MISS COBBE ON LATENT THOUGHT.
ATISS COBBE has written a very interesting and thoughtful ATI essay in the new number of Macmillan's Magazine, on what has been called, in relation to the similar phenomena of latent heat, latent thought. With her conclusion we cannot agree, but we will just describe some of the premisses which she presents very vividly and clearly in this essay. Everybody is aware that a great deal of condensed intelligence is included in acts to which we give no conscious thought at all. Anybody who has learnt to play on the piano, or to knit, or to ride, or to read aloud, will go through any of these processes with perfect accuracy, with a com- pletely absent mind, a mind so absent that no trace of the pro- ceeding remains when the consciousness returns. The present writer remembers often watching an eminent conveyancer "settling,", as it is called, his pupils' drafts of settlements or wills, and observing how he used to nap visibly in the process, though with his eyes just open, as he scanned the dismal pages of plain-sailing common form ; but no sooner did any pupil's blunder occur than he woke up, exactly as if he had stumbled over a physical obstacle, and came to himself in a moment. Miss Cobbe reminds us of the work our brains seem tc■ do in actual sleep, of the clearness and lucidity to which we awaken after going to sleep in the most dreary confusion of thought on the subject we were considering. She refers to the agency of the same sort of latent thought, those sudden voices which visionaries are apt to hear, —religious visionaries being sometimes terrified by sudden exclama- tions like "There is no God" sounded in their ear, which they ascribe to the Tempter, and irreligious visionaries being often con- verted by hearing a sudden warning not to commit the crime on which they are bent. This is, says Miss Cobbe acutely, and perhaps in many cases justly, the pent-up part of the nature, the accumu- lated feelings of the kind opposite to that habitually indulged, bursting, at last, out of latent into conscious life. To habit, which is a kind of latent thought, she refers, again, the futile automatic attempts of absent-minded persons to do what they have been accus- tomed to do, after the conditions are changed, the attempt of a man to feel in his pocket when he has no pocket accessible, the uncon- scious fishing with the feet for an accustomed footstool, and the malapropos remarks on which a mind just sensib:e of the leading train of association, but oblivious of its exact bearing, so often stumbles,—as in the case of the young lady who, when told by a middle-aged admirer who had lost all his hair, that her father's face had such an eagle glance about it, replied, with a most meaning look, "Yes, but not the Bald-headed Eagle," thereby, without the slightest consciousness of her innuendo, alienating her admirer for ever.
Any one who will turn to Miss Cobbe's essay will find an ample number of illustrations of the work of this latent intelligence, intelligence which, whether it succeeds or fails, performs all the duties of thought without giving us a single moment's distinct consciousness. Now, what Miss Cobbe infers from all this is, that under certain circumstances the brain works, as many of the nerves of the sensory ganglia work, automati- cally, and that this brain-work is no more identical with the work of the true self than the calculating machine by which Mr. Babbage performed abstruse calculations, or the logic-machine by which Mr. Stanley Jevons deduces the true inference from given premisses, is identical with the true self. What Miss Cobbe seems to think is, that the brain is really, more or less, of a thinking apparatus, which can be used by the soul ;.but which is quite distinct from the soul, and shows its distinctness by its separa- bility,—and by the difference in the tracks which it pursues when u nder the control of the will and when not under the control cf
the will. The relation of the brain to the will Miss Cobbe re- presents to us as analogous to the relation of the horse to its rider ; "there are two kinds of action of the brain, the one Automatic, and the other subject .to the will of the Conscious Self, just as the actions of a horse are some of them spontaneous, and some done under the compulsion of his rider. The first order of actions tends to indicate that the brain 'secretes thought ;' the second order (strongly contrasting with the first) shows that besides that automatically working brain, there is another agency in the field under whose control the brain performs a wholly different class of labours."
Now, this does not seem to us a correct inference from the class of acts to which Miss Cobbe refers. We believe that the Self extends far beyond what we can justly call the Conscious Self. For, In the first place, Miss Cobbe's reasoning proves a great deal too much. Miss Cobbe is certainly aware of the fact, though she may not have considered it in relation to the subject of her essay, that much of what she calls conscious intellectual work is demonstrably nothing but the sum and total result of an infinite number of what must be called, in her phraseology, uncenscious brain-acts. Thus it is quite certain that there is a surface on the paper on which we are now writing so minute as to be absolutely invisible to the naked eye, and yet it is equally certain that it produces its impression on the eye, and that the visual perception of any square inch of the paper we are writing upon is practically made up of a collection of visual impressions so minute as not separately to be capable of producing a conscious- ness of vision at all, though, when bound up in one, they impress the eye as a whole square inch. Now, if Miss Cobbe maintains that the unconscious intellectual work is brain-work as distin- guished from soul-work, solely because it is unconscious, she must maintain that every act of attentive visual perception, however freely and purposely set in action by the will, is made up of infinitesimal elements of mere mechanical brain-work, in other words, say, that a hundred thousand blind mechanisms make a conscious act. What we mean is this,—if our mere uncon- sciousness is to be the test that a given effect produced is produced by the brain without the co-operation of the self, it willatfollow necessarily that all conscious perceptions which can be shown to be made up of a number of agencies of which we have no consciousness, are also produced by the brain without the co-operation of the mind. But if this be so, the strong distinction which Miss Cobbe wishes to set up between the volun- tary and the involuntary intellectual work disappears. If we are told that 16 ounces make a pound, we know at once that if an ounce is a weight, a pound must be a weight also ; the two things must be of the same kind, or a certain number of one would not make up one of the other. So, if all unconscious acts of the mind are to be set down as the work of the brain, since in all cases of perception it is certain that the object perceived may be so sub- divided that no separate atom of it would be separately perceived, it follows that there is no difference of kind between those separate elements of a perception which fail to produce conscious discern- ment, and that addition or integration of them all into one, that does produce conscious discernment.
