Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




Falkenstein, Lorne


The dissertation concerns Thomas Reid’s philosophy of language. In the first three chapters, I discuss his philosophy of language in relation to his developmental psychology. More specifically, I discuss his answers to two questions: (i) what does the ability to understand artificial linguistic signs make possible? and (ii) what makes the ability to understand artificial linguistic signs possible? The focus is on Reid’s claim that the mind’s ability to understand artificial linguistic signs makes it possible for it to acquire a number of distinct mental abilities, such as to conceive universals, to judge, and to reason. I argue this claim commits him to the further claim that artificial language makes it possible for the mind to acquire moral liberty. The focus is also on Reid’s claim that it was possible for humans to first invent artificial linguistic signs, and, subsequently, for children to be taught artificial linguistic signs, only if they possess an innate faculty by the exercise of which they can understand natural linguistic signs that express social operations of the mind. I explain that claim, reconstruct Reid’s arguments for it, and argue that the account of artificial linguistic signs presupposed by said arguments is prima facie incompatible with his claim that artificial language makes moral liberty possible. In the fourth chapter, I discuss Reid’s accounts of perception, memory, and imagination. I argue he holds that we perceive, remember, and imagine before learning artificial language, and, consequently, is committed to the view that such acts do not essentially involve the exercise of those abilities that artificial language makes possible. I argue that it follows from this that Reid’s commentators have not fully understood his accounts of the conceptual content in perception, memory, and imagination; the processes through which said acts come to involve distinct conceptual content; and the distinction between acquired perceptions and habitual judgments.

Summary for Lay Audience

Thomas Reid (1710-1796) was a prominent Scottish philosopher. This dissertation is a study of Reid’s philosophy of language and his philosophy of mind. This research belongs to a tradition in which historians of philosophy aim to get as clear as possible on details of the views of historical philosophers; the aim is neither to evaluate the truth of said views nor to take stock of their historical significance.

The dissertation focuses on Reid’s views on developmental psychology - which is to say, his views on how the mind develops from infancy to maturity. On the reading of Reid defended here, Reid holds that human infants come into the world possessing a set of innate abilities, and that they then interact with their physical and social environment so as to acquire additional abilities. Reid holds, moreover, that one of these innate abilities is the ability to understand natural linguistic signs - i.e., features of the face, modulations of the voice, and bodily gestures - that signify people’s thoughts, and, in particular, special sorts of thoughts that Reid calls “social operations of the mind”. It is in virtue of this innate ability, he holds, that it was possible for humans to invent artificial languages - i.e., languages such as English, Chinese, Swahili, and so on - and is currently possible for infants to be taught to understand already invented artificial languages. Reid holds, moreover, that it is in virtue of children understanding artificial languages that it is possible for them to acquire the ability to conceive objects as belonging to distinct types, to be rational, and to perform acts for which one can be held morally responsible. The dissertation aims to understand all these views and to draw further consequences from them that concern how to best understand related aspects of Reid’s accounts of perception, memory, and imagination.

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.