1902 Encyclopedia > Psychology > Conception of Unity

(Part 75)

(J) Intellection (cont.)

Conception of Unity

To begin with what are par excellence formal categories, and among these with that which is the most fundamental and formal of all -- How do we come by the conception of unity? "Amongst all the ideas we have," says Locke, "as there is none suggested to the mind by more ways, so there is none more simple than that of unity, or one. It has no shadow of variety or composition in it; every object our senses are employed about, every idea in our understandings, every though of our minds, brings this idea along with it."1And the like with painful iteration has been said by almost all English psychologists since. Such consensus notwithstanding, to assign a sensible origin to unity is certainly a mistake, -- one of a class of mistakes already more than once referred to, which consists in transferring to the data of sense all that is implied in the language necessarily used in speaking of them. The term "a sensation" no doubt carries along with it the idea of unity, but the bare sensation as received brings along with it nothing but itself. And, if we consider sensory consciousness merely, we do not received a sensation, and then another sensation, and so on seriatim; but we have always a continuous diversity of sensations even when these are qualitatively sharply differentiated. Moreover, if unity were an impression of sense and passively received, it would, in common with other impression, be unamenable to change. We cannot see red as blue, but we can resolve many (parts) into one (whole), and vice versa. [79-2] Unity, then, is the result of an act the occasions for which, no doubt, are at first non-voluntarily determined; but the act is still as distinct from them as is attention from the objects attended to. It is to that movement of attention already described in dealing with ideation (p. 61) that we must look as the source of this category. This same movement, in like manner, yields us temporal signs; and the complex unity formed by a combination of these is what we call number. When there is little or no difference between the field and the focus of attention, unifying is an impossibility, whatever the impressions received may be. On the other hand, as voluntary acts of concentration become more frequent and distinct the variegated continuum of sense is shaped into intuitions of definite things and events. Also, as soon as words facilitate the control of ideas, it becomes possible to single out special aspects and relations of things as the subjects or starting-points of our discursive thinking. Thus the forms of unity are manifold: every act of intuition or thought, whatever else it is, is an act of unifying.

It is obvious that the whole field of consciousness at any moment can never be actually embraced as one. What is unified becomes thereby the focus of consciousness and so leaves an outlying fields; so far unity plurality. But it cannot with propriety be said that in a simple act of attention the field of consciousness is analysed into two distinct parts, i.e., two unites, -- this (now attended to) and the other or the rest (abstracted form). For the not-this is but the rest of a continuum and not itself a whole; it is left out but not determined, as the bounding space is left out when a figure is drawn. To know two unities we must connect both together; and herein comes to light the difference between the unity which is the form of the concept or subject of discourse and the unity of a judgment. The latter is of necessity complex; the former may or may not be. But in any case the complexity of the two is different. If the subject of thought is not only clear but distinct. If the subject of thought is not only clear but distinct – i.e., not merely defined as a whole but having its constituents likewise more or less defined – such distinctness is due to previous judgments. At any future time these may of course be repeated; such are the analytical or explicative judgments of logic. As the mere subject of discourse it is, however, a single unity simultaneously apprehended; the relation ascertained between it and its predicate constitutes the unity of judgment, a unity which is comprehended only when its parts are successively apprehended.


[79-1] Essay concerning Human Understanding, II. xvi. § 1.

[79-2] "Wir können eines der hier gedruckten Wörter als Eins ansehen, indem wir eine Mannigfltigkeit von Buchstaben doch in einem abschliessenden Acte zu einem Bilde vereinigen und es von den benachbarten Bildern trennen; wir können es als Vielheit ansehen, wenn wir auf den Uebergang von einem Buchstaben zum andern, jeden Schritt absetzend, achten" (Sigwart, Logik, ii. p. 41).

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