Freethought Archives > Baron d'Holbach > The System of Nature
The Intellectual Faculties derived from the Faculty of Feeling.
TO convince ourselves that the faculties called intellectual, are only certain modes of existence, or determinate manners of acting, which result from the peculiar organization of the body, we have only to analyze them; we shall then see that all the operations which are attributed to the soul, are nothing more than certain modifications of the body; of which a substance that is without extent, that has no parts, that is immaterial, is not susceptible.
The first faculty we behold in the living man, and that from which all his others flow, is feeling: however inexplicable this faculty may appear, on a first view, if it be examined closely, it will be found to be a consequence of the essence, or a result of the properties of organized beings; the same as gravity, magnetism, elasticity, electricity, &c. result from the essence or nature of some others. We shall also find these last phenomena are not less inexplicable than that of feeling. Nevertheless, if we wish to define to ourselves a clear and precise idea of it, we shall find that feeling is a particular manner of being moved--a mode of receiving an impulse peculiar to certain organs of animated bodies, which is occasioned by the presence of a material object that acts upon these organs, and transmit the impulse or shock to the brain.
Man only feels by the aid of nerves dispersed through his body; which is itself, to speak correctly, nothing more than a great nerve; or may be said to resemble a large tree, of which the branches experience the action of the root, communicated through the trunk. In man the nerves unite and lose themselves in the brain; that intestine is the true seat of feeling: like the spider in the centre of his web, it is quickly warned of all the changes that happen to the body, even at the extremities to which it sends its filaments and branches. Experience enables us to ascertain, that man ceases to feel in those parts of his body of which the communication with the brain is intercepted; he feels very little, or not at all, whenever this organ is itself deranged or affected in too lively a manner. A proof of this is afforded in the transactions of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris: they inform us of a man who had his scull taken off, in the room of which his brain was recovered with skin; in proportion as a pressure was made by the hand on his brain, the man fell into a kind of insensibility, which deprived him of all feeling. BARTOLIN says, the brain of a man is twice as big as that of an ox. This observation had been already made by ARISTOTLE. In the dead body of an idiot dissected by WILLIS, the brain was found smaller than ordinary: he says the greatest difference he found between the parts of the body of this idiot, and those of wiser men, was, that the plexus of the intercostal nerves, which is the mediator between the brain and the heart, was extremely small, accompanied by a less number of nerves than usual. According to WILLIS, the ape is, of all animals, that which has the largest brain, relatively to his size: he is also, after man, that which has the most intelligence: this is further confirmed, by the name he bears in the soil, to which he is indigenous, which is ourang outang, or the man beast. There is, therefore, every reason to believe that it is entirely in the brain, that consists the difference, that is found not only between man and beasts, but also between the man of wit, and the fool: between the thinking man, and he who is ignorant; between the man of sound understanding, and the madman: a multitude of experience, serves to prove, that those persons who are most accustomed to use their intellectual faculties, have their brain more extended than others: the same has been remarked of watermen, that they have arms much longer than other men.
However this may be, the sensibility of the brain, and all its parts, is a fact: if it be asked, whence comes this property? We shall reply, it is the result of an arrangement, of a combination, peculiar to the animal: it is thus that milk, bread, wine, change themselves in the substance of man, who is a sensible being: this insensible matter becomes sensible, in combining itself with a sensible whole. Some philosophers think that sensibility is a universal quality of matter: in this case, it would be useless to seek from whence this property is derived, as we know it by its effects. If this hypothesis be admitted, in like manner as two kinds of motion are distinguished in Nature, the one called live force, the other dead, or inert force, two sorts of sensibility will be distinguished, the one active or alive, the other inert or dead. Then to animalize a substance, is only to destroy the obstacles that prevent its being active or sensible. In fact, sensibility is either a quality which communicates itself like motion, and which is acquired by combination; or this sensibility is a property inherent in all matter: in both, or either case, an unextended being, without parts, such as the human soul is said to be, can neither be the cause of it nor submitted to its operation; but we may fairly conclude, that all the parts of Nature enjoy the capability to arrive at animation; the obstacle is only in the state, not in the quality. Life is the perfection of Nature: she has no parts which do not tend to it--which do not attain it by the same means. Life in an insect, a dog, a man, has no other difference, than that this act is more perfect, relatively to ourselves in proportion to the structure of the organs: if, therefore, it be asked, what is requisite to animate a body? we reply, it needs no foreign aid; it is sufficient that the power of Nature be joined to its organization.
