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  Thomas Reid (1710–1796), by Sir Henry Raeburn, c.1796 Thomas Reid (1710–1796), by Sir Henry Raeburn, c.1796
Reid, Thomas (1710–1796), natural and moral philosopher, was born on 26 April 1710 in Strachan, Kincardineshire, the son of the Revd Lewis Reid (1676–1762) and his first wife, Margaret, née Gregory (1673–1732). After attending the parish school in Kincardine O'Neil for two years, Reid transferred to the Aberdeen grammar school in April 1722 before entering the class of the professor of Greek, Thomas Blackwell the younger, at Marischal College the following October. He was then taken through the philosophy curriculum by the regent George Turnbull, who introduced him to the ideas of Locke, Shaftesbury, the English deists, and natural-law theorists such as Samuel Pufendorf. Turnbull seems to have inspired Reid's empirical approach to the science of the mind, for Turnbull was an early champion of the application of the method perfected by Bacon and Newton to the study of metaphysics and morals. As an undergraduate, Reid may also have attended the lectures of the leading Scottish Newtonian Colin MacLaurin, who was the Liddell professor of mathematics at Marischal from 1717 to 1726.

Early career

In 1726 Reid took his MA and immediately began studying divinity under Thomas Blackwell the elder and, after Blackwell's death, James Chalmers. He was licensed to preach by the presbytery of Kincardine O'Neil on 22 September 1731, and served as a clerk to the presbytery and as an occasional preacher from 2 August 1732 until April 1733. Reid returned to Aberdeen as librarian of Marischal College in July 1733, but resigned in 1736 because of a dispute over his salary (which was funded by a bequest from his ancestor Thomas Reid, a secretary to James I). Towards the end of his tenure as librarian, Reid participated in a Philosophical Club based in the college, and his notes from its meetings record that the members discussed morals, metaphysics, and the anatomy of the mind, and addressed a broad array of authors including Joseph Butler, Samuel Clarke, Francis Hutcheson, William King, and G. W. Leibniz.

Accompanied by his close friend from his undergraduate days, the Marischal professor of mathematics John Stewart, Reid visited England in the spring of 1736. In London they attended a meeting of the Royal Society, and made contact with Reid's uncle, George Reid, his fellow physician Alexander Stuart, and Martin Folkes. They also went to Oxford, where Reid had a family connection with David Gregory at Christ Church, and to Cambridge, where they met the legendary Lucasian professor of mathematics, Nicholas Saunderson, along with the principal architect of the Newtonian ascendancy within the university, the classicist Richard Bentley. Back in Aberdeen Reid again took up with the Philosophical Club, and marked time until he was presented with the living of Newmachar, Aberdeenshire, by King's College in February 1737, thanks to the influence of his kinsman James Gregory, the professor of medicine at King's. But his appointment was not welcomed in the parish, and he was given a hostile reception by the people of Newmachar, whose challenge to the college's right to choose their minister was supported by a local evangelical, the Revd John Bissett. By the time he left Newmachar, Reid had apparently made peace with his parishioners, although it is difficult to gauge his success as a minister. He was conscientious in carrying out his pastoral duties, and he seems to have treated his flock with kindness and charity. He was known, too, for his philanthropy, and was a promoter of the Aberdeen Infirmary, which opened in 1742. Yet they must have found his preaching difficult to digest because he was a dry pulpit orator and, following an accepted practice of the day, he insisted on reading them sermons published by other theologians, including Clarke, the latitudinarian John Tillotson, and the English Presbyterian John Evans.

Reid's sojourn at Newmachar saw significant changes in both his personal and intellectual life. He again travelled to London and, on 12 August 1740, married his cousin Elizabeth (1724–1792), the daughter of George Reid. Once settled in the manse, they began a family and eventually had nine children, of whom only their daughter Martha (1744–1805) survived them. The move to Newmachar also brought him into contact with the noted improver Sir Archibald Grant of Monymusk, as well as the clergymen George Campbell and Alexander Gerard, who both shared his philosophical interests and moderate religious outlook. Intellectually, Reid was now in touch with medical and scientific circles in London and, while he was in the metropolis in 1740, he seized the opportunity to attend a meeting of the Royal Society. Having carefully studied Newton's Principia mathematica with John Stewart in the late 1720s, Reid kept abreast of the latest developments in mathematical and physical astronomy and, along with Stewart, became part of a network of Scottish observational astronomers affiliated with the Royal Society. Reid explored a variety of mathematical subjects as well, and was probably at least tangentially involved in the preparation of Stewart's edition of Newton's Two Treatises of the Quadrature of Curves published in 1745. Reid's own reflections on the conceptual foundations of mathematics dovetailed with his interest in the vis viva controversy in his first publication, ‘An essay on quantity’, which appeared in the Philosophical Transactions for 1748. The ‘Essay’ shows too that Reid had continued to think about the works of the Glasgow moralist Francis Hutcheson, but the critical tenor of his remarks indicates that he had serious reservations about aspects of Hutcheson's philosophy. Reid's manuscripts from the period reveal that he was much taken with Butler's The Analogy of Religion, and there is evidence among his surviving papers which suggests that he was beginning to respond to the sceptical implications of David Hume's Treatise of Human Nature.

