Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679). Of Man, Being the First Part of Leviathan.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Chapter IV

Of Speech

THE INVENTION of ‘printing,’ though ingenious compared with the invention of ‘letters,’ is no great matter. But who was the first that found the use of letters is not known. He that first brought them into Greece men say was Cadmus, the son of Agenor, king of Phoenicia. A profitable invention for continuing the memory of time past and the conjunction of mankind, dispersed into so many and distant regions of the earth; and withal difficult, as proceeding from a watchful observation of the divers motions of the tongue, palate, lips, and other organs of speech, whereby to make as many differences of characters, to remember them. But the most noble and profitable invention of all other was that of ‘speech’ consisting of ‘names’ or ‘appellations,’ and their connection; whereby men register their thoughts, recall them when they are past, and also declare them one to another for mutual utility and conversation; without which there had been amongst men neither commonwealth, nor society, nor contract, nor peace, no more than amongst lions, bears, and wolves. The first author of ‘speech’ was God Himself, that instructed Adam how to name such creatures as He presented to his sight; for the Scripture goeth no further in this matter. But this was sufficient to direct him to add more names, as the experience and use of the creatures should give him occasion, and to join them in such manner by degrees as to make himself understood; and so, by succession of time, so much language might be gotten as he had found use for; though not so copious, as an orator or philosopher has need of: for I do not find anything in Scripture out of which, directly or by consequence, can be gathered that Adam was taught the names of all figures, numbers, measures, colours, sounds, fancies, relations—much less the names of words and speech, as ‘general,’ ‘special,’ ‘affirmative,’ ‘negative,’ ‘interrogative,’ ‘optative,’ ‘infinitive,’ all which are useful, and, least of all, of ‘entity,’ ‘intentionality,’ ‘quiddity,’ and other insignificant words of the school.

But all this language gotten, and augmented by Adam and his posterity was again lost at the Tower of Babel, when by the hand of God every man was stricken for his rebellion with an oblivion of his former language. And being hereby forced to disperse themselves into several parts of the world, it must needs be that the diversity of tongues that now is proceeded by degrees from them in such manner as need, the mother of all inventions, taught them; and in tract of time grew everywhere more copious.

The general use of speech is to transfer our mental discourse into verbal, or the train of our thoughts into a train of words, and that for two commodities, whereof one is registering of the consequences of our thoughts, which, being apt to slip out of our memory and put us to a new labour, may again be recalled by such words as they were marked by. So that the first use of names is to serve for ‘marks,’ or ‘notes,’ of remembrance. Another is, when many use the same words to signify by their connection and order one to another what they conceive or think of each matter; and also what they desire, fear, or have any other passion for. And for this use they are called ‘signs.’ Special uses of speech are these: first, to register what by cogitation we find to be the cause of anything, present or past; and what we find things present or past may produce, or effect; which, in sum, is acquiring of arts. Secondly, to show to others that knowledge which we have attained, which is to counsel and teach one another. Thirdly, to make known to others our wills and purposes, that we may have the mutual help of one another. Fourthly, to please and delight ourselves and others by playing with our words, for pleasure or ornament, innocently.

To these uses there are also four correspondent abuses. First, when men register their thoughts wrong, by the inconstancy of the signification of their words; by which they register for their conceptions that which they never conceived, and so deceive themselves. Secondly, when they use words metaphorically, that is, in other sense than that they are ordained for; and thereby deceive others. Thirdly, when by words, they declare that to be their will which is not. Fourthly, when they use them to grieve one another; for seeing Nature hath armed living creatures, some with teeth, some with horns, and some with hands, to grieve an enemy, it is but an abuse of speech to grieve him with the tongue, unless it be one whom we are obliged to govern; and then it is not to grieve, but to correct and amend.

The manner how speech serveth to the remembrance of the consequence of causes and effects consisteth in the imposing of ‘names,’ and the ‘connection’ of them.

Of names, some are ‘proper,’ and singular to one only thing, as ‘Peter,’ ‘John,’ ‘this man,’ ‘this tree’; and some are ‘common’ to many things, ‘man,’ ‘horse,’ ‘tree’—every of which, though but one name, is nevertheless the name of divers particular things; in respect of all which together it is called an ‘universal,’ there being nothing in the world universal but names; for the things named are every one of them individual and singular.

One universal name is imposed on many things, for their similitude in some quality or other accident; and whereas a proper name bringeth to mind one thing only, universals recall any one of those many.

And, of names universal, some are of more, and some of less extent, the larger comprehending the less large; and some again of equal extent, comprehending each other reciprocally. As, for example, the name ‘body’ is of larger signification than the word ‘man,’ and comprehendeth it; and the names ‘man’ and ‘rational’ are of equal extent, comprehending mutually one another. But here we must take notice that by a name is not always understood, as in grammar, one only word; but sometimes, by circumlocution, many words together. For all these words, ‘he that in his actions observeth the laws of his country’ make but one name, equivalent to this one word ‘just.’

