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THE FOUNDATIONS OF NORMAL AND ABNORMAL PSYCHOLOGY

Boris Sidis, Ph.D., M.D.

1914

 

CHAPTER XVIII

MENTAL SYNTHESIS

         One of the fundamental principles of psychology is mental synthesis. Objects that appear within the same consciousness are synthetized in a unity, if they are taken cognizance of. An object a may be presented to consciousness, and another object b may be similarly perceived. They remain two and separate as long as consciousness does not take cognizance of their duality, of their being two objects, but as soon as the two appear in consciousness together and are perceived as two, they are by this very fact synthetized into a unity. This is a point which may not possibly be so clear, and is also hard to realize for those who have been used to work in concrete sciences. The reason is that the mind is accustomed to dwell on the object of thought, not on the function of thought itself, and is therefore used to take the object for the thought. The confusion between the thought that possesses the object, and the object of thought is a fallacy that is as a rule committed by the intelligence trained to busy itself only with external objects. Our reader sees, of course, through this fallacy, he knows that the thing of the idea and the idea of the thing are not identical. The paper on which I write is white and is five inches wide and eight inches long, but my idea of the paper is neither white nor has it so many inches in width and length.

        The same fallacy, however, is not so very obvious when it appears under a somewhat different guise. The object of thought has parts, therefore it is concluded that the thought of the object must also be made up of corresponding parts. Because the chain in the external world is made up of so many links, it is concluded that the idea of the chain is made up of so many ideas of links, and that the total sum of the ideas of the links forms the idea of the chain. The idea of the chain, however, is not a mere juxtaposition of so many ideas of links. The ideas of the links would have remained in the juxtaposed disconnected condition, had they not been connected and synthetized in one new idea, the idea of the chain. The word is made up of so many letters, but the sum of the letters is not the idea of the word. The phrase is made up of words, but the mere sum of the words does not make sense, does not form the idea of that sentence.

        It is of the utmost importance to fully and clearly realize this principle of mental synthesis. Many a misunderstanding in psychology is cleared up, by keeping this principle clearly before one's mind. We may say that it is one of the principal keys that gives us an en- trance into the science of psychology. A sum of sensations, of ideas, of images, of feelings, etc., at once brought in consciousness as a sum is by this very fact synthetized by thought into a unity. The chair yonder is composed of many parts, it has four legs, a seat, a back, and each part in its turn is again made up of many parts. Each part, if represented in consciousness at all, has its corresponding idea, but the idea of these component parts, the idea of the chair is a whole, a unity, no longer being considered, that man yonder is made up of many parts, of many organs, of many tissues, of millions of cells. To my consciousness, however, he is one, my friend John.

        An idea is not made up of parts, as is the object of the idea. Before me lies a grain of wheat, I have a percept of it, I have an idea of that grain. The grain may be divided into halves, or quarters, and I can form an idea of a half, of a third, or of a quarter of a grain. Is it possible to do the same thing with the idea? Can we subdivide the idea of the grain in the same way as we did the grain itself? Can we have a half, a third, a quarter of an idea of the grain? One realizes the impossibility and absurdity of subdividing an idea. We can have an idea of a third of a pound, but it is absurd to talk of a third of an idea of a pound. A third of an idea is simply so much nonsense. But why is it absurd to subdivide an idea? Why is it nonsense to speak of having a half, a third, a quarter or any fraction or part of an idea? Evidently because an idea is essentially a synthesis, a unity, and has no parts.

        This synthesis, or unity is more or less clear when the percept, or idea is of such a nature as to be synthetized into a numerical unity, and be projected into the external world, such for instance, as the chair, the table, the house, or my friend John. It is, however, far less clear when thought includes many ideas, many percepts and the nature of the synthetized unity is multiplicity. There are in my room four chairs. I perceive them as being four. Have I not four percepts, four ideas going to make up my idea of the sum of the chairs? Certainly not. What we have here is not four ideas, but one idea of there being four chairs. A sum of ideas is not the same thing as the idea of their sum, just as in algebra the sum of squares is not the same as the square of the sum. I think a sentence took a stroll in the forest yesterday morning. The sentence, forms a multiplicity of words, but in spite of all that multiplicity, the phrase appears in consciousness as one whole, as a synthetized unity. Synthetic unity is the essence, the backbone of thought.

        This synthetic unity of consciousness can be made still clearer by the following example. Let the reader imagine a row of men, each thinking one single word of  the sentence: We are standing here in a row." There is here a completely isolated series of ideas, but the words in the series will remain in their full isolation and as such will make no meaning, no one sentence, as long as they will be confined to different disconnected thoughts, and not unified in the synthesis of one synthetic thought or of what I term moment-consciousness.

        To have the idea of a conglomeration, of a multiplicity of objects, images or ideas, a synthetizing moment consciousness is required, a moment-consciousness that should take cognizance of all these objects, images or ideas and synthetize them into a unity, the one idea of the many. The many words, the many ideas must be synthetized in one moment-consciousness before the idea of the sentence can emerge, This synthesis, in fact, is that one idea. Ideas, images, thoughts, feelings do not come together, fuse into one, and make one idea.

        A book is a complex object, it is a conglomeration of pages, letters, words, lines, sentences, paragraphs, chapters. We can have an idea of half a book, but it is certainly absurd to have half an idea of a book. It means nothing at all the idea itself has not been formed, and as such, as an idea, is totally absent. A separate synthesis in consciousness is requisite in order to have an aggregation, or association of ideas cognized as one. Ideas do not meet, associate and form a unity, mental synthesis is required. Such a synthesis is always effected, whenever a moment-consciousness gets cognizance of many objects in other words, sensations, ideas, feelings, images can only get unified in the synthesis of a moment-consciousness. Mental synthesis of psychic content in the unity of a moment-consciousness is a fundamental principle of psychology.

        It is the great and fundamental error of the associationists to overlook this all important element of synthesis in consciousness. They commit the fallacy of regarding a mechanical combination, or juxtaposition of ideas as making a "fusion," a synthesis, a unity. There is an idea of A, and there is an idea of B, therefore, it is tacitly assumed that there is the idea of A and B. This as we have shown is a fallacy. The associationists regard the idea of a sum as consisting of as many parts, but only "fused," as the sum itself. This is erroneous. The neglect of the element of mental synthesis and the consequent identification of the idea of the sum as a whole with the sum of ideas of the parts going to make up the external sum falsified the otherwise rich researches of the association school. The significance of mental synthesis in the moment-consciousness can hardly be overestimated. We shall return to the theory of the moment-consciousness and its mental synthesis further on.

        The question as to the nature of that mental synthesis does not fall within the province of psychology. Like all other problems that refer to the ultimate nature of things and how they are possible, the problem of the inner nature of mental synthesis does not belong to science, but to epistemology and metaphysics.

 

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