Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

to avail myself of his definitions. Yet, when a word of this kind occurs to me in a book, or even when I hear it pronounced in the rapidity of discourse, I at once select, without the slightest effort of conscious thought, the precise meaning which it was intended to convey. How is this to be explained but by the light thrown upon the problematical term by the general import of the sentence?-a species of interpretation easily conceivable, where I have leisure to study the context deliberately; but which, in the circumstances I have now supposed, implies a quickness in the exercise of the intellectual powers, which, the more it is examined, will appear the more astonishing. It is constant habit alone that keeps these intellectual processes out of view;—giving to the mind such a celerity in its operations, as eludes the utmost vigilance of our attention; and exhibiting to the eyes of common observers, the use of speech, as a much simpler, and less curious phenomenon, than it is in reality.

A still more palpable illustration of the same remark presents itself, when the language we listen to admits of such transpositions in the arrangement of words as are familiar to us in the Latin. In such cases, the artificial structure of the discourse suspends, in a great measure, our conjectures about the sense, till at the close of the period, the verb in the very instant of its utterance, unriddles the enigma. Previous to this, the former words and phrases resemble those detached and unmeaning patches of different colours, which compose what opticians call an anamorphosis; while the effect of the verb, at the end, may be compared to that of the mirror by which the anamorphosis is reformed, and which combines these apparently fortuitous materials into a beautiful portrait or landscape.

In instances of this sort, it will be generally found, upon an accurate examination, that the intellectual act, as far as

we are able to trace it, is altogether simple, and incapable of analysis; and that the elements into which we flatter ourselves we have resolved it, are nothing more than the grammatical elements of speech;-the logical doctrine about the comparison of ideas bearing a much closer affinity to the task of a school-boy in parsing his lesson, than to the researches of philosophers, able to form a just conception of the mystery to be explained.

These observations are general, and apply to every case in which language is employed. When the subject, however, to which it relates, involves notions which are abstract and complex, the process of interpretation becomes much more complicated and curious; involving, at every step, that species of mental induction which I have already endeavoured to describe. In reading, accordingly, the most perspicuous discussions, in which such notions form the subject of the argument, little instruction is received, till we have made the reasonings our own, by revolving the steps again and again in our thoughts. The fact is, that, in cases of this sort, the function of language is not so much to convey knowledge (according to the common phrase) from one mind to another, as to bring two minds into the same train of thinking; and to confine them, as nearly as possible, to the same track. Many authors have spoken of the wonderful mechanism of speech; but none has hitherto attended to the far more wonderful mechanism which it puts into action behind the scene.--Philosophical Essays.

2. Attention and Memory.

I HAVE only to observe farther, with respect to attention, considered in the relation in which it stands to memory, that although it be a voluntary act, it requires experience to have

it always under command. In the case of objects to which we have been taught to attend at an early period of life, or which are calculated to rouse the curiosity, or to affect any of our passions, the attention fixes itself upon them, as it were spontaneously, and without any effort on our part, of which we are conscious. How perfectly do we remember, and even retain, for a long course of years, the faces and the hand-writings of our acquaintances, although we never took any particular pains to fix them in the memory? On the other hand, if an object does not interest some principle of our nature, we may examine it again and again, with a wish to treasure up the knowledge of it in the mind, without our being able to command that degree of attention which may lead us to recognise it the next time we see it. A person, for example, who has not been accustomed to attend particularly to horses or to cattle, may study for a considerable time the appearance of a horse or of a bullock, without being able a few days afterwards to pronounce on his identity; while a horse-dealer or a grazier recollects many hundreds of that class of animals with which he is conversant, as perfectly as he does the faces of his acquaintances. In order to account for this, I would remark, that although attention be a voluntary act, and although we are always able, when we choose, to make a momentary exertion of it; yet, unless the object to which it is directed be really interesting, in some degree, to the curiosity, the train of our ideas goes on, and we immediately forget our purpose. When we are employed, therefore, in studying such an object, it is not an exclusive and steady attention that we give to it, but we are losing sight of it, and recurring to it every instant; and the painful efforts of which we are conscious, are not, (as we are apt to suppose them to be,) efforts of uncommon attention, but unsuccessful

attempts to keep the mind steady to its object, and to exclude the extraneous ideas, which are from time to time soliciting its notice. . . . .

I cannot help taking this opportunity of expressing a wish, that medical writers would be at more pains than they have been at hitherto, to ascertain the various effects which are produced on the memory by disease and old age. These effects are widely diversified in different cases. In some it would seem that the memory is impaired, in consequence of a diminution of the power of attention; in others, that the power of recollection is disturbed, in consequence of a derangement of that part of the constitution on which the association of ideas depends. The decay of memory, which is the common effect of age, seems to arise from the former of these causes. It is probable, that, as we advance in years, the capacity of attention is weakened by some physical change in the constitution; but it is also reasonable to think, that it loses its vigour partly from the effect which the decay of our sensibility, and the extinction of our passions, have, in diminishing the interest which we feel in the common occurrences of life. That no derangement takes place, in ordinary cases, in that part of the constitution on which the association of ideas depends, appears from the distinct and circumstantial recollection which old men retain of the transactions of their youth. . . . .

In so far as this decay of memory which old age brings along with it, is a necessary consequence of a physical change in the constitution, or a necessary consequence of a diminution of sensibility, it is the part of a wise man to submit cheerfully to the lot of his nature. But it is not unreasonable to think, that something may be done by our own efforts, to obviate the inconveniences which commonly result from it. If individuals, who, in the early part

of life, have weak memories, are sometimes able to remedy this defect, by a greater attention to arrangement in their transactions, and to classification among their ideas, than is necessary to the bulk of mankind, might it not be possible, in the same way, to ward off, at least to a certain degree, the encroachments which time makes on this faculty? The few old men who continue in the active scenes of life to the last moment, it has been often remarked, complain, in general, much less of a want of recollection, than their contemporaries. This is undoubtedly owing partly to the effect which the pursuits of business must necessarily have, in keeping alive the power of attention. But it is probably owing also to new habits of arrangement, which the mind gradually and insensibly forms, from the experience of its growing infirmities. . . . .

In general, wherever habits of inattention, and an incapacity of observation, are very remarkable, they will be found to have arisen from some defect in early education. I already remarked, that, when nature is allowed free scope, the curiosity, during early youth, is alive to every external object, and to every external occurrence, while the powers of imagination and reflection do not display themselves till a much later period; the former till about the age of puberty, and the latter till we approach to manhood. It sometimes, however, happens that, in consequence of a peculiar disposition of mind, or of an infirm bodily constitution, a child is led to seek amusement from books, and to lose a relish for those recreations which are suited to his age. In such instances, the ordinary progress of the intellectual powers is prematurely quickened; but that best of all educations is lost, which nature has prepared both for the philosopher and the man of the world, amidst the active sports and the hazardous adventures of childhood.

[blocks in formation]
« VorigeDoorgaan »