John Fearn.

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Much Revered Sirs,

In dedicating to you the fruits of my
more mature labor, and the present time being one
in which the sentiments of every individual appear
to be pregnant with some consequence, I first desire
to prostrate myself with ineffable gratitude and
adoration to Almighty God, for having bestowed
upon me, together with existence, three of the most
precious gifts which any sublunary being can
enjoy; — a desire to contemplate the general
laws of His Providence ; — an age and country in
which I have liberty to express my conceptions of
them ; — and means to relinquish otlier pursuits in
favor of this bent, without stooping to solicitation,
or dependence upon aid, M'hich might have pre-
vented my choice, or biassed my opinions.


While I trust the avowal of this feeling will not
be unacceptable to you, inasmuch as it is a test of
the spirit in which the present offering is made ;
I beg to assure you, it has never tended to diminish
my sensibiUty to friendly manifestations of any sort,
and far less could it operate to make me overlook
what I conceive to be a debt, both of a private and
a public nature. If the following Volume should be
found to contain any new truth, worthy the philo-
sophical consideration either of our contemporaries
or of those who shall come after us ; I desire it may
bear testimony, that to you I stand particularly in-
debted for a warm and uniform interest displayed
for the success of these inquiries.

To one of you, I am obliged for that spontaneous
and unequivocal approbation of my earlier endea-
vours, which, when I reflected upon the pre-emi-
nence of erudition whence it came, was sufficient
to encourage my perseverance against a very rare
combination of forbidding circumstances. To the
commendation received from such a quarter, my
best acknowledgments are certainly due.

To the other, the circumstance of locality has
admitted of my being additionally indebted, for
the edification and pleasure received in his
converse, and for a course of obliging civilities,
during a series of years ; which have proved at


once a stimulus to my endeavours and a solace
under the languor induced by them.

Among the few external circumstances that
could have made me proud, is the reflection that
to these pursuits, and to no other origin, I owe
the honor of your friendship. And I shall consider
it among the most gratifying events of my life, if I
continue, duringthe remainder of it, to possess any
share of your regard.

I am,


With much Veneration,
Your faithful Servant,



O"^ THE ^^ \

yrnVERSlTY 1



F. R. SS. LOND. AND EDINB., &c. &c. &c.

Formerly Professor of Moral Philosophy
IN THE University of Edinburgh.


As it is impossible I should think of going before
the public with the following work, mthout providing a
clear understanding of the merits of the subject which
has been matter of discussion between us during the last
three years ; I yield with extreme reluctance to the ne-
cessity under which I am placed.

In resorting to the only alternative left me, for re-
moving an intolerable pressure upon both my past and
future exertions, in the pursuit to which I have sacrificed
a considerable portion of my life ; I cannot by any
consideration be prevented from rendering to you
the acknowledgments due to your great intellectual
attainments, and no less so to your high general
character. In addition to this, I owe your hav-
ing been pleased, in your last letter to me, to express
yourself in terms for which it appears I am under deep
obligation to our common friends, and which render it a
task of inexpressible irksomeness to be under the ne-
cessity to follow out this discussion. Although you
have left me no hope of iittaining my object from any
farther private reply ; and though I cannot but feel the


diflference between being obliged to justify myself in a
publication like the present, and being righted by you in
a vehicle of such extensive circulation as an Encyclo-
pedia ; 1 have no feeling toward you but what is in
perfect consonance with a trust that you can explain
the maitei to your own satisfaction; while I cannot
doubt of the impression which my case must carry to
every impartial understanding. I shall proceed, with
the utmost possible brevity, to narrate the facts in

In the course of following out some speculations with
regard to the Human Mind, which were first submitted
to the press near ten years since, I was led, by successive
steps, to eflfect what I apprehend to be an analysis of the
Act and Phenomena of Perception ; — a matter which, as
it advanced, I laid before the public, in two or three
small evanescent Tracts upon the subject. The generic
principle of this analysis, is the fact that a variety of
colors is necessary for the formation of every visiOteJigure
or outline: and the consequence deduced from this gene-
ric principle is, that visible figure or outline is purely a
relation of contrast between txvo of our own ideas.

