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Reid, Thomas, 1710-1796, philosopher

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Thomas Reid was born 26 April 1710, at Strachan, Kincardineshire. He was the son of Lewis and Margaret Reid, and was educated at the parish school of Kincardine. In 1722 he became a student at Marischal College. He read philosophy for three years and graduated in 1726. He then studied divinity, and was licensed to preach by the presbytery of Kincardine O'Neil on 22 September 1731. He probably resided at his father's manse until, in 1733, he was appointed to the librarianship of Marischal College, and resided at the university until 1736.

In 1736 Reid resigned his librarianship, and travelled with Stewart to England. After visiting Cambridge, he settled in Aberdeen, where in 1751, he became Professor of philosophy at King's College. Reid's course of lectures included mathematics and physics as well as logic and ethics. He appears to have been an active mover in measures adopted at this time to improve the studies and discipline of the college. New regulations were issued in 1753. They provided that less time should be devoted than hitherto to the scholastic writers. A large part of the course was to be given to studies of Greek, in which Reid appears to have been much interested; the third year was to be given to mathematics and natural philosophy, and the fourth to the philosophy of the human mind, of which a very wide definition, due apparently to Reid, is given. The length of the session was increased from five to seven months; residence within the college walls enforced; and the students were seen regularly several times throughout the day by Reid or one of the masters.

Reid, with his cousin, John Gregory, founded in 1758 the Philosophical Society, nicknamed the Wise Club, which lasted till 1773, and held weekly meetings at the Red Lion Inn. In 1764 Reid's 'Inquiry into the Human Mind,' was published. The book, which was the fruit of long study, made an impression from the first. Reid communicated his book before publication to Hume, through their common friend, Dr. Blair; and Hume wrote a courteous letter to his opponent, who frankly acknowledged that his speculations had been suggested by Hume's writings. The 'Inquiry' was well received as an answer to Hume's scepticism, and soon reached a second edition. It led to Reid's election in the same year, 22 May 1764, to the Professorship of moral philosophy at Glasgow University, vacated by Adam Smith's resignation.

Reid held his professorship at Glasgow until his death. He appears to have discharged his duties industriously and efficiently. He lectured five days a week for two and sometimes three hours. The number of students at Glasgow was about three hundred in 1764, and rose to over six hundred by the end of the century. Many of them were Irish Presbyterians, preparing for the ministry. Reid wished that there could be one professor for the dunces, and another for the clever. He was at first, however, in some awe of the older students, who often attended classes for four or five years. He had a class of one hundred at starting, and the subjects of the lectures were natural theology, ethics, and political science, to which Reid voluntarily added a course of rhetoric.

Reid had some distinguished colleagues, especially Joseph Black and John Millar. Black explained to Reid his discovery of latent heat before it was generally published; and Reid took a keen interest through life in scientific questions. He describes in 1765 some of the improvements in the steam engine lately made by Watt in Glasgow. Millar was a disciple of Hume, and with him Reid had lively discussions at a philosophical club which held weekly meetings. The fourteen professors, however, were anything but a harmonious body. Reid often complained of their intrigues and factions. John Anderson, Professor of natural philosophy, was constantly quarrelling with his colleagues, and was described to some students by the Professor of humanity as a 'detestable member of society.' Lawsuits ultimately resulted from these quarrels, and Reid was frequently appealed to as an authority. He seems to have acted with impartiality and dignity. He also served upon many committees for managing the college property and other business.

Reid retired from the active duties of his Professorship in 1780. He occupied himself in preparing for publication the substance of his lectures. They appeared as essays on the 'Intellectual Powers', 1785, and upon the 'Active Powers', 1788. He continued to live in Glasgow, where in 1792 his wife died. In his later years he suffered from deafness and loss of memory. He continued, however, to take an interest in science, and rubbed up his old mathematical knowledge. In 1796 he paid a visit to his friend, Dr. James Gregory, at Edinburgh, and saw something of Playfair and Dugald Stewart. He was in apparently good health, and after returning to Glasgow amused himself with gardening and with algebraical problems. He died of paralysis on 7 October 1796.


Thomas Reid was the son of Lewis Reid, minister of the parish of Kincardine for fifty years. He was also a descendant of James Reid, the first minister of Banchory Ternan after the Reformation, whose son and his son's grandson succeeded him as ministers of Banchory. Lewis Reid, grandson of the third minister of Banchory, married Margaret, daughter and one of twenty-nine children of David Gregory. She was niece of James Gregory and sister of David Gregory, the Savilian professor, and of two other professors of mathematics at St. Andrews and Edinburgh

Reid formed a close friendship with John Stewart, Professor of mathematics at Marischal College, which lasted until Stewart's death in 1766.

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, ( 1764)

Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, ( 1785)

Essays on the Active Powers of Man, ( 1788)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1733-1736: Librarian of Marischal College

1751-1764: Professor of philosophy at King's College, Aberdeen

1758-1773: Founding member of the Philosophical Society

1762: Honorary Degree of D.D. from Marischal College.

1764-1796: Professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University


List of sources for the biographical information:

Harrison, Brian (editor), Dictionary of National Biography, ( University Press, 1995)

Rules or Conventions

Authority record created according to theNational Council on ArchivesRules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names (NCA Rules)1997 and International Council on Archives: Ad Hoc Committee on Descriptive StandardsInternational Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families (ISAAR)CPF1995

Author and Date of Biographical History

Personal name authority record compiled for the GASHE project by John O'Brien, Glasgow University Archive Services, 30 July 2002