By this imposition of names, some of larger, some of stricter signification, we turn the reckoning of the consequences of things imagined in the mind into a reckoning of the consequences of appellations. For example: a man that hath no use of speech at all, such as is born and remains perfectly deaf and dumb, if he set before his eyes a triangle and by it two right angles, such as are the corners of a square figure, he may by meditation compare and find that the three angles of that triangle are equal to those two right angles that stand by it. But if another triangle be shown him different in shape from the former, he cannot know without a new labour whether the three angles of that also be equal to the same. But he that hath the use of words, when he observes that such equality was consequent not to the length of the sides nor to any other particular thing in his triangle, but only to this, that the sides were straight, and the angles three, and that that was all for which he named it a triangle, will boldly conclude universally that such equality of angles is in all triangles whatsoever, and register his invention in these general terms, ‘every triangle hath its three angles equal to two right angles.’ And thus the consequence found in one particular comes to be registered and remembered as a universal rule, and discharges our mental reckoning of time and place, and delivers us from all labour of the mind saving the first; and makes that which was found true ‘here’ and ‘now’ to be the true in ‘all times’ and ‘places.’

But the use of words in registering our thoughts is in nothing so evident as in numbering. A natural fool that could never learn by heart the order of numeral words, as ‘one,’ ‘two,’ and ‘three,’ may observe every stroke of the clock, and nod to it, or say ‘one,’ ‘one,’ ‘one,’ but can never know what hour it strikes. And it seems there was a time when those names of number where not in use, and men were fain to apply their fingers for one or both hands to those things they desired to keep account of; and that thence it proceeded that now our numeral words are but ten in any nation, and in some but five; and then they begin again. And he that can tell ten, if he recite them out of order, will lose himself and not know when he has done. Much less will he be able to add, and subtract, and perform all other operations of arithmetic. So that without words there is no possibility of reckoning of numbers; much less of magnitudes, of swiftness, of force, and other things, the reckonings whereof are necessary to the being, or well-being of mankind.

When two names are joined together into a consequence, or affirmation as thus, ‘a man is a living creature,’ or thus, ‘if he be a man, he is a living creature,’ if the latter name, ‘living creature,’ signify all that the former name, ‘man,’ signifieth, then the affirmation, or consequence, is ‘true’; otherwise ‘false.’ For ‘true’ and ‘false’ are attributes of speech, not of things. And where speech is not, there is neither ‘truth’ nor ‘falsehood’: ‘error’ there may be, as when we expect that which shall not be, or suspect what has not been; but in neither case can a man be charged with untruth.

Seeing then that truth consisteth in the right ordering of names in our affirmations, a man that seeketh precise truth had need to remember what every name he uses stands for, and to place it accordingly, or else he will find himself entangled in words, as a bird in lime twigs—the more he struggles the more belimed. And therefore in geometry, which is the only science that it hath pleased God hitherto to bestow on mankind, men begin at settling the significations of their words; which settling of significations they call ‘definitions,’ and place them in the beginning of their reckoning.

By this it appears how necessary it is for any man that aspires to true knowledge to examine the definitions of former authors; and either to correct them, where they are negligently set down, or to make them himself. For the errors of definitions multiply themselves according as the reckoning proceeds, and lead men into absurdities which at last they see, but cannot avoid without reckoning anew from the beginning, in which lies the foundation of their errors. From whence it happens that they which trust to books do as they that cast up many little sums into a greater, without considering whether those little sums were rightly cast up or not; and at last, finding the error visible and not mistrusting their first grounds, know not which to clear themselves, but spend time in fluttering over their books, as birds that, entering by the chimney and finding themselves enclosed in a chamber, flutter at the false light of a glass window for want of wit to consider which way they came in. So that in the right definition of names lies the first use of speech, which is the acquisition of science; and in wrong, or no definitions, lies the first abuse; from which proceed all false and senseless tenets: which make those men that take their instruction from the authority of books and not from their own meditation to be as much below the condition of ignorant men as men endued with true science are above it. For between true science and erroneous doctrines ignorance is in the middle. Natural sense and imagination are not subject to absurdity. Nature itself cannot err; and as men abound in copiousness of language, so they become more wise, or more mad, than ordinary. Nor is it possible without letters for any man to become either excellently wise, or, unless his memory be hurt by disease or ill constitution of organs, excellently foolish. For words are wise men’s counters—they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools, that value them by the authority of an Aristotle, a Cicero, or a Thomas or any other doctor whatsoever, if but a man.

‘Subject to names’ is whatsoever can enter or be considered in an account, and be added one to another to make a sum, or subtracted one from another and leave a remainder. The Latins called accounts of money rationes, and accounting ratiocinatio; and that which we in bills or books of account call ‘items’ they call nomina, that is ‘names,’ and thence it seems to proceed that they extended the word ratio to the faculty of reckoning in all other things. The Greeks have but one word, [Greek], for both ‘speech’ and ‘reason’; not that they thought there was no speech without reason, but no reasoning without speech; and the act of reasoning they called ‘syllogism,’ which signifieth summing up of the consequences of one saying to another. And because the same thing may enter into account for divers accidents, their names are, to show that diversity, diversely wrested and diversified. This diversity of names may be reduced to four general heads.

