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As for myself, alarmed at these multiplying difficulties, and convinced of the almost demonstrable impossibility of language having been formed and established by means merely human, I leave to others the discussion of the problem, Whether a society already formed was more necessary for the institution of language, or a language already invented for the establishment of society?'
Of the various difficulties here enumerated, that mentioned by Rousseau, in the last sentence, was plainly considered by him as the greatest of all; or rather, as comprehending under it all the rest. But this difficulty arises merely from his own 'peculiar and paradoxical theory about the artificial origin of society; a theory which needs no refutation, but the short and luminous aphorism of Montesquieu, that “man is born in society, and there he remains." The other difficulties touched upon by Rousseau, in the former part of this quotation, are much more serious, and have never yet been removed in a manner completely satisfactory: And hence some very ingenious writers have been led to conclude, that language could not possibly have been the work of human invention. This argument has been lately urged with much acuteness and plausibility by Dr. Magee of Dublin, and by M. de Bonald of Paris.f It may, however, be reasonably questioned, if these philosophers would not have reasoned more logically, had they contented themselves with merely affirming, that the problem has not yet been solved, without going so far as to pronounce it to be absolutely insolvable. For my own part, when I consider its extreme difficulty, and the short space of time during which it has engaged the attention of the learned, I am more disposed to wonder at the steps which have been already gained in the research, than at the number of desiderata which remain to employ the ingenuity of our successors. It is justly remarked by Dr. Ferguson, that “when language has attained to that perfection to which it arrives in the progress of society, the speculative mind, in comparing the first and the last stages of the progress, feels the same sort of amazement with a traveller, who, after rising insensibly on the slope of a bill, comes to look down from a precipice, to the summit of which he scarcely believes he could have ascended without supernatural aid."*
* Discours sur l' Origine et les Fondemens de l'Inégalité parmi les Hommes.
† The same theory has been extended to the art of writing; but if this art was first taught to man by an espress revelation from Heaven, what account can be given of its present state in the great empire of China ? Is the mode of writing practised there of divine or of human origin?
With respect to some of the difficulties pointed out by Rousseau and his commentators, it may be here remarked in passing, (and the observation is equally applicable to various passages in Mr. Smith's dissertation on the same subject,) that the difficulty of explaining the theory of any of our intellectual operations affords no proof of any difficulty in applying that operation to its proper practical purpose ; nor is the difficulty of explaining the metaphysical nature of any part of speech a proof, that, in its first origin, it implied any extraordinary effort of intellectual capacity. How many metaphysical difficulties might be raised about the mathematical notion of a line? And yet this notion is perfectly comprehended
Principles of Moral and Political Science, Vol. I. p. 43. Edin. 1792. To this observation may be added, by way of conuent, the following reflections of one of the most learned prelates of the English church : “ Man, we are told, had a language from the beginning; for he conversed with God, and gave to every animal its par. ticular name. But how came man by language? He must either have had it from inspiration, ready formed from his Creator, or have derived it by the exertion of those faculties of the mind, which were implanted in him as a rational creature, from natural and external objects with which he was surrounded. Scripture is silent on the ineans by which it was acquired. We are not, therefore, warranted to affirm, that it was received by inspiration, and there is no internal evidence in language to lead us to such a supposition. On this side, then, of the question, we have nothing but uncertainty; but on a subject, the causes of which are so remote, nothing is more convenient than to refer them to inspiration, and to recur to that easy and comprehensive argument,
Διός δε σιλείετο βουλή:
. that is, man enjoyed the great privilege of speech, which distinguished him at first, and still continues to distinguish him as a rational creature, so eminently from the brute creation, without exerting those reasoning faculties, by which he was in other respects enabled to raise himself so much above their level. Inspiration, then, seems to have been an argument adopted and made necessary by the difficulty of accounting for it otherwise ; and the name of inspiration carries with it an awfulness, which forbids the unballowed approach of inquisitive discussion.”-(Essay on the Study of Antiquities, by Dr. Burgess, 2d edit. Oxford, 1782. Pages 85, 86.)
