- The Correspondence of Thomas Reid
Like many thinkers of the eighteenth century, Thomas Reid (1710-96) suffered a loss of esteem in the nineteenth. His principal writings were available only in the Works somewhat tendentiously edited by Sir William Hamilton. His objections to the empiricist belief that the sole objects of thought are 'Ideas or Images of things in the mind' fell victim to the bland irony of Leslie Stephen's history of eighteenth-century thought. The tide began to turn towards the end of the twentieth century. Growing interest in the Scottish enlightenment has directed fresh attention to Reid's work, and the Edinburgh Edition is now making the full corpus of his writings available in definitive texts with sound commentary. Reid may soon shed the terrible tag, earned by his inquiries into the way the mind processes data received from the senses, that has dogged his name for two centuries, 'the philosopher of common sense.' Unhappily for Reid, the English language was abandoning the old and respectable concept of 'sensus communis' even as he wrote and switching over to the current meaning of the phrase 'common sense': the ability, as one of his contemporaries trenchantly put it, to tell chalk from cheese.
As it happens, neither chalk nor cheese appears under the letter c in the index of Paul Wood's meticulously edited collection of Reid's 131 surviving letters, but cambric, carrot (wild), and chalybeate do, testifying to the breadth of his interests. As professor of philosophy at King's College, Aberdeen (1751-64), Reid might in a single year be expected to teach optics, mathematics, philosophy of mind, logic, morals and politics. After he succeeded Adam Smith in the chair of moral philosophy at Glasgow in 1764 he continued to work in what modern academia regards as several different disciplines - to Reid, different aspects of philosophy. In a letter written shortly after his arrival he ranges from geology to chemistry to new optical instruments, and concludes with an Aberdonian's crisp characterization of the people of Glasgow: 'Boeotian in their Understandings, fanatical in their Religion, and clownish in their dress and Manners.' These letters, mostly from the last thirty years of Reid's long and industrious life, offer rich documentation of the Scottish enlightenment, both of its intellectual activity and of the social networks which sustained it and extended its influence on the national life.
They also reveal an uncommonly attractive personality. Reid was a gracious and kindly man, whose affection for his friends animates his beautifully lucid prose. Whether he is explaining key elements of his philosophy of sensation and perception, or explaining how to set up a scientific instrument, or describing how as a young man he freed himself from oppressive nightmares, he writes always to inform his correspondent, never to ride his own hobby-horses. The liveliness of mind that moved him to read Mary Wollstonecraft at age eighty-two, and to tease his future biographer Dugald Stewart on the subject, likewise shines through. When [End Page 276] his old friend Lord Kames wanted to publish an amateurish essay on the laws of motion, Reid headed him off in a letter that may stand as a model of tactful dissuasion. His letters of condolence retain the power to touch the reader. He knew sorrow in his own domestic life, living long enough to bury his wife and eight of their nine children; the youngest, 'sweet little Bess,' died in 1766 at one year of age from inoculation against the smallpox that had killed another Elizabeth twenty years earlier. Yet underlying all these letters is a serenity that carries complete conviction. When his wife died after half a century of marriage he felt himself 'brought into a kind of new world' to which he was ill-equipped to adapt. 'But every world is God's world, and I am thankful for the comforts he has left me.' These are the letters of a good man and a good writer. Specialists and general readers...