網頁圖片
PDF
ePub 版

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 propriety 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, serve, without the smallest inconvenience, as a sign for an infinite number, and yet one conceivable individual, or a par ticular 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 connexion, as they agree in the specific or generic character. But the connexion 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 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 numercial 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 artificials signs.

Perhaps I have said too much on this subject; for, on review of what I have written, I am even apprehensive, lest some readers imagine, that, after quoting 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 observations 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 attempting to develop, 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.

SECTION II.

THE APPLICATION OF THE PRECEDING PRINCIPLES.

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 “notwithstanding 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 comprehension 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 common understanding may be deceived by specious falsehood, but is hardly to be gulled 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 trope, 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 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 lies 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.

There is, in respect of the two meanings, considerable variety to be found in the tropical style. In just allegory and similitude there is always a propriety, or, if you choose to call it, congruity, in the literal sense, as well as a distinct meaning or sentiment suggested, which is called the figurative sense. Examples of this are unnecessary. Again, where the figurative sense is unexceptionable, there is sometimes an incongruity in the expression of the literal sense. This is always the case in mixed metaphor, a thing not unfrequent even in good writers. Thus, when Addison remarks, that “there is not a single view of human nature, which is not sufficient to extinguish the seeds of pride,” he expresses a true sentiment somewhat incongruously; for the terms extinguish and seeds, here metaphorically used, do not suit each other. In like manner, there is something incongruous in the mixture of tropes employed in the following passage from Lord Bolingbroke: “ Nothing less than the hearts of his people will content a patriot prince, nor will he think his throne established, till it is established there.Yet the thought is excellent. But in neither of these examples does the incongruity of the expression hurt the perspicuity of the sentence. Sometimes, indeed, the literal meaning involves a direct absurdity. When this is the case, as in the quotation from the principles of painting, given in the preceding chapter, it is natural for the reader to suppose that there must be something under it ; for it is not easy to say how absurdly even just sentiments will sometimes be expressed. But when no such hidden sense can be discovered, what, in the first view, conveyed to our minds a glaring absurdity, is rightly, on reflection, denominated nonsense. We are satisfied that De Piles neither thought, nor wanted his readers to think, that Rubens was really the original performer, and God the copier. This then was not his meaning. But what he actually thought, and wanted them to think, it is impossible to elicit from his words. His words then may justly be termed bold, in respect of their literal import, but unmeaning in respect of the author's intention.

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

It may be proper here to observe, that some are apt to confound the terms absurdity and nonsense as synonymous, which they mani. festly are not. An absurdity, in the strictest acceptation, is a proposition either intuitively or demonstratively false. Of this kind are these : “ Three and two make seven," " All the angles of a triangle are greater than two right angles.” That the former is false we know by intuition ; that the latter is so, we are able to demonstrate. But the term is further extended to denote a notorious falsehood. If one should affirm, that at the vernal equinox “ the sun rises in the north, and sets in the south,” we should not hesitate to say, that he advances an absurdity ; but still what he affirms has a meaning ; insomuch, that on hearing the sentence we pronounce its falsity. Now nonsense is that whereof we cannot say either that it is true, or that it is false. Thus, when the Teutonic theosopher enounces, that "all the voices of the celestial joyfulness, quality, commix, and harmonize in the fire which was from eternity in the good quality,” I should think it equally impertinent to aver the falsity as the truth of this enunciation. For, though the words grammatically form a sentence, they exhibit to the understanding no judgement, and consequently, admit neither assent nor dissent. In the former instances I say the meaning, or what they affirm is absurd ; in the last instance I say there is no meaning, and therefore properly nothing is affirmed. In popular language, I own, the terms absurdity and nonsense are not so accurately distinguished. Absurd positions are sometimes called nonsensical. It is not common, on the other hand, to say of downright nonsense, that it comprises an absurdity.

Further, in the literal sense there may be nothing unsuitable, and yet the reader may be at a loss to find a figurative meaning, to which his expressions can with justice be applied. Writers immoderately attached to the florid, or highly figured diction, are often misled by a desire of flourishing on the several attributes of a metaphor, which they have pompously ushered into the discourse, 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 above cited, the author having once determined to represent the human mind under the meta. phor 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, hollow caverns, and private seats, wastes, and wildernesses, fruitful and cultivated tracts, 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 his travel's history,
Wherein, belike, of antres vast and desarts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven,
'T had been his bent to speak.

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 familiarized. 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, what will not so readily escape the observation of the 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

[blocks in formation]
« 上一頁繼續 »