Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

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The Principles of Psychology
  William James (1890)



In Chapter VIII, p. 221, the distinction was drawn between two kinds of knowledge of things, bare acquaintance with them and knowledge about them. The possibility of two such knowledges depends on a fundamental psychical peculiarity which may be entitled "the principle of constancy in the mind's meanings," and which may be thus expressed: "The same matters can be thought of in successive portions of the mental stream, and some of these portions can know that they mean the same matters which the other portions meant." One might put it otherwise by saying that "the mind can always intend, and know when it intends, to think of the Same."

This sense of sameness is the very keel and backbone of our thinking. We saw in Chapter X how the consciousness of personal identity reposed on it, the present thought finding in its memories a warmth and intimacy which it recognizes as the same warmth and intimacy it now feels. This sense of identity of the knowing subject is held by some philosophers to be the only vehicle by which the world hangs together. It seems hardly necessary to say that a sense of identity of the known object would perform exactly the same unifying function, even if the sense of subjective identity were lost. And without the intention to think of the same outer things over and over again, and the sense that we were doing so, our sense of our own personal sameness would carry us but a little way towards making a universe of our experience.

Note, however, that we are in the first instance speaking of the sense of sameness from the point of view of the mind's structure alone, and not from the point of view of the universe. We are psychologizing, not philosophizing. [p. 460] That is, we do not care whether there be any real sameness in things or not, or whether the mind be true or false in its assumptions of it. Our principle only lays it down that the mind makes continual use of the notion of sameness, and if deprived of it, would have a different structure from what it has. In a word, the principle that the mind can mean the Same is true of its meanings, but not necessarily of aught besides.[1] The mind must conceive as possible that the Same should be before it, for our experience to be the sort of thing it is. Without the psychological sense of identity, sameness might rain down upon us from the outer world for ever and we be none the wiser. With the psychological sense, on the other hand, the outer world might be an unbroken flux, and yet we should perceive a repeated experience. Even now, the world may be a place in which the same thing never did and never will come twice. The thing we mean to point at may change from top to bottom and we be ignorant of the fact. But in our meaning itself we are not deceived; our intention is to think of the same. The name which I have given to the principle, in calling it the law of constancy in our meanings, accentuates its subjective character, and justifies us in laying it down as the most important of all the features of our mental structure.

Not all psychic life need be assumed to have the sense of sameness developed in this way. In the consciousness of worms and polyps, though the same realities may frequently impress it, the feeling of sameness may seldom emerge. We, however, running back and forth, like spiders on the web they weave, feel ourselves to be working over identical materials and thinking them in different ways. And the man who identifies the materials most is held to have the most philosophic human mind.


The function by which we thus identify a numerically distinct and permanent subject of disclosure is called CONCEPTION; and the thoughts which are its vehicles are called concepts. But the word 'concept' is often used as if it stood for the object of discourse itself; and this looseness feeds such evasiveness in discussion that I shall avoid the use of the expression concept altogether, and speak of 'conceiving state of mind,' or something similar, instead. The word 'conception' is unambiguous. It properly denotes neither the mental state nor what the mental state signifies, but the relation between the two, namely, the function of the mental state in signifying just that particular thing. It is plain that one and the same mental state can be the vehicle of many conceptions, can mean a particular thing, and a great deal more besides. If it has such a multiple conceptual function, it may be called an act of compound conception.

We may conceive realities supposed to be extra-mental, as steam-engine; fictions, as mermaid; or mere entia rationis, like difference or nonentity. But whatever we do conceive, our conception is of that and nothing else - nothing else, that is, instead of that, though it may be of much else in addition to that. Each act of conception results from our attention singling out some one part of the mass of matter for thought which the world presents, and holding fast to it, without confusion.[2] Confusion occurs when [p. 462] we do not know whether a certain object proposed to us is the same with one of our meanings or not; so that the conceptual function requires, to be complete, that the thought should not only say 'I mean this,' but also say 'I don't mean that.'[3]

Each conception thus eternally remains what it is, and never can become another. The mind may change its states, and its meanings, at different times; may drop one conception and take up another, but the dropped conception can in no intelligible sense be said to change into its successor. The paper, a moment ago white, I may now see to have been scorched black. But my conception 'white' does not change into my conception 'black.' On the contrary, it stays alongside of the objective blackness, as a different meaning in my mind, and by so doing lets me judge the blackness as the paper's change. Unless it stayed, I should simply say 'blackness' and know no more. Thus, amid the flux of opinions and of physical things, the world of conceptions, or things intended to be thought about, stands stiff and immutable, like Plato's Realm of Ideas.[4]

Some conceptions are of things, some of events, some of qualities. Any fact, be it thing, event, or quality, may be conceived sufficiently for purposes of identification, if only it be singled out and marked so as to separate it from other things. Simply calling it 'this' or 'that' will suffice. [p. 463] To speak in technical language, a subject may be conceived by its denotation, with no connotation, or a very minimum of connotation, attached. The essential point is that it should be re-identified by us as that which the talk is about; and no full representation of it is necessary for this, even when it is a fully representable thing.

In this sense, creatures extremely low in the intellectual scale may have conception. All that is required is that they should recognize the same experience again. A polyp would be a conceptual thinker if a feeling of 'Hollo! thingumbob again!' ever flitted through its mind.

