« IndietroContinua »
too certain and direct, to call forth, in the same manner, what we may be allowed to call the deliberative power of reason, precluding the learner from that exercise of the judgment which is required for the examination of probabilities and the weighing of evidence. But as in all that regards conduct, and in almost all that concerns our highest interests and belief, there is so much mixture of error, uncertainty, and doubt, it is most needful that the mind be trained to pursue truth through these obscuring mists, and to distinguish different degrees of evidence, and the value to be attached to them in order that it may form just conclusions or attain that degree of moral certainty which is so often the nearest approach to absolute truth that we are allowed to reach; and which it is so essential that the mind should learn to rest in. This training, the study of moral and mental philosophy affords. At each step of a strict demonstration, the mind pronounces one judgment only-namely, whether from certain premises the conclusion necessarily follows; if not, it is necessarily false, there are no degrees of truth or falsehood; but in moral reasoning the degrees are endless; the conclusions varying, according as the evidence varies in probability; thus an increased degree of caution is required, and the judgment is proportionably more exercised. There is, indeed, but one truth in morals and religion as in abstract science; but our views of it, and the degree in which we approximate to it, are as various as our habits of thought and modes of forming our opinions. The luminous certainty of abstract science is not there to make the way clear, however toilsome, and this very absence of a certain guide exercises qualities most essential to sound habits of reasoning.
EXERCISE OF THE JUDGMENT.
We have elsewhere* spoken of the danger which arises from the too exclusive habit of requiring demonstrative proof, and not giving sufficient weight to probability, a habit which warps the mind and becomes itself a prejudice, creating error by the very rigidity of its mode of reasoning. This furnishes one important argument against the exclusive study of mathematics, as a school for the reason; while by turning from that to mental and moral philosophy, the tendencies of each will exercise a mutually corrective influence. From the one we learn the value of rigorous exactness; by the other we are taught the importance of probable evidence,
deficiencies in calling forth certain powers of the mind, and, indeed, throughout this section; and it were vain to go beyond this in the comparison, for whatever advantage might result from a deeper study, it is generally beyond the reach of those we write for.
Chap. v., sec. 3.
and of moral certainty, and the mind is practised in judging concerning them. This exercise, we must repeat, is of all the most important to us, since all that touches us most nearly in daily life, or relates to our highest interests for time and for eternity, must thus be judged of; and if, therefore, the reason be weak or vacillating in performing its office there, its acuteness, or power in following out scientific demonstration, will be unimportant in comparison. The fact that we do not reach demonstrative or absolute truth in such questions, cannot diminish their importance, since mere certainty of result is in itself no test of superior value. If it were so, then we must allow that the measurement of a field is of more importance than the government of nations; or that to produce a piece of machinery is a higher exertion of mental power than to exercise command over our own faculties, and rightly apprehend the duties and the hopes which, as moral beings, are set before us.
INFLUENCE OF LANGUAGE.
SECT. VI.-LANGUAGE AS INFLUENCING THE EXERCISE OF
BESIDES these studies which directly influence the formation of sound habits of reasoning, there are other points which deserve to be mentioned, as bearing on them with considerable force, though indirectly. These are more or less connected with defects or difficulties in the use of language, which operate on the mode of thought in a manner too little considered in education. It will readily be acknowledged that correctness and simplicity of expression are among the sure signs of a clear and reflecting mind; it is natural, therefore, that the want of these qualities should prove one of the greatest obstacles to the acquisition of sound habits of reasoning. Since we can only reason justly where the premises being clearly understood, we are capable of judging whether such or such a conclusion does or does not flow from them, it is evident that if the terms we employ be vague or doubtful, and do not stand for some certain definite idea in our own minds, there must be confusion in the reasoning employed about them, for we may be overlooking elements which would altogether alter our conclusions. This confusion doubtless arises in part from the great inherent imperfection of language which we have spoken of before as creating so much difficulty in all subjects that do not admit of the use of the rigid terms of abstract science; but the defect is still more often owing to mental indolence and carelessness. In conversation especially, persons will not take the trouble of understanding and weighing the force of the terms they use; and, possibly, on each trifling occasion that they thus express an incoherent meaning, it
is of little real importance whether their conclusion be just or not; but the habit the mind acquires from the frequency of such carelessness is very pernicious. To clothe vague ideas and loose confused language with the form of reasoning, is to practise upon ourselves the worst art of the sophist; we may fail or not in misleading others, but we are accustoming ourselves to be satisfied with a mental condition in which just reasoning is impossible. Such a habit indulged in daily conversation, will assuredly influence our serious studies, and be a long hindrance to the accurate and vigorous exercise of reason in subjects where we are truly anxious not to fall into error. Nor is it only in conversation that this habit should be guarded against. When engaged in silent thought, we are still subject to the influence of language, and unless care be taken that every term be the adequate expression of some welldefined idea, we may be thinking upon mere words, while deceiving ourselves with the notion that we are occupied with ideas.
