Appendix 9. - (178)

[Stewart's opinion about Reid's concept of universal ideas]

When discussing Reid's opinion on universal ideas, Stewart comes to the following conclusion:

 

The long experience I have had of the candor of this excellent author, encourages me to add, that in stating his opinion on the subject of universals, he has not expressed himself in a manner so completely satisfactory to my mind as on other occasions
(Eléments de la Philosophie de l'esprit humain, chap. 4, section 3)

I would go further. I feel it is difficult to reconcile Dr. Reid with himself at this point. Certainly Stewart, in attempting here to speculate about this excellent thinker's opinion, has difficulty in bringing it into line with his principles on ideas. This is what Dr. Reid says about universal ideas:

 

An universal is not the object of any external sense, and therefore cannot be imagined, but it may be distinctly conceived. When Mr. Pope says, 'The proper study of mankind is man', I conceive his meaning distinctly, although I imagine neither a black nor a white man, neither a crooked nor a straight man. I can conceive a proposition or a demonstration, but I cannot imagine either. I can conceive understanding and will, virtue and vice, and other attributes of the mind; but I cannot imagine them. In like manner, I can distinctly conceive universals, but I cannot imagine them.

If we are to take this passage in its obvious, ordinary sense, it would appear that Dr. Reid recognises that universal ideas are objects of thought, not mere names. Yet this would contradict his theory of ideas; he has denied that our thought has objects distinct from itself and distinct from external things. Consequently, Stewart endeavours, with great subtlety it must be admitted, to give Reid's passage a meaning reconciling it with other passages by the same author. However, I feel that his interpretation is very unsatisfactory. It states:

 

It appears from this passage, that by conceiving universals, Dr Reid means nothing more than understanding the meaning of propositions involving them.

But to realise that this is not compatible with Reid's view, we need only to indicate that, in the passage cited above, Reid distinguishes between conceiving a proposition and conceiving universal ideas; he states that as we conceive propositions, so we conceive universal ideas. What is more, I have already shown that universal terms would be of no use to us unless we linked to them truly universal ideas (cf. 162-167). Thus we either have to look for a better way of reconciling Dr. Reid's theory of universal ideas with his own theory of ideas or to accept that one of the two is false. On the other hand, it seems obvious to me that it is impossible to come up with a true theory of ideas before solving the question of universal ideas which so preoccupied all the ancient philosophers. This observation must at least cast grave doubts on Dr. Reid's theory.


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