Thomas Reid.

The works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters online

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tion may be brought forth, ripened, and
exposed to view at our pleasure, and in an

Thus the wisdom of ages, and the most
sublime theorems of science, may be laid
up, like an Iliad in a nut-shell, and trans-
mitted to future generations. And this
noble purpose of language can only be ac-
complished by means of general words
annexed to the divisions and subdivisions of
things. [438]

What has been said in this chapter, I
think, is sufficient to shew that there can be
no language, not so much as a single pro-
position, without general words ; that they
must make the greatest part of every lan-
guage ; and that it is by them only that
language is fitted to express, with wonder-
ful ease and expedition, all the treasures
of human wisdom and knowledge.



As general words are so necessary in
language, it is natural to conclude that there
must be general conceptions, of which they
are the signs.

Words are empty sounds when they do
not signify the thoughts of the speaker ;
and it is only from their signification that
they are denominated general. Every word
that is spoken, considered merely as a sound,
is an individual sound. And it can only be
called a general word, because that which it
signifies is general. Now, that which it
signifies, is conceived by the mind both of
the speaker and hearer, if the word have a
distinct meaning, and be distinctly under-
stood. It is, therefore, impossible that
words cam have a general signification, un-
less there be conceptions in the mind of
the speaker and of the hearer, of things
that are general. It is to such that I give
the name of general conceptions ; and it
ought to be observed, that they take this
denomination, not from the act of the mind
in conceiving, which is an individual act,
but from the object or thing conceived,
which is general.

We are, therefore, here to consider
whether we have such general conceptions,
and how they are formed. [439]

To begin with the conceptions expressed
by general terms— that is, by such general
words as may be the subject or the predi-



[[essay v.

cate of a proposition. They are either
attributes of things, or they are genera or
ipecies of things.

It is evident, with respect to all the indi-
viduals we are acquainted with that we have
a more clear and distinct conception of their
attributes than of the subject to which those
attributes belong.

Take, for instance, any individual body
we have access to know — what conception do
we form of it ? Every man may know this
from his consciousness. He will find that
he conceives it as a thing that has length,
breadth, and thickness, such a figure and
such a colour ; that it is hard, or soft, or
fluid ; that it has such qualities, and is fit
for such purposes. If it is a vegetable, he
may know where it grew, what is the form
of its leaves, and flower, and seed. If an
animal, what are its natural instincts, its
manner of life, and of rearing its young.
Of these attributes, belonging to this indi-
vidual and numberless others, he may
surely have a distinct conception ; and he
will find words in language by which he can
clearly and distinctly express each of them.

If we consider, in like manner, the con-
ception we form of any individual person of
our acquaintance, we shall find it to be made
up of various attributes, which we ascribe to
him ; such as, that he is the son of such a
man, the brother of such another ; that he
has such an employment or office ; has such
a fortune ; that he is tall or short, well or
ill made, comely or ill favoured, young or
old, married or unmarried ; to this we may
add his temper, his character, his abilities,
and perhaps some anecdotes of his history.

Such is the conception we form of indi-
vidual persons of our acquaintance. By
such attributes we describe them to those
who know them not ; and by such attri-
butes historians give us a conception of the
personages of former times. Nor is it pos-
sible to do it in any other way. [440]

All the distinct knowledge we have or
can attain of any individual is the know-
ledge of its attributes; for we know not
the essence of any individual. This seems
to be beyond the reach of the human facul-

Now, every attribute is what the ancients
called an universal. It is, or may be, com-
mon to various individuals. There is no
attribute belonging to any creature of God
which may not belong to others ; and, on
this account, attributes, in all languages, are
expressed by general words.

It appears, likewise, from every man's
experience, that he may have as clear and
distinct a conception of such attributes as
we have named, and of innumerable others,
as he can have of any individual to which
they belong.