Most of the objects of our thought, however, are to some degree represented as well as merely pointed out. Either they are things and events perceived or imagined, or they are qualities apprehended in a positive way. Even where we have no intuitive acquaintance with the nature of a thing, if we know any of the relations of it at all, anything about it, that is enough to individualize and distinguish it from all the other things which we might mean. Many of our topics of discourse are thus problematical, or defined by their relations only. We think of a thing about which certain facts must obtain, but we do not yet know how the thing will look when it is realized. Thus we conceive of a perpetual-motion machine. It is a quœsitum of a perfectly definite kind, - we can always tell whether the actual machines offered us do or do not agree with what we mean by it. The natural possibility or impossibility of the thing does not touch the question of its conceivability in this problematic way. 'Round square,' 'black-white-thing,' are absolutely definite conceptions; it is a mere accident, as far as conception goes, that they happen to stand for things which nature lets us sensibly perceive.[5]


The fact that the same real topic of discourse is at one time conceived as a mere 'that' or 'that which, etc.,' and is at another time conceived with additional specifications, has been treated by many authors as a proof that conceptions themselves are fertile and self-developing. A conception, according to the Hegelizers in philosophy, 'develops its own significance,' 'makes explicit what it implicitly contained,' passes, on occasion, 'over into its opposite,' and in short loses altogether the blankly self-identical character we supposed it to maintain. The figure we viewed as a polygon appears to us now as a sum of juxtaposed triangles; the number hitherto conceived as thirteen is at last noticed to be six plus seven, or prime; the man thought honest is believed a rogue. Such changes of our opinion are viewed by these thinkers as evolutions of our conception, from within.

The facts are unquestionable; our knowledge does grow and change by rational and inward processes, as well as by empirical discoveries. Where the discoveries are empirical, no one pretends that the propulsive agency, the force that makes the knowledge develop, is mere conception. All admit it to be our continued exposure to the thing, with its power to impress our senses. Thus strychnin, which tastes bitter, we find will also kill, etc. Now I say that where the new knowledge merely comes from thinking, the facts are essentially the same, and that to talk of self-development on the part of our conceptions is a very bad way of stating the case. Not new sensations, as in the em- [p. 465] pirical instance, but new conceptions, are the indispensable conditions of advance.

For if the alleged cases of self-development be examined it will be found, I believe, that the new truth affirms in every case a relation between the original subject of conception and some new subject conceived later on. These new subjects of conception arise in various ways. Every one of our conceptions is of something which our attention originally tore out of the continuum of felt experience, and provisionally isolated so as to make of it an individual topic of discourse. Every one of them has a way, if the mind is left alone with it, of suggesting other parts of the continuum from which it was torn, for conception to work upon in a similar way. This 'suggestion' is often no more than what we shall later know as the association of ideas. Often, however, it is a sort of invitation to the mind to play, add lines, break number-groups, etc. Whatever it is, it brings new conceptions into consciousness, which latter thereupon may or may not expressly attend to the relation in which the new stands to the old. Thus I have a conception of equidistant lines. Suddenly, I know not whence, there pops into my head the conception of their meeting. Suddenly again I think of the meeting and the equidistance both together, and perceive them incompatible. "Those lines will never meet," I say. Suddenly again the word 'parallel' pops into my head. 'They are parallels,' I continue; and so on. Original conceptions to start with; adventitious conceptions pushed forward by multifarious psychologic causes; comparisons and combinations of the two; resultant conceptions to end with; which latter may be of either rational or empirical relations.

As regards these relations, they are conceptions of the second degree, as one might say, and their birthplace is the mind itself. In Chapter XXVIII I shall at considerable length defend the mind's claim to originality and fertility in bringing them forth. But no single one of the mind's conceptions is fertile of itself, as the opinion which I criticise pretends. When the several notes of a chord are sounded together, we get a new feeling from their combination. This feeling is due to the mind reacting upon that
[p. 466] group of sounds in that determinate way, and no one would think of saying of any single note of the chord that it 'developed' of itself into the other notes or into the feeling of harmony. So of Conceptions. No one of them develops into any other. But if two of them are thought at once, their relation may come to consciousness, and form matter for a third conception.

Take 'thirteen' for example, which is said to develop into 'prime.' What really happens is that we compare the utterly changeless conception of thirteen with various other conceptions, those of the different multiples of two, three, four, five, and six, and ascertain that it differs from them all. Such difference is a freshly ascertained relation. It is only for mere brevity's sake that we call it a property of the original thirteen, the property of being prime. We shall see in the next chapter that (if we count out æsthetic and moral relations between things) the only important relations of which the mere inspection of conceptions makes us aware are relations of comparison, that is, of difference and no-difference, between them. The judgment 6 + 7 = 13 expresses the relation of equality between two ideal objects, 13 on the one hand and 6 + 7 on the other, successively conceived and compared. The judgments 6 + 7 > 12, or 6 + 7 < 14, express in like manner relations of inequality between ideal objects. But if it be unfair to say that the conception of 6 + 7 generates that of 12 or of 14, surely it is as unfair to say that it generates that of 13.

The conceptions of 12, 13, and 14 are each and all generated by individual acts of the mind, playing with its materials. When, comparing two ideal objects, we find them equal, the conception of one of them may be that of a whole and of the other that of all its parts. This particular case is, it seems to me, the only case which makes the notion of one conception evolving into another sound plausible. But even in this case the conception, as such, of the whole does not evolve into the conception, as such, of the parts. Let the conception of some object as a whole be given first. To begin with, it points to and identifies for future thought a certain that. The 'whole' in question might be one of those mechanical puzzles of which the difficulty is to un- [p. 467] lock the parts. In this case, nobody would pretend that the richer and more elaborate conception which we gain of the puzzle after solving it came directly out of our first crude conception of it, for it is notoriously the outcome of experimenting with our hands. It is true that, as they both mean that same puzzle, our earlier thought and our later thought have one conceptual function, are vehicles of one conception. But in addition to being the vehicle of this bald unchanging conception, 'that same puzzle,' the later thought is the vehicle of all those other conceptions which it took the manual experimentation to acquire. Now, it is just the same where the whole is mathematical instead of being mechanical. Let it be a polygonal space, which we cut into triangles, and of which we then affirm that it is those triangles. Here the experimentation (although usually done by a pencil in the hands) may be done by the unaided imagination. We hold the space, first conceived as polygonal simply, in our mind's eye until our attention wandering to and fro within it has carved it into the triangles. The triangles are a new conception, the result of this new operation. Having once conceived them, however, and compared them with the old polygon which we originally conceived and which we have never ceased conceiving, we judge them to fit exactly into its area. The earlier and later conceptions, we say, are of one and the same space. But this relation between triangles and polygon which the mind cannot help finding if it compares them at all, is very badly expressed by saying that the old conception has developed into the new. New conceptions come from new sensations, new movements, new emotions, new associations, new acts of attention, and new comparisons of old conceptions, and not in other ways, Endogenous prolification is not a mode of growth to which conceptions can lay claim.

