To understand clearly the nature of the mental phenomena called
_attention_ and _abstraction_, two facts in our mental history need
definitely to be understood–facts which have a decided bearing on the
nature and character of almost all the operations of mind.
The first is, that the objects of our conceptions are seldom, if ever,
isolated, disconnected objects. On the contrary, there is an extended
and complex picture before the mind, including often a great variety of
objects, with their several qualities, relations, and changes. In this
mental picture some objects are clear and distinct, while others seem to
float along in shadowy vagueness.
This fact must be evident to any mind that will closely examine its own
mental operations. It is also equally evident when we consider the mode
in which our ideas are gained by perception. We never acquire our ideas
in single disconnected lineaments. We are continually viewing complex
objects with numerous qualities and surrounded by a great variety of
circumstances, which unitedly form a _whole_ in one act of perception.
Indeed, there are few objects, either of perception or conception,
which, however close the process of abstraction, do not remain complex
in their nature. The simplest forms of matter are _combined_ ideas of
extension, figure, color, and relation. These different ideas we gain by
the aid of the different senses. Of course, our conceptions are
combinations of different qualities in an object which the mind
considers as _one_, and as distinct from other objects.
Each item, then, in any mental picture is itself a complex object, and
each mental picture is formed by a combination of such complex objects.
It will be found very difficult, if not impossible, to mention a name
which recalls any object of sense in which the conception recalled by
the word is a single disconnected thing, without any idea of place or
any attendant circumstances, and, as before remarked, almost all objects
of sense are complex objects, combining several ideas, which were gained
through the instrumentality of different senses. The idea of color is
gained by one sense, of position, shape, and consistency by another, and
other qualities and powers which the mind associates with it by other
The other fact necessary to the correct understanding of the subject is
the influence which the _desires_ and _emotions_ have upon the character
both of the perceptions and conceptions with which they coexist.
It will be found that our _sensations_ vary in vividness and
distinctness according to the strength and permanency of certain
feelings of desire which coexist with them. For example, we are
continually hearing a multitude of sounds, but in respect to many of
them, as we feel no desire to know the cause or nature of them, these
sensations are so feeble and indistinct as scarcely ever to be recalled
to the mind or recognized by any act of memory; but should we hear some
strange wailing sound, immediately the desire would arise to ascertain
its nature and cause. It would immediately become an object of distinct
and vivid perception, and continue so as long as the desire lasted.
While one sensation becomes thus clear and prominent, it will be found
that other sensations which were coexisting with it will become feebler
and seem to die away. The same impressions may still be made upon the
eye as before, the same sounds that had previously been regarded may
still strike upon the ear, but while the desire continues to learn the
cause of that strange wailing sound, the other sensations would all be
faint and indistinct. When this desire is gratified, then other
sensations would resume their former distinctness and prominency.
Our _conceptions_, in like manner, are affected by the coexistence of
emotion or desire. If, for example, we are employing ourselves in study
or mental speculations, the vividness of our conceptions will vary in
exact proportion to the interest we feel in securing the object about
which our conceptions are employed. If we feel but little interest in
the subject of our speculations, every conception connected with them
will be undefined and indistinct; but if the desire of approbation, or
the admonitions of conscience, or the hope of securing some future good
stimulate desire, immediately our conceptions grow more vivid and clear,
and the object at which we aim is more readily and speedily secured. The
great art, then, of quickening mental vigor and activity, and of gaining
clear and quick conceptions, is to awaken interest and excite desire.
When this is secured, conceptions will immediately become bright and
clear, and all mental operations will be carried forward with facility
The distinction between _attention_ and _abstraction_ is not great, but,
as it is recognized in language, it needs to be definitely understood.
_Attention_ has been defined as “the direction of the mind to some
particular object, from the interest which is felt in that object.” It
consists simply in a feeling of desire coexisting with our sensations
and conceptions, and thus rendering them vivid and distinct; while, in
consequence of this fact, all other sensations and conceptions seem to
fade and grow indistinct.
Attention seems to be the generic exercise, and abstraction one species
of the same thing. Attention is used to express the interest which
attends our perceptions or conceptions as _whole objects_, thus
rendering them clear and distinct from other surrounding objects.
