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Continuation of the fame Subjed.—Differences in the Intellectual
Characters of Individuals, arising from their different Habits of Abstraction and Generalisation.
civilisation, its tendency to familiarise the mind to general terms and to general propositions, I did not mean to say, that this influence extends equally to all the classes of men in society. On the contrary, it is evidently confined, in a great measure, to those who receive a liberal education ; while the minds of the lower orders, like those of savages, are so habi. tually occupied about particular objects and particular events, that, although they are sometimes led, from imitation, to employ general expressions, the use which they make of them is much more the result of memory than judgment; and it is but seldom that they are able to comprehend fully, any process of reasoning in which they are involved.
It is hardly necessary for me to remark, that this observation, with respect to the incapacity of the vulgar for general speculations, (like all observations of a similar nature,) must be received with some restrictions. In such a state of society as that in which we live, there is hardly any individual to be found, to whom some general terms, and some general truths, are not perfectly familiar ; and, therefore, the foregoing conclusions are to be considered as descriptive of those habits of thought alone, which are most prevalent in their mind. To abridge the labour of reasoning, and of memory, by directing the attention to general principles, instead of particular truths, is the professed aim of all philosophy; and according as individuals have more or less of the philosophic spirit, their habitual speculations (whatever the nature of their pursuits may be) will relate to the former, or to the latter, of these objects.
There are, therefore, among the men who are accustomed to the exercise of their intellectual powers, two classes, whose habits of thought are remarkably distinguished from each other; the one class comprehending what we commonly call men of business, or, more properly, men of detail; the other, men of abstraction ; or, in other words, philosophers.
The advantages which, in certain respects, the latter of these possess over the former, have been already pointed out; but it must not be supposed, that these advantages are always purchased withouc some inconvenience. As the solidity of our general principles depends on the accuracy of the particular observations into which they are ultimately resolvable, so their utility is to be estimated by the practical applications of which they admit : and it unfortunately happens, that the same turn of mind which is favour. able to philosophical pursuits, unless it be kept under proper regulation, is extremely apt to disqualify us for applying our knowledge to use, in the exercise of the arts, and in the conduct of affairs.
In order to perceive the truth of these remarks, it is almost sufficient to recollect, that as classification, and, of consequence, general reasoning, presuppose the exercise of abstraction ; a natural disposition to indulge in them, cannot fail to lead the mind to overlook the specific differences of things, in attending to their common qualities. To succeed, however, in practice, a familiar and circumstantial acquaintance with the particular objects which fall under our observation, is indispensably necessary.
But, farther : As all general principles are founded on classifications which imply the exercise of abstraction ; it is necessary to regard them, in their practical applications, merely as approximations to the truth; the defects of which, must be fupplied by habits acquired by personal experience.
In confidering, for example, the theory of the mechanical powers; it is usual to fimplify the objects of our conception, by abstracting from friction, and from the weight of the different parts of which they are compofed. Levers are considered as mathematical lines, perfectly inflexible ; and ropes, as mathematical lines, perfectly flexible ;—and by means of these, and similar abstractions, a subject, which is in itself extremely complicated, is brought within the reach of elementary geometry. In the theory of politics, we find it' necessary to abstract from many of the peculiarities which distinguish different forms of government from each other, and to reduce them to certain general claffes, according to their prevailing tendency. Although all the governments we have ever seen, have had more or less of mixture in their composition, we reason concerning' pure monarchies, pure aristocracies, and pure democracies, as if there really existed political establishments corresponding to our definitions. Without such a classification, it would be impoflible for us to fix our attention, amidst the multiplicity of particulars which the subject presents to us, or to arrive at any, general principles, which might serve to guide our enquiries in comparing different institutions together.
It is for a similar reason, that the speculative farmer reduces the infinite variety of foils to a few general descriptions ; the physician, the infinite variety of bodily constitutions to a few temperaments; and the moralist, the infinite variety of human characters to a few of the ruling principles of action.
Notwithstanding, however, the obvious advantages we derive from these classifications, and the general conclusions to which they lead; it is evidently impossible, that principles, which derived their origin from efforts of abstraction, should apply literally to practice; or, indeed, that they fould afford us any considerable assistance in conduct, without a certain degree of practical and experimental skill. Hence it is, that the mere theorist so frequently exposes himself, in real life, to the ridicule of men whom he despises ; and in the general estimation of the world, falls below the level of the common drudges in business and the arts. The walk, indeed, of these unenlightened practitioners, must necessarily be li. mited by their accidental opportunities of experience ; but, so far as they go, they operate with facility and success; while the merely speculative philosopher, Q2
although possessed of principles which enable him to approximate to the truth, in an infinite variety of untried cases, and although he sees, with pity, the narrow views of the multitude, and the ludicrous pretensions with which they frequently oppose their trifling successes to his theoretical speculations, finds himself perfe&ly at a loss, when he is called upon, by the simplest occurrences of ordinary life, to carry his sprinciples into execution. Hence the origin of that maxim, “ which” (as Mr. Hume remarks) has been se so industriously propagated by the dunces of every
age, that a man of genius is unfit for business." : In what consists practical or experimental skill, it is not easy to explain completely ; but, among other things, it obviously implies, a talent for minute and comprehensive and rapid observation ; a memory, at once retentive and ready; in order to present to us accurately, and without reflexion, our theoretical knowledge: a presence of mind, not to be difconcerted by unexpected occurrences; and, in some cases, an uncommon degree of perfection in the external senses, and in the mechanical capacities of the body. All these elements of practical skill, it is obvious, are to be acquired only by habits of active exertion, and by a familiar acquaintance with real occurrences; for, as all the practical principles of our nature, both intellectual and animal, have a reference to particulars, and not to generals, so it is in the active scenes of life alone, and amidst the details of business, that they can be cultivated and improved.
The remarks which have been already made, are sufficient to illustrate the impossibility of acquiring