“Credibilius est, quia præsens est eis, quantum id capere possunt, Lumen Rationis æternæ, ubi hæc immutabilia vera conspiciunt.”—S. Augustin, Ret. i. 4.

“It may lead us a little,” says Locke, “towards the original of all our notions and knowledge, if we remark how great a dependence our words have on common sensible ideas; and how those which are made use of to stand for actions and notions quite removed from sense, have their rise from thence, and from obvious sensible ideas are transferred to more abstruse significations, and made to stand for ideas that come not under the cognizance of our senses.”[185]

So far we may seem to have been adducing a crowd of illustrations in support of this statement: for we have traced the germinal development of language from the seed and root of onomatopœia to the various ramifications of metaphor, and have seen convincing reason to infer the primary origin of all words from sensible ideas.

Are we then obliged to give in our adherence to the sensational philosophy, and to believe that “Nature, even in the naming of things, unawares suggested to men the originals and principles of all their knowledge?” Are we forced to accept the dogma that “there is nothing in the intellect, which has not previously existed in the sense?”

Such are the questions which must now be considered, because these are the conclusions usually drawn from the premisses, which have been hitherto receiving our support. The discussion of them cannot be considered a digression, because it will lead us at least to recognise the existence of problems which are of the profoundest importance, the examination of which must always bear reference to the facts of language, and especially to its origin and history. The space devoted by Locke to the development of his views on the use and abuse of words is a sufficient proof that we are not wilfully turning aside from the direct discussion of the subject before us. Indeed, it is the assertion of one of Locke’s acutest[186] and most admiring disciples, that the whole of the Essay on the Human Understanding is “little more than a philosophical account of the first sort of abbreviations in language.”

Before we reject the conclusion which may seem to have been involved in the facts which we have endeavoured to establish, it may be well to mark the full consequences which the sensationalists were gradually led to adopt. Locke, in defining the source of our ideas, had distinctly acknowledged an internal sense, which he calls reflection, as being necessary to complement the work of sensation; in the very passage which we quoted at the commencement of this chapter, he goes on to say that we have “no ideas at all, but what originally came either from sensible objects without, or what we feel within ourselves from the inward workings of our own spirits of which we are conscious to ourselves within.” Similarly, Bishop Berkeley, in his Theory of Vision, very clearly lays down “that there are properly no ideas or passive objects in the mind but what are derived from sense, but there are, besides these, her own acts and operations;—such are notions.”

But of that element of our thoughts which he called reflexion, Locke, although he barely asserted its existence, made so little use that it hardly counteracted the general tendency of his philosophy. “When[187] a term so wide and vague, or so complex and multifarious, so thin and shadowy, or so ponderous and unmanageable, as this ‘reflexion’ is introduced side by side with the clear, bodily, definite realities of the senses (sensation), it can hardly hold its place securely as a philosophical term.” Accordingly we are not surprised to find that Locke was claimed as the founder[188] of a sensationalist school, whose ultimate conclusions his calm and pious mind would have indignantly repudiated.

But it was in France that the Essay on Human Understanding was received with the most enthusiastic applause; and when the metaphysics of Locke had once “crossed the channel on the light and brilliant wings of Voltaire’s imagination,” sensationalism reigned for a long period without a rival near the throne. Etienne de Condillac was the philosopher who was mainly instrumental in introducing to his countrymen the speculations of the great English thinker; and it is an interesting fact that in Condillac’s first work, “L’Essai sur l’Origine des Connaissances Humaines,” (1746), he had not yet thought of “simplifying” Locke’s system, by discarding reflexion as an element of knowledge. But eight years after, in his “Traité des Sensations,” he states, in the broadest possible manner, that the senses are the source not only of our knowledge, but even (monstrous as it may appear) of our intellectual faculties themselves! And as he makes the faculty of speech the principle of superiority of men over animals, he is involved in the vicious[189] circle of considering language to be, at the same time and in the same sense, a cause and an effect of thought. This system found its most wonderful illustration in the too-famous description of the statue-man; a being, who, so far from being capable of acquiring memory, and judgment and thought, would even be incapable of anything, except mere organic impressions,[190] because it could have had no will whereby to contrast its personality with the action of external causes.