Indeed, the attributes of individuals is all

that we distinctly conceive about them. It |
is true, we conceive a subject to which the I
attributes belong; but of this subject, when
its attributes are set aside, we have but an
obscure and relative* conception, whether it i
be body or mind.

This was before observed with regard to
bodies, Essay II. chap. 19, [p. 322] to
which we refer ; and it is-no less evident
with regard to minds. What is it we call a
mind ? It is a thinking, intelligent, active
being. Granting that thinking, intelli-
gence, and activity, are attributes of mind,
I want to know what the thing or being is
to which these attributes belong ? To this
question I can find no satisfying answer.
The attributes of mind, and particularly its
operations, we know clearly ; but of the
thing itself we have only an obscure no-
tion. [441]

Nature teaches us that thinking and
reasoning are attributes, which cannot exist
without a subject ; but of that subject I be-
lieve the best notion we can form implies
little more than that it is the subject of such

Whether other created beings may have
the knowledge of the real essence of created [
things, so as to be able to deduce their at-
tributes from their essence and constitution,
or whether this be the prerogative of him
who made them, we cannot tell ; but it is
a knowledge which seems to be quite be- j
yond the reach of the human faculties.

We know the essence of a triangle, and
from that essence can deduce its properties.
It is an universal, and might have been
conceived by the human mind though no
individual triangle had ever existed. It has
only what Mr Locke calls a nominal essence,
which is expressed in its definition. But
everything that exists has a real essence,
which is above our comprehension ; and,
therefore, we cannot deduce its properties
or attributes from its nature, as we do in
the triangle. We must take a contrary
road in the knowledge of God's works, and
satisfy ourselves with their attributes as
facts, and with the general conviction that
there is a subject to which those attributes

Enough, I think, has been said, to shew, ,
not only that we may have clear and dis-
tinct conceptions of attributes, but that J
they are the only things, with regard to j
individuals, of which we have a clear and
distinct conception.

The other class of general terms are those
that signify the genera and species into
which we divide and subdivide things. Andj
if we be able to form distinct conceptions of
attributes, it cannot surely be denied that
we may have distinct conceptions of genera

* See above, p. 322, note.— H.

[440, 441]

chap, ji]



and species ; because they are only collec-
tions of attributes which we conceive to
exist in a subject, and to which we give a
general name. [442] If the attributes
comprehended Under that general name be
distinctly conceived, the thing meant by the
name must be distinctly conceived. And
the name may justly be attributed to every
individual which has those attributes.

Thus, I conceive distinctly what it is to
have wings, to be covered with feathers, to
lay eggs. Suppose then that we give the
name of bird to every animal that has these
three attributes. Here undoubtedly my
conception of a bird is as distinct as my
notion of the attributes which are common
to this species : and, if this be admitted to
be the definition of a bird, there is nothing
I conceive more distinctly. If I had never
seen a bird, and can but be made to under-
stand the definition, I can easily apply it to
every individual of the species, without
danger of mistake.

When things are divided and subdivided
by men of science, and names given to the
genera and species, those names are denned.
Thus, the genera and species of plants, and
of other natural bodies, are accurately de-
fined by the writers in the various branches
of natural history ; so that, to all future
generations, the definition will convey a dis-
tinct notion of the genus or species defined.

There are, without doubt, many words
signifying genera and species of things,
which have a meaning somewhat vague and
indistinct ; so that those who speak the
same language do not always use them in
the same sense. But, if we attend to the
cause of this indistinctness, we shall find
that it is not owing to their being general
terms, but to this, that there is no defini-
tion of them that has authority. Their
meaning, therefore, has not been learned
by a definition, but by a kind of induction,
by observing to what individuals they are
applied by those who understand the lan-
guage. We learn by habit to use them as
we see others do, even when we have not a
precise meaning annexed to them. Aman
may know that to certain individuals they
may be applied with propriety ; but whether
they can be applied to certain other indivi-
duals, he may be uncertain, either from
want of good authorities, or from having
contrary authorities, which leave him in
doubt. [443]

Thus, a man may know that, when he
applies the name of beast to a lion or a
tiger, and the name of bird to an eagle or
a turkey, he speaks properly. But whether
a bat be a bird or a beast, he may be uncer-
tain. If there was any accurate definition
of a beast and of a bird, that was of sufli-
cient authority, he could be at no loss.