Before I proceed farther ; it is important to remark,
that the consequence of demonstrating that tzm various
colors are necessary for an act of perception of visible
outline, (whereas it had always heretofore been assumed
that one color only is requisite for that purpose) is that of
transferring the Subject of Perception, from the Province
of mere Inductive Science, to which it had without any
exception been always supposed to belong, to Science
that is genericully mathematical or demonstrative. I
believe I run no hazard of being contradicted when I
affirm, that the difierence between the whoJe philosophi-
cal structure which can be erected upon this last founda-
tion, and that which can possibly be raised upon the as-

sumption that Perception is a subject of mere inductive
evidence, is incalculable.

Under favorable auspices; I might certainly have
expected that a matter of this aspect would have
excited curiosity and immediate general attention. But
I had launched it from any thing other than vantage
ground. At length, however, it was very fairly taken
up by public criticism ; whose even-handed strictures
furnish indubitable evidence of impartiality; while
I am happy to be able to declare, that I know not
the quarter whence it came : and you were judged to be
loudly called upon to defend your own positions, or those
of your venerable Predecessor, which are therein supposed
to be successfully questioned. Still, the matter had but
a very limited circulation, beyond my own friends ; and
the obstruction appeared to be wholly unaccountable.

It was in this state of the case that T first found leisure
to take up your '^Dissertation,*' prefixed to the Fifth
Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica and published
in the year 1815 ; the perusal of which I had till then
postponed, owing to languid health and pressing avoca-
tions. That work, I was aware, was professedly Histori-
cal; and, certainly, although I deemed the perusal of it
to be indispensable, I was less in haste about it, inas-
much as nothing was farther from my expectation than to
find in it any thing of the appearance of original matter.
In the course of going over it, however, I was struck
with indescribable surprise, upon finding, toward the
latter part, that you had suggested, (expressly with a
view " toward a solution " of a certain problem proposed
by Mr. D'Alembert,) that a variety of col' rs is neces-
sary to the act of perceiving Visible Figure or Outline. —
Having started this suggestion ; you introduce a very
conspicuous Foot Note at the bottom of the pa^e (iOl),
of which the following is a copy :

" 111 Dr. Reid's Inquiry, he has introduced a discussion
" concerning the perception of visible figure, which has
" puzzled me since the first time (more than forty years
" ago) that I read his work. The discussion relates to
" this question, ' Whether there be any sensation proper
" ' to visible figure, by which it is suggested in vision V
" The result of the argument is that our eye might have
^' been so framed as to suggest the figure of the object,
" without suggesting colour, or any other quality ; and, of
" consequence, that there is no sensation appropriated to
" visible figure, this quality being suggested immediately
" by the material impression upon the organ, of which
" impression we are not conscious.— To my apprehen-
'^ sion nothing can appear more manifest than this, that
" if there had been no variety in our sensations of colour,
''and still more if we had had no sensation of colour
" whatever, the organ of sight could have given us no
*' information, either with regard io figures or to distan-
" ces."

Now Sir, I will only suppose that any reader, who
had been perusing one of my prior publications of the
analysis of Perception, {in which the fact of a variety
OF COLORS forms the fundamental Principle,) had
taken up your " Dissertation," and had read the Foot
Note in question ; and I will then leave it to the judgment
of any impartial person, or to your own candor, if they
must not have been struck with violent doubts of my
originality, and even of my ingenuousness of character ?

