Daily Archives: May 30, 2007

Item of the Day: Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind (1793)

Full Title: Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind. By Dugald Stewart. Philadelphia: Printed by William Young, Bookseller, No. 52, Second-Street, the Corner of Chestnut-Street, M, DCC, XCIII.



Of the Nature and Object of the Philosophy of the Human Mind.


THE prejudice which is commonly entertained against metaphysical speculations seems to arise chiefly from two causes: First, from an apprehension that the subjects about which they are employed, are placed beyond the reach of the human faculties; and , secondly, from a belief that these subjects have no relation to the business of life.

The frivoulus and absurd discussions which abound in the writings of most metaphysical authors, afford but too many arguments in justification of these opinions; and if such discussions were to be admitted as a fair specimen of what the human mind is able to accomplish in this department of science, the contempt, into which it has fallen of late, might with justice be regarded, as no inconsiderable evidence of the progress, which true philosophy has made in the present age. Among the various subjects of the inquiry, however, which, inconsequence of the vague use of language, are comprehended under the title of metaphysics, there are some, which are essentially distinguished from the rest, both by the degree of evidence which accompanies their principles, and by the relation which they bear to the useful sciences and arts: and it has unfortunately happened, that these have shared in that general descredit, into which the other branches of metaphysics have fallen. To this circumstance is probably to be ascribed, the little progress which has hitherto been made in the PHILOSOPHY OF THE HUMAN MIND; a science, so interesting in its nature, and so important in its applications, that it could scarcely have failed, in these inquisitive and enlightened times, to have excited a very general attention, if it had not acceidentally been classed, in the public opinion with the vain and unprofitable disquisitions of the school-men.

In order to obviate these misapprehensions, with respect to the subject of the following work, I have thought it proper, in this preliminary chapter, first, to explain, the nature of the truths which I propse to investigate; and, secondly, to point out some of the more important applications of which they are susceptible. In stating these preliminary observations I may perhaps appear to some to be minute and tedious; but this fault, I am confident, will be readily pardoned by those, who have studied with care the principles of that science of which I am to treat; and who are anxious to remove the prejudices which have, in a great measure, excluded it from the modern systems of education. In the progress of my work, I flatter myself that I shall often have occasion to solicit the indulgence of my readers, for an unnecessary diffuseness.

The notions we annex to the words, matter, and mind, as is well remarked by Dr. Reid,* are merely relative. If I am asked what I mean by matter? I can only explain myself by saying, it is that which is extended, figured, couloured, movable, hard or soft, rough or smooth, hot or cold; –that is, I can define it no other way, than by enumerating its sensible qualities. It is not matter, or body, which I perceive by my senses; but only extension, figure, colour, and certain other qualities, which the constitution of my nature leads me to refer to something, which is extended, figured, and coloured. The case is precisely similar with respect to mind. We are not immediately conscious of its existence, but we are conscious of sensation, thought, and volition; operations, which imply the existence of something which feels, thinks, and wills. Every man too is impressed with the irresisitible conviction, that all these sensations, thoughts, and volitions, belong to one and the same being; to that being, which he calls himself; a being, which he is led, by the constitution of his nature, to consider as something distinct from his body, and as not liable to be impaired by the loss or mutilation of any of his organs.

From these considerations, it appears, that we have the same evidence for the existence of mind, that we have for the existence of body; nay, if there be any difference between the two cases, that we have stronger evidence for it; inasmuch as the one is suggested to us, by the subjects of our own consciousness, and the other merely by the objects of our perceptions: and in this light, undoubtedly, the fact would appear to every person, were it not, that, from our earliest years, the attention is engrossed with the qualities and laws of matter, an acquaintance with which is absolutely necessary for the preservation of our animal existence. Hence it is, that these phenomena occupy our thoughts more than those of mind; that we are perpetually tempted to explain the latter by tha analogy of the former, and even to endeavour to refer them to the same general laws; and that we acquire habits of inattention to the subjects of our consciousness, too strong to be afterwards surmounted, without the most persevering industry.

If the foregoing observations be well founded, they establish the distinction between mind and matter, without any long process of metaphysical reasoning: for if our notions of both are merely relative; if we know the one, only by such sensible qualities as extension, figure, and solidity; and the other, by such operations as sensation, thought, and volition; we are certainly entitled to say, that in so far as body and mind are known to us, they appear to be substances of different natures. Perhaps, indeed, it would be more accurate to say of the scheme of materialism, that it is inconceivable, than it is false; –for let us consider only what it implies: Is it not the object of those who propose it, to explain the nature of that substance which feels, thinks, and wills? But when they attempt to do so, by saying that it is material, they surely forget, that body, as well as mind, is known to us by its qualities and attibutes alone, and that we are as ignorant of the nature of the former, as of that of the latter.

As all our knowledge of the material world is derived from the information of our senses, natural philosophers have, in modern times, wisely abandoned to metaphysicians, all speculations concerning the nature of that substance of which it is composed; concerning the possibility or impossibility of its being created; concerning the efficient causes of the changes which take place in it; and even concerning the reality of its existence, independent of that of percipient beings: and have confined themselves to the humbler province of observing the phenomena it exhibits, and of ascertaining their general laws. By pursuing this plan steadily, they have, in the course of the two last centuries, formed a body of science, which not only does honour to the human understanding, but has had a most important influence on the practical arts of life. —This experimental philosophy, no one now is in danger of confounding with the metaphysical speculations already mentioned. Of the importance of these, as a seperate [sic] branch of study, it is possible that some may think more favourably than others; but they ware obviously different in their nature, from the investigations of physics; and it is of the utmost consequence to the evidence of this last science, that its principles should not be blended with those of the former. . . .

*Essays on the Active Powers of Man.




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Filed under 1790's, Enlightenment, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Posted by Caroline Fuchs