- Consciousness and the Linguistic in Condillac
No one could ever complain that Condillac did not try to develop the argument of his Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines in the most orderly and methodical way possible. 1 When he first announces his project in the introduction, Condillac says that his intention is to relate everything that concerns the human understanding to a single principle. The next paragraph presents one version of that principle: “Les idées se lient avec les signes, et ce n’est que par ce moyen . . . qu’elles se lient entr’elles.” 2 Since this principle amounts to “une expérience constante, dont toutes les conséquences seront confirmées par de nouvelles expériences” (Intro., 101), the very simplicity of Condillac’s argument guarantees the coherence of its comprehensive claims, even as it serves as a bulwark against the possibility of error. [End Page 667] Condillac goes on to explain that, in order to develop that single principle, he was obliged to pursue two inquiries and work towards a double objet. On the one hand, Condillac will trace the operations the mind performs on the sensations that are its materials, beginning with the initial act of apperception; on the other hand, he will follow the historical progress of language from its origin in the gestural langage d’action. The forking path of Condillac’s inquiry provides the rationale for his essay’s division in two parts: Part I, Des matériaux de nos connoissances, et particulièrement des opérations de l’ame, and Part II, Du langage et de la méthode.
When Condillac presents his own project in the context of the history of metaphysics, it is partly in order to imply that the Essai constitutes an advance over earlier philosophical texts precisely because of its greater methodological rigor. Locke, Condillac’s closest predecessor, becomes his most useful foil, as Condillac praises him for his insights and condemns him for his sloppy editing:
Il a vu, par exemple, que les mots et la manière dont nous nous en servons, peuvent fournir des lumières sur le principe de nos idées: mais parce qu’il s’en est aperçu trop tard, il n’a traité que dans son troisième livre une matière, qui devoit être l’objet du second.(Intro., 102)
Condillac’s impatience with the slapdash approach of Locke implicitly promises his own readers that there will be nothing arbitrary or unconsidered about the structure of the Essai.
At several points in Part I, however, Condillac acknowledges that the plan of his book may cause his readers temporarily to remain in suspense about the links between signification and certain mental operations. In the chapter on reflection, Condillac anticipates one such difficulty:
Il semble qu’on ne sauroit se servir des signes d’institution, si l’on n’étoit pas déjà capable d’assez de réflexion pour les choisir et pour y attacher des idées: comment donc, m’objectera-t-on peut-être, l’exercice de la réflexion ne s’acquerroit-il que par l’usage de ces signes?(Pt. I, sec. 2, par. 50, p. 133)
The necessity of the linguistic sign to make reflection possible, here merely asserted, is to be demonstrated in the section on the origin of language; Condillac assures his readers that they need only be patient. There are other moments in the Essai, however, where the place of signification in the sequence of mental operations appears problematic for the opposite reason, moments where the narrative about the progressive development of the mental functions seems to [End Page 668] presuppose signification both as an instance and as a model. Moreover, logical circularities beset the most careful arguments about particular mental operations and stages in the mastery of the linguistic sign. Disruptions in the narrative order that emerge in the discussion of one problem sometimes resurface when Condillac is talking about an entirely different issue, leading to uncanny symmetries and structural analogies that remain unaccounted for at the level of the exposition.
My intention is to follow the course of some of these complications as they...