Chapter 3. The Apprehension of Propositions

{19} I HAVE said in these Introductory Chapters that there can be no assent to a proposition, without some sort of apprehension of its terms; next that there are two modes of apprehension, notional and real; thirdly, that, while assent may be given to a proposition on either apprehension of it, still its acts are elicited more heartily and forcibly, when they are made upon real apprehension which has things for its objects, than when they are made in favour of notions and with a notional apprehension. The first of these three points I have just been discussing; now I will proceed to the second, viz. the two modes of apprehending propositions, leaving the third for the Chapters which follow.

I have used the word apprehension, and not understanding, because the latter word is of uncertain meaning, standing sometimes for the faculty or act of conceiving a proposition, sometimes for that of comprehending it, neither of which come into the sense of apprehension. It is possible to apprehend without understanding. I apprehend what is meant by saying that John is Richard's wife's father's aunt's husband, {20} but, if I am unable so to take in these successive relationships as to understand the upshot of the whole, viz. that John is great-uncle-in-law to Richard, I cannot be said to understand the proposition. In like manner, I may take a just view of a man's conduct, and therefore apprehend it, and yet may profess that I cannot understand it; that is, I have not the key to it, and do not see its consistency in detail: I have no just conception of it. Apprehension then is simply an intelligent acceptance of the idea, or of the fact which a proposition enunciates. "Pride will have a fall;" "Napoleon died at St. Helena;" I have no difficulty in entering into the sentiment contained in the former of these, or into the fact declared in the latter; that is, I apprehend them both.

Now apprehension, as I have said, has two subject-matters:—according as language expresses things external to us, or our own thoughts, so is apprehension real or notional. It is notional in the grammarian, it is real in the experimentalist. The grammarian has to determine the force of words and phrases; he has to master the structure of sentences and the composition of paragraphs; he has to compare language with language, to ascertain the common ideas expressed under different idiomatic forms, and to achieve the difficult work of recasting the mind of the original author in the mould of a translation. On the other hand, the philosopher or experimentalist aims at investigating, questioning, ascertaining facts, causes, effects, actions, qualities: these are things, and he makes his words distinctly subordinate to these, as means to an end. The primary duty of {21} a literary man is to have clear conceptions, and to be exact and intelligible in expressing them; but in a philosopher it is a merit even to be not utterly vague, inchoate and obscure in his teaching, and if he fails even of this low standard of language, we remind ourselves that his obscurity perhaps is owing to his depth. No power of words in a lecturer would be sufficient to make psychology easy to his hearers; if they are to profit by him, they must throw their minds into the matters in discussion, must accompany his treatment of them with an active, personal concurrence, and interpret for themselves, as he proceeds, the dim suggestions and adumbrations of objects, which he has a right to presuppose, while he uses them, as images existing in their apprehension as well as in his own.

In something of a parallel way it is the least pardonable fault in an Orator to fail in clearness of style, and the most pardonable fault of a Poet.

So again, an Economist is dealing with facts; whatever there is of theory in his work professes to be founded on facts, by facts alone must his sense be interpreted, and to those only who are well furnished with the necessary facts does he address himself; yet a clever schoolboy, from a thorough grammatical knowledge of both languages, might turn into English a French treatise on national wealth, produce, consumption, labour, profits, measures of value, public debt, and the circulating medium, with an apprehension of what it was that his author was stating sufficient for making it clear to an English reader, while he had not the faintest conception himself what the treatise, which he was translating, {22} really determined. The man uses language as the vehicle of things, and the boy of abstractions.

Hence in literary examinations, it is a test of good scholarship to be able to construe aright, without the aid of understanding the sentiment, action, or historical occurrence conveyed in the passage thus accurately rendered, let it be a battle in Livy, or some subtle train of thought in Virgil or Pindar. And those who have acquitted themselves best in the trial, will often be disposed to think they have most notably failed, for the very reason that they have been too busy with the grammar of each sentence, as it came, to have been able, as they construed on, to enter into the facts or the feelings, which, unknown to themselves, they were bringing out of it.

