George Harris.

A philosophical treatise on the nature and constitution of man online

. (page 39 of 71)
Online LibraryGeorge HarrisA philosophical treatise on the nature and constitution of man → online text (page 39 of 71)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

their nature the most Divine,

2, The Capacity of Wit.

Wit is that capacity of the faculty of genius by which
it is enabled to bring together/ so as to present a strong
contrast or eflFoct, two or more ideas which, although exactly
agreeing in some trivial points, are in their general nature
altogether different and dissimilar one from another; by
means of which is produced a strong and vivid feeling of
surprise,' or of ridicule, according to the character of the
subject, on account of the singularity or incongruity of their

Thus, the mind unites these ideas when, as in the case of
what in verbal combinations of this nature is termed punning,*
they appear when so combined to be at once similar and
dissimilar. Hence, also, it is the double simultaneous percep-
tion both of the similarity and the difference in the ideas of any
subject or object, and the absolute and inseparable amalgama-
tion together of these ideas of similitude and dissimilitude,
that renders mimicry of any person ludicrous ; and which also
causes emotions of ridicule to arise when we suddenly and
unexpectedly discover a striking likeness of one who is absent,
afforded by an individual who is present, and between whom
there is no relationship or real connexion.*

* " Wit is nothing bnt an assemblage of new ideas and combinations."
— Helvetius, Essays on the Mind, Ep. iv. c. iii.

^ It is remarked by Dugald Stetcart, that " the pleasure we derive from
the assemblage of ideas which wit presents, is greatly heightened and
enlivened by our surprise at the command displayed over a part of our
constitution which, in onr own case, we find to be so little subject to the
will." — Elements of P kilos, of ITuman Mind, pt. i. c. v. s. 4.

Dr, Carpenter defines wit to be "a felicitous association of objects not
usually connected, so as to produce a pleasant surprise." — Mental
Physiology^ b. ii. c. xii.

^ Punmng is defined by Addison to be " a conceit arising from the use
of two words that affree in sound, bnt differ in the sense." — Spectator,

* Hohhes lays it down that judgment without fancy is wit ; but fancy,
without judgment, not. — Leviathan, pt. i. c. viii.

Locke defines wit as ''consisting in the assemblage of ideas, and
putting those together with quickness and variety wherein can be found
any resemblance or congmity." — 'Essay on the Understanding, b. ii.
c. xi. s. 2. Locke also remarks on the difference between wit and judg-
ment, and on the causes contributing to (quickness of parts, exactness of
judgment, and clearness of reason. — Ibid. .


Digitized by



The capacity of wit confers upon the mind a power of seizing
at once on the minute points of coincidence in any matter, and
in being able with rapidity to place together or contrast
them. It does not, however, include a very deep or exact
discovery of the real and actual nature of the qualities of the
subject, but the reverse is often found to bo the fact. In these
respects it corresponds with the capacities of apprehension and
sense, although these capacities are by no means necessarily
coexistent with it. Ideas, whether received or obtained
through apprehension, deprehension, or comprehension, are
alike fitted for its exercise ; although those obtained by the first
of these capacities are ordinarily best adapted for this purpose.

The term wit is here used to denote the capacity of the mind
by which we combine together ideas that are dissimilar, although
each combination of this kind may not result in those lively
sallies which are ordinarily termed wit.

The operation of this capacity may be indeed divided into
two kinds ; the one of a light and pleasing, the other of a grave
or severe character. The former of these we ordinarilv term
ridicule, or humour; the latter, satire, or effect. By tne last
of these operations a deep impression is produced through tho
strong contrast of ideas brought together. Pathos is occa-
sioned through combinations of the nature of what is here
termed effect, so far that all pathos is constituted by a union
of dissimilar ideas. Nevertheless, all combinations of this
sort do not constitute pathos, and pathos is not effect, nor
effect pathos. But effect is a constituent element in the pro-
duction of pathos. Satire appears to me to be the result of
the joint application of ridicule and effect to the same subject.
Each of these efforts is performed by this capacity in a similar
mode ; by placing together, and contrasting ideas, or objects of
a very dissimilar nature.

