CHAPTER VI. CONCEPTION.
“The generalizations of language are already made for us, before we have ourselves begun to generalize; and our mind receives the abstract phrasea without aiiy definite analysis, almost as readily as it receives and adopts the simple names of persona and things. The separate co-existing phenomena, and the sepa rate sequences of a long succession of words, which it has been found convenient to comprehend in a single word, are hence, from the constant use of that single word, regarded by the mind almost in the same manner, as if they were only one pheno menon, or one event.” Inquiry into the Relation of Cause and Effect. By Thomas Brown, M.D. Note M, p. 567.
THE philosophers, who erected CONSCIOUSNESS into what they called a Power of the mind, have bestowed the same rank upon CONCEPTION.
When we have a Sensation, we are not said, in the ordinary use of the word, to Conceive. If burned with the candle, I do not say, “I conceive the pain;” I do not say, if I smelt putrescence, that “I conceive the stench.” It even seems to be not without a sort of impropriety, if the term is ever applied to mark a simple Idea. We should not, in ordinary language, say, “I conceive red,” “I conceive green.” We say, however, “I conceive a horse,” “I conceive a tree,” I conceive a ship;” we say also, “I conceive an argument,” “I conceive a plan.” In these examples, which may be taken as a sufficient specimen of the manner in which the term Conception is used, we see that it is applied exclusively to cases of the secondary feelings; to the Idea, not the Sensation; and to the case of compound, not of single ideas. With this use, the etymologyofthe word very accurately corresponds: I conceive, that is, I take together, a horse; that is, the several ideas, combined under the name horse, and constituting a compound idea. The term conception, we have seen, applies not only to those combinations of ideas, which we call the ideas of external objects, but to those combinations which the mind makes for its own purposes.
It thus appears, that the word CONCEPTION is a generical name, like CONSCIOUSNESS; but less compre hensive. We call ourselves conscious, when we have any sensation, or any idea. We say that we conceive, only when we have some complex idea. It remains to be inquired, whether by saying we conceive, or have a conception, we mean any thing whatsoever beside having an idea.
If I say, I have the idea of a horse, I can explain distinctly what I mean. I have the ideas of the sen sations of sight, of touch, of hearing, of smelling, with which the body and actions of a horse have impressed me; these ideas, all combined, and so closely, that their existence appears simultaneous, and one. This is my IDEA of a horse. If I say, I have a CONCEPTION of a horse, and am asked to explain what I mean, I give the same account exactly, and I can give no other. My CONCEPTION of the horse, is merely my taking together, in one, the simple ideas of the sensa tions which constitute my knowledge of the horse; and my IDEA of the horse is the same thing.
We may notice here, however, one of those curious illusions, which the intimate associations of ideas with words, so often, and sometimes so inconveniently, occasion. The term “I conceive,” has the form of an active verb; and with the form of an active verb THE IDEA OF ACTION is so frequently conjoined, that we are rarely able to separate them. By this means, the idea of activeness is often mixed up with other ideas, when it is wholly misplaced and illusive. I use the same form of expression when I say, I dream; as when I say, I study, I argue, I imagine. In these cases the idea of what I call activity is properly included: in the expression I dream, it is not properly included; though the active form of the verb so invariably calls up a certain idea of activity, and so strongly tends to mix it with the other ideas, that in using the term, “I dream,” we seem to consider ourselves as, some how, agents. Even in using the term, “I die,” we cannot escape the illusion; though the ideas are so highly incongruous. It would be obviously absurd to affirm that we are less active when we say we have an idea, than when we say we have a conception, yet there is constantly a feeling, when we use the phrase “I conceive,” as if we were in some manner active; and no such feeling, when we use the phrase I have an idea.” The terms, therefore, the concrete “conceive,” and its abstract “conception,” are somewhat inconvenient, and misguiding, as they infuse into the complex ideas to which they are applied, an ingredient which does not belong to them.
The relation which the words, CONSCIOUSNESS, and CONCEPTION, bear to one another, is now, therefore, apparent. Consciousness is the more generical of the two names. Conception is the name of a class included under the name Consciousness. Consciousness applies to sensations, and to ideas, whether simple or complex; to all the feelings, whatsoever they may be, of our sentient nature. Conception applies only to ideas; and to ideas, only in. a state of combination. It is a generical name including the several classes of complex ideas. (76)
[76 The doctrine of this chapter is as just as it is admirably stated. A conception is nothing whatever but a complex idea, and to conceive is to have a complex idea. But as there must always have been some cause why a second name is used when there is already a first, there is generally some difference in the occasions of their employment: and a recognition of this difference is necessary to the completeness of the exposition. It seems to me that conception and to conceive are phrases apropriated to the case in which the thing conceived is supposed to be something external to my own mind. I am not said to conceive my own thoughts; unless it be in the ease of an invention, or mental creation; and even then, to conceive it, means to imagine it realized, so that it may be presented to myself or others as an external object. To conceive something is to understand what it is; to adapt my complex idea to something presented to me objectively. I am asked to conceive an iceberg: it is not enough that I form to myself some complex idea; it must be a complex idea which shall really resemble an iceberg, i.e., what is called an iceberg by other people. My complex idea must be made up of the elements in my mind which cor respond to the elements making up the idea of an iceberg in theirs.
This is connected with one of the most powerful and mis leading of the illusions of general language. The purposes of general names would not be answered, unless the complex idea connected with a general name in one person s mind were com posed of essentially the same elements as the idea connected with it in the mind of another. There hence arises a natural illusion, making us feel as if, instead of ideas as numerous as minds, and merely resembling one another, there were one idea, independent of individual minds, and to which it is the business of each to learn to make his private idea correspond. This is the Platonic doctrine of Ideas in all its purity: and as half the speculative world are Platonists without knowing it, hence it also is that in the writings of so many psychologists we read of the conception or the concept of so and so; as if there was a concept of a thing or of a class of things, other than the ideas in individual minds a concept belonging to everybody, the common inheritance of the human race, but independent of any of the particular minds which conceive it. In reality, however, this common concept is but the sum of the elements which it is requisite for the purposes of discourse that people should agree with one another in including in the complex idea which they associate with a class name. As we shall presently see, these are only a part, and often but a small part, of each person s complex idea, but they are the part which it is neces sary should be the same in all. Ed.]