Book 1, Chapter 08 : Human Inventions Susceptible of Perpetual Improvement
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Book 1, Chapter 08
Perfectibility of man-instanced, first, in language.-Its beginning.- Abstraction.-Complexity of Language.-Second instance: aphabetical writing.-Hieroglyphics at first universal. -Progressive deviations. -Application.
BEFORE we proceed to the direct subject of the present inquiry, it may not be improper to resume the subject of human improvableness, and consider it in a somewhat greater detail. An opinion has been extensively entertained "that the differences of the human species in different ages and countries, particularly so far as relates to moral principles of conduct, are extremely insignificant and trifling; that we are deceived in this respect by distance and confounded by glare; but- that in reality the virtues and vises of men, collectively taken, always have remained, and of consequence," it is said, "always will remain, nearly at the same point."
The erroneousness of this opinion will perhaps be more completely exposed, by a summary recollection of the actual history of our species, than by the closest deductions of abstract reason. We will in this place simply remind the reader of the great changes which man has undergone as an intellectual being, entitling us to infer the probability of improvements not less essential, to be realized in future. The conclusion to be deduced from this delineation, that his moral improvements will in some degree keep pace with his intellectual, and his actions correspond with his opinions, must depend for its force upon the train of reasoning which has already been brought forward under that head.1
Let us carry back our minds to man in his original state, a being capable of impressions and knowledge to an unbounded extent, but not having as yet received the one or cultivated the other; let us contrast this being with all that science and genius have effected; and from hence we may form some idea what it is of which human nature is capable. It is to be remembered that this being did not, as now, derive assistance from the communications of his fellows, nor had his feeble and crude conceptions amended by the experience of successive centuries; but that in the state we are figuring all men were equally ignorant. The field of improvement was before them~ but for every step in advance they were to be indebted to their untutored efforts. Nor is it of consequence whether such was actually the progress of mind, or whether, as others teach, the progress was abridged, and man was immediately advanced half way to the end of his career by the interposition of the author of his nature. In any case it is an allowable, and will be found no unimproving speculation, to consider mind as it is in itself, and to inquire what would have been its history if, immediately upon its production, it had been left to be acted upon by those ordinary laws of the universe with whose operation we are acquainted.
One of the acquisitions most evidently requisite as a preliminary to our present improvements is that of language. But it is impossible to conceive an acquisition that must have been in its origin more different from what at present it is found, or that less promised that copiousness and refinement it has since exhibited.
Its beginning was probably from those involuntary cries which infants, for example, are found to utter in the earliest stages of their existence, and which, previously to the idea of exciting pity or procuring assistance, spontaneously arise from the operation of pain upon our animal frame. These cries, when actually uttered, become a subject of perception to him by whom they are uttered; and, being observed to be constantly associated with certain antecedent impressions and to excite the idea of those impressions in the hearer, may afterwards be repeated from reflection and the desire of relief. Eager desire to communicate any information to another will also prompt us to utter some simple sound for the purpose of exciting attention: this sound will probably frequently recur to organs unpracticed to variety, and will at length stand as it were by convention for the information intended to be conveyed. But the distance is extreme from these simple modes of communication, which we possess in common with some of the inferior animals, to all the analysis and abstraction which languages require.
Abstraction indeed, though, as it is commonly understood, it be one of the sublimest operations of mind, is in some sort coeval with and inseparable from the existence of mind.2 The next step to simple perception is that of comparison, or the coupling together of two ideas and the perception of their resemblances and differences. Without comparison there can be no preference, and without preference no voluntary action: though it must be acknowledged that this comparison is an operation which may be performed by the mind without adverting to its nature, and that neither the brute nor the savage has a consciousness of the several steps of the intellectual progress. Comparison immediately leads to imperfect abstraction. The sensation of today is classed, if similar, with the sensation of yesterday, and an inference is made respecting the conduct to be adopted. Without this degree of abstraction, the faint dawings of language already described could never have existed. Abstraction, which was necessary to the first existence of language, is again assisted in its operations by language. That generalization, which is implied in the very notion of a thinking being, being thus embodied and rendered a matter of sensible impression, makes the mind acquainted with its own powers, and creates a restless desire after further progress.
But, though it be by no means impossible to trace the causes that concurred to the production of language, and to prove them adequate to their effect, it does not the less appear that this is an acquisition of slow growth and inestimable value. The very steps, were we to pursue them, would appear like an endless labyrinth. The distance is immeasurable between the three or four vague and inarticulate sounds uttered by animals, and the copiousness of lexicography or the regularity of grammar. The general and special names by which things are at first complicated and afterwards divided, the names by which properties are separated from their substances, and powers from both, the comprehensive distribution of parts of speech, verbs, adjectives and particles, the inflections of words by which the change of their terminations changes their meaning through a variety of shadings, their concords and their governments, all of them present us with such a boundless catalog of science that he who on the one hand did not know that the task had been actually performed, or who on the other was not intimately acquainted with the progressive nature of mind, would pronounce the accomplishment of them impossible.
A second invention, well calculated to impress us with a sense of the progressive nature of man, is that of alphabetical writing. Hieroglyphical or picture-writing appears at some time to have been universal, and the difficulty of conceiving the gradation from this to alphabetical is so great as to have induced Hartley, one of the most acute philosophical writers, to have recourse to miraculous interposition as the only adequate solution. In reality no problem can be imagined more operose than that of decomposing the sounds of words into four and twenty simple elements or letters, and again finding these elements in all other words. When we have examined the subject a little more closely, and perceived the steps by which this labor was accomplished, perhaps the immensity of the labor will rather gain upon us, as he that shall have counted a million of units will have a vaster idea upon the subject than he that only considers them in the gross.