To take a very different instance of this contrast between notions and facts;—pathology and medicine, in the interests of science, and as a protection to the practitioner, veil the shocking realities of disease and physical suffering under a notional phraseology, under the abstract terms of debility, distress, irritability, paroxysm, and a host of Greek and Latin words. The arts of medicine and surgery are necessarily experimental; but for writing and conversing on these subjects they require to be stripped of the association of the facts from which they are derived.

Such are the two modes of apprehension. The terms of a proposition do or do not stand for things. If they do, then they are singular terms, for all things that are, are units. But if they do not stand for things they must stand for notions, and are common terms. Singular {23} nouns come from experience, common from abstraction. The apprehension of the former I call real, and of the latter notional. Now let us look at this difference between them more narrowly.

1. Real Apprehension, is, as I have said, in the first instance an experience or information about the concrete. Now, when these informations are in fact presented to us, (that is, when they are directly subjected to our bodily senses or our mental sensations, as when we say, "The sun shines," or "The prospect is charming," or indirectly by means of a picture or even a narrative,) then there is no difficulty in determining what is meant by saying that our enunciation of a proposition concerning them implies an apprehension of things; because we can actually point out the objects which they indicate. But supposing those things are no longer before us, supposing they have passed beyond our field of view, or the book is closed in which the description of them occurs, how can an apprehension of things be said to remain to us? Yes, it remains on our minds by means of the faculty of memory. Memory consists in a present imagination of things that are past; memory retains the impressions and likenesses of what they were when before us; and when we make use of the proposition which refers to them, it supplies us with objects by which to interpret it. They are things still, as being the reflections of things in a mental mirror.

Hence the poet calls memory "the mind's eye." I am in a foreign country among unfamiliar sights; at will I am able to conjure up before me the vision of my home, and all that belongs to it, its rooms and their furniture, {24} its books, its inmates, their countenances, looks and movements. I see those who once were there and are no more; past scenes, and the very expression of the features, and the tones of the voices, of those who took part in them, in a time of trial or difficulty. I create nothing; I see the facsimiles of facts; and of these facsimiles the words and propositions which I use concerning them are from habitual association the proper or the sole expression.

And so again, I may have seen a celebrated painting, or some great pageant, or some public man; and I have on my memory stored up and ready at hand, but latent, an impress more or less distinct of that experience. The words "the Madonna di S. Sisto," or "the last Coronation," or "the Duke of Wellington," have power to revive that impress of it. Memory has to do with individual things and nothing that is not individual. And my apprehension of its notices is conveyed in a collection of singular and real propositions.

I have hitherto been adducing instances from (for the most part) objects of sight; but the memory preserves the impress, though not so vivid, of the experiences which come to us through our other senses also. The memory of a beautiful air, or the scent of a particular flower, as far as any remembrance remains of it, is the continued presence in our minds of a likeness of it, which its actual presence has left there. I can bring before me the music of the Adeste Fideles, as if I were actually hearing it; and the scent of a clematis as if I were in my garden; and the flavour of a peach as if it were in season; and the thought I have of all these is as of something {25} individual and from without,—as much as the things themselves, the tune, the scent, and the flavour, are from without,—though, compared with the things themselves, these images (as they may be called) are faint and intermitting.

Nor need such an image be in any sense an abstraction; though I may have eaten a hundred peaches in times past, the impression, which remains on my memory of the flavour, may be of any of them, of the ten, twenty, thirty units, as the case may be, not a general notion, distinct from every one of them, and formed from all of them by a fabrication of my mind.

And so again the apprehension which we have of our past mental acts of any kind, of hope, inquiry, effort, triumph, disappointment, suspicion, hatred, and a hundred others, is an apprehension of the memory of those definite acts, and therefore an apprehension of things; not to say that many of them do not need memory, but are such as admit of being actually summoned and repeated at our will. Such an apprehension again is elicited by propositions embodying the notices of our history, of our pursuits and their results, of our friends, of our bereavements, of our illnesses, of our fortunes, which remain imprinted upon our memory as sharply and deeply as is any recollection of sight. Nay, and such recollections may have in them an individuality and completeness which outlives the impressions made by sensible objects. The memory of countenances and of places in times past may fade away from the mind; but the vivid image of certain anxieties or deliverances never.

