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Psychology: empirical and rational online

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lectual processes; and, accordingly, in this chapter we
purpose to treat of the formation of universal notion'- or

Conception: Two Questions. — When investi-
gating the formation of concepts, it is important
to distinguish two separate, though connected
questions : — How are they elaborated ? and How

1 " Intellectus noster directe non est cognoscitivus nisi univer-
salitim. Indirecte autem et quasi per quamdam reflexionem potest
cognoscere singidare." (St. Thomas, Qq. disp. Be verit. q. 8, a. 14.)


are they originated ? The former may be stated
thus : Given the most rudimentary and indeter-
minate acts of intellectual apprehension, what is the
process by which these are developed and elaborated
into the clear and distinct universal concepts, the
specific ideas, and scientific notions of later life ?
The other is : — How are these primitive intellectual
data themselves obtained ? Or : How is the rational
faculty of the mind evoked into activity and made
cognizant of the object which stimulates the sense? -

Elaboration of Universal Concepts. — Intuitive
Abstraction and Generalization: In mature life the per-
ception of a single specimen is often the occasion of
our forming a truly universal idea. For instance,
whilst visiting the Zoological Gardens, an unfamiliar
object presents itself to my senses and awakens an act
of intellectual attention. I at once apprehend it as a
large - dark - hairy- skinned - hump - backed - long - necked-
four-footed-self-moving thing. The complex idea thus
awakened in my mind was termed by the schoolmen a
direct or potentially universal concept. Considered
abstractly in itself it is neither universal nor singular.
The same holds true of any simple idea given in an act
of any direct perception, such as that of colour or taste. ^

- The above distinction may be useful to the reader of the
Scholastic manuals. Under the heading Origin of Ideas, these works
discuss the second question, whilst English text-books of Psychology
confine themselves exclusively to the first.

^ "The conception of an abstract quality is, taken by itself,
neither universal nor particular. If I abstract zvhitc from the rest
of a wintry landscape this morning, it is a perfectly definite con-
ception, a self-identical quality which I may mean again ; but as I
have not yet individualized it by expressly meaning to restrict it to
this particular snow, nor thought of the possibility of other things
to which it may be applicable, it is so far but a floating adjective."
(James, Vol. I. p. 473.) Compare St. Thomas: "Si quaeratur
utrum ista natura (natura humana considerata modo absoluto ut
abstracta) possit dici una vel plures, neutrum concedendum est, quia
utrumque est extra conceptum humanitatis, et utrumque potest sibi
(humanitati) accidere. Si enim pluralitas esset de ratione ejus nun-


I may now, by an act of reflective consciousness, turn
my attention back from the thing to the idea, and whilst
considering the idea advert to its susceptibihty of
being reaHzed or reproduced in an indefinite number of
similar beings. In this second stage the idea has
become a perfectly general concept, called by the
schoolmen a reflex universal. The object before me may
happen to be a unique monster ; but, nevertheless,
it suffices for the formation of the logically-universal

It is not necessary for me to see and compare several
examples of the class. I have not to await the automatic
evolution of a generic image by the fusion of a succession of
impressions. The mind's spontaneous power of abstraction
and generalization, when once awakened, can itself construct
the universal notion. The single experience reveals to me
the union, and, therefore, the compatibility of the collection
of notes which constitute the concept ; I perceive its internal
possibility, and advert to its susceptibility of multiplication.
The idea, however, thus rapidly formed may not represent
accurately any existing class of object ; it most probably does
not correspond to an actual species. The colour or the size,
for instance, which enter into my representation may be
accidental or even peculiar to the particular animal before
me. The idea is truly general, but the generalization is pre-
cipitate, and probahly false if supposed to represent the
actual order of the physical universe. It possesses what Abbe
Piat calls Viiniversalite de droit, but not yet riiniversalite defait.
It is a logical, not a scientific universal. It has to be per-
fected by protracted experience, which involves, on the one
hand, a diligent observation of new examples, and on the
other, reiterated reflective consideration and readjustment of
the idea, so as to adapt it more closely to the facts.'*

quam posset esse una, quum tamen una sit secundum quod est in
Socrate. Similiter si unitas asset de intellectu et ratione ejus, tunc
esset una et eadem natura Socratis et Platonis, nee posset in
pluribus plurificari." {De Ente et Essentia, c. IV. Cf. Rickaby, First
Principles, p. 316. )