In China hieroglyphical writing has never been superseded by alphabetical, and this from the very nature of their language, which is considerably monosyllabic, the same sound being made to signify a great variety of objects, by means of certain shadings of tone too delicate for an alphabet to represent. They have however two kinds of writing, one for the learned, and another for the vulgar. The learned adhere closely to their hieroglyphical writing, representing every word by its corresponding picture; but the vulgar are frequent in their deviations from it.
Hieroglyphical writing and speech may indeed be considered in the first instance as two languages running parallel to each other, but with no necessary connection. The picture and the word, each of them, represent the idea, one as immediately as the other. But, though independent, they will become accidentally associated; the picture at first imperfectly, and afterwards more constantly suggesting the idea of its correspondent sound. It is in this manner that the mercantile classes of China began to corrupt, as it is styled, their hieroglyphical writing. They had a word suppose of two syllables to write. The character appropriate to that word they were not acquainted with, or it failed to suggest itself to their memory. Each of the syllables however was a distinct word in the language, and the characters belonging to them perfectly familiar. The expedient that suggested itself was to write these two characters with a mark signifying their union, though in reality the characters had hitherto been appropriated to ideas of a different sort, wholly unconnected with that now intended to be conveyed. Thus a sort of rebus or charade was produced. In other cases the word, though monosyllabic, was capable of being divided into two sounds, and the same process was employed. This is a first step towards alphabetical analysis. Some word, such as the interjection O! or the particle A, is already a sound perfectly simple, and thus furnishes a first stone to the edifice. But, though these ideas may perhaps present us with a faint view of the manner in which an alphabet was produced, yet the actual production of a complete alphabet is perhaps of all human discoveries that which required the most persevering reflection, the luckiest concurrence of circumstances, and the most patient and gradual progress.
Let us however suppose man to have gained the two first elements of knowledge, speaking and writing; let us trace him through all his subsequent improvements, through whatever constitutes the inequality between Newton and the plowman, and indeed much more than this, since the most ignorant plowman in civilized society is infinitely different from what he would have been when stripped of all the benefits he has derived from literature and the arts. Let us survey the earth covered with the labors of man, houses, enclosures, harvests, manufactures, instruments, machines, together with all the wonders of painting, poetry, eloquence and philosophy.
Such was man in his original state, and such is man as we at present behold him. Is it possible for us to contemplate what he has already done without being impressed with a strong presentiment of the improvements he has yet to accomplish? There is no science that is not capable of additions; there is no art that may not be carried to a still higher perfection. If this be true of all other sciences, why not of morals? If this be true of all other arts, why not of social institution? The very conception of this as possible is in the highest degree encouraging. If we can still further demonstrate it to be a part of the natural and regular progress of mind, our confidence and our hopes will then be complete. This is the temper with which we ought to engage in the study of political truth. Let us look back, that we may profit by the experience of mankind; but let us not look back as if the wisdom of our ancestors was such as to leave no room for future improvement.
2The question whether or not the human mind is capable of forming abstract ideas has been the subject of much profound and serious disquisition. It is certain that we have a general standard of some sort, in consequence of which, if an animal is presented to our view, we can in most cvases decide that it is, or is not a horse, a man, &c; nor is it to be imagined that we should be unable to form such judgments, even if we were denied the use of speech.
It is a curious fact, and on that account worthy to be mentioned in this place, that the human mind is perhaps incapable of entertaining any but general ideas. Take, for example a wine glass. If, after this glass is withdrawn, I present to you another from the same set, you will probably be unable to determine whether it is another or the same. It is with a like inattention that people in general view a flock of sheep. The shepherd only distinguishes the features of every one of his sheep from the features of every other. But it is impossible so to individualize our remarks as to cause our idea to be truly particular, and not special. Thus there are memorable instances of one man so nearly resembling another as to be able to pass himself upon the wise and all the relatives of this man as if he were the same.
The opposition which has been so ingeniously maintained against the doctrine of abstract ideas seems chiefly to have arisen from a habit of using the term idea, not, as Locke has done, for every conception that can exist in the mind, but as constantly descriptive of an image. or picture. The following view of the subject will perhaps serve in some degree to remove any ambiguity that might continue to rest upon it.
Ideas, considering that term as comprehending all perceptions, both primary, or of the senses, and secondary, or of the memory, may be divided into four classes: 1. perfect. The existence of these we have disproved. 2. imperfect, such as those which are produced in us by a near and careful inspection of any visible object. 3 imperfect, such as those produced by a slight and distant view. 4. imperfect, so as to have no resemblance to an image of any external object. The perception produced in us in slight and current discourse by the words river, field, are of this nature; and have no snore resemblance to the image of any visible object than the perception ordinarily produced in us by the words conquest, government, virtue.
The subject of this last class of ideas is very ingeniously treated by Burke, in his Inquiry into the Sublime, Part V. He has however committed one material error in the discussion, by representing these as instances of the employment of "words without ideas." If we recollect that brutes have similar abstractions, and a general conception, of the female of their own species, of man, of food, of the smart of a whip, &c. we shall probably admit that such perceptions (and in all events they are perceptions, or, according to the established language upon the subject, ideas) are not necessarily connected with the employment of words.
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