6 Thomas Reid on Personal Identity


Dan Robinson gives the sixth of eight lecture on Reid’s critique of David Hume at Oxford. In the third of his “Essays on The Intellectual Powers of Man”, Thomas Reid devotes the fourth chapter to the concept of ‘identity’, and the sixth chapter to Locke’s theory of ‘personal identity’. This latter chapter is widely regarded as a definitive refutation of the thesis that personal identity is no more than memories of a certain sort, less a “bundle of perceptions”. As he says, “This conviction of one’s own identity is utterly necessary for all exercise of reason. The operations of reason—whether practical reasoning about what to do or speculative reasoning in the building up of a theory—are made up of successive parts. In any reasoning that I perform, the early parts are the foundation of the later ones, and if I didn’t have the conviction that the early parts are propositions that I have approved or written down, I would have no reason to proceed to the later parts in any theoretical or practical project whatever”.

Under “David Hume”, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins with, “The most important philosopher ever to write in English”. His most formidable contemporary critic was the fellow Scot, Thomas Reid, the major architect of so-called Scottish Common Sense Philosophy. The most significant features of Hume’s work, as understood by Reid, are the representive theory of perception, the nature of causation and causal concepts, the nature of personal identity and the foundations of morality. Each of these topics is presented in a pair of lectures, the first summarizing Hume’s position and the second Reid’s critique of that position.

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