A farther division has also been made of wit and humour,
as being each distinct exercises of this capacity.* In reality,
however, it appears to me that in both cases the effort is the
same, although the materials by which it is carried out are
different. "What is commonly called wit is merely exercised
about words, as in the case of punning; humour about senti-
ments or things, and is effected quite independent of words.

Nevertheless, while the action of humour or ridicule is swift
and sudden, and transient in its operation ; that of satire and

According to Dugald Stetoart, " wit implies a power of calling np at
pleasure the ideas which it combines." — Elements of Philos. of Human
Mind, pt. i. c. V. B. 4.

* Coleridge recognizeff the distinction in question when he says, " Men
of hnmour are always in some degree men of genius ; wits are rarely so,
although a man of genius may, amongst other gifts, possess wit, as
Shakespeare."— Co/enW^e. Table Talk,

Digitized by



efiFect is slow and gradual, and in its result permanent. The
one rushes through the plain, like a roaring torrent ; the other
winds slowly through it, like a tranquil river.

The capacity of wit is often of use in controversy, and is
employed in ridiculing the arguments of an opponent, or in
giving force to those adduced against him, by making effective
and striking combinations of ideas. For the latter purpose it
is also of essential value in artistical composition of each kind,
through the aid of that effort of it which is here termed effect.
Both ridicule and satire are moreover, in reality, as serviceable,
and as fully availed of, to express, or give vent to passion, as
is the capacity of taste, although different passions will be
generally expressed by the two.

The effusions of wit of the lighter kind, such as ridicule
accomplishes, are, however, like the precocious blossoms on a
tree, often valued for their rarity and their pleasing effect,
but which are of no solid value, and too frequency lead to the
neglect of cultivation of more sterling productions. These
showy and dazzling efforts prove the blight of many a noble
intellect, which, but for its appearance, might have brought
forth precious fruit. The efforts of this capacity of each descrip-
. tion, should be the ornament and the aid of, not the substitute
for, knowledge and reasoning: and this may be observed
of origination too, and also of taste; of each of the
capacities of genius alike. Possibly, moreover, this capacity,
when exerted in humorous sallies, which contribute so
much to our relaxation and relief, especially during the trying
and wearisome process of reasoning, may, by the benevolent
economy of Providence, on that account be especially conferred
on those particular individuals who most require such diversion,
or whose teaching of others peculiarly stands in need to be
thus accompanied and aided, or rendered palatable.

Man is the only animal capable of mirth," or even of laughter,
which is a less intellectual effort than is the operation of wit,
although allied to and a consequence of it, and originating in the
same cause. Possibly, mirth was given to man alone, in order to
counteract the many cares and anxieties with which he, beyond
all other creatures in the world, is so ceaselessly oppressed.

It appears to me, however, that animals do possess some
share of, or, at any rate, something analogous to, humour;'
though seemingly nothing of satire.' Probably, the reason of
this is that, while satire is almost purely intellectual, resulting
from, or being produced solely by, an exercise of the mind ;

• Vide ante, b. i., c. ii. s. 9, vol. i. p. 310. ' Ibid,

' Mr. Wood considers that many animals exhibit to a large extent a
sense of the humorous, which they display in something akin to the
practical jokes that Ihe^r play on one anouier. This he thinks extends to
the lower animals, who jom with children in their gambols.

T 2

Digitized by



humour, although merely another exercise of the same capacity,
is occasioned, to a great extent, by medial or material causes.
For instance, any exuberance or overflow of the animal spirits,
through which the being is for the time endowed with more
than is requisite to stimulate it in its ordinary and regular
pursuits and avocations, induces it to diversion in the way
of gamboling, and to feats of merriment, reflective, as it were,
of the inward joyous excitement of the soul, or instinctive
being, produced by this overflow of spirits ; and this wanton
exercise, whether in man or animals, is naturally, if not neces-
sarily, at once, and in every case, of a humorous turn. In the
young, more especially, both of men and animals, it is fre-
quently observable. Indeed, many animals, such as dogs and
cats and sheep, display it only during youth. In man, too,
probably youth is more particularly the period of humour, and
riper age that of satire ; although the tendency to humour, it
may be, depends more on the temperament and texture, than
on the actual age of the individual, through which an overflow
of animal spirits, such as immediately induces to it, is oc-

Deficiency in the capacity of wit induces a person to be
dull and slow in discovering the minute and trivial points of
resemblance and coincidence between difierent subjects and
ideas, and produces general heaviness and want of spriglitli-
ness in the intellectual character of such an individual. To a
certain extent, especially as regards satire, it is improveable by
suitable cultivation.'

