Thomas Reid on Consciousness

‘Consciousness is a witness which gives us information of every thing which takes place in the interior of our minds. It is not the principle of any of our faculties, but it is a light to them all. It is not because we have the consciousness of it that any thing goes on within us, but that which goes on within us would be to us as though it did not take place, if it were not attested by consciousness. It is not by consciousness that we feel, or will, or think, but it is by it that we know that we do all this. Consciousness is indeed more or less distinct, more or less vivid, but it is in all men. No one is unknown to himself, although very few know themselves perfectly, because all, or nearly all, make use of consciousness without applying themselves to perfect, unfold, and understand it, by voluntary effort and attention. In all men consciousness is a natural process; some elevate this natural process to the degree of an art, a method, by reflection, which is a sort of second consciousness, a free reproduction of the first; and as consciousness gives to all men a knowledge of what passes within them, so reflection gives the philosopher a certain knowledge of every thing which falls under the eye of consciousness.’ (Thomas Reid, ‘Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man’, p 37, Nook Edition)

Note here the interesting thought Reid develops: consciousness as a witness to what goes on in our minds. This is an interesting take on the subject, and one which I will be following up on in the near future. Consciousness is an interesting study – though for my part I think it subject to the same difficulties present when discussing language (we cannot discuss language using anything but language, which seems similar to the fact that it is only by the light of consciousness that we can study consciousness at all). I may have to consult Wittgenstein on this matter as well as Reid.

6 thoughts on “Thomas Reid on Consciousness

  1. Witty Ludwig March 3, 2014 / 7:27 am

    I’d recommend Gilbert Ryle’s Concept of Mind– you’ll no doubt find a huge number of interesting parallels with Wittgenstein’s PI, OC, and RFM in particular. No doubt as they shared a walking holiday in the summer of 1930.


    • whitefrozen July 29, 2014 / 5:49 pm

      I’ve never read Ryle, actually. I should look into him.


  2. Stephen Krogh July 29, 2014 / 11:30 am

    I think the quote you attribute to Reid is actually Victor Cousin, a French supporter of Scottish common sense philosophy. It is found in a footnote of Hamilton’s edition (if we could call it that; it’s really more like a series of essays on Reid in the footnotes), where Hamilton quotes Cousin on the point. I could be mistaken on this point, but my edition of Hamilton’s Reid has it in the footnote on page 26. Incidentally, you can find a scanned copy of the edition I have for free on Google books. I’m not sure whether Hamilton incorrectly ascribes this to Cousin, when it should be to Reid. If so, then I stand corrected!


    • whitefrozen July 29, 2014 / 5:07 pm

      I appreciate you bringing this to my attention – I’ll dig into a little bit. I thought I transcribed this from Reid, but I guess I didn’t. Are you fairly familiar with the Scottish common sense school?


  3. Stephen Krogh July 31, 2014 / 2:34 pm

    I am comfortably with the tradition generally, but, for obvious reasons, most familiar with Reid. I have, however, been brushing up on the greater tradition, both in the English speaking world, and in the influence the tradition enjoyed in French and German circles. I am presently preparing a dissertation prospectus on the role of Scottish common sense philosophy in late 20th century and 21st century epistemology, so I’m having to familiarize myself quickly! (My initial dissertation plans were to offer a critical edition of a medieval commentary on Aristotle’s “De Anima,” so plans changed drastically, and I’m about two to three years behind!)


    • whitefrozen July 31, 2014 / 6:10 pm

      Have you read Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book on Reid?


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