As, from your last letter, you altogether admit that
there is no hint of any such matter as the operation
of A variety of colors in perception, in any one of
your prior writings up to the appearance of your Disser-
tation in the year 1815 ; it must be allowed to have been
a most unfortunate accident for me, that you should have
brought before the public a claim to a long antecedent


knowledge of the fact in question, just after I had made
two or three successive attempts to bring the matter into
not'< e as my own original suggestion. And it must also
be admitted, that, to those who may have perused my
statements, it w^as giving the matter an aspect of some
implied particular meaning, that you deemed it worth
your while to bring the claim forward in a Work profes-
sedly only Historical, when you had never thought it wor-
thy of notice in any of your Volumes which treat directly
of the Subject. I must however request you to observe,
that I have never at all imputed to you any intention to
injure me by this proceeding : On the contrary, I have,
throughout the discussion, I hope with the utmost consi-
deration for your station and character, always made the
supposition of its being merely an accidental co-incidence.
But I cannot help expressing my surprise that yoo should
have been so slow to understand, what I have repeatedly
endeavoured to impress upon your attention, namely, that
although I never was '* ojf ended ," nor supposed injury to
have been meant, I was unfortunately laboring under
an intolerable pressure from what you had published ;
which, until it should be removed by your explanation
in some public channel, must actually amount to a
suffocation of my past and future endeavours ; and that,
too, attended with additional very painful feelings.

Sir; It is impossible for any person for a moment to
doubt, what the eifect of your Foot Note must haie been ,-
and, unless counteracted, must continue to he ; upon the
minds of that very large and important class of readers
who will make it a point to read your Dissertation ; and,
(much more than this,) upon that far larger number which
will continue to find your Foot Note recorded in a Vehicle
of such extensive circulation as the Encyclopedia Britan-
nica. I blush when 1 yield to the necessity od' feeling, that
every one of that class of persons, who may happen to
take up either any former publication of mine or any


that I may still be enabled to produce, including the
Volume now submitted to the Public, if they be not
aware of any thing to the contrary, whenever they
perceive that I am endeavouring to advance any matter
as deduced iiom. the generic principle of a variety of
COLORS, they cannot choose but throw the thing from
them with unqualified disgust, under the impression
that I was attempting to impose upon the public us an ori-
ginal matter of my ozcn, a thing which had been known
to Professor Stewart '' more than forty years^

But, although this certainly is the most painful con-
sequence of what you have published ; there is another
eflfect, which, if not counteracted, must present a
complete bar to my hope of being useful in the walk in
which I have been engaged. This is, that you have
mentioned the matter concerning a variety of colors
as a mere barren inconsequential fact ; and the natural
conclusion with readers, from this, must be, that I am en-
gaged in some very mistaken or frivolous research, when
I offer to the public, as a matter pregnant with the most
extensive philosophical consequences, a fact which,
although it has been known to Professor Stewart more
than forty years, has not been found by him to involve any
philosophical consequence whatever.

It was under the pressure of these two evils that
I privately addressed you, between two and three years
ago, and have repeated the appeal in several subse-
quent letters, to request that you would explain the
matter, and place me, as far as possible, in safety from
its effects, by acknowledging my priority in the suggestion
of the generic principle in question, in some public chan-
nel, especially in the Second Dissertation which it was
understood you were to furnish to the Encyclopedia; this
being the only channel commensurate with that in
which I am a sufferer.


After several intermediate communications with which
you honored me, of an indecisive tenor ; you have, at
length, under date the 30th of August last, vouchsafed
me the satisfaction of admitting that priority which I
claimed : but, although you acknowledge this in so far as
regards yourself, you have qualified the recognition with
an intimation that the matter at issue is of an older origin;
and this alone would place me under the necessity to ani-
madvert upon a part of your letter, which I shall for
.this purpose transcribe. But farther, I am to observe,
you have not for a moment listened to my request that
you would counteract the evil pressing upon me, by
offering an explanation of the matter in any public chan-
nel. Nothing therefore is left for me, but to endeavour
to right myself in the channel of my own publication.

Your last letter being in answer to my urgent repre-
sentation, that I was upon the very eve of publishing the
following Volume, and that I could not possibly go before
the public without noticing the matter ; you of course
intended the answer to be final, and that I should make
this use of it. It appears therefore necessary for me to
offer some observations upon the following part of it.

