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Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.2 (2006) 263-268
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New Vistas on the "Common Sense" Alternative to Kant
The Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid (1710–1796) has retained both historical and philosophical significance, and the books under review show scholars approaching his work from both angles. Historians wishing to understand reactions to the emergence of a scientific outlook on nature—especially Bacon's inductive methodology and Newton's mathematical physics—find in Reid a well-developed philosophical position in which scientific knowledge and everyday experience are closely intertwined. Philosophers find Reid relevant for understanding the common sense approach in philosophy—a forerunner of the linguistic turn and the ordinary language approach which influenced twentieth-century philosophers such as George E. Moore and Charles S. Pierce—and the formulation of a theory of perception. Indeed, Reid first distinguished between "sensation" and "perception" (Cuneo 104). Reid also formulated an original via media between empiricism and rationalism, and hence offered a valuable alternative to the main eighteenth-century philosophical projects of Hume, Berkeley, and Kant. Reid was overshadowed by these figures, especially by Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781). And indeed Kant still occupies center stage in the study and discussion of Enlightenment philosophy (witness the recent reviews in this journal; e.g., Daniel L. Purdy, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Winter, 2005), pp. 329–332; Jason Michael Peck, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Spring, 2004), pp. 491–497; and James Schmidt, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Autumn, 2003), pp. 147–161). Reid did not study Kant (Wolterstorff 103). His philosophy is completely devoid of armchair speculation, and his tone is indeed, as Joseph Houston puts it, "domestic" and "unsophisticated" (Houston 7). While there was some considerable interest for Reid's philosophy from the early eighties to the early nineties, the interest gradually decayed. Consequently the need for volumes like those under review is huge for a full appreciation and deep understanding of Reid's philosophy; it is lucky that these informative volumes have appeared in the same year.
The volume edited by Joseph Houston is a collection of papers delivered at a conference held in 1996 at the University of Glasgow to commemorate the bi-centenary of Reid's death. In addition to the Introduction it consists of seven articles. M.A. Stewart begins by pointing to the indebtedness of Reid to Joseph Butler (1692–1752) and George Campbell (1719–1796) in his approach to personal identity. Both tried to amend Locke's views on personal identity, which never explicitly distinguished between memory as a necessary condition for identity and memory as a sufficient condition for identity (13). From Butler Reid learned that memory is an immediate, indubitable source of knowledge and that it reveals personal identity "to anyone of sound mind" (16, 27). Campbell, on the other hand, argued that personal identity could not consist in memory, since it is possible for an individual to forget an action in the past x while no one would deny that this individual is not the same person as in the past because of his forgetting of x. Reid never made a consistent choice between Butler and Campbell: he wavered between them and he ultimately ended in incoherence (28). Joseph Houston discusses the subtle relation between testimony (whereby the speaker appeals to the veracity of what he affirms), judgement (whereby we determine the falsehood or truthfulness of things) and opinion (whereby the speaker does not appeal to the veracity of what he affirms and admits a certain degree of fallibility) (53–4, 71). R.F. Stalley considers Reid's defense of freedom...