Cato's Letter No. 120

Of the proper Usee of Words.

John Trenchard (Saturday, March 16, 1723)

SIR, As I have in former papers treated of the abuse of words; so I shall, in this, discourse about the use of them. They are the signs of ideas, as figures are of numbers; and are intended to convey the conceptions of men to one another: They have no more meaning in themselves than inarticulate sounds, till men have agreed to put a meaning upon them, which meaning is wholly arbitrary; and therefore unless they mean the same things by the same words, that is annex the same conceptions to the same sounds, they cannot understand one another, or discourse together. If one man annex more or less ideas to the same words than another does whom he reasons with, it is impossible that they should agree in conclusions; when their premises are different, their reasonings will be a game at blindmanís-buff: And therefore it is absolutely necessary, in all disputes, to settle the meanings of the terms made use of, before any thing can be affirmed or denied on either side.

A word not standing for any idea, is only a bare sound; and it is no more, to one who knows not what idea it stands for. The agreeing therefore in sounds, and not agreeing in the meaning of them, is no agreement at all; and though this may be a good test of orthodoxy amongst some sets of ecclesiasticks, yet I will presume to say, that it is none in common sense. It appears to me, that most of the polemick quarrels in the world have flowed from this inobservance. Men use the same sounds to express different conceptions, either in whole or in part; that is, one man comprehends more or less ideas in the terms which he makes use of than another, and then makes use of other words equally uncertain to explain that meaning; and so in a few propositions quite loses his argument, and the combatants quarrel about what they have been talking of. But though this manner of scuffling in the dark be a great obstruction, and almost an insurmountable bar to all sorts of useful knowledge, yet it highly conduces to the power and credit of those who derive riches and authority from the ignorance and credulity of others.

It gives them the reputation of learning, for talking unintelligibly: It enables them to discourse upon all subjects alike, and to fetch every thing out of every thing; for by not explaining their words, they make them signify what they please, and vary them as often as they have occasion: so that in the course of a debate they have failed in all the points of the compass. The abuse is yet more observable and mischievous in translations from one language to another; for, as few or no men understand a dead language, in many respects, in the sense which it was spoken in (and indeed few men in the same country, and the same language, speak many words in the same sense that their ancestors spoke them, the meaning of words, like all other things, being in perpetual rotation) and as few words in any language, such as comprehend complex ideas, are exactly answered by correspondent words in any other, that is, do not contain just the same number of ideas; so it is very difficult, if not impossible, in many instances, to make an exact translation; and, consequently, very easy to make a false one: And therefore it is very ridiculous (to call it by no worse a name) in controverted points, to build an hypothesis upon the signification of single words in a dead language (which, perhaps, was translated from another language) when we neither know their manner of speaking, the philosophy and speculations which they were conversant with, nor the customs to which they alluded, and are very sure that they were different from our own, and, in many instances, had not the same common conceptions or images.

But it is not enough that we must have what are often called ideas to our words, but they must be adequate ones; for all inadequate ideas are no ideas; that is, they must be adequate as far as they are ideas: What stands for no conception, stands for nothing; and the word used can only stand for the conception, such as it is, and as far as it goes; and when the conception goes no farther, no word can stand for that which is not. It is certain, that there is no one thing in the universe of which we can have an adequate conception in the strict sense of those words; but we convey by words only such conceptions as we have, which possibly do not exhaust the millionth part of their properties; but then we are in the dark as to all the rest, and neither can affirm nor deny any thing about them: And if one man take any more or less ideas in the term he makes use of than another, he does not talk with him to the same point.

One man has no conception of gold but by the colour, and he will call princeís-metal gold; another knows it by its weight, fineness, and touch; and if a new metal should be discovered, which answers all these marks, and should yet want some medicinal qualities, or, perhaps, the same solubility which gold has, yet he will still call it gold, according to the properties which his imagination has annexed to the word gold; and all these three will be called by the same name, and yet different metals will be meant; and every one of these conceptions, as far as they go, are adequate, though neither of them are so to the subject, which has undoubtedly many properties which no one knows any thing of: but then we do not reason upon those properties, nor do the sounds which we use stand for them.

From what has been said appears the absurdity of being told, that we must believe things which we do not understand; or of believing things above reason, though not contrary to reason. We must have ideas, or images, of all objects of belief, or else we believe in nothing, but that we hear a sound; and it is the same thing to us whether it signify any thing or not, if we do not know what it signifies. If a man make a proposition to me in the Chinese language, and tell me that I must believe it, nothing here can be the object of my faith, but that the man does not tell me a lie, which has nothing to do with the proposition itself; and it would have been the same thing to me, if he had told me that I must believe in his thought, without telling me what that thought was; and there can be no difference, if he use words in a language which I am acquainted with, if I do not understand the meaning in which he uses those words.

