- Problems from Reid by James Van Cleve
The arrival of James Van Cleve’s Problems from Reid is somewhat akin to the experience of waiting ages for a bus only for several to arrive at the same time. It is a gargantuan book, weighing in at over 550 pages covering sixteen chapters and a remarkable twenty-six appendices (labelled from A to Z, of course).
There have been several important single-author books on Reid in the last decade or so, from the likes of Gideon Yaffe (Manifest Activity: Thomas Reid’s Theory of Action, 2004) and Ryan Nichols (Thomas Reid’s Theory of Perception, 2007), and some impressive anthologies, such as those edited by Patrick Rysiew (New Essays on Thomas Reid, 2014, 2015), and by Todd Buras and Rebecca Copenhaver (Thomas Reid on Mind, Knowledge, and Value, 2015); but nothing matches the scale or breadth of Van Cleve’s work. Problems from Reid, as the name might suggest, is somewhat similar in approach to Van Cleve’s 1999 Problems from Kant. It is not intended as an introduction or overview of Reid’s thought. Nor is it a critical study of any one of Reid’s three major works; rather, it addresses, in impressive depth, issues arising from Reid’s entire corpus. As might be expected from a scholar of Van Cleve’s stature, the quality of insight is first rate: Van Cleve reaches deep into Reid’s work and provides sensitive and plausible interpretations of Reid’s views that make clear their sophistication and, in many cases, plausibility.
One thing—but by no means the only thing—that Van Cleve’s book serves to do is to demonstrate the richness of Reid’s thought. For those still unconvinced of Reid’s place in the history of philosophy or his importance to the subject today, Van Cleve’s sophisticated and insightful study of Reid provides evidence in spades. In particular, the several lengthy chapters on Reid’s theory of perception, drawn in large part from some of Van Cleve’s well-known papers, demonstrate the relevance Reid has to current work in this lively, [End Page 681] important field. Alongside a chapter on Reid’s direct realism, there are lengthy discussions of the geometry of visibles, acquired perception, erect and inverted vision, and Molyneux’s question. Had the volume covered only this, it would still have deserved a central place in the Reid secondary literature.
While much of this book draws upon Van Cleve’s excellent published papers on Reid (which are massively reworked and reorganized—this is no mere collection of papers), there is much that is new here too. Of particular note are two lengthy chapters on Reid’s theory of action: one on the metaphysics of Reid’s agent causalism, the other on the place of this agent causalism in the free will debate. Both serve as good, up-to-date evaluations of Reid’s position on these matters, even if Van Cleve defers at times to the earlier books of Yaffe, William Rowe (Thomas Reid on Freedom and Morality, 1991), and James Harris (Of Liberty and Necessity: The Free Will Debate in 18th-Century British Philosophy, 2005). The sections on regress problems facing Reid are somewhat brief, but set the issues up in a manner that should be accessible to the intelligent student.
In some respects it is a shame that this book does not serve as an introduction to Reid for advanced students. The absence of such an introduction is an ongoing pity, especially given the growth in interest in Reid. Nevertheless, Problems from Reid could easily serve as a core text in any course on Reid. Just as J. L. Mackie’s Problems from Locke (1976) still features prominently on course reading lists forty years on, despite not being anything like an overview of Locke’s philosophy, so Van Cleve’s book could serve to introduce students to the fascinating and important problems found in Reid’s work. In particular, the two chapters on Reid’s epistemology—one on first...