I hope, therefore, that I shall not be accused of huddling mysteries out of sight, when I insist that the psychology of conception is not the place in which to treat of those of continuity and change. Conceptions form the one class of entities that cannot under any circumstances change. They can cease to be, altogether; or they can stay, as what [p. 468] they severally are; but there is for them no middle way. They form an essentially discontinuous system, and translate the process of our perceptual experience, which is naturally a flux, into a set of stagnant and petrified terms. The very conception of flux itself is an absolutely changeless meaning in the mind: it signifies just that one thing, flux, immovably. - And, with this, the doctrine of the flux of the concept may be dismissed, and need not occupy our attention again.[6]


We have now to pass to a less excusable mistake. There are philosophers who deny that associated things can be broken asunder at all, even provisionally, by the conceiving mind. The opinion known as Nominalism says that we really never frame any conception of the partial elements of an experience, but are compelled, whenever we think it, to think it in its totality, just as it came.

I will be silent of mediæval Nominalism, and begin with Berkeley, who is supposed to have rediscovered the doc- [p. 469] trine for himself. His asseverations against 'abstract ideas' are among the oftenest quoted passages in philosophic literature.

"It is agreed," he says, "on all hands that the qualities or modes of things do never really exist each of them apart by itself, and separated from all others, but are mixed, as it were, and blended together, several in the same object. But, we are told, the mind being able to consider each quality singly, or abstracted from those other qualities with which it is united, does by that means frame to itself abstract ideas. . . . After this manner, it is said, we come by the abstract idea of man, or, if you please, humanity, or human nature; wherein it is true there is included color, because there is no man but has some color, but then it can be neither white, nor black, nor any particular color, because there is no one particular color wherein all men partake. So likewise there is included stature, but then it is neither tall stature nor low stature, nor yet middle stature, but something abstracted from all these. And so of the rest. . . . .Whether others have this wonderful faculty of abstracting their ideas, they best can tell: for myself, I find indeed I have a faculty of imagining or representing to myself the ideas of those particular things I have perceived and of variously compounding and dividing them. . . . I can consider the hand, the eye, the nose, each by itself abstracted or separated from the rest of the body. But then, whatever hand or eye I imagine, it must have some particular shape and color. Likewise the idea of man that I frame to myself must be either of a white, or a black, or a tawny, a straight, or a crooked, a tall, or a low, or a middle-sized man. I cannot by any effort of thought conceive the abstract idea above described. And it is equally impossible for me to form the abstract idea of motion distinct from the body moving, and which is neither swift nor slow, curvilinear nor rectilinear; and the like may be said of all other abstract general ideas whatsoever. . . . And there is ground to think most men will acknowledge themselves to be in my case. The generality of men which are simple and illiterate never pretend to abstract notions. It is said they are difficult, and not to be attained without pains and study. . . . Now I would fain know at what time it is men are employed in surmounting that difficulty, and furnishing themselves with those necessary helps for discourse. It cannot be when they are grown up, for then it seems they are not conscious of any such painstaking; it remains therefore to be the business of their childhood. And surely the great and multiplied labor of framing abstract notions will be found a hard task for that tender age. Is it not a hard thing to imagine that a couple of children cannot prate together of their sugar-plums and rattles and the rest of their little trinkets, till they have first tacked together numberless inconsistencies, and so framed in their minds abstract general ideas, and annexed them to every common name they make use of?"[7]

[p. 470] The note, so bravely struck by Berkeley, could not, however, be well sustained in face of the fact patent to every human being that we can mean color without meaning any particular color, and stature without meaning any particular height. James Mill, to be sure, chimes in heroically in the chapter on Classification of his 'Analysis'; but in his son John the nominalistic voice has grown so weak that, although 'abstract ideas' are repudiated as a matter of traditional form, the opinions uttered are really nothing but a conceptualism ashamed to call itself by its own legitimate name.[8] Conceptualism says the mind can conceive any quality or relation it pleases, and mean nothing but it, in isolation from everything else in the world. This is, of course, the doctrine which we have professed. John Mill says:

"The formation of a Concept does not consist in separating the attributes which are said to compose it from all other attributes of the same object, and enabling us to conceive those attributes, disjoined from any others. We neither conceive them, nor think them, nor cognize them in any way, as a thing apart, but solely as forming, in combination with numerous other attributes, the idea of an individual object. But, though meaning them only as part of a larger agglomeration, we have the power of fixing out attention on them, to the neglect of the other attributes with which we think them combined. While the concentration of attention lasts, if it is sufficiently intense, we may be temporarily unconscious of any of the other attributes, and may really, for a brief interval, have nothing present to our mind but the attributes constituent of the concept. . . . General concepts, therefore, we have, properly speaking, none; we have only complex ideas of objects in the concrete: but we are able to attend exclusively to certain parts of the concrete idea: and by that exclusive attention we enable those parts to determine exclusively the course of our thoughts as subsequently called up by association; and are in a condition to carry on a train of meditation or reasoning relating to those parts only, exactly as if we were able to conceive them separately from the rest."[9]

This is a lovely example of Mill's way of holding piously to his general statements, but conceding in detail all that their adversaries ask. If there be a better description extant, of a mind in possession of an 'abstract idea,' than is [p. 471] contained in the words I have italicized, I am unacquainted with it. The Berkeleyan nominalism thus breaks down.

