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If there were not this discrimination and leaving out of certain parts, we never could consider these notions, regarded as wholes, as otherwise than individual or particular.—They are called GENERAL, because, in consequence of the discrimination and selection which has just been mentioned, they embrace such qualities and properties as exist not in one merely, but in many. 685. The power of general abstraction in connexion with numbers, &c.
The ability which the mind possesses of forming general abstract ideas, is of much practical importance. It is not easy to estimate the increase of power which is thus given to the action of the human mind, particularly in reasoning. By means of general abstract propositions, we are able to state volumes in a few sentences; that is to say, the truths, stated and illustrated in a few general propositions, would fill volumes in their particular applications.
Without the ability of forming general notions, we should not be able to number, even in the smallest degree. Before we can consider objects as forming a multitude, or are able to number them, it seems necessary to be able to apply to them a common name. This we cannot do until we have reduced them to a genus ; and the formation of a genus implies the power (or process, rather) of abstraction. Consequently, we should be unable, without such power, to number.—How great, then, is the practical importance of that intellectual process by which general abstractions are formed !— Without the ability to number, we should be at a loss in our investigations where this ability is required; without the power to classify, all our speculations must be limited to particulars, and we should be capable of no general reasoning.
986. Of general abstract truths or principles. There are not only general abstract ideas, but abstract truths or principles also of a general nature, which are deserving of some attention, especially in a practical point of view. Although enough has already been said to show the importance of abstraction, it may yet be desirable to have a more full view of its applications
The process, in forming general truths or principles of an abstract nature, seems to be this. We must begin undoubtedlly with the examination and study of particulars; with individual objects and characters, and with insulated events. We subsequently confirm the truth of whatever has been ascertained in such inquiry, by an cb servation of other like objects and events. We proceed from one individual to another, till no doubt remains.--Having in this way arrived at some general fact or principle, we thenceforward throw aside the consideration of the particular objects on which it is founded, and make it alone, exclusively and abstractly, the subject of our mental contemplations. We repeat this process again and again, till the mind, instead of being wholly taken up with a multitude of particulars, is stored with truths of a general kind. These truths it subsequently combines in trains of reasoning, compares together, and deduces from them others of still wider application.
087. Of the speculations of philosophers and others. What has been said leads us to observe, that there is a characteristical difference between the speculations of men of philosophic minds and those of the common mass of people, which is worthy of some notice. The difference between the two is not so much, that philosophers are accustomed to carry on processes of reasoning to a greater extent, as this, that they are more in the habit of employing general abstract ideas and general terms, and that, consequently, the conclusions which they form are more comprehensive. Nor are their general reasonings, although the conclusions at which they arrive seem, in their particular applications, to indicate wonderful fertility of invention, so difficult in the performance as is apt to be supposed. They have so often and so long looked at general ideas and general propositions; have been so accustomed, as one may say, to contemplate the general nature of things, divested of all superfluous and all specific circumstances, that they have formed a habit ; and the operation is performed without difficulty. It requires in such persons no greater intellectual effort than would be necessary in skilfully managing the details of ordinary business.
The speculations of the great bulk of mankind differ from those of philosophers in being, both in the subjects of them and in their results, particular. They discover an inability to enlarge their view to universal propositions, which embrace a great number of individuals. They may possess the power
of mere argument, of comparing propositions together which concern particulars, and deducing inferences from them to a great degree; but when they attempt to contemplate general propositions, their rinds are perplexed, and the conclusions which are drawn from them appear obscure, however clearly the previous pro c'ess of reasoning may have been expressed.
