Page images

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, serve, 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 observaVOL. II. G



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 Į 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 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 "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 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

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 açcount 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. 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 ushered into the discourse,

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

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »