Nobody is an Active Man

In a delightful passage in Essay Six “Of Judgement” from the Essays on the Intellectual Powers, Thomas Reid makes an observation that shows he was also a father in addition to being a Philosopher. He has argued against David Hume’s notion that we cannot know cause and effect relationships, and in this passage he observes that no one could possibly accept Hume in the practical, every-day living of ordinary life:

In great families, there are so many bad things done by a certain personage, called Nobody, that it is proverbial that there is a Nobody about every house who does a great deal of mischief; and even where there is the exactest inspection and government, many events will happen of which no other author can be found; so that, if we trust merely to experience in this matter, Nobody will be found to be a very active person, and to have no inconsiderable share in the management of experience. But whatever countenance this system may have from experience, it is too shocking to common sense to impose upon the most ignorant. A child knows that, when his top, or any of his playthings, are taken away, it must be done by somebody. Perhaps it would not be difficult to persuade him that it was done by some invisible being, but that it should be done by Nobody he cannot believe…

I have a similar problem with Nobody leaving trash on my classroom floor.

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Happy Birthday to Thomas Reid!

Thomas Reid is one of the greatest philosophers you’ve probably never heard of. A contemporary and harsh critique of David Hume, Reid represents the Scottish Common Sense School of Philosophy. Reid was highly critical of the likes of Descartes (and Hume), arguing that the entire Cartesian project of Methodological Doubt was irrational. Basically, Reid argued that there are certain first principles that we do not and cannot reason to, but rather are the conditions from which we reason. Reid was heavily influential for the modern “Reformed Epistemology” movement of Wolterstoff, Plantinga, et. al. Here’s a nice quote from Reid which typifies his sometimes satirical style:

Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke have all employed their genius and skill, to prove the existence of a material world; and with very bad success. Poor untaught mortals believe undoubtedly, that there is a sun, moon, and stars; an earth, which we inhabit; country, friends, and relations, which we enjoy; land, houses, and moveables, which we possess. But philosophers, pitying the credulity of the vulgar, resolve to have no faith but what is founded upon reason. They apply to philosophy to furnish them with reasons for the belief of those things, which all mankind have believed without being able to give any reason for it. And surely one would expect, that, in matters of such importance, the proof would not be difficult: but it is the most difficult thing in the world. For these three great men, with the best good will, have not been able, from all the treasures of philosophy, to draw one argument, that is fit to convince a man that can reason, of the existence of any one thing without him. Admired Philosophy! daughter of light! parent of wisdom and knowledge! if thou art she! surely thou hast not yet arisen upon the human mind, nor blessed us with more of thy rays, than are sufficient to shed a “darkness visible” upon the human faculties, and to disturb that repose and security which happier mortals enjoy, who never approached thine altar, nor felt thine influence! But if indeed thou hast not power to dispel those clouds and phantoms which thou hast discovered or created, withdraw this penurious and malignant ray: I despise Philosophy, and renounce its guidance: let my soul dwell with Common Sense.

~Thomas Reid (1711-1796)  An Inquiry Into the Human Mind On the Principles of Common Sense

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