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Condillac, and other French Metaphysicians of a later date.
WHILE Hartley and Bonnet were indulging their imagination in theorizing concerning the nature of the union between soul and body, Condillac was attempting to draw the attention of his countrymen to the method of studying the phenomena of Mind recommended and exemplified by Locke.* Of the vanity of expecting to illustrate, by physiological conjectures, the manner in which the intercourse between the thinking principle and the external world is carried on, no philosopher seems ever to have been more completely aware; and, accordingly, he confines himself strictly, in all his researches concerning this intercourse, to an examination of the general laws by which it is regulated. There is, at the same time, a remarkable coincidence between some of his views and those of the other two writers. All of the three, while they profess the highest veneration for Locke,
*It may appear to some unaccountable, that no notice should have been taken, in this Dissertation, of any French metaphysician during the long interval between Malebranche and Condillac. As an apology for this apparent omission, I beg leave to quote the words of an author intimately acquainted with the history of French literature and philosophy, and eminently qualified to appreciate the merits of those who have contributed to their progress. "If we except," says Mr. Adam Smith, in a Memoir published in 1755, "the Meditations of Descartes, I know of nothing in the works of French writers which aspires at originality in morals or metaphysics; for the philosophy of Regius and that of Malebranche are nothing more than the meditations of Descartes unfolded with more art and refinement. But Hobbes, Locke, Dr. Mandeville, Lord Shaftesbury, Dr. Butler, Dr. Clarke, and Mr. Hutcheson, each in his own system, all different and all incompatible, have tried to be original, at least in some points. They have attempted to add something to the fund of observations collected by their predecessors, and already the common property of mankind. This branch of science, which the English themselves neglect at present, appears to have been recently transported into France. I discover some traces of it not only in the Encyclopédie, but in the Theory of Agreeable Sensations, by M. de Pouilly; and much more in the late discourse of M. Rousseau, On the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Ranks among Men."
Although I perfectly agree with Mr. Smith in his general remark on the sterility of invention among the French metaphysicians posterior to Descartes, when compared to those of England, I cannot pass over the foregoing quotation without expressing my surprise, 1. To find the name of Malebranche (one of the highest in modern philosophy) degraded to a level with that of Regius; and, 2. To observe Mr. Smith's silence with respect to Buffier and Condillac, while he mentions the author of the Theory of Agreeable Sensations as a metaphysician of original genius. Of the merits of Condillac, whose most important works were published several years before this paper of Mr. Smith's, I am about to speak in the text; and those of Buffier I shall have occasion to mention in a subsequent part of this discourse. In the mean time, I shall only say of him, that I regard him as one of the most original as well as sound philosophers of whom the eighteenth century has to boast.
have abandoned his account of the origin of our ideas for that of Gassendi; and, by doing so, have, with the best intentions, furnished arms against those principles which it was their common aim to establish in the world.* It is *much to be regretted, that by far the greater part of those French writers who have since speculated about the human mind, have acquired the whole of their knowledge of Locke's philosophy through this mistaken comment upon its fundamental principle. On this subject I have already exhausted all that I have to offer on the effect of Condillac's writings; and, I flatter myself, have sufficiently shown how widely his commentary differs from the text of his author. It is this commentary, however, which is now almost universally received on the Continent as the doctrine of Locke, and which may justly be regarded as the sheet-anchor of those systems which are commonly stigmatized in England with the appellation of French philosophy. Had Condillac been sufficiently aware of the consequences which have been deduced (and I must add logically deduced) from his account of the origin of our knowledge, I am persuaded, from his known candor and love of truth, that he would have been eager to acknowledge and to retract his error.
In this apparent simplification and generalization of Locke's doctrine, there is, it must be acknowledged, something, at first sight, extremely seducing. It relieves the mind from the painful exercise of abstracted reflection, and amuses it with analogy and metaphor, when it looked only for the severity of logical discussion. The clearness and simplicity of Condillac's style add to the force of this illusion, and flatter the reader with an agreeable idea of the powers of his own understanding, when he finds himself so easily conducted through the darkest labyrinths of metaphysical science. It is to this cause I would chiefly ascribe the great popularity of his works. They may be read with as little exertion of thought as a
* Condillac's earliest work appeared three years before the publication of Hartley's Theory. It is entitled, "Essai sur l'Origine des Connoissances Humaines. Ouvrage où l'on réduit à un seul principe tout ce qui concerne l'entendement humain." This seul principe is the Association of Ideas. The account which both authors give of the transformation of sensations into ideas is substantially the
history or a novel; and it is only when we shut the book, and attempt to express in our own words, the substance of what we have gained, that we have the mortification to see our supposed acquisitions vanish into air.