Regent of King's College

Reid's political and family ties led to his unanimous election on 25 October 1751 as a regent at King's College to replace the recently deceased Alexander Rait, who had additionally served as the nominal professor of mathematics. Reid's manifest abilities in mathematics and his competence in the natural and moral sciences made him a worthy successor to Rait, but he hesitated before formally accepting the position on 22 November 1751. Whereas Edinburgh, Glasgow, and St Andrews had all opted for fixed professorships, King's still employed the traditional system of regenting, which meant that Reid was required to teach the whole of the three-year philosophy course. He was evidently soon dissatisfied with the curriculum and other aspects of college life, for he became one of the principal architects of the major reforms undertaken at King's in 1753. Following the example set by their rivals at Marischal College (and partly inspired by the educational ideals of George Turnbull), the masters at King's eliminated the last vestiges of the scholastic curriculum and put in place a course of philosophy which covered mathematics and natural history in the first year, natural philosophy and higher mathematics in the second, and the various branches of moral philosophy in the final year. Yet, unlike Marischal, King's retained the regenting system because Reid and his allies were convinced that regents could regulate the moral development of their charges more effectively than professors. Notwithstanding some of the problematic consequences of the reforms, Reid's pedagogical vision did help briefly to revive the flagging academic fortunes of the college by fostering a polite and more strongly utilitarian attitude towards learning.

Reid was also instrumental in encouraging more contact between King's and Marischal and, although plans for their union were abandoned in 1755, he was one of the founders of the (1758–73), which brought together men from the two colleges for the purposes of conviviality and intellectual exchange. At the society's meetings, Reid discoursed on and debated a wide range of topics, including the science of the mind, the philosophical foundations of Euclidean geometry, observational astronomy, plant physiology, moral theory, political economy, and the education of the young. Other members, like his friends the former professor of philosophy at Aberdeen, John Gregory, and the physician and naturalist David Skene, shared his fascination with these subjects. Another group Reid was involved in was the Gordon's Mill Farming Club (1758–64?), which served as a forum for the discussion of issues related to agricultural improvement by local academics, merchants, and landowners. The award of an honorary DD by his alma mater on 18 January 1762 registered his close personal relations with prominent faculty members at Marischal, and was no doubt intended as a recognition of Reid's efforts to improve relations between the two colleges, as well as his contributions to community life.

The crowning achievement of Reid's King's College years was his Inquiry into the Human Mind, on the Principles of Common Sense, published in February 1764. Based on his lectures, graduation orations, and a series of discourses he gave before the Philosophical Society from 1758 to 1763, the Inquiry was a sustained attack on the theory of ideas propagated by Descartes, Locke, and Malebranche. According to Reid, the historical evolution of this theory had revealed that it was inconsistent with the dictates of common sense because it had given rise to the paradoxes of George Berkeley and to the more subversive doctrines of David Hume, whose corrosive scepticism threatened to destroy any grounds for belief in the existence of the external world, the self, and God. Believing that philosophy and common sense ought to be reconciled in order to rescue religion and morality, Reid subjected the theory of ideas to extended scrutiny and showed to his satisfaction that it was little better than an unsubstantiated hypothesis which was inconsistent with known anatomical, physiological, and experiential facts. Drawing heavily on concepts found in Berkeley's Essay towards a New Theory of Vision, Reid argued that the operations of our five external senses demonstrate that the mind is so constituted that our sensations suggest to us a belief in the existence of the objects which cause them and that our sensations and ideas function as signs in a language which inform us about the things they signify. Consequently, he insisted that the sceptical doubts about our knowledge of the external world and of ourselves raised by Berkeley and especially Hume were groundless, and he presented his alternative account of perception as being entirely consistent with common sense. Reid's refutation of the theory of ideas in the Inquiry ranks as one of the most rigorous applications of the Newtonian method to the science of the mind to appear in the eighteenth century, and his discussion of the ‘geometry of visibles’ vividly illustrates his creativity as a thinker as well as his bluff wit. When David Hume was given part of the manuscript of the Inquiry to read by their mutual friend Hugh Blair in 1762, he was not amused by some of Reid's jibes and had perhaps become tired of criticisms written by members of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society, since he had already been the target of works by Robert Traill, Gerard, and Campbell. But Hume subsequently acknowledged Reid's acuity as a critic, and the Inquiry firmly established Reid's reputation as Hume's most gifted antagonist within the European republic of letters.