The conformation, the arrangement, the texture, the delicacy of the organs, as well exterior as interior, which compose men and animals, render their parts extremely mobile, or make their machine susceptible of being moved with great facility. In a body, which is only a heap of fibres, a mass of nerves, contiguous one to the other, united in a common center, always ready to act; in a whole, composed of fluids and solids, of which the parts are in equilibrium, the smallest touching each other, are active in their motion, communicating reciprocally, alternately and in succession, the impression, oscillations, and shocks they receive; in such a composition, it is not surprising that the slightest impulse propagates itself with celerity; that the shocks excited in its remotest parts, make themselves quickly felt in the brain, whose delicate texture renders it susceptible of being itself very easily modified. Air, fire, water, agents the most inconstant, possessing the most rapid motion, circulate continually in the fibres, incessantly penetrate the nerves: without doubt these contribute to that incredible celerity with which the brain is acquainted with what passes at the extremities of the body.
Notwithstanding the great mobility with which man's organization renders him susceptible, although exterior as well as interior causes are continually acting upon him, he does not always feel in a distinct, in a decided manner, the impulse given to his senses: indeed, he does not feel it, until it has produced some change, or given some shock to his brain. Thus, although completely environed by air, he does not feel its action, until it is so modified, as to strike with a sufficient degree of force on his organs; to penetrate his skin, through which his brain is warned of its presence. Thus, during a profound and tranquil sleep, undisturbed by any dream, man ceases to feel. In short, notwithstanding the continued motion that agitates his frame, man does not appear to feel, when this motion acts in a convenient order; he does not perceive a state of health, but he discovers a state of grief or sickness; because, in the first, his brain does not receive too lively an impulse, whilst in the others, his nerves are contracted, shocked, and agitated, with violent, with disorderly motion: these communicating with his brain, give notice that some cause acts strongly upon them--impels them in a manner that bears no analogy with their natural habit: this constitutes, in him, that peculiar mode of existing which he calls grief.
On the other hand, it sometimes happens that exterior objects produce very considerable changes on his body, without his perceiving them at the moment. Often, in the heat of battle, the soldier perceives not that he is dangerously wounded, because, at the time, the rapidity, the multiplicity of impetuous motion that assails his brain, does not permit him to distinguish the particular change a part of his body has undergone by the wound. In short, when a great number of causes are simultaneously acting on him with too much vivacity, he sinks under their accumulated pressure,--he swoons--he loses his senses--he is deprived of feeling.
In general, feeling only obtains, when the brain can distinguish distinctly, the impressions made on the organs with which it has communication; it is the distinct shock, the decided modification man undergoes, that constitutes conscience. Doctor Clarke, says to this effect: "Conscience is the act of reflecting, by means of which I know that I think, and that my thoughts, or my actions belong to me, and not to another." From this it will appear, that feeling is a mode of being, a marked change, produced on our brain, occasioned by the impulse communicated to our organs, whether by interior or exterior agents, by which it is modified either in a durable or transient manner: it is not always requisite that man's organs should be moved by an exterior object, to enable him to feel that he should be conscious of the changes effected in him: he can feel them within himself by means of an interior impulse; his brain is then modified, or rather he renews within himself the anterior modifications. We are not to be astonished that the brain should be necessarily warned of the shocks, of the impediments, of the changes that may happen to so complicated a machine as the human body, in which, notwithstanding all the parts are contiguous to the brain, and concentrate themselves in this brain, and are by their essence in a continual state of action and re-action.
When a man experiences the pains of the gout, he is conscious of them; in other words, he feels interiorly, that it has produced very marked, very distinct changes in him, without his perceiving, that he has received an impulse from any exterior cause; nevertheless, if he will recur to the true source of these changes, he will find that they have been wholly produced by exterior agents: they have been the consequence, either of his temperament; of the organization received from his parents; of the aliments with which his frame has been nourished; besides a thousand trivial, inappreciable causes, which congregating themselves by degrees produce in him the gouty humour; the effect of which is to make him feel in an acute and very lively manner. The pain of the gout engenders in his brain an idea, so modifies it that it acquires the faculty of representing to itself, of reiterating as it were, this pain when even he shall be no longer tormented with the gout: his brain, by a series of motion interiorly excited, is again placed in a state analogous to that in which it was when he really experienced this pain: but if he had never felt it, he would never have been in a capacity to form to himself any just idea of its excruciating torments.