It is farther remarked very sagaciously, and I think very decisively, by the same author, that “the supposition of man having received a language ready formed from his creator, is actually inconsistent with the evidence of the origin of our ideas, which exists in language. For, as the origin of our ideas is to be traced in the words through which the ideas are conveyed, so the origin of language is referable to the source from whence our (first) ideas are derived, namely, natural and erternal objects.” (Ibid. pp. 83, 84.)
by every peasant, when he speaks of the distance between two places; or of the length, breadth, or height of his cottage. In like manner, although it may be difficult to give a satisfactory account of the origin and import of such words, as of or by, we ought not to conclude, that the invention of them implied any metaphysical knowledge in the individual who first employed them.* Their import, we see, is fully understood by children of three or four years
In this view of the History of Language I have been anticipated by Dr. Ferguson. “ Parts of speech,” says this profound and original writer, “ which, in speculation, cost the grammarian so much study, are, in practice, familiar to the vulgar. The rudest tribes, even the idiot and the insane, are possessed of them. They are soonest learned in childhood, insomuch that we must suppose human nature, in its lowest state, competent to the use of them; and, without the intervention of uncommon genius, mankind, in a succession of ages, qualified to accomplish in detail this amazing fabric of language, which, when raised to its height, appears so much above what could be ascribed to any simultaneous effort of the most sublime and comprehensive abilities." +
* In this remark I had an eye to the following passage in Mr. Smith's dissertation : “ It is worth while to observe, that those prepositions, which, in modern languages, hold the place of the ancient cases, are, of all others, the most general and abstract, and metaphysical ; and, of consequence, would probably be the last invented. Ask any man of common acuteness, what relation is expressed by the preposition above? He will readily answer, that of superiority. By the preposition below ? He will as quickly reply, that of inferiority. But ask him what relation is expressed by the preposition of? and, if he has not beforehand employed his thoughts a good deal upon these subjects, you may safely allow him a week to consider of his an
† The following judicious reflections, with which M. Raynouard concludes the introduction to his Élémens de la Langue Romane, may serve to illustrate some of the above observations. The modification of an existing language is, I acknowledge, a thing much less wonderful than the formation of a language entirely new; but the processes of thought, it is reasonable to think, are, in both cases, of the same kind ; and the consideration of the one is at least a step gained towards the elucidation of the other.
“La langue Romane est peut-être la seule à la formation de laquelle il soit perinis de remonter ainsi, pour découvrir et expliquer le secret de son industrieux mécanisme. . . . J'ose dire que l'esprit philosophique, consulté sur le choix des moyens qui devroient épargner à l'ignorance beaucoup d'études pénibles et fastidieux, n'eut pas été aussi heureux que l'ignorance elle-même; il est vrai qu'elle avoit deux grands maîtres; la NÉCESSITÉ et le Tems.
“ En considérant à quelle époque d'ignorance et de barbarie s'est formé et perfectionné ce nouvel idiôme, d'après des principes indiqués seulement par l'analogie et l'euphonie, on se dira peut-être comme je ne le suis dit; l'homme porte en soi-même les principes d'une logique naturelle, d'un instinct régulateur, que nous admirons quelquefois dans les enfans. Oui, la providence nous a dôté de la faculté indestructible et des moyens ingénieux d'exprimer, de communiquer, d'éterniser par la parole, et par les signes permanens où elle se reproduit
It is, however, less in tracing the first rudiments of speech, than in some collateral inquiries concerning the genius of different languages, that Condillac's ingenuity appears to advantage. Some of his observations, in particular, on the connexion of natural signs with the growth of a systematical prosody, and on the imitative arts of the Greeks and Romans, as distinguished from those of the moderns, are new and curious; and are enlivened with a mixture of historical illustration, and of critical discussion, seldom to be met with among metaphysical writers.
But through all his researches, the radical error may, more or less, be traced, which lies at the bottom of his system ;* and hence it is, that, with all his skill as a writer, he never elevates the imagination, or touches the heart. That he wrote with the best intentions, we have satisfactory evidence ; and yet hardly a philosopher can be named, whose theories have had more influence in misleading the opinions of his contemporaries.* In France, he very early attained to a rank and authority not inferior to those which have been so long and so deservedly assigned to Locke in England ; and even in' this country, his works have been more generally read and admired, than those of any foreign metaphysician of an equally recent date.
, cette pensée qui est l'un de nos plus beaux attributs, et qui nous distingue si éminemment et si avantageusement dans l'ordre de la création.” Elémens de la Grammaire de la Langue Romane avant l'An 1000. Pages 104, 105, à Paris, 1816.)
In the theoretical history of language, it is more than probable, that some steps will remain to exercise the ingenuity of our latest posterity. Nor will this appear surprising, when we consider how impossible it is for us to judge, from our own experience, of the intellectual processes which pass in the minds of savages. Some instincts, we know, possessed both by them and by infants, (that of imitation, for example, and the use of natural signs,) disappear in by far the greater number of individuals, almost entirely in the maturity of their reason. It does not seem at all improbable, that other instincts connected with the invention of speech, may be contined to that state of the intellectual powers which requires their guidance; nor is it quite impossible, that some latent capacities of the understanding may be evolved by the pressure of necessity. The facility with which infants surmount so many grammatical and metaphysical difficulties, seems to me to add much weight to these conjectures.
