1902 Encyclopedia > Psychology > Thought and Ideation

(Part 70)

(J) Intellection (cont.)

Thought and Ideation

But this simile must not mislead us. In actual thinking there never is any complete separation between the symbol and ideas symbolized: the movements of the one are never entirely suspended till those of the other are complete. "Thus." Says Hume, "if, instead of saying, that in war the weaker have always recourse to negotiation, we should say, that they have always recourse to conquest, the custom which we have acquired of attributing certain relations to ideas still follows the words and makes us immediately perceive the absurdity of that proposition." [76-2] How intimately the two are connected is shown by the surprises that give what point there is to puns, and by the small confusion that results from the existence of homonymous terms. The question thus arises – What are the properly ideational elements concerned in thought? Over this question psychologists long waged fight as either nominalists or conceptualists. The former maintain that what is imaged in connexion with a general concept, such as triangle, is some individual triangle "taken in a certain light," [76-3] while the latter maintain that an "abstract idea" is formed embodying such constituents of the several particular as the concept connotes, but dissociated from the specific or accidental variations that distinguish one particular from another. As often happens in such controversies, each party saw the weak point in the other. The nominalists easily showed that there was no distinct abstract idea representable apart from particulars; and the conceptualists could as easily show that a particular presentation "considered in a certain light" is no longer merely a particular presentation nor yet a mere crowd of presentations. The very thing to ascertain is what this consideration in a certain light implies. Perhaps a speedier end might have been put to this controversy if either party had been driven to define more exactly what was to be understood by image or idea. Such ideas as are possible to us apart from abstraction are, as we have seen, revived percepts, not revived sensations, are complex total re-presentations made up of partial re-presentations (comp. p.57). Reproductive imagination is so far but a faint rehearsal of actual perceptions, and constructive imagination but a faint anticipation of possible perceptions. In either case we are busied with elementary presentations complicated or synthesized to what are tantamount to intuitions, in so far as the forms of intuition remain in the idea, though the fact, as tested by movement, &c., is absent. The several partial re-presentations, however, which make up an idea might also be called ideas, not merely in the wide sense in which every mental object may be so called, but also in the narrower sense as secondary presentations, i.e., as distinguished from primary presentations or impressions. But such isolated images of an impression, even if possible, would no more be intuitions than the mere impression itself would be one: taken alone the one would be as free of space and time as is the other. Till it is settled, therefore, whether the ideational elements concerned in conception are intuitive complexes or something answering to the ultimate elements of these, nothing further can be done.

In the case of what are specially called "concrete" as distinct from "abstract" conceptions – if this rough-and-ready, but unscientific, distinction may be allowed – the idea answering to the concept differs little from an intuition, and we have already remarked that the generic image (Gemeinbild of German psychologists) constitutes the connecting link between imagination and conception. But even concerning these it is useless to ask what does one imagine in thinking, e.g., of triangle or man or colour . We never except for the sake of this very inquiry -- attempt to fix our minds in this manner upon some isolated conception; in actual thinking ideas are not in consciousness alone and disjointedly but as part of a context. When the idea "man" is present, it is present in some proposition or question, as -- Man is the paragon of animals; In man there is nothing great but mind; and so on. It is quite clear that in understanding or mentally verifying such statements very different constituents out of the whole complex "man" are prominent in each. Further, what is present to consciousness when a general term is understood will differ, not only with a different context, but also the longer we dwell upon it: we may either analyse its connotation or muster its denomination, as the context or the cast of our minds may determine. Thus what is relevant is alone prominent, and the more summary the attention we bestow the less the full extent and intent of the concept are displayed. To the nominalist’s objection, that it is impossible to imagine a man without imagining him as either tall or short, young, or old, dark or light, and so forth, the conceptualists might reply that at all events percepts may be clear without being distinct, that we can recognize a tree without recognizing what kind of tree it is, and that, moreover, the objection proves too much: for, if our image is to answer exactly to fact, we must represent not only a tall or a short man but a man of definite nature, -- one not merely either light or dark, but of a certain precise complexion. But the true answer rather is that in conceiving as such we do not necessarily imagine a man or a tree at all, any more than – if such an illustration may serve – in writing the equation to the parabola we necessarily draw a parabola as well.

The individuality of a concept is thus not to be confounded with the sensible concreteness of an intuition either distinct or indistinct, and "the pains and skill" which Locke felt were required in order to frame what he called an abstract idea are not comparable to the pains and skill that may be necessary to discriminate or decipher what is faint or fleeting. The material "famed" consists no doubt of ideas, if by this meant that in thinking we work ultimately with the ideational continuum, but what results is never a mere intuitive complex nor yet a mere group of such. The concept or "abstract idea" only emerges when a certain intelligible relation is established among the members of such a group; and the very same intuition may furnish the material for different concepts as often as a different geistiges Band is drawn between them. The stuff of this bond, as we have seen, is the word, and this brings into the foreground of consciousness when necessary those elements – whether they form an intuition or not – which are relevant to the concept. Conception, then, is not identical with imagination, although the two terms are still often, and were once generally, regarded as synonymous. The same ultimate materials occur in each; but in the one they start with and retain a sensible form, in the other they are elaborated into the form which is called "intelligible."


[76-2] Treatise of Human Nature, pt. i. § vii. (Green and Grose’s ed.), p. 331.

[76-3] So Hume, op. cit., p. 456

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