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Volume 20, 1887
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Papers.—1. “On Some Deep-seated Fallacies,” by W. W. Carlile, M.A.


Two fallacious tendencies in thought, which had indeed one source, were: (1) the tendency to give an imaginary priority to the abstract over the concrete; and (2) the tendency to personify general conceptions. The former had been a common source of bad philosophy, bad educational systems, and bad legislation. As an instance, might be cited the fact of a highly abstruse metaphysical discussion being placed as introductory in the series of Science Primers. Aristotle, on the contrary, had put “Metaphysics” in its right place—after “Physics.” The very prevalent practice in schools of teaching the grammar of a language, even including the rules of syntax, before any knowledge of the language itself was obtained, was another. In the history of language itself the true progress had been from the concrete to the abstract, even the verb “to be” not having existed in many early languages. In Jurisprudence, custom necessarily preceded Law, contrary to the prevalent opinion that an Act of Parliament could do anything. In Constitutional History there had been a famous inversion. Locke had placed the “social contract” at the dawn of history, instead of placing it in its true position as the last result of English development. Rousseau took up the fiction and preached it as truth, and Europe took fire over it. However, it was to be observed that it was a fiction only when in its wrong place-not as Sir H. Maine and Mr. W. S. Lilly appeared to think, a fiction altogether. There was a parallel misconception to this last in a wider sphere. Because the old view of the connection between Reason and Nature seemed to be erroneous, therefore it was argued that “the Universe was mindless.” The great inversion, of which all others were shreds and patches, was to be found in the “Timæus” of Plato. It was the Darwinian theory read backwards. Similarly, in Plato there was an inverted conception of the true process of thought. He looked on abstractions as the only real existences, and held, consequently, that “so long as a man is trying to study any sensible object, he cannot be said to have learned anything.” The Platonic view of abstractions became the [Realism of the Middle Ages. This Realism, as Professor Huxley pointed out, was rampant among us still, in the shape of the second fallacious tendency referred to-the personification of general conceptions. Professor Huxley regarded the tendency as liable only to mislead the careless and ignorant; but it was doubtful whether even the most cautious thinkers were not occasionally affected by it. Mr. Darwin, after describing the ball and socket ocelli on the wing feathers of the Argus pheasant, denied that the imitation of light falling on a convex surface which they exhibited could be the result of “chance.” In denying Chance, he necessarily affirmed Intention. But where did the intention lie? That was the question of questions. In Mr. Darwin's no doubt historically accurate account of the phenomenon, there was no indication given as to where he thought the

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intention could lie; yet he told us that thus, and thus only, could we understand it. Mr. Darwin's opinion that his explanation rendered the phenomenon understandable was, perhaps, due to the fact that he unconsciously attributed Intention to his personified conception of sexual selection. In order to understand this tendency to personify abstractions, it was necessary to look at the process by which abstractions were made. Professor Huxley, in his book on “Hume,” expressed the opinion that they were made by a process analogous to that by which compound photographs were made. “In dreams,” he said, “the outlines of the hills are ill-marked, and the rivers have no defined banks. They are, in short, generic.” One might as well say that those of Turner's pictures which conveyed the effect of a hazy atmosphere were generic. The general idea of “river,” indeed, must include the most clearly as well as the most dimly seen. What we really did was to take one river, either real or imaginary, as our representative instance, and to say to ourselves: “Let this stand for river in general.” In fact, we personified, or at any rate individualized, our conception of “river.” Thus, abstraction was, in its very beginnings, based, in a sense, on illusion. The difficulty in the famous puzzle of “Achilles and the Tortoise” was due to this tendency to take our thought-image for a reality. When we had brought “Achilles and the Tortoise,” or some more convenient symbols, as close together as we could imagine them to be without touching each other, we still left the minimum visibile between them.- We then proceeded to halve this, or thought we did so, but in reality we conceived the minimum visibile over again as lying between, them. We might, of course, continue that process indefinitely.

2. “On Maori Ancestry,” by J. Coutts Crawford, F.G.S. (Transactions, p. 414.)