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Wednesday 16 February 2011

Thomas Reid : On Liberty

Thomas Reid was a Scottish ‘common sense’ philosopher and theologian from Aberdeenshire who was born the year before David Hume (1710) and was part of the Scottish enlightenment. In his moral philosophy (but perhaps less so elsewhere in his work) we find some distinct parallels with Immanuel Kant’s own work on freedom. However, Reid’s work is not as hampered with the complex structure that Kant had built for himself in the Critique of Pure Reason and that put sections of his work on freedom under sense entirely of his own making.
Thomas Reid, in his ‘Essays on the active powers of man’ (1788) argued that “if we have moral duties it must be possible for us to fulfil them… If the will were not free we would have no use for such terms as praise and blame”[1] etc. But he does not conclude from this that there is a phenomenal will (Willkür) that is subject to the necessity of nature and a noumenal will (Wille) that somehow affects the natural will from the intelligible world. It is only Kant’s conception of nature that leads him to argue this way.
Indeed, Reid’s ‘common sense’ philosophy does seem to yield similar conclusions with Kant without the complex architectonic. There is a shared thread of individualism in both men’s works, for example this section of Reid’s is much like Kant’s insistence that positive freedom through reason empowers man as a person, “the first cause in the chain of action is not an event but a person.”[2] This humanist aspect and with it the beginnings of Romanticism are surprisingly strong in Reid, “my free action may be the outcome of rational motives, but motives do not cause my action, I do.”[3] Although both men were strong believers (Reid held parish in Newmachar Aberdeenshire) this self-governing aspect of human autonomy present in their work could be seen as threat (and in Kant’s case was) and worse still as an affront to their faith.
What then is the ‘common sense’ in connexion with Reid’s philosophy? Well, and we may well find another connexion with Kant here, it is not the everyday term but rather a philosophical position that distinguishes Reid from Hume and others. It could be put thusly, “the first principles of morals like the first principles of science, are self-evident.”[4] However, as we might remember Kant did attack the Scottish common sense philosophers, so what might seem like a connexion here is only to be rebutted by Kant himself. Still, I believe that there is some similarity in that Kant states that the rational ‘fact’ of reason is immediately apparent to us, with how Reid justifies the acceptance for his doctrine of liberty. He argues thusly, and this may remind us of the refutation of consciousness’ possible illusory nature, “it [the ‘fact’ of the doctrine of liberty] is justified as soon as it exists and requires no reasoning on its behalf.”[5] Reid likens it to our belief in an external world; if we are to deny liberty then we must also throw our entire existence in radical scepticism. “The assumption that we act freely is one we have by our natural constitution, and it is implied by our moral conceptions.”[6]
How then does Reid define ‘Liberty’ and in what regard is it similar or different to Kant’s Freedom? “By the liberty of a moral agent, I understand a power over the determinations of his will.”[7] This account of liberty supposes that the agent has understanding and will. Liberty requires understanding in addition to will because will requires conception of the thing, and, therefore, an understanding adequate to supply such a conception.[8] Will in this conception, of Reid’s, does not seem to have the more complex and possibly more subtle description of Kant’s but its more everyday or ‘common sense’ use it hold no less merit.
“The liberty of a moral agent implies, not only a conception of what he wills, but some degree of practical judgement or reason.”[9] The difference between Kant and Reid here might be said that Reid does not go far enough, for Kant ‘some degree’ of reason would be a weak claim. Although we can well understand Reid’s point, that the willed result is not enough that there must also have been a motive from reason, for Kant pure practical reason is fundamental throughout the process it is not merely a ‘part.’ “The effect of moral liberty is; that it is in the power of the agent to do well or ill.”[10] Here Reid moves further from Kant, and in a surprising direction. Whereas Kant wanted to suggest that the force of the voice of the moral law should not, but could, be ignored here Reid describes it in a much more matter-of-fact manner, where the agent can choose to act well or ill, without it being depreciating to his character. Kant’s moral agent may act ill sure enough but if he does he negates his rights as a subject. Reid’s description of liberty then, seems to hold a less complex structure (for reasons given) but for all that it is no less penetrating in its description of freedom (liberty).

Acton, H.B., Kant’s moral philosophy, (London: Macmillan, 1985)
Lehrer, K., Thomas Reid, (London: Routledge, 1991)
Reid, T., The works of Thomas Reid, 2 vols, ed. Hamilton, (Edinburgh: James Thin, 1895)

[1] Acton, p. 48.
[2] Lehrer, p. 23.
[3] Lehrer, p. 24.
[4] Lehrer, p. 221.
[5] Lehrer, p. 24.
[6] Lehrer, p. 270.
[7] Reid, p. 599.
[8] Lehrer, p. 256.
[9] Reid, p. 599.
[10] Reid, p. 600.