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beyond individuals, language is not only a useful auxiliary, but is the sole instrument by which they are carried on.
These remarks naturally lead me to take notice of what forms the characteristical distinction between the speculations of the philosopher and of the vulgar. It is not that the former is accustomed to carry on his processes of reasoning to a greater extent than the latter; but that the conclusions he is accustomed to form are far more comprehensive, in consequence of the habitual employment of more comprehensive terms. Among the most unenlightened of mankind, we often meet with individuals who possess the reasoning faculty in a very eminent degree; but as this faculty is employed merely about particulars, it never can conduct them to general truths; and, of consequence, whether their pursuits in life lead them to speculation or to action, it can only fit them for distinguishing themselves in some very limited and subordinate sphere. The philosopher, whose mind has been familiarized by education and by his own reflections, to the correct use of more comprehensive terms, is enabled, without perhaps a greater degree of intellectual exertion than is necessary for managing the details of ordinary business, to arrive at general theorems, which, when illustrated to the lower classes of men, in their particular applications, seem to indicate a fertility of invention, little short of supernatural.1
The analogy of the algebraical art may be of use in illustrating these observations. The difference, in fact, between the investigations we carry on by its assistance, and other processes of reasoning, is more inconsiderable than is commonly imagined;
1 “General reasonings seem intricate, merely because they are general; nor is it easy for the bulk of mankind to distinguish, in a great number of particulars, that common circumstance in which they all agree, or to extract it, pure and unmixed, from the other superfluous circumstances. Every judgment or conclusion with them is particular. They cannot enlarge their view to those
universal propositions, which comprehend under them an infinite number of individuals, and include a whole science in a single theorem. Their eye is confounded with such an extensive prospect; and the conclusions derived from it, even though clearly expressed, seem intricate and obscure." - Hume's Political Discourses.
and, if I am not mistaken, amounts only to this, that the former are expressed in an appropriated language with which we are not accustomed to associate particular notions. Hence they exhibit the efficacy of signs as an instrument of thought in a more distinct and palpable manner than the speculations we carry on by words, which are continually awakening the
power of Conception.
When the celebrated Vieta showed algebraists that, by substituting in their investigations letters of the alphabet, instead of known quantities, they might render the solution of every problem subservient to the discovery of a general truth, he did not increase the difficulty of algebraical reasonings; he only enlarged the signification of the terms in which they were expressed. And if, in teaching that science, it is found expedient to accustom students to solve problems by means of the particular numbers which are given, before they are made acquainted with literal or specious arithmetic, it is not because the former processes are less intricate than the latter, but because their scope and utility are more obvious, and because it is more easy to illustrate, by examples than by words, the difference between a particular conclusion and a general theorem.
The difference between the intellectual processes of the vulgar and of the philosopher, is perfectly analogous to that between the two states of the algebraical art before and after the time of Vieta ; the general terms which are used in the various sciences, giving to those who can employ them with correctness and dexterity, the same sort of advantage over the uncultivated sagacity of the bulk of mankind, which the expert algebraist possesses over the arithmetical accountant.
If the foregoing doctrine be admitted as just, it exhibits a view of the utility of language, which appears to me to be peculiarly striking and beautiful, as it shews that the same faculties which, without the use of signs, must necessarily have been limited to the consideration of individual objects and particular events, are, by means of signs, fitted to embrace, without effort, those comprehensive theorems, to the discovery of which,
in detail, the united efforts of the whole human race would have been unequal. The advantage our animal strength acquires by the use of mechanical engines, exhibits but a faint image of that increase of our intellectual capacity which we owe to language. It is this increase of our natural powers of comprehension, which seems to be the principal foundation of the pleasure we receive from the discovery of general theorems. Such a discovery gives us at once the command of an infinite variety of particular truths, and communicates to the mind a sentiment of its own power, not unlike to what we feel when we contemplate the magnitude of those physical effects, of which we have acquired the command by our mechanical contrivances.