" You refer to something I have said about Varieties
" of colour ; and call on me to acknowledge your priority.
" The only passage I can discover in which I have used
" that expression, is in pp. 100, 101, where I have men-
" tioned as a self-evident proposition, that ' if there had
" ' been no variety in our sensations of colour, and still
" ' more if we had had no sensation of colour whatever,
" * the organ of sight could give no information either with
" ^ respect to figures or to distances.* If this be the pas-
" sage which has given you offence, I must take the
" liberty of observing, that I have taken no credit to my-
*' self for the novelty of the remark, and which is to be


** found in various books written fifty years before I ever
" heard of your name. I shall only mention the first
^' volume of Lord Monboddo's Origin and Progress of
" Language, where it is expressly said, that ' Colour is
" ' the primary perception of the sense of Seeing, and that
" ' the others are only consequential. Figure and Magni-
" * tude' (he adds) ' are nothing else but colour of a certain
" ' extent and terminated in a certain manner.' (Vol. i. 2d
" Edit, page 26. Edin. 1774.) Should this really be the
" observation you allude to (and I cannot possibly think
" of any other), you have my free consent to take the cre-
" dit of the discovery ; nor shall I ever dispute your
" originality. I have only to request, on the other hand,
" that you shall not insist on any acknowledgment on
" my part, that I learned it from your publications. — If
" from this principle which has so long remained barren
" in the hands of others, you have been able to deduce
" any important consequences, the greater is the praise
" due to your inventive powers, and to your philosophi-
" cal sagacity.'*

With regard to this passage of your letter ; I must, in
the first place, beg to point out to you a most important
consideration ; namely, that although it is your own
Foot Note that you have quoted in it, and which cer-
tainly is the very matter of which I have complained,
you have entirely omitted that part of it which asserts
that the matter in question had been contemplated by
you "more than forty years ago."

Now this assertion, of yo\ir forty years knowledge of the
fact, is the very point which, it is quite manifest, has
borne with intolerable weight, not only upon my
subject and prospects, but also upon my claims to
sincerity or ingenuousness ; because it naturally leads
any reader to conclude, that you must have mentioned
so old a fact in some one or other of your former writings


which treat properly of the Mind; and that, from
the nature of my studies, I could not have been
ignorEuit that y6u were before me in it. Yet you omit
this part of your Note ; and persevere in supposing
that I am " offended :'* when the unfortunate truth is
that I am not offended, but am very seriously harmed,
and have only sought for relief.

Next ; With regard to the " discovery'' of the generic
fact in question, namely, that A variety of colors is
necessary for the perception of visible outline ; although
I shall state my reasons for confidently believing that the
fact resides with myself, I freely acknowledge it is
so self-evident a thing that I shall never plume myself
upon the discernment of it, unless from the negative con-
sideration that it never has been adverted to by those
who have gone before me. And, as the deduction of
the Four Specific Laws of Vision is the matter in which
all the importance of the Subject lies ; and there is no
fear that I can be deprived of the originality of this mat-
ter ; it would certainly not be worth a controversy to
insist upon my claim to the mere generic fact. But, as
I have had occasion to mention repeatedly, both in
former publications and in the course of the following
Volume, that it is not to be found in any author
with whom I am acquainted ; and, as it will greatly
conduce to the advancement of the Subject to
have the merits of the fact clearly ascertained, at the
same time that I feel it to be absolutely incumbent upon
me to justify my own assertions ; it is impossible for
me to forego a specific answer to this part of your letter.