8. The Capacity of Taste.

The capacity of taste is that capacity of the faculty of
genius, by which it is enabled, with the utmost nicety, to
combine together those ideas which most suitably harmonize
with one another, and to select those only to combine,
which are best fitted to be so united ; and by a consequence
also, to prefer those combinations of ideas which are thus

Every compound subject — and of this nature are nearly all
those which admit of any character being given to them as regards
their tasteful qualities, those of an entirely simple and uncom-
pounded nature rarely admitting of this — is composed of several
distinct and indepenaent ideas, which are there united or com-

» Locke appears to hold that wit, or humour, is capable of improvement
by cultivation in common with the other capacities of the mind. — Conduct
of the Understanding f s. 4. Vide post, c. vu. s. 6.

Digitized by



biucd together. According as tteso are suitable, or harmonize
well together, will the subject, as a whole, be characterized as
beautiful* or ugly, as conformable with, or contrary to taste.

Thus this capacity tends to the preference of those ideas
which, from their mutual agreement and harmony, form com-
binations of the most beautiful and pleasing and sublime
description.* In this respect, it is a kind of intellectual sense,
corresponding with the material senses, which lead us to dis-
cover, and exercise a preference for, certain objects; or, like
the palate, which rejects all unsavoury and disagreeable, and
approves only of pleasing food, and of such kinds at the same
time as mutually suit well, and harmonize with, each other.'

But it may be contended that the exercise of this capacity
as regards the discrimination of one idea from another, and the
deciding of their relative fitness for each other, is eflfocted.

* According to Dr. Thomas Brown, " beauty is not anything that exists
in objects independently of the mind which perceives them, and permanent,
therefore, as tne objects in which it is falsely supposed to exist. It is an
emotion of the mind, vaiying therefore, uke all owr other emotions,
with the varying tendencies of the mind, in differ^it circumstances.'*
— Lectures on the P kilos, ^fth^ Mind, LvBct. Ivii.

**Any material object which can give ns pleasure in the simple
contemplation of its outward qualities without any direct and definite
exertion of the intellect, I call in some way, or in some degree, beautiful."
— liuskin. Modem Painters ^ vol. i. pt. i. s. 1, c 6.

Dr. Gerard, however, observes that " there is perhaps no term used in
a looser sense than beauty, which is applied to almost everything that
pleases us." — Essay on Taste, pt. L s. 3.

* " Taste is so bapj>y a kind of sensation, that we perceive the value of
things without the aid of reflection; or rather, witnout making use of
any rule to judge of them. It is an effect of the imagination, which,
having early acquired the habit of entertaining itself with agreeable
objects, preserves them always present, and naturally forms them into
patterns. — Cond iliac. Origin of Knowledge, pt. i. c. xi. s. 2.

Melmoth defines taste " as consisting in the ready perception of, and
pleasure arising from, propriety, fitness, or harmony, wnether in things of
the natural world, in the common manners and customs of mankind, or
in works of art and of science." — Lcelius and Hortensia, p. 11.

" Perfect taste is the faculty of receiving the greatest possible pleasure
from those material sources which are attractive to our moral nature in
its purity and perfection." — Buskin. Moiem Painters, vol. i. pt. i. s. 1,
c. G. " Taste, properly so called, is the instinctive and instant preferring
of one material object to another without any obvious reason, except that
it is proper to human nature so to do." — Ibid.

* **No doubt the perceptive powers of man, and the lower animals, are
so constituted, that brilliant colours and certain forms, as well as
harmonious and rhythmical sounds, give pleasure, and are called
beautiful ; but why tnis should be so, we know no more than why certain
bodily sensations are agreeable, and others disagreeable." — Dancins
Descent of Man, &c., vol. ii. p. 353.