And next, we doubt if Miss Cobbe has put the right interpre- tation on some of the most interesting facts she analyzes. For example, she calls attention very properly to the very curious fact that we can fix the hour at which we will wake, and wake punc- tually at that hour, and she attributes this to the unconscious machinery of the brain acting without our volition but with much more marvellous success, than our waking mind, unassisted by clocks or watches, could attain. But is it conceivable that, even if we grant Miss Cobbe her distinction (which we believe to be falla- cious) between the automatic work of the brain and the conscious work of the mind,, this marvellous power is due to the former rather than the latter? Consider only that it is a conscious pur- pose, not a mere chain of involuntary associations, which is here at work. Consider, again, what Jouffroy, in his remarkable essay on sleep, pointed out, that custom will make one set of sleepers specially sensitive to the sounds they are accustomed to hear, and another set of sleepers entirely insensible to the sounds they are accustomed to hear,—according as the sleeper knows that he ought to attend to, or ought to neglect, them. The attendant on an invalid who wishes to waken at any sound which implies the need of her assistance, will always waken, however used her ear is to that sound, and, indeed, because it is so used. On the other hand, those who sleep near a great thoroughfare will never waken at the sound of the passing carriages, precisely because the ear is used to them, and the mind is so thoroughly aware that they need no attention. Yet such a sleeper will wake in a moment at a much slighter noise in his own room which he has not learnt to interpret as harmless. All this blowing hot and cold with the same faculty, surely proves that there is some listener who can interpret the sounds he hears, and who behaves differently according to the different demands on him,—a course of action which can hardly be attributed to any mere mechanical- process for "secreting' thought." No doubt the light, unaccustomed noise might, "secrete" the thought of danger, but why should the thought of danger " secrete " the thought of waking up, and not rather secrete a dream ? Waking up means the recovery of the power of the will over the physical organization, but if the physical organization be separable and quite separated from the will, and indeed an automatic machinery capable of working without the will, how can that which happens only to the brain, and not to the will, induce the brain to go back to the will for control ? You can construct an alarum to make a loud sound at a particular hour, but you cannot construct one to meet an unexpected emergency, to strike at four if the day is bright and warm, and not till six if the day is bleak and cold. The power of a sleeper's mind to impress a distinct purpose on his sleep, and, still more, so far to interpret disturbing sounds that they shall be neglected if of no moment, and attended to if either known to be important or not known to be unimportant, seems to U3 distinctly to prove that if we are to distinguish at all between the auto- matic work of the brain and the voluntary work directed by the mind, the deliberate control of sleep is due to the latter, and not to the former agency. To use Miss Cobbe's simile, it is the rider who spurs his horse punctually at the needful time, not the horse who by a punctual curvet awakens his rider.
But, in truth, we do not believe in Miss Cobbe's distinction at all. %Ye hold that whatever relation the functions of the brain may have to the mind which uses them, no act which it takes conscious volition to learn to do, ever falls back into were auto- matic brain work. Now, every original perception really implies attention, which is an act of will, and however rapidly we learn to get over that act when it becomes familiar to us,—though the amount of attention devoted to it may become by habit so infinitesimal that it entirely escapes our own observation,—it never really ceases wholly to be voluntary. It may require so little attention that we instantaneously forget having given any,—indeed, we seldom re- member anything without devoting a good deal of attention to it,— but instantaneous forgetfulness does not prove the complete absence of volition. We do not at all believe in the "secretion of thought." No doubt there are physical conditions at present essential to thought, but thought without will is, we believe, a contradiction in terms. Thought without remembered will is, of course, common enough, and a very different matter indeed. Much of the refreshment of intellectual power observable after a night's rest is, we believe, due not to the continuation of the thinking process during the night, but to its cessation. Thought implies will, or attention. But attention is often falsely directed, gets into preconceived ruts and grooves. We have reasoned ourselves into a belief that the important point is so and so, and keep worrying at it when it is only misleading us, and the really critical point is elsewhere. In sleep the strain of misdirected attention is relaxed. We get up the next morning, take a fresh glance at the subject, see at once that we were executing a. reconnaissance in the wrong quarter, and this time go right. But that is not the result of continued intellectual work, but of relaxed intellectual work,—of ceasing to insist urgently on a wrong effort.
On the whole, we would beg Miss Cobbe to reconsider the, subject, and believe she will come to the conclusion, that though there is plenty of mental activity so minute as to be hardly observ- able and instantaneously forgotten, there is no such thing, even conceivable, as thought absolutely without will. A person destitute of will could not even dream, would be incapable of discriminating himself from that which was not himself altogether.