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Thomas Reid’s Ideas on Common Sense Realism

Thomas Reid strongly believed in the power of common sense. He argued that human beings should not waste their time trying to justify what they perceive because everything in nature is self-evident. He insisted that human beings should just consider the realities in the things they see and stop being sceptical about them. He further argues that nature is God-given, and human beings have no power to question it. He defines common sense as the combination of both reason and sensation. He believed that it was difficult to separate the two aspects. According to him, human beings must use reason in defining what they perceive (Magnus 1). This paper discusses Reid’s arguments about sense realism and analyses Dooyeweerd’s criticism of his arguments.

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The first argument Reid brings forth is human beings should trust in nature because it comes from God. He states that he believes in nature because he has no control over it. According to him, “what we perceive should be as it is, and it is our responsibility to look at it the way it is without questioning its nature” (Magnus 2). He criticizes people who were sceptical about his ideas as being hypocritical. He argues that when they accept ideas that come from reasoning, they also accept the influence of nature because reason is one of the elements of nature (Magnus 1). Therefore; human beings see objects the way God made them. These arguments show his strong belief in God.

His second argument is that both perception and reason are part of our natural faculties (Magnus 1). According to Reid, sometimes human beings use reason to disprove perceptions, but do not make it the least important part of their natural faculties. It will always be a fundamental ingredient of human beings’ natural faculties. He proposes the acceptance of both reason and perception, and that the acceptance of one at the expense of the other does not make sense. Therefore, reason and sensation encompass what he calls natural judgment.

Each of them complements the other in the process of making judgments. He asserts that our judgments are imperfect and limited (Magnus 7). This statement means that our reasoning and senses are full of errors. He further insists that we cannot correct the mistakes we make in our sensation through reason. According to him, we can only correct them through being keen during the sensation process. Keenness in our perceptions helps reduce the likelihood of making errors in our perceptions (Magnus 8).

Reid compares attempts to disbelieve common sense to a man trying to swim against a torrent (Magnus 9). He insists that anyone who discredits sensation is ignorant of its usefulness. Such a person will discredit sensation only for some time, but will eventually succumb to it. He compares such a person to a man swimming against a torrent with the hope of reaching his destination safely. According to him, the man will eventually drown because the torrent will overpower him (Magnus 9). Reid says that no one, including him and all sceptics, can disbelieve what they perceive. He winds up on this issue by saying that doubting nature may cause disaster to the doubters (Magnus 10).

Reid also argues that the more human beings live in the world, the more they doubt what they perceive. He says, “I gave implicit belief in the information of nature by my senses, for a considerable part of my life, before I had learned so much logic as to be able to start a doubt about them” (Magnus 7). This statement reiterates his assertion that reasoning leads to doubts about what people perceive. He goes on to say that, human beings trust their senses for many years but begin to doubt them as they grow old (Magnus 7). Therefore, it is useless to trust the senses and later lose trust in them. He implies that human beings should just trust their senses rather than mistrust them after having trusted them for many years.

Some scholars misread Reid and concluded that he encourages people to trust in beliefs. However, this assertion is wrong. He says: “if a sceptic should build his scepticism upon this foundation, that all our reasoning and judging powers are fallacious in their nature, or should resolve at least to with-hold assent until it be proved that they are not; it would be impossible by argument to beat him out of this stronghold, and he must even be left to enjoy his scepticism” (Magnus 6). In summary, Reid argues that any argument against or in support of sensory experience should be considered true if only it has enough proof. Otherwise, any argument that does not have sufficient proof is a fallacy.

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He further insists that “if we have no reason to refute a conclusion, we should accept it” (Magnus 6). For example, when a boy sees his mother driving back home from work, and has no evidence to show that his eyes are defective; he is free to announce the news to his brothers. He argues that scepticism is part of life, and it is very difficult not to have sceptics in life. He defines scepticism as “a natural consequence of the project of doubting everything, whether or not we are constitutionally capable of carrying out that project” (Magnus 7).

Dooyeweerd’s Criticism of Reid’s Ideas

Dooyeweerd criticised most of the principles that Reid used. The first point of disagreement was Reid’s proposal that human beings should trust what they see because God made everything. Dooyeweerd argued that human beings should not completely trust what they know about the world. He also differed with Reid regarding self-evident items.

According to him, the intuition of a human being can also be misleading. Therefore, human beings should not completely rely on it despite grasping the meanings of many aspects. He goes further to disprove Reid’s assumptions that self-evidence cuts across cultures. He asserts that cultures have great impacts on the understanding of self-evidence. What one person considers self-evident is not necessarily what somebody else considers self-evident (Diller 141).

In summary, this paper has discussed the main points in Reid’s proposals about common sense. Reid considers common sense part of nature, over which human beings have no control. They have to accept everything as it is because it was created by God. He strongly argues that nature is self-evident. However, Dooyeweerd believes that whether something is self-evident or not depends on one’s culture. Furthermore, he argues that intuitions are also misleading. Hence, human beings should not trust them entirely. They can only be sure with their intuitions if there is enough evidence in support of the intuitions.

Works Cited

Diller, Antoni. ‘Herman Dooyeweerd: A Profile of His Thought’. Spectrum 22.2 (1990): 139-154. Print

Magnus, PD. ‘Reid’s Defence of Common Sense’. Info: 2008 8.3 (2008): 1-14. Print.

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