It may perhaps appear, at first, to be a farther consequence of the principles I have been endeavouring to establish, that the difficulty of philosophical discoveries is much less than is commonly imagined; but the truth is, it only follows from them, that this difficulty is of a different nature from what we are apt to suppose, on a superficial view of the subject. To employ with skill the very delicate instrument which nature has made essentially subservient to general reasoning, and to guard against the errors which result from an injudicious use of it, require an uncommon capacity of patient attention, and a cautious circumspection in conducting our various intellectual processes, which can only be acquired by early habits of philosophical reflexion. To assist and direct us in making this acquisition, ought to form the most important branch of a rational logic, a science of far more extensive utility, and of which the principles lie much deeper in the philosophy of the human mind, than the trifling art which is commonly dignified with that name. The branch, in particular, to which the foregoing observations more immediately relate, must for ever remain in its infancy till a most difficult and important desideratum in the history of the mind is supplied, by an explanation of the gradual steps by which it acquires the use of the various classes of words which compose the language of a cultivated and enlightened people. Of some of the errors of rea
soning to which we are exposed by an incautious use of words, I took notice in the preceding section, and I shall have occasion afterwards to treat the same subject more in detail in a subsequent part of my work.*
SECT. VI.-OF THE ERRORS TO WHICH WE ARE LIABLE IN SPECU
LATION, AND IN THE CONDUCT OF AFFAIRS, IN CONSEQUENCE OF A RASH APPLICATION OF GENERAL PRINCIPLES.
It appears sufficiently from the reasonings which I offered in the preceding section, how important are the advantages which the philosopher acquires, by quitting the study of particulars, and directing his attention to general principles. I flatter myself it appears farther, from the same reasonings, that it is in consequence of the use of language alone, that the human mind is rendered capable of these comprehensive speculations.
In order, however, to proceed with safety in the use of general principles, much caution and address are necessary, both in establishing their truth, and in applying them to practice. Without a proper attention to the circumstances by which their application to particular cases must be modified, they will be a perpetual source of mistake and of disappointment, in the conduct of affairs, however rigidly just they may be in themselves, and however accurately we may reason from them. If our general principles happen to be false, they will involve us in errors, not only of conduct but of speculation; and our errors will be the more numerous, the more comprehensive the principles are on which we proceed.
To illustrate these observations fully, would lead to a minuteness of disquisition inconsistent with my general plan, and I shall therefore, at present, confine myself to such remarks as appear to be of most essential importance.
And, in the first place, it is evidently impossible to establish solid general principles, without the previous study of particulars; in other words, it is necessary to begin with the examination of individual objects, and individual events, in order to lay a ground-work for accurate classification, and for a just investigation of the laws of nature. It is in this way only that we can expect to arrive at general principles, which may be safely relied on, as guides to the knowledge of particular truths; and unless our principles admit of such a practical application, however beautiful they may appear to be in theory, they are of far less value than the limited acquisitions of the vulgar. The truth of these remarks is now so universally admitted, and is indeed so obvious in itself, that it would be superfluous to multiply words in supporting them; and I should scarcely have thought of stating them in this chapter, if some of the most celebrated philosophers of antiquity had not been led to dispute them, in consequence of the mistaken opinions which they entertained concerning the nature of universals. Forgetting that genera and species are mere arbitrary creations which the human mind forms, by withdrawing the attention from the distinguishing qualities of objects, and giving a common name to their resembling qualities, they conceive universals to be real existences, or (as they expressed it) to be the essences of individuals; and flattered themselves with the belief, that by directing their attention to these essences in the first instance, they might be enabled to penetrate the secrets of the universe, without submitting to the study of nature in detail. These errors, which were common to the Platonists and the Peripatetics, and which both of them seem to have adopted from the Pythagorean school, contributed, perhaps more than anything else, to retard the progress of the ancients in physical knowledge. The late learned Mr. Harris is almost the only author of the present age who has ventured to defend this plan of philosophizing, in opposition to that which has been so successfully followed by the disciples of Lord Bacon.
* (See these Elements, vol. iii. chap. i., particularly sect. 3.-Ed.).
“ The Platonists," says he, “considering science as something ascertained, definite, and steady, would admit nothing to be its object which was vague, indefinite, and passing. For this reason they excluded all individuals or objects of sense, and (as Ammonius expresses it) raised themselves in their contemplations from beings particular to beings universal, and which, from their own