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The application of the preceding principles,
reader. So much for the second cause of deception, which is the chief source of all the nonsense of writers on politics and criticism.
The third and last, and, I may add, the principal species of composition, wherein we are exposed to this illusion by the abuse of words, is that in which the terms employed are very abstract, and consequently of very extensive signification. It is an observation that plainly ariseth from the nature and structure of language, and may be deduced as a corollary from what hath been said of the use of artificial signs, that the more general any name is, as it comprehends the more individuals under it, and consequently requires the more extensive knowledge in the mind that would rightly apprehend it, the more it must have of indistinctness and obscurity. Thus the word lion is more distinctly apprehended by the mind than the word beast, beast than animal, animal than being, But there is, in what are called abstract subjects, a still greater fund of obscurity than that arising from the frequent mention of the most general terms. Names must be assigned to those qualities as considered abstractly, which never subsist independently, or by themselves, but which constitute the generic characters, and the specific differences of things. And this leads to a manner which is in many instances remote from the common use of speech, and therefore must be of more difficult conception. The qualities thus considered as in a state of separation from the
Why nonsense su riften escapes being detected.
subjects to which they belong, have been not unfitly compared by a famous wit of the last century, to disembodied spirits :
As the manes of the departed heroes which Æneas saw in the infernal regions, were so constituted as effectually to elude the embrace of every living wight; in like manner the abstract qualities are so subtile as often to elude the apprehension of the most attentive mind. They have, I may say, too much volatility to be arrested, were it but for a moment.
- The fitting shadow slips away,
It is no wonder, then, that a misapplication of such words, whether general or abstract, should frequently. escape our notice. The more general any word is in its signification, it is the more liable to be abused by arrimproper or unmeaning application. A foreigner will escape discovery in a crowd, who would instantly be distinguished in a select company. A very general term is applicable alike to a multitude of dif
* Hudibras, B. i. C. I. +
Ter comprensa manus effugit imago, Par levibus ventis, volucrique simillima somno.
Æneis, l. 6.
The application of the preceding principles.
ferent individuals, a particular term is applicable but to a few. When the rightful applications of a word are extremely numerous, 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 precisely to ascertain this notion. Thus the latitude of a word, though different from its ambiguity, hath often a similar effect.
FURTHER, it is a certain fact, that when we are much accustomed to particular terms, we can scarcely avoid fancying that we understand them, whether they have a meaning or not.
The reason of this apprehension might easily be deduced from what hath been already said of the nature of signs. Let it suffice at present to observe the fact. Now, on ordinary subjects, if we adopt such a wrong opinion, we may easily be undeceived. The reason is, that on such subjccts, the recourse from the sign to the thing signified is easy.
For the opposite reason, if we are in such an error on abstract subjects, it is next to impossible that ever we should be undeceived. Hence it is, if without offence I may be indulged the observation, that in some popular systems of religion, the zeal of the people is principally exerted in support of certain favourite phrases, and a kind of technical and idiomatical dialect to which their ears have been long enured, and which they consequently imagine they
Why nonsense so often escapes being detected.
understand, but in which often there is nothing to be understood.
From such causes it hath arisen, that ever since the earliest days of philosophy, abstract subjects have been the principal province of altercation and logomachy; to the support of which, how far the artificial dialectic of the schoolmen, nay, the analytics and the metaphysics, the categories and the topics of the justly admired Stagyrite have contributed, we have considered already *. Indeed, at length, disputation in the schools came to be so much a mechanical exercise, that if once a man had learned his logic, and had thereby come to understand the use of his weapons, and had gotten the knack of wielding them, he was qualified, without any other kind of knowledge, to defend any position whatsoever, how contradictory soever to common sense, and to the clearest discoveries of reason and experience. This art, it must be owned, observed a wonderful impartiality in regard to truth and error, or rather the most absolute indifference to both. If it was oftener employed in defence of error, that is not to be wondered at; for the way of truth is one, the ways of error are infinite. One qualified in the manner above-mentioned, could as successfully dispute on a subject of which he was totally ignorant, as on one with which he was perfectly acquainted. Success indeed tended then no more to decide the question,
* Book I. Chap. VI
The application of the preceding principles.
than a man's killing his antagonist in a duel serves now to satisfy any person of sense that the victor had right on his side, and that the vanquished was in the wrong. Such an art as this could at bottom be no other than a mere playing with words, used indeed grammatically, and according to certain rules established in the schools, but quite insignificant, and therefore incapable of conveying knowledge,
Vain wisdom all, and false philosoplıy.
This logic, between two and three centuries ago, received a considerable improvement from one Raimund Lully, a native of Majorca, who, by the ingenious contrivance of a few concentric moveable cir cles, on the borders of some of which were inscribed the subjects, of others the predicaments, and of others the forms of questions; he not only superseded the little in point of invention which the scholastic logic had till then required, but much accelerated the operations of the artist, All was done by manual labour, All the circles, except the outmost, which was immoveable, were turned upon the common center, one after another. In this manner the disposition of subjects, predicaments, and questions, was perpetually varied. All the proper questions on every subject were suggested, and pertinent answers supplied. In the same way did the working of the engine discover and apply the several topics of argument that might be used in support of any queștion. On this rare de