Hermits Rock

Go to content Go to navigation

accidents of Bread in Cheese

Thomas Hobbes, who tells us in The Leviathan:

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 himselfe entangled in words, as a bird in lime-twigs; the more he struggles, the more belimed. And therefore in Geometry, (which is the onely 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.

seems keen on cleaning up thought, philosophy, reason, speech… reason, as he lays out above, should proceed as in geometry so that errors can be demonstrated easily. (T. tells me my greatest educational lacuna is having had no geometry… she believes it impairs my ability to produce logical arguments, to adduce reasons germane to my whatever my current rant may be.) He wants to purge language of excess and do away with the combining of words that contradict one another: incorporeall body, and such nonsense.

Though he does not think metaphors as dangerous as “inconstant names” tainted by prejudice and passion, he dislikes the use of “Metaphors, Tropes, and other Rhetoricall figures, instead of words proper.” And, he especially doesn’t like “words that signifie nothing; but are taken up, and learned rote from the Schooles, as hypostatical, transubstantiate, consubstantiate, eternal-Now, and the like canting of the Schoolemen.” (He has nothing but negative things to say about the Scholastics and Catholic faith, in general. In fact, free-will is another notorious contradiction. Indeed he lists it among the Absurd, Insignificant, Non-sense that is a phrase like the accidents of Bread in Cheese, his witty attempt to defang the doctrine of transubstantiation. Nor does he like Descartes.)

Metaphors and tropes are an abuse of language, he believes. They use words in a sense other “than that they are ordained for; and thereby decieve others.” In fact, “in reckoning, and seeking of truth, such speeches [Metaphors, Tropes, and Rhetoricall figures] are not to be admitted” and “can never be true grounds of any ratiocination.”

Yet, Hobbes himself so deftly deploys metaphor and rhetorical figures… such as the bird caught in the lime-twigs... or even in the peroration of chapter five, a chapter entitled “Of Reason, and Science:”

To conclude, the Light of humane minds is Perspicuous Words, but by exact definitions first snuffed, and purged from ambiguity; Reason is the pace; Encrease of Science, the way; and the Benefit of man-kind, the end. And on the contrary, Metaphors, and senslesse and ambiguous words, are like ignes fatui; and reasoning upon them, is wandering amongst innumerable absurdities; and their end, contention, and sedition, or contempt.

If I have correctly understood Hobbes that entire passage should be excised from the book. Rather than writing “Reason depends on the use of precisely defined words,” which is the argument of this eponymous chapter, he uses the standard metaphor “the Light of humane minds.” Granted, it would seem that this is a metaphor he himself would allow since “the Light of humane minds” is undeniably and unambiguously reason.

But, he is not content to leave his rhetorical flourish there; instead, he turns this metaphor into a conceit. Words, which according to his definition is a form of light, to light well, must be both snuffed and purged of ambiguities. The OED defines to purge as snuffing a candle and as cleansing by removing impurities. Given the context, it seems that he uses purge in both senses of the word; by definition ambiguous means having more than one definition. Light has now explicitly become fire: reason is a fire that must be tended; it must be snuffed and purged. Snuffed and purged, in fact, of metaphors.

Hobbes, still not content with his witty play on light, defines metaphors as nothing but ignes fatui, or foolish light, Will-o’-the-Wisp: a misleading, frightening light, something akin to superstitions (which, he believes should be purged from the public through education so that they may be “much more fitted for civill Obedience.”) Following the foolish light of metaphors and imprecise definitions is little but “wandering amongst innumerable absurdities.” Light, leads to candles, leads to ignes fatui: the force of the passage rests on the mutations and permutations introduced by the transformative power of metaphor.

The difficulty, or fun, of this passage does not end here. Immediately before this section, Hobbes ennumerates seven linguistic sins that lead to absurdity in argument. The use of metaphors is number 6. The fifth offense is “the giving of the names of accidents to names, and speeches... [i.e.] the nature of a thing is its definition; a mans command is his will.” In fact, his entire list of infractions against clarity (with exception of the sixth and seventh) highlight the promiscuous use of the copula: ascribing the names of accidents to bodies, bodies to accidents, etc.

In this passage, though, Hobbes is subject complement and predicative nominal happy. He starts off the entire passage stating that reason is “Perspicuous Words.” Yet, precise definitions, as he himself has argued up to now, are only the beginning of the enterprise; having a sound method is also an essential part of the “Industry” by which one attains reason. He repeatedly violates this law by closing the opening sentence with a trinity of copular compliments. Where, it should be noted, he mixes his metaphors something awful. To the fire conciet, which organizes the whole passage, he adds that of the race (pace, way, end). The staccatto, to the point movement of the end of the first sentence, where Reason is a Race, nicely compliments the longer clauses of the second sentence that conclude the paragraph and describe the aimless wandering that is the inevitable end of all discourse constructed on metaphors and ambiguities.

Hobbes knows exactly what he is doing in this passage and I am sure he smiled, even laughed out loud while writing it. It seems that homo rationis is and will always also be homo ludens... that no matter how Spartan one would want one’s discourse to be, some color is always nice. Rhetoric, regardless of the real or imagined strictures of logic, necessitates the use of metaphor in order to better persuade. Rhetoric and logic go hand in hand like bread and wine, wine and cheese, like the accidents of Bread in Cheese.

 

Comments

Seems like the kind of guy that could write resplendent poetry if drunk. All that linguistic frustration… instead of beer goggles he’d have beer paper?

it’s fun to read good explication. nicely done. might not it be said that H’s point is also that of the types of metaphors that are legitimate: i.e., those that reference the world of things (light, race) rather than the world of ideas? Is it a taxonomy of language that raises the material above the immaterial that he’s advocating?

really, taxonomy is key… he is very much about ordering speech and properties and regulating the connections between words and the things they signify. and, truth be told, there are legitimate and illegitimate copulas and metaphors. For example, he does allow this circumlocution: Hee that in his actions observeth the Lawes of his Country. He allows it because, he writes, this phrase “makes but one Name, equivalent to this one word, Just.” And, it operates similarly to “the Light of humane minds”.

But, in three different passages in these first five chapters he does castigate metaphor and the use of metaphor. And, the problem seems to be that the conceits are establishing the connections: the light conceit, like a forest fire spotting, seems to be lighting up the passage.