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ESSAY ON ACCESSIONS OF KNOWLEDGE IN AN INDIVIDUAL
Dec. 1, 1840. New knowledge does not so much consist in our having access to a new object, as in comparing it with others already known, observing its relation to them, or discerning what it has in common with them, and wherein their disparity consists.
MACLAURIN. We hear a great deal concerning Knowledge, and its progress: and yet we must, after all, doubt whether the meaning of the term, and the extent of the thing, and the manner in which advancing Knowledge acts upon Society, are justly understood. Its power must be deeply felt by many individual minds, before communities share in its blessings; before a taste for it and proficiency in it characterize a nation.
In reference to an individual, what does the word, "knowledge,” signify? If we take it in a restricted import, it means, what is learned by the evidence of the senses, of demonstration, and of consciousness. Here we find it distinguished from “belief.” But, according to this view of it, “knowledge” has a narrow circle. If we know” nothing except what we are made acquainted with in these three ways, what becomes of the stores of information which History gathers and reposits? The page of History-civil, ecclesiastical, natural, ethical, literary-places before the world a vast number of facts not witnessed by ourselves. Hence we are supplied with the larger and the more valuable portion of what we call our “knowledge." It is communicated to us: it rests upon testimony; and he who either discerns not the principles and conditions which make testimony credible, or is ignorant of its comprehensive reach, wants one of the first qualities of a truly philosophic mind. Popularly, then, and for all useful ends, we do not withhold the name, " knowledge,” from enlightened “belief.”. At the same time, we take for granted that great care is put forth in ascertaining the solidity of belief; since the nearness of its approach to personal knowledge, must be our warrant-perhaps our excuse—for making the terms identical.
There are those who deny that any “knowledge" can be “new." But this opinion is manifestly erroneous: it cannot be substantiated as to created beings; as to finite and human minds. It is the essential property of such minds to exercise thought and gain knowledge in succession. By “new knowledge,” however, we are not to understand, the knowledge of a single and detached fact, which we were previously ignorant of; or simply, the materials for forming a new judgment. These things, then, only become “knowledge," when they are inwrought, as it were, into the mind, and blended with the
mass of facts and of ideas already received there : thus, the aggregate may be immeasurably large, while each separate addition is comparatively inconsiderable.
All the departments of knowledge bear an affinity to each other. This is true of those divisions of it which are viewed as constituting Science:* it is true of those (and they are still more various) which rank under the head of Learning.
If we look at the different branches of Pure Mathematics, we shall be sensible of this alliance. From elementary numbers to the profoundest analytical operations, from the first principles of Geometry to its highest synthesis and most comprehensive range, we every where see connexion and mutual aid. One process, one invention, one discovery, is dependant on another. A correct acquaintance with the rudiments of the exact sciences, conducts, by degrees, to an enlarged knowledge of the uses which they are capable of being applied to, and is the requisite basis of some facility in the application. The introductory processes likewise are improved by means of those lofty and varied attainments of the student, to which they gradually lead. Arithmetic, for example—both theoretical and practical-has received no slender assistance from the labours of the analyst, who, in turn, has been eminently indebted to the simple rules, and almost intuitive truths, which took his earliest attention.
When we advance to Mixed Mathematics—to Natural Philosophy guided by rigorous Science—we see the relations which I am speaking of wonderfully multiplied. These subsist, and constantly extend themselves, as to Mechanical Philosophy, Statics, Optics and Astronomy: and a volume might be filled with accounts of those applications of Science to Art, which have already been made, and are daily increasing, and which, more than any thing besides, illustrate the power of Knowledge over matter. For their number, variety, and curious and astonishing effects, they form one of the most interesting chapters in the History of Man. They who discovered the laws and properties of certain geometrical mechanical curves, little imagined that they were enabling future generations to relieve some of the most distressing casualties of Life, and greatly to augment its comforts, by abridging manual labour, and by opening new channels of communication, and causing them to be at once more rapid and more secure. A copious detail might be given. But I am fearful of overstepping the limits of an Essay; and must leave this outline to be filled up by my readers.
For the same reason, I can only touch upon the fact that Electricity, Galvanism, Chemistry, and other departments of the Philosophy of Nature, which even yet are more subjected to experiment than reduced to mathematical principles, offer countless objects for comparison, not merely among themselves, but in reference also to the
* I hope to be excused for using this word sometimes in its limited, and sometimes in its comprehensive meaning.
† Familiar examples will be seen in Ship-building and in Navigation; in the Steam-Engine, especially as applied to Railway-Travelling; and in A. F. Ostler's Anemometer.-A very interesting description of Stephenson’s Locomotive SteamEngine, (written, under the Inventor's direction and revision, by Mr. W. P. MarSHALL,) is contained in the new edition of Tredgold's well-known work.
older branches of Mixed Science. This is an unbounded field for the employment of the mind; of the treasures of knowledge, which it has previously acquired, and of its discriminating, inventive and searching powers.
