more influential and became The Philosopher as you see in Aquinas.

      Kuyperianism/presuppositionalism/worldview is an example of Reformed Christianity under the influence of German Idealism. It would be a good first step to recognize this as being the case and a good second step to say it is not a test of Reformed orthodoxy to synthesize the Reformed faith with that particular philosophic perspective. And it is not heresy to explore other alternatives.

  5. sean

    The idea that something is knowable in contrast to the skeptic who is, well, skeptical of such a notion, seems much more in line with the idea of the Imago dei, even if corrupted by sin. Same goes for the idea of Aristotelian first principles. Nice post btw. And yes Hegel is an enormous influence upon Kuyperianism and Van Til.

  6. Let me delve into this a little deeper. You gave me some generalized examples of how a philosophical perspective has influenced certain theologians and theological perspectives. Can you give me some specific examples of how early Christians (Martyr and Augustine) were influenced by Plato (both positively and negatively), Aquinas was infuenced by Aristotle (both p and n) and how German idealism influenced Kuyperianism and presuppostionalism (both p and n)? And how did Reid influence the Princeton theologians?

    I am also wondering if theological perspectives should be having the major influence on philosophical perspectives, not vice versa? Can a philosophical perspective be built upon biblical revelation? That is what the Kuyperians, VanTillians and Clarkians have tried to do- correct? But is also seems the two fields (philosophy and theology) are studying different subject matter with limited overlap. I think what I am trying to get at is more clarity of where this overlap usually manifests itself between the fields of study. Since you have studied both I thought you might have more insight into this than myself.

    • John, your questions are fine but I would need to quit my job and give my kids up in order to have the time to respond. I may be taking a more philosophical turn here, so if that happens I may get to some of your questions along the way.

      Concerning your first paragraph, I think my contentions as to what philosophy influenced whom are pretty mundane observations, so you can look those up in any number of places.

      • MM,

        Let me simplify then, btw, I was not expecting a philosophical treatise in response. I was just asking for examples of how philosophical perspectives have both positively and negatively affected theological doctrines.(or perspectives- perhaps doctrines is more of what I was after). For example, Aristotle was known to have influenced Aquinas in his doctrine of transubstantiation in regards to the Lord’s Supper. I was not expecting an explanation of why and how he did but just the specific doctrine the philosopher influenced the theologian with. If you knew this off the top of your head you would not have to “quit your job or give your kids up.” I could then do further research on my own to gain further understanding. Is that so difficult? Come on MM, work with me!!

  7. Pingback: Philosophy Week five – Testimony « E-Learning

  8. Bill Dennison’s interpretation of Cornelis van Til’s transcendental critique together with his understanding of‘the heart of Reformed Biblical Theology and its redemptive-historical hermeneutic’ leaves the possibility open that the essence of Cornelis van Til’s approach can be reconciled with Thomas Reid’s Common Sense Philosophy.

  9. Richard

    Just picked up the latest bio on Kuyper by James Bratt, of Calvin College. Looks to be an excellent and informative read so far. Bratt makes clear (p. 28 and following) how much Kuyper was influenced by his graduate school mentor, Joannes Scholten, German Idealism (Hegel), and Kant. Recommend this for a read.

  10. Thanks, Richard. My Fall looks somewhat busy but I’ll try to check it out before too long. Do you have a quote that gives a flavor of it?

  11. Richard

    Bratt quotes Kuyper’s experience with Scholten, “the pioneer of Modernist theology in the Netherlands and Kuyper’s graduate school mentor” (p. 28). “The Modernist agenda was to forthrightly naturalize Christian theology as an allegory of human development toward full responsible freedom . . . Bratt goes on to say “This was the language of Immanuel Kant, indicating that from Scholten Kuyper was acquiring philosophical along with theological habits.” “Kuyper would combine Reformed Christian and German Idealist sources. Scholten again showed how . . . The course of human history to him remained more Hegelian than Darwinian . . . a saga of Mind asserting ever more control over matter, of Will becoming ever more infused with Right as to infuse Mind with a yearning for the Good.” There are a whole bunch of great quotes from around these pages–“Kant had endowed the far better project of framing “a Christian worldview” in which reason put together the world on Christian premises. This was Kuyper’s own singular endeavor . . ” Just starting reading, but thought of you as these first pages hit–Bratt will explore this more I think.

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