It is easy to lay bare the false assumption which underlies the whole discussion of the question as hitherto carried on. That assumption is that ideas, in order to know, must be cast in the exact likeness of whatever things they know, and that the only things that can be known are those which ideas can resemble. The error has not been confined to nominalists. Omnis cognito fit per assimilationem cognoscentis et cogniti has been the maxim, more or less explicitly assumed, of writers of every school. Practically it amounts to saying that an idea must be a duplicate edition of what it knows[10] - in other words, that it can only know itself - or, more shortly still, that knowledge in any strict sense of the word, as a self-transcendent function, is impossible.

Now our own blunt statements about the ultimateness of the cognitive relation, and the difference between the 'object' of the thought and its mere 'topic' or 'subject of discourse' (cf. pp. 275 ff.), are all at variance with any such theory; and we shall find more and more occasion, as we advance in this book, to deny its general truth. All that a state of mind need do, in order to take cognizance of a reality, intend it, or be 'about' it, is to lead to a remoter state of mind which either acts upon the reality or resembles it. The only class of thoughts which can with any show of plausibility be said to resemble their objects are sensations. The stuff of which all our other thoughts are composed is symbolic, and a thought attests its pertinency to a topic by simply terminating, sooner or later, in a sensation which resembles the latter.

But Mill and the rest believe that a thought must be what it means, and mean what it is, and that if it be a picture of an entire individual, it cannot mean any part of him to the exclusion of the rest. I say nothing here of the preposterously false descriptive psychology involved in the statement that the only things we can mentally picture are [p. 472] individuals completely determinate in all regards. Chapter XVIII will have something to say on that point, and we can ignore it here. For even if it were true that our images were always of concrete individuals, it would not in the least follow that our meanings were of the same.

The sense of our meaning is an entirely peculiar element of the thought. It is one of those evanescent and 'transitive' facts of mind which introspection cannot turn round upon, and isolate and hold up for examination, as an entomologist passes round an insect on a pin. In the (somewhat clumsy) terminology I have used, it pertains to the 'fringe' of the subjective state, and is a 'feeling of tendency,' whose neural counterpart is undoubtedly a lot of dawning and dying processes too faint and complex to be traced. The geometer, with his one definite figure before him, knows perfectly that his thoughts apply to countless other figures as well, and that although he sees lines of a certain special bigness, direction, color, etc., he means not one of these details. When I use the word man in two different sentences, I may have both times exactly the same sound upon my lips and the same picture in my mental eye, but I may mean, and at the very moment of uttering the word and imagining the picture, know that I mean, two entirely different things. Thus when I say: "What a wonderful man Jones is!" I am perfectly aware that I mean by man to exclude Napoleon Bonaparte or Smith. But when I say: "What a wonderful thing Man is!" I am equally well aware that I mean to include not only Jones, but Napoleon and Smith as well. This added consciousness is an absolutely positive sort of feeling, transforming what would otherwise be mere noise or vision into something understood; and determining the sequel of my thinking, the later words and images, in a perfectly definite way. We saw in Chapter IX that the image per se, the nucleus, is functionally the least important part of the thought. Our doctrine, therefore, of the 'fringe' leads to a perfectly satisfactory decision of the nominalistic and conceptualistic controversy, so far as it touches psychology. We must decide in favor of the conceptualists, and affirm that the power to think things, qualities, relations, or whatever other elements there may [p. 473] be, isolated and abstracted from the total experience in which they appear, is the most indisputable function of our thought.


After abstractions, universals! The 'fringe,' which lets us believe in the one, lets us believe in the other too. An individual conception is of something restricted, in its application, to a single case. A universal or general conception is of an entire class, or of something belonging to an entire class, of things. The conception of an abstract quality is, taken by itself, neither universal nor particular.[11] If I abstract white from the rest of the wintry landscape this morning, it is a perfectly definite conception, a self-identical quality which I may mean again; but, as I have not yet individualized it by expressly meaning to restrict it to this particular snow, nor thought at all of the possibility of other things to which it may be applicable, it is so far nothing but a 'that,' a 'floating adjective,' as Mr. Bradley calls it, or a topic broken out from the rest of the world. Properly it is, in this state, a singular - I have 'singled it out;' and when, later, I universalize or individualize its application, and my thought turns to mean either this white or all possible whites, I am in reality meaning two new things and forming two new conceptions.[12] Such an alteration of my meaning has nothing to do with any change in the image I may have in my mental eye, but solely with the vague consciousness that surrounds the image, of the sphere to which is is intended to apply. We can give no more definite account of this vague conscious- [p. 474] ness than has been given on pp. 249-266. But that is no reason for denying its presence.[13]