First, a thing may enter into account for ‘matter’ or ‘body,’ as ‘living,’ ‘sensible,’ ‘rational,’ ‘hot,’ ‘cold,’ moved,’ ‘quiet’; with all which names the word ‘matter’ or ‘body’ is understood; all such being names of matter.

Secondly, it may enter into account, or be considered, for some accident or quality which we conceive to be in it; as for ‘being moved,’ for ‘being so long,’ for ‘being hot,’ etc.; and then, of the name of the thing itself, by a little change or wresting we make a name for that accident which we consider; and for ‘living’ put into the account ‘life,’ for ‘moved’ ‘motion,’ for ‘hot’ ‘heat,’ for ‘long’ ‘length,’ and the like; and all such names are the names of the accidents and properties by which one matter and body is distinguished from another. These are called ‘names abstract,’ because severed not from matter but from the account of matter.

Thirdly, we bring into account the properties of our own bodies, whereby we make such distinction; as, when anything is seen by us, we reckon not the thing itself but the sight, the colour, the idea of it in the fancy; and when anything is heard, we reckon it not, but the hearing or sound only, which is our fancy or conception of it by the ear; and such are names of fancies.

Fourthly, we bring into account, consider, and give names, to ‘names’ themselves, and to ‘speeches,’ for ‘general,’ ‘universal,’ ‘special,’ ‘equivocal,’ are names of names. And ‘affirmation,’ ‘interrogation,’ ‘commandment,’ ‘narration,’ ‘syllogism,’ ‘sermon,’ ‘oration,’ and many other such, are names of speeches. And this is all the variety of names ‘positive,’ which are put to mark somewhat which is in Nature, or may be feigned by the mind of man, as bodies that are or may be conceived to be; or of bodies, the properties that are may be feigned to be; or words and speech.

There be also other names, called ‘negative,’ which are notes to signify that a word is not the name of the thing in question; as these words ‘nothing,’ ‘no man,’ ‘infinite,’ ‘indocible,’ ‘three want four,’ and the like; which are nevertheless of use in reckoning, or in correcting of reckoning, and call to mind our past cogitations, though they be not names of anything, because they make us refuse to admit of names not rightly used.

All other names are but insignificant sounds; and those of two sorts. One when they are new, and yet their meaning not explained by definition; whereof there have been abundance coined by schoolmen, and puzzled philosophers.

Another, when men make a name of two names, whose significations are contradictory and inconsistent; as this name, an ‘incorporeal body,’ or, which is all one, an ‘incorporeal substance,’ and a great number more. For, whensoever any affirmation is false, the two names of which is composed put together and made one signify nothing at all. For example, if it be a false affirmation to say ‘a quadrangle is round,’ the word ‘round quadrangle’ signifies nothing, but is a mere sound. So likewise, if it be false to say that virtue can be poured, or blown up and down, the words ‘inpoured virtue,’ ‘inblown virtue,’ are as absurd and insignificant as a ‘round quadrangle.’ And therefore you shall hardly meet with a senseless and insignificant word that is not made up of some Latin or Greek names. A Frenchman seldom hears our Saviour called by name of parole, but by the name of verbe often; yet verbe and parole differ no more but that one is Latin, the other French.

When a man, upon the hearing of any speech, hath those thoughts which the words of that speech and their connection were ordained and constituted to signify, then he is said to understand it, ‘understanding’ being nothing else but conception caused by speech. And therefore, if speech be peculiar to man, as for aught I know it is, then is understanding peculiar to him also. And therefore of absurd and false affirmations, in case they be universal, there can be no understanding; though many think they understand then, when they do but repeat the words softly, or con them in their mind.

What kinds of speeches signify the appetites, aversions, and passions of man’s mind, and of their use and abuse, I shall speak when I have spoken of the passions.

The names of such things as affect us, that is, which please and displease us, because all men be not alike affected with the same thing nor the same man at all times, are in common discourses of men of ‘inconstant’ signification. For seeing all names are imposed to signify our conceptions, and all our affections are but conceptions, when we conceive the same things differently we can hardly avoid different naming of them. For though the nature of that we conceive be the same, yet the diversity of our reception of it, in respect of different constitutions of body and prejudices of opinion, gives everything a tincture of our different passions. And therefore in reasoning a man must take heed of words, which, besides the signification of what we imagine of their nature, have a signification also of the nature, disposition, and interest of the speaker; such as are the name of virtues and vices; for one man calleth ‘wisdom’ what another calleth ‘fear,’ and one ‘cruelty’ what another ‘justice’; one ‘prodigality’ what another ‘magnanimity’; and one ‘gravity’ what another ‘stupidity,’ etc. And therefore such name can never be true grounds of any ratiocination. No more can metaphors and tropes of speech; but these are less dangerous, because they profess their inconstancy, which the other do not.