Images de page

gether, a reason for giving the generic name to one set of objects rather than to another,—the name of man, for instance, to John and William, rather than to John and a triangle. This reason is the feeling of the resemblance of the objects which we class,– that general notion of the relation of similarity in certain respects which is signified by the general term,-and without which relative suggestion, as a previous state of the mind, the general term would as little have been invented, as the names of John and William would have been invented, if there had been no perception of any individual being whatever, to be denoted by them.

That we have general relative feelings of the resemblances of objects, and that our general terms are significant of these, and limited, therefore, to the particular objects which excite some common feeling of resemblance, is then, I conceive, sufficiently evident; and yet, the existence of such general notions is not merely rejected by the greater number of philosophers, but the assertion of it has been considered as a subject rather of ridicule, than of any serious confutation, as if confutation itself would have been too great an honour.

I must confess, however, that some incautious expressions of

, the Conceptualists, and their erroneous analysis and classification of the general feeling, did justify in part this ridicule, as they involved an appearance of inconsistency and contradiction, which a more accurate analysis of the general feeling asserted, and a very slight change of phraseology and arrangements would have removed. These improprieties, it may be of importance to point out to you, as furnishing, perhaps, some explanation of the error ‘of new Nominalism.

The use of the word idea for expressing the notion or feeling of resemblance, was in the first place, unfortunate. Idea, from its etymological sense, and its common application to the conceptions of external objects, seems almost, in itself, to imply something which can be individualized, and offered to the senses. eral idea, therefore, which we are said to form, from the consideration of the various ways in which two lines can meet one another, seems to us, as an idea, to be something which we must be capable of representing in a diagram, like any of the particular angles considered by us; and what we can thus image in a diagram,

The gen

must evidently be particular; so that, if we ascribe to it properties of more than one particular angle, our reference must, on this very account, seem to involve an inconsistency or multitude of inconsistencies. The general idea of an angle, therefore, which is not a right angle, nor acute, nor obtuse, but, at once, all of these, and none of them, is to our conception, in every respect, as truly absurd, as a whole, which is less than a part of itself, or a square, of which the angles are together equal to four right angles, and at the same time equal to five such angles, and only to three or two.

Such are the inconsistencies that must always seem to flow from the use of the word idea in this case, as if presenting to us a particular image of what cannot be particular.

The same remark may, in a great measure, be applied to the use of the word conception which also seems to individualize its object; and which, as commonly employed to signify some fainter revival of a past feeling, may lead, and has led, to very mista. ken views of the nature of our general notions. In these, according to the process described by me, there is nothing which can be said to be in any respect a conception, or fainter transcript of the past; and, therefore, if I were to invent a name for the opinion with respect to universals, which I hold, it would not be as a Conceptualist, but as a Notionist, or Relationist, that I should wish to be classed. The feeling of the relation of similarity is no part of the perception or conception of the separate objects which suggest it. It is a feeling of a different species, absolutely new-a relation, and nothing more ; and the general term, which is not expressive of what can strictly be termed a conception, is invented only to express all that multitude of objects, which, however different in other respects, agree in exciting one common feeling of relation the relation of a certain similarity.

The phrase, general notion, which is that which I have preferred, would in this case have been far more appropriate, and would have obviated that tendency to individual representation, which the word conception, and still more, the word idea, produce; and consequently, all those apparent inconsistencies, which do not attend the notion of the mere feeling of agreement of various olojects, but arise only from the attempt to form an individual representation of what is in itself general, and therefore, by its very nature, incapable of being individually represented.


Still more unfortunate, however, than the classing of our general notions with conceptions or ideas, was a verbal impropriety that may at first seem to you of little consequence,—the mere use of the indefinite article, in a case in which certainly it ought not to have been employed. It was not the mere general notion of the nature and properties of triangles, but the general idea of a triangle, of which writers on this branch of intellectual philosophy have been accustomed to speak. The influence of this improper use of the article has not before been remarked; yet I have no doubt, that it is the very circumstance which has chiefly tended to produce a denial of the general notion itself. It is a striking lesson, how much the progress of philosophy may be retarded, even by the slightest inaccuracy of language, which leads those who consider the doctrine without due attention and analysis, to ascribe to it the inconsistencies which are not in the doctrine itself, and thus to reject, as absurd, what, in another form of expression, would perhaps have appeared to them almost self-evident.

