The process of conception has been well defined by Gordy as “that act of mind by which it forms an idea of a class; or that act of the mind that enables us to use general names intelligently.” He adds: “It is, of course, understood that I am using the word ‘class’ to denote an indefinite number of individuals that resemble each other in certain particulars.”
The first step in conception, as we have seen, is that of perception. It is readily perceived that the character of our intellectual processes depends materially upon the variety, clearness, and accuracy of our perceptions. Therefore, again, we would refer our students to the chapter in which we have stated the importance of clear perception.
The future steps of conception depend materially upon the clearness of the memory, as we can classify objects only by remembering their qualities beyond the immediate moment of actual, original perception. Therefore, the memory should be strengthened for this as well as other objects.
The second step in conception is that of the mental abstraction of qualities from the observed thing. That is, we must perceive and then mentally _set aside_ the observed qualities of the thing. For instance, man first perceived the existence of certain qualities in things. He found that a certain number of things possessed some of these qualities in common, while others possessed other qualities in the same way, and thus arose classification from comparison. But both comparison and classification are possible only by abstraction, or _the perception of the quality as a “thing”_; thus, the abstraction of the idea of the quality of _sweetness_ from the idea of sugar. Sweetness is a _quality_ rather than a thing itself. It is something possessed by sugar which helps to make sugar what it is.
Color, shape, size, mental qualities, habits of action–these are some of the qualities first observed in things and abstracted from them in thought. Redness, sweetness, hardness, softness, largeness, smallness, fragrance, swiftness, slowness, fierceness, gentleness, warmness, coldness, etc.–these are abstracted qualities of things. Of course these qualities are really never divorced from things, but the mind divorces them in order to make thinking easier. An authority says: “Animals are incapable of making abstractions, and that is the reason why they cannot develop formal thought. * * * Abstract thought is identical with rational thought, which is the characteristic feature of the thought of speaking beings. This is the reason why abstract thought is upon earth the exclusive property of man, and why brutes are incapable of abstract thought. The process of naming is the mechanism of abstraction, for names establish the mental independence of the objects named.”
The processes of abstraction depend upon attention–concentrated attention. Attention directed to the qualities of a thing tends to abstract the qualities in thought from the thing itself. Mill says: “Abstraction is primarily the result of attention.” Hamilton says: “Attention and abstraction are only the same process viewed in different relations.” Cultivation of the power of abstraction means principally cultivation of attention. Any mental activity which tends toward _analysis_ or separation of a thing into its parts, qualities, or elements will serve to cultivate and develop the power of abstraction.
The habit of converting _qualities_ into concepts is acquired by _transforming adjective terms into their corresponding noun terms_. For instance, a piece of colored candy possesses the _qualities_ of being round, hard, red, sweet, etc. Transforming these adjective qualities into noun terms we have the _concepts_ of roundness, hardness, redness, and sweetness, respectively.
The third step in conception is that of _comparison_, in which the qualities of several things are compared or examined for likenesses and differences. We find many qualities in which the several things differ, and a few in which there is a likeness. Classes are formed from resemblances or likenesses, while individuals are separated from apparent classes by detection of differences. Finally, it is found that separate things, while having many points of difference which indicate their individuality, nevertheless have a few points of likeness which indicate that they belong to the same general family or class. The detection of likenesses and differences in the qualities of various things is an important mental process. Many of the higher thought processes depend largely upon the ability to compare things properly. The development of attention and perception tends to develop the power of comparison.
CLASSIFICATION OR GENERALIZATION.
The fourth step in conception is that of classification or generalization, whereby we place individual things in a mental bundle or class, and then this bundle in company with other bundles into a higher class, and so on. Thus we group all the individual small birds having certain characteristics into a species, then several related species into a larger family, and this into a still larger, until finally we group all the bird families into the great family which we call “birds” and of which the simple term “bird” expresses the general concept.
Jevons says: “We classify things together whenever we observe that they are like each other in any respect, and therefore think of them together. In classifying a collection of objects, we do not merely put together into groups those which resemble each other, but we also divide each class into smaller ones in which the resemblance is more complete. Thus the class of _white substances_ may be divided into those which are solid, and those which are fluid, so that we get the two minor classes of solid-white and fluid-white substances. It is desirable to have names by which to show that one class is contained in another, and, accordingly, we call the class which is divided into two or more smaller ones the _genus_, and the smaller ones into which it is divided, the _species_.”
Every _species_ is a small family of the individuals composing it, and at the same time is an individual species of the genus just above it; the _genus_, in turn, is a family of several species, and at the same time an individual genus in the greater family or genus above it.
The student may familiarize himself with the idea of generalization by considering himself as an individual, John Smith. John represents that unit of generalization. The next step is to combine John with the other Smiths of his immediate family. Then this family may be grouped with his near blood relations, and so on, until finally all the related Smiths, near and remote, are grouped together in a great Smith family.
Or, in the same way, the family group may be enlarged until it takes in all the white people in a county, then all the white people in the state, then all in the United States; then all the white races, then all the white and other light-skinned races, then all mankind. Then, if one is inclined, the process may be continued until it embraces every living creature from moneron to man. Reversing the process, living creatures may be divided and subdivided until all mankind is seen to stand as a class. Then the race of man may be divided into sub-races according to color; then the white race may be subdivided into Americans and non-Americans. Then the Americans may be divided into inhabitants of the several states, or into Indianans and non-Indianans; then into the inhabitants of the several counties of Indiana, and thus the Posey Countians are reached. Then the Posey County people are divided into Smiths and non-Smiths; then the Smith family into its constituent family groups, and then into the smaller families, and so on, until the classification reaches one particular John Smith, who at last is found to be an individual–in a class by himself. This is the story of the ascending and descending processes of generalization.