But the nominalists and traditional conceptualists find matter for an inveterate quarrel in these simple facts. Full of their notion that an idea, feeling, or state of consciousness can at bottom only be aware of its own quality; and agreeing, as they both do, that such an idea or state of consciousness is a perfectly determinate, singular, and transitory thing; they find it impossible to conceive how it should become the vehicle of a knowledge of anything permanent or universal. "To know a universal, it must be universal; for like can only be known by like," etc. Unable to reconcile these incompatibles, the knower and the known, each side immolates one of them to save the other. The nominalists 'settle the hash' of the thing known by denying it to be ever a genuine universal; the conceptualists despatch the knower by denying it to be a state of mind, in the sense of being a perishing segment of thoughts' stream, consubstantial with other facts of sensibility. They invent, instead of it, as the vehicle of the knowledge of universals, an actus purus intellectûs, or an Ego, whose function is treated as quasi-miraculous and nothing if not awe-inspiring, and which it is a sort of blasphemy to approach with the intent to explain and make common, or reduce to lower terms. Invoked in the first instance as a vehicle for the knowledge of universals, the higher principle presently is made the indispensible vehicle of all thinking whatever, for, it is contended, "a universal element is present in every thought." The nominalists meanwhile, who dislike [p. 475] actus puros and awe-inspiring principles and despise the reverential mood, content themselves with saying that we are mistaken in supposing we ever get sight of the face of an universal; and that what deludes us is nothing but the swarm of 'individual ideas' which may at any time be awakend by the hearing of a name.

If we open the pages of either school, we find it impossible to tell, in all the whirl about universal and particular, when the author is talking about universals in the mind, and when about objective universals, so strangely are the two mixed together. James Ferrier, for example, is the most brilliant of anti-nominalist writers. But who is nimble-witted enough to count, in the following sentences from him, the number of times he steps from the known to the knower, and attributes to both whatever properties he finds in either one?

"To think is to pass from the singular or particular to the idea [concept] or universal. . . . Ideas are necessary because no thinking can take place without them. They are universal, inasmuch as they are completely divested of the particularity which characterizes all the phenomena of mere sensation. To grasp the nature of this universality is not easy. Perhaps the best means by which this end may be compassed is by contrasting it with the particular. It is not difficult to understand that a sensation, a phenomenon of sense, is never more than the particular which it is. As such, that is, in its strict particularity, it is absolutely unthinkable. In the very act of being thought, something more than it emerges, and this something more cannot be again the particular. . . . Ten particulars per se cannot be thought of any more than one particular can be thought of; . . . there always emerges in thought an additional something, which is the possibility of other particulars to an indefinite extent. . . . .The indefinite additional something which they are instances of is a universal. . . . The idea or universal cannot possibly be pictured in the imagination, for this would at once reduce it to the particular. . . . This inability to form any sort of picture or representation of an idea does not proceed from any imperfection or limitation of our faculties, but is a quality inherent in the very nature of intelligence. A contradiction is involved in the supposition that an idea or a universal can become the object either of sense or of the imagination. An idea is thus diametrically opposed to an image."[14]

The nominalists, on their side, admit a quasi-universal, something which we think as if it were universal, though it [p. 476] is not; and in all that they say about this something, which they explain to be 'an indefinite number of particular ideas,' the same vacillation between the subjective and the objective points of view appears. The reader never can tell whether an 'idea' spoken of is supposed to be a knower or a known. The authors themselves do not distinguish. They want to get something in the mind which shall resemble what is out of the mind, however vaguely, and they think that when that fact is accomplished, no farther questions will be asked. James Mill writes:[15]

"The word, man, we shall say, is first applied to an individual; it is first associated with the idea of that individual, and acquires the power of calling up the idea of him; it is next applied to another individual and acquires the power of calling up the idea of him; so of another and another, till it has become associated with an indefinite number, and has acquired the power of calling up an indefinite number of those ideas indifferently. What happens? It does call up an indefinite number of the ideas of individuals as often as it occurs; and calling them in close connection, it forms a species of complex idea of them. . . . It is also a fact, that when an idea becomes to a certain extent complex, from the multiplicity of the ideas it comprehends, it is of necessity indistinct; . . . and this indistinctness has, doubtless, been a main cause of the mystery which has appeared to belong to it. . . . It thus appears that the word man is not a word having a very simple idea, as was the opinion of the realists; nor a word having no idea at all, as was that of the [earlier] nominalists; but a word calling up an indefinite number of ideas, by the irresistible laws of association, and forming them into one very complex and distinct, but not therefore unintelligible, idea."

Berkeley had already said:[16]

"A word becomes general by being made the sign, not of an abstract general idea, but of many several particular ideas, any one of which it indifferently suggests to the mind. An idea which, considered in itself, is particular, becomes general by being made to represent or stand for all other particular ideas of the same sort."

'Stand for,' not know; 'becomes general,' not becomes aware of something general; 'particular ideas,' not particular things - everywhere the same timidity about begging the fact of knowing, and the pitifully impotent attempt to foist it in the shape of a mode of being of 'ideas.' If [p. 477] the fact to be conceived be the indefinitely numerous actual and possible members of a class, then it is assumed that if we can only get enough ideas to huddle together for a moment in the mind, the being of each several one of them there will be an equivalent for the knowing, or meaning, of one member of the class in question; and their number will be so large as to confuse our tally and leave it doubtful whether all the possible members of the class have thus been satisfactorily told off or not.