So far is it from being true, that there is nothing in the intellect which has not previously been in the sense, that even our conception of matter[191] itself is derived from a superior source, and would without the intellect be one at which we could not arrive. The senses themselves can tell us nothing except in so far as they are “the scribes[192] of the soul.”

It might have been thought that sensationalism itself could go no farther than Condillac, but it found exponents still more audacious in Helvetius and St. Lambert. According to the former, man is merely an animal superior to other animals because of the greater perfection of the organs with which he has been endowed; according to the latter, man, when born, is only an organised sensible mass; and the first objects which strike our senses give us our first ideas, until thus, gradually, Nature has created the soul within us. We are hardly surprised after this to find that Helvetius considers love to be only the feeling of a need, courage to be the fear of death (!), and “Do what is useful” to be the moral rule; and that St. Lambert avows openly, that pleasure and pain are the masters of man, so that the object of life will be to seek the one, and avoid the other.

Are we obliged by our theory respecting the origin of language to accept any of these conclusions? Must we say, with Condillac, that “science is only a well-constructed language?” or with M. Destutt de Tracy, that “thought[193] is sensation?” or (to go back to the cradle of these materialist imaginings), must we believe, with the old sophist, that “man[194] is the measure of all things?” that there is no eternal right or truth? that justice and turpitude are the result not of divine instinct, but of association, habit, custom, convention? Must all morality be founded, with Occam,[195] on the result of an arbitrary decree? and must we believe, with Horne Tooke, that truth is simply and purely relative, since its derivation is supposed to imply that it is merely what one “troweth?”

To establish such conclusions was the direct object of Horne Tooke in his “Diversions of Purley,”[196] and it is astonishing that he should have met with such complete success. A certain Dutchman[197] had preceded him in the same line of argument; abusing the fact that the terms of theology, morals, and metaphysics, are originally derived from material images, he turned theology and the Christian faith into ridicule in a little Dutch dictionary, in which he gave to words, not such definitions as usage demands, but such as seemed to carry a malignant inference drawn from the original meaning; and since he had shown marks of impiety elsewhere, they say that he was punished for it in the Raspel-Huyss.

Far different was the acceptance given to the “Diversions of Purley,” which to this day is praised and quoted, although a recent philologist has not scrupled to affirm that Tooke’s “alluring[198] speculations will not bear the light of advancing knowledge, and it is hardly too much to say that there is not a sound etymology in the work.” No one has done more to overthrow his baseless fabric than the late Mr. Garnett,[199] in an article on English Lexicography, who has shown in particular that the details of his much-vaunted analysis of the particles may be contested more often than admitted, and indeed that his theory contains very little that can be safely relied upon. Tooke seems to have been led to his system by the conjecture that “if” is equivalent to “gif,” an imperative of the verb “to give;” but as the cognate forms in other languages prove that this particle has no connection whatever either with the verb “to give” or with any other verb (a fact which was proved by Dr. Jamieson in his Scottish Dictionary), “any system founded on this basis is a mere castle in the air.” “According to Plutarch,” says Mr. Garnett, “the Delphian EI supported the tripod of truth; we fear that Tooke’s if imperative led him into a labyrinth of error.”

