Reid's 'Common-Sense' (Scottish) Realism and Dooyeweerd
Thomas Reid suggested that all knowledge begins with those things we cannot help believing - 'self-evident truths', such as our awareness of pain and pleasure, our sense of right and wrong, that the physical world is real, and so on. As Nancy Pearcey [2004:312] puts it, Reid's view was that "things like these do not need any philosophical justification. They are virtually forced upon us by the constitution of our own nature in order to function in a world God had created. You might say that Common Sense realism is not so much a philosophy as an anti-philosophy - because it actually describes the experiential knowledge that forms the raw material for formal philosophy." ** But see Michael DeMoor's disagreement below.
This seems not only similar to Kant's a prioris but also chimes with at least five elements of Dooyeweerd's thought: his notion of law-side aspects, that we intuitively grasp, the respect he had for the everyday lifeworld, his contention that the cosmos is 'friendly' to human knowledge, and all this because it is created rather than being merely 'existent'.
Pearcey suggests [p.312-3] that one danger of Reid's Common Sense realism and notion of self-evidency is intellectual laziness. If certain things seem self-evident to us then we tend not to question them, investigate them, and we tend to rely too heavily on them. And, especially for Christians, there is the added danger that the Christian community will treat them as dogma which it is near-heresy to question and wrongly rely on their self-evidency as some kind of proof of God to be used against unbelievers. Pearcey bemoans this tendency among American evangelicals, but our concern here is philosophical and not religio-factional. ** But see Michael DeMoor's disagreement below.
It seems to me that Reid confused experience and intuition, and that be absolutized them.
A Dooyeweerdian Critique of Common-Sense Realism
Despite some apparent resonance with Dooyeweerd's thinking, Dooyeweerd would seriously critique Reid's ideas - though in such as was as to modify and enrich them rather than deny or destroy them.
See also more on intuition from a Dooyeweerdian point of view.
- God and createdness. Tarnas [1996:398] speaks of the "radical illegibility" of the cosmos to us, by which we presuppose that the cosmos tends to hide itself from us and play tricks on our attempts to know it, so that we can never trust what we 'know'. While Dooyeweerd agrees that we can never place absolute trust in what we 'know', he would agree with Reid that if God created the cosmos (and God is love) then he would create one that is 'friendly' to human knowing, tending to reveal rather than hide itself. In this he seems to agree with Reid. But Dooyeweerd held a much more sophisticated notion of what this 'friendliness' is. To Reid it meant that we could place absolute trust in self-evidency, while to Dooyeweerd, even our intuition may be distorted and lead us astray.
- Self-evidency. Reid seemed to believe that self-evidency is absolute, to be absolutely relied upon. Dooyeweerd contended that even intuition is non-absolute and not to be ultimately relied upon, despite its ability to grasp the kernel meanings of aspects.
- Likewise, Reid seemed to believe that self-evidency is universal, across all cultures and throughout all time. Dooyeweerd held that our intuition is influenced by both our culture and by our world-view and ground motive.
- Reid, it seemed, did not differentiate law side from entity side as Dooyeweerd did. This led him into the problem that he had no sound philosophical grounds for differentiating that which might be in any way self-evident from the rest of our experience. This would lead to interminable arguments about what is self-evident and what is not. Dooyeweerd, by contrast, held that any modicum of self-evidency (he did not use that term) that we experience is founded in the law-side aspects and is thus fundamentally to be differentiated from our actual, concrete everyday experience, which is entity-side.
A Contrary View
Michael De Moor has written the following in response to what I wrote above. He disagrees with Pearcey's understanding of Reid. I find his comments very helpful (my added italics, and I have reformatted as bullets for easier reading):
"It's nice that you have put together a bit about Reid on the pages, but I
must say that Pearcey presents a very poor picture of him. For one thing,
her summary of his position puts a lot of emphasis on the "self-evidency" of
the dictates of common sense.
of rationality, then, is a pluralistic one (mutually irreducable forms of
evidence based on the different faculties or functions of mind) and one
intrinsically linked to the practices of everyday life (common sense as that
taken for granted) as opposed merely to foundationalist a priori
justification or empiricist foundationalism infereing from sense-data to
reality. In other words, Reid was a much more sophisticated philosopher
than Pearcey makes him out to be."
- Reid in fact does not believe that these are
self-evident at all. They are necessary presuppositions of any successful
judgment (or any action at all for that matter) but they are precisely not
self-evident at least in any logical sense (in the way that a tautology is
self-evident, for example).
- Furthermore, the worry that it encourages
laziness ignores the fact that Reid was a thorough-going Newtonian
- The principles of common sense are not absolute and
unrevisable, but merely the most basic principles that science has yet
- Finally, Reid's account of common sense needs to be understood
against the background of Hume's skepticism about the justification of
beliefs, and his account is best read as contesting the theory of
rationality and justification implicit in Hume's skepticism.
Pearcey N (2004) Total Truth. Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity. Wheaton, Illinois, USA: Crossway Books. [I am indebted to this book since the motivation for creating this page came from reading it.]
Tarnas R (1996) The Passion of the Western Mind. London, UK: Pimlico, Random House.
This page is part of a collection of pages that links to various thinkers, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.
Copyright (c) 2004 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.
Written on the Amiga and Protext.
Created: 26 January 2005
Last updated: 5 February 2005 cmts from MdM. 19 March 2008 link to intuition. 7 September 2017 rid counter.