Of course this is nonsense. An idea neither is what it knows, nor knows what it is; nor will swarms of copies of the same 'idea,' recurring in stereotyped form, or 'by the irresistible laws of association formed into one idea,' ever be the same thing as a thought of 'all the possible members' of a class. We must mean that by an altogether special bit of consciousness ad hoc. But it is easy to translate Berkeley's, Hume's, and Mill's notion of a swarm of ideas into cerebral terms, and so to make them stand for something real; and, in this sense, I think the doctrine of these authors less hollow than the opposite one which makes the vehicle of universal conceptions to be an actus purus of the soul. If each 'idea' stand for some special nascent nerve-process, then the aggregate of these nascent processes might have for its conscious correlate a psychic 'fringe,' which should be just that universal meaning, or intention that the name or mental picture employed should mean all the possible individuals of the class. Every peculiar complication of brain-processes must have some peculiar correlate in the soul. To one set of processes will correspond the thought of an indefinite taking of the extent of a word like man; to another set that of a particular taking; and to a third set that of a universal taking, of the extent of the same word. The thought corresponding to either set of processes, is always itself a unique and singular event, whose dependence on its peculiar nerve-process I of course am far from professing to explain.[17]

[p. 478] Truly in comparison with the fact that every conception, whatever it be of, is one of the mind's immutable posses-
[p. 479] sions, the question whether a single thing, or a whole class of things, or only an unassigned quality, be meant by it, is an insignificant matter of detail. Our meanings are of singulars, particulars, indefinites, and universals, mixed together in every way. A singular individual is as much conceived when he is isolated and identified away from the rest of the world in my mind, as is the most rarefied and universally applicable quality he may possess - being, for example, when treated in the same way.[18] From every point of view, the overwhelming and portentous character ascribed to universal conceptions is surprising. Why, from Plato and Aristotle downwards, philosophers should have vied with each other in scorn of the knowledge of the particular, and in adoration of that of the general, is hard to understand, seeing that the more adorable knowledge ought to be that of the more adorable things, and that the things of worth are all concretes and singulars. The only value of universal characters is that they help us, by reasoning, [p. 480] to know new truths about individual things. The restriction of one's meaning, moreover, to an individual thing, probably requires even more complicated brain-processes than its extension to all the instances of a kind; and the mere mystery, as such, of the knowledge, is equally great, whether generals or singulars be the things known. In sum, therefore, the traditional universal-worship can only be called a bit of perverse sentimentalism, a philosophic 'idol of the cave.'

It may seem hardly necessary to add (what follows as a matter of course from pp. 229-237, and what has been implied in our assertions all along) that nothing can be conceived twice over without being conceived in entirely different states of mind. Thus, my arm-chair is one of the things of which I have a conception; I knew it yesterday and recognized it when I looked at it. But if I think of it to-day as the same arm-chair which I looked at yesterday, it is obvious that the very conception of it as the same is an additional complication to the thought, whose inward constitution must alter in consequence. In short, it is logically impossible that the same thing should be known as the same by two successive copies of the same thought. As a matter of fact, the thoughts by which we know that we mean the same thing are apt to be very different indeed from each other. We think the thing now in one context, now in another; now in a definite image, now in a symbol. Sometimes our sense of its identity pertains to the mere fringe, sometimes it involves the nucleus, of our thought. We never can break the thought asunder and tell just which one of its bits is the part that lets us know which subject is referred to; but nevertheless we always do know which of all possible subjects we have in mind. Introspective psychology must here throw up the sponge; the fluctuations of subjective life are too exquisite to be arrested by its coarse means. It must confine itself to bearing witness to the fact that all sorts of different subjective states do form the vehicle by which the same is known; and it must contradict the opposite view.

The ordinary Psychology of 'ideas' constantly talks as [p. 481] if the vehicle of the same thing-known must be the same recurrent state of mind, and as if the having over again of the same 'idea' were not only a necessary but a sufficient condition for meaning the same thing twice. But this recurrence of the same idea would utterly defeat the existence of a repeated knowledge of anything. It would be a simple reversion into a pre-existant state, with nothing gained in the interval, and with complete unconsciousness of the state having existed before. Such is not the way in which we think. As a rule we are fully aware that we have thought before of the thing we think of now. The continuity and permanency of the topic is of the essence of our intellection. We recognize the old problem, and the old solutions; and we go on to alter and improve and substitute one predicate for another without ever letting the subject change.

This is what is meant when it is said that thinking consists in making judgments. A succession of judgments may all be about the same thing. The general practical postulate which encourages us to keep thinking at all is that by going on to do so we shall judge better of the same things than if we do not.[19] In the successive judgments, all sorts of new operations are performed on the things, and all sorts of new results brought out, without the sense of the main topic ever getting lost. At the outset, we merely have the topic; then we operate on it; and finally we have it again in a richer and truer way. A compound conception has been substituted for the simple one, but with full consciousness that both are of the Same.

The distinction between having and operating is as natural in the mental as in the material world. As our hands may hold a bit of wood and a knife, and yet do naught with either; so our mind may simply be aware of a thing's existence, and yet neither attend to it nor discriminate it, neither locate nor count nor compare nor like nor dislike nor deduce it, nor recognize it articulately as having been met with before. At the same time we know that, instead of staring at it in this entranced and senseless way, we may rally our activity in a moment, and locate, class, [p. 482] compare, count, and judge it. There is nothing involved in all this which we did not postulate at the very outset of our introspective work: realities, namely, extra mentem, thoughts, and possible relations of cognition between the two. The result of the thoughts' operating on the data given to sense is to transform the order in which experience comes into an entirely different order, that of the conceived world. There is no spot of light, for example, which I pick out and proceed to define as a pebble, which is not thereby torn from its mere time- and space-neighbors, and thought in conjunction with things physically parted from it by the width of nature. Compare the form in which facts appear in a text-book of physics, as logically subordinated laws, with that in which we naturally make their acquaintance. The conceptual scheme is a sort of sieve in which we try to gather up the world's contents. Most facts and relations fall through its meshes, being either too subtle or insignificant to be fixed in any conception. But whenever a physical reality is caught and identified as the same with something already conceived, it remains on the sieve, and all the predicates and relations of the conception with which it is identified become its predicates and relations too; it is subjected to the sieve's network, in other words. Thus comes to pass what Mr. Hodgson calls the translation of the perceptual into the conceptual order of the world.[20]

In Chapter XXII we shall see how this translation always takes place for the sake of some subjective interest, and how the conception with which we handle a bit of sensible experience is really nothing but a teleological instrument. This whole function of conceiving, of fixing, and holding fast to meanings, has no significance apart from the fact that the conceiver is a creature with partial purposes and private ends. There remains, therefore, much more to be said about conception, but for the present this will suffice.