The visible organs of man's body, by the intervention of which his brain is modified, take the name of senses. The various modifications which his brain receives by the aid of these senses, assumes a variety of names. Sensation, perception, and idea, are terms that designate nothing more than the changes produced in this interior organ, in consequence of impressions made on the exterior organs by bodies acting on them: these changes considered by themselves, are called sensations; they adopt the term perception when the brain is warned of their presence; ideas is that state of them in which the brain is able to ascribe them to the objects by which they have been produced.
Every sensation, then, is nothing more than the shock given to the organs, every perception is this shock propagated to the brain; every idea is the image of the object to which the sensation and the perception is to be ascribed. From whence it will be seen, that if the senses be not moved, there can neither be sensations, perceptions, nor ideas: this will be proved to those, who can yet permit themselves to doubt so demonstrable and striking a truth.
It is the extreme mobility of which man is capable, owing to his peculiar organization, that distinguishes him from other beings that are called insensible or inanimate; the different degrees of this mobility, of which the individuals of his species are susceptible, discriminate them from each other; make that incredible variety, that infinity of difference which is to be found, as well in their corporeal faculties, as in those which are mental or intellectual. From this mobility, more or less remarkable in each human being, results wit, sensibility, imagination, taste, &c.: for the present, however, let us follow the operation of the senses; let us examine in what manner they are acted upon, and are modified by exterior objects:--we will afterwards scrutinize the re-action of the interior organ or brain.
The eyes are very delicate, very movable organs, by means of which the sensation of light or colour is experienced: these give to the brain a distinct perception, in consequence of which, man forms an idea, generated by the action of luminous or coloured bodies: as soon as the eyelids are opened, the retina is affected in a peculiar manner; the fluid, the fibres, the nerves, of which they are composed, are excited by shocks which they communicate to the brain; to which they delineate the images of the bodies from which they have received the impulse; by this means, an idea is acquired of the colour, the size, the form, the distance of these bodies: it is thus that may he explained the mechanism of sight.
The mobility and the elasticity of which the skin is rendered susceptible, by the fibres and nerves which form its texture, accounts for the rapidity with which this envelope to the human body is affected when applied to any other body; by their agency, the brain has notice of its presence, of its extent, of its roughness, of its smoothness, of its surface, of its pressure of its ponderosity, &c. Qualities from which the brain derives distinct perceptions, which breed in it a diversity of ideas; it is this that constitutes the touch or feeling.
The delicacy of the membrane by which the interior of the nostrils is covered, renders them easily susceptible of irritation, even by the invisible and impalpable corpuscles that emanate from odorous bodies: by these means sensations are excited, the brain has perceptions, and generates ideas: it is this that forms the sense of smelling.
The mouth, filled with nervous, sensible, movable, irritable glands, saturated with juices suitable to the dissolution of saline substances, is affected in a very lively manner by the aliments which pass through it for the nourishment of the body; these glands transmit to the brain the impressions received: perceptions are of consequence; ideas follow: it is from this mechanism that results taste.
The ear, whose conformation fits it to receive the various impulses of air, diversely modified, communicates to the brain the shocks or sensations; these breed the perception of sound, and generate the idea of sonorous bodies: it is this that constitutes hearing.
Such are the only means by which man receives sensations, perceptions, and ideas. These successive modifications of his brain are effects produced by objects that give impulse to his senses; they become themselves causes, producing in his soul new modifications, which are denominated thought, reflection, memory, imagination, judgment, will, action; the basis, however, of all these is sensation.
