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Why nonsense so often escapes being detected.

Immediately, that is, even before we have leisure to give that attention to the signs which is necessary in order to form a just conception of the things signified. In confirmation of this doctrine it may be observed, that we really think by signs as well as speak by them. - I have hitherto, in conformity to what is now become a general and inveterate custom, and in order to avoid tiresome circumlocutions, used the terms sign and idea as exactly correlative. This, I am sensible, is not done with strict propriety. All words are signs, but that the signification cannot always be represented by an idea, will, I apprehend, be abundantly evident from the observations following. All the truths which constitute science, which give exercise to reason, and are discovered by philosophy, are general; all our ideas, in the strictest sense of the word, are particular. All the particular truths about which we are conversant, are properly historical, and compose the furniture of memory. Nor do I include under the term historical, the truths which belong to natural history; for even these too are general. Now, beyond particular truths or individual facts, first perceived and then remembered, we should never be able to proceed one single step in thinking, any more than in conversing, without the use of signs.

WHEN it is affirmed, that the whole is equal to all its parts, there cannot be an affirmation which is more

Sect. I. The nature and power of signs in speaking and thinking.

perfectly intelligible, or which commands a fuller assent. If, in order to comprehend this, I recur to ideas, all that I can do, is to form a notion of some individual whole, divided into a certain number of parts, of which it is constituted, suppose of the year divided into the four seasons. Now, all that I can be said to discern here, is the relation of equality between this particular whole and its component parts. If I recur to another example, I only perceive another particular truth. The same holds of a third, and of a fourth. But so far am I, after the perception of ten thousand particular similar instances, from the discovery of the universal truth, that if the mind had not the power of considering things as signs, or particular ideas as representing an infinity of others, resembling in one circumstance, though totally dissimilar in every other, I could not so much as conceive the meaning of an universal truth. Hence it is that some ideas, to adopt the expression of the author above quoted, are particular in their nature, but general in their representation.

THERE is, however, it must be acknowledged, a difficulty in explaining this power the mind hath of considering ideas, not in their private, but, as it were, in their representative capacity; which, on that author's system, who divides all the objects of thought into impressions and ideas, will be found altogether insurmountable. It was to avoid this difficulty that Philosophers at first recurred, as is sometimes the case,

Why nonsense so often escapes being detected.

to a still greater, or rather to a downright absurdity, the doctrine of abstract ideas. I mean only that doctrine as it hath been frequently explained; for if any one is pleased to call that faculty, by which a particular idea is regarded as representing a whole order, by the name abstraction, I have no objection to the term : nay more, I think it sufficiently expressive of the sense:—whilst certain qualities of the individual remain unnoticed, and are therefore abstracted from, those qualities only which it hath in common with the order engross the mind's attention. But this is not what those writers seem to mean, who philosophise upon abstract ideas, as is evident from their own explications.

THE patrons of this theory maintain, or at least express themselves as if they maintained, that the mind is endowed with a power of forming ideas, or images, within itself, that are possessed, not only of incongruous, but of inconsistent qualities, of a triangle, for example, that is of all possible dimensions and proportions, both in sides and angles, at once right-angled, acute-angled, and obtuse-angled, equilateral, equicrural, and scalenum. One would have thought, that the bare mention of this hypothesis would have been equivalent to a confutation of it, since it really confutes itself.

YET in this manner one no less respectable in the philosophic world than Mr Locke, has, on some occa

Sect. I. The nature and power of signs in speaking and thinking.

sions, expressed himself +. I consider the difference, however, on this article, between him and the two authors abovementioned, as more apparent than real, or (which amounts to the same thing) more in words than in sentiments. It is indeed scarcely possible that men of discernment should think differently on a subject so perfectly subjected to every one's own consciousness and experience. What has betrayed the former into such unguarded and improper expressions, is plainly an undue, and, till then, unprecedented use of the word idea, which he has employed (for the sake, I suppose of simplifying his system) to signify not only, as formerly, the traces of things retained in the memory, and the images formed by the fancy, but even the perceptions of the senses on the one hand, and the conceptions of the intellect on the other, “it being that term which,” in his opinion, “ serves best to stand for whatsoever is the object of “the understanding, when a man thinks #.” Accordingly he nowhere, that I remember, defines it, ... with some logicians, “a pattern or copy of a thing in the mind.” Nevertheless he has not always, in speaking on the subject, attended to the different acceptation he had in the beginning affixed to the word; but, misled by the common definition (which regards a more limited object), and applying it to the term in that more extensive import which he had himself

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* Essay on Human Understanding, B. II. C. xi. Sect. Io. II. B. IV. C. vii. Sect. 9. + Ibid. B. I. C. i. Sect. 8.

Why nonsense so often escapes being detected.

given it, has fallen into those inconsistencies in language, which have been before observed. Thus this great man has, in his own example, as it were, demonstrated how difficult it is, even for the wisest, to guard uniformly against the inconveniencies arising from the ambiguity of words.

BUT that what I have now advanced is not spoken rashly, and that there was no material difference between his opinions and theirs on this article, is, I think, manifest from the following passage: “To return to “general words, it is plain, by what has been said, “ that general and universal belong not to the real ex“istence of things, but are the inventions and crea“tures of the understanding, made by it for its own “use, and concern only signs, whether words or ideas. Words are general, as has been said, when used for signs of general ideas, and so are applicable indifferently to many particular things ; and ideas are general, when they are set up as the representatives of many particular things: but universality belongs not to things themselves, which are all of them particular in their existence; even those words and ideas which in their signification are general. When, therefore, we quit particulars, the generals that rest are only creatures of our own making; their general nature being nothing but the capacity they are put into by the understanding of signifying or representing many particulars. For the signification they “have, is nothing but a relation that, by the mind of

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