Professor at Glasgow

Thanks to the patronage of Lord Deskford and Henry Home, Lord Kames, Reid was elected to succeed Adam Smith by the faculty of the University of Glasgow on 22 May 1764. He was formally admitted as professor of moral philosophy on 11 June and, after he and his family settled at their fashionable address in the Drygate, he was made a burgess and guild brother of the city on 26 September. At first, Reid had difficulty in adjusting to his new surroundings. He found the personal behaviour of some of his new colleagues questionable, and he was disturbed by the religious climate in Glasgow, which was more deeply tinged by evangelicalism than that of his native north-east. His own election had been a highly contentious one and, even though he was no stranger to academic wrangling, he was unprepared for the fractious professorial politics at Glasgow. He was soon caught up in the protracted dispute between Principal William Leechman's party and its opponents which divided the college from 1761 until Leechman's death in 1785, and he became embroiled in a number of other skirmishes because of his friendship with the prickly professor of natural philosophy, John Anderson. Reid's involvement in these disputes did, however, give him a detailed knowledge of college affairs, which meant that he was burdened with a number of senior administrative positions, including serving as the university's representative at the general assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1767 and 1772, and as vice-rector while Edmund Burke was rector in 1784 and 1785. Reid eventually put his knowledge to more profitable use in 1794, when he composed the article on the university which appeared in Sir John Sinclair's Statistical Account of Scotland in 1799.

As a Glasgow professor Reid was also obliged to follow a classroom schedule which differed markedly from the one he was accustomed to at King's. He lectured for one hour to his ‘public’ class each morning of the week during the session, beginning at 7.30 a.m., and then examined his pupils for a further hour at 11 a.m. except on Saturdays. Whereas Hutcheson and Smith had divided their public lectures between natural religion, morals, jurisprudence, and government, Reid split his into pneumatology, ethics, and politics. Reflecting his desire to refute the sceptical doctrines of Hume, Reid devoted the bulk of his course to pneumatology, and began with an anatomy of the intellectual and active powers of the mind, before moving on to consider the immateriality and immortality of the soul, and the being and attributes of God. In his ethics classes, he dealt with the question of human free will, surveyed the history of moral thought from antiquity to his own day, and enumerated the rights and duties of individuals and states as specified in the natural jurisprudence tradition. Lastly, in his politics lectures he classified the basic forms of government, praised the merits of the British constitution, and, under the rubric of ‘police’, discussed the policies which a nation should adopt to promote the advancement of religion, virtue, learning, and the economy.

Reid also taught an hour-long ‘private’ class beginning at noon three days per week for part of the session, and here he focused on what (following Bacon) he called the ‘culture of the mind’, which involved the practical application of his epistemological principles to the study of logic, rhetoric, and the fine arts. Because Reid's Glasgow lectures covered many of the same topics he canvassed in Aberdeen (albeit in revised and expanded form), they should be seen as marking a crucial step in the wider institutionalization which occurred in Scotland during the latter part of the eighteenth century of the common-sense philosophy initially developed by Reid and his Aberdonian circle in the 1740s and 1750s. Moreover, Reid's emphasis on the importance of the anatomy of human nature in his lectures marked a break with the interests of his Glasgow predecessors, and he cultivated a pedagogical style that was opposed to that associated with Francis Hutcheson. For whereas Hutcheson was renowned as a moral preacher who taught in an animated and extemporaneous fashion, Reid was known for the precision and perspicuity of his delivery. But prospective students were not put off by his dry classroom manner; instead, he prospered as a pedagogue and boasted to an Aberdeen friend in 1766 that his classes (and by implication his class fees) were much larger than those of Adam Smith.

Throughout his years at the university, Reid was active in the Glasgow Literary Society, which met at the college and consisted largely of faculty members. This meant that the political divisions among the professors occasionally disrupted the proceedings, and the meetings were sometimes punctuated by sharp intellectual disagreements, such as those which occurred between Reid and the professor of law, John Millar, over the merits of Hume's system. While he was still lecturing, Reid discoursed on various topics related to his analysis of the active and intellectual powers of the mind and discussed questions on morals and political economy. But once he retired from the classroom in 1780 and left his teaching to his assistant Archibald Arthur, his attention shifted to the metaphysical writings of Joseph Priestley, who gradually replaced Hume as Reid's primary philosophical target in the 1770s. Earlier Reid had responded anonymously to Priestley's condemnation of common-sense philosophy in the Monthly Review for 1775 and 1776, and he now subjected Priestley's necessitarianism and materialism to searching criticism in a series of discourses read before the society in the 1780s.

