Common Sense for Objectivists: Five Reasons for Fans of Ayn Rand to Study Thomas Reid - The Objective Standard

Ayn Rand said that the only names in philosophy she could recommend were “the three As: Aristotle, Aquinas, and Ayn Rand.”1 She also tipped her hat to Francis Bacon, John Locke, and the American founders.2 But in the long line of thinkers before Rand, there were others who groped toward an objective basis of knowledge and morality, some of whom made significant progress. One of them was Thomas Reid (1710–1796), founder of the Scottish philosophical school now known as common-sense realism. His is a chapter that most histories of philosophy skip—including even Dr. Leonard Peikoff’s excellent course. This essay provides a taste of Reid’s philosophy, with an emphasis on parallels between Reid and Rand.

Students of both will, of course, find many substantial and important differences between them. For one, Rand witnessed the horrors of Communism and recognized that all such forms of collectivism were secularizations of the Christian moral code of sacrifice: altruism. Reid, by contrast, was an Enlightenment-era Christian who, between 1737 and 1752, was also a Presbyterian minister of the Church of Scotland.3 Despite this and many other differences between the two philosophers, some similarities are striking, and these make Reid an excellent foil against which to compare and better understand Rand’s views.

Moreover, Reid’s fierce wit, clear exposition of philosophic problems, and insightful solutions make him a thinker worth reading in his own right. Even his contemporary and ideological nemesis, the arch-skeptic David Hume, came to view Reid as a lucid thinker whose ideas posed real challenges to his own. . . .

Endnotes

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Andrew Bernstein, Lee Pierson, Carrie-Ann Biondi, and Robert Begley for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article. I would especially like to thank Shoshana Milgram for providing leads that were an enormous help to my research and for her thoughts on the article. However, herein I speak only for myself.

1. Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q & A, edited by Robert Mayhew (New York: New American Library, 2005), 149.

2. On Francis Bacon, see Ayn Rand, “The Metaphysical versus the Man-Made,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, centennial edition (New York: Signet, 1984), 34; on John Locke, see Rand, Ayn Rand Answers, 149, and Ayn Rand, “Aristotle by John Herman Randall,” The Objectivist Newsletter, vol. 2, May 1963, republished in The Objectivist Newsletter: Volumes 1–4, 1962–1965 (Irvine: CA: Second Renaissance, 1990), 19; on America’s founders, see Ayn Rand, “For the New Intellectual,” For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Signet, 1963), 21, 53­–54.

3. For more on Reid’s life, see Dugald Stewart, “Account of the Life and Writings of Reid,” in The Works of Thomas Reid, 3rd ed., edited by Sir William Hamilton (Edinburgh: Machlachlan and Stewart, 1852); also see Alexander Broadie, “Reid in Context,” The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid, edited by Terence Cuneo and René van Woudenberg (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); for more on Rand’s life, see Shoshana Milgram, “The Life of Ayn Rand: Writing, Reading, and Related Life Events,” A Companion to Ayn Rand, edited by Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri (West Sussex, UK: Wiley, 2016).

4. Parts of Hume’s letter are relayed in Stewart, “Account of the Life and Writings of Reid,” 8.

5. René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 27.

6. For an excellent and accessible account of Descartes, see W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy: Hobbes to Hume, 2nd ed. (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1952). See the same volume for similarly excellent accounts of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume; on Descartes’s prescribed methods for gaining knowledge, see, among others, Descartes, “Rules for the Direction of the Mind,” translated by Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Thomas Geach, available at HCC Learning Web, https://bit.ly/3rW2ktn (accessed February 13, 2021).

7. See John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, bk. 1, “Of Innate Notions,” in The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes, vol. 1, 12th ed. (London: C & J Rivington & Partners, 1824).

8. See Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, bk. 2, chap. 8, “Other Considerations Concerning Simple Ideas.”

9. “To me it is evident,” wrote Berkeley, “that sensible things cannot exist otherwise than in a mind or spirit. From this I conclude, not that they have no real existence distinct from being perceived by me, there must be some other mind in which they exist. As sure, therefore, as the sensible world really exists, so sure is there an infinite, omnipresent Spirit who contains and supports it.” See George Berkeley, Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, in Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources, 2nd ed., edited by Roger Ariew and Eric Watkins (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2009), 477.

