Harald Høffding.

Outlines of psychology online

. (page 19 of 41)
Online LibraryHarald HøffdingOutlines of psychology → online text (page 19 of 41)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

(V. B. Z b. Ill), complex ideas, which correspond to the complex
percepts ; they concern objects, persons, relations and events, and
maybe called individual ideas. In these, the simple sensations
are united into ideas of individual totalities. The connection
between the simple ideas, of which the individual idea is composed,
may be so firm and close, that we are disposed to regard this latter
as corresponding to a certain mystical unity in the objective world,
namely, to what we call the "thing itself" as distinct from its

These individual ideas are, however, by no means firm and in-
variable. Their elements may change, and often they are in one
moment something different from what they were in the preceding.
My idea of the table, at which I am seated, is formed by a com-
bination of various simple ideas (a certain colour, and certain degree
of hardness, form, position, etc.). But every single time that I
have seen the table, I have seen it in a different way : point of
view, light, position have not been exactly the same on any two

1 M. Miiller, Lectures on Language, i, pp. 331, 336, 370.


occasions ; now the one, now the other element (now colovir and
hardness, now form and position) has, from the special circum-
stances, attracted my attention. ' If, however, I say I have an idea
of the table, and if I recognize the table by means of it, it
seems that my idea, if it is to apply to every experience I have
had of the table, can contain only certain general points or features,
which recur every time that the table is before me. We can have
a really individual image of an object or of a circumstance, only if
we have experienced it merely one single time. If there have been
more experiences, the differences will make themselves more or less
felt ; we picture our home, e.g. now in one, now in another setting,
and a certain conflict may arise among the elements as to which
shall have the decisive influence upon the character of the idea,
and this so much the more, the richer and more varied our

As it is not in our power to retain one and the same memory-
image for any length of time (for which reason also, what wc call
dwelling upon an idea is in reality a constant letting go and repro-
ducing of the image), so the same individual idea has a tendencv,
every time that it re-emerges, to change of form. The ele-
ments preponderating in the one moment will, by force of the
law of contrast, give place to others which have greater freshness.
The question is then, Have we really ideas of individual objects
and circumstances, which arc more than mere repetitions of
the several experiences and percepts ? Have wc general or
typical ideas, which apply to all the single percepts experienced
by us ?

The difficulty of the question consists in this, that every complete
representation of an object must give it to us with all its traits and
qualities. Our ideas always tend to become complete and individual,
and so much the more, the more vivid they arc and the more the
attention is directed to them. Since, however, the individual traits
and qualities vary with each experience — for an absolute repetition
never occurs, but there are always differences in degrees and sur-
roundings — I have consequently not one individual idea of an object,
but many. We may therefore distinguish between a concrete
individual idea (of the table in this light, from this side and so
forth), and a typical individual idea (of this table as opposed to
other tables). Now in what sense do we have typical individual
ideas ?

The psychological difficulty involved was faced long ago. It


was not, however, the indivickial, but the 5;eneral ideas which drew
attention to the difficulty. It was not observed that our ideas of
single objects and circumstances, which have been presented more
than once in our experience, are abstract ideas quite as much as
general ideas proper. My idea of a table in general bears the
same relation to the different tables which I have seen, as my idea
of this particular table to my different experiences of this table.
The general idea arises out of a continuation of the same process,
by which, the typical individual idea is formed. As the concrete
individual ideas struggle for the decisive control of the typical
individual idea, so the different individual ideas struggle for the
decisive control of the general idea. When I try to picture to
myself a triangle, I think now of an isosceles, now of an equi-
lateral triangle and so forth. The common features do not suffice
to constitute an actual image. Just as we cannot eat fruit in the
abstract, but eat only apples or pears, etc., so we cannot picture
fruit in the abstract. But, then, have we, psychologically, really
general ideas .''