To form a precise notion of thought, it will be requisite to examine, step by step, what passes in man during the presence of any object whatever. Suppose for a moment this object to be a peach: this fruit makes, at the first view, two different impressions on his eyes; that is to say, it produces two modifications, which are transmitted to the brain, which on this occasion experiences two new perceptions, or has two new ideas or modes of existence, designated by the terms colour and rotundity; in consequence, he has an idea of a body possessing roundness and colour: if he places his hand on this fruit, the organ of feeling having been set in action, his hand experiences three new impressions, which are called softness, coolness, weight, from whence result three new perceptions in the brain, he has consequently three new ideas: if he approximates this peach to his nose, the organ of smelling receives an impulse, which, communicated to the brain, a new perception arises, by which he acquires a new idea, called odour: if he carries this fruit to his mouth, the organ of taste becomes affected in a very lively manner: this impulse communicated to the brain, is followed by a perception that generates in him the idea of flavour. In re-uniting all these impressions, or these various modifications of his organs, which it have been consequently transmitted to his brain; that is to say, in combining the different sensations, perceptions, and ideas, that result from the impulse he has received, he has an idea of a whole, which he designates by the name of a peach, with which he can then occupy his thoughts.
From this it is sufficiently proved that thought has a commencement, a duration, an end; or rather a generation, a succession, a dissolution, like all the other modifications of matter; like them, thought is excited, is determined, is increased, is divided, is compounded, is simplified, &c. If, therefore, the soul, or the principle that thinks, be indivisible; how does it happen, that this soul has the faculty of memory, or of forgetfulness; is capacitated to think successively, to divide, to abstract, to combine, to extend its ideas, to retain them, or to lose them? How can it cease to think? If forms appear divisible in matter, it is only in considering them by abstraction, after the method, of geometricians; but this divisibility of form exists not in Nature, in which there is neither a point, an atom, nor form perfectly regular; it must therefore be concluded, that the forms of matter are not less indivisible than thought.
What has been said is sufficient to show the generation of sensations, of perceptions, of ideas, with their association, or connection in the brain: it will be seen that these various modifications are nothing more than the consequence of successive impulses, which the exterior organs transmit to the interior organ, which enjoys the faculty of thought, that is to say, to feel in itself the different modifications it has received, or to perceive the various ideas which it has generated; to combine them, to separate them, to extend them, to abridge them, to compare them, to renew them, &c. From whence it will be seen, that thought is nothing more than the perception of certain modifications, which the brain either gives to itself, or has received from exterior objects.
Indeed, not only the interior organ perceives the modifications it receives from without, but again it has the faculty of modifying itself; of considering the changes which take place in it, the motion by which it is agitated in its peculiar operations, from which it imbibes new perceptions and new ideas. It is the exercise of this power to fall back upon itself, that is called reflection.
From this it will appear, that for man to think and to reflect, is to feel, or perceive within himself the impressions, the sensations, the ideas, which have been furnished to his brain by those objects which give impulse to his senses, with the various changes which his brain produced on itself in consequence.
Memory is the faculty which the brain has of renewing in itself the modifications it has received, or rather, to restore itself to a state similar to that in which it has been placed by the sensations, the perceptions, the ideas, produced by exterior objects, in the exact order it received them, without any new action on the part of these objects, or even when these objects are absent; the brain perceives that these modifications assimilate with those it formerly experienced in the presence of the objects to which it relates, or attributes them. Memory is faithful, when these modifications are precisely the same; it is treacherous, when they differ from those which the organs have exteriorly experienced.
Imagination in man is only the faculty which the brain has of modifying itself, or of forming to itself new perceptions, upon the model of those which it has anteriorly received through the action of exterior objects on the senses. The brain, then, does nothing more than combine ideas which it has already formed, which it recalls to itself, from which it forms a whole, or a collection of modifications, which it has not received, which exists no-where but in itself, although the individual ideas, or the parts of which this ideal whole is composed, have been previously communicated to it, in consequence of the impulse given to the senses by exterior objects: it is thus man forms to himself the idea of centaurs, or a being composed of a man and a horse, of hyppogriffs, or a being composed of a horse with wings and a griffin, besides a thousand other objects, equally ridiculous. By memory, the brain renews in itself the sensations, the perceptions, and the ideas which it has received or generated; represents to itself the objects which have actually moved its organs. By imagination it combines them variously: forms objects in their place which have not moved its organs, although it is perfectly acquainted with the elements or ideas of which it composes them. It is thus that man, by combining a great number of ideas borrowed from himself, such as justice, wisdom, goodness, intelligence, &c. by the aid of imagination, has formed various ideal beings, or imaginary wholes, which he has called JUPITER, JUNO, BRAMAH, SATURN, &c.
Judgment is the faculty which the brain possesses of comparing with each other the modifications it receives, the ideas it engenders, or which it has the power of awakening within itself, to the end that it may discover their relations, or their effects.
