Thursday, 12 February 2015



(From the Atlas.) 

Collected Works of Dugald Stewart, Edited by SIR W. HAMILTON, Elements of the Philosphy of the Human Mind, Vol, II, Constable.

 We receive with pleasure this handsome edition of one of the best and most eloquent essays emanating from the Scotch school of philosophy. To the volume before us is prefixed, as a summary, the Introduction and Part First (of the Intellectual Powers) from the "Outlines of Moral Philosophy." These " Outlines " were first published in 1793 ; three other editions (1801, 1808, and 1818) appeared during the Author's lifetime. . . .

Dugald Stewart was born in 1753, and closed his long and honourable life in 1828. The Scottish school of philosophy, of which he was the most eloquent and popular advocate, originated with Reid, who was indeed anticipated by Claude Buffier in his adoption of the principle of "common sense" as the foundation of all mental science. Reid seems to have had Hume's theories continually before him, and to have aimed throughout at annihilating the material or sensational school, by sweeping away the doctrine of representative ideas which was its basis.

While Dr. Priestly and the materialists most irrationally refused to admit any intuitive principles of belief, Reid and some of his followers multiplied those principles unnecessarily. Reid was not happy in the selection of the term "common sense" for the universal faculty of perceiving first truths, and, by so doing, laid himself fairly open to the ridicule of Priestly. These "principles of common sense," Stewart more felicitously named "fundamental laws of human belief." Campbell called them "the primary truths of the understanding," as not being derived from any previous ones. Our personal identity is one of these intuitive truths. " I am the same person to-day I was yesterday." Sir W. Hamilton justifies the use of the terms "common sense" to denote this primary principle, as "not inappropriately applied to denote an original sense of knowledge common to all mankind, or fountain of truths—intelligible indeed, but like those of the senses, revealed immediately as facts to be believed, but not possibilities to be explained or understood."

Stewart somewhat modified Reid's opinions by the importance he attached to the principles of Association of Ideas, His moral philosophy is, however, far less imperfect than his mental ; and it may be considered as the most faithful expression of the opinions more generally admitted by those who believe in "duty," and practice what they believe. In this doctrine he has combined and reconciled to a certain point the principles of the most hostile schools. He insists that the happiness of our nature, as well as our perfection, consists in doing our duty, regardless of the consequences, so far as our human nature will allow. In this axiom the systems of self or personal interest, of perfectibility, and of disinterestedness, are all united, and yet rendered subordinate to the exigencies of human nature ; for even moralists must be indulgent to our frailties, and moderate in their expectations. We have heard that Stewart had begun to doubt the soundness of his theories towards the close of his life, and we shall look with eagerness for the subsequent volumes containing the " Moral Philosophy." It is the custom to sneer at the metaphysics of the Scotch school, and at this writer in particular, mainly, we think, because his style is so clear and beautiful that the reader never meets with any difficulty. The nomenclature of the transcendental school of Germany has so learned and profound an air about it, that those who are content to take words for sense—chaff for corn—are sure to be misled by it. There is one great benefit in this repulsive nomenclature, that its terms can be used in any sense and to prove anything ; and so far has it been from really advancing our knowledge of the nature and faculties of the human mind, that the schools of metaphysical philosophy are as numerous as its professors, and scarcely any two agree in one common opinion. But we believe a reaction is setting in. Even Sir W. Hamilton begins to write more like a rational being, and this re-issue of Stewart's works will do much to accelerate the so desirable change.
 We had marked several additions for quotation, but have only room for one. In the chapter on "Conception," Stewart enquires into the causes of the effects produced on the the mind by the exhibitions of fictitious distress on the stage. They take their rise (he says) in the momentary belief that the distresses are real ; besides which, there is something contagious in a faithful expression of the passions (which we hold to be the real cause). "The emotions produced by tragedy are, upon this supposition, somewhat analogous to the dread we feel when we look down from the battlement of a tower." To this he adds a note, all of which, except the first paragraph, is appended for the first time to the text :—

With respect to the dread which we feel in looking down from the battlement of a tower, it is curious to remark the effects of habit in gradually destroying it. The manner in which habit operates in this case, seems to be by giving us a command over our thoughts, so as to enable us to withdraw our attention from the precipice before us, and direct it to any other object at pleasure.

It is thus that the mason and the sailor not only can take precautions for their own safety, but remain completely masters of themselves in situations, where other men, engrossed with their imaginary danger, would experience a total suspension of their faculties. Any strong passion which occupies the mind produces, for the moment, the same effect with habit. A person alarmed with the apprehension of fire, has been known to escape from the top of a house by a path, which, at another time, he would have considered as impracticable ; and soldiers in mounting a breach, are said to have sometimes found their way to the enemy by a route which appeared inaccessible after their violent passions had subsided.
 From the principles which I have endeavoured to establish in this chapter, may be derived a simple, and I think a satisfactory explanation of the manner in which superstition, considered in contradistinction to genuine religion, operates on the mind. The gloomy phantoms which she presents to her victims in their early infancy, and which consist chiefly of images or representations of spectres and demons, and of invisible scenes of horror, produce their effect not through the medium of reasoning and judgment, but of the powers of conception and imagination. No argument is alleged to prove their existence, but strong and lively notions of them are conveyed, and, in proportion as this is alone, the belief of them becomes steady and habitual, It is even sufficient in many cases to resist all the force of argument to the contrary, or, if it yields to it during the bustle of business and the light of day, its influence returns in the hours of solitude and darkness. When the mind, too, is weakened by disease, or the infirmities of age, and when the attention ceases to be occupied with external objects, the thoughts are apt to revert to their first channel, and to dwell on the conceptions to which they were accustomed in the nursery. " Let custom," says Locke, " from the very childhood, have joined figure and shape to the idea of God, and what absurdities will that mind be liable to about Deity !" (Vol. ii. p. 144.) A person of a lively but somewhat gloomy imagination once acknowledged to me, that he could trace some of his superstitious impressions with respect to the Deity, to the stern aspect of a judge whom he had seen, when a school-boy, pronounce sentence of death upon a criminal. Hence it would appear that he who has the power of modelling the habitual conceptions of an infant mind, is, in a great measure, the arbiter of its future happiness or misery. By guarding against the spectres conjured up by superstitious weakness, and presenting to it only images of what is good, lovely, and happy, he may secure through life a perpetual sunshine to the soul, and may perhaps make some provision against the physical evils to which humanity is exposed. Even in those awful diseases which disturb the exercise of reason, I am apt to think that the complexion of madness in point of gaiety or of despondency, depends much on the nature of our conceptions ; and it would surely be no inconsiderable addition to the comfort of any individual to know, that some provision had been made by the tender care of his first instructors, to lighten the pressure of this greatest of all earthly calamities, if it ever should be his lot to bear it. In truth, the only effectual antidote against superstitious weaknesses, is to inspire the mind with just and elevated notions of the administration of the universe ; for, we may rest assured that religion, in one form or another, is the natural and spontaneous growth of man's intellectual and moral constitution ; and the only question in the case of individuals is, whether, under the regulation of an enlightened understanding, it is to prove the best solace of life and the surest support of virtue ; or to be converted by the influence of prejudices and diseased imagination, into a source of imbecility, inconsistency, and suffering ?

 Empire 19 February 1855,

No comments: