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Of Abstraction.


General Observations on this Faculty of the Mind.

THE origin of appellatives, or, in other words, the

origin of those classes of objects which, in the schools, are called genera, and species, has been confidered by some philosophers as one of the most difficult problems in metaphysics. The account of it which is given by Mr. Smith, in his Dissertation on the Origin of Languages, appears to me to be equally simple and satisfactory.

“ The assignation” (says he) “ of particular names, " to denote particular objects; that is, the institu« tion of nouns substantive; would probably be one " of the first steps towards the formation of Language. 6 The particular cave, whose covering sheltered the “ savage from the weather ; the particular tree, whose “ fruit relieved his hunger; the particular fountain, “ whose water allayed his thirst; would first be de“ nominated by the words, cave, tree, fountain; or “ by whatever other appellations he might think

proper, in that primitive jargon, to mark them. Afterwards, when the more enlarged experience of “ this favage had led him to observe, and his necessary « occasions obliged him to make mention of, other

caves, and other trees, and other fountains; he “ would naturally bestow upon each of those new obe. jects, the same name by which he had been ac“ customed to express the similar object he was first " acquainted with. And thus, those words, which

were originally the proper names of individuals, " would each of them insensibly become the common

name of a multitude *.' It is this application” (he continues) “ of the

name of an individual to a great number of objects, " whose resemblance naturally recalls the idea of that “ individual, and of the name which expresses it, " that seems originally to have given occasion to the “ formation of those classes, and assortments, which, “ in the schools, are called genera and species; and of “ which the ingenious and eloquent Rousseau finds “ himself so much at a loss to account for the origin. " What constitutes a specics, is merely a number of

objects, bearing a certain degree of resemblance to

one another; and, on that account, denominated “ by a single appellation, which may be applied to “ express any one of them t.”

* The same account of the progress of the mind in the formation of genera, is given by the Abbé de Condillac.

Un enfant appelle du nom d'Arbre le premier arbre que nous “ lui montrons. Un second arbre qu'il voit ensuite lui rapelle la 6 même idée ; il lui donne le même nom; de même à un troisicme, “ à un quatrième, et voilà le mot d'Arbre donné d'abord à un “ individu, qui devient pour lui un nom de classe ou de genre, une “ ide : abstraite qui comprend tous les arbres en général.”

+ Differtation on the Origin of Languages, annexed to Mr. Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.

This view of the natural progress of the mind, in forming classifications of external objects, receives fome illustration from a fact mentioned by Captain Cook in his account of a small island called Wateeoo, which he visited in failing from New Zealand to the Friendly Islands. “ The inhabitants,” says he, “ were afraid to come near our cows and horses, nor “ did they form the least conception of their nature. “ But the sheep and goats did not surpass the limits of “ their ideas; for they gave us to understand that

they knew them to be birds. It will appear," he adds, “rather incredible, that human ignorance could “ ever make so strange a mistake, there not being the • most distant fimilitude between a sheep or goat, “ and any winged animal. But these people seemed “ to know nothing of the existence of any other land “ animals, besides hogs, dogs, and birds. Our sheep " and goats, they could see, were very different “ creatures from the two first, and therefore they in“ ferred that they must belong to the latter class, in “ which they knew that there is a confiderable variety “ of species.”—I would add to Cook's very judicious remarks, that the mistake of these islanders probably did not arise from their considering a sheep or a goat as bearing a more striking resemblance to a bird, than to the two classes of quadrupeds with which they were acquainted ; but to the want of a generic word, such as quadruped, comprehending these two fpecies ; which men in their situation would no more be led to forn, than a person who had only seen one individual of each species, would think of an appellative to expris both, intivad of applying a proper name to each. In consequence of the variety of birds, it appears, that they had a generic name comprehending all of them, to which it was not unnatural for them to refer

any new animal they met with.

The classification of different objects supposes a power of attending to some of their qualities or at. tributes, without attending to the rest ; for no two objects are to be found without some specific difference; and no assortment or arrangement can be formed among things not perfectly alike, but by losing fight of their distinguishing peculiarities, and limiting the attention to those attributes which belong to them in common. Indeed, without this power of attending separately to things which our senses present to us in a state of union, we never could have had any idea of number; for, before we can consider different objects as forming a multitude, it is necessary that we should be able to apply to all of them one common name; or, in other words, that we should reduce them all to the same genus. The various ob- 1 jects, for example, animate and inanimate, which are, at this moment, before me, I may class and number in a variety of different ways, according to the view of them that I chuse to take. I may reckon successively the number of sheep, of cows, of horses, of elms, of oaks, of beeches; or I may first reckon the number of animals, and then the number of trees ; or I may at once reckon the number of all the organised substances which my senses present to me.

But whatever be the principle on which my classification proceeds, it is evident, that the objects numbered together, must be considered in those re

spects spects only in which they agree with each other; and that, if I had no power of separating the combina. tions of sense, I never could have conceived them as forming a plurality.

This power of considering certain qualities or attributes of an object apart from the rest; or, as I would rather chuse to define it, the power which the understanding has, of separating the combinations which are presented to it, is distinguished by logicians by the name of abstraction. It has been supposed, by fome philosophers, (with what probability I shall not now inquire,) to form the characteristical attribute of a rational nature. That it is one of the most important of all our faculties, and very intimately connected with the exercise of our reasoning powers, is beyond dispute. And, I flatter myself, it will appear from the fequel of this chapter, how much the proper management of it conduces, to the success of our philofo. phical pursuits, and of our general conduct in life.

The fubferviency of Abstraction to the power of Reasoning, and also, its subserviency to the exertions of a Poetical or Creative Imagination, shall be afterwards fully illustrated. At present, it is sufficient for my purpose to remark, that as abstraction is the ground-work of claslification, without this faculty of the mind we should have been perfectly incapable of general speculation, and all our knowledge must necessarily have been limited to individuals; and that some of the most useful branches of science, particularly the different branches of mathematics, in which the very subjects of our reasoning are abstractions of the understanding, could never have possibly had an


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