Some of this material found its way into the two major works published in his retirement, the Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785) and the Essays on the Active Powers of Man (1788). Working steadily from 1783 until 1787, Reid assembled the texts of both volumes out of his lecture notes and various papers given in the Aberdeen Philosophical Society and the Glasgow Literary Society. In the first of the Essays, he elaborated on his challenge to the theory of ideas in the context of a broad survey of our powers of perception, memory, conception, abstraction, judgement, reasoning, and taste, while in the second he combined a defence of the concept of human free will with an attack on aspects of Hume's theory of morals. Together, the two Essays shaped the teaching of moral philosophy in Britain and America well into the nineteenth century, partly thanks to the influence of his disciple Dugald Stewart, but also because they provided the basis for a systematic account of the faculties of the mind which was both well suited to the practicalities of pedagogy and consistent with most variants of protestant theology.

Later years

Based on some of his Glasgow Literary Society discourses, Reid also wrote a detailed critique of Joseph Priestley during the 1780s entitled ‘Some observations on the modern system of materialism’, which remained in manuscript even though it was apparently intended for publication. At the meetings of the society in the 1790s, Reid discussed Euclid's problematic parallels postulate, muscular motion, and politics. Along with his colleagues Anderson, Millar, and Arthur, he at first welcomed the French Revolution. He joined the Glasgow Friends of Liberty and in 1792 contributed money to support the French national assembly, much to the horror of his former colleague James Beattie. But, being a moderate whig, Reid was disillusioned with the terror and in his discourse ‘Some thoughts on the utopian system of government’ delivered in November 1794 he condemned revolutionary politics. In the fraught political atmosphere of Glasgow his endorsement of gradual constitutional reform was clearly welcomed by some, for his remarks on the divergent consequences of revolution and reform were printed (with his permission) in the Glasgow Courier for 18 December 1794.

Reid was deeply engaged with the affairs of his day in other ways. Within the republic of learning, he was approached by the Parisian projector Pahin-Champlain de la Blancherie to correspond with the Académie des Sciences in 1778, and in 1783 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He participated in the administration of various philanthropic enterprises, including the Royal Glasgow Infirmary, to which he donated well over £100. In 1790 he was a founder member and first president of the Glasgow Society of the Sons of Ministers of the Church of Scotland, and he was sympathetic to the anti-slavery movement.

After the death of his wife in 1792, Reid increasingly relied on the support of his daughter Martha and his circle in Edinburgh and Glasgow, which included Dugald Stewart, James Gregory, John Robison, George Jardine, and Robert Cleghorn. Beginning in the 1770s Reid suffered from growing deafness, but was otherwise in comparatively good health until he died in Glasgow on 7 October 1796 after a brief but violent illness. He was buried in the city's Blackfriars Church.

Paul Wood


U. Aberdeen, Birkwood collection, MSS 2131/1–8 · U. Aberdeen, Reid MSS 3061/1–26 and 2814 · The works of Thomas Reid, ed. W. Hamilton, 3rd edn (1852) · T. Reid, Philosophical orations, ed. W. R. Humphries (1937) · T. Reid, Practical ethics, ed. K. Haakonssen (1990) · P. Wood, ed., Thomas Reid on the animate creation (1995) · T. Reid, An inquiry into the human mind, on the principles of common sense, ed. D. Brookes (1997) · D. Stewart, Account of the life and writings of Thomas Reid (1802) · A. C. Fraser, Thomas Reid (1898) · P. B. Wood, ‘Thomas Reid, natural philosopher: a study of science and philosophy in the Scottish Enlightenment’, PhD diss., U. Leeds, 1984 · P. B. Wood, The Aberdeen Enlightenment: the arts curriculum in the eighteenth century (1993) · J. Coutts, A history of the University of Glasgow (1909)


BL, corresp. · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. · Boston PL, corresp. · NA Scot., corresp. · NA Scot., corresp. · RCP Lond., corresp. · U. Aberdeen, corresp. and family papers · U. Edin., corresp. · U. Edin., New Coll. L., corresp. · U. Glas., corresp. |  U. Aberdeen, Birkwood collection, MSS 2131/1–8 · U. Aberdeen, MSS 3061/1–26 and MS 2814


J. Tassie, wash drawing, 1789, Scot. NPG · J. Tassie, paste medallion, 1791, Scot. NPG; copy, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto · plaster medallion, 1791 (after J. Tassie), Scot. NPG · H. Raeburn, oils, c.1796, Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire [see illus.] · R. Scott, engraving, 1800 (after J. Tassie, 1791) · C. Picart, stipple, pubd 1811 (after J. Tassie), BM, NPG · J. Tassie, stipple, pubd 1811 (after C. Picart), NPG · H. Raeburn, oils, copy, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto · H. Raeburn, oils, copy, U. Glas.

Wealth at death  

annuity to stepmother of £10; investment of £5 books; property in Greenhead, Glasgow; legacies of £600: Glasgow testaments, 16 July 1795 – 30 December 1797, NA Scot., CC 9/7/76