Again, let us take the etymology by which Tooke endeavours to explode the common notion of truth. He assumes that the word ‘truth’ is merely a contraction of “troweth,” and that “trow” simply denotes to think or believe. The inferences are as follows: “Truth[200] supposes mankind; for whom and by whom alone the word is formed, and to whom alone it is applicable. If no man, then no truth. There is no such thing as eternal, immutable, everlasting truth, unless mankind, such as they are at present, be also eternal, immutable, and everlasting. Two persons may contradict each other, and yet both speak truth, for the truth of one person may be opposite to the truth of another.” Here we are removed at once from the solid basis of certainty and conviction to the shifting deserts and treacherous waves of conjecture and doubt; and the etymologist would reduce morality and religion to shadowy superstructures built upon moving and trembling sands. Even if the derivation were admissible we should reject the conclusion, but the etymology is as erroneous as the inference drawn from it is dangerous and false. Mr. Garnett, with infinitely more probability, derives truth “from the Sanskrit dhru, to be established—fixum esse; whence dhruwa, certain, i.e., established; German, trauen, to rely, trust; treu, faithful, true; Anglo-Saxon, treowtreowth (fides); English, true; truth. To these we may add Gothic, triggons; Icelandic, trygge; (fidus, securus, tutus): all from the same root, and all conveying the same idea of stability or security. Truth, therefore, neither means what is thought nor what is said, but that which is permanent, stable, and is and ought to be relied upon, because, upon sufficient data, it is capable of being demonstrated or shown to exist. If we admit this explanation, Tooke’s assertions ... become Vox et præterea nihil. In all inquiries after truth, the question is, not what people, who may or may not be competent to form an opinion, think or believe, but what grounds they have for believing it.”[201]

The question how mind can be affected by matter has in all ages been a problem of philosophy. Descartes accounted for it by occasional causes; Leibnitz, by pre-established harmony; Malebranche, by a vision of all things in God; Kant, by the existence of innate ideas. However the question be resolved, it is closely analogous to the question, ‘how can things immaterial[202] and unsubstantial like thought and conception be represented, and for all practical purposes adequately represented by things physical, i.e., by pulsations and modifications of the ambient air?’

Idealism denies the existence of an external world, and obtrudes on us in its stead “a world of spectres and apparitions;” materialism denies us the possession of any ideas but those which we have derived from sense, and thus deprives us of all belief in an eternal and pre-existing truth; between the two we lose alike “the starry heaven above, and the moral law within.” But neither of these systems can derive any real support from the phenomena of language, which indeed in no way affect the considerations they involve. For if confessedly our words have nothing to tell us, and can tell us nothing about the world of phenomena, and yet the common sense of mankind forces us to believe in the existence of that outer world, then it can be no argument against the existence of noumena, i.e., against the existence of eternal ideas and necessary truths, that the words which we apply to our conceptions of immaterial entities are borrowed from the analogy which those conceptions offer to the objects surrounding us in the world of sense. “When we impose on a phenomenon of the physical order a moral denomination, we do not thereby spiritualise matter; and because we assign a physical denomination to a moral phenomenon, we do not materialise spirit. Let us not from these appellations, more or less inexact, draw conclusions either as to the nature of our ideas or the essence of things.”[203]

Even if it were possible that we could invent names for each separate particle of matter in the material universe, we should know nothing of any one particle except that it causes (or, perhaps, we ought to say no more than that it is) a modification of ourselves; and yet we believe that there is a non-ego entirely and wholly independent of the ego, though it may in no way resemble our notions respecting it. Why then may we not equally believe in the independent absolute existence of ideas which correspond to our terms,—truth and justice, goodness and beauty, space and time?

A shower falls while the sun is shining, and we are conscious of a sensation which presents to us an arch shining with the divided perfection of seven-fold light to which we have given the name Rainbow. But what does the name teach us of the thing itself? It is not even a name for the thing itself, but only for the effect it produces upon us; indeed for us, the very existence of the object is its perception, “its esse is percipi.” Not only is the coloured arch a phenomenon existing merely for us and our visual sense, but the very raindrops are only empirical phenomena, and “their[204] round shape—nay, even the space in which they are formed, are nothing in themselves but a mere modification or principle of our sensuous intuition; with all this, however, the object itself remains to us completely unknown.” We cannot even say that our conception of the object is in any way like the object itself: can pain, for instance, resemble the pricking of a pin? Such language, as Bp. Berkeley showed long ago, is a mere contradiction in terms; for “an idea can be like nothing but an idea; a colour or figure can be like nothing but another colour or figure. I appeal to any one whether it be sense to assert that a colour is like something which is invisible; hard or soft, like something which is intangible.”

