Revue de la B.P.C.              THÈMES                                     7/2001




Hume and Reid On Promises


Luca Parisoli *

(Université Paris X, Nanterre)



            1. If we compare Hume’s philosophical sentiments about the nature of the promise with those of Thomas Reid we can see that Reid’s criticism  of Hume is not founded on the rejection of the thesis we can find in the is-ought passage. On the contrary, Reid can accept this thesis, even if there are lots of people who think that Reid founds the kingdom of values on the natural order of human things. The critics of Reid to Hume are not in fact linked to his conception of common sense, but they are rather linked to Reid’s philosophical conception of language which is very close to the contemporary philosophy of common language. In this sense, Reid cannot accept the more general thesis about language according to which human language is either descriptive or prescriptive. In fact, according to Reid there is a social and common sphere of mind interactions where values are expressed by language: propositions cannot be reduced to the truth-values of the empirical language, nor to normative values. Reid does not accept any project of a philosophy of mind which could be assimilated to mathematics or to any empirical science  (as we read in fact in his An Essay on Quantity, “applying of measures to things that properly have not quantity, is only a fiction or artifice of the mind”; and here we have a clear reference to “all the affections and appetites of the mind”, Complete Works, II).

            According to Reid the human language is able to allow communication because of its intrinsic nature. In this sense the humean thesis of the is-ought passage  is able to validly express the idea that duty cannot be founded on existence. But if we refer to human language the real difference between Hume’s and Reid’s conception is not about the is-ought relation, but it is rather about the operations of the mind: according to Reid, in fact, there are not only solitary operations but also social operations of the mind which human language is able to express. On the other hand Hume, as well as many other philosophers, is only able to give an account of solitary operations of the mind: Hume is in fact not only the first philosopher of convention (as F. Snare, Morals, Motivations and Conventions, Cambridge 1991) has pointed out in his analysis of Hume’s political thought), but he is also a very radical philosopher of imagination, as D. Garrett (Cognition and Commitement, Oxford 1997) points out in his analysis  of Hume’s epistemology. In this sense Reid’s rejection of the philosophical heritage of the way of ideas is linked to his attempt to found the same naturality of justice, by means either of the renewal of the same primacy of Morality towards Law established by Hutcheson, or of the radical refusal of the exclusive way of imagination.  This is why according to Reid there are not only solitary operations, but also some other operations of the mind (and then of the language) which take place when people think and speak inside a society. And if we consider a verb like “to promise” we can immediately  understand that the promise is one of these other operations of the mind (a social operation): promise is in fact a natural (and not a conventional) convention. This is why according to Reid Hume is not wrong when he asserts that the sense of duty is not related to the promise as a mental act, but he is wrong when he denies that the promise is a social act of the mind; in this sense his mistake precedes his analysis of the promise and it is directly linked to his own theory of language which is, according to Reid, a very narrow and poor one.  If we follow Hume’s theory of language, we are in fact obliged to accept that the promise is just a convention and that it has a purely subjective existence. On the contrary, if we accept Reid’s theory of language, then we can also accept the fact that the promise has an extra-mental existence.


            2. The humean architecture of the promise’s argument is a very clear one(Treatise, III, II, v). In fact the thesis which Hume wants to demonstrate is about the moral rule of the promise: the moral rule, on the ground of which we are obliged to honour our promises, is not a natural one. According to Hume, if we don’t accept the idea that the obligation related to the promise is a natural one, then we have to accept the idea that this obligation is not different from the sense of duty.  It is in fact the sense of duty which can explain the expectation  that a behaviour is conform to some natural and common attitudes. But in order to understand such a position we have also to remember that according to Hume the human nature is a uniform nature so that “human action generally follows certain patterns” (Treatise, III, II, i): if an individual does not follow these patterns, then our expectation is not satisfied and we blame this individual. In fact: “the individual who is blamed has failed to act rightly or has failed to do his duty” because according to Hume “our sense of duty always follows the common and natural course of our passions” (Treatise, III, II, i).

            Nevertheless, if we accept the idea that according to Hume the human nature is a uniform one, then we are also obliged to note that we cannot find in Hume’s works an analytical description of the linguistic standards even if we can find  “several references to general and unalterable standards fixed in our language” (M.F. Cohen, “Philosophical Quarterly” 1990).

            I know that usually philosophers think that their positions are the best way to explain vulgar men’s beliefs. Nevertheless, only philosophers who appeal to common language really think that their ideas are founded on vulgar men’s beliefs. Now, I know that some scholars (and in particular F. Restaino and  D. Schulthess) have analysed British philosophy in order to prove that the appeal to common language has been a constant of the XVIIIth century British philosophy. But I also know that if Austin is a model for the use of the appeal to common language, then Hume has never appealed to common language.  In this sense, even if we can easily find some passages in Hume’s works where human nature’s uniformity is proved by means of some signs present in ordinary language, we can also easily find some other passages where ordinary language (that is to say the vulgar men’s language) is not able to become a metaphysical guide.

