Thursday, September 01, 2016

Democracy in America, Tocqueville: "General Ideas"

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 bewilder its discernment: in this strait, man has recourse to an imperfect but necessary expedient...Having superficially considered a certain number of objects, and remarked their resemblance, he assigns to them a common name, sets them apart, and proceeds onwards. 
A multitude of particular facts cannot be seen separately...Several individuals lead to the perception of the species; several species to that of the genus.

This is what we call today "stereotyping." It is what Tocqueville says it is, "imperfect but necessary."

General ideas are no proof of the strength, but rather of the insufficiency of the human intellect...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...the notions they convey are never otherwise than incomplete, and they always cause the mind to lose as much in accuracy as it gains in comprehensiveness.

What are we to do? We must make sense of the world and with the imperfect tool we are given, our minds. Our minds do give us the power to discriminate among similars, and immediately. A newborn comprehends within hours that that face, associated with that breast, is the one from whom he feeds; the newborn studies his mother's face while feeding to fix it. The newborn baby learns very quickly that that other face, that of his father, is somehow special and he fixes it.

The newborn will learn that those two faces are not to be confused with the multitude of others that he sees as he grows and his powers of perception, and of cognition, grow. Some of those Others, who bear resemblance to his mother and father, he will come to intuit, accurately or not, as threat to his security, others still that they will care for him, accurately or not.

The Americans are much more addicted to the use of general ideas than the English...