The philosophy of Condillac was, in a more peculiar manner, suited to the taste of his own country, where (according to Mad. de Staël) " few read a book but with a view to talk of it."* Among such a people, speculations which are addressed to the power of reflection can never expect to acquire the same popularity with theories expressed in a metaphorical language, and constantly recalling to the fancy the impressions of the external senses. The state of society in France, accordingly, is singularly unfavorable to the inductive philosophy of the human mind; and of this truth no proof more decisive can be produced, than the admiration with which the metaphysical writings of Condillac have been so long regarded.
On the other hand, it cannot be denied that Condillac has, in many instances, been eminently successful, both in observing and describing the mental phenomena; but, in such cases, he commonly follows Locke as his guide; and, wherever he trusts to his own judgment, he seldom fails to wander from his way. The best part of his works relates to the action and reaction of thought and language on each other, a subject which had been previously very profoundly treated by Locke, but which Condillac has had the merit of placing in many new and happy points of view. In various cases, his conclusions are pushed too far; and in others, are expressed without due precision; but, on the whole, they form a most valuable accession to this important branch of logic; and (what not a little enhances their value) they have been instrumental in recommending the subject to the attention of other inquirers, still better qualified than their author to do it justice.
In the speculation, too, concerning the origin and the
*« En France, on ne lit guère un ouvrage que pour en parler.”—(Allemagne, Tom. I. p. 292.) The same remark, I am much afraid, is becoming daily more and more applicable to our own island.
theoretical history of language, Condillac was one of the first who made any considerable advances; nor does it reflect any discredit on his ingenuity, that he has left some of the principal difficulties connected with the inquiry very imperfectly explained. The same subject was soon after taken up by Mr. Smith, who, I think, it must be owned, has rather slurred over these difficulties, than attempted to remove them; an omission on his part the more remarkable, as a very specious and puzzling objection had been recently stated by Rousseau, not only to the theory of Condillac, but to all speculations which have for their object the solution of the same problem. "If language," says Rousseau, "be the result of human convention, and if words be essential to the exercise of thought, language would appear to be necessary for the invention of language."*"But," continues the same author, "when, by means which I cannot conceive, our new grammarians began to extend their ideas, and to generalize their words, their ignorance must have confined them within very narrow bounds. How, for example, could they imagine or comprehend such words as matter, mind, substance, mode, figure, motion, since our philosophers, who have so long made use of them, scarcely understand them, and since the ideas attached to them, being purely metaphysical, can have no model in nature P
"I stop at these first steps," continues Rousseau, “and intreat my judges to pause, and consider the distance. between the easiest part of language, the invention of physical substantives, and the power of expressing all the thoughts of man, so as to speak in public, and influence society. I intreat them to reflect upon the time and knowledge it must have required to discover numbers, abstract words, aorists, and all the tenses of verbs, particles, syntax, the art of connecting propositions and arguments, and how to form the whole logic of discourse.
That men never could have invented an artificial language, if they had not possessed a natural language, is an observation of Dr. Reid's; and it is this indisputable and self-evident truth which gives to Rousseau's remark that imposing plausibility, which, at first sight, dazzles and perplexes the judgment. I by no means say, that the former proposition affords a key to all the difficulties suggested by the latter; but it advances us at least one important step towards their solution.
As for myself, alarmed at these multiplying difficulties, and convinced of the almost demonstrable impossibility of language having been formed and established by means merely human, I leave to others the discussion of the problem, Whether a society already formed was more necessary for the institution of language, or a language already invented for the establishment of society?'"*
Of the various difficulties here enumerated, that mentioned by Rousseau, in the last sentence, was plainly considered by him as the greatest of all; or rather, as comprehending under it all the rest. But this difficulty arises merely from his own peculiar and paradoxical theory about the artificial origin of society; a theory which needs no refutation, but the short and luminous aphorism of Montesquieu, that "man is born in society, and there he remains." The other difficulties touched upon by Rousseau, in the former part of this quotation, are much more serious, and have never yet been removed in a manner completely satisfactory: And hence some very ingenious writers have been led to conclude, that language could not possibly have been the work of human invention. This argument has been lately urged with much acuteness and plausibility by Dr. Magee of Dublin, and by M. de Bonald of Paris. It may, however, be reasonably questioned, if these philosophers would not have reasoned more logically, had they contented themselves with merely affirming, that the problem has not yet been solved, without going so far as to pronounce it to be absolutely insolvable. For my own part, when I consider its extreme difficulty, and the short space of time during which it has engaged the attention of the learned, I am more disposed to wonder at the steps which have been already gained in the research, than at the number of desiderata which remain to employ the ingenuity of our successors. It is justly remarked by Dr. Ferguson, that "when language has attained to that per
* Discours sur l'Origine et les Fondemens de l'Inégalité parmi les Hommes. The same theory has been extended to the art of writing; but if this art was first taught to man by an express revelation from Heaven, what account can be given of its present state in the great empire of China? Is the mode of writing practised there of divine or of human origin?