10. Hume wrote that man is “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.” When this stream of “perceptions” ceases, “as by sound sleep,” then a man “may truly be said not to exist.” See David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon, 1896), 252.

11. David Stove, The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 103; for an extended argument on why Kant is a counter-enlightenment thinker, not an Enlightenment thinker, see Stephen R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism, chap. 2, “The Counter-Enlightenment Attack on Reason,” expanded ed., (Ockham’s Razor, 2011); for arguments for and against this interpretation of Kant, see “Immanuel Kant and Classical Liberalism,” Cato Unbound, October 2016, https://www.cato-unbound.org/issues/october-2016/immanuel-kant-classical-liberalism.

12. H. J. Paton, a Kant scholar and author of three books on Kant, wrote that “in one of the clearest [passages] in the whole Kritik,” Kant “shows beyond any reasonable doubt . . . that he holds the thing-in-itself to be unknowable.” See H. J. Paton, Kant’s Metaphysic of Experience: A Commentary on the First Half of the Kritik Der Reinen Vernunft, vol. 2 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1936), 453; also see Nicholas F. Stang, “Kant’s Transcendental Idealism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, March 4, 2016, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-transcendental-idealism/; for an accessible account of Kant’s famously obscure philosophy, see W. T. Jones, A History of Western Philosophy: Kant and the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1952).

13. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, translated by J. M. D. Meiklejohn (New York: P. F. Collier and Son, 1901), 41.

14. For an accessible account of Kant’s view that the mind structures and organizes experience, see Jones, History of Western Philosophy: Kant and the Nineteenth Century, 20–21.

15. For an excellent account of the skeptical, anti-reason intellectual tradition stemming from Kant, see Stephen R. C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism, chap. 2, “The Counter-Enlightenment Attack on Reason.”

16. Thomas Reid to James Gregory, undated, in Hamilton, Works of Thomas Reid, 88.

17. Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, in Hamilton, Works of Thomas Reid, 446.

18. Thomas Reid, An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, in Hamilton, Works of Thomas Reid, 203.

19. Ayn Rand also took Aristotle to be a “moderate realist” (see Ayn Rand, “Foreword to the First Edition,” Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, expanded 2nd ed. [New York: Meridian, 1990], 2), as have most interpreters. However, some Aristotle scholars challenge this view, saying that this is an error caused primarily by poor translations. For instance, see Gregory Salmieri, “Aristotle’s Conception of Universality,” https://www.academia.edu/1069932/Aristotles_Conception_of_Universality (accessed January 19, 2021); Reid’s characterization of Aristotle’s views on perception is more straightforwardly wrong. What he outlines here is the view of Atomists such as Democritus.

20. See Kurt Smith, “Descartes’ Theory of Ideas,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, June 14, 2017, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes-ideas/#ideas.

21. Locke says, “I have used [idea] to express whatever is meant by phantasm, notion, species, or whatever it is which the mind can be employed about in thinking.” See Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, vol. 1, 6.

22. Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, vol. 1, 6–7.

23. Barry Stroud, Hume (London: Routledge, 1977), 17.

24. Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 305.

25. Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 293.

26. Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 293.

27. Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 363.

28. Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 363.

29. Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, vol. 1, 7.

30. Nominalization, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nominalization (accessed January 21, 2021).

31. Ayn Rand, “Concepts of Consciousness,” in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 29–30, 32.

32. Rand, “Concepts of Consciousness,” 32.

33. Rand, “Concepts of Consciousness,” 35.

34. Ayn Rand, “Concept-Formation,” in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 10.

35. Rand, “Concept-Formation,” 10.

36. This is what Rand called the “unit perspective.” For more, see Ayn Rand, “Cognition and Measurement,” Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 6–7; in his essay “Rand on Concepts,” Wallace Matson worried, regarding “concept,” that “this fundamental notion of Rand’s philosophy seems to have all the characteristics of a Cartesian or Lockean ‘idea’—and we know what that leads to!” The above discussion indicates how Rand’s “concept” differs crucially from Locke’s/Descartes’s “idea.” See Wallace Matson, “Rand on Concepts,” The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, edited by Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen (Urbana, IL: Illini Books, 1986), 29.

37. Lorne Falkenstein, “Nativism and the Nature of Thought in Reid’s Account of Our Knowledge of the External World,” Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid, 176.

