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“ usual application of any term is instantly detected ; " this detection breeds doubt, and this doubt occa“ fions an immediate recourse to ideas. The re“ course of the mind, when in any degree puzzled “ with the figns, to the knowledge it has of the
things signified, is natural and on such subjects s perfectly easy. And of this recourse the discove
ry of the meaning, or of the unmeaningness of “ what is said, is the immediate effect. But in mat“ters that are by no means familiar, or are treated as in an uncommon manner, and in such as are of an « abstruse and intricate nature, the case is widely
different.” The instances in which we are chief. ly liable to be inipofed on by words without meaning are, (according to Dr. Campbell,) the three following:
First, Where there is an exuberance of metaphor.
Secondly, When the terms most frequently occurring, denote things which are of a complicated nature, and to which the mind is not sufficiently familiarised. Such are the words, Government, Church, State, Conftitution, Polity, Power, Commerce, Legislature, Jurisdiction, Proportion, Symetry, Elegance.
Thirdly, When the terms employed are very abstract, and consequently of very extensive fignification.* For an illustration of these remarks, I must
** The more general any word is in its signification, it is the
more liable to be abused by an improper or unmeaning applica« tion. A very general term is applicable alike to a multitude of “ different individuals, a particular term is applicable but to a few. " When the rightful applications of a word are extremely nume
rous, they cannot all be so strongly fixed by habit, but that, for
greater security, we must perpetually recur in our minds from “the sign to the notion we have of the thing signified; and for “ the reason aforementioned, it is in such instances difficult precise“ ly to ascertain this notion. Thus the latitude of a word, though“ different from its ambignity, hath often a similar effect.”-Philosophy of Rhetoric, vol. ii. p. 122.
refer the reader to the ingenious work wlrich I just now quoted.
To the obvervations of these eminent writers, I shall take the liberty of adding, that we are doubly liable to the mistakes they mention, when we make use of a language which is not perfectly familiar to us. Nothing, indeed, I apprehend, can fhew more clearly the ule we make of words in reasoning than this, chat an observation which, when expressed in our own language, seems trite or frivolous, often acquires the appearance of depth and originality, by being translated into another. For my own part, at least, I am conscious of having been frequently led, in this way, to form an exaggerated idea of the merits of ancient and of foreign authors ; and it has happened to me more than once, that a sentence, which seemed at first to contain something highly ingenious, and profound, when translated into words familiar to me, appeared obviously to be a trite or a nugatory proposition.
The effect produced by an artificial and inverted style in our own language, is similar to what we ex: perience when we read a composition in a foreign one. The eye is too much dazzled to see distinctly. a Aliud ftyli genus,” (fays Bacon,) “totum in eo elt, of ut verba fint aculeata, fententiæ concisæ, oratio
denique potius versa quam fufa, quo fit, ut omnia, “ per hujufinodi artificium, magis ingeniosa vide“ antur quam re vera fint. Tale invenitur in Sene
ca effufius, in Tacito et Plinio fecundo moderati, (us.”