Berkeley first called attention forcibly to this psychological
difficulty (in the introduction to his Prijiciples of Hujnan Know-
ledge). The ordinary theory of abstraction postulates, without
more ado, a capacity of " drawing out " general qualities and laws,
and of forming, out of these, new "abstract" ideas. Berkeley
denied altogether that he had such ideas, although by other
philosophers, such as Locke, e.g., the power of forming them was
given as one of the chief features which distinguished men from
animals. " It is impossible for me," says Berkeley, " to form the
abstracTt idea of motion distinct from the body moving, and which
is neither swift nor slow, curvilinear nor rectilinear ; and the like
may be said of all other abstract general ideas whatsoever."
Every idea has reference to something cjuite individual and
particular. There are typical or general ideas, only in the sense
that we can make a concrete individual idea serve as an example
or representative of a whole series of individual ideas. The
generality of an idea will, then, mean nothing more than its fitness
to be employed as example or representative.

Berkeley has here undoubtedly laid his finger on the crucial
point. But it still remains to be asked. What is the psychological
process by which an idea comes thus to be set up as repre-
sentative .''

In the formation of the idea of a particular object (the concrete


individual idea) the law of contiguity operates ; in the formation
of the typical individual idea and of the general idea, the law of
similarity. The several experiences and the several individuals
have in common certain universal elements, which come into con-
trast with the elements peculiar to each experience, to each indi-
vidual. Supposing A = ax-, B = bx, C = ex, to be three experiences,
then, according to the law of similarity, the special idea x will be
something more in consciousness than a, b, and c. The light of
recognition will fall on it more clearly, x will form a clear and
constant nucleus round which a, b, and c will move as obscurer,
looser elements. The error of the old abstraction theory lay in
supposing that x could be detached and represented in isolation.
X (one or more special properties) is not enough to give us an
individual idea, but must be represented in conjunction with a, or
with b, or with c ; which of these possibilities makes its appearance,
will depend on the special circumstances.

It might seem as though the simplest psychological explanation
of this matter were that which makes the interaction of the ideas
themselves the determining force. Repetition, from the nature of
the case, brings x much more frequently than a, b, or c, and x
acquires in consequence greater strength and constancy, while
a, b, and c, on the contrary, check and obscure one another. The
common elements keep above the threshold of consciousness, while
the struggle of the other elements takes place at the threshold. In
this way the indi\-idual traits would be worn away and only the
general retained. This account would bring us back, however, to
the old abstraction theory. The process must end in only the
common elements being left, and this is contrary to the individual
character of all distinct ideas. Let us think, e.g., of the horse, the
sheep, and other ungulata. The common property (.f) is given in
the definition of ungulata ; " mammalia having the iocisors and
canines often absent in one or both jaws, — molars all similar, when
present, — toes large, covered with hoofs." In attempting to form
an idea answering to this detinition, we have first to make a choice
as to the number of incisors and canines absent and in which jaw
or whether in both, the presence or absence of molars, and the nature
of the hoof, and then to supplement the properties given with
others, belonging either to the horse, the sheep, or some other
special kind of ungulata.'

1 [The definition of ungulata is substituted for that of pachydermata at Prof HdfTding's
request, the letter being no longer recognized as a special order. (Tr.)]


The individual ideas might be thought of as merged into a
gefieric idea {ax, bx, and ex, yielding /a^), as it is possible to have
generic photographs of members of the same family or class.^
But even if it were possible to have such " cumulative ideas,"
they would have to be limited to cases where the differences are not
too great. The merging of related ideas is therefore at any rate
confined within narrow limits.

The theory of generic ideas, as well as the old abstraction theory,
presupposes that the reciprocal interaction of ideas is the deter-
mining force in the formation of typical and general ideas. But it
has already been shown (V. B., 8 c), that we cannot carry through
the doctrine of the association of ideas, without taking into con-
sideration the other sides of mental life.