According to the view which I have given you of the generalizing process, all that is truly general is, a relation that is felt by us. We have a feeling, or general notion of the circumstances of agreement of many individual objects, but not a notion of an object, uniting at once all the qualities of the individual objects, and yet excluding every quality, which distinguishes each from each. This would truly be a species of Realism, still more absurd, than the old scholastic universal a parte rei. The general idea of a man, who is neither dark nor fair, tall nor short, fat nor thin, nor of any degree intermediate between these extremes, and yet is, at the same time dark and fair, tall and short, fat and thin, is that of which we may very safely deny the existence : for a man must be particular, and must therefore have particular qualities, and certainly cannot have qualities that are inconsistent. But dark and a fair man, a tall and a short man, a fat and a thin man, all agree in certain respects, or, in other words, excite in us a certain relative feeling, or notion of general resemblance; since, without a feeling of this kind, we never should have thought of classing them together under one general term. We have not a general idea of a man, but we are impressed with a certain common relation of similarity of all the individuals, whom, on that



account, and on that account alone, we rank together under the common appellation of men.

A general idea of a man is, then, it will be allowed, an unfortunate, or, to speak more accurately, an absurd expression. But the absurdity of such an expression does not render it less absurd to deny, that we have any general notion, or relative feeling whatever, of the circumstances in which men agree—that general notion, which preceded the invention of the general term man, and without which the general term would be absolutely incapable of being limited, or applied to one set of objects more than to another. Yet all the valuable remarks of Mr Locke, on this subject, have been neglected or forgotten ; while one passage has been well remembered, and often quoted, because nothing is so well remembered as the ridiculous. The passage, indeed, it must be confessed, is abundantly ridiculous; but what is ridiculous in it arises, very evidently, from the source which I have pointed out, and not from the doctrine, that there is a general feeling of some sort, corresponding with every general term, that is not absolutely insignificant.

“ Does it not require some pains and skill,” says Mr Locke, in this often-quoted passage—“Does it not require some pains and skill to form the general idea of a triangle, (which is yet none of the most abstract, comprehensive, and difficult;) for it must be neither oblique, nor rectangle, neither equilateral, equicrural, nor scalenon; but all, and none of these at once. In effect, it is something imperfect that cannot exist; an idea, wherein some parts of several different and inconsistent ideas are put together.” *

of this strange description, so unworthy of its great author, and, may add, so unworthy also of the doctrine which he supported, the authors of the Memoirs of Scriblerus have not failed to avail themselves, converting Mr Locke's universal triangle into an universal lord mayor.

“ Martin supposed an universal man to be like a knight of a shire, or a burgess of a corporation, that represented a great many individuals. His father asked him, if he could not frame the idea of an universal lord mayor ? Martin told him, that, never having seen but one lord mayor, the idea of that lord mayor always returned to his mind ; that he had great difficulty to abstract a lord

* Essay concerning Human Understanding, B. IV. c. 7. sect. 9.



mayor from his fur-gown, and gold chain; nay, that the horse he saw the lord mayor ride upon not a little disturbed his imagination. On the other hand, Crambe, to show himself of a more penetrating genius, swore that he could frame a conception of a lord mayor, not only without his horse, gown, and gold chain, but even without stature, feature, colour, hands, head, feet, or any body, which he supposed was the abstract of a lord mayor.""*

This abstract of a lord mayor, though it may be more ludicrous, is not more absurd, than Locke's abstract of a triangle; for a triangle must be particular, and must, therefore, be equilateral, equicrural, or scalene. It would have been very different, if he had stated merely, that all triangles, whether equilateral, equicrural, or scalene, are felt by us to agree in certain respects,—that they are not felt by us to have this general resemblance, because we have previously classed them together ; but that we have classed them together, because we have previously felt this general resemblance,that the general notion, therefore, cannot have depended for its origin on the name which follows it—and that it is this general Dotion or feeling of resemblance, of which the general term is truly significant, the term being considered by us as fairly applicable to every object, which excites the same relative feeling. This, it is evident, from his whole reasoning, was fundamentally, or nearly the opinion of Locke himself, who was led into the error of his very strange description, merely by conceiving, that a general notion of the common circumstances and properties of triangles was a conception, or a general idea of a triangle.

But, whether this was, or was not, the opinion of Mr Locke, the process which I have described is not the less just. We perceive two or more objects-we have a feeling or general notion of their resemblance in certain respects,—and, in consequence of this general notion, we invent the general term, and limit it to such objects, as correspond with the notion previously existing, that is to say, we limit it to objects which agree in exciting this relative suggestion. It is hence the very nature of our general notion not to be particular; for who can paint or particularize a mere relation? It is the feeling of resemblance which constitutes it-not the objects themselves which are felt to be similar; and to require, therefore, that our mental notion of the common prop

• Pope's Works.—Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, chap. vii. VOL. II.


« PrécédentContinuer »