In tracing the first steps of the invention of language, it ought never to be forgotten, that we undertake a task more similar than might at first be supposed, to that of tracing the first operations of the infant mind. In both cases, we are apt to attempt an explanation from reason alone of what requires the co-operation of very different principles. To trace the theoretical history of geometry, in which we know for certain, that all the transitions have depended on reasoning alone, is a problem which has not yet been completely solved. Nor has even any satisfactory account been hitherto given of the experimental steps by which men were gradually led to the use of iron. And yet how simple are these problems, when compared with that relating to the origin and progress of language !
* A remarkable instance of this occurs in that part of Condillac's Cours d'Etude, where he treats of the art of writing : “ Vous savez, Monseigneur, comment les mêmes noms ont été transportés des objets qui tombent sous les sens à ceux qui les échappent. Vous avez remarqué, qu'il y en a qui sont encore en usage dans l'un et l'autre acceptation, et qu'il y en a qui nt devenus les noms propres des choses, dont ils avoient d'abord été les signes figurés.
“Les premiers, tel que le mouvement de l'âme, son penchant, sa réflexion, donnent un corps à des choses qui n'en ont pas. Les seconds, tels que la pensée, la volonté, le désir, ne peignent plus rien, et laissent aux idées abstraites cette spiritualité qui les dérobe aux sens. Mais si le langage doit être l'image de nos pensées, on a perdu beaucoup, lorsqu'oubliant la première signification des mots, on a éffacé jusqu'au traits qu'ils donnoient aux idées. Toutes les langues sont en cela plus ou moins défectueuses, toutes aussi ont des tableaux plus ou moins conservés." ( Cours d'Etude, Tome II. p. 212, à Parme, 1775.)
Condillac enlarges on this point at considerable length ; endeavouring to show, that whenever we lose sight of the analogical origin of a figurative word, we become insensible to one of the chief beauties of language. “In the word examen, for example, a Frenchman perceives only the proper name of one of our mental operations. A Roman attached to it the same idea, and received over and above the image of weighing and balancing. The case is the same with the words âme and anima; pensée and cogitatio."
In this view of the subject, Condillac plainly proceeded on his favorite principle, that all our notions of our mental operations are compounded of sensible innages. Whereas the fact is, that the only just notions we can form of the powers of the mind are obtained by abstracting from the qualities and laws of the material world. In proportion, therefore, as the analogical origin of a figurative word disappears, it comes a fitter instrument of metaphysical thought and reasoning. (See Philosophical Esscys, Part I. Essay V. Chap. iii.)
* A late writer, (M. de Bonald,) whose philosophical opinions, in general, agree nearly with those of La Harpe, has, however, appreciated very differently, and, in my judgment, much more sagaciously, the merits of Condillac: “ Condillac a eu sur l'esprit philosophique du dernier siècle, l'influence que Voltaire à prise sur l'esprit religieux, et J. J. Rousseau sur les opinions politiques. Condillac à mis de la sécheresse et de la minutie dans les esprits ; Voltaire du penchant à la raillerie et à la frivolité ; Rousseau les à rendus chagrins et mécontens.
Condillac a encore plus faussé l'esprit de la nation, parce que sa doctrine étoit enseignée dans les premières études à des jeunes gens qui n'avoient encore lu ni Rousseau, ni Voltaire, et que la manière de raissonner et la direction philosophique de l'esprit s'étendent à tout.” (Recherches Phil. Tome I. pp. 187, 188.)
The following criticism on the supposed perspicuity of Condillac's style is so just and philosophical, that I cannot refrain from giving it a place here: “Condillac est, ou paroit être, clair et méthodique; mais il faut prendre garde que la clarté des pensées, comme la transparence des objets physiques, peut tenir d'un défaut de profondeur, et que la méthode dans les écrits, qui suppose la patience de l'esprit, n'en prouve pas toujours la justesse; et moins encore la fécondité. Il y a aussi une clarté de style en quelque sorte toute matérielle, qui n'est pas incompatible avec l'obscurité dans les idées. Rien de plus facile à entendre que les mots de sensations transformées dont Condillac s'est servi, parce que ces mots ne parlent qu'à l'imagination, qui se figure à volonté des transformations et des changemens. Mais cette transformation, appliquée aux opérations de l'esprit, n'est qu'un mot vide de sens ; et Condillac lui-même, auroit été bien embarrassé d'en donner une explication satisfaisante. Ce philosophe me paroit plus heureux dans ses apperçus que dans ses demonstrations : La route de la vérité semble quelquefois s'ouvrir devant lui, mais retenu par la circonspection naturelle à un esprit sans chaleur, et intimidé par la faiblesse de son propre systême, il n'ose s'y engager.” (Ibid. Tome I. pp. 33, 34.)