Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge

Consider for example the propositions a things change

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Unformatted text preview: d becomes general by being made the sign not of one abstract general idea but of many particular ideas, any one of which it may suggest to the mind. Consider for example the propositions A thing’s change of motion is proportional to the force that is exerted on it, and Whatever is extended can be divided. These axioms are to be understood as holding for motion and extension in general; but that does not imply that they suggest to my thoughts an idea of motion without a body moved, and with no determinate direction or velocity, or that I must conceive an abstract general idea of extension, which is neither line, surface, nor solid, neither large nor small, not black or white or red or of any other determinate colour. All that is needed is that the first axiom is true for every motion that I consider, whether it be swift or slow, perpendicular or horizontal or oblique, and in whatever object; and that the second axiom holds for every specific extension, whether line or surface or solid, and whether of this or that size or shape. 12 intro. We shall be better placed to understand what makes a word a general term if we first understand how ideas become general. (I emphasize that I don’t deny that there are general ideas - only that there are abstract general ideas. In the passages I have quoted, every mention of general ideas carries the assumption that they are formed by abstraction in the manner described in sections 7 and 9 above.) If we want to speak meaningfully and not say things that we can’t make sense of, I think we shall agree to the following. An idea, which considered in itself is particular, becomes general in its meaning by being made to represent or stand for all other particular ideas of the same sort as itself. Suppose for example that a geometrician, proving the validity of a procedure for cutting a line in two equal parts, draws a black line one inch long. As used in this geometrical proof, this particular line is general in its significance because it is used to represent all particular lines, so that what is proved regarding it is proved to hold for all lines. And just as that particular line becomes general by being used as a sign, so the word ‘line’ - which in itself is particular - is used as a sign with a general meaning. The line is general because it is the sign not of an abstract or general line but of all particular straight lines that could exist, and the word is general for the same reason - namely that it stands equally well for each and every particular line. 6 13 intro. To give the reader a still clearer view of what abstract ideas are supposed to be like, and of how we are supposed to need them, I shall quote one more passage from the Essay Concerning Human Understanding: For children and others whose minds have not yet been put to work much, abstract ideas are not as easy to form as particular ones are. If adults find them easy, that is only because they have had so much practice. For when we reflect carefully and in detail on them, we shall find that general ideas are mental fictions or contrivances that are quite difficult to construct; we don’t come by them as easily as we might think. The general idea of a triangle, for example, though it is not one of the most abstract, comprehensive, and difficult ideas, cannot be formed without hard work and skill. For that idea must be neither oblique nor rectangle, neither equilateral, equicrural, nor scalenon, but all and none of these at once. In effect, it is something imperfect that cannot exist, an idea in which parts of several different and inconsistent ideas are put together. It is true that because of our imperfect human condit ion, the mind needs such ideas for t wo of it s main purposes communication, and the growth of knowledge - so it moves as fast as it can to get them. Still, there is reason to suspect that such ideas indicate how imperfect we are. Anyway, what I have said is enough to show that the ideas that come earliest and most easily to the mind are not abstract and general ones, and that our earliest knowledge does not involve them.’ (IV.vii.9) If anyone ·thinks he· can form in his mind an idea of a triangle such as the one described in that passage, I shan’t waste my time trying to argue him out of it. I merely ask you, the reader, to find out for sure whether you have such an idea. This cannot be very difficult. What is easier than for you to look a little into your own thoughts and to discover whether you do or can have an idea that fits the description we have been given of the general idea of a triangle - ‘neither oblique nor rectangle, neither equilateral, equicrural, nor scalenon, but all and none of these at once’? 14 intro. Much is said ·by Locke· about how difficult abstract ideas are - about the care and skill that is needed in forming them. And everyone agrees that it takes hard mental work to free our thoughts from particular objects and elevate them to the level of speculations that invo...
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