Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
The Imagination in Science
By Dugald Stewart (17531828)
From Dissertation on the Progress of Ethical Philosophy
THESE objections apply in common to Bacon and DAlembert. That which follows has a particular reference to a passage already cited from the latter, where, by some false refinements concerning the nature and functions of imagination, he has rendered the classification of his predecessor incomparably more indistinct and illogical than it seemed to be before.
That all the creations, or new combinations of imagination, imply the previous process of decomposition or analysis, is abundantly manifest; and therefore, without departing from the common and popular use of language, it may undoubtedly be said, that the faculty of abstraction is not less essential to the poet, than to the geometer and the metaphysician. But this is not the doctrine of DAlembert. On the contrary, he affirms that metaphysics and geometry are, of all the sciences connected with reason, those in which imagination has the greatest share, an assertion which, it will not be disputed, has at first sight somewhat of the air of a paradox, and which, on closer examination, will, I apprehend, be found altogether inconsistent with fact. If indeed DAlembert had, in this instance, used (as some writers have done) the word imagination as synonymous with invention, I should not have thought it worth while (at least as far as the geometer is concerned) to dispute his proposition. But that this was not the meaning annexed to it by the author, appears from a subsequent clause, where he tells us that the most refined operations of reason, consisting in the creation of generals which do not fall under the cognisance of our senses, naturally lead to the exercise of imagination. His doctrine, therefore, goes to the identification of imagination with abstraction; two faculties so very different in the direction which they give to our thoughts, that (according to his own acknowledgment) the man who is habitually occupied in exerting the one, seldom fails to impair both his capacity and his relish for the exercise of the other.
This identification of two faculties, so strongly contrasted in their characteristical features, was least of all to be expected from a logician, who had previously limited the province of imagination to the imitation of material objects; a limitation, it may be remarked in passing, which is neither sanctioned by common use, nor by just views of the philosophy of the mind. Upon what ground can it be alleged that Miltons portrait of Satans intellectual and moral character was not the offspring of the same creative faculty which gave birth to his garden of Eden? After such a definition, however, it is difficult to conceive how so very acute a writer should have referred to imagination the abstractions of the geometer and of the metaphysician; and still more, that he should have attempted to justify this reference by observing that these abstractions do not fall under the cognisance of the senses. My own opinion is, that in the composition of the whole passage he had a view to the unexpected parallel between Homer and Archimedes, with which he meant, at the close, to surprise his readers.
If the foregoing strictures be well-founded, it seems to follow, not only that the attempt of Bacon and of DAlembert to classify the sciences and arts according to a logical division of our faculties, is altogether unsatisfactory; but that every future attempt of the same kind may be expected to be liable to similar objections. In studying, indeed, the theory of the mind, it is necessary to push our analysis as far as the nature of the subject admits of it; and, wherever the thing is possible, to examine its constituent principles separately and apart from each other: but this consideration itself, when combined with what was before stated on the endless variety of forms in which they may be blended together in our various intellectual pursuits, is sufficient to show how ill-adapted such an analysis must for ever remain to serve as the basis of an encyclopædic distribution.
The circumstance to which this part of Bacons philosophy is chiefly indebted for its popularity, is the specious simplicity and comprehensiveness of the distribution itself;not the soundness of the logical views by which it was suggested. That all our intellectual pursuits may be referred to one or other of these three heads, history, philosophy, and poetry, may undoubtedly be said with considerable plausibility; the word history being understood to comprehend all our knowledge of particular facts and particular events; the word philosophy, all the general conclusions or laws inferred from these particulars by induction; and the word poetry, all the arts addressed to the imagination. Not that the enumeration, even with the help of this comment, can be considered as complete, for (to pass over entirely the other objections already stated) under which of these three heads shall we arrange the various branches of pure mathematics?
Are we therefore to conclude that the magnificent design, conceived by Bacon, of enumerating, defining, and classifying the multifarious objects of human knowledge (a design, on the successful accomplishment of which he himself believed that the advancement of the sciences essentially depended),are we to conclude that this design was nothing more than the abortive offspring of a warm imagination, unsusceptible of any useful application to enlighten the mind, or to accelerate its progress? My own idea is widely different. The design was, in every respect, worthy of the sublime genius by which it was formed. Nor does it follow, because the execution was imperfect, that the attempt has been attended with no advantage. At the period when Bacon wrote, it was of much more consequence to exhibit to the learned a comprehensive sketch, than an accurate survey of the intellectual world:such a sketch as, by pointing out to those whose views had been hitherto confined within the limits of particular regions, the relative positions and bearings of their respective districts as parts of one great whole, might invite them all, for the common benefit, to a reciprocal exchange of their local riches. The societies or academies which, soon after, sprang up in different countries of Europe, for the avowed purpose of contributing to the general mass of information, by the collection of insulated facts, conjectures, and queries, afford sufficient proof, that the anticipations of Bacon were not, in this instance, altogether chimerical.
In examining the details of Bacons survey, it is impossible not to be struck (more especially when we reflect on the state of learning two hundred years ago) with the minuteness of his information, as well as with the extent of his views; or to forbear admiring his sagacity in pointing out to future adventurers, the unknown tracts still left to be explored by human curiosity. If his classifications be sometimes artificial and arbitrary, they have at least the merit of including, under one head or another, every particular of importance; and of exhibiting these particulars with a degree of method and of apparent connection, which, if it does not always satisfy the judgment, never fails to interest the fancy, and to lay hold of the memory. Nor must it be forgotten, to the glory of his genius, that what he failed to accomplish remains to this day a desideratum in science,that the intellectual chartdelineated by him is, with all its imperfections, the only one of which modern philosophy has yet to boast;and that the united talents of DAlembert and of Diderot, aided by all the lights of the eighteenth century, have been able to add but little to what Bacon performed.