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What was the interpretation annexed by Helvetius himself to Locke's doctrine on this point, appears clearly from the corollary which he deduced from it, and which he has employed so many pages in illustrating ; “that everything in man resolves “ultimately into sensation, or the operation offeel“ing.” This, therefore, is the whole amount of the discovery which Helvetius considered as the exclusive glory of Locke. , “It is to Aristotle we owe,” says Condorcet, “that important truth, the first step in the science “of mind, that our ideas, even such as are most 'ab“stract, most strictly intellectual (so to speak), have “their origin in our sensations. But this truth he “did not attempt to support by any demonstration. “It was rather the intuitive perception of a man of “genius, than the result of a series of observations “accurately analyzed, and systematically combined, “in order to derive from them some general con“clusion. Accordingly, this germ, cast in an un“grateful soil, produced no fruit till after a period “of more than twenty centuries." “At length, Locke made himself master of the “proper clue. He shewed, that a precise and ac“curate analysis of ideas, resolving them into other
Gillies, is somewhat too unqualified, at least when applied to the writers of this country. Mr Harris (whose Hermes happens now to be lying before me) mentions explicitly the phrase in question, as a noted school ariom. (Harris's Works, Vol. I. p. 419.) Nor do I at present recollect any one author of reputation who has considered it in a different light. * Outlines of Historic. View, &c. Eng. Trans, pp. 107, 108.
“ideas, earlier in their origin, and more simple in “their composition, was the only means to avoid be“ing lost in a chaos of notions, incomplete, incohe“rent, and indeterminate; destitute of order, be“cause suggested by accident; and admitted among “the materials of our knowledge without due ex“amination. “He proved by this analysis, that the whole circle “ of our ideas results merely from the operation of “our intellect upon the sensations we have receiv“ed; or, more accurately speaking, that all our “ideas are compounded of sensations, offering “themselves simultaneously to the memory, and af. “ter such a manner, that the attention is fixed, “and the perception limited to a particular collec“tion, or portion of the sensations combined.”" . The language, in this extract, is so extremely vague and loose, that I should have been puzzled in my conjectures about its exact import, had it not been for one clause, in which the author states, with an affectation of more than common accuracy, as the general result of Locke's discussions, this short and simple proposition, that all our ideas are compounded of sensations. The clause immediately preceding these words, and of which they are introduced as an explanation, or rather as an amendment, certainly seems, at first sight, to have been intended to convey a meaning very different from this, and a meaning not liable, in my opinion, to the same
* Outlines, &c. pp. 240 and 241–Not having the original in my possession, I have transcribed the above passage very nearly from the English Translation, published at London in 1795.
weighty objections. But neither the one interpretation nor the other can possibly be reconciled with Locke’s doctrine, as elucidated by himself in the particular arguments to which he applies it in various parts of his Essay. I shall only add to these passages a short quotation from Diderot, who has taken more pains than most French writers to explain, in a manner perfectly distinct and unequivocal, his own real opinion with respect to the origin and the extent of human knowledge. “Every idea must necessarily, when brought to “its state of ultimate decomposition, resolve itself “into a sensible representation or picture; and, “since everything in our understanding has been “introduced there by the channel of sensation, "“whatever proceeds out of the understanding is “either chimerical, or must be able, in returning “by the same road, to re-attach itself to its sensi“ble archetype. Hence an important rule in phi“losophy, -That every expression which cannot “find an external and a sensible object to which it “can thus establish its affinity, is destitute of sig“nification.”*
* “Toute idée doit se resoudre, en dernière décomposition, en “une representation sensible, et puisque tout ce quiest dans notre “entendement est venu par la voie de notre sensation, tout ce qui “sort denotre entendement est chimerique, ou doit, en retournant “par le même chemin, trouver, hors de nous, un objët sensible “ pour s'y rattacher. De laune granderègle en philosophie; c’est “que toute expression qui ne trouve pas hors de mous un objet “sensible auguel elle puisse se rattacher, est vuide de sens.”— (Euvrcs de Diderot, Tom, WI.
When we compare this conclusion of Diderot's with the innate ideas of Descartes, the transition from one extreme to the other seems wonderful indeed. And yet I am inclined to ascribe to the lateness of the period when Locke's philosophy became prevalent in France, the extravagance of the length to which his doctrines have since been pushed by some French writers. The implicit faith which was so long attached by their immediate predecessors to the Cartesian system, naturally prepared the way for the sudden and blind admission of a contrary error:—so just is the remark of a candid and judicious inquirer, that “the first step from a “complete ignorance of a philosophical principle, is “a disposition to carry its generalization beyond all “reasonable bounds.” "
In this philosophical rule, Diderot goes much farther than Hume, in consequence of the different interpretation which he has given to Locke's principle. In other respects, the passage now quoted bears, in its spirit, a striking resemblance to the reserence which Hume has made, in the following argument, to his own account of the origin of our ideas, as furnishing an incontrovertible canon of sound logic, for distinguishing the legitimate objects of human knowledge, from the illusions of fancy and of prejudice. “One event follows another; but we never “can observe any tie between them. They seem conjoined, but “never connected. And, as we can have no idea of anything “which never appeared to our outward sense, or inward senti“ment, the necessary conclusion seems to be, that we have no “idea of connexion, or power, at all ; and that these words are “absolutely without any meaning, when employed either in “ philosophical reasonings or common life.”—Of the Idea of Necessary Connexion, Part ii.
* “Rien n'est plus voisin de l'ignorance d'un principe, que son “excessive generalisation.”—De Gerando, Introduct. p. xx.
It is remarked by D'Alembert, as a curious circumstance in the literary character of his countrymen, that, though singularly fond of novelty in matters of taste, they have always shewn themselves, in the pursuits of science, extremely bigoted to old opinions. “ These two biasses,” he adds, “ap“parently so strongly contrasted with each other, “ have their common origin in various causes, and “chiefly in that passion for enjoyment, which “seems to be the characteristical feature in our “minds. Objects which are addressed immediate“ly to feeling or sentiment, cannot continue long “in request, for they cease to be agreeable when “ the effect ceases to be instantaneous. The ardour, “beside, with which we abandon ourselves to the “pursuit of them, is soon exhausted; and the “mind, disgusted, almost as soon as satisfied, flies to “something new, which it will quickly abandon for a “similar reason. The understanding, on the con“trary, is furnished with knowledge, only in con“sequence of patient meditation; and is therefore “desirous to prolong, as much as possible, the en“joyment of whatever information it conceives it. “self to have acquired.”
In illustration of this remark, he mentions the obstinate adherence of the French philosophers to
To this maxim I would beg leave to subjoin another, that
“no step is more natural or common, than to pass all at once
“from an implicit faith in a philosophical dogma, to an unqua
“lified rejection of it, with all the truths, as well as errors, which
“it embraces.”—The fault, in both cases, arises from a weak
and slavish subjection of the judgment to the authority of others,