It is said to have been sometimes a mat-

ter of dispute, with regard to a monstrous
birth of a woman, whether it was a man or
not. Although this be, in reality, a ques-
tion about the meaning of a word, it may
be of importance, on account of the privi-
leges which laws have annexed to the human
character. To make such laws perfectly
precise, the definition of a man would be
necessary, which I believe legislators have
seldom or never thought fit to give. It is,
indeed, very difficult to fix a definition of
so common a word ; and the cases wherein
it would be of any use so rarely occur, that
perhaps it may be better, when they do
occur, to leave them to the determination
of a judge or of a jury, than to give a defi-
nition, which might be attended with un-
foreseen consequences.

A genus or species, being a collection of
attributes conceived to exist in one subject,
a definition is the only way to prevent any
addition or diminution of its ingredients in
the conception of different persons ; and
when there is no definition that can be
appealed to as a standard, the name will
hardly retain the most perfect precision in
its signification.

From what has been said, I conceive it
is evident that the words which signify
genera and species of things have often as
precise and definite a signification as any
words whatsoever ; and that, when it is
otherwise, their want of precision is not
owing to their being general words, but to
other causes. [444]

Having shewn that we may have a per-
fectly clear and distinct conception of the
meaning of general terms, we may, I think,
take it for granted, that the same may be
said of other general words, such as prepo-
sitions, conjunctions, articles. My design
at present being only to shew that we have
general conceptions no less clear and dis-
tinct than those of individuals, it is sufficient
for this purpose, if this appears with regard
to the conceptions expressed by general
terms. To conceive the meaning of a
general word, and to conceive that which it
signifies, is the same thing. We conceive
distinctly the meaning of general terms,
therefore we conceive distinctly that which
they signify. But such terms do not sig-
nify any individual, but what is common to
many individuals; therefore, we have a
distinct conception of things common to
many individuals — that is, we have distinct
general conceptions.

We must here beware of the ambiguity
of the word conception, which sometimes
signifies the act of the mind in conceiving,
sometimes the thing conceived, which is the
object of that act.* If the word be taken

*<This last should be called Concept* which was a
terra id use with the old English philosophera,— H.



Tessay V.

in the first sense, I acknowledge that every
act of the mind is an individual act ; the
universality, therefore, is not in the act of
the mind, but in the object or thing con-
ceived. The thing conceived is an attri-
bute common to many subjects, or it is a
genus or species common to many indivi-

Suppose I conceive a triangle — that is, a
plain figure, terminated by three right
lines. He that understands this definition
distinctly, has a distinct conception of a
triangle. But a triangle is not an indivi-
dual ; it is a species. The act of my under-
standing in conceiving it is an individual
act, and has a real existence ; but the thing
' conceived is general, and cannot exist with-
out other attributes, which are not included
in the definition. [445]

Every triangle that really exists must
have a certain length of sides and measure
of angles ; it must have place and time.
But the definition of a triangle includes
neither existence nor any of those attri-
butes ; and, therefore, they are not included
in the conception of a triangle, which can-
not be accurate if it comprehend more than
the definition.

Thus, I think, it appears to be evident,
that we have general conceptions that are
clear and distinct, both of attributes of
things, and of genera and species of things.



We are next to consider the operations
of the understanding, by which we are
enabled to form general conceptions.

These appear to me to be three : — First,
The resolving or analysing a subject into
its known attributes, and giving a name to
each attribute, which name shall signify
that attribute, and nothing more.

