Page images

75. Mental process in separating and abstracting them. The manner of expressing ourselves on the subject of our abstract notions, to which we have been accustomed, is apt to create and cherish a belief in the existence of a separate mental faculty, adapted solely to this particular purpose. But the doctrine of a power or faculty of ab straction, which is exclusive of other mental susceptibili ties, and is employed solely for this purpose, does not appear to be well founded. It will convey an impression nearer the truth to speak of the PROCESS rather than the power of abstraction. The following statement will be sufficient to show how those of the first class, or particular abstract ideas, are formed.

Although our earliest notions, whether they arise from the senses or are of an internal origin, are simple, existing in an independent and separate state, yet those simple thoughts are very soon found to unite together with a considerable degree of permanency, and out of them are formed complex states of mind. Many are in this way combined together in one, and the question is, how this combination is to be loosened, and the elementary parts are to be extracted from their present complexity?

In answer, it may be said that, in every case of separating a particular abstract idea, there must necessarily be a determination, a choice, an act of the will. This voluntary state of mind must concern the previous complex mental state, when viewed in one respect, rather than another; or, what is the same thing, it will concern one part of the complex idea rather than another. So that we may truly and justly be said to have not only a desire, but a determination to consider or examine some part of the complex idea more particularly than the others. When the mind is in this manner directed to any particular part of a complex notion, we find it to be the fact, that the principle of association, or whatever principle it is which keeps the other parts in their state of union with it, ceases, in a greater or less degree, to operate and to maintain that union; the other parts rapidly fall off and disappear, and the particular quality, towards which the mind is especially directed, remains the sole subject of consideration. That is to say, it is abstracted, or becomes

[ocr errors]

an abstract idea.—If, for example, we have in mind the complex notion of any object, a house, tree, plant, flower, and the like, but have a desire and determination to make the colour, which forms a part of this complex notion, a particular subject of attention, the consequence is, that, while the quality of colour occupies our chief regard, the other qualities will disappear and no more be thought of. If we determine to examine the weight or extension of an object, the result will be the same; in other words, the extension, weight, colour, &c., becoming distinct and exclusive objects of attention, will be abstracted.

This, in the formation of particular abstract ideas, seems to be the process of the mind, and nothing more; viz., The direction of an act of the will to a particular part of a complex notion, and the consequent detention of the part towards which the mental choice is directed, and the natural and necessary disappearance, under such circumstances, of the other parts.

§ 80. General abstract notions the same with genera and species.

We proceed now to consider the other class of abstract ideas. General Abstract ideas are not only different, in consequence of embracing a greater number of elementary parts, from those which are Particular, but are also susceptible of being distinguished from the great body of our other complex notions.-The idea, for example, which we form of any individual, of John, Peter, or James, is evidently a complex one, but it is not necessarily a general one. The notion which we frame of a particular horse or of a particular tree, is likewise a complex idea, but not a general one. There will be found to be a clear distinction between them, although it may not be perfectly obvious at first. GENERAL ABSTRACT IDEAS are our notions of the classes of objects, that is, of Genera and Species. They are expressed by general names, without, in most cases, any defining or limitation, as when we use the words ANIMAL, MAN, HORSE, BIRD, SHEEP, FISH, TREE, not to express any one in particular of these various c.asses, but animals, men, horses, &c., in general.

81. Process in classification, or the forming of genera and species. Now if our general abstract ideas, so far as they relate to external objects, are truly notions of SPECIES and GenERA, it will aid us in the better understanding of them if we briefly consider how species and genera are formed. Men certainly find no great practical difficulty in forming these classifications, since we find that they do in fact make them in numberless instances, and at a very early period of life. They seem to be governed in the process by definite and uniform mental tendencies.-What, then, in point of fact, is the process in classification? It is obvious, in the first place, that no classification can be made without considering two or more objects together. A number of objects, therefore, are first presented to us for our observation and inquiry, which are to be examined first in themselves, and then in comparison with each other. We will take a familiar scene to illustrate what takes place.

We suppose ourselves to stand on the bank of a navigable river; we behold the flowing of its waters, the cliffs that overhang it, the trees that line its shore, the boats and boatmen on its bosom, the flocks and herds that press down to drink from its waves. With such a scene before us, it is to be expected that the mind will rapidly make each and all of these the subjects of its contem. plation; nor does it pursue this contemplation and inquiry far, without perceiving certain relations of agreement or difference. Certain objects before it are felt to be essentially alike, and others to be essentially different; and hence they are not all arranged in one class, but a discrimination is made, and different classes are formed The flocks and herds are formed into their respective classes. The tall and leafy bodies on the river's bank, although they differ from each other in some respects, are yet found to agree in so many others, that they are arranged together in another class, and called by the general name of TREE. The living, moving, and reasoning beings that propel the boats on its waters, form another class, and are called MAN.-And there is the same process and the same result in respect to all other bodies coming within the range of our observation.


§ 82. Early classifications sometimes incorrect.

It has been intimated, that, in making these classifications, men are governed by definite and uniform mental tendencies; still it must be acknowledged that mistakes are sometimes committed, especially in the early periods of society, and in all cases where the opportunities of examination and comparison are imperfect. When man first opens his eyes on nature, (and in the infancy of our race he finds himself a novice wherever he goes,) objects so numerous, so various in kind, so novel and interesting, crowd upon his attention, that, attempting to direct himself to all at the same time, he loses sight of their specifical differences, and blends them together more than a calm and accurate examination would justify. And hence it is not to be wondered at that our earliest classifications, the primitive genera and species, are sometimes incorrectly made.

Subsequently, when knowledge has been in some measure amassed, and reasoning and observation have been brought to a greater maturity, these errors are attended to; individuals are rejected from species where they do not properly belong, and species from genera. The most savage and ignorant tribes will in due season correct their mistakes and be led into the truth.

83. Illustrations of our earliest classifications.

We are naturally led to introduce one or two incidents here which throw light on this part of our subject. What we wish to illustrate is the simple fact that men readily perceive the resemblances of objects, and exhibit a disposition to classify them in reference to such resemblance. The first case which we shall mention in illustration of this, is that of Caspar Hauser. The principal objects which Caspar had to amuse himself with in his prison were two little wooden horses, which, in his entire ignorance, he believed to be possessed of life and sensibility. After the termination of his imprisonment, his biographer informs us, that to every animal he met with, whether quadruped or biped, dog, cat, goose, or fowl, he gave the name of horse."


In the year 1814, Pitcairn's Island, a solitary spot in

the Pacific Ocean, was visited by two English cruisers Two of the young men that belonged on the island, and whose knowledge was, of course, extremely limited, came on board one of the vessels. "The youths," says the Narrative, "were greatly surprised at the sight of so many novel objects; the size of the ship, the guns, and everything around them. Observing a cow, they were at first somewhat alarmed, and expressed a doubt whether it was a huge goat or a horned hog, these being the only two species of quadrupeds they had ever seen."-Travellers mention other instances where there is the same tendency to classify, which we have not room to repeat

§ 84. Of the nature of general abstract ideas.

The notions which are thus formed in all cases of classification, are commonly known, in the Treatises having relation to these subjects, as General Abstract ideas. And they are no less numerous than the multiplied varieties of objects which are found to exist everywhere around us. It is thus that we form the general notions of animal and of all the subordinate species of animals; of tree and its numerous varieties; of earths, and minerals, and whatever else is capable of being arranged into classes.

But it is to be noticed that the general idea, whatever objects it may be founded upon, does not embrace every particular which makes a part of such objects. When we look at a number of men, we find them all differing in some respects, in height, size, colour, tone of the voice, and in other particulars. The mind fixes only upon those traits or properties with which it can combine the notion of resemblance; that is to say, those traits, qualities, or properties in which the individuals are perceived to be like, or to resemble each other.-The complex mental state, which embraces these qualities and properties, and nothing more, (with the exception of the superadded notion of other bodies having resembling qualities,) is a General Abstract idea.

And hence the name. Such notions are called ABSTRACT, because, while embracing many individuals in certain respects, they detach and leave out altogether a variety of particulars in which those individuals disagree

« PreviousContinue »