38. Pierre Le Morvan, “Arguments against Direct Realism and How to Counter Them,” American Philosophical Quarterly, 41, no. 3 (July 2004): 222.

39. Norman Kemp Smith, A Commentary to Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), xlvi–xlvii.

40. Berkeley, Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, 475.

41. Berkeley, Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, 474.

42. Reid, Inquiry, 142.

43. Rand, “Cognition and Measurement,” Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 5.

44. James Van Cleve, “Reid’s Theory of Perception,” Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid, 104; see H. H. Price, Perception (London: Methuen, 1932), 22; also see J. J. Gibson, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), 1, 319.

45. William Cheselden, The Anatomy of the Human Body, 5th ed. (London: William Bowyer, 1740), 301–2. Quoted in Reid, Inquiry, 136–37, note b.

46. Rand, “Cognition and Measurement,” 5; this view of an infant’s sensory experience has since been disproved. See, for instance, Philippe Rochat, “What Is It like to Be a Newborn?,” The Oxford Handbook of the Self, edited by Shaun Gallagher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

47. Rand, “Cognition and Measurement,” 5.

48. Nor did it appear in the works of Reid’s most important teacher, George Turnbull, nor in the works of Reid’s critic, Joseph Priestley, nor Priestley’s chief intellectual inspiration, David Hartley.

49. Reid did not say whether he thinks we all start off like the patient described above, but he did think that visual perception in normal-sighted people developed through (at least) two stages. First, we perceive the world in two dimensions, and this “visible appearance” varies with changes in relevant causal factors, such as lighting, the state of our eyes, and our position relative to the object (Inquiry, 141). With more experience, however, we learn “to make allowance for the variety of visible figure arising from the difference of position” and other factors (Inquiry, 143). We learn to “put together,” in Reid’s words, “the different positions of the several parts of the body with regard to the eye” (Inquiry, 141). That is, we “put together” aspects of visible figure or successive appearances of visible figure into an apprehension of a thing’s real figure. Thus, “When I see a man at the distance of ten yards, and afterwards see him at the distance of a hundred yards,” observed Reid, “his visible appearance, in its length, breadth, and all its linear proportions, is ten times less in the last case than it is in the first; yet I do not conceive him one inch diminished by this diminution of his visible figure” (Inquiry, 135). For more on Reid’s theory of perception, see Van Cleve, “Reid’s Theory of Perception,” Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid.

50. Rand, “Cognition and Measurement,” 5.

51. Reid, Inquiry, 135.

52. Reid, Inquiry, 200.

53. Although Reid often wrote that our sensations “suggest” our perceptions, he did not mean that we reason from sensations to perceptions, or that we infer perceptions from sensations. As I have explained, he held that the connection between sensations and perceptions is automatic and does not depend on any act of volition by the perceiver; Reid, Inquiry, 130–31.

54. Le Morvan, “Arguments against Direct Realism and How to Counter Them,” 222–23.

55. Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Penguin, 1991), 41–42.

56. Van Cleve, “Reid’s Theory of Perception,” 101.

57. Reid, Inquiry, 186.

58. Reid, Inquiry, 137.

59. Reid, Inquiry, 194.

60. Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 335.

61. Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 338.

62. Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 335.

63. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Signet, 1957), Kindle ed., loc. 24498.

64. Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 435.

65. Reid, Inquiry, 185.

66. Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 329.

67. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, loc. 23913; Ayn Rand, “Kant versus Sullivan,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, centennial ed. (New York: Signet, 1984), 121.

68. Reid, Inquiry, 184.

69. Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 439.

70. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, loc. 24466.

71. Rand, “Foreword to the First Edition,” Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 3.

72. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, loc. 24476.

73. In the passages quoted here, Reid includes as principles of common sense the validity of clear and distinct memories and of the basic principles of logic.

74. Reid, Inquiry, 110.

75. Reid, Inquiry, 102.

76. Thomas Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, in Hamilton, Works of Thomas Reid, 638.

77. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 584, 587.

78. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 511.

79. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, loc. 23872.

80. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 580.

81. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 584, 588, 586.

82. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 580–81.

83. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 580.

84. Ayn Rand, introduction, The Virtue of Selfishness, centennial ed. (New York: Signet, 1964), xi.

85. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 552.

86. Rand, introduction, Virtue of Selfishness, vii.

87. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 638.

