• A.B. Johnson - The philosophy of human knowledge; or, A treatise in language (1828)

        In the present discourse I shall attempt to show another essential property of language, namely : Every word is a sound, which had no signification before it was employed to name some phenomenon, and which even now has no signification apart from the phenomena to which it is applied. William and Thomas, when spoken with reference to two men, are significant appellations ; but if I apply these names to nullity, the words partake immediately of the nothingness to which I apply them.
        This principle, when thus expressed, seems obvious ; still, in practice, it has escaped the vigilance of the most acute, and supplied metaphysics with its most perplexing doctrines.
        To detect sophistry of this description we must again resort to the constituents of our knowledge ; to sights, sounds, tastes, feels, and smells. Thus, take the word weight it names a feel. The feel is abundantly familiar.It is discoverable in a feather, in a piece of lead, and in nearly every object. The word possessed no significancy before its introduction into language, and it now possesses none apart from the feel that it designates.
        Admit then that weight is the name of a feel, and observe how speciously I can employ the word after I divest it of all signification : thus, "many objects are too small to be seen with the unassisted eye ; and some the most powerful microscope can render but just visible ; we may therefore well believe that numerous atoms are so small that no microscope can reveal them : still each must possess colour, shape, and weight."
        Now observe, if weight names a feel, how has the word any signification when we predicate it of an atom, in which confessedly the feel cannot be experienced ? What feel is that which cannot be felt ? We have subtracted from the word all its significancy, and left nothing but a vacated sound. It becomes weight minus weight.
        I have heard a company of intelligent persons deliberate gravely on the infinite divisibility of a drop of water ; half of a drop of water says one is water, for the division alters not chemically the nature of water, but diminishes the quantity merely. But the half being water may be again divided, and the residue will be still water ; and so in infinitum. The conclusion is regularly deduced from the premises, but during the process the word water loses its signification. Water is a narte given to a sight, a feel, and a taste. A water in which these are not discoverable, is water minus water a vacated sound.

    A.B. Johnson - The philosophy of human knowledge; or, A treatise in language (1828)

    source : archive.org

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