            So, on one hand we can read a passage such as: “There are certain terms in every language, which import blame, and others praise; and all men, who use the same tongue, must agree in their application of them  ... But we must also allow that some part of the seeming harmony in morals may be accounted for from the very nature of language. The word virtue, with its equivalent in every tongue, implies praise; as that of vice does blame: And no one, without the most obvious and grossest impropriety, could affix reproach to a term, which in general acceptation is understood in a good sense; or bestow applause, where the idiom requires disapprobation” (Of the Standard of Taste, E.T., I, 23); or we can also read: “in general, all sentiments of blame and praise are variable .. but these variations we regard not in our general decisions, but still apply the terms expressive of our liking or dislike, in the same manner, as if we remained in one point of view. Experience soon teaches us this method of correcting our sentiments, or at least, of correcting our language, where the sentiments are more stubborn and inalterable” (Treatise, III, III, i). But on the other hand we can read: “common language has seldom made any very nice distinctions among them [the operations of mind], but has generally call’d by the same term all such as nearly resemble each other” (Treatise, I, III, viii).

            And this third passage is a really important one because it let us understand that one of Reid’s criticism to Hume is based on this Hume’s reductionist conception of language: Reid has in fact always tried to identify some linguistic standards in order to show that there are some metaphysical evidences in the language. But of course Reid couldn’t convince Hume of this evidence; he could only show that there are some repugnant consequences linked to the humean system by means of an analysis of Hume’s theses. Nevertheless, if we are not able to see these repugnant consequences linked to the humean conception of language and closely connected to his theory of imagination, then we cannot think that the position of Reid in favour of common language is a persuasive one.

            But which is according to Reid such a repugnant conclusion of Hume’s system? According to Reid one repugnant consequence is the idea that the promise is not a natural operation, but it is rather a conventional one. But in order to understand this dissatisfaction of Reid I need first of all to examine Hume’s argumentation.

            Hume tries to find the operation of the mind related to the words “I promise” and able to oblige somebody to keep his promise. This act of the mind is not a resolution  to perform anything, because if we decide to perform something then we are not obliged to perform it (that is to say that this act never imposes us any obligation). But this act is not even a desire  of an action, because we could bind ourselves by means of a promise without such a desire, nor it is a willing  of a performance, because the will refers only to the present while the action of the promise regards the future. Then we have to speak of the willing of an obligation : but according to Hume this willing  is founded on the sense of duty and never on an act of the mind. According to Hume, in fact, all the acts of the mind are solitary operations whose sense is never linked to social relations.

            Then, according to Hume there isn’t any sentiment linked to the promise and the willing of the promise  is not a natural willing because it is only a sense of obligation which can perform the fact of keeping a promise (Of the Original Contract, Essays and Treatises, II, xii). In this sense the promise is not an instinctive moral obligation as it is the case of the parents’ love; it is an obligation linked to the interest of human society and founded, as well as all other obligations of this type, just on our sense of duty. We can in fact limit our desire of absolute power and of absolute freedom only if we consider the importance of peace and the necessity of public order. In this sense the notion of convention is an instrument to deny ontological reality to institutional facts.

            In this way Hume postulates (and elsewhere demonstrates) that morality is bound to our sentiments: if we like an action of the mind or a quality of this action, then we call it  a virtuous one; and if such an action is not performed and we suffer because of this non-performation, then we say that we have to perform it. But even if we say “I promise” we never change our sentiment, because human will is not able to make some new sentiments, nor it is able to change the qualities of an action of the mind: if we don’t have new sentiments of pain and pleasure, then we don’t have new obligations.

            But here I need some considerations about the thesis that human will is not able to make some new sentiments.  Of course, the will is not able to oblige us to believe something, because each belief is surely an involuntary act of mind: in this sense our will is not able to make us love a person we detest. But there are also some situations in which our will can influence us and can also influence our sentiments. In this sense Hume is only using his thesis according to which our reason is always slave of our passions because our passions are something which we can never control.

            On the contrary, Reid thinks that our passions are only able to influence our reason (obviously our practical reason) and so he also thinks that our will can sometimes influence our passions. According to Reid, in fact, human reason is a calm passion (E.A.P. III, 3, i-ii; V, vii). And it is a calm passion for two reasons: 1) because common sense let us understand such a truth; 2) because Reid thinks that there is a distinction between animal  and rational principles  of action.  In this sense in Reid we can find some signs of a voluntaristic philosophy so that when we say “I promise” we also change our sentiments, as well as when we say “I love you” we change our sentiments: we can lie, or we can say the truth, but if we say something about our sentiments, then we give a public dimension to our interiority and we modify it.  The immediate object of the will is an action of our own (E.A.P., II, i); so if we make a promise, the immediate object of the will is the utterance of the social act, that is to say the utterance of the action we have to make.