And by means of these particular and personal experiences, {26} thus impressed upon us, we attain an apprehension of what such things are at other times when we have not experience of them; an apprehension of sights and sounds, of colours and forms, of places and persons, of mental acts and states, parallel to our actual experiences, such, that, when we meet with definite propositions expressive of them, our apprehension cannot be called abstract and notional. If I am told "there is a raging fire in London," or "London is on fire," "fire" need not be a common noun in my apprehension more than "London." The word may recall to my memory the experience of a fire which I have known elsewhere, or of some vivid description which I have read. It is of course difficult to draw the line and to say where the office of memory ends, and where abstraction takes its place; and again, as I said in my first pages, the same proposition is to one man an image, to another a notion; but still there is a host of predicates, of the most various kinds, "lovely," "vulgar," "a conceited man," "a manufacturing town," "a catastrophe," and any number of others, which, though as predicates they would be accounted common nouns, are in fact in the mouths of particular persons singular, as conveying images of things individual, as the rustic in Virgil says,—

"Urbem, quam dicunt Romam, Melibœe, putavi,
Stultus ego, huic nostrę similem."

And so the child's idea of a king, as derived from his picture-book, will be that of a fierce or stern or venerable man, seated above a flight of steps, with a crown on his head and a sceptre in his hand. In these two instances indeed the experience does but mislead, when {27} applied to the unknown; but it often happens on the contrary, that it is a serviceable help, especially when a man has large experiences and has learned to distinguish between them and apply them duly, as in the instance of the hero "who knew many cities of men and many minds."

Further, we are able by an inventive faculty, or, as I may call it, the faculty of composition, to follow the descriptions of things which have never come before us, and to form, out of such passive impressions as experience has heretofore left on our minds, new images, which, though mental creations, are in no sense abstractions, and though ideal, are not notional. They are concrete units in the minds both of the party describing and the party informed of them. Thus I may never have seen a palm or a banana, but I have conversed with those who have, or I have read graphic accounts of it, and, from my own previous knowledge of other trees, have been able with so ready an intelligence to interpret their language, and to light up such an image of it in my thoughts, that, were it not that I never was in the countries where the tree is found, I should fancy that I had actually seen it. Hence again it is the very praise we give to the characters of some great poet or historian that he is so individual. I am able as it were to gaze on Tiberius, as Tacitus draws him, and to figure to myself our James the First, as he is painted in Scott's Romance. The assassination of Cęsar, his "Et tu, Brute?" his collecting his robes about him, and his fall under Pompey's statue, all this becomes a fact to me and an object of real apprehension. Thus {28} it is that we live in the past and in the distant; by means of our capacity of interpreting the statements of others about former ages or foreign climes by the lights of our own experience. The picture, which historians are able to bring before us, of Cęsar's death, derives its vividness and effect from its virtual appeal to the various images of our memory.

This faculty of composition is of course a step beyond experience, but we have now reached its furthest point; it is mainly limited as regards its materials, by the sense of sight. As regards the other senses, new images cannot well be elicited and shaped out of old experiences. No description, however complete, could convey to my mind an exact likeness of a tune or an harmony, which I have never heard; and still less of a scent, which I have never smelt. Generic resemblances and metaphorical substitutes are indeed producible; but I should not acquire any real knowledge of the Scotch air "There's nae luck" by being told it was like "Auld lang syne," or "Robin Gray;" and if I said that Mozart's melodies were as a summer sky or as the breath of Zephyr, I should be better understood by those who knew Mozart than by those who did not. Such vague illustrations suggest intellectual notions, not images.