See also on this subject. The Theory of the Arts, or Art in relation
to Nature, Civilization, and Man, Joy George Harris, JF.S.A., voK i.
pp. 40—53.

Digitized by



not by thiS capacity, but by the reason; which, as I have
already observed, is called into use on every occasion when
different ideas are in any way compared together.

With respect to this point, I would, however, observe that,
while taste is exercised in combining together ideas, and in
perceiving or discovering their similarity ; reason is exercised
only in separating them, and in perceiving or discovering
their dissimilarity. Re^ison, too, would be quite unfitted for
enabling a person to decide in matters of taste, to determine
whether the combinations which are made by this capacity
are pleasing and harmonious, and for which this capacity
alone is adapted. The reason may, no doubt, in many cases,
be called in to aid the operations or determinations of wit, as
I shall presently* have occasion to point out, when demon-
strating that each faculty and capacity is assisted, in most of
its operations, by the others. But this does not prove that the
capacity of taste is not capable of being exercised in the
manner, and for the purpose I have described, or that such a
capacity is not essential for such an exercise ; any more than
because, when in deciding on the merits of a fine painting or
prospect, or a beautiful piece of music, w© are aided by the
reason, in doing so, we must, necessarily, dispense with, or be
totally wanting in taste.

The use of this capacity is to fit persons for the discovery of
the beauties of natut-e and art, and to refine and purify the
mind. By the aid of this capacity the poet and the painter
make apt and suitable combinations, and are led to the selection
of those ideas and words and objects, which, in every minute
point, most perfectly harmonize with one another, and thus

? reduce compositions of the most pleasing and refined nature,
n this capacity of taste, therefore, all the arts, of whatever
kind, originate, and towards this point they each converge;
and it is alone by their excitement of, and application to this
capacity, that they operate on the mind. JPainting, poetiy,
music, and the other arts, are only so many avenues by which
this capacity is approached ; they are so many different kinds
of intellectual nutriment by which this organ of the soul is
supplied ; but it is to this capacity, and to this alone, that they
are all alike, and solely directed. Hence, the extensive posses-
sion of taste confers a general power for appreciating art ; but
the particular kind of art for which the individual is peculiarly
adapted, depends, in part, on the constitution of his material
senses, especially those of seeing and hearing ; and in part on
the attention which he has given to particular arts and pur-
suits, and his manual adaptation for them.*

* Vide post, c, vi. 8. 4.

* It has often been remarked that " different races of men differ widely

Digitized by



A question may, therefore, here be raised, whether. Mid
if so, how far, and to what extent, the large endowment with
the capacity of taste may qualify a person for each of the arts,
for all of which alike this capacity adapts us ; and, on the other
hand, whether, consequentially, a display of taste in one of the
arts, implies and evidences a corresponding degree of taste
for, and ability to excel extensively, if not equally, in each of
the other arts.*

To this I may reply that, so far as each particular art, in
the case of each individual, depends on his proportionate posses-
sion of taste, the extensive endowment with this capacity
qualifies for each art alike ; and the display of it in the exercise
of one pursuit of this kind, proves the same person adapted for
others of an artistic nature. But, in addition to this consider-
ation, and as a qualification to the conclusions to be deduced
from it, it should be borne in mind that certain particular
attributes, as well as endowments, both material and medial
as well as mental, are requisite for excelling in each in-
tellectual pursuit, in addition to the being extensively gifted
with the capacity fitted for it; as, for instance, a correct
ear for music,' and a correct eye for drawing. On certain
of the emotions, too, and on a certain amount of susceptibility
to be affected by them, depend an adaptation for certain arts
and other pursuits.

Again, education particularly adapted to qualify us for
particular pursuits, as well as capacity to excel in them, is in
several instances necessary in order to enable persons to
attain proficiency in them, especially in the arts of painting
and musia

On the whole, therefore, it may be concluded that, not only
is taste necessary for excelling in each art ; but that for each
particular art also, that peculiar material medial and moral
adaptation, and that special training as well which is necessary
to prepare the individual for following such a pursuit, are

In conducting controversy, and in verbal composition,
whether by speaking or writing, the possession of this capacity
directs the individual to express himself with eloquence, and
with good taste also.