It is very common to hear persons assert that they understand such or such a subject perfectly, although their mode of explaining it is so confused that the understanding of all present is left more in the dark than before they spoke. But if we could inquire closely into such instances, we should generally find confusion of thought to be the real source of the difficulty. There are indeed other causes, such as want of confidence, or of the habit of speaking, defective memory, or ignorance of certain technical terms which may so embarrass them as to make them fail at a given moment to express clearly what they really understand; but setting aside such obstacles as these, which are easily perceived or explained, we shall find, that if the mind has a clear grasp of the subject, if each idea to be expressed is distinct, the speaker will find clear and intelligible language to express them. Hence a good way to test our own accuracy and clearness, is to state our conclusions in words; for we too often find, that in the vague rapidity of thought we had overlooked difficulties, or been satisfied with half-defined conceptions, or taken analogies for arguments; in short, that some point has been left enveloped in a degree of confusion, which baffles our attempt at expressing clearly what we before believed ourselves to have so clearly understood.
IMPORTANCE OF STUDYING LANGUAGE.
The importance of the study of language as connected with our power of thought, is too much overlooked in common systems of education, and yet it is a subject which forces itself upon our attention, even with little children. It is especially on comparing the children of different classes, that we are surprised to find to what an extent the difference of intelligence between them, is owing to the different nature and extent of the language to which
they are severally accustomed. No doubt the greater number of the expressions that a gentleman's child daily hears are altogether lost upon him, yet he gradually comes to understand many, and perhaps scarcely a day passes without his having made the acquisition of some new word, which becomes in turn the key to fresh knowledge; while a child of the poorer classes, confined to a limited vocabulary, can with the greatest difficulty be made to understand anything which cannot be explained by reference to some visible object. Suppose two children thus differently situated, to have learnt to read at the same time; if the teacher attempt to explain the same subject to them, she will soon find that while the one quickly catches her meaning, she has no language simple enough for the comprehension of the other. The same difference may be traced, in after years, among persons whose tone of language is different. The habitual and correct use of general terms, the familiar acquaintance with modes of expression which belong to subjects above vulgar discussion, are not merely the signs of mental cultivation, but facilitate the operations of thought and the acquisition of further knowledge.
At the same time, this cultivated tone of language must be distinguished from the mere fluency of expression given by certain habits of society, which too often has a tendency to increase the inaccuracy arising from confused apprehension. Many subjects are discussed in society, of which some of the hearers have perhaps a very imperfect knowledge; the terms made use of they are either partially acquainted with in another sense, or they have become familiar to their ears, as to those of children; and unless they are in the habit of strictly sifting their own language, they soon adopt such terms, though still having a very confused notion of their meaning, and thence false reasoning and confusion of thought are most likely to follow. Women, whose accuracy and knowledge is so rarely tried by the test of practical application, should be peculiarly on their guard against this kind of error, lest a specious fluency should conceal from them their real want of clear apprehension.
INACCURACY AND EXAGGERATION.
Exaggeration of expression is another form of inaccuracy which is seriously opposed to forming habits of careful and correct reasoning. It should be remembered, that although we cannot always use the rigid forms and symbols of mathematical reasoning, the process of reasoning itself should always be brought as nearly as possible to a resemblance with that. It must be equally free from extraneous matter, from excitement or passion, or any other foreign influence. It must equally be the simple operation of the understanding upon certain determinate grounds. If then the words in which the premises
are stated, convey more than is strictly intended, or imply by their very nature some preconception in the speaker's mind, it is evident that the reasonings will so far be vitiated, and the judgment false. But we have already spoken at length of the various forms of exaggeration and inaccuracy as opposed to strict veracity,* and also of the habit of confounding facts with inferences which is so common and so dangerous; it will easily be seen from what we have said there, in what manner these various defects impede the right use of reason.
We would also remind our readers of what was said in the same chapter of the moral defects which hinder our perception of truth; they must be overcome before we can acquire sound habits of reasoning. An earnest, temperate, equable frame of mind is the most favourable to the formation of the latter. The want of such mental sobriety is no less felt in the smallest than in the widest spheres in which judgment is exercised; in the common business of life, in a woman's household occupations, and in the case of children, no less than in the higher avocations of the legislator or the philosopher. No doubt this defect is frequently owing to peculiar temperament; while some persons are naturally calm, their impulses less strong, excitement less frequent and less violent, and reflection, therefore, more constant; others have received from nature an ardent, impetuous spirit, easily stirred, easily kindled, to which any exertion is less painful than calm and patient thought; but these natural differences only increase the necessity of self-culture and control; the well-disciplined mind must supply for itself what is deficient in its original constitution. It does not follow from what we have said that calm temperaments are naturally endowed with greater force of reason, but only that they make more frequent use of such power as they have; in equal circumstances, theirs is the more favourable constitution for the exercise and development of thought. Their danger is a certain coldness which may degenerate to indolence, or apathy, in which the effort of reasoning becomes too severe an exertion, and conclusions are adopted as hastily from fear of the labour of investigation, as they are by the eager and impatient, from dread of delay. Careful training will unite in these widely different natures the highest qualities of each; the energy and earnestness so essential to the pursuit of truth, and the sobriety of mind indispensable for the free exercise of reason.
CALMNESS OF MIND.
Some persons may be inclined to accuse us, throughout these remarks, of not allowing enough for these natural differences,
Chap. v., sec. 4.