And quite as difficult is it to create or to apprehend by description images of mental facts, of which we have no direct experience. I may indeed, as I have already said, bring home to my mind so complex a fact as an historical character, by composition out of my experiences about character generally; Tiberius, James {29} the First, Louis the Eleventh, or Napoleon; but who is able to infuse into me, or how shall I imbibe, a sense of the peculiarities of the style of Cicero or Virgil, if I have not read their writings? or how shall I gain a shadow of a perception of the wit or the grace ascribed to the conversation of the French salons, being myself an untravelled John Bull? And so again, as regards the affections and passions of our nature, they are sui generis respectively, and incommensurable, and must be severally experienced in order to be apprehended really. I can understand the rabbia of a native of Southern Europe, if I am of a passionate temper myself; and the taste for speculation or betting found in great traders or on the turf, if I am fond of enterprise or games of chance; but on the other hand, not all the possible descriptions of headlong love will make me comprehend the delirium, if I never have had a fit of it; nor will ever so many sermons about the inward satisfaction of strict conscientiousness create in my mind the image of a virtuous action and its attendant sentiments, if I have been brought up to lie, thieve and indulge my appetites. Thus we meet with men of the world who cannot enter into the very idea of devotion, and think, for instance, that, from the nature of the case, a life of religious seclusion must be either one of unutterable dreariness or abandoned sensuality, because they know of no exercise of the affections but what is merely human; and with others again, who, living in the home of their own selfishness, ridicule as something fanatical and pitiable the self-sacrifices of generous high-mindedness and chivalrous honour. {30} They cannot create images of these things, any more than children on the contrary can of vice, when they ask whereabouts and who the bad men are; for they have no personal memories, and have to content themselves with notions drawn from books or from what others tell them.

So much on the apprehension of things and on the real in our use of language; now let us pass on to the notional sense.

2. Experience tells us only of individual things, and these things are innumerable. Our minds might have been so constructed as to be able to receive and retain an exact image of each of these various objects, one by one, as it came before us, but only in and for itself, without the power of comparing it with any of the others. But this is not our case: on the contrary, to compare and to contrast are among the most prominent and busy of our intellectual functions. Instinctively, even though unconsciously, we are ever instituting comparisons between the manifold phenomena of the external world, as we meet with them, criticizing, referring to a standard, collecting, analysing them. Nay, as if by one and the same action, as soon as we perceive them, we also perceive that they are like each other or unlike, or rather both like and unlike at once. We apprehend spontaneously, even before we set about apprehending, that man is like man, yet unlike; and unlike a horse, a tree, a mountain, or a monument, yet in some, though not the same respects, like each of them. And in consequence, as I have said, we are ever grouping and discriminating, measuring and sounding, {31} framing cross classes and cross divisions, and thereby rising from particulars to generals, that is from images to notions.

In processes of this kind we regard things, not as they are in themselves, but mainly as they stand in relation to each other. We look at nothing simply for its own sake; we cannot look at any one thing without keeping our eyes on a multitude of other things besides. "Man" is no longer what he really is, an individual presented to us by our senses, but as we read him in the light of those comparisons and contrasts which we have made him suggest to us. He is attenuated into an aspect, or relegated to his place in a classification. Thus his appellation is made to suggest, not the real being which he is in this or that specimen of himself, but a definition. If I might use a harsh metaphor, I should say he is made the logarithm of his true self, and in that shape is worked with the ease and satisfaction of logarithms.

It is plain what a different sense language will bear in this system of intellectual notions from what it has when it is the representative of things: and such a use of it is not only the very foundation of all science, but may be, and is, carried out in literature and in the ordinary intercourse of man with man. And thus it comes to pass that individual propositions about the concrete almost cease to be, and are diluted or starved into abstract notions. The events of history and the characters who figure in it lose their individuality. States and governments, society and its component parts, cities, nations, even the physical face of the {32} country, things past, and things contemporary, all that fulness of meaning which I have described as accruing to language from experience, now that experience is absent, necessarily becomes to the multitude of men nothing but a heap of notions, little more intelligible than the beauties of a prospect to the short-sighted, or the music of a great master to a listener who has no ear.