In the favourite and highly beneficial studies of the Geologist, we discern relations alike remarkable for their constantly growing number, and their united delicacy and strength. He begins with examining the surface and the strata of the earth : soon, however, his thoughts are called to its minerals ; by degrees, to its marinefossils--and thus he proceeds to the zoological investigations, without which his knowledge of the other kingdoms of Nature-the mineral and the vegetable-would be less complete and useful.
The province of Natural History is only not infinite; and this with regard both to the objects which it includes, and to the new and everaugmenting relations that arise out of them. I have just been glancing at Zoology. Let us think, for a moment, on its divisions and subdivisions. Can we easily reckon up their affinities to one another, and to the rest of the branches of Natural Science; the topics of comparison which they afford with objects “already known;" the ways in which they render help to kindred pursuits ?
Here I cannot refrain from adverting to Comparative Anatomy, the very name of which at once suggests, with the greatest felicity, its appropriate yet multifarious uses.*
Not one of these studies can be looked upon as insulated. If, for instance, from the contemplation of the frame and habits of the living tribes of earth, we descend to dead matter, we shall observe relationship prevailing. It runs throughout every class of substances, whether they be organic or inorganic: and examples of it crowd upon us, in proportion to the extent of our researches, and the added ease with which the minerals, shells, insects, birds, beasts and flowers of one hemisphere can be placed by the side of those of the other.
I am constrained to omit even a notice of more of those pursuits which come under the heads of Natural Philosophy and History. Before I pass on to treat of accessions of knowledge within another grand department, I wish to make a few remarks on the connexion of the material with the intellectual and moral world.
The powers of the mind are strengthened, if they be justly exercised in such investigations. Nor can we so exercise them, unless the alliance of one division of Natural Science with other divisions of it is practically kept in sight. The reason is, that there must be objects for comparison. Were it possible for a man to become an accomplished botanist, while he remained altogether ignorant of correlative studies, his knowledge of this particular subject would do little for the expansion of his mental faculties. He must survey the land, in its length and breadth and depth and height. The advance. ment of his intellect will then answer to that of his scientific acquisitions. It is the same in Conchology, and in all studies of this class : pursued singly, they require indeed the habit of patient attention, which they tend to produce and invigorate; but the habits of quick apprehension, of accurate judgment and of philosophical order, will
chiefly depend, for their existence and force, on contemporaneous and similar inquiries.
While the world of Nature acts thus favourably on the Mind, by eliciting and improving its powers, there is a like reciprocal influence of the Mind upon this division of its objects: we behold it in the innumerable cases where Science either creates Art or carries it onward to perfection.
The fine arts, as well as the mechanical, confess their obligations to Science, not only for the exactness of the instruments which they employ, but still more for the principles which guide them, and for the wonderful effects thus produced. Painting, Sculpture, Music, exhibit some of the noblest triumphs of Mind, in that life-giving spirit which makes the canvas, the marble, the metal and the wood, to convey such impressions of Grandeur and of Beauty, and, through the senses, to address and exalt the Intellect. Their principles, too, are those which govern all works of Elegance and Taste.
In Literature we meet with relations and processes akin to those already mentioned. The several compartments of this division of Knowledge, have close affinities to one another; while each of them admits of subdivisions that are minute, useful and intimately connected. For the sake of brevity and method, I shall arrange my notices of them under the heads of the Philosophy of Mind, Ethics and Political Economy, Philology, Civil History, and Theology.
How wide the compass of the Philosophy of Mind! How valuable the studies which it is connected with, and the information which it gives, and the mental habits that it awakens and improves ! Without it—without the rational logic of which it really is the basislittle success can be hoped for by the cultivation of other branches of Learning : without it, we cannot effectually “ compare a new object with others already known, or observe its relation to them, or discern what it has in common with them, and wherein their disparity consists." Intellectual Philosophy is requisite to the power of examining, judging and reasoning.
The transition will hence be easy to Ethics, or Moral Science. It is difficult, however, to describe adequately the numerous subjects included within this part of Knowledge, or the affinities of it to others, or the variety and importance of the ends to which it may be applied. Though, in ancient and in modern times, many valuable treatises on Moral Philosophy have been laid before the world, yet the theme may be thought almost exhaustless. Room is still left for the labours of honest and acute inquirers. The complicated relations of Society, added to the even now imperfect state of Mental Philosophy, render the more diligent cultivation of Ethics not less essential than it is arduous.
Proportioned to its advancement, Political Economy and just views of Government may be expected to gain ground. As the principles of human conduct are to be deduced chiefly from the principles of our nature, so the laws of Free States, and those in obedience to which the wealth of nations should be sought after, arise from both these sources. It is Philosophy, not limiting itself to theories, but perpetually employed in modifying, amending and directing them, which can alone make Civil Government a simple and therefore a signally