Will is a modification of the brain, by which it is disposed to action, that is to say, to give such an impulse to the organs of the body, as can induce to act in a manner, that will procure for itself what is requisite to modify it in a mode analogous to its own existence, or to enable it to avoid that by which it can be injured. To will is to be disposed to action. The exterior objects, or the interior ideas, which give birth to this disposition are called motives, because they are the springs or movements which determine it to act, that is to say, which give play to the organs of the body. Thus, voluntary actions are the motion of the body, determined by the modification of the brain. Fruit hanging on a tree, through the agency of the visual organs, modifies the brain in such a manner as to dispose the arm to stretch itself forth to cull it; again, it modifies it in another manner, by which it excites the hand to carry it to the mouth.
All the modifications which the interior organ or the brain receives, all the sensations, all the perceptions, all the ideas that are generated by the objects which give impulse to the senses, or which it renews within itself by its own peculiar faculties, are either favourable or prejudicial to man's mode of existence, whether that be transitory or habitual: they dispose the interior organ to action, which it exercises by reason of its own peculiar energy: this action is not, however, the same in all the individuals of the human species, depending much on their respective temperaments. From hence the PASSIONS have their birth: these are more or less violent; they are, however, nothing more than the motion of the will, determined by the objects which give it activity; consequently composed of the analogy or of the discordance which is found between these objects, man's peculiar mode of existence, and the force of his temperament. From this it results, that the passions are modes of existence or modifications of the brain; which either attract or repel those objects by which man is surrounded; that consequently they are submitted in their action to the physical laws of attraction and repulsion.
The faculty of perceiving or of being modified, as well by itself as exterior objects which the brain enjoys is sometimes designated by the term understanding. To the assemblage of the various faculties of which this interior organ is susceptible, is applied the name of intelligence. To a determined mode in which the brain exercises the faculties peculiar to itself, is given the appellation of reason. The dispositions or the modifications of the brain, some of them constant, others transitory, which give impulse to the beings of the human species, causing them to act, are styled wit, wisdom, goodness, prudence, virtue, &c.
In short, as there will be an opportunity presently to prove, all the intellectual faculties--that is to say, all the modes of action attributed to the soul, may be reduced to the modifications, to the qualities, to the modes of existence, to the changes produced by the motion of the brain; which is visibly in man the seat of feeling, the principle of all his actions. These modifications are to be attributed to the objects that strike on his senses; of which the impression is transmitted to the brain, or rather to the ideas, which the perceptions caused by the action of these objects on his senses have there generated, and which it has the faculty to re-produce. This brain moves itself in its turn, re-acts upon itself, gives play to the organs, which concentrate themselves in it, or which are rather nothing more than an extension of its own peculiar substance. It is thus the concealed motion of the interior organ, renders itself sensible by outward and visible signs. The brain, affected by a modification which is called FEAR, diffuses a paleness over the countenance, excites a tremulous motion in the limbs called trembling. The brain, affected by a sensation of GRIEF, causes tears to flow from the eyes, even without being moved by any exterior object; an idea which it retraces with great strength, suffices to give it very little modifications, which visibly have an influence on the whole frame.
In all this, nothing more is to be perceived than the same
substance which acts diversely on the various parts of the body. If
it be objected that this mechanism does not sufficiently explain
the principles of the motion or the faculties of the soul; we
reply, that it is in the same situation as all the other bodies of
Nature, in which the most simple motion, the most ordinary
phenomena, the most common modes of action are inexplicable
mysteries, of which we shall never be able to fathom the first
principles. Indeed, how can we flatter ourselves we shall ever be
enabled to compass the true principle of that gravity by which a
stone falls? Are we acquainted with the mechanism which produces
attraction in some substances, repulsion in others? Are we in a
condition to explain the communication of motion from one body to
another? But it may be fairly asked,--Are the difficulties that
occur, when attempting to explain the manner in which the soul
acts, removed by making it a spiritual being, a substance of
which we have not, nor cannot form one idea, which consequently
must bewilder all the notions we are capable of forming to
ourselves of this being? Let us then be contented to know that the
soul moves itself, modifies itself, in consequence of material
causes, which act upon it which give it
activity: from whence the conclusion may he said to flow
consecutively, that all its operations, all its faculties, prove
that it is itself material.
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