■* " Considerons par exemple la couleur d'une boule d'ivoire.
Par elle-meme cette couleur est la qualite de cette boule, un mode
indissolublement lie a cette boule, n'existant et ne pouvant exister
qu'en elle. Mais qu'une fois cette couleur soit le terme de mon
intelligence que je n'en aie pas seulement la sensation, mais encore
I'idee, aussitot et par le fait raeme, avant de savoir si cette qualite se


Furthermore, in +' j act of apprehension, whicli seemed so
rapid, we cognize the object as dark-coloured, hairy-skinned,
self-moving, and the Hke. But each of these adjectives
expresses a universal notion, and the complex conception of
the camel is thus easily attained, only because we are already
in possession of the more elementary ideas, of which it is
constituted. In mature life cognition is often a process of
rt?-cognition, perception an exercise of apperception; we
comprehend an object by bringing it under a class, or a
system of intersecting classes with which we are already
famiUar. But we must not be misled by this fact into the
error that all cognition is classification.-'' The notion of being,
which is the most primitive, the most indeterminate, and the
widest of all ideas, and which, moreover, enters into all our
intellectual cognitions, is not the outcome of a process of
comparison, but of intellectual intuitionS' The same is true of
simple ideas presented in direct acts of apprehension, though
the exigencies of language force us to express the experience
in the form of classification. In the mental act itself, we may
simply intuit an object or attribute, which may or may not be
familiar ; but if we seek to put the thought into words, it must
be in terms symbolic of recognized classes — e.g., "That is
scarlet," or " This is painful." Moreover, the nature of
mental action must be the same in kind throughout man's
life, although intellectual activity is very faint and feeble in
the early stages of its exercise ; at all events, any con-
rencontre ailleurs dans la nature, je la vols applicable a une infinite
d'autres boules d'ivoire et peut-etre aussi a une infinite d'autres
corps. II en est de meme de toute substance, de tout mode, de tout
rapport, de tout ce que nous connaissons. Un objet quelconque qui
penetre dans notre conscience empirique, acquiert sous le regard de
notre conscience rationelle et du premier coup une sort iVuniversalite
qui va jusqu' a I'infini. Dans tout individu donne, I'intelligence
decouvre une essence et dans cette essence la possibilite de se realiser
dans tons les temps et tous les lieux autant de fois qu'on le voudra.
Au-dessus de riiniversalite de fait il-y-a VnniversaUte de droit., dont le
propre est d'etre essentielle a I'dee ; Xo^iqne, 3.hso\\.\e." IL' Intellect
Actif, p. 82.)

^ Herbert Spencer's laboured assault on the possibility of a
notion of the absolute {First Principles, pp. 79—82) is based on this
fallacy. "God being unclassable," is not thereby "unknowable.".
We can conceive Him as a unique Being, possessed of intelligence,'
power, and holiness without limit; and our conception, though
inadequate, is good so far as it goes.

^ " In his autem quae in apprehensione homlnum cadunt quidam
ordo invenitur nam illud quod primo cadit in apprehensione est ens
cujus intellectus includitur in omnibus qu;vcumque quis appre-
hendit." (St. Thoma"=;, Sum. Thcol. 1-2, q. 94, a. 2.)


jectures we make as to the developme ^t of rational cognition
in childhood must be based on what w^. know of the working
of the human mind at a later period — but, of course, corrected
and qualified by all relevant facts that we can gather from a
diligent study of infant life.