We are indeed often so passive, that the involuntary play of
ideas seems entirely to prevail. Many dim, vague, and casual
general ideas are undoubtedly formed by purely mechanical
fusion. But for the most part we have a personal interest in the
course which the ideas take. We have a definite practical end, and
seek the means to it, or a definite theoretical problem, and seek its
solution. Our attention is consequently concentrated round the
elements which point in the desired direction, and will address itself
to the other elements no more than is necessary to apprehend
the ideational image. And concentration will bring to the
fore those particular elements, as attention in general brings to
the fore our sensations and memories. This will be not least
the case where the points of similarity are held fast in spite of
strong differences, a, b, and c all try to divert the attention to
themselves, and it is only when the end and the motive determining
the movement of thought are sufficiently strong, that the interfering
associations of ideas are kept at a distance. In the idea ax, we
thus note principally the x. We may demonstrate the general
properties of the triangle by means of any triangle we like, because
we can avoid taking into account the special properties of the
triangle described (whether it is right or obtuse-angled, etc.).
General and typical ideas exist therefore in the sense that we are
able to concentrate the attention on certain elements of the
individual idea, so that a weaker light falls on the other elements.

It would, however, be an error (an error in which Berkeley par-
tially involved himself in his zealous and important dispute with
the ancient theory of abstraction), were it to be supposed that we

1 Gallon, Inquiries into Human Faculty, p. 349, seq. (cf. 12, scq. 183, seq.").


begin with special ideas, then form concrete individual ideas, after-
wards typical individual and finally general ideas. It is in fact a
great art, and presupposes much practice, to know how to appre-
hend the concrete and individual, and mental development must
be measured no less by its progress in this respect than by the
power of concentrating the attention on the typical and general.
Distinctness and individuality are relative conceptions, and oui-
ideas may in this respect pass through a whole scale. The ideas of
children and of primitive men have often a certain abstract, vague,
and general character, because they do not distinctly apprehend
and hold fast the individual shades and differences. At the first,
only particular sides of the object are apprehended and preserved ;
it is connected with this, that the primitive consciousness, which
in its sanguine nature has a tendency to attribute reality to all its
ideas, suffers so many disappointments, since it argues from agree-
ment in one particular to complete identity (V. B. 4). A child, e.g.,
calls every man father. Many of the happy hits and good sayings
of children are connected with the abstract and one-sided character
of their ideas. In primitive zoology the walrus is classed with fish,
the bat with birds. The Indian calls iron "black stone," and
copper " red stone." The Bushman calls the carriage of the
European traveller " the big animal of the white man."' Our
provisional ideas of a thing in like manner have, as a rule, a
vague character, are given only in the most general outlines.
In this connection have been cited with justice the ideas we
have of things or circumstances about which we are asking or
which we are trying to find, and in particular the ideas that
express tendencies, the general bent of which is determined, but
not the special form of the thing aimed at.^ In agreement with
this is a fact noted by Leibniz, that primitive roots in language
have an indefinite and general meaning, which is only gradually
rendered precise and special.-

The strong and simple confidence in ideas once formed leads,
however, to an over-rating of the differences as well as of the
resemblances. A child, who had learned his letters, saw a book
with Greek characters on the one side, Latin on the other. There-
upon he exclaimed: "This is Greek, but these are letters."^ He

1 W. James in Mind, January 1884, p. 15.

'- Leibniz, 0/>era Philosaphica, Erdmann's edition, p. 297. Max Miilier, Lectures on
the Science of Language (2nd ed.) i. pp. 425-445.

3 Egger,' Ohstr-.'ations et Reflexions sur Ic Dlvetcppement de V Intellisence et du
Langage chrz les F.nfants, Paris, 1879, p. 22.



