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Some thoughts on Condillac



Just because of an interesting point raised on a discussion forum, I thought I would post some of my notes on Condillac's ideas about the importance of sensations in human language.  A much fuller and better explanation can be found on the fantastic Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy - but for what it's worth...

Like Locke, Condillac founded his ideas on language on an attempt to understand the natural state of humanity. Locke determined that human understanding was an 'empty closet' or a 'blank slate'. This means that language is something which is developed through experience, and that the formation of words can only be through convention just as Hermogenes argued.
As Condillac's ideas developed throughout his career, he came to disagree with this notion. For him, the nature of human understanding was to be found in sensations.
Some of these sensations arrives to us through the faculty of attention – which means that they are sensations which we focus on to the exclusion of all others. Sensations of pleasure or pain are the most common of these sensations, and they are a base instinct. When we experience intense pain, we lose consciousness of all other sensations. When we experience intense pleasure too, it is often to the exclusion of all other sensations. Such pain and pleasure is, again, linked to basic human needs – the pain of hunger or physical injury, or the pleasure of sex.
A more complex sensation is derived through the faculty of comparison – the ability to take two different sensations at the same time. Through the faculty of memory, we can compare present sensations with absent sensations – for example, we can conclude that this is a really nice cake, but I can remember the sensation of the curry I had last night as well. Through the faculty of judgment, we may even be able to determine that the sensation of the curry last night was better than the sensation of the cake now.
Finally, through the faculty of reflection we may be able to draw on many memories of many cakes and curries, comparing through judgment each of them in turn and perhaps coming to a conclusion that the curry was the best sensation of them all!
For Condillac, the more complex of these sensations are acts of conscious will. Sex can get the attention of pretty much any living thing, but human beings are able to remember other sexual encounters and compare them. The memories of other encounters might be present in the mind, but the mind is not able to control them.
So, human understanding is based on sensations. Some of these sensations are basic and instinctive, and some require more advanced and controlled operations of the mind, but as they increase in complexity that complexity derives from the linking together of ideas:
Cake – cake and thirst – cake like last weeks cake, when I had a coke too – usually though I have tea with my cake – the best of all was probably the hot chocolate I had in Belgium with that amazing pastry.
Some of these sensations are involuntary. The sensation of pleasure found in sex (or in cake, depending on which you prefer) is involuntary, and instinctive. However when we experience the sensation of nostalgia when re-visiting a place we grew up, the sensation is one we choose, or elect. It is voluntary – and these voluntary sensations are what separates Man from more base forms of life.
Here, though, is the key. All voluntary sensations, and those more advanced faculties, are dependent on language.
According to Condillac, before we can discover any new idea, we have to have previous ideas in our mind to which the new idea can be connected.
Here is an example. Consider the image below:





If I were to ask for your immediate impressions of this image – what sensations you relate it to – you might think of things like 'beautiful', or 'cold' or 'peaceful' – none of which are possible unless you already have those ideas re-established in your mind. Without these ideas, the picture can bring to mind no ideas at all.
So, for example, we might see a picture of the Lake District which brings to mind ideas about holidays which we might have had there. Without the idea of our holiday which is already in our mind, the picture would signify nothing.
It is through the connection of ideas to other ideas that we are able to form memories and thoughts – like dominoes falling.
These memories and thoughts are connected by words – the word 'holiday' generates a series of ideas and memories of experiences which we can recall only because we have the language to facilitate it.
We can all have different notions about what makes something beautiful, but it is an interesting thought to wonder whether it is possible to have any of them without the word 'beautiful' to bring them together.
Locke argued that in order to communicate effectively, we have to first determine the exact meaning of the words we use. For Locke, words were merely arbitrary signs – there was, quite simply, nothing 'cat-ish' at all about the word cat. It is just a convenient symbol of the thing itself. The same was true of complex ideas, or 'mixed mode' ideas. The idea of 'justice' is not as concrete as the idea of 'cat', so if I want to be sure that when I speak of justice you are understanding it in the same way that I am, then first you and I need to agree together on what it means. Only then can language communicate mixed mode ideas with any real exactness.
Condillac did not seem quite so convinced by this. He believed that all ideas have their root in other ideas. Indeed, the idea of 'holiday' might be the combination of a number of other words in our memories and thoughts: it might be combined with 'beach', 'ice cream', 'buckets and spades', 'swimming', 'sun', etc.. At the same time, the idea of 'holiday' is rooted in conceptions of relationships between work and rest – relationships originally religious in conception ('holy-day').
In other words, the idea of 'holiday' is one which has its roots in other ideas, and by tracing those roots we can determine the exact, and proper meaning of the word.
Words connect ideas and thoughts. Language is therefore the form or the 'perfect' mechanism by which thought is facilitated.
So far, Condillac has already moved significantly away from Locke's view that language is a flawed system which fails to communicate meaning effectively. Indeed, for Condillac language is “for ordinary people what algebra is for geometricians”. In other words, it is systematic and logical.
Certainly words are still for Condillac signs. There are different kinds of signs – some are accidental signs. For example in the film Dead Men Don't wear Plaid, the hero Steve Martin has had an unfortunate relationship with a cleaning woman, so whenever 'cleaning woman' is mentioned he has flashbacks to that relationship and goes beserk. The words 'cleaning woman' have become an accidental sign.


Some signs, by contrast, are natural. For example, when a child is born it signifies unhappiness or need for attention by crying. The cry is a natural sign.
The most significant sign though, is the artificial sign – the sign 'cat' which we have somehow decided will stand for a small four-legged feline mammal. For Condillac this form of sign is part of an analytical process of the mind. For example, some suggest that the word cat derives from the Latin word 'catulus' – meaning 'dog'. In other words, the origins of the word 'cat' stem from a word which means something else quite different, but which is often associated with the object itself. In other words, the word 'cat' was derived having the idea 'dog' already in mind, and the word itself demonstrates the analytical process of judgment in comparing the two.
Of course the problem here is that at some point somebody had to first come up with a name for 'dog'. The domino effect has to start somewhere – so if voluntary and artificial signs can only be created by association with other signs, how does the whole business get started?
Well, Condillac did not necessarily have the most convincing answer to this. He did suggest that it is Man's nature to be analytical, and so from the holistic and natural signs of early years human beings were bound to develop a mechanism whereby they can begin to analyse those signs and use the voluntarily as artificial signs for something else – or something connected.

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