Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge

It may well be that those words did originally evoke

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Unformatted text preview: ithout it. I urge you to reflect on your own experience. When you are hearing or reading a discourse, doesn’t it often happen that emotions of fear, love, hatred, admiration, disdain, and so on arise immediately in your mind when you see or hear certain words, without any ideas intervening between the words and the emotion? It may well be that those Ÿwords did originally evoke Ÿideas that produced those sorts of Ÿemotions; but I think you will find that, once the language has become familiar, hearing the sounds or seeing the Ÿwords is often followed by those Ÿemotions immediately, entirely leaving out the Ÿideas that used to be a link in the chain. For example, can we not be influenced by the promise of ‘a good thing’ without having an idea of what it is? Again, is not a threat of ‘danger’ enough to make us afraid, even if we don’t think of any particular evil that is likely to befall us or even form an idea of danger in the abstract? If you reflect a little on your own situation in the light of what I have said, I think you will find it obvious that general names are often used, in a perfectly proper way, without the speaker’s intending them as marks of ideas in his own mind that he wants to arouse in the mind of the hearer. Even proper names, it seems, are not always spoken with the intention of bringing into hearers’ minds the ideas of those individuals who are named. For example, when a schoolman [= ‘follower of Aristotle’] tells me ‘Aristotle has said it,’ I understand him merely to be trying to incline me to accept his opinion with the deference and submission that custom has linked with the name ‘Aristotle’, ·and my idea of Aristotle doesn’t come into it·. Innumerable examples of this kind could be given, but why should I go on about things that I’m sure are abundantly illustrated in your own experience? 21 intro. I think I have shown the impossibility of abstract ideas. I have considered what has been said on their behalf by their ablest supporters, and have tried to show they are of no use for the purposes for which they are thought to be necessary. And, lastly, I have traced them to their source, which appears to be language. It can’t be denied that words 10 are extremely useful: they make it possible for all the knowledge that has been gained by the enquiries of men at many times and in all nations to be pulled together and surveyed by a single person. But at the same time it must be admitted that most branches of knowledge have been made enormously much darker and more difficult by the misuse of words and turns of phrase. Therefore, since words are so apt to influence our thoughts, when I want to consider any ideas I shall try to take them bare and naked, keeping out of my thoughts as much as I can - the names that those ideas have been given through long and constant use. From this I expect to derive the following advantages:22 intro. ŸFirst, I shall be sure to keep clear of all purely verbal controversies - those weeds whose springing up, in almost all branches of knowledge, has been a principal hindrance to the growth of true and sound knowledge. ŸSecondly, this seems to be a sure way to extricate myself from that fine and delicate net of abstract ideas, which has so miserably perplexed and entangled the minds of men (with this special feature: the more sharp-witted and exploratory any man’s mind is, the more completely he is likely to be trapped and held by the net). ŸThirdly, so long as I confine my thoughts to my own ideas with the words peeled off, I don’t see how I can be easily mistaken. The objects that I consider are all ones that I clearly and adequately know: I cannot fall into error by thinking I have an idea that I really do not have, or by imagining that two of my own ideas are alike (or that they are unalike) when really they are not. To observe how my ideas agree or disagree, and to see which ideas are included in any compound idea and which are not, all I need is to pay attention to what happens in my own understanding. 23 intro. But I cannot get all these advantages unless I free myself entirely from the deception of words. I hardly dare promise myself that, because the union between words and ideas began early and has been strengthened by many years of habit ·in thought and speech·, so that it is very difficult to dissolve. This difficulty seems to have been very much increased by the doctrine of abstraction. For so long as men thought their words have abstract ideas tied to them, it is not surprising that they used words in place of ideas: they found that they couldn’t set aside the word and retain the abstract idea in the mind, because abstract ideas are perfectly inconceivable. That is the principal cause for the fact that men who have emphatically recommended to others that in their meditations they should lay aside all use of words and instead contemplate their bare ideas have failed to do this themselves. Recently many people have become aware of the absurd opinions and meaningless disputes that grow out of the abuse of words. And they had given good advice about how to remedy th...
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