Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

Why nonsense so often escapes being detected.

tions a second perusal; and though after that he should be as much at a loss as before, the case may not be without remedy. Let him not therefore be discouraged from proceeding : there is still a possibility that the application of the principles, which I have been attemping to develope, will reflect some light on them : and if not, it is but a few minutes thrown away; for I do not often enter on such profound researches.

SECT. II.... The application of the preceding prin

ciples.

Now, to apply this doctrine to the use for which it was introduced, let us consider how we can account by it for these phenomena, that a man of sense should sometimes write nonsense and not know it, and that a man of sense should sometimes read nonsense and imagine he understands it.

In the preceding quotation from the Treatise on Human Nature, the author observes, that “notwithstand

ing that we do not annex distinct and complete “ ideas to every term we make use of, we may avoid

talking nonsense, and may perceive any repugnance

among the ideas, as well as if we had a full compre“ hension of them.” This remark generally holds. Thus in matters that are perfectly familiar, and are level to an ordinary capacity, in simple narration, or in moral observations on the occurrences of life, a man of com.

Sect. II.

The application of the preceding principles.

mon understanding may be deceived by specious falseliood, but is hardly to be pulled by downright nonsense. Almost all the possible applications of the terms ( in other words, all the acquired relations of the signs) have become customary to him. The consequence is, that an unusual application of any term is instantly detected ; this detection breeds doubt, and this doubt occasions an immediate recourse to ideas. The recourse of the mind, when in any degree puzzled with the signs, to the knowledge it has of the thing signified, is natural, and on such plain subjects perfectly easy. And of this recourse the discovery of the meaning, or of the unmeaningness of what is said, is the immediate effect. But in matters that are by no means familiar, or are treated in an uncommon manner, and in such as are of an abstruse and intricate nature, the case is widely different. There are particularly three sorts of writing wherein we are liable to be imposed on by words without meaning.

The first is, where there is an exuberance of metaphor. Nothing is more certain, than that this tropè, when temperately and appositely used, serves to add light to the expression, and energy to the sentiment. On the contrary, when vaguely and intemperately used, nothing can serve more effectually to cloud the sense, where there is sense, and by consequence to conceal the defect, where there is no sense to show. And this is the case, not only where there is in the same sentence a mixture of discordant metaphors, but

Why nonsense so often escapes being detected.

also where the metaphoric style is too long continued, and too far pursued *. The reason is obvious. In common speech the words are the immediate signs of the thought. But it is not so here; for when a person, instead of adopting metaphors that come naturally and opportunely in his way, rummages the whole world in quest of them, and piles them one upon another, when he cannot so properly be said to use metaphor, as to talk in metaphor, or rather when from metaphor he runs into allegory, and thence into enigma, his words are not the immediate signs of his thought; they are at best but the signs of the signs of his thought. His writing may then be called what Spenser not unjustly styled his Fairy Queen, a perpetual allegory or dark conceit. Most readers will account it much to bestow a transient glance on the literal sense, which lie's nearest; but will never think of that meaning more remote, which the figures themselves are intended to signify. It is no wonder then that this sense, for the discovery of which it is necessary to see through a double veil, should, where it is, more readily escape our observation, and that, where it is wanting, we should not so quickly miss it. As to writers in this way, they are often misled by a desire of flourishing on the several attributes of a metaphor, which they have pompously usliered into the discourse,

* Ut modicus autem atque opportunus translationis usus illustrat orationem : ita frequens et obscurat et tædio complet; continuus vero in allegoriam et ænigmata exit. Quixt. L. viii. C. 6.

Sect. II.

The application of the preceding principles.

without taking the trouble to examine whether there be any qualities in the subject to which these attributes can with justice and perspicuity be applied.

In one of the examples of the unintelligible abovecited, the author having once determined to represent the human mind under the metaphor of a country, hath revolved in his thoughts the various objects which might be found in a country, but hath never dreamt of considering whether there be any things in the mind properly analogous to these. Hence the strange parade he makes with regions, and recesses, bollow caverns, and private seats, wastes and wildernesses, fruitful and cultivated tracks, words which, though they have a precise meaning, as applied to country, have no definite signification as applied to mind. With equal propriety he might have introduced all the variety which Satan discovered in the kingdom of darkness,

Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death *;

or given us with Othello,

All bis travel's history Wherein, belike, of antres vast and desarts idle, Rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven, 'T bad been his hent to speak t.

* Paradise Lost,

+ Shakespeare.

Why nonsense so often escapes being detected.

So much for the immoderate use of metaphor, which, by the way, is the principal source of all the nonsense of orators and poets,

The second species of writing wherein we are liable to be imposed on by words without meaning, is that wherein the terms most frequently occurring, denote things which are of a complicated nature, and to which the mind is not sufficiently familiarised. Many of those notions which are called by philosophers mixt modes, come under this denomination. Of these the instances are numberless in every tongue; such as, government, church, state, constitution, polity, power, commerce, legislature, jurisdiction, proportion, symmetry, elegance. It will considerably increase the danger of our being deceived by an unmeaning use of such terms, if they are besides (as very often they are) of so indeterminate, and consequently equivocal significations, that a writer, unobserved either by himself or by his reader, may slide from one sense of the term to another, till by degrees he fall into such applications of it as will make no sense at all. It deserves our notice also, that we are in much greater danger of terminating in this, if the different meanings of the same word have some affinity to one another, than if they have none. In the latter case, when there is no affinity, the transition from one meaning to another, is taking a very wide step, and what few writers are in any danger of; it is, besides, whạt will not so readily escape the observation of the

« AnteriorContinuar »