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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.
It is from these alone, that we can acquire, not only that force of character which is suited to the more arduous situations of life, but that complete and prompt command of attention to things external, without which the highest endowments of the understanding, however they may fit a man for the solitary speculations of the closet, are but of little use in the practice of affairs, or for enabling him to profit by his personal experience.
Where, however, such habits of inattention have unfortunately been contracted, we ought not to despair of them as perfectly incurable. The attention, indeed, as I formerly remarked, can seldom be forced in particular instances; but we may gradually learn to place the objects we wish to attend to, in lights more interesting than those in which we have been accustomed to view them.-Philosophy of the Human Mind.
3. The Origin of Language.
In the case of objects which fall under the cognizance of any of our external senses, it is easy to conceive the origin of the different classes of words composing a conventional dialect; to conceive, for example, that two savages should agree to call this animal a Horse, and that tree an Oak. But, in words relating to things intellectual and moral, in what manner was the conventional connection at first established between the sign and the thing signified? In what manner (to take one of the simplest instances) was it settled, that the name of imagination should be given to one operation of the mind; that of recollection to a second; that of deliberation to a third; that of sagacity, or foresight, to a fourth? Or, supposing the use of these words to be once introduced, how was their meaning to be explained to a novice, altogether unaccustomed to think upon such subjects?
In answer to this question, it is to be observed, in the first place, that the meaning of many words, of which it is impossible to exhibit any sensible prototypes, is gradually collected by a species of induction, which is more or less successfully conducted by different individuals, according to the degree of their attention and judgment. The connection in which an unknown term stands in relation to the other words combined with it in the same sentence, often affords a key for its explanation in that particular instance; and, in proportion as such instances are multiplied in the writings and conversation of men well acquainted with propriety of speech, the means are afforded of a progressive approximation towards its precise import. A familiar illustration of this process presents itself in the expedient which a reader naturally employs for deciphering the meaning of an unknown word in a foreign language, when he happens not to have a dictionary at hand. The first sentence where the words occurs, affords, it is probable, sufficient foundation for a vague conjecture concerning the notion annexed to it by the author;—some idea or other being necessarily substituted in its place, in order to make the passage at all intelligible. The next sentence where it is involved, renders this conjecture a little more definite; a third sentence contracts the field of doubt within still narrower limits; till, at length, a more extensive induction fixes completely the signification we are in quest of. There cannot be a doubt, I apprehend, that it is in some such way as this, that children slowly and imperceptibly enter into the abstract and complex notions annexed to numberless words in their mother tongue, of which we should find it difficult or impossible to convey the sense by formal definitions.
The strong tendency of the mind to express itself metaphorically, or analogically, on all abstract subjects, supplies
another help to facilitate the acquisition of language. The prevalence of this tendency among rude nations has been often remarked; and has been commonly accounted for, partly from the warmth of imagination supposed to be peculiarly characteristical of savages, and partly from the imperfections of their scanty vocabularies. The truth, however, is, that the same disposition is exhibited by man in every stage of his progress; prompting him uniformly, whenever the enlargement of his knowledge requires the use of a new word for the communication of his meaning, instead of coining at once a sound altogether arbitrary, to assist, as far as possible, the apprehension of his hearers, either by the happy employment of some old word in a metaphorical sense, or by grafting etymologically on some well known stock, a new derivative, significant, to his own fancy, of the thought he wishes to impart.
To this bias of the mind to enrich language, rather by a modification of old materials, than by the creation of new ones, it is owing that the number of primitive or radical words, in a cultivated tongue, bears so small a proportion to the whole amount of its vocabulary. In an original language, such as the Greek, the truth of this remark may be easily verified; and, accordingly, it is asserted by Adam Smith, that the number of its primitives does not exceed three hundred. In the compounded languages now spoken in Europe, it is a much more difficult task to establish the fact; but an irresistible presumption in its favour arises from this circumstance, That all who have turned their attention of late, in this island, to the study of etymology, are impressed with a deep and increasing conviction, founded on the discoveries which have been already made, that this branch of learning is still in its infancy; and that the roots of an immense variety of words, commonly supposed to be genuine radicals, may