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§ 77. Abstraction implied in the analysis of complex ideas. THE remarks which have been made in the course of the foregoing chapter, on the analysis and examination of our Complex Intellectual states, naturally lead to the consideration of another subject, in some respects intimately connected with that topic. When we have once formed a complex notion (no matter at what period, in what way, or of what kind,) it not unfrequently happens that we desire, for various reasons, to examine more particularly some of its parts. Very frequently this is absolutely necessary to the full understanding of it. Although undoubtedly its elementary parts once came under review, that time is now long past; it has become important to institute a new inspection, to take each simple notion involved in it, and examine it by itself. And this is done by means of the process of ABSTRACTION, and in no other way.
By the aid of that process, our complex notions, however comprehensive they may be, are susceptible, if one may be allowed so to speak, of being taken to pieces, and the elementary parts may be abstracted or separated from each other; that is, they are made subjects of consideration apart from other ideas, with which they are ordinarily found to be associated. And hence, whenever this is the case in respect to the states of the mind, they are sometimes called ABSTRACTIONS, and still more frequently are known by the name of ABSTRACT IDEAS.For the purpose of distinctness in what we have to say, they may be divided into the two classes of Particular and General; that is to say, in some cases the abstraction relates only to a single idea or element, in others it includes more.
$ 78. Instances of particular abstract ideas. We shall proceed, therefore, to remark first on Particular abstractions. Of this class, the notions which we form of the different kinds of colours may be regarded as instances. For example, we hold in our hand a rose; it has extension, colour, form, fragrance. The mind is so deeply occupied with the colour as almost wholly to neglect the other qualities. This is a species of abstraction, although perhaps an imperfect one, because, when an object is before us, it is difficult, in our most attentive consideration of any particular quality or property, to withdraw the mind wholly from the others. When, on the contrary, any absent object of perception occurs to us, when we think of or form a conception of it, our thoughts will readily fix upon the colour of such object, and make that the subject of consideration, without particularly regarding its other qualities, such as weight, hardness, taste, form, &c. We may also distinguish in any body (either when present, or still more perfectly when absent) its solidity from its extension, or we may direct our attention to its weight, or its length, or breadth, or thickness, and make any one of these a distinct object in our thoughts.
And hence, as it is a well-known fact that the properties of any body may be separated in the view and examination of the mind, however closely they may be connected in their appropriate subjects, we may lay down this statement in respect to the states of the mind before us, viz.: When any quality or attribute of an object, which does not exist by itself, but in a state of combination, is detached by our minds from its customary associates, and is considered separately, the notion we form of it becomes a particular abstract idea.—The distinctive mark of this class is, that the abstraction is limited to one quality. It should perhaps be particularly added, that the abstraction or separation may exist mentally, when it cannot take place in the object itself. For instance, the size, the figure, length, breadth, colour, &c., of a building, may each of them be made subjects of separate mental consideration, although there can be no real or actual separation of these things in the building itself. If there be any one of these properties, there must necessarily be all. $ 79. 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 abstraction, which is exclusive of other mental susceptibilities, 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,
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
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.
Ø 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 classes, 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 navia gable 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 contemplation; 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
of our observation.