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Essays on the Active Powers of Man by Thomas Reid (review)

From: Hume Studies
Volume 37, Number 2, November 2011
pp. 275-279 | 10.1353/hms.2011.0661

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For anyone interested in Reid's moral psychology and ethics, the new edition of his Essays on the Active Powers of Man is a welcome addition to the Edinburgh Collection. This book, first announced as the sixth, finally arrives as the seventh of a ten volume collection, The Edinburgh Edition of Thomas Reid, edited by Knud Haakonssen, which contains Reid's published and unpublished writings. During his lifetime, Reid published three volumes: An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764), Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785), and Essays on the Active Powers of Man (1788). With the most recent addition of Harris and Haakonssen's edition of the Active Powers, all three of these books are now available in a clear and well-documented critical edition. This new volume in the Edinburgh Edition has already become the standard critical edition of Reid's Active Powers.

The editors begin this volume with an instructive account of the historical background of Reid's ideas, the genesis of his work, a brief description of his method of argumentation, and comments about the reception of the Active Powers. The introduction is followed by the critical text of Reid's Active Powers, in which Reid presents his account of human moral agency, and the volume ends with a bibliography and a useful index of names.

In the introduction, the editors argue that this collection of essays has its roots in Reid's earlier intellectual life, with themes that Reid first started to develop in the 1730s, when he was regent at King's College in Aberdeen. However, Harris and Haakonssen point out, the greatest number of notes and manuscripts on the subjects found in these essays date from the time when Reid held a professorship for moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow (which started in 1764). Haakonssen and Harris report that among the courses Reid taught in Glasgow, one stands out as lasting the longest and including the greatest number of lectures: pneumatology (philosophy of mind). Reid found this topic to be so important because he believed it was basic to ethics and politics. The lectures for this course, in which he develops his moral psychology, constitute a significant part of the Active Powers. During his years at the University of Glasgow, Reid also presented a series of discourses at the Glasgow Literary Society. Some of the arguments discussed in these papers became central to the important Essay III of the Active Powers.

According to Haakonssen and Harris, two factors seem to have had a major influence on the development of the arguments and views Reid presents in the Active Powers. The first is Reid's criticism of David Hume's moral theory, sentimentalism, together with a rebuttal of Joseph Priestly's necessitarianism, both viewed, according to the editors' understanding of Reid, as resurrections of the ancient Epicurean philosophy. Against this background, Reid develops his own views about the nature of non-rational and rational principles of action (or motives) and about the liberty of moral agents. The second factor is an essay competition for which Reid appears to have prepared several sets of manuscripts. Although these manuscripts bear the name of the competition, Haakonssen and Harris find no evidence that Reid actually submitted an essay to the contest. Even so, parts of Essay IV of the Active Powers—especially the three arguments in defence of moral liberty—reflect the content of these manuscripts. The introduction ends with instructive information about the first publication and reception of the Active Powers, which was among the dozen most frequently acquired works of Scottish Enlightenment Philosophy, and which appeared in twenty-one library subscriptions in the early nineteenth century.

In the critical text, which follows the introduction, Reid presents his account of the human mind as it is involved in free moral action. Reid had presented his views about the intellectual powers of the human mind (perception, belief, memory, consciousness, etc.) in his earlier Essays on the Intellectual Powers. His aim in the five essays of the Active Powers is to offer an account of moral agency. Man alone (by which Reid refers to human beings, as opposed to brute...

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