French Philosopher and Epistemologist
Étienne Bonnot de Condillac
French Philosopher and Epistemologist
It frequently happens that the imagination produces even such effects within us, as might seem to proceed from present reflection. Though we may be greatly taken up with a particular idea, yet the objects which surround us, continue to solicit our senses; the perceptions they occasion, revive others with which they are connected; and these determine certain movements in our bodies.
The language of song or vocal music is not so familiar to us, as it was to the ancients'; and that of mere instrumental performance has no longer the air of novelty, which alone has so great an effect upon the imagination.
We see plainly what were the subjects of the earliest poems. At the first institution of societies, mankind could not as yet employ themselves in matters of amusement; so that the wants which obliged them to unite, at the fame time confined their views to whatever might be useful or necessary to them. Therefore poetry and music were cultivated merely with a design to promote the knowledge of religion and laws, or to preserve the memory of great men, and of the services which they had done to society.
It is easy to distinguish two ideas absolutely simple; but in proportion as they become more complex, the difficulties increase. Then as our notions resemble each other in more respects, there is reason to fear lest we take many of them for one only, or at least that we do not distinguish them as much as we might. This frequently happens in. metaphysics and morals. The subject which we have actually in hand, is a very sensible proof of the difficulties that are to be surmounted. On these occasions we cannot be too cautious in pointing out even the minutest differences.
The progress of the operations, whose analysis and origin have been here explained, is obvious. At first, there is only a simple perception in the mind, which is no more than the impression it receives from external objects.
What we have been saying in regard to imagination and memory, must be applied to contemplation, according as it is referred to either. If it be made to consist in retaining the perceptions; before the use of instituted signs it has only a habit which does not depend on us: but it has none at all, if it be made to consist in preserving the signs themselves.
Language was a long time without having any other words than the names which had been given to sensible objects, such as these, tree, fruit, water, fire, and others, which they had more frequent occasion to mention.
The prosody of different languages does not deviate equally from music. In some it affects a greater, in some a lesser variety of accents, because from the variety of constitutions in people of different climates, it is impossible they should have the same sensibility.
When words were become the most natural signs of our ideas, the necessity of arranging them in an order so contrary to that which at present prevails, was no longer the fame. And yet they continued to do it, because the character of languages, having been framed from this necessity, did not permit any change. to be made in this custom; neither did they begin to draw near to our manner of conceiving, till after a long succession of idioms.
A single word, which depicts nothing, would not have been sufficiently expressive to have immediately succeeded the mode of speaking by action: this was a language so well proportioned to rude capacities, that it could not be supplied by articulate sounds, without accumulating expressions one upon the other.
Let us consider man the first moment of his existence; his mind immediately feels different sensations; such as light, colors, pain, pleasure, motion, rest: these arc his first thoughts.
The sensations therefore, and the operations of the mind, are the materials of all our knowledge; materials which our reflection employs, when by compounding pounding it seeks for the relations which they contain.
With regard to natural cries, this man shall form them, as soon as he feels the passions to which they belong. However they will not be signs in respect to him the first time; because instead of reviving .his perceptions, they will as yet be no more than consequences of those perceptions.
All men cannot connect their ideas with equal force, nor in equal number: and this is the reason why all are not equally happy in their imagination and memory.
Mankind did not multiply words without necessity, especially in the beginning: for they were, at no small trouble to invent and to retain them.
The very dawn of memory is sufficient to make us masters of the habit of our imagination. A single arbitrary sign is enough to enable a person to revive an idea by himself; this is vcertainly the first and smallest degree of memory, and of the command which we may acquire over the imagination.
And yet it is not always in our power to revive the perceptions we have felt. On some occasions the most we can do is by recalling to mind their names, to recollect some of the circumstances atr tending them, and an abstract idea of perception; an idea which we are capable of framing every instant, because we never think without being conscious of some perception which it depends on ourselves, to render genera).
Memory, as we have seen, consists only in the power of reviving the signs of our ideas, or the circumstances that attended them; a power which never takes place, except when by the analogy of the signs we have chosen, and by the order we have settled between our ideas, the objects which we want to revive are connected with some of our present wants.
The whole tribe of philosophers have fallen into the fame error with Locke. Some of them, who pretend that every perception leaves an image in the mind, in the same manner almost as a seal leaves its impression behind it, are not to be excepted: for what is the image of a perception, which is not the perception itself? The mistake is owing to this, that for want of having sufficiently considered the matter, they have mistaken, for the very perception of the object, some circumstances, or some general idea, which revive themselves in its stead. To avoid such mistakes, I shall here distinguish the different perceptions we are capable of feeling, and examine them each in their proper order.
And yet, let the nature of these perceptions be what it will, and let them be produced as they will, if we look amongst them for the idea of extension, for instance, of a line, of an angle, and any other figure, we shall find it in that repository very clearly and distinctly.
Music must naturally have been criticized in proportion as it improved, especially if its progress was considerable and subitaneous: for then it differs most from the sounds to which our ear is accustomed. But if we begin to be used to it, then it pleases, and it is prejudice any longer to oppose it.
There is evidence that the faculty of reflection will appear as soon as our senses begin to develop, and it is equally true that we have the use of the senses from an early age, just because at an early age we began to reflect.
But as soon as a man comes to connect ideas with signs of his own choosing, we find his memory is formed.
Our declamatory speaking is therefore naturally less expressive than music. For I want to know what sound is best adapted to express any particular passion? In the first place, it must surely be that which imitates the natural sign of this passion; and' this is common both to declamation and music.
There is neither error, nor obscurity, nor confusion in what passes within us, nor in the application we make to that which is without us.