988. Of the general nature of attenti1.30 WITHOUT considering it necessary to spcais
. of attention as a separate intellectual power or faculty, some may 'be inclined to do, it seems to be sufficient to say, that atTENTION expresses the state of the mind, when it is steadily directed, for a length of time, to some object of sense or intellect, exclusive of other objects. When we say that any external object, or any subject of thought which is purely internal, receives attention, it seems to be the fact, as far as we are able to determine, that the intellect is occupied with the subject of its attention, whatever it is, for a certain period, and that all other things are, for the time being, shut out. In other words, the grasp which the perceptive power fixes upon the object of its contemplations is an undivided, an unbroken one. But this does not appear to be all. There is not only a distinct and exclusive mental perception; but also an act of the will, directing, condensing, and confining the perception. So that, in all cases of attention, the act of the mind may be regarded as a complex one, involving not only the mere perception or series of perceptions, but also an act
of the will, founded on some feeling of desire or sentiment of duty. It is the act of the will, prompted in general by the feeling of desire or interest, which keeps the inind intense and fixed in its position.
Ó 89. Of different degrees of attention. In agreement with this view of the subject, we often speak of attention as great or small
, as existing in a very high or a very slight degree. When the view of the mind is only momentary, and is unaccompanied, as it generally is at such times, with any force of emotion or energy of volitive action, then the attention is said to be slight. When, on the contrary, the mind directs itself to an object, or series of objects, with earnestness, and for a con. siderable length of time, and refuses to attend to anything else, then the attention is said to be intense.
We commonly judge at first of the degree of attention to a subject from the length of time during which the mind is occupied with it. But when we look a little further, it will be found that the time will generally de. pend upon the strength and permanency of the attendant emotion of interest. And hence, both the time and the degree of feeling are to be regarded in our estimate of the power of attention in any particular case; the former being the result, and, in some sense, a measure of the latter.
Of instances of people who are able to give but slighi attention to any subject of thought, who cannot bring their minds to it with steadiness and power, we everywhere find multitudes, and there are some instances where this ability has been possessed in such a high degree as to be worthy of notice. There have been mathematicians who could investigate the most complicated problems amid every variety and character of disturbance. said of Julius Cæsar, that, while writing a despatch, he could at the same time dictate four others to his secretaries; and if he did not write himself, could dictate seven letters at once. The same thing is asserted also of the Emperor Napoleon, who had a wonderful capability of directing his whole mental energy to whatever came before him.*
* Segur's Iristory of the Expedition to Russia, bk. vii., ch. xiii.
090 Dependence of memory on atten. ion. There seems to be no doctrine in mental philosophy more clearly established than this, that memory depends on attention; that is, where attention is very slight, remembrance is weak, and where attention is intense, remembrance continues longer.—There are many facts which confirm this statement.
(1.) In the course of a single day, persons who are in the habit of winking will close their eyelids perhaps thousands of times, and, as often as they close them, will place themselves in utter darkness. Probably they are conscious at the time both of closing their eyelids and of being in the dark; but, as their attention is chiefly taken up with other things, they have entirely forgotten it.(2.) Let a person be much engaged in conversation, or occupied with any very interesting speculation, and the clock will strike in the room where he is, apparently without his having any knowledge of it. He hears the clock strike as much as at any other time, but, not attending to the perception of sound, and having his thoughts directed another way, he immediately forgets.(3.) In the occupations of the day, when a multitude of cares are pressing us on every side, a thousand things escape our notice; they appear to be neither seen nor heard, nor to affect us in any way whatever. But at the stillness of evening, when anxieties and toils are quieted, and there is a general pause in nature, we seem to be endued with a new sense, and the slightest sound attracts our attention. Shakspeare has marked even this
“ The crow doth sing as sweetly as the lark
When neither is attended ; and, I think,
No better a musician than the wren. It is on the same principle that people dwelling in the vicinity of waterfalls do not appear to notice the sound. The residents in the neighbourhood even of the great Cataract of Niagara are not seriously disturbed by it, although it is an unbroken, interminable thunder to all others.—Tlie reason in all these cases is the same, as has already been given. There is no attention and no remembrance, and, of course, virtually no perception.
(4.) Whenever we read a book, we do not observe