Abstraction is that particular act of attention which makes _one part_
or _one quality_ of a complex object become vivid and distinct, while
other parts and qualities grow faint and indistinct. Thus, in viewing a
landscape, we should be said to exercise the power of attention if we
noticed some object, such as a stream or a bridge, while other objects
were more slightly regarded; and we should exercise the power of
abstraction if we noticed the _color_ of the bridge or the _width_ of
the stream, while their other qualities were not equally regarded.
It is the power of abstraction which is the foundation of _language_ in
its present use. Were it not for the power which the mind has of
abstracting certain qualities and circumstances of things, and
considering them as separate and distinct from all other parts and
qualities, no words could be used except such as specify particular
individuals. Every object that meets our eye would demand a separate and
peculiar name, thus making the acquisition of language the labor of a
But now the mind possesses the power of abstracting a greater or fewer
number of qualities, and to these _qualities_ a name is given, and
whenever these qualities are found combined in any object, this name can
be applied. Thus the name _animal_ is given to any thing which has the
qualities of existence and animal life, and the name _quadruped_ is
given to any object which has the qualities of animal life and of four
Every thing which is regarded by the mind as a separate existence must
have some peculiar quality, or action, or circumstance of time or place,
to distinguish it from every other existence. Were there not something,
either in the qualities or circumstances, which made each object in some
respects peculiar, there would be no way to distinguish one thing from
A _proper name_ is one which is used to recall the properties and
circumstances which distinguish one individual existence from every
other. Such is the word Mount Blanc, which recalls certain qualities and
circumstances that distinguish one particular thing from all others, and
the name Julius Cæsar, which recalls the character, qualities, and
circumstances which distinguish one being from every other.
Some words, then, are used to recall the peculiar qualities and
circumstances of individual existences, and are called _proper names_;
other words are used to recall a combination of certain qualities and
circumstances, which unitedly are an object of conception, but are not
considered by the mind as belonging to any real particular existence.
These last words are called _general terms_ or _common names_.
A great variety of names may be applied to the same object of conception
or perception, according to the number of qualities and circumstances
which are abstracted by the mind. Thus an object may be called a
_thing_, and, in this case, the simple circumstance of existence is what
is recalled by the word. The same object may be called an _animal_, and
then the qualities of existence and animal life are made the objects of
conception. It can also be called a _man_, and then, in addition to the
qualities recalled by the word animal, are recalled those qualities
which distinguish man from all other animals. It can also be called a
_father_, and then to the qualities recalled by the term man is added
the circumstance of his relation to some other being. The same object
can be called _La Fayette_, and then, to all the preceding qualities,
would be added in our conceptions all those peculiar qualities and
circumstances which distinguish the hero of France from all other
The following will probably illustrate the mode by which the human mind
first acquires the proper use of these general terms. The infant child
learns to distinguish one existence from another probably long before he
acquires the use of any names by which to designate them. We may suppose
that a little dog is an inmate of his nursery, and that with the _sight_
of this animal has often been associated the _sound_ of the word _dog_.
This is so often repeated, that, by the principle of association, the
sight of the object and the sound of the word invariably recur together.
He observes that this sound is used by those around him in order to
direct his attention to the animal, and he himself soon uses the word to
direct the attention of others in the same way.
But soon it happens that another animal is introduced into his
apartment, which in many respects resembles the object he has learned to
call a dog. To this new object he would apply the same term, but he
finds that others use the sound _cat_ in connection with the sight of
this new animal. He soon learns the difference between the two objects,
the particulars in which they agree, and those in which they differ. He
afterward notices other animals of these species, and observes that some
have the qualities to which the term _dog_ is applied, and others those
to which the term _cat_ is applied.
He continues to notice animals of other kinds, and, after long
experience in this way, he learns to apply names to designate a
particular _combination of qualities_, and, whenever these qualities are
found combined, he has a term ready to apply to them. He learns that
some words are used to point out the peculiar qualities which
distinguish one thing from all others, and, at the same time, other
words are used which simply recall _qualities_, but do not designate any
particular existence to which they belong. Thus the term _boy_ he uses
for the purpose of designating qualities without conceiving of any
particular existence in which they are found, while the term _Mary_ is
used to designate the qualities and circumstances of the particular
existence he finds as the companion of his sports.