The capacity of taste is principally exercised in combining
ideas which are similar, and which well agree one with another.
Wit, on the other hand, is mainly exercised in combining ideas

in thoir taste for the beantiful." — DarwirCs Descent of Man, vol. ii.
p. 350.

• See on this subject, The Theory of the Arts, Ac., voL i. c. 2, pp. 49 —

y Nevertheless, as pointed out by Coleridge, " an ear for ninsic ib a very
diflferent thing from a taste for music." — 2able Talk.

Digitized by



winch are dissimilar and opposite in their nature. The pos-
session, to a large extent, of the capacity of taste, is less com-
mon than is that of wit ; and a very high degree of beauty
is less frequently attained than is great humour.

The capacity of taste is of Uttle general utility for the
common pi'actical purposes of life. Like the corresponding
capacities of deprehension and analysis^ it originates in the
acuteness and refinement of the mind ; but they are, by no
means, necessarily co-existent with it.

Deficiency in this capacity " occasions a person to be dull in
perceiving the more minute and nice points of excellence and
beauty among many presented to his notice, and to make
awkward and unsuitable combinations of ideas, both in pictorial
composition and in that by writing. Of the different capacities
of this faculty, taste appears to be that which is most suscep-
tible of improvement by artificial education.

So far as they exhibit any preference for objects or subjects,
either animate or inanimate, on account of their beauty, or
other tasteful qualities, animals may appear to be influenced by
some principle analogous to the capacity of taste ; although
in their case what really actuates them is not this capacity,
but those sensations and emotions which certain objects, and
also sounds, produce, and which in the case of man are
entirely different to the exercise of taste, but are the intro-
ductory or incipient processes that lead to its exercise, as
causing pleasurable emotions to be excited.'

4, The Capacity of Ongination,

The most important and exalted of the capacities which
constitute the faculty of genius is that of origination, com-
prising the power both of imagination and invention. This

8 «« Incorrectness of taste may arise, either from the diilness of our
internal senses, or from the debility of judgment." — Gerard on Tcute,
pt. ii. 8. 6.

• " When we behold male birda elaborately displaying their plumes and
splendid colours before the females, whilst other birds not thus decorated
make no such display,, it is impossible to doubt that the females admire
the beauty of their male partners." — Darwin's Descent of Man, &c., vol. i.
p. 63.

The same acute observer and able writer also remarks that "birds
appear to be the most ajsthetic of all animals, excepting of course man,
and they have nearly the same taste for the beautiful as we have." — Ibid.^
vol ii. p. 39. And that ** as male birds display with so much care their
fine plumage and other ornaments in the presence of the females, it is
obviously ^)robable that these appreciate the beauty of their suitors. It is
however difiicult to obtain diioct evidence of their capacity to appreciate
beauty."— /^/</., p. 111.

Digitized by



capacity, like those of comprehension and judgment, seems to
consist in a peculiar expansion of the mind as regards its
ability to embrace a wide and comprehensive range of ideas.

Origination is that capacity of the faculty of genius by
which it is enabled to combine together difFerent and very
remote ideas of diflTerent subjects, so as to form by such
combination a new and origfinal subject altogether. The power
to eflTect this operation extends alike to ideas of visible objects
and to those of abstract matters^ such as the quf^ties and
characteristics of various beings or subjects.*

> L(yrd Bacon defines iina«^atioii to be "the representation of an
individual thought"— iVa^. Hist, Cent. X, 945.

According however to Hobbes, imagination is nothing but decaying
sense; and is found in man, and many other living creatures, as well
sleeping as waking. — Leviathan, pt. i. c. ii.

Condillac states that *' imagination takes place when a perception, in
virtue of the connexion, which attention has established l)etween it and
the object, is revived at the sight of tins object.'* — Origin of Knowledge,
pt. L c. ii.

. Malehranche lays it down that " the facultv of imagining, or the imagina-
tion, consbts only in the power the soul has of framing the images of
objects, by effecting a change in the fibres of that part of the brain which
may be called the principal part, as being that which corresponds to all

Online LibraryGeorge HarrisA philosophical treatise on the nature and constitution of man → online text (page 39 of 71)