The Journals & Notebook of
 Nathan Bangs 1805-1806, 1817


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Editorial Annotations

This entry provides striking evidence of the intensity with which Bangs read by drafting notes to deepen his own comprehension. Bangs probably returned to these and other such notes when preparing other publications, notably his Letters to Young Ministers of the Gospel (1826). In this work (first published serially in the monthly Methodist Magazine) Bangs observed, for example, that Reid's Essays on the Intellectual and Active Powers of Man "ought to grace the library of every Christian minister" (84).

John Locke and Isaac Watts were also widely read by Methodists throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Their works, for example, appeared regularly in various courses of study for aspiring Methodist ministerial candidates in both the United States and Canada (Flores 44). Bangs first encountered Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding before his conversion to Methodism at the age of seventeen (Stevens 27).

Unlike Reid, Locke, and Watts, however, Bangs's approval of Hume was uneven. Although he recommended Hume's historical writings in his Letters to Young Ministers of the Gospel, he condemned Hume's moral philosophy as both sophistical and atheistic. (23, 38, 83-4). The same work makes no reference to Descartes's works.


July August 1st [1817]

I have been reading Reid's [Thomas Reid (1710-1796)] 1st volume on the active powers of man. I think he has detected some errors in Locke [John Locke (1632-1704)], and others, who have written upon this abstruse subject. He seems willing to stop, where he ought, in accounting for the causes of things, not attempting to account for that which is really unaccountable; but piously resolves it into the will of God.

He shows, in essay 1st cha. 2. The danger of carrying analogical reasoning too far. To conclude, for instance, that because a pair of scales even balanced, will turn neither way, but must necessarily preponderate by the force of a greater weight being put into one scale, that therefore the mind is also equally balanced between two or more motives, inclining to opposite directions at the same time, until it is necessarily turned by a preponderating motive; because there is a great dissimilarity between matter and mind; the former being inert, remaining at rest until moved by mechanical force, the latter possessing the principle of action in itself, having power, to select, among various motives, whichever it pleases. This certainly is a very important remark and ought to be heeded by all writers upon the philosophy of the human mind.

He next in Ch. 5. 6 notices the means of knowing the operations of our minds, and the difficulties attending it. To know the operations of our minds, is an accurate reflection upon them. But this is extremely difficult, on account of the quick succession of our thoughts, and the multiplicity of external objects which continually solicit our attention. To overcome these impediments, it is necessary to habituate ourselves, to fix the attention of our minds of one abstract subject, and repel those troublesome intruders, (thoughts upon extraneous subjects,) as often as they present themselves. By this means we acquire a habit of close thinking. But it is essentially necessary to be able to distinguish accurately the several operations of the mind, to detect the ambiguity of words, and to fix definite ideas to terms; otherwise confusion will be thrown over every subject we contemplate.

In ch. 7. in speaking on the division of the powers of the mind into simple apprehension, judgement, and reasoning. Simple apprehension is expressed by a part of a proposition without affirming or denying anything concerning it, as a man, a man of fortune. Judgement supposes two objects, and some agreement or disagreement between them — Reasing [reasoning] is drawing a conclusion from two or more judgements. He admits, that if all our knowledge is got by our senses, and from comparing the simple ideas thus acquired, and by drawing conclusions from them, this theory is correct. He thinks, however, that there are other avenues of knowledge (viz) consciousness, as I know I think. This, of all knowledge is the most certain; and yet neither obtained by simple apprehension, nor by judgement, nor by reasoning; but is self-evident, and involuntary. Perception is another, memory, conception, the powers of resolving and analyzing complex objects, and compounding those that are more simple, Judgement, Reasoning, Taste, Moral Perception, and last of all Consciousness. In addition to these he introduces others, not before named by philosophers, which he calls Social opperations [sic] of the mind; and which are indicated by asking a question, giving a command, plighting a promise in contract etc.

In ch. 8. He exposes the fallacy of that system of philosophy which teaches that we only perceive the images of external objects, and not the objects themselves — He admits, however, that an impression of the objects are communicated to the brain, by means of the nerve, through the outward organ, but denies that any perceivable image is made either upon the brain, or the mind; insisting that the external objects themselves are the immediate, and direct objects of perception. In this he certainly speaks the language of common sense, although in opposition to the authority of Aristotle [Aristotle (384-322BC)], and Plato [Plato (c.427-347BC)] among the ancients, and Des Cartes [René Descartes (1596–1650)] and Locke among the moderns.

In Chap. 9. He detects, as I think, an error in Mr Locke's theory of ideas. It appears that Locke supposed that the idea or image of an object, was the immediate object of perception; and therefore it is somewhat difficult to know that there is any accurate resemblance between the idea, and the object itself; or in fact, whether there be any such object in existence. Mr Reid, contends, I think very justly that the objects themselves are the immediate objects of perception; otherwise, if we ever think of an Alexander at all, we have a double perception at the same time, the image and the object. He carefully distinguishes between the operations of the mind, and the objects of those operations: The latter having a real existence without; the former being the act of our minds in perceiving these objects.