The deranged collocation of the words in Latin composition, aids powerfully the imposition we have now been considering, and renders that language an inconvenient medium of philofophical communication; as well as an inconvenient instrument of accu. rate thought. Indeed, in all languages in which this latitude in the arrangement of the words is admitted, the associations among words must be looser, than where one invariable order is followed ; and of consequence, on the principles of Hume and Campbell, the mistakes which are committed in reasonings expressed in such languages, will not be so readily detected,
The errors in reasoning, to which we are exposed in consequence of the use of words as an instrument of thought, will appear the less surprising, when we consider that all the languages which have hitherto exifted in the world, have derived their origin from popular use; and that their application to philofoph. ical purposes, was altogether out of the view of those men who first employed them. Whether it might not be possible to invent a language, which would at once facilitate philosophical communication, and form a more convenient instrument of reasoning and of invention, than those we poffefs at present, is a question of very difficult difcuffion; and upon which I shall not presume to offer an opinion. The failure of Wilkin's very ingenious attempt towards a real character, and a philofophical language, is not perhaps decilive against such a project; for, not to mention fome radical defects in his plan, the views of that very eminent philosopher do not seem to have extended much farther than to promote and extend the literary intercourse among different nations, Leibnitz, so far as I know, is the only author who has hitherto conceived the pofsibility of aiding the powers of invention and of reasoning, by the use of a more convenient instrument of thought ; but he has no where explained his ideas on this very interesting subject. It is only from a conversation of his with Mr. Boyle and Mr. Oldenburgh, when he was in England in 1673, and from fome imperfect hints in different parts of his works,* that we find
*See Note [L]
it had engaged his attention. In the course of this conversation he observed, that Wilkins had mistaken the true end of a real character which was not merely to enable different nations to correspond eafily together, but to affist the reason, the invention, and the memory. In his writings, too, he tomewhere speaks of an alphabet of human thoughts, which he had been employed in forming, and which, probably, (as Fontenelle has remarked) had some relation to his universal language.*
The new nomenclature which has been introduced inte chymistry, seems to me to furnish a striking il. lustration of the effect of appropriated and well-de. fined expreflions, in aiding the intellectual powers ; and the period is probably not far diftant, when fimilar innovations will be attempted in some of the oth, er sciences.
*“ M. Leibnitz avoit conçu le projet d'une langue philo
sophique et universelle. Wilkins Evêque de Chester, et “ Dalgaroo y avoient travaillé ; mais dès le tems qu'il etoit “ en Angleterre, il avoit dit à Méssieurs Boyle et d' Old. " enbourg qu'il ne croyoit pas que ces grands hommes eussent
encore frappé au but. Ils pouvoient bien faire que des nations qui ne s'entendoient pas eussent aisément
commerce, mais ils n'avoient pas attrappé les véritables “ caractères réels, qui étoient l'instrument le plus fin dont “ l'esprit humain se pût servir, et qui devoient extrême
ment faciliter et le raisonnement, et la memoire, et l'in“ vention des choses. Ils devoient ressembler, autant qu'il “ étoit possible, aux caractères d'algebre, qui en effet sont " très simples, et très expressifs, qui n'ont jamais ni super" fluité ni équivoque, et dont toutes les varietés sont rai“ sonnées. Ota parlé en quelque endroit, d'un alphabet “ des pensées humaines, qu'il meditoit. Selon touies les
apparences, cet alphabet avoit rapport à sa langue univer* selle." Eloge de M. LEIBNITZ par M. de FONTENELLE.
Of the Purposes to which the Powers of Abstraction and
Generalifation are subfervient.
IT has been already shewn, that, without the use of signs, all our knowledge must necessarily have been limited to individuals, and that we should have been perfectly incapable, both of classification and general reasoning. Some authors have maintained, that without the power of generalisation, (which I have endeavored to show, means nothing more than the capacity of employing general terms,) it would have been impossible for us to have carried on any species of reasoning whatever. But I cannot help thinking that this opinion is erroneous ; or, at least, that it is very imperfectly stated. The truth is, it appears to me to be just in one sense of the word reasoning, but false in another; and I even suspect it is false in that sense of the word in which it is most commonly employed. Before, therefore, it is laid down as a general proposition, the meaning we are to annex to this very vague and ambiguous term, hould be ascertained with precision.
It has been remarked by several writers that the expectation which we feel of the continuance of the laws of nature, is not founded upon reasoning, and different theories have of late been proposed to account for its origin. Mr. Hume resolves it into the affociation of ideas. Dr. Reid, on the other hand, maintains, that it is an original principle of our constitution, which does not admit of any explanation; and which, therefore, is to be ranked among those general and ultimate facts, bea yond which, philofophy is unable to proceed.* Witha
* In inquiries of this nature, so far removed from the common course of literary pursuits, it always gives me