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ON HUMAN UNDERSTANDING.
(The Subject continued.)
In our preceding lecture we commenced a general survey of the chief opinions and hypotheses that have been urged in different periods upon the important subject of Human Understanding; and, opening our career with the Greek schools, we closed it with that of Des Cartes.
Des Cartes, who was born in 1596, was for nearly a century the Aristotle of his age; and, although from his very outset he was opposed by his contemporaries and literary friends Gassendi and Hobbes, he obtained a complete triumph, and steadily supported his ascendency, till the physical philosophy of Newton, and the metaphysical of Locke, threw an eclipse over his glory, from which he has now no chance of ever recovering.
Nothing, however, can prove more effectually the influence which fashion operates upon philosophy as well as upon dress, than a glance at the very opposite characters by whom the Cartesian system was at one and the same time principally professed and defended — Malebranche and Spinosa, Leibnitz and Bayle. It would, perhaps, be impossible, were we to range through the whole scope of philosophical or even of literary biography, to collect a more motley and heterogeneous group: the four elements of hot, cold, moist, and dry, cannot possibly present a stronger contrast; a mystical Catholic, a Jewish materialist, a speculative but steady Lutheran, and an universal sceptic.
It was only, however, for want of a simpler and more rational system, that Des Cartes continued so long and so extensively to govern the metaphysical taste of the day. That system was at length given to the world by Mr. Locke, and the “ PRINCIPIA PhiloSOPHIÆ” fell prostrate before the “Essay CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING.
This imperishable work made its first appearance in 1689: it may, perhaps, be somewhat too long; it may occasionally embrace subjects which are not necessarily connected with it: its terms may not always be precise, nor its opinions in every instance correct; but it discovers intrinsic and most convincing evidence that the man who wrote it must have had a head peculiarly clear, and a heart peculiarly sound. It is strictly original in its matter, highly important in its subject, luminous and forcible in its argument, perspicuous in its style, and comprehensive in its scope. It steers equally clear of all former systems: we have nothing of the mystical archetypes of Plato, the incorporeal phantoms of Aristotle, or the material species of Epicurus; we are equally without the intelligible world of the Greek schools, and the innate ideas of Des Cartes. Passing by all which, from actual experience and observation, it delineates the features, and describes the operations of the human mind, with a degree of precision and minuteness which have never been exhibited either before or
since. * “ Nothing,” says Dr. Beattie, and I readily avail myself of the acknowledgment of an honest and enlightened antagonist, “was further from the intention of Locke than to encourage verbal controversy, or advance doctrines favourable to scepticism. To do good to mankind by enforcing virtue, illustrating truth, and vindicating liberty, was his
His writings are to be reckoned among the few books that have been productive of real utility to mankind.”+
To take this work as a text-book, of which, however, it is well worthy, would require a long life instead of a short lecture; and I shall, hence, beg leave to submit to you only a very
summary of the more important part of its system and of the more prominent opinions it inculcates, especially in respect to the powers and process of the mind in acquiring knowledge. The work consists of four divisions, the first of which, however, is merely introductory, and intended to clear the ground of that multitude of strong and deep-rooted weeds at which we have already glanced, and which, under the scholastic name of præcognita, innate ideas, maxims, and dictates, or innate speculative and practical principles, prevented the growth of a better harvest ; and, to a certain extent, superseded the necessity of reason, education, and revelation, of national institutions and Bible societies; by teaching that a true and correct notion of God, of self or consciousness, of virtue and vice, and, consequently, of religious and moral duties, is imprinted by nature on
* Stud. of Med. vol, iii. p. 49. 2d edit. + Essay on Truth, part ii. ch. ii. § 2.
the mind of every man; and that we cannot transgress the law thus originally implanted within us without exposing ourselves to the lash of our own consciences. Discarding for ever all this jargon of the schools, the Essay we are now considering proceeds in its three remaining parts to treat of IDEAS, which, in the popular, and not the scholastic, sense of the term, are the elements of knowledge ; of WORDS, which are the signs of ideas; and, consequently, the circulating medium of knowledge; and of KNOWLEDGE itself, which is the subject proposed, and the great end to be acquired.
The whole of the preceding rubbish, then, being in this manner cleared away, the elaborate author proceeds to represent to us the body and mind as equally at birth a tabula rasa, or unwritten sheet of paper: as consisting equally of a blank or vacuity of impressions, but as equally capable of acquiring impressions by the operation of external objects, and equally and most skilfully endowed with distinct powers or faculties for this purpose ; those of the body being the external senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch; and those of the mind the internal senses of perception, reason, judgment, imagination, and memory.
It is possible that a few slight impressions may be produced a short time antecedently to birth; and it is certain that various instinctive tendencies, which, however, have no connection with the mind, are more perfect, because more needful, at the period of birth than ever afterwards ; and we have also frequent proofs of an hereditary or accidental predisposition towards particular subjects. But the fundämental doctrine before us is by no means affected by such collateral circumstances; to the correctness of which our most eminent logicians of later times have given their entire suffrage. Thus, Bishop Butler, and it is not necessary to go farther than this eminent casuist : .“ In these respects,” meaning those before us, “ mankind is left by nature an unformed, unfinished creature, utterly deficient and unqualified before the acquirement of knowledge, experience, and habits, for that mature state of life which was the end of his creation, considering him as related only to this world. The faculty of reason is the candle of the Lord within us; though it can afford no light where it does not shine, nor judge where it has no principles to judge
External objects first impress or operate upon the outward senses, and these senses, by means hitherto unexplained, and, perhaps, altogether inexplicable, immediately impress or operate upon the mind, or excite in it perceptions or ideas of the presence and qualities of such objects; the word idea being employed in the system before us, not, as we have already hinted at, in any of the significations of the schools, but in its broad and popular meaning, as importing 6 whatever a man observes and is conscious to himself he has in his mind+;" whatever was formerly intended by the terms archetype, phantasm, species, thought, notion, conception, or whatever else it may be, which we can be employed about in thinking. I And to these effects, without puzzling himself with
* Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, part i. ch. v. part ii. Conclusion. + Locke, book i. ch. i. $ 3.
| Id. $ 8. VOL. III.