Secondly, The observing one or more
such attributes to be common to many sub-
jects. The first is by philosophers called
abstraction ; the second may be called
generalising ; but both are commonly in-
cluded under the name of abstraction.

It is difficult to say which of them goes
first, or whether they are not so closely
connected that neither can claim the prece-
dence. For, on the one hand, to perceive an
agreement between two or more objects in
the same attribute, seems to require no-
thing more than to compare them together.
[446] A savage, upon seeing snow and
chalk, would find no difficulty in perceiv-
ing that they have the same colour. Yet,
on the other hand, it seems impossible that
he should observe this agreement without

abstraction— that is, distinguishing in his
conception the colour, wherein tHose two
objects agree, from the other qualities
wherein they disagree.

It seems, therefore, that we cannot
generalise without some degree of abstrac-
tion ; but I apprehend we may abstract
without generalising. For what hinders
me from attending to the whiteness of the
paper before me, without applying that
colour to any other object. The whiteness
of this individual object is an abstract con-
ception, but not a general one, while applied
to one individual only. These two opera«
tions, however, are subservient to each
other ; for the more attributes we observe
and distinguish in any one individual, the
more agreements we shall discover between
it and other individuals.

A third operation of the understanding,
by which we form abstract conceptions, is
the combining into one whole a certain
number of those attributes of which we
have formed abstract notions, and giving a
name to that combination. It is thus we
form abstract notions of the genera and
species of things. These three operations
we shall consider in order.

With regard to abstraction, strictly so
called, I can perceive nothing in it that is
difficult either to be understood or practised.
What can be more easy than to distinguish
the different attributes which we know to
belong to a subject ? In a man, for in-
stance, to distinguish his size, his com-
plexion, his age, his fortune, his birth, his
profession, and twenty other things that
belong to him. To think and speak of
these things with understanding, is surely
within the reach of every man endowed
with the human faculties. [447]

There may be distinctions that require
nice discernment, or an acquaintance with
the subject that is not common. Thus, a
critic in painting may discern the style of
Raphael or Titian, when another man
could not. A lawyer may be acquainted
with many distinctions in crimes, and con-
tracts, and actions, which never occurred
to a man who has not studied law. One
man may excel another in the talent of dis-
tinguishing, as he may in memory or in
reasoning ; but there is a certain degree of
this talent, without which a man would
have no title to be considered as a reason-
able creature.

It ought likewise to be observed, that
attributes may, with perfect ease, be dis-
tinguished and disjoined in our conception,
which cannot be actually separated in the
subject. Thus, in a body, I can distinguish
its solidity from its extension, and its weight
from both. In extension I can distinguish
length, breadth, and thickness ; yet none of
these can be separated from the body, or


from one another. There may be attri-
butes belonging to a subject, and inseparable
from it, of which we have no knowledge,
and consequently no conception ; but this
does not hinder our conceiving distinctly
those of its attributes which we know.

Thus, all the properties of a circle are
inseparable from the nature of a circle,
and may be demonstrated from its defini-
tion; yet a man may have a perfectly
distinct notion of a circle, who knows very
few of those properties of it which mathe-
maticians have demonstrated ; and a circle
probably has many properties which no
mathematician ever dreamed of. .

It is therefore certain that attributes,
which in their nature are absolutely inse-
parable from their subject and from one
another, may be disjoined in our conception ;
one cannot exist without the other, but one
can be conceived without the other.

Having considered abstraction, strictly
so called, let us next consider the operation
of generalising, which is nothing but the
observing one or more attributes to be
common to many subjects. [448]

If any man can doubt whether there be
attributes that are really common to many
individuals, let him consider whether there
be not many men that are above six feet
high, and many below it; whether there
be not many men that are rich, and many
more that are'poor ; whether there be not
many that were born in Britain, and many
that were born in France. To multiply
instances of this kind, would be to affront the
reader's understanding. It is certain, there-
fore, that there are innumerable attributes
that are really common to many individuals ;
and if this be what the schoolmen called
universale a parte rei, we may affirm with
certainty that there are such universals.