[1] There are two other 'principles of identity' in philosophy. The ontological one asserts that every real thing is what it is, that a is a, and b, b. The logical one says that what is once true of the subject of a judgment is always true of that subject. The ontological law is a tautological truism; the logical principle is already more, for it implies subjects unalterable by time. The psychological law also implies facts which might not be realized: there might be no succession of thoughts; or if there were, the later ones might not think of the earlier; or if they did, they might not recall the content thereof; or, recalling the content, they might not take it as 'the same' with anything else.

[2] In later chapters we shall see that determinate relations exist between the various data thus fixed upon by the mind. These are called a priori or axiomatic relations. Simple inspection of the data enables us to perceive them; and one inspection is as effective as a million for engendering in us the conviction that between those data that relation must always hold. To change the relation we should have to make the data different. 'The guarantee for the uniformity and adequacy' of the data can only be the mind's own power to fix upon any objective content, and to mean that content as often as it likes. This right of the mind to 'construct' permanent ideal objects for itself out of the data of experience seems, singularly enough, to be a stumbling-block to many. Professor Robertson in his clear and instructive article 'Axioms' in the Encyclopedia Britannica (9th edition) suggests that it may only be where movements enter into the constitution of the ideal object (as they do in geometrical figures) that we can "make the ultimate relations to be what for us they must be in all circumstances." He makes, it is true, a concession in favor of conceptions of number abstracted from "subjective occurrences succeeding each other in time" because these also are acts "of construction, dependent on the power we have of voluntarily determining the flow of subjective consciousness." "The content of passive sensation," on the other hand, "may indefinitely vary beyond any control of ours." What if it do vary, so long as we can continue to think of and mean the qualities it varied from? We can 'make' ideal objects for ourselves out of irrecoverable bits of passive experience quite as perfectly as out of easily repeatable active experiences. And when we have got our objects together and compared them, we do not make, but find, their relations.

[3] Cf. Hodgson, Time and Space, § 46. Lotze, Logic, § 11.

[4] "For though a man in a fever should from sugar have a bitter taste, which at another time would produce a sweet one, yet the idea of bitter in that man's mind would be as distinct as if he had tasted only gall." (Locke's Essay, bk. II. chap. XI. § 3. Read the whole section!)

[5] Black round things, square white things, per contra, Nature gives us freely enough. But the combinations which she refuses to realize may exist as distinctly, in the shape of postulates, as those which she gives may exist in the shape of positive images, in our mind. As a matter of fact, she may realize a warm cold thing whenever two points of the skin, so near together as not to be locally distinguished, are touched, the one with a warm, the other with a cold, piece of metal. The warmth and the cold are then often felt as if in the same objective place. Under similar conditions two objects, one sharp and the other blunt, may feel like one sharp blunt thing. The same space may appear of two colors if, by optical artifice, one of the colors is made to appear as if seen through the other - Whether any two attributes whatever shall be compatible or not, in the sense of appearing or not to occupy the same place and moment, depends simply on de facto peculiarities of natural bodies of our sense-organs. Logically, any one combination of qualities is to the full as conceivable as any other, and has as distinct a meaning for thought. What necessitates this remark is the confusion deliberately kept up by certain authors (e.g., Spencer, Psychology, §§ 426-7) between the inconceivable and the not-distinctly-imaginable. How do we know which things we cannot imagine unless by first conceiving them, meaning them and not other things?

[6] Arguments seldom make converts in matters philosophical; and some readers, I know, who find that they conceive a certain matter differently from what they did, will still prefer saying they have two different editions of the same conception, one evolved from the other, to saying they have two different conceptions of the same thing. It depends, after all, on how we define conception. We ourselves defined it as the function by which a state of mind means to think the same whereof it thought on a former occasion. Two states of mind will accordingly be two editions of the same conception just so far as either does mean to think what the other thought; but no farther. If either mean to think what the other did not think, it is a different conception from the other. And if either mean to think all that the other thought, and more, it is a different conception, so far as the more goes. In this last case one state of mind has two conceptual functions. Each thought decides, by its own authority, which, out of all the conceptive functions open to it, it shall now renew; with which other thought it shall identify itself as a conceiver, and just how far. "The same A which I once meant," it says, "I shall now mean again, and mean it with C as its predicate (or what not) instead of B, as before." In all this, therefore, there is absolutely no changing, but only uncoupling and re-coupling of conceptions. Compound conceptions come, as functions of new states of mind. Some of these functions are the same with previous ones, some not. Any changed opinion, then, partly contains new editions (absolutely identical with the old, however) of former conceptions, partly absolutely new conceptions. The division is a perfectly easy one to make in each particular case.

[7] Principles of Human Knowledge, Introduction, §§ 10, 14.

[8] 'Conceptualisme honteux,' Rabier, Psychologie, 310.

[9] Exam. of Hamilton, p. 393. Cf. also Logic, bk. II. chap. v § 1. and bk. IV. chap. II. § 1.

[10] E.g.: "The knowledge of things must mean that the mind finds itself in them, or that, in some way, the difference between them and the mind is dissolved." (E. Caird, Philosophy of Kant, first edition, p. 553.)

