Volume 17, 1992
Susan V. Castagnetto
Reid’s Answer to Abstract Ideas
The doctrine of abstract ideas contains Locke’s views on the nature of generality and how we think in general terms-the nature of universals, of general concepts, and how we classify. While Reid rejects abstract ideas, he accepts Locke’s insight that we have an ability to abstract. In this paper, I show how Reid preserves Locke’s insight, while providing a more versatile and forward-looking account of universals and concepts than Locke was able to give.
Reid replaces abstract ideas with what he calls “general conceptions.” But general conceptions are really three different things. First, they are universals---non-mental intrinsically general objects of acts of abstraction and conception. I show how Reid is able to make the claim that there are universals without being committed to holding that universals really exist. This claim, together with his type/token distinction, enables Reid to better explain how we have knowledge of attributes and use general terms meaningfully. The general features of our experience are not ideas and are not produced by the faculty of abstraction---but that faculty enables us to distinguish them.
In the second sense, a general conception is an act of mind which takes universals as objects. Thinking in general tenns is not the manipulation of abstract ideas---it is engaging in acts of conceiving. Such acts are made possible by general conceptions in the third sense, namely, general concepts. While Reid does not distinguish this sense explicitly, I argue that he takes general concepts to be dispositions or abilities to distinguish general features of objects and to use the general terms of language as other users do. So rather than producing mental entities---abstract ideas---that act as standards to help us classify, abstraction makes possible the development of abilities to use general terms and classify objects.