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Sect. I.

The nature and power of signs in speaking and thinking.

man, is added to them *.” Nothing, in my apprehension, can be more exactly coincident with Berkeley's doctrine of abstraction. Here not only words but ideas are made signs; and a particular idea is made general, not by any change produced in it, (for then it would be no longer the same idea,) but, “ by being “ set up as the representative of many particular

things.” Universality, he observes, as it belongs not to things, belongs not even to “ those words and " ideas, which are all of them particular in their exist

ence, but general in their signification.” Again, the general nature of those ideas, is “ nothing but the ca“pacity they are put into by the understanding of sig

nifying or representing many particulars ;” and if possible, still more explicitly, “ the signification they " have is nothing but a relation ;” no alteration on their essence,

that, by the mind of man, is added to them.”


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Some of the greatest admirers of that eminent philosopher seem to have overlooked entirely the preceding account of his sentiments on this subject, and through I know not what passion for the paradoxical, (I should rather say, the impossible and unintelligible) have shewn an amazing zeal for defending the propriety of the hasty expressions which appear in the passages formerly referred to.

Has not the mind of man, say they, an unlimited power in moulding and com

* B. III. C. iii. Sect. Il.

Why nonsense escapes so often being detected.

bining its ideas? The mind, it must be owned, hath an unlimited power in moulding and combining its ideas. It often produceth wonderful forms of its own, out of the materials originally supplied by sense; forms indeed, of which there is no exemplar to be found in nature, centaurs, and griffins,

Gorgons, and hydras, and chimeras dire.

But still it must not attempt absolute impossibilities, by giving to its creature contradictory qualities. It must not attempt to conceive the same thing to be black and white at the same time, to be no more than three inches long, and yet no less than three thousand; to conceive two or more lines to be both equal and unequal, the same angle to be at once acute, obtuse, and right. These philosophers sagely remark, as a consequence of their doctrine, that the mind must be extremely slow in attaining so wonderful a talent; whereas, on the contrary, nothing can be more evident than that the power of abstracting, as I have explained it, is, to a certain degree, and must be, as early as the use of speech, and is consequently discoverable even in infants.

But if such an extraordinary faculty, as they speak of, were possible, I cannot, for my part, conceive what purpose it could serve. An idea hath been defined by some logicians, the form or resemblance of a thing in the mind, and the whole of its power and use in thinking is supposed to arise from an exact conformi

Sect. I.

The nature and power of signs in speaking and thinking.

ty to its archetype. What then is the use or power of that idea, to which there neither is nor can be any archetype in nature, which is merely a creature of the brain, a monster that bears not the likeness of any thing in the universe.

In the extensive sense in which Locke, who is considered as the most strenuous supporter of that doctrine, uses the word Idea, even the perceptions of the senses, as I had occasion lately to remark, are included under that term. And if so, it is incontrovertible, , that a particular idea often serves as the sign of a whole class. Thus, in every one of Euclid's theorems, a particular triangle, and a particular parallelogram, and a particular circle, are employed as signs to denote all triangles, all parallelograms, and all circles. When a geometrician- makes a diagram with chalk upon a board, and from it demonstrates some property of a straight-lined figure, no spectator ever imagines, that he is demonstrating a property of nothing else but that individual white figure of five inches long which is before him. Every one is satisfied that he is demonstrating a property of all that order, whether more or less extensive, of which it is both an example and a sign; all the order being understood to agree with it in certain characters, however different in other respects. Nay, what is more, the mind with the utmost facility extends or contracts the representative power of the sign, as the particular occasion requires. Thus the same equilateral triangle will with equal pro

Why nonsense escapes so often being detected.

priety serve for the demonstration not only of a property of all equilateral triangles, but of a property of all isosceles triangles, or even of a property of all triangles whatever. Nay, so perfectly is this matter understood, that if the demonstrator in any part should recur to some property, as to the length of a side, belonging to the particular figure he hath constructed, but not essential to the kind mentioned in the proposition, and which the particular figure is solely intended to represent, every intelligent observer would instantly detect the fallacy. So entirely for all the purposes of science doth a particular serve for a whole species or genus. Now, why one visible individual, or, in the style of the above-mentioned author, why a particular idea of sight, should, in our reasonings, servé, without the smallest inconvenience, as a sign for an infinite number, and yet one conceivable individual, or a particular idea of imagination, should not be adapted to answer the same end, it will, I imagine, be utterly impossible to say.

THERE is, however, a considerable difference in kind between such signs as these, and the words of a language. Amongst all the individuals of a species, or even of the most extensive genus, there is still a natural connection, as they agree in the specific or generic character. But the connection that subsisteth between words and things is, in its origin, arbitrary. Yet the difference in the effect is not so considerable as one would be apt to imagine. In neither case is it the

Sect. I.

The nature and power of signs in speaking and thinking.

matter, if I may be allowed the expression, but the power of the sign that is regarded by the mind. We find that, even in demonstrative reasonings, signs of the latter kind, or mere symbols, may be used with as much clearness and success as can be conferred by natural signs. The operations both of the algebraist and of the arithmetician are strictly of the nature of demonstration. The one employs as signs the letters of the alphabet, the other certain numerical characters. In neither of these arts is it necessary to form ideas of the quantities and sums signified ; in some instances it is even impossible, yet the equations and calculations resulting thence are not the less accurate and convincing. So much for the nature and power of artificial signs.

PERHAPS I have said too much on this subject; for, on a review of what I have written, I am even apprehensive, lest some readers imagine, that, after quoting some examples of the unintelligible from others, I have thought fit to produce a very ample specimen of my own. Every subject, it is certain, is not equally susceptible of perspicuity ; but there is a material difference between an obscurity which ariseth purely from the nature of the subject, and that which is chargeable upon the style. Whatever regards the analysis of the operations of the mind, which is quicker than lightning in all her energies, must in a great measure be abstruse and dark. Let then the dissatisfied reader deign to bestow on the foregoing observa




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