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History of Political Economy Annual Supplement to Volume 35 (2003) 338-360



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Where Mechanism Ends:
Thomas Reid on the Moral and the Animal Oeconomy

Harro Maas


Theories of life have consequences for how the social order is conceptualized. I pursue this theme in the work of the Aberdeen philosopher of mind Thomas Reid (1710–96), or more accurately, in his reactions to others' views. Reid typically developed his own ideas into a coherent view in juxtaposition to ideas to which he took exception. This means entering into a number of apparently discrete contexts before the unifying threads can be made plain. Let me introduce my theme with a not untypical example of Reid's way of clarifying by accentuating difference.

In 1794, just two years before he died, Reid gave two lectures to the Glasgow Literary Society. The subjects were apparently unconnected. In the first lecture Reid extensively criticized and commented on Joseph Priestley's materialist philosophy. The central point of dispute was the inertness of matter and its consequences for physiology and religion: "By what force [the muscular fibers] are contracted and relaxed, either in voluntary or involuntary Motion, Philosophy has never discovered. . . . It is here that Mechanism ends, at least human wisdom has never been able to carry it farther; and some cause must operate that has the power of beginning motion" (Wood 1995, 202). [End Page 338]

Reid dealt with the second topic, utopian political systems, in perhaps his last lecture to the Glasgow Literary Society (1794). He sketched a social order in which a heavy role was reserved for the state for the distribution of goods and the moral education of its citizens, while there was hardly any role for that most favored and theorized institution of David Hume and Adam Smith: the market. Referring favorably to the historical example of the Jesuits in Paraguay, Reid's utopian system knew "neither Money nor Property nor Traffick" (Reid 1990, 284), and there was no role for "private Interests," which in Reid's view were so often opposed to "that of the Publick" (287).

Was Reid's discussion of Priestley of purely philosophical interest? What link, if any, was there to that of his second lecture, on a utopian social order? The connection runs via eighteenth-century Scottish physiology, which was also split. Some physiologists considered the living body something governed "by the laws of mechanism," as John Allen, Edinburgh physiologist and political radical, put it (quoted in Jacyna 1994, 61–63). Others considered that the natural powers of the living body are subject to an ever-present surveying agent, which view was espoused by one of Dugald Stewart's students, Thomas Thomson, writer of the influential System of Chemistry (1807) and lifelong friend of James Mill.

Reid intervened in the middle of the debate, transferring the existing divisions into philosophy. He insisted that a line be drawn between natural and moral, or mental, philosophy. He felt the need for a demarcation that would enable him to clarify humankind's duties to God, nature, and society. Rather than an exercise in mechanically computing the best line of action, moral agency was, in Reid's view, a matter of human wisdom. The political consequence Reid drew from this was a social order based on the guidance of the state, rather than being left to the whims and vices of the market.

In what follows, I first discuss the limits Reid set to mechanical philosophy. I then turn to his reading in physiology and show how his resistance toward mechanism and materialism determined his approach to moral and mental philosophy. We are then in a position to examine Reid's remaining lecture notes on utopian systems.

Reid's Essay on Quantity

In 1748 Thomas Reid published a short tract, An Essay on Quantity, in the Proceedings of the Royal Academy of London, in criticism of [End Page 339] Francis Hutcheson's use of mathematics in his famous Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue ([1725] 1726). In his essay...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1919
Print ISSN
0018-2702
Pages
pp. 338-360
Launched on MUSE
2004-02-17
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived 2005
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