All objects of our perceptions are arranged into classes, according to
the peculiar combination of qualities which are recalled by the names
employed to designate them. For example, all objects that have the
qualities of existence and of animal life are arranged in one class, and
are called _animals_. All those which have the qualities recalled by the
term animal, and the additional qualities of wings and feathers, are
arranged in another class called _birds_. All those objects which have
the qualities included in the term _bird_, together with several
additional qualities, are arranged in another class, and called
To these various classes the terms _genera_ and _species_ are applied.
These terms imply a _relation_, or the comparison of one class with
another, in reference to the _number of qualities_ to be recalled by the
terms employed. Thus the class _bird_ is called a _species_ of the class
_animal_, because it includes all the qualities that are combined in the
conception recalled by the word animal, and others in addition; but the
class _bird_ is called a _genus_ in relation to the class _eagle_,
because it contains only a part of the qualities which are recalled by
the term eagle.
A _genus_ may be defined as a class of things the name of which recalls
_fewer_ particulars than the name of another class or species with which
it is compared. _Bird_ is a _genus_ when compared with the class
A _species_ is a class of things the name of which recalls more
particulars than the name of another class or genus with which it is
compared. _Bird_ is a _species_ when compared with the class _animal_.
In examining language, it will be found that the larger portion of words
in common use are names of _genera_ and _species_–that is, they are
words employed to recall ideas as they are arranged in genera and
species. It is only those words that are _proper names_ which recall
conceptions of the particular existences by which we are surrounded.
Some of these surrounding existences are furnished with these particular
names, and others can be designated and distinguished from each other
only by a description. Thus we see some hills around our horizon, some
of which have a peculiar name, and others can be designated only by
describing the circumstances which distinguish them from all other
A _definition_ of a word is an enumeration of the several qualities or
circumstances which distinguish certain things from all others, and
which are recalled to the mind when the word is used. Thus, if the word
animal is to be defined, we do it by mentioning the circumstances of its
_existence_ and _animal life_, as the ideas recalled by the word.
Generally, a word is defined by mentioning the name of some _genus_ of
which the thing intended is a _species_, and then adding those
particular qualities which the species has, in addition to those
included under the genus. Thus, if we are to define the word _man_, we
mention the genus _animal_, and then the qualities which man has in
addition to those possessed by other animals. Thus: “_Man_ is an
_animal_, having the human form, and a spirit endowed with intellect,
susceptibility, and will.”
There are some words which recall only _one_ quality or circumstance,
and which, therefore, can not be defined like the words which recall
various qualities and circumstances, as joy, sorrow, color, and the
like. Such words as these are defined by mentioning the times or
circumstances when the mind is conscious of the existence of the idea to
be recalled by the word. Thus _joy_ is “a state of mind which exists
when any ardent desire is gratified.” _Color_ is “a quality of objects
which is perceived when light enters the eye.”
Those conceptions which can be defined by enumerating the several
qualities and circumstances which compose them are called _complex
ideas_, and the words used to designate them are called _complex terms_.
Such words as landscape, wrestler, giant, and philosopher, are complex
terms. The word landscape recalls a complex idea of various material
things. The word wrestler recalls an idea of a material object and one
of its actions. The word giant recalls an idea of a thing and its
relation as to size. The word philosopher recalls the idea of a thing
and one of its qualities.
Those conceptions which are not composed of several qualities and
circumstances, but are themselves a single quality or circumstance, are
called _simple ideas_, and the words used to recall them are called
_simple terms_. Such words as sweetness, loudness, depth, pain, and joy,
are simple terms. Some terms which express emotions of the mind are
entirely simple, such as sorrow, joy, and happiness. Others are words
which recall an idea of a simple emotion and of its _cause_, such, for
example, as _gratitude_, which expresses the idea of an emotion of mind
and also that it was caused by some benefit conferred. Words that
express simple ideas can be defined only by some description of the
circumstances in which these ideas exist, or by a reference to their
causes or effects.