Page images

during a storm,) if this be true—it is impossible the nature of guch beings should be expressed, or the least essential property be any way imitated, while between the medium and themselves there is nothing connatural.9

It is true, indeed, when primitives were once established, it was easy to follow the connection and subordination of nature, in the just deduction of derivatives and compounds. Thus the sounds water and fire, being once annexed to those two elements, it was certainly more natural to call beings participating of the first watery, of the last fiery, than to commute the terms, and call them by the reverse. But why, and from what natural connections the primitives themselves might not be commuted, it will be found, I believe, difficult to assign a reason, as well in the instances before us, as in most others. We may here also see the reason why all language is founded in compact, and not in nature ; for so are all symbols, of which words are a certain species.

The question remains, if words are symbols, then symbols of what? If it be answered “Of things;" the question returns, “Of what things?" If it be answered, “Of the several individuals of sense, the various particular beings which exist around us:" to this, it is replied, may be raised certain doubts. In the first place, every word will be in fact a proper name.

Now if all words are proper names, how came lexicographers, whose express business is to explain words, either wholly to omit proper names, or, at least, to explain them, not from their own art, but from history?

Again, if all words are proper names, then, in strictness, no word can belong to more than one individual. But if so, then, as individuals are infinite, to make a perfect language, words must be infinite also. But if infinite, then incomprehensible, and never to be attained by the wisest men; whose labours in language upon this hypothesis would be as idle as that study of infinite written symbols, which missionaries (if they may be credited) attribute to the Chinese.

Again, if all words are proper names, or (which is the same) the symbols of individuals ; it will follow, as individuals are not only infinite, but ever passing, that the language of those who lived ages ago will be as unknown now as the very voices of the speakers. Nay, the language of every province, of every town, of every cottage, must be everywhere different and everywhere changing, since such is the nature of individuals which it follows.

Again, if all words are proper names, the symbols of individuals, it will follow that in language there can be no general proposition, because upon the hypothesis all terms are particular; nor any affirmative proposition, because no one individual in nature is another. It remains, there can be no propositions but particular negatives. But if so, then is language incapable

9 See before, p. 32.

We mean

of communicating general affirmative truths; if so, then of communicating demonstration;' if so, then of communicating sciences, which are so many systems of demonstrations; if so, then of communicating arts, which are the theorems of science applied practically; if so, we shall be little better for it either in speculation or in practice. And so much for this hypothesis ; let us now try another.

If words are not the symbols of external particulars, it follows, of course, they must be the symbols of our ideas; for this is evident, if they are not symbols of things without, they can only be symbols of something within.

Here then the question recurs, if symbols of ideas, then of what ideas? Of sensible ideas. Be it so, and what follows? Every thing, in fact, which has followed already from the supposition of their being the symbols of external particulars; and that from this plain and obvious reason, because the several ideas which particulars imprint, must needs be as infinite and mutable as they are themselves.

If, then, words are neither the symbols of external particulars, nor yet of particular ideas, they can be symbols of nothing else, except of general ideas, because nothing else, except these, remains. And what do we mean by general ideas? such as are common to many individuals; not only to individuals which exist now, but which existed in ages past, and will exist in ages future; such, for example, as the ideas belonging to the words man, lion, cedar. Admit it, and what follows? It follows, that if words are the symbols of such general ideas, lexicographers may find employ, though they meddle not with proper names.

It follows, that one word may be not homonymously, but truly and essentially common to many particulars, past, present, and future; so that however these particulars may be infinite and ever fleeting, yet language, notwithstanding, may be definite and steady. But if so, then attainable even by ordinary capacities, without danger of incurring the Chinese absurdity.

Again, it follows that the language of those who ago, as far as it stands for the same general ideas, may be as intelligible now as it was then. The like may be said of the same language being accommodated to distant regions, and even to distant nations, amidst all the variety of ever new and ever changing objects.

Again, it follows that language may be expressive of general truths; and if so, then of demonstration, and sciences, and arts; and if so, become subservient to purposes of every kind." * See p. 94, and note g.

firmative. So true are those verses, how• The whole of Euclid (whose elements ever barbarous as to their style, may be called the basis of mathematical Syllogizari non est ex particulari, science) is founded upon general terms and Neve negativis, recte concludere si ris. general propositions, most of which are af- " See p. 214. u See before, note s. * See before, p. 137, 8, and 184, 5.


ed ages

Now if it be true“ that none of these things could be asserted of language, were not words the symbols of general ideas; and it be further true that these things may be all undeniably asserted of language;" it will follow, (and that necessarily,) that words are the symbols of general ideas.

And yet, perhaps, even here may be an objection. It may be urged, if words are the symbols of general ideas, language may answer well enough the purpose of philosophers who reason about general and abstract subjects; but what becomes of the business of ordinary life? Life, we know, is merged in a multitude of particulars, where an explanation by language is as requisite as in the highest theorems. The vulgar, indeed, want it to no other end. How then can this end in any respect be answered, if language be expressive of nothing further than general ideas?

To this it may be answered, that arts surely respect the business of ordinary life; yet so far are general terms from being an obstacle here, that without them no art can be rationally explained. How, for instance, should the measuring artist ascertain to the reapers the price of their labours, had not he first, through general terms, learned those general theorems that respect the doctrine and practice of mensuration?