[11] The traditional conceptualist doctrine is that an abstract must eo ipso be a universal. Even modern and independent authors like Prof. Dewey (Psychology, 207) obey the tradition: "The mind seizes upon some one aspect, . . . abstracts or prescinds it. This very seizure of some one element generalizes the one abstracted. . . . Attention, in drawing it forth, makes it a distinct content of consciousness and thus universalizes it; it is considered no longer in its particular connection with the object, but on its own account; that is, as an idea, or what it signifies to the mind; and significance is always universal."

[12] C. F. Reid's Intellectual Powers, Essay v. chap. III. - Whiteness is one thing, the whiteness of this sheet of paper another thing.

[13] Mr. F. H. Bradley says the conception or the 'meaning' "consists of a part of the content, cut off, fixed by the mind, and considered apart from the existence of the sign. It would not be correct to add, and referred away to another real subject; for where we think without judging, and where we deny, that description would not be applicable." This seems to be the same doctrine as ours; the application to one or to all subjects of the abstract fact conceived (i.e. its individuality or its universality), constituting a new conception. I am, however, not quite sure that Mr. Bradley steadily maintains this ground. Cf. the first chapter of his Principles of Logic. The doctrine I defend is stoutly upheld in Rosmini's Philosophical System, Introduction by Thomas Davidson, p. 43 (London, 1882).

[14] Lectures on Greek Philosophy, pp. 33-39.

[15] Analysis, chap. VIII.

[16] Principles of Human Knowledge, Introduction, §§ 11, 12.

[17] It may add to the effect of the text to quote a passage from the essay in 'Mind,' referred to on p. 224.
"Why may we not side with the conceptualists in saying that the universal sense of a word does correspond to a mental fact of some kind, but at the same time, agreeing with the nominalists that all mental facts are modifications of subjective sensibility, why may we not call that fact a 'feeling'? Man meant for mankind is in short a different feeling from man as a mere noise, or from man meant for that man, to wit, John Smith alone. Not that the difference consists simply in the fact that, when taken universally, the word has one of Mr. Galton's 'blended' images of man associated with it. Many persons have seemed to think that these blended or, as Prof. Huxley calls them, 'generic' images are equivalent to concepts. But, in itself, a blurred thing is just as particular as a sharp thing; and the generic character of either sharp image or blurred image depends on its being felt with its representative function. This function is the mysterious plus, the understood meaning. But it is nothing applied to the image from above, no pure act of reason inhabiting a supersensible and semi-supernatural plane. It can be diagrammatized as continuous with all the other segments of the subjective stream. It is just that staining, fringe, or halo of obscurely felt relation to masses of other imagery about to come, but not yet distinctly in focus, which we have so absolutely set forth [in Chapter IX].

"If the image come unfringed, it reveals but a simple quality, thing, or event; if it come fringed, it may reveal something expressly taken universally or in a scheme of relations. The difference between thought and feeling thus reduces itself, in the last subjective analysis, to the presence or absence of 'fringe.' And this in turn reduces itself, with much probability, in the last physiological analysis, to the absence or presence of sub-excitements in other convolutions of the brain than those whose discharges underlie the more definite nucleus, the substantive ingredient, of the thought, - in this instance, the word or image it may happen to arouse.

"The contrast is not, then, as the Platonists would have it, between certain subjective facts called images and sensations, and others called acts of relating intelligence; the former being blind perishing things, knowing not even their own existence as such, whilst the latter combine the poles in the mysterious synthesis of their cognitive sweep. The contrast is really between two aspects, in which all mental facts without exception may be taken; their structural aspect, as being subjective, and their functional aspect, as being cognitions. In the former aspect, the highest as well as the lowest is a feeling, a peculiarly tinged segment of the stream. This tingeing is its sensitive body, the wie ihm zu Muthe ist, the way it feels whilst passing. In the latter aspect, the lowest mental fact as well as the highest may grasp some bit of truth as its content, even though that truth were as relationless a matter as a bare unlocalized and undated quality of pain. From the cognitive point of view, all mental facts are intellections. From the subjective point of view all are feelings. Once admit that the passing and evanescent are as real parts of the stream as the distinct and comparatively abiding; once allow that fringes and halos, inarticulate perceptions, whereof the objects are as yet unnamed, mere nascencies of cognition, premonitions, awarenesses of direction, are thoughts sui generis, as much as articulate imaginings and propositions are; once restore, I say, the vague to its psychological rights, and the matter presents no further difficulty.

"And then we see that the current opposition of Feeling to Knowledge is quite a false issue. If every feeling is at the same time a bit of knowledge, we ought no longer to talk of mental states differing by having more or less of the cognitive quality; they only differ in knowing more or less, in having much fact or little fact for their object. The feeling of a broad scheme of relations is a feeling that knows much; the feeling of a simple quality is a feeling that knows little. But the knowing itself, whether of much or of little, has the same essence, and is as good knowing in the one case as in the other. Concept and image, thus discriminated through their objects, are consubstantial in their inward nature, as modes of feeling. The one, as particular, will no longer be held to be a relatively base sort of entity, to be taken as a matter of course, whilst the other, as universal, is celebrated as a sort of standing miracle, to be adored but not explained. Both concept and image, quâ subjective, are singular and particular. Both are moments of the stream, which come and in an instant are no more. The word universality has no meaning as applied to their psychic body or structure, which is always finite. It only has a meaning when applied to their use, import, or reference to the kind of object they may reveal. The representation, as such, of the universal object is as particular as that of an object about which we know so little that the interjection 'Ha!' is all it can evoke from us in the way of speech. Both should be weighed in the same scales, and have the same measure meted out to them, whether of worship or of contempt." (Mind, IX. pp. 18-19.)

[18] Hodgson, Time and Space, p. 404.

[19] Compare the admirable passage in Hodgson's Time and Space, p. 310.

[20] Philosophy of Reflection, I. 273-308.