From hence appears the ridicule of a late sect in Holland, and of many other visionary madmen at home, who think that the scripture is to be for the most part understood metaphorically, and find meanings in it which the words do not naturally import; which is making the Almighty speak in riddles to his creatures, and obliging them to pay largely out of their substance to those who make them yet greater riddles. What can be more absurd and wicked, than to suppose, that the great and good God should speak to mankind with a design not to be understood? should give them a rule to act by, yet express that rule in words which few can pretend to apprehend, and those few differ about? Certainly, as has been said, words are of no use but to convey ideas; and if they be not used in their common acceptation, to signify those conceptions which custom has annexed to them, or such as men shall agree to put upon them, then they must be perfectly useless, will convey no ideas at all, can give us no rule, nor can communicate any knowledge.

It is certain, as has been said, that no manís perceptions can exhaust the properties of any one thing in the world: All that we know of them is from a few obvious qualities which affect our senses; but without doubt they have thousands of others, of which we know nothing; much less can we know any thing of their substratum, or internal essence, or contexture: but then neither can we believe any thing of those hidden essences, or qualities, nor do we mean any thing about them when we talk of any being or substance. As in the instance before given; if a man carry to a goldsmith a solid substance, and ask him what he thinks it to be, and the goldsmith look upon the colour, touch it, weigh it, melt it, and then tell him that he believes it to be gold; it is certain that the goldsmith neither believes nor affirms any thing about it, further than of its colour, its touch, its weight, and its solubility, which are his ideas of gold: But gold has, without question, many other properties which he has never heard of; but then he does not take in those properties in this perception of gold; and he neither does nor can believe any thing about them, till he has formed some idea of those hidden qualities.

This leads me to consider what men mean, when they say that they believe in a mystery. We must understand the meaning of the words connected, and of the verb which connects them, and makes them a proposition, or else we believe in nothing; that is, we must have a perception of all those ideas which the words stand for in our imaginations; and so far it is no mystery. But then we may be told, that the beings, to which we have annexed those ideas, and by which we distinguish them from other beings, may, and undoubtedly have, many other qualities, or properties, that we know nothing of: An assertion which must be granted to be true of every thing in nature. And in this sense every thing is a mystery, and every man will readily believe such a mystery. But then if we be told, that we must believe in the properties, or qualities, of which we know nothing, or have any idea; I think that the mystery will then consist in the nonsense of the proposition; and it is the same thing to tell us, that we must believe in fe-fa-fum: For, a man cannot believe without believing something; and he must know what that something is, that is, he must know what he believes, or else his belief is only an abstract word, without any subject to believe in, or any thing of.

Thus when we say, that we believe there are three persons in the Trinity, and but one God, we must have distinct ideas to the words person, Trinity, and God. For if men have no meaning to these words, they mean nothing by the proposition; and if they annex different perceptions to them, then they have a different creed: though they fancy that they subscribe the same. No one can know whether another be orthodox in his sense, till the terms be defined, and stand for the same ideas in both their minds: To say, that they believe in three persons, without telling what they mean by the word person, is the same as to say, that they believe in three somethings, or in the word three; which indeed is a very mysterious belief, and a pretty center of unity: for no man can believe any thing else, till he has fixed a meaning to the word person; and if another do not agree with him in that meaning, they will differ in religion, though they agree in sounds, and perhaps in falling foul upon every one who desires them to explain themselves; which behaviour, amongst too many people, is the main test of orthodoxy.

They must agree also in what they mean by the word God. I do not mean, that they must define his essence, have any adequate notion of his infinity, eternity, or of the sensorium of his existence; for of these things we neither know, nor can know, any thing: But we must know what we mean by the sound which we make use of; that is, we must have a perception of those images annexed to the word God in our minds, and a perception adequate to itself, though in no-wise adequate and correspondent to the subject; which images in different men, I doubt, are very various; and when they are so, these men plainly differ in the object of their worship, and are of a different religion, though they may think themselves to be of the same. This shall be the subject of some other paper hereafter; in which I shall shew, how absurd as well as impious it is, for men to fall together by the ears upon the account of their difference in trifles, when they scarce agree in any one thing in the world, if they explain themselves, not even in the attributes annexed to the object of all worship, though they can know nothing of him but from his attributes.

T I am, &c.

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