Intellectual Apprehension.— At what age intel-
lectual cognition proper begins it is impossible to
determine. The sensuous faculties must, however,
have attained a certain maturity before the liigher
functions of the mind are evoked into activity.
Careful observation seems to establish that the
primitive consciousness of the infant is an ill-defined
sensory continuum, a mass of obscure homogeneous
feeling in which there is little advertence to differences
of objects or sensations. (See p. 151.) With frequent
exercise and varied experience in the manner already
described, the sensuous powers develop until they are
sufficiently perfect to minister to intellectual cogni-
tion. When this stage is reached the intellectual act
elicited must be the same in kind as that which the
mind exerts in later life. It must be an act of intel-
lectual apprehension, but of course of the vaguest
character. The widest and most indeterminate con-
ception under which we can cognize any object is that
of betJig or thing. The earliest intellectual cognition
elicited by the child is, therefore, the apprehension of
an object as a being, or rather as an ens extensnm — a
stretched-out-thing, whilst vague intuitions of moving-
being, coloured - being, resisting - being, are almost
simultaneously reached. It takes in objects as
confused ivholes before it discriminates their separate
parts. It perceives them as totalities before dis-
tinguishing their various attributes. But the process
by which the vague notions thus reached are contracted
and enriched, are analj^zed, clarified, and perfected is 11

merely the reiterated exercise of this same intellectual ||

power of apprehensive attention. ||

Comparative Abstraction. — Attention is especially „

awakened by repetition of an experience, especially if
this be connected with the child's own physical
comfort or pleasure. The frequent re-appearance of


some object excites interest. The sensuous perception
becomes more perfect ; the image produced in the
imagination more distinct. Suppose, for instance,
that some agreeable phenomenon, as, e.g., a bright red
garment or a cup of milk breaks in from time to time
upon the drowsy consciousness of the infant ; the
pleasure occasioned \vill stimulate attention to the
object ; the recurring incident or group of incidents
will be noticed, and observation will be concentrated
upon them. This focussing of attention on part of an
experience has as its counterpart abstraction or precision,
that is, the temporar}' withdrawal of our mental gaze
from the elements unattended to. Still, the contraction
of our attention to one object or part of an object is not
so complete as to result in the entire ignoring of its
surroundings. Indeed, with repetition of the experience
the surroundings themselves become matters of interest,
and the variations which accompany the constant factor
begin to be discerned more and more clearly. Whilst
some attributes presented in the original vague act ot
apprehension recur regularly, others are intermittent
or disappear. The red garment first observed when
stretched-out is afterwards noticed folded in various
ways, and its shape is different. The milk is now hot,
now cold, sometimes sweetened with sugar, some-
times not, and the like. The notion of sameness amid
change is being evoked, and this leads the child to

Comparison and Discrimination. — Comparison
plays a considerable part in the elaboration of our con-
cepts ; but it implies their previous existence in at least
a vague form. The mind cannot compare unless b}- an
act of apprehension it is already in possession of the
terms to be compared. Partial variation accompanying
partial sameness in the objects of experience stimulates
the judicial activity of the mind, which at first acts
feeblv, but with increasing firmness and distinctness
as the faculties develop. Discrimination involves
analysis, the splitting-up of the perceived object into
its constituent elements ; whilst this very process of
separation pre-supposes an intuitive synthetic grasp of


tlie object as ^ ?c'/;tV^ in the original conception, which
is now reahzed with greater distinctness. The shape,
colour, temperature, and softness of the garment, and
the sweetness, temperature, and colour of the milk are
distinguished as attributes of the perceived object, and the
cliild is perfecting its notion of unity and coming to
realize the difference between substance and accident in
the original vague ens externum. It should not, however,
be forgotten that the recognition of sameness involves
■memory ; and that although the natural tendency of the
mind is in the beginning altogether objective, there
must be an implicit awareness of its own enduring
existence, developing in the consciousness of the child
concomitantly with its cognition of the persistence of
external things.

But the infant's experience is not limited to
the recurrence of the same individual objects. He
perceives different beings resembling each other in fewer
or more features ; and his attention is called to the
recurrence of a common element in quite different
situations. Thus, after he has grown familiar with the
red garment, he observes a red table-cover or a red
neck-tie, and adverting to the similarity not unfre-
quently manifests his satisfaction at the discovery.
This is an important epoch in the elaboration of the
general concept, for such an experience stimulates
in a livel}^ manner the abstractive power of the
intellect, and incites the infant mind to consciously
consider and dwell upon the conception redness in a
conjpletely abstract state.

Generalization. — The transition to the perfectly
general concept, the formally reflex universal idea, is
now very rapid. The child having observed tliis red
colour in different objects, and conceived it in the
abstract by a further reflective act, considers it as
capable of indefinite realization in other objects.
The mind exerts its synthetic power and constructs
new specimens, all embodying this attribute, and con-
sciously adverts to the fact that it may be predicated of
them all.

As we have already pointed out, the formation of a


general concept is quite possible in mature life after a
single perception ; and the operation may be similarly
within the power of the child at a very early date.
Nevertheless, it seems to us more probable that the
reflective consideration of the concept involved in the
act of formal generalization is ordinarily excited in
the infant by the comparison of different objects and the
discovery of a common attribute in several individuals.
But the view of the older empiricists that generali-
zation is simply the outcome of an accumulation oi
experiences is utterh^ erroneous. The active generali-
zing impulse is innate in our rational nature. Na}^
experience is needed not to stimulate and excite, but
to check and moderate this generalizing tendency.
The chief use of reiterated observation is rather
to correct and verify than to generate universal con-

Precisely the same functions of the intellect —
attention, abstraction, analysis, synthesis, comparison,
and discrimination — are employed in fashioning the
notions of science and those of ordinary life ; and their
work in both cases is the same — to correct, adjust, and
verify the vague idea generated spontaneously by the
mind's own activity operating on concrete individual
facts. Science is, after all, but a further elaboration
and systematization of our ordinary cognitions, em-
ploying more careful methods of observation.

Let us, for example, trace the growth of the idea of cat.
By its repeated appearance before the infant pussy excites
attention, and is apprehended as a white-fonr-legged-self-
moving-thing. On subsequent occasions it is observed standing,
moving, sometimes mysteriously crumpling itself up and sitting
down, sometimes lying seemingly dead on the hearth-rug. The
image of pussy is by this time very distinct, but the concept is
still very imperfect. It is merely that white-four-legged-self-
moving-thing-which-does-curious-acts. Still the mind can
and probably does generalize it. The child is quite prepared
to apply the notion to an indefinite number of white, self-
moving quadrupeds. Later on a black cat intrudes, and the
general likeness in form, movement, and habits, is recognized,
whilst the mind is disconcerted by the startling dissimilarity
in colour. The notion of cat has now to be enlarged to accom-


inodate itself henceforth to all hues. Next day the child
observes a St. Bernard's dog, and manifests his appreciation
of the similarity in this new self-moving quadruped. For him
it is a big cat. If a second dog now appear, the original
idea is seen to embrace two classes of objects. The concepts
of dog and cat are distinguished and contrasted; attention is
directed to their points of agreement and difference, and
both notions become speedily well defined. The shape of the
cat, its furry skin, its stealthy movement, its peculiar cry, are
combined and held together by a synthetic intellectual act,
and the concept of cat is formed and ready to be contrasted
with the idea of dog, or sheep, or to be inductively applied to
all future cats. The child's comparatively clear conception
of these domestic animals are thus elaborated out of the
primitive, ill-defined, and obscure apprehension of four-legged -
self-moving-being. Increasing experience continues to perfect
these conceptions, of the nature of common objects until the
average knowledge possessed in the child's social environment
is reached, when progress ordinarily stops, and his ideas
become practically fixed. Thus, the conceptions of cat and
dog, bread and butter, are approximately the same among
most people of the same degree of culture.

Commonly, however, when a special branch of
science is undertaken, there is at once a new start, and
an enlarged field of possible knowledge concerning the
things of which it treats opens out before our minds.
Still, the process is fundamentally of the same kind,
and the clear, distinct, and rich conception which the
chemist possesses of the nature of wafer, as composed
of oxygen and hydrogen and exhibiting a thousand
affinities and properties which distinguish it from other
species of things, is only a better elaborated form ot
the infant's idea of the disagreeable thing in which he
is daily washed." In fact the growth of our intellectual