What, then, is the word (e.g. rainbow) to us? In itself it is worthless, a mere hieroglyphic, which cannot even teach us one iota about the phenomenal world. We are very far from agreeing with the “divers philosophers” mentioned by Sir Hugh Evans in the Merry Wives[205] of Windsor, who “hold that the lips is parcel of the mind.” We still believe that objects do exist in the external world, even although it be absurd to say that they resemble our “ideas” of them. Although to us they can only exist as “ideas,” and not as objects, we do not therefore deny that they have a real independent existence of their own. And precisely in the same way, whatever may be the derivation of the word truth, and however much our conceptions of that word must be modified by the laws of thought, we yet believe, as firmly as we believe anything, that truth has an independent, eternal, immutable existence; that it is infinitely more than a mere “flatus vocis;” that its indestructible idea, its original, its antetype, exists in the Divine[206] mind, and that if man and the works of man were to sink for ever into annihilation in the flames of a fiery surge, truth and wisdom would still exist, even as they existed when God prepared the heavens, “from the[207] beginning, or ever the earth was.”

There is then no reason to complain of the materialism of language, or to be afraid of the conclusions which nominalists like Horne Tooke and his Dutch predecessor would willingly draw from the origin of words. No system of materialism will account for grammar, that form of language which is due to the pure reason. No treatise on the history of words will be able to point to any external source as sufficient to account for the relation[208] of words among themselves. No language is a mere collection of words; and Locke in all that he has written about words has offered no proof that any system of syntax is ultimately due to sensible ideas. His followers have attempted this, but they have failed. An eminent modern scholar has observed that a “careful[209] dissection of the whole body of inflected speech will make it plain, that while words are merely outward symbols, designating certain notions of the mind, those notions do not stand related in all cases, just as the words or inflections which express them, and that we cannot by means of mere words convert into physical truth all that is logically and metaphysically true.”

Language is not what it has been called, “la pensée[210] devenue matière.” The very expression involves a contradiction. Words can be nothing but symbols, and, at the best, very imperfect ones. To make the symbol in any way a measure of the thought, is to bring down the infinite to the measure of the finite. Our words mean far more than they express, they shadow forth far more than it is in their power to define. When two men converse their words are but an instrument; the speaker is descending from[211] thoughts to words, the listener rising from words to thoughts. Onomatopœia and metaphor are sufficient to provide us with the material part of language, the articulate sounds; but to translate those sounds into signs or words is the effort of a faculty which transcends the sense. On the one hand we have a spiritual perception,[212] the thought; on the other hand a material accident, the combination of articulate utterances;—but what power can bridge the abysm between the two? The reason, and the reason only. Without reason, the use of metaphor would be impossible, and the result of imitation would be a collection of sounds as meaningless as the screams of a parrot or the chatterings of an ape.

Surely these considerations are sufficient to show that there is no danger to true philosophy in the inferences to which language leads us. But, indeed, the whole of nominalism rests on a vast petitio principii. Because our primitive vocabulary is deduced solely from corporeal or sensible images, it is assumed, per saltum, that our intellect only admits of conceptions directly derived from the agency of the senses, and that therefore thought is nothing but sensation. But the consciousness of the metaphor has vanished for ages from language, and when we use such a word as “spirit,” we do not even remember that our word means in itself no more than “a whisper of the wind.” Our primitive conceptions admitted only of expression by means of a material analogy:—this is the sole ground of nominalism, and it will not bear the enormous structure of inferences built upon it; 1st, that our conceptions were themselves originally material; and, 2ndly, that they are and must be so still, because we are incapable of any others.

Finally, there are in every language “a vast number of words which may be explained by the idea, although the idea cannot be discovered by the word, as is the case with whatever belongs to the mystery of the mind.” Such words are sacrifice, sacrament, mystery, eternity. The conclusion to which they lead us is a plain one, and it is one which will render us fearless of the arguments which the sensational philosophy has so long paraded with triumph as the main support of its unbeliefs. It is that “Words are at most intellectual symbols, and symbols are, at the best, words. Neither the words of language, nor the symbols of religion, are the basis and reality of thought or of worship; they have no reality but in reason and conscience, and are of no use but in so far as they express this reality, and are so[213] understood and applied.”

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