There are some attributes expressed by
general words, of which this may seem more
doubtful. Such are the qualities which are
inherent in their several subjects. It may
be said that every subject hath its own
qualities, and that which is the quality of
one subject cannot be the quality of another
subject. Thus the whiteness of the sheet
of paper upon which I write, cannot be the
whiteness of another sheet, though both are
called white. The weight of one guinea is
not the weight of another guinea, though
both are said to have the same weight.

To this I answer, that the whiteness of
this sheet is one thing, whiteness is another ;
the conceptions signified by these two forms
of speech are as different as the expressions.
The first signifies an individual quality
really existing, and is not a general con-
ception, though it be an abstract one : the
second signifies a general conception, which
implies no existence, but may be predicated
of everything that is white, and in the |

same sense. On this account, if one should
say that the whiteness of this sheet is the
whiteness of another sheet, every man per-
ceives this to be absurd ; but when he says
both sheets are white, this is true and per-
fectly understood. The conception of white-
ness implies no existence ; it would remain
the same though everything in the universe
that is white were annihilated.^ [449]

It appears, therefore, that the general
names of qualities, as well as of other at-
tributes, are applicable to many individuals
in the same sense, which cannot be if there
be not general conceptions signified by such

If it should be asked, how early, or at
what period of life men begin to form general
conceptions ? I answer, As soon as a child
can say, with understanding, that he has
two brothers or two sisters — as soon as he
can use the plural number — he must have
general conceptions ; for no individual can
hare a plural number.

As there are not two individuals in nature
that agree in everything, so there are very
few that do not agree in some things. We
take pleasure from very early years in ob-
serving such agreements. One great branch
of what we call wit, which, when innocent,
gives pleasure to every good-natured man,
consists in discovering unexpected agree-
ments in things. The author of Hudibras
could discern a property common to the
morning and a boiled lobster — that both
turn from black to red. Swift could see
something common to wit and an old cheese.
Such unexpected agreements may shew wit ;
but there are innumerable agreements of
things which cannot escape the notice of
the lowest understanding ; such as agree-
ments in colour, magnitude, figure, features,
time, place, age, and so forth. These agree-
ments are the foundation of so many com-
mon attributes, which are found in the
rudest languages.

The ancient philosophers called these
universals, or predicables, and endeavoured
to reduce them to five classes — to wit,
Genus, Species, Specific Difference, Pro-
perties, and Accidents. Perhaps there may
be more classes of universals or attributes —
for enumerations, so very general, are sel-
dom complete : but every attribute, common
to several individuals, may be expressed by
a general term, which is the sign of a
general conception. [450]

How prone men are to form general con-
ceptions we may see from the use of meta-
phor, and of the other figures of speech
grounded on similitude. Similitude is no-
thing else than an agreement of the objects
compared in one or more attributes , and
if there be no attribute common to both,
there can be no similitude.

The similitudes and analogies between



Qessay v.

the various objects that nature presents to
us, are infinite and inexhaustible. They
not only please, when displayed by the poet
or wit in works of taste, but they are highly
useful in the ordinary communication of our
thoughts and sentiments by language. In
the rude languages of barbarous nations,
similitudes and analogies supply the want of
proper words to express men's sentiments,
so much that in such languages there is
hardly a sentence without a metaphor ; and,
if we examine the most copious and polished
languages, we shall* find that a great pro-
portion of the words and phrases which are
accounted the most proper, may be said to
be the progeny of metaphor.

As foreigners, who settle in a nation as
their home, come at last to be incorporated
and lose the denomination of foreigners, so
words and phrases, at first borrowed and
figurative, by long use become denizens in
the language, and lose the denomination of

Online LibraryThomas ReidThe works of Thomas Reid, D.D.; now fully collected, with selections from his umpublished letters → online text (page 89 of 114)