First ; As you say the generic fact is " to be found
" in various books ;" and have quoted Lord Monboddo's
work as a particular instance ; it may be presumed you
had no better one in your recollection, at the moment.
You must. Sir, then allow me to express my surprise, that
you should for a moment offer the passage from Lord


Monboddo's work, as an instance of an assertion that
a VARIETY of colors is necessary to the perception of
visible outline. You have quoted the passage correctly.
But; Does the assertion that " Figure and Magnitude are
'* nothing else but colour of a certain extent, and terminated
'^ in a certain manner,'* furnish the most distant hint of
the MANNER in which color is terminated'^

Upon this occasion I must observe, after many years
intense study of this part of our constitution, that
there is a subtilty in the phenomena of vision, which
renders even the most self-evident facts extremely diffi-
cult to hit ; although nothing can be more manifest the
moment after they have struck us. You acknowledge
that you have looked into the Essay on Consciousness,
which I had the honor to send to you in the year 1812.
Now, in page 47 of that Volume I incipiently broached
the fact concerning a variety of colors ; but it was not
until the year 1813 that I was able to publish a clear
statement even of the generic principle ; and it was some-
what later than that, that I was first enabled to deduce
the other three laws of vision, so as to form the general
analysis of perception ; — every one of which laws,
however, is as self-evident as the generic fact itself. I
state these circumstances merely to show, that Philo-
sophers might, and indeed I have myself all along pointed
out the fact that they always have entertained the
supposition that '' Visible Figure is nothing else but
color terminated in a certain manner" but, that this is
being {in point of consequences) no less than an infinite
distance from discerning the simple self-evident truth of
nature, that visible figure i$ nothing but a contrast
between two colors. As a proof of this ; the supposition of
Lord Mohboddo, or of any other of the adherents of the
Ideal Theory, leaves the Subject of Perception within
the Province oimexe physical or inductive science ; whereas,
the moment we recognize that a visible line is only a
contrast between two of our own sensations of colors.

±S ii

we discern that a line is an eternal and necessary result of
the phenomena, and Perception becomes instantly ac-
knowledf^ed for demonstrative science, strictly speaking !

When a writer is treating philosophically of the na-
ture of Visible Magnitude and Figure, as was the case
with Lord Monboddo ; and makes use, as he did, of the
phrase " terminated in a certain manner;" there are but
two possible meanings which this expression can con-
vey ; either it betrays that the writer does ^ot know
the manner, so as to be able to state it precisely or philo-
sophically, or else, that a description of it would demand
some inconvenient expense cf words. Now I put it to the.
common sense of every person ; Whether, if an author had
at all known the strict simple fact, that a visible figure is


he would have expressed himself in such a dark, im-
meaning, and in such case unnecessarily affected and
pompous phraseology, as to say that visible figure is
" colour terminated in a certain manner." The matter
speaks for itself: — the phrase " terminated in a certain
" manner " is a manifest indication of the ignorance of
the particular manner in which it IS terminated. And
here I must beg to impress upon your attention, the infi-
nite difi'erence th^re is between a truth being self-evident
ti'hen suggested, and its being infallibly evident without
being pointed out. All the Propositions in the analysis
of Perception are as self-evident as the Axioms of Geo-
metry; and yet, the present discussion will furnish
ample evidence that the truths which those Propositions
affirm have in all ages escaped detection.

I will myself suggest to you the name of an author
who, I think, has approached far more nearly to the
fact under consideration than Lord Monbdodo ; but
who is yet vastly distant from the truth in question.'
Bishop Berkeley, (in his 'New Theory of t^ision, Prop.
156.,) where he is inquiring what progress a Spirit, en*
Hu, Mi. . b


dowed with no Sense except that of Sight, could make in
the knovyleclge of Geometry, expresses himself in the
following terms. — *' All that is properly perceived by
*' the Visive Faculty amounts to no more than Colours
'' with their Variations and different proportions of light
" and shade." — And then he says, — " It's true, there be
'' divers of 'em perceived at once ; and more of some,
*' and less of others ; But accurately to compute
" their Magnitude, and assign precise determinate Pro-
'' portions between things so variable and inconstant,
" if we suppose it possible to be done, must yet be a
*' very trifling and insignificant labour."

Online LibraryJohn FearnFirst lines of the human mind → online text (page 1 of 39)