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Sect. I.

The nature and power of signs in speaking and chinking.

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yet made to account for it. Berkeley, indeed, in his Principles of Human Knowledge, hath suggested a theory concerning language, though not with this view, which, if well-founded, will go far to remove the principal difficulty: “ It is a received opinion,” says that author, “ that language has no other end, " but the communicating our ideas, and that every

significant name stands for an idea. This being so, and it being withal certain, that names, which yet are not thought altogether insignificant, do not always mark out particular conceivable ideas, it is

straightway concluded, that they stand for abstract ." notions. That there are many names in use amongst * speculative men, which do not always suggest to "others determinate particular ideas, is what nobody " will deny.

And a little attention will discover, " that it is not necessary (even in the strictest reasonings) significant names which stand for ideas, should,

every time they are used, excite in the understand"ing, the ideas they are made to stand for. In read

ing and discoursing, names being for the most part " used, as letters are in algebra, in which, though a * particular quantity be marked by each letter, yet " to proceed right, it is not requisite, that in every

step each letter suggest to your thoughts that par“ ticular quantity it was appointed to stand for *.” The same principles have been adopted by the author of a Treatise of Human Nature, who, speaking of ab

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Why nonsense so often escapes being detected.

stract ideas, has the following words : “ I believe every one, who examines the situation of his mind in reasoning, will agree with me, that we do not an

nex distinct and complete ideas to every term we “ make use of, and that, in talking of government, church, negociation, conquest, we seldom spread out “ in our minds all the simple ideas of which these “ complex ones are composed. 'Tis, however, ob“ servable, that notwithstanding this imperfection, " we may avoid talking nonsense on these subjects, " and may perceive any repugnance among the ideas, " as well as if we had a full comprehension of them. “ Thus if, instead of saying, that in war the weaker have always recourse to negociation, we should say, “ that they have always recourse to conquest ; the “ custom which we have acquired of attributing cer“ tain relations to ideas, still follows the words, and “ makes us immediately perceive the absurdity of that

proposition *.” Some excellent observations to the same purpose have also been made by the elegant Inquirer into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful t.


Now that the notions on this subject maintained by these ingenious writers, however strange they may appear on a superficial view, are well-founded, is at least presuniable from this consideration ; that if, agreeably to the common hypothesis, we could under

* Vol. I. Book i. Part i. Sect. 7.

+ Part V.

Sect. I.

The nature and power of signs in speaking and thinking.

stand nothing that is said, but by actually comparing in our minds all the ideas signified, it would be iinpossible that nonsense should ever escape undiscovered, at least that we should so far impose upon ourselves, as to think we understand what in reality is not to be understood. We should in that case find ourselves in the same situation, when an unmeaning sentence is introduced into a discourse, wherein we find ourselves when a sentence is quoted in a language of which we are entirely ignorant: we are never in the smallest danger of imagining that we apprehend the meaning of the quotation.


But though a very curious fact hath been taken notice of by those expert metaphysicians, and such a fact as will perhaps account for the deception we are now considering; yet the fact itself, in my apprehension, hath not been sufficiently accounted for. That mere sounds, which are used only as signs, and have no natural connection with the things whereof they are signs, should convey knowledge to the mind, even when they excite no idea of the things signified, must appear at first extremely mysterious. It is, therefore, worth while to consider the matter more closely ; and, in order to this, it will be proper to attend a little to the three following connections : first, that which subsisteth among things ; secondly, that which subsisteth between words and things; thirdly, that which subsisteth among words, or the different terms used in the same language.

Why nonsense so often escapes being detected.

As to the first of these connections; namely, that which subsisteth among things; it is evident that this is original and natural. There is a variety of relations to be found in things, by which they are connected. Such are, ainong several others, resemblance, identity *, equality, contrariety, cause, and effect, concomitancy, vicinity in time or place. These we become acquainted with by experience; and they prove, by means of association, the source of various combinations of ideas, and abstractions, as they are commonly denominated. Hence mixed modes and distinctions into genera and species ; of the origin of which

; I have had occasion to speak already t.

As to the second connection, or that which subsisteth between words and things, it is obvious, as hath been hinted formerly, that this is not a natural and necessary, but an artificial and arbitrary connection. Nevertheless, though this connection hath not its foundation in the nature of things, but in the conventions of men, its effect upon the mind is much the

For, having often had occasion to observe par


* It may be thought improper to mention identity as a relation by which different things are connected; but it must be observed, that I only mean so far different, as to constitute distinct objects to the mind. Thus the consideration of the saine person, when a child and when a man, is the consideration of different objects, between which there subsists the relation of identity.

+ Book I. Chap. V. Sect. II. Part II. On the formation of experience.

Sect. I.

The nature and power of signs in speaking and thinking.

ticular words used as signs of particular things, we hence contract a habit of associating the sign with the thing signified, insomuch that either being presented to the mind, frequently introduces, or occasions, the apprehension of the other. Custom, in this instance, operates precisely in the same manner as in the formation of experience formerly explained. Thus, certain sounds, and the ideas of things not naturally related to them, come to be as strongly linked in our conceptions as the ideas of things naturally related to one another.

As to the third connection, or that which subsisteth among words, I would not be understood to mean any connection among the words considered as sounds, such as that which results from resemblance in pronunciation, equality in the number of syllables, sameness of measure or cadence; I mean solely that connection or relation which comes gradually to subsist among the different words of a language, in the minds of those who speak it, and which is merely consequent on this, that those words are employed as signs of connected or related things. It is an axiom in geometry, that things equal to the same thing, are equal to one another. It may, in like manner, be admitted as an axiom in physiology, that ideas associated by the same idea, will associate one another. Hence it will happen, that if, from experiencing the connection of two things, there results, as infallibly there will result, an association between the ideas or notions an

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