Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 4.djvu/107

This page has been validated.

a test of reality? This question has been the subject of a famous controversy between Dr. Whewell and John Stuart Mill, and of a more recent discussion between Mill and Herbert Spencer. Mill broadly denies that "our capacity or incapacity of conceiving a thing has any thing to do with the possibility of the thing in itself," while Spencer deems it to be a universal postulate of all thought that an inconceivable proposition, i. e., a proposition "of which the terms cannot, by any effort, be brought before consciousness in that relation which the proposition asserts between them—a proposition of which the subject and predicate offer an insurmountable resistance to union in thought"—must necessarily be held to be untrue. My present purpose does not, in strictness, call for a thorough examination of this question; nevertheless, it is desirable that the confusion into which (as is usual in such cases) it has been thrown by the emergencies of the debate should be partially cleared up.

Here, at the outset, it appears to me to be unfortunate that Mill repudiates, and Spencer does not insist upon, a distinction suggested by Coleridge between the Inconceivable and the Unimaginable, though we may find reason for dissenting from Coleridge's proposition, that "the Unimaginable may possibly be true, but the Inconceivable cannot." It is true, as has been observed by Reid (and after him by Stewart), that "conceiving, imagining, and apprehending, are commonly used as synonyms in our language;" but the distinction above referred to is, nevertheless, both real and important. Mill, indeed, declines to recognize this distinction, not from any deference to the usages of ordinary speech, but by reason of his antagonism to a philosophical system. He is a strict scholastic nominalist, and denies that there are any objects corresponding to concepts in the mind any more than in Nature, for the reason that concepts, being the results of abstraction, are general, while objects can be represented or imaged in thought only as particular. And, having pointed out ("Examination of Sir W. Hamilton's Philosophy," chap, xvii.) that in reasoning we rarely attend to all the attributes of which a concept is said to be the complement, but deal exclusively with more or less of these attributes which we are able to bring separately before the mind by means of names that suggest them, on the principle of the association of ideas, he claims that our reasoning is carried on by means, not of concepts, but of names.

At the first blush, the remark of Sir W. Hamilton, that the war between the conceptualists and nominalists is a mere war of words, would appear to be just. Surely the most inveterate nominalist must admit that the material of our reasoning processes consists, not of the sounds or written symbols composing words, but of the meanings which underlie them. And, roughly stated, concepts are nothing but these meanings. If a concept be, in the language of Sir W. Hamilton, a "bundle of attributes"—as for purposes of discursive reasoning it