could not enlarge his general idea of letters. Similarly, many
nations have regarded their own as the only real language ; the
language of foreign nations appeared to them as murmuring or
stammering, as the lisping of children, or the cries of animals.
Barbarians, the Greek word for all who were not Hellenic, signified
really persons who speak harshly and inarticulately. Correspond-
ing words and ideas are to be found among the ancient Indians,
Hebrews, and Arabians ; indeed even the people of the Herero (a
Kaffir race in South Africa) consider that they alone speak, and all
other nations stammer. It was only on closer acquaintance with
the "barbarians" that the Greeks discovered, that (to quote
Strabo's expression) the difference turned " not on a defect in the
organ of speech, but on peculiarities in the language." ^ And
similarly with the conception of " the State," which the Greeks
would not apply to the associations of the barbarians. — The Greeks
were more liberal in recognizing the divinities of other nations ;
yet the first Christians were styled atheists (adeoC), and in later
times those whose conception of God has differed from the ordinary
conception have often been stigmatized with the same name. — How
many struggles with limited general ideas did it not cost, before it
began to be recognized that the earth is a planet and the sun a
fixed star ! — The development of the life of ideation consists, then,
as much in generalization as in specialization, and in both respects
great resistance may have to be overcome.

10. General ideas cannot be formed and retained in conscious-
ness without the help of language. To the association by similarity
of the homogeneous elements in percepts and ideas must be added,
then, the association by contiguity between the idea and its symbol
(S,d. III.).

Even if language is from the first essentially a medium for the
communication of formed ideas, and not for their formation and
retention, and even if the combination of ideas may advance to
a certain degree without the aid of language, there yet arrives a
point in mental development where language is necessary to any
further advance.

In proof of the independence of the ideational processes,
appeal might be made to the facts,— that children have ideas and
think before they learn to speak,— that the power of speech is lost
in certain pathological states without the reason being in any way

1 L. Oeiger, Ursprung und Entiuickcliing der jnenschlicken Sprache und Vernunft
("Origin and Development of Human Speech and Reason"), i, p. 300, seq.


impaired, — and finally, that in certain languages expressions are
wanting for ideas, which cannot themselves be unknown to the
nations using those languages.

But even if no speech can be ascribed to a young child, there is
at any rate no lack of signs and tokens which may serve as a means
of retaining the ideas, being associated with them by contiguity.
At this stage, instinct and feeling have the upper hand. These
obtain a vent in involuntary expressions, which become, as soon
as the child is able to notice them, a sort of mark by which
the percept or idea causing the feeling receives an impress dis-
tinguishing it from others. Thus the very first formation of ideas is
not wholly without extraneous support, even though it is not the
word which affords it. The child begins life with a cry, but does
not himself hear this cry. It is not long, however, before he begins
to find a great satisfaction in the sounds made by himself. Out of
these sounds, brought forth involuntarily, the child forms his first
speech. Even at the age of six months he can often give answer in
this language when he is spoken to. Afterwards there comes a
period when this instinctive speech is used and modified with more
freedom, so that an imitation of the speech he hears around him is
attempted.^ At this intermediate stage the speech of each child is
quite individual. It is only at the third stage that language, as
historically developed, obtains a hold on the child, and then the
combinations of ideas also become easier and livelier.

It is no wonder that men are able to dispense with speech, after
having availed themselves of it for a whole lifetime. The ideas
have then naturally become strong enough to be able to endure, for
at least a time, without the help of the symbol. Besides, they have
gestures and actions, by which the ideas may be held fast. A
striking example of the fact that ideas, when once formed, are
independent of words, is afforded in a woman of seventy years of
age, whom Kussmaul mentions.^ In consequence of an apoplectic
seizure, she had lost the power of speaking and wxiting, and could
give vent to sounds only when she was affected by violent emotion.
She could read, however, and displayed great energy and intelli-
gence in the recovery of her right to manage her property, which
had been taken from her under the mistaken idea that she was
weak in mind.

' I base this account on the store of words possessed by a two-year-old child. — Cf. also
the work cited of Egger's, p. 20 ; I'reyer, Die Seele dcs Kindcs, p. 259, sc(]. (Eng.
trans, ii. p. 99, seq.)

"^ Dit atorungen der Sprache, p. 23.


When a language lacks expressions for an idea, which is yet
probably possessed by the people — as e.g. in the case of the Samo-
yedes, who, according to Castren, have no term for gratitude— this
may be explained in several ways. It may be that the feeling exists
as an instinctive, involuntary emotion, which has not become an
object of consciousness ; it is characteristic of savage races, that
in their friendly as in their egotistic feelings they are children of
the moment. Castren adds that a Samoyede will risk death for
any one who has made him a present. Or the explanation might
be that the Samoyedes do not have quite the same general idea as
we have formed, the elements of what we called gratitude, being
perhaps included in the expression for a related virtue. Thus we,
for example, have no one word to express the Latin " pietas." ^

The primitive cognitive functions, sensation and perception, do
not require the definite symbols of language. The memory-image,
if not perfectly fresh and vivid, may, however, be in need of the
name. The more the memory and the idea renew the reality
for us and approximate to intuition, the more they are independent
of the word (see 7, a and /'). But with more faded and especially
with typical and general ideas, the word is an essential help. With
some people thought is an inner speech to the extent that intense
thought makes them hoarse. For this reason thought has been
called "a process of speech imperceptibly carried on in the
central parts," which stands in the same relation to actual speak-
ing as the will to actual movement.^ This is especially the
case with persons whose ideas of words consist mainly of
motor-representations."^ With other persons ideas of words are
mainly auditory or visual ideas, i.e. they are reproductions of
words as seen or heard.* Still there seems to be with everybody an
innervation, more or less strong, of the articulatory muscles in every
representation of a word.'^

In the general idea the word is of especial importance. For
here there is no longer anything which can be intuited, and even the
need for something to intuit introduces a danger, for it may lead to
the confounding of the typical with the individual. Only by means

1 Teener, Sfirahcts inakt ci/ver Tanken, pp. loo-ioi.— Thus the natives of Hawaii
appear to have only one word for love, friendship, gratitude, kindness, and respect ; they
denote all these feelings by the word aloha. Max Miiller Lectures (2nd ed.) 11. p. 343.

2 L. Geiger in the work cited, I, p. 58.

3 .Strieker, Studien iiber die Sprachvorstellungen ("Studies on the Ideas ot bpeecti ;,

Vienna, i88o, p. 20, 33. . . ,•,»•••• /rr- ^ 7

■» Cf. my treatise " UeberWiederkennen, Association und psychische Activitat (Kzer/tf/-

jnhrsschriftf. Wissenuhaftl. Philosophie, vol. xiv. (1890), p. 178).
5 [The text has been changed at Prof. HOfTding's request. (Tr.)J


of the name can llie clear and firm nucleus escape confusion with
its obscure and changing surroundings. The name is, as it were,
a substitute for the impossible intuition, and by misuse it may
even take the place of the general idea.

The deaf and dumb, even if they have not learnt to talk on
their fingers, describe objects and experiences in the liveliest and
most individual way by gestures and imitative movements. But
this very individuality and concretencss of their expressions makes
it impossible for them to form clear and definite general ideas ;
these do not get properly disjoined from individual ideas. Thus
they indicate meat and food by pointing to their own body,
red by touching the lips. They can express the special way in
which a thing is made (a wall built, a dress cut out, etc.), but not
the general idea of making. This is why the want of hearing and
speech so greatly interferes with mental development.'

II. The definite limitation of the idea, which is rendered possible
by the concentration of attention, assisted by the symbol of the
name, makes possible in its turn the transition from idea to concept,
and from mere association of ideas \.o iJioiio;ht proper.

Thought proper is not absolutely opposed to the involuntary tlow
of ideas (any more than to sensuous perception, see V. A. 5 and B. 3).
From two sides relationship is apparent. In thought proper
is exercised, only in a more regulated manner and according to
certain definite principles, the same activity that manifests itself in
all sensation, sensuous perception and association of ideas : the
comparing activity, which we have described in its elementary, its
implicate, and its free form. And this application of the comparing
activity acconii/tj^ to definite pri/ia'ples is possible only because
there is a definite interest in combining ideas in a way that can
stand the test of experience. This interest leads to the search
for a certain standard, by which every combination of ideas may be

Online LibraryHarald HøffdingOutlines of psychology → online text (page 19 of 41)