"* Mercier justly insists : " Nous n'arrivons pas subitement a
Vessence spi'cifiquc des choses : nous commencons par saisir leurs
qualites, comme quelque chose de concret et de subsistant, nous ne
distinguons pas de prime abord, entre la substance comme telle et les
accidents qui I'affectent et y sont inherents, entre les qualites con-
tigentes et les caracteres neccssaircs, c'est-a-dire, \es proprii-tcs natuvelles
ou les notes essentielles du sujet que nous voudrions pouvoirdcfinir. . . .
Ce n'est que plus tard, par voie de comparaison et an moyen de
I'induction .... que nous approchons d'une maniere mediate, de la
connaissance de I'csscnce specifique des etres et de ce premicv fond
substanticl qui demeure invariable che^ eux a travers les variations


knowledge Is a continuous descent down Porphyry's tree.
Each step augments what logicians call the compre-
hension or connotation of our subjective conceptions ; that
is, it increases our knowledge of the essential attributes
of the being represented by our idea, whilst on the
other hand it lessens the extension or field of objects to
which the idea can be applied.

Thought and Language. — Naming. — The group
of attributes summed up in a concept thus formed
could, however, neither be retained in the memory nor
communicated to others unless they were embodied in
some definite sign. Hence we mark them with general
names. This is the final act of denomination^ the import-
ance of which in the growth of knowledge and the
elaboration of our concepts of specific essences, it
would be difficult to exaggerate. The recurrence of
the name will awaken in the future b}^ association
sensuous images of the individual objects perceived in
the past, but its essential functions are to hold together
and express the nucleus of attributes which constitute
the common nature apprehended in the universal
concept. Hamilton has characterized words as the
" fortresses of thought," and the phrase very fitly
indicates one of their most important duties. They
establish our command over conceptions which have
been gained by a protracted experience and might
otherwise be soon lost. By definition a term is made
to signify a determinate group of properties which we
have frequently found together. It registers the result
of a long series of observations ; it is readily repre-
sented in imagination, and serving as a general symbol,
it is handled with the greatest ease in our reasoning

incessantes de leurs accidents." {PsycJwIogie, p. 345.) Similarly
Coconnier : " Examinez les idees que vous faites des difterents
etres, et vous verrez que vous les avez toutes constituees a I'aide
des notions transcendentales et communes de i'ontologie, notions
generales d'etre, de substance, de qualites, de cause, d'action, de
space, etc. D'apres cela nos idees des choses materielles sont
comme autant de faisceaux, de concepts additiones, reunis et
groupes en autant dediverses manieres que nous connaissonsd'etres
materiels differents." {L'Ame humaine, p. 130. Cf. Feillaube, Thcoric
des Concepts, pp. 302, 303, 32G, 332—335.)


processes. These great advantages of language in
relation to complex ideas are conspicuously illustrated
in sciences like Botany and Chemistry, the nomenclature
and terminology of which have been formed on syste-
matic principles.

Communication of Ideas. — But the value of words is even
more obvious as instruments of communication, for which
purpose, indeed, they were primarily invented. Here the con-
dition of the child who comes into the possession of a language
already made is obviously very different from that of a human
being huilding up a system of speech for himself. The former
receives an enormous gratuitous gift of precious conceptions
to be appropriated with the least possible labour. The child
born into the inheritance of a cultivated language starts from
a level which has required numberless generations of great
minds to build up; and just as cities, roads, railways, and
machinery are contributions of the labours and the genius 01
past centuries towards his material welfare, so the vocabulary
of which he is put in possession with almost equal facility is
an accumulated legacy of incalculable worth in the enrich-
ment of his intellectual life.

Ideas prior to Words. — Useful, however, as language is for
the development and perfection of thinking, thei e is no
evidence that it is absolutely necessary to thought. Tlie idea
precedes the word ; the latter is invented to express the
former. The child is possessed of many simple ideas before
he can give utterance to them by oral sounds. Deaf mutes
are proved to have performed many intellectual operations
before they employ any kind of signs to express them.
Nevertheless, it is probable that in normal life no lengthy
chain of thought is carried on without the mind assisting itself
by the use of words which, in the case of the dumb, are
replaced bv movements, images, or physical symbols of some
other sort.^

Second Question. — Origin of Ideas. — Having thus
described at length what seems to us to be the most

Online LibraryMichael MaherPsychology: empirical and rational → online text (page 30 of 63)