            Finally, Hume accepts to reject his thesis (as he usually does in the Treatise) if somebody succeeds in demonstrating two propositions: 1. there is a specific act of the mind annex to the promise; 2. the consequence of this act is the inclination to keep the promise and this inclination does not coincide with the sense of duty. But according to Hume it is not possible to give a proof of these two propositions. The promise (one of the most essential parts of morality -Of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences, E.T., II, xiv - ) is in fact a human creation: it has the fundamental role to safeguard social interests and social necessities; it is necessary to avoid the dangerous consequences of an uncontrollable self-love (E.T., II, xii).

            This is why in the Enquiry (III, ii, note) Hume does not accept the possibility of any mental act linked to the promise. Somebody has written that according to Hume the promise, even if it is not a natural obligation, is the proof of the existence of a “natural obligation to accept and participate in artifice itself” (W. Vitek, “Hume Studies” 1986).  In this sense the obligation of the promise is a natural one in that our imagination naturally forces us to accept social and cultural relations as obligations. But I cannot understand why this natural obligation is different from the sense of duty, that is the way in which Hume qualifies the promise in order to deny that the promise is a natural obligation. In fact if the promise is linked to our participation  in social artifice, it is also linked to any other social duty. And we all know that according to Hume men are not “social animals”, that is to say men are not naturally social beings. Hume is not in fact an Aristotelian political thinker, but he is rather a political theorician of selfishness.  When Hume analyses the question of the promise, in fact, he tries to point out all needs and interests which can justify the “sense of duty”. But if this is true, then the interpretation of the promise as a “natural obligation to accept and participate in artifice itself”  is not only a feeble but also a wrong one.  All in all, lots of Reid’s criticisms are linked to this artificiality of the humean promise. According to Reid, in fact,  common utility (or social interest) is not the real source of the  obligation of the promise. According to Reid the obligation of the promise is rather linked to  the will of communicating something  and to the will to accept this communication. In this sense the one who breaks his own promise is not only a dishonest man - as Hume writes - , but he is also a man not able to use language: the communicative nature of man  wants in fact that everybody keeps his promise.  Reid wants to defend the fact that justice is a natural thing: he wants to defend the idea of Hutcheson according to which Morality always precedes Law.


            3. Reid stands firm to announce the importance of ordinary language for philosophical inquiry. His work, the Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man  (E.I.P., 1785, I, i), has in fact a beginning chapter in which ordinary language is called for tutor of the meaning of the words that Reid uses in his philosophical inquiry. According to Reid words are not defined a priori, but their meaning derives from their common use. In particular, in his Essays on the Active Powers of Man  (E.A.P., 1788, I, ii), Reid fixes five topics  in order to demonstrate that Hume’s position inTreatise  is not a correct one. In particular, we have to stress that two topics  send directly back to the authority of common language, while the conclusion of Reid’s argumentation is that in each language there exist some distinctions which surely everybody who speaks (or spoke) this language knows very well.

            Words like "mind", "operations" (acts of the mind), "faculty", "consciousness", as well as all the other words commonly used, cannot (and must not) be defined: each definition has to consist of words, but these definienda  words have a very simple and self-evident meaning for those who speak. According to Reid the position of Hume is in fact a ridiculous one, even if it’s not easy to strictly and strongly confute it because of the confusion that it can cause. First, each language has certain words which mean power or which can imply the idea of power; second, in each language we can find certain verbs which have whether  an active or a passive power and we can explicate this different power only if we distinguish between action  and passion. Then Reid applies to everybody who is able to understand English and the English distinctions: in English the power exists and it exists also with some qualities.

            This attitude does not send back to the idea that a language corresponds to a certain valid vision of the world, but it rather sends back to all beliefs of those men who created this language; among these beliefs, some are fundamental as well as they are common and universal because they directly derive from human constitution. Philosophy has to individualize and separate them from the other beliefs which are not true and which are a bad result of not valid inferences.

            In this sense we can say that Reid appeals to common language without any ambiguity in order to prove his theses. Reid adds worth to the evidence of language as a proof of those natural truths that everybody can reach by means of his own conscience’s examination. According to Reid, in fact, the appeal to ordinary language is the proof of the truth of common sense (but it is always an auxiliary argument - S. A. Grave, The Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense, Oxford 1960, 104-107) while the distinction between solitary and social operations of the mind is the base of the metaphysical foundation of the appeal to common language. This distinction is fixed by Reid in the chapter entitled Of Social Operations of Mind (E.I.P., I, viii): social operations are those operations which necessarily need some human relations such as asking or having informations, witnessing, asking a favour, ordering, making a promise.