88. Benjamin Franklin, Writings (New York: Library of America, 1987), 748–49.

89. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 584.

90. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 583.

91. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 587.

92. Ayn Rand, “Causality versus Duty,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, 131.

93. Rand, “Causality versus Duty,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, 129.

94. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 584, 589.

95. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 555.

96. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 598.

97. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, loc. 24762.

98. Rand, “Causality versus Duty,” 128, 130–31.

99. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 555.

100. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 556.

101. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 574–75.

102. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 574.

103. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 580.

104. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 579.

105. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, loc. 27510.

106. Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, centennial ed. (New York: Plume, 2005), 529–30.

107. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, loc. 5783.

108. Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, 388.

109. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 593.

110. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 594.

111. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 593.

112. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, loc. 24033; Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” Virtue of Selfishness, 29.

113. Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, 576.

114. Rand, “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, 83, 84.

115. Matson, “Rand on Concepts,” 21, 23, 28; the second thinker he named is J. L. Austin, whose Sense and Sensibilia he references in the last part of the above quote.

116. Terence Cuneo and René van Woudenberg, introduction, Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid, 3.

117. This comment appears in the appendix of Lord Kames’s Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: William Creech, 1788), 304. Reid’s “A Brief Account of Aristotle’s Logic. With Remarks,” runs from 320–443 in that volume. It is also included in Hamilton, Works of Thomas Reid, 681–714.

118. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), ix; Stewart, “Account of the Life and Writings of Reid,” 8.

119. We know that Rand took at least two philosophy courses while earning her degree in history: logic and a course on Ancient Greek philosophy focused on Plato and Aristotle.

120. Rand said she took a course in ancient philosophy taught by a “famous Platonist,” whom she identified as Nikolai Lossky, but Shoshana Milgram has pointed out that “this is likely a confusion, since the description Rand gave of the teacher’s career, age, appearance, demeanor, and scholarly expertise is more consistent with its having been [Aleksandr] Vvdenskij,” (also transliterated Vvedensky), the philosophy department chair at Petrograd State University. See Milgram, “The Life of Ayn Rand,” 38, n. 9; also see Shoshana Milgram, “The Education of Kira Argounova and Leo Kovalensky,” Essays on Ayn Rand’s We the Living, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2012), 89–94, n. 20–23 on 107–10; for a different view, one that argues for Lossky as the likely teacher of the ancient philosophy course and as a significant influence on Rand, see Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, 2nd ed. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013), 78–85, 366–70, 388–90, 393–99.

121. N. O. Lossky, The Intuitive Basis of Knowledge (London: MacMillan, 1919), 19–20.

122. Lossky, Intuitive Basis of Knowledge, 82.

123. G. Dawes Hicks, preface to Lossky, Intuitive Basis of Knowledge, x, xiv; I found no direct mention of Reid in Lossky’s Intuitive Basis of Knowledge or in his 1952 History of Russian Philosophy (which, I believe, are the only works of his currently available in English translation). However, the first mentions Sir William Hamilton, a Scotsman who studied in Germany and attempted to meld the ideas of common-sense realism with Kantianism. Hamilton was also the editor of Reid’s collected works (referenced throughout this article). Herbert Spencer, also influenced by Reid, is mentioned in both works.

124. James points out that Helmholtz “confirms Reid’s maxim” in regard to the nature of spatial perception, a maxim James takes issue with. See William James, The Principles of Psychology, vol. 2 (New York: Dover, 1950), 216–20; Ayn Rand, “Art and Cognition,” The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature, rev. ed. (New York: Signet, 1975), 56.

125. See William James, Psychology: The Briefer Course, chap. 20, para. 3, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/55262/55262-h/55262-h.htm#page_313.

126. Rand, “For the New Intellectual,” 34.

127. Sylvan Leonard Peikoff, “The Status of the Law of Contradiction in Classic Logical Ontologism,” (Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms, 1964), (Reid) 116–17, (Hamilton) 170.

128. Underscoring Fuller’s low evaluation of Reid, this appears in a chapter titled “Minor Eighteenth-Century British Thinkers,” in a section titled “Reactions against Hume.” See B. A. G. Fuller, A History of Philosophy, 3rd ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1938), 186.

129. Wilhelm Windelband, A History of Philosophy, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), 483.

130. Wolterstorff, Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology, 232.

131. Rand, Fountainhead, 710.

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