But suppose this not to satisfy a persevering objector; suppose him to insist, that, admitting this to be true, there were still a multitude of occasions for minute particularizing, of which it was not possible for mere generals to be susceptible; suppose, I say, such an objection, what should we answer? That the objection was just; that it was necessary to the perfection and completion of language, that it should be expressive of particulars as well as of generals. We must however add, that its general terms are by far its most excellent and essential part, since from these it derives " that comprehensive universality, that just proportion of precision and permanence, without which it could not possibly be either learned or understood, or applied to the purposes of reasoning and science;" that particular terms have their utility and end, and that therefore care too has been taken for a supply of these.

One method of expressing particulars is that of proper names. This is the least artificial, because proper names being in every district arbitrarily applied, may be unknown to those who know the language perfectly well, and can hardly therefore with propriety be considered as parts of it. The other, and more artificial method, is that of definitives or articles, whether we assume the pronominal, or those more strictly so called. And here we cannot enough admire the exquisite art of language, which, without wandering into infinitude, contrives how to denote things infinite; that is to say, in other words, which, by the small tribe of definitives properly applied to general terms, knows how to employ these last, though in number finite, to the accurate expression of infinite particulars.

To explain what has been said by a single example. Let the general term be man. I have occasion to apply this term to the denoting of some particular. Let it be required to express this particular, as unknown, I say a man; known, I say the man; indefinite, any man; definite, a certain man; present and near, this man; present and distant, that man; like to some other, such a man; an indefinite multitude, many men; a definite multitude, a thousand men; the ones of a multitude, taken throughout, every man; the same ones, taken with distinction, each man; taken in order, first man, second man, &c.; the whole multitude of particulars taken collectively, all men; the negation of this multitude, no man. But of this we have spoken already, when we inquired concerning definitives.

The sum of all is, that words are the symbols of ideas both general and particular; yet of the general, primarily, essentially, and immediately; of the particular, only secondarily, accidentally, and mediately.

Should it be asked, “Why has language this double capacity ?" May we not ask, by way of return, Is it not a kind of reciprocal commerce, or intercourse of our ideas? Should it not therefore be framed so as to express the whole of our perception? Now can we call that perception entire and whole, which implies either intellection without sensation, or sensation without intellection? If not, how should language explain the whole of our perception, had it not words to express the objects proper to each of the two faculties?

To conclude: as in the preceding chapter we considered language with a view to its matter, so here we have considered it with a view to its form. Its matter is recognised, when it is considered as a voice; its form, as it is significant of our several ideas; so that, upon the whole, it may be defined, “A system of articulate voices, the symbols of our ideas, but of those principally which are general or universal.”



Much having been said in the preceding chapter about general or universal ideas, it may not, perhaps, be amiss to inquire, by what process we come to perceive them, and what kind of beings they are; since the generality of men think so meanly of their existence, that they are commonly considered as little better than shadows. These sentiments are not unusual, even with the philosopher, now-a-days, and that from causes much the same with those which influence the vulgar.

The vulgar, merged in sense from their earliest infancy, and never once dreaming any thing to be worthy of pursuit, but what either pampers their appetite, or fills their purse, imagine nothing to be real, but what may be tasted or touched. The philosopher, as to these matters being of much the same opinion, in philosophy looks no higher than to experimental amusements, deeming nothing demonstration, if it be not made ocular. Thus, instead of ascending from sense to intellect, (the natural progress of all true learning,) he hurries, on the contrary, into the midst of sense, where he wanders at random without any end, and is lost in a labyrinth of infinite particulars. Hence, then, the reason why the sublimer parts of science, the studies of mind, intellection, and intelligent principles, are in a manner neglected; and, as if the criterion of all truth were an alembic or an airpump, what cannot be proved by experiment is deemed no better than mere hypothesis.

And yet it is somewhat remarkable, amid the prevalence of such notions, that there should still remain two sciences in fashion, and these having their certainty of all the least controverted, which are not in the minutest article depending upon experiment: by these I mean arithmetic and geometry. But to come to our subject concerning general ideas.

Man's first perceptions are those of the senses, inasmuch as they commence from his earliest infancy. These perceptions, if not infinite, are at least indefinite, and more fleeting and transient than the very objects which they exhibit, because they not only

The many noble theorems (so useful his name for the more honourable one of in life, and so admirable in themselves) artist, when to his experience he adds sciwith which these two sciences so eminently ence, and is thence enabled to tell us, not abound, arise originally from principles the only what is to be done, but why it is to most obvious imaginable ; principles so little be done ; for art is a composite of experience wanting the pomp and apparatus of experi- and science, experience providing it mament, that they are self-evident to every one terials, and science giving them a form. possessed of common sense. I would not In the mean time, while experiment is be understood in what I have here said, or thus necessary to all practical wisdom; with may have said elsewhere, to undervalue ex- respect to pure and speculative science (as periment, whose importance and utility I we have hinted already) it has not the least freely acknowledge in the many curious to do. For who ever heard of logic, or nostrums and choice receipts with which geometry, or arithmetic being proved exit has enriched the necessary arts of life. perimentally? It is, indeed, by the applicaNay, I go further : I hold all justifiable prac- tion of these that experiments are rendered tice in every kind of subject to be founded useful; that they are assumed into philosoin experience, which is no more than the phy, and in some degree made a part of it, result of many repeated experiments. But being otherwise nothing better than puerile I must withal, that the man who acts amusements. But that these sciences themfrom experience alone, though he act ever selves should depend upon the subjects on 80 well, is but an empiric or quack, and which they work, is, as if the marble were that not only in medicine, but in every to fashion the chisel, and not the chisel the other subject. It is then only that we marble. recognise art, and that the empiric quits

« PreviousContinue »