            All these operations cannot be performed in seclusion: on the contrary those operations which we perform in seclusion such as understanding, willing, learning, judging and reasoning are called solitary operations. If we ask a question we perform an operation which is not more complicate than that of judging, but it is a very different operation. Everybody is able to understand what does imply the operation of witnessing or that of making a promise: in each language  (E.I.P., I, v) there are in fact some speech’s modalities which allow us to express social operations such as that of accepting or refusing, threatening or imploring.

            Then Reid (E.A.P. V, vi) defines social operations: each human being, which we are in  relation  to, must have a role in performing the social operation. On the contrary, solitary operations are those which we can perform in seclusion. In particular, Reid asserts that we are philosophically wrong if we believe that we can perfectly bring social operations of the mind (that everybody knows very well) back to a compositions of solitary operations: solitary and social operations, in fact, are not qualitative  identical (but Reid is also conscious that philosophers are usually wrong if they try to explicate what the promise consists in). According to Reid, in fact, social operations can never be brought back to solitary operations: they verbally express natural language of face and hands, that is to say mute language. Natural signs (the pre-linguistic ones) of acceptance or non-acceptance are understood before the use of rational faculties (the solitary ones); the words which express acceptance or non-acceptance bring back to those natural signs and cannot be confused with judging or learning.

            This is why according to Reid each man who makes a promise without the intention of keeping it performs two different operations: he makes a promise which needs to be kept because human constitution imposes him this feature of that social operation;  he expresses a purpose which is a solitary operation of his mind. Each honest person, as well as each person who is not an honest one, is bound by his promise, because everybody is bound by a social act which is not just the result of his particular will, but which is rather determined by the conformity to the standards of the social act of the promise. In fact, according to Reid language is not only linked to the will of the man who speaks, but it is also linked to all the community, so that linguistic rules are not private rules, but they are rather social and common rules. In this sense the obligation of the promise is a language obligation. This is why we may (we have the right to) blame those who break a promise if they break the promise because of some solitary operations of their mind.  But there is also another thesis of Reid, linked to this first thesis, that is to say the fact that the  language’s rules of a community are linked to some acts of the human mind: these rules are not conventional, but they are rather natural rules.

            It is very interesting that in these observations of Reid we can find the first condemnation of that descriptive fallacy which John L. Austin condemns almost two century after. But even if we don’t want to be anachronistic, we have to note that Reid is the first in asserting that there exists two different classes of operations of the mind which have their particular language  expressions; this is why we cannot bring one class back to the other: the operations of the mind of both classes are simple and they find their meaning in the structure of human nature which is the base of universal human  consent about the truth of common sense. Reid really refuses the way of ideas and so he refuses the philosophy of imagination and convention of Hume: Reid’s gnoseology is a theory of immediate knowledge, as well as his ethics is a theory of self-evident principles. But if this is true, then we can also define his theory as an ontology of language in which all acts are things. Language acts are ontological realities as well as moral truths or common sense empirical informations are ontological entities. And in this sense we can say that Reid’s ontological world is a very rich one.

            So the objections of Reid to Hume are not about Hume’s logical law, but they are rather linked to the position of Hume according to which the acts of the mind are only acts of the empirical knowledge or acts of the individual will. According to Reid, in fact, this position cannot be able to take an account of the complexity of human language and of human communication. And this is why according to Reid the “ought” category cannot be deduced: this category is a  self-evident and an intuitive one and it constitutes the patrimony of human and moral common sense.

            Hume thinks that Morality is constituted by assertions which are never true or false; on the contrary Reid thinks that we cannot evaluate moral judgements by means of the truth-values of propositions because their values have a different foundation. According to Reid in fact, there is a difference between moral truths and empirical truths, as well as there is a real difference and a real gap between solitary acts of mind and social acts of mind: a natural obligation is not an inference, it is an immediate reality. For this reason according to Reid we cannot really find an obligation linked to the promise: the same promise (which is a social act of mind)  makes us to keep it. We have in fact to keep a promise because if we make a promise we are obliged to keep it by its same utterance. And in this case we are in front of an analytical truth of the human nature: everybody is able to understand that if he makes a promise he has to keep it not because of a rule of the promise, but because each promise is linked to the human nature.

            In fact, the first moral principles are never deductions: they are self-evident and their truth (as well as the truth of some other axioms) is known without reasoning or deductions.  As to moral truths which we can deduce, they are obtained by the first moral principles; but we are completely wrong if we assert that moral propositions are neither true, nor false propositions. Our moral intuition  assures us that some moral axioms are true and that our reason is able to deduce a true ethical system.




*  Conférence présentée à la 26th Hume Society Conference, University College Cork (Ireland), 19 – 23 juillet 1999.