In chap 10. He gives a short sketch of Bishop Berkley's [George Berkeley (1685-1753)] system of ideas, in which the bishop admits the full consequences of Locke's principle namely, that we are not certain of the existence of a material world: for, if we only perceive ideas in our minds, and not material objects themselves, how can we certainly know there are any such objects, seeing we cannot perceive them? Can we infer their existence from the ideas of our minds? Although this might be admitted, were the certainty of those ideas demonstrated, yet how can we certainly rely upon the existence of those ideas which are supposed to be objects of sensation, when we cannot certainly rely upon the real existence of material objects, which are apparently notified to us by our senses, and are therefore objects of sensation. It is truly astonishing what fantastical notions some philosophers have accepted; among others, the denial of a material world is one of the wildest; and it may fairly be questioned whether any seriously believed themselves when they asserted such strange inconsistencies. Dr Reid thinks, however that bishop Berkley's system necessarily followed from Locke's theory of ideas; it being evident that, if all we perceive are ideas, and as an idea can only exist in the mind, therefore there can be no existence but in the mind, nor can there be any thing like an idea, but an idea.

Vol. iii Essay 5th He treats of particular and general terms, of what may be predicated of one object, or subject, may be affirmed of all analogous to it, which attribute is therefore a universal. A particular attribute is that which can be affirmed of an individual thing only; which must, of course, be very rare — hence, most terms which express the attributes of subjects, must be general. Thus, when it is affirmed of one man, that he is white, good, or bad; of an animal that he is active and ambitious, of a Christian that he is meek and humble, as these are attributes of all of the same class, they should be denominated universal. But what is peculiar to any one subject, and therefore cannot be affirmed of any other must be denominated a particular, or an individual. Thus there are some things which may be affirmed of the Sun & Moon, which cannot be affirmed of any thing else.

Chap. ii. Treats of general conceptions. He distinguishes, however, between the things expressed  & conceived, by general words, and the conception of the mind, which last is a simple or individual act. To have distinct, general conceptions, it is necessary for both speaker and hearer, to have clear conceptions, and appropriate terms to express them; otherwise confusion is the result of communication. Chap iii. Treats on analyzing a subject into its known attributes, which is properly abstracting and generalizing. As there are attributes common to many individuals, by finding out what are the attributes of one, and by analyzing them, abstracting them, either by experiment, or merely in the mind, we thereby ascertain in a general way what is common to all of that genus. Then, by analyzing an apple, and finding out its attributes, we ascertain a general perception of the qualities of all apples.

Chap vi Conceptions formed by combination, is, after analyzing a subject, and forming their attributes, their figure, extent, situation &, then to form a distinct complex conception of them all — This combining several individual attributes of our subject, or several subjects, into one distinct perception. Thus in a cube, we have an idea of a surface, a straight line, point, angle, solidity, and a square — A manor, contains a house, barn, farming utensils, an agent to use them &c &c. and we combine an idea of all them into one distinct perception.

In Chap v. he carefully distinguishes between the things conceived, most of which are general, whether attributes or predicables, and the act of the mind in conceiving, which is an individual act; and that, if the word idea be restricted to this, namely, the act of the mind in conceiving, it is proper to retain it, because that is its original meaning.

In Ch. vi he enumerates the opinions of ancient philosophers, about universals. The platonists, considered abstracts ideas to be eternal & immutable and, the exemplars, by which the Deity created all things. Rusulinus [Roscelin of Compiègnefl. 1100], introduced the doctrine, that there is nothing universal, but names; and from hence his followers were denominated nominalists — A middle class, held that they did not exist in reality, nor in name only, but in our conceptions — hence called conceptionists. Mr Hobbes [Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)], embraced the doctrine of the Nominalists, Mr Locke may be accounted a Conceptualist, and Berkley & Hume [David Hume (1711-1776)] adopted the system of nominalism. He then detects an error of Berkley, that universals cannot be objects of imagination, if we take that word according to its proper meaning; because it is impossible to imagine things to be, what they do not appear to be; for instance, we cannot imagine a man without colour nor a statue without shape.

Essay VI.

In Chap i of this essay, he treats of judgement in general; and admits, the following definition of it, (viz) That act of the mind, whereby one thing is affirmed, or denied of another. He distinguishes between judgment and simple apprehension — Judgement is expressed by a proposition only, which is a complete sentence; but simple apprehension, may be expressed by a word or words, which make no complete sentence. Every judgment must be either true or false. Some judgments are necessary & thus contingent. That two & two make four, is a necessary judgement; but that I now write upon a secretary is a contingent judgement, though equally true with the former.