I suppose most men will recollect in their past years how many mistakes they have made about persons, parties, local occurrences, nations and the like, of which at the time they had no actual knowledge of their own: how ashamed or how amused they have since been at their own gratuitous idealism when they came into possession of the real facts concerning them. They were accustomed to treat the definite Titus or Sempronius as the quidam homo, the individuum vagum of the logician. They spoke of his opinions, his motives, his practices, as their traditional rule for the species Titus or Sempronius enjoined. In order to find out what individual men in flesh and blood were, they fancied that they had nothing to do but to refer to commonplaces, alphabetically arranged. Thus they were well up with the character of a Whig statesman or Tory magnate, a Wesleyan, a Congregationalist, a parson, a priest, a philanthropist, a writer of controversy, a sceptic; and found themselves prepared, without the trouble of direct inquiry, to draw the individual after the peculiarities of his type. And so with national character; the late Duke of Wellington must have been impulsive, quarrelsome, witty, clever at repartee, {33} for he was an Irishman; in like manner, we must have cold and selfish Scots, crafty Italians, vulgar Americans, and Frenchmen, half tiger, half monkey. As to the French, those who are old enough to recollect the wars with Napoleon, know what eccentric notions were popularly entertained about them in England; how it was even a surprise to find some military man, who was a prisoner of war, to be tall and stout, because it was a received idea that all Frenchmen were undersized and lived on frogs.

Such again are the ideal personages who figure in romances and dramas of the old school; tyrants, monks, crusaders, princes in disguise, and captive damsels; or benevolent or angry fathers, and spendthrift heirs; like the symbolical characters in some of Shakespeare's plays, "a Tapster," or "a Lord Mayor," or in the stage direction "Enter two murderers."

What I have been illustrating in the case of persons, might be instanced in regard to places, transactions, physical calamities, events in history. Words which are used by an eye-witness to express things, unless he be especially eloquent or graphic, may only convey general notions. Such is, and ever must be, the popular and ordinary mode of apprehending language. On only few subjects have any of us the opportunity of realizing in our minds what we speak and hear about; and we fancy that we are doing justice to individual men and things by making them a mere synthesis of qualities, as if any number whatever of abstractions would, by being fused together, be equivalent to one concrete. {34}

Here then we have two modes of thought, both using the same words, both having one origin, yet with nothing in common in their results. The informations of sense and sensation are the initial basis of both of them; but in the one we take hold of objects from within them, and in the other we view them from outside of them; we perpetuate them as images in the one case, we transform them into notions in the other. And natural to us as are both processes in their first elements and in their growth, however divergent and independent in their direction, they cannot really be inconsistent with each other; yet no one from the sight of a horse or a dog would be able to anticipate its zoological definition, nor from a knowledge of its definition to draw such a picture as would direct the eye to the living specimen.

Each use of propositions has its own excellence and serviceableness, and each has its own imperfection. To apprehend notionally is to have breadth of mind, but to be shallow; to apprehend really is to be deep, but to be narrow-minded. The latter is the conservative principle of knowledge, and the former the principle of its advancement. Without the apprehension of notions, we should for ever pace round one small circle of knowledge; without a firm hold upon things, we shall waste ourselves in vague speculations. However, real apprehension has the precedence, as being the scope and end and the test of notional; and the fuller is the mind's hold upon things or what it considers such, the more fertile is it in its aspects of them, and the more practical in its definitions.

Of course as these two are not inconsistent with each {35} other, they may co-exist in the same mind. Indeed there is no one who does not to a certain extent exercise both the one and the other. Viewed in relation to Assent, which has led to my speaking of them, they do not in any way affect the nature of Assent itself, which is in all cases absolute and unconditional; but they give it an external character corresponding respectively to their own: so much so, that at first sight it might seem as if Assent admitted of degrees, on account of the variation of vividness in these different apprehensions. As notions come of abstractions, so images come of experiences; the more fully the mind is occupied by an experience, the keener will be its assent to it, if it assents, and on the other hand, the duller will be its assent and the less operative, the more it is engaged with an abstraction; and thus a scale of assents is conceivable, either in the instance of one mind upon different subjects, or of many minds upon one subject, varying from an assent which looks like mere inference up to a belief both intense and practical,—from the acceptance which we accord to some accidental news of the day to the supernatural dogmatic faith of the Christian.

It follows to treat of Assent under this double aspect of its subject-matter,—assent to notions, and assent to things.

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