RE: abstraction - Tocqueville

From: Tony Whitson (
Date: Sun May 01 2005 - 18:22:04 PDT

From Book 2, chapter III, Democracy in America:

THE deity does not regard the human race collectively. He surveys at one
glance and severally all the beings of whom mankind is composed; and he
discerns in each man the resemblances that assimilate him to all his
fellows, and the differences that distinguish him from them. God, therefore,
stands in no need of general ideas; that is to say, he never feels the
necessity of collecting a considerable number of analogous objects under the
same form for greater convenience in thinking.

Such, however, is not the case with man. If the human mind were to attempt
to examine and pass a judgment on all the individual cases before it, the
immensity of detail would soon lead it astray and it would no longer see
anything. In this strait, man has recourse to an imperfect but necessary
expedient, which at the same time assists and demonstrates his weakness.

Having superficially considered a certain number of objects and noticed
their resemblance, he assigns to them a common name, sets them apart, and
proceeds onwards.

General ideas are no proof of the strength, but rather of the insufficiency
of the human intellect; for there are in nature no beings exactly alike, no
things precisely identical, no rules indiscriminately and alike applicable
to several objects at once. The chief merit of general ideas is that they
enable the human mind to pass a rapid judgment on a great many objects at
once; but, on the other hand, the notions they convey are never other than
incomplete, and they always cause the mind to lose as much in accuracy as it
gains in comprehensiveness.

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