In Chap II he defines common sense, to be that faculty which enables us to judge accurately respecting all subjects which are submitted to the decision of sense and reason; and which is common to all men of sound judgment; and to which all appeals must ultimately be made; this being that inward light, which the Author of our existence has given us, though in different degrees; and which, if attended to, will enable all men to determine accurately on all subjects which are either self-evident, or the evidence of which is clearly stated, and perceived. All knowledge & all science, must be built upon principles that are self-evident, or those truths about which the common sense of mankind are agreed. While the parties are agreed in first principles, there is room for reasoning. And mankind are so generally agreed concerning what common sense is, that the question is rarely asked, What is it? He concludes from all this, that the best way to convert an antagonist who denies the decisions of common sense respecting first principles is, to leave him to himself, inasmuch as it is impossible to convince him by argumentation.

In Chap. iii, he enumerates the sentiments of philosophers concerning judgment. He detects an error in Locke, who supposes judgment, to be that faculty which God has given us, to supply the place of clear and certain knowledge; whereas, according to Dr. Isaac Watts [Isaac Watts 1674-1748] & others, it includes knowledge, and perception, being founded upon the motives of the truth, from sense & consciousness, from evidence and demonstration. Also Mr Locke, believed knowledge to consist in perceiving the agreement, and disagreement between his ideas; but this theory cannot be true, because, pursued in its consequences, it destroys the existence of the external objects of perception altogether. This consequence, however, was not perceived by Mr Locke; but was seen, and adopted by Mr Hume, who therefore denied the existence of a visible & invisible world.

In Chap. IV, he treats of first principles in general, carefully distinguishing between such, and those truths which are ascertained by evidence, either testimony or reasoning. This chapter must be consulted to fully understand the author, and profit from his remarks. He admits the propriety of reasoning ad absurdum [Reductio ad absurdum: reduction to the absurd], that is, by supposing the false proposition true, and, by tracing its consequences, to show its absurdity, we conclude the contrary true. In determining our first principles, great difference [deference] is due to the opinions of the vulgar, because they are capable of judging of them.

Chap. V. treats of the first principles of contingent truths. These differ from those which are necessary and immutable, because they depend upon the will and power of another; and having had a beginning may have an end. These principles depend upon circumstances, which may, or may not exist; and therefore, when these circumstances vanish, the principle which depended upon them vanishes also.

In chap. VI. he enumerates the first principles of necessary truths, dividing them into different classes. 1. grammatical. such as, every adjective in a sentence must belong to some substantive, either expressed or understood. 2. Logical; such as, any contexture of words which does not make a proposition, is neither true nor false; that every proposition must be either true or false, that reasoning in a circle proves nothing. 3. Mathematical. Here he detects an error in Mr Hume's theory, who thinks he has discovered a weak side in this science. 4. He instances in taste. Such as beauty, deformity &c. 5. In morals; such as, an unjust action has more demerit, than an ungenerous one: that a generous action has more merit that merely a just one; that no man ought to be blamed for what he could not avoid. 6. In metaphysics. It is self-evident, that the qualities which we perceive by our senses must be a subject, which we call a body, and that the thoughts we are conscious of must have a subject, which we call mind &c., that that which begins to exist must have a cause. He here examines Mr Hume's query of this truth. That design & intelligence in the effects proves design and intelligence in the cause. He applies this proposition with great force to the existence of one supreme intelligence.

In chap. Vii. He gives the opinions of ancient and modern philosophers concerning first principles. He thinks that the science of mathematics must have been considerably cultivated before the time of Euclid [Euclid of Alexandria (c.325-265BC)], by Pythagoras [Pythagoras of Samos (fl. 530BC)], & Aristotle; because they evidently allude to some principles of that science. But Euclid digested it to a system, and made great improvements, so great that it obscured all that went before him. The philosophy of Aristotle did not deny first principles, but was redundant in them; assuming such as, that the earth is at rest; that nature abhors a vacum; that there is no change in the heavens above the moon &c. There were skeptics among the ancients, but they did not gain many disciples. The admission of those principles as self-evident which were not so paved the way for the other extreme, into which philosophy ran after the days of Des Cartes, who, after immersing himself in a voluntary skepticism, emerged from it by this short enthymene, cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I exist. But can a man be more conscious of his thoughts, than he is of his existence? If not, then Des Cartes' conclusion was as evident as his premises. Different from all who ever preceded him, he inferred from his own existence the existence of a Deity inferring from hence that his senses were not fallacious, because the Deity would not deceive us. His inference that God will not deceive us is good; but it is not necessary to take this method to prove that our senses are not deceitful, because this is, and must be admitted a first principle.

4 July 1817


Primary Sources

Thomas Reid Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (Texts from Early Modern Philosophy)

Thomas Reid Essays on the Active Powers of Man (Texts from Early Modern Philosophy)

John Locke Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Project Gutenberg)

René Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy (Wright State University)



The terms nominalism, conceptualism, and realism, have been used by philosophers and theologians to discuss the problem of universals  since the advent of scholasticism in the ninth century. Concise definitions of these terms can be found in the online edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia.


Edited by Scott McLaren
Book History Practicum
University of Toronto