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Sect. I.

The nature and power of signs in speaking and thinking.

stand nothing that is said, but by actually comparing in our minds all the ideas signified, it would be impossible that nonsense should ever escape undiscovered, at least that we should so far impose upon ourselves, as to think we understand what in reality is not to be understood. We should in that case find ourselves in the same situation, when an unmeaning sentence is introduced into a discourse, wherein we find ourselves when a sentence is quoted in a language of which we are entirely ignorant: we are never in the smallest danger of imagining that we apprehend the meaning of the quotation.

But though a very curious fact hath been taken notice of by those expert metaphysicians, and such a fact as will perhaps account for the deception we are now considering; yet the fact itself, in my apprehension, hath not been sufficiently accounted for. That mere sounds, which are used only as signs, and have no natural connection with the things whereof they are signs, should convey knowledge to the mind, even when they excite no idea of the things signified, must appear at first extremely mysterious. It is, therefore, worth while to consider the matter more closely ; and, · in order to this, it will be proper to attend a little to the three following connections: first, that which subsisteth among things; secondly, that which subsisteth between words and things; thirdly, that which subsisteth among words, or the different terms used in the same language.

Why nonsense so often escapes being detected.

As to the first of these connections; namely, that which subsisteth among things; it is evident that this is original and natural. There is a variety of relations to be found in things, by which they are connected. Such are, among several others, resemblance, identity *, equality, contrariety, cause, and effect, concomitancy, vicinity in time or place. These we become acquainted with by experience; and they prove, by means of association, the source of various combinations of ideas, and abstractions, as they are commonly denominated. Hence mixed modes and distinctions into genera and species; of the origin of which I have had occasion to speak already t.

As to the second connection, or that which subsisteth between words and things, it is obvious, as hath been hinted formerly, that this is not a natural and necessary, but an artificial and arbitrary connection. Nevertheless, though this connection hath not its foundation in the nature of things, but in the conventions of men, its effect upon the mind is much the

For, having often had occasion to observe par

same.

* It may be thought improper to mention identity as a relation by which different things are connected ; but it must be observed, that I only mean so far different, as to constitute distinct objects to the mind. Thus the consideration of the same person, when a child and when a man, is the consideration of different objects, between which there subsists the relation of identity.

+ Book I. Chap. V. Sect. II. Part II. On the formation of experience.

Sect. I.

The nature and power of signs in speaking and thinking.

ticular words used as signs of particular things, we hence contract a habit of associating the sign with the thing signified, insomuch that either being presented to the mind, frequently introduces, or occasions, the apprehension of the other. Custom, in this instance, operates precisely in the same manner as in the formation of experience formerly explained. Thus, certain sounds, and the ideas of things not naturally related to them, come to be as strongly linked in our conceptions as the ideas of things naturally related to one another.

As to the third connection, or that which subsisteth among words, I would not be understood to mean any connection among the words considered as sounds, such as that which results from resemblance in pronunciation, equality in the number of syllables, sameness of measure or cadence; I mean solely that connection or relation which comes gradually to subsist among the different words of a language, in the minds of those who speak it, and which is merely consequent on this, that those words are employed as signs of connected or related things. It is an axiom in geometry, that things equal to the same thing, are equal to one another. It may, in like manner, be admitted as an axiom in physiology, that ideas associated by the same idea, will associate one another. Hence it will happen, that if, from experiencing the connection of two things, there results, as infallibly there will result, an association between the ideas or notions an

Why nonsense so often escapes being detected.

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nexed to them, as each idea will moreover be associated by its sign, there will likewise be an association between the ideas of the signs. Hence the sounds, considered as signs, will be conceived to have a connection analagous to that which subsisteth among the things signified; I say, the sounds considered as signs : for this way of considering them constantly attends us in speaking, writing, hearing, and reading. When we purposely abstract from it, and regard them merely as sounds, we are instantly sensible, that they are quite unconnected, and have no other relation than what ariseth from similitude of tone or accent. But to consider them in this manner, commonly results from previous design, and requires a kind of effort which is not exerted in the ordinary use of speech. In ordinary use they are regarded solely as signs, or rather they are confounded with the things they signify ; the consequence of which is, that, in the manner just new explained, we come insensibly to conceive a connection among them, of a very different sort from that of which sounds are naturally susceptible.

Now this conception, habit, or tendency of the mind, call it which you please, is considerably strengthened both by the frequent use of language, and by the structure of it. It is strengthened by the frequent use of language. Language is the sole channel through which we communicate our knowledge and discoveries to others, and through which the

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Sect. I.

The nature and power of signs in speaking and thinking.

knowledge and discoveries of others are communicated to us. By reiterated recourse to this medium, it necessarily happens, that when things are related to each other, the words signifying those things are more commonly brought together in discourse. Hence the words and names themselves, by customary vicinity, contract in the fancy a relation additional to that which they derive purely from being the symbols of related things. Further, this tendency is strengthened by the structure of language. All languages whatever, even the most barbarous, as far as hath yet appeared, are of a regular and analogical make. The consequence is, that similar relations in things will be expressed similarly ; that is, by similar inflections, derivations, compositions, arrangement of words, or juxtaposition of particles, according to the genius or grammátical form of the particular tongue. Now, as by the habitual use of a language (even though it were quite irregular) the signs would insensibly become connected in the imagination, wherever the things signified are connected in nature ; so, by the regular structure of a language, this connection among the signs is conceived as analogous to that which subsisteth among their archetypes. From these principles we may be enabled both to understand the meaning, and to perceive the justness of what is affirmed in the end of the preceding quotation : “ The custom which “ we have acquired of attributing certain relations to “ ideas, still follows the words, and makes us immediately perceive the absurdity of that proposition.”

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