Johnson, Alexander Bryan (1786–1867)

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Alexander Bryan Johnson, an American philosopher and semanticist, was born in Gosport, England, of Dutch-Jewish ancestry. He immigrated to the United States in 1801 and settled in Utica, New York, where he achieved wealth and prominence as a banker. His main interests were intellectual, primarily in theory of knowledge and the problem of linguistic meaning. He published works on the politics of his day, on economics and banking, and moralistic tales for the young, as well as a series of philosophical works.

Language and Nature

Johnson's preoccupation with language derived from his view that "our misapprehension of the nature of language has occasioned a greater waste of time, effort, and genius than all the other mistakes and delusions with which humanity has been afflicted" (A Treatise on Language, p. 300; except where otherwise noted, page references are to the 1959 edition of this work). He found its source in our tendency to interpret nature by language. "My lectures," he wrote, "will endeavor to subordinate language to natureto make nature the expositor of words, instead of making words the expositor of nature. If I succeed, the success will ultimately accomplish a great revolution in every branch of learning" (p. 40). A rich harvest of philosophically important insights arose from the detailed application of this principle to a wide variety of topics.

Nature, or reality as it appears to us in objects apprehended, is divisible, according to Johnson, into three irreducible classesthe physical (that is, the sensible), the emotional, and the intellectual (thoughts and concepts, which Johnson called "intellections"). Each class includes several subclasses. Sights, sounds, tastes, (tactile) feels, and smells constitute the physical class; the emotions of joy, pain, fear, awe fall into the second class; and concepts (intellections) such as cause, identity, and infinity fall into the third. Words occurring in discourse constitute a subclass of the physical; insofar as they occur in thinking, they are intellectual in nature. The inevitable discrepancy between the practical infinity of natural existences and the necessarily limited number of words of a language results in a one-many relation between words and things (objects of reference). This ambiguity, along with carelessness and ignorance, accounts for the intellectual confusions whose elimination, or at least marking, was the aim of Johnson's lessons on the nature of language.

The terms physical, emotional, and intellectual throw no light on the nature of the realities they name, but simply refer to them. Only sensing, feeling, and conceiving can inform us what is so referred to. And as the objects, even within each category, are themselves different, acquaintance with some objects of a given kind will not give knowledge of others not confronted. This is not to deny that distinct elements within a given domain resemble one another sufficiently to justify referring to them by a common term. But we err if we suppose that the word resembles refers unambiguously to a unique relation. To know that A resembles B is not to know how it resembles B ; this can be learned only by specific experience. The elementsthe sights, emotions, intellectionsthat constitute the ultimate referents of significant words are not thought of as mental in the sense of, say, René Descartes or George Berkeley. They are precisely what we find when we confront them, and no words or theories can enlighten us as to their natures. Ultimate meanings can only be shown or had, never said. To understand language we must pass beyond it to the world. Language does not explain the world; the world explains language.

Words and the Multiplicity of Nature

Johnson used his theory to throw light on practically the whole body of traditional philosophical puzzles, most of which are the result of projecting upon nature our misunderstandings of our language about it. For example, we impute to nature a oneness corresponding to the unitary words used to refer to it. Finding nature not always in agreement with our verbal predications or imputations, we deem this to be ground for impugning our knowledge of its character. The term gravity is a verbal unit, but its referents constitute a multiplicity of diverse phenomena. The discrepancy between verbal unity and phenomenal multiplicity leads us to distinguish between gravity and its appearances or manifestations and finally to the view that what gravity is in itself is a mystery, or unknowable. Similar considerations apply to truth, magnetism, cholera, death, the self, and other concepts. "The word gravity names many interesting and important phenomena; but if, in addition to these, we look for gravity itself, we act as ignorantly as the child at the opera, who, after listening with impatience to the musick, singing, and dancing, said, 'I am tired of these; I want the opera'" (p. 77).

In the same vein Johnson criticized Berkeley's view that distance is invisible, by pointing out the obvious fact that "distance" names feels as well as sights. The theory that we cannot see distance derives from our often unconscious restriction of the term to the feel.

Similarly, the question "whether seeing can or not inform us of an external universe, depends on the meaning which we attach to the word external. The question relates to language, not to nature" (p. 63). If external is used to refer to what can be tactually felt only, then seeing cannot inform us of an external universe. A sight is not a feel. If we use external as referring to a sight, as we frequently and properly do, then seeing can inform us of such a universe.

The origin of theories, according to Johnson, is frequently simply our desire to reconcile these incongruities between what we suppose our language implies and what in fact nature discloses. We invent theories to reconcile the multiplicity of nature to the oneness of language, to supply the unit we suppose must exist but which we fail to find in nature.

Kinds of Meaning

In his early writings Johnson assumed that if a word had no sensible meaning (referent) it must refer to some inner feeling, or to some other word; otherwise it would be void of meaning, "an empty salvo." Such words as love and hope, insofar as they do not refer to anything accessible to our senses, would mean other words, their synonyms or definitions, except insofar as they referred to inner feelings. For a person lacking these feelings the word love would have only verbal meaning. However, such a person could engage in meaningful discourse involving the word love by virtue of being able to explain it by means of other words. He could even have verbal knowledge about love, in the sense that he could make correct verbal deductions from statements containing the term to others entailed by them. In this sense a blind man might have much knowledge of optics, making correct deductions from given premises, even though the sensible meanings, if any, would be beyond his comprehension.

Sensible and Verbal Space

The distinction between sensible and verbal meaning led Johnson to the difference between physical (sensible) and mathematical (verbal) space, and to the distinction between pure and applied mathematics. The infinite divisibility of space (or matter), not being ascertainable by any of our senses that are cognizant of sensible space, must therefore, he argued, be verbal in nature, since the theory obviously does not refer to any of our inner feelings. Verbal or mathematical space is infinitely divisible, our common notion of space entailing such divisibility. The paradox of Achilles and the tortoise is to be explained in terms of this distinction between sensible and mathematical space. In the visual space in which the race is run, Achilles overtakes the tortoise at precisely the moment no light is visible between the two by an observer standing on a line at right angles to the just-touching racers. In mathematical space the process of increasing the denominator of the fraction expressing the "distance" separating them can go on forever. The puzzle is due to our failure to understand that the one-to-one correspondence between the sensible distance and the mathematical distance separating Achilles and the tortoise during the early moments of the race no longer exists at the later stages. When calculation shows that Achilles is one yard behind the tortoise there exists a sensible gap separating them, but when calculation tells us that Achilles is behind the tortoise a distance of one-billionth of an inch nothing in visible space corresponds to this quantity. Hence while still separated in mathematical space they are no longer so in sensible space. The calculations are not faulty. We err in supposing that there must always be a correspondence between the calculated and the observed distance separating them simply because there once was. What is true of mathematical space need not be true of sensible space.

Sensible Spaces

Johnson was aware that there are many different sensible spaces having different properties. Visual space is not identical with tactile space. This fact is important in dealing with certain epistemological puzzles, such as the discrepancy between seen distance and felt distance, seen and felt size or shape, seen location and felt location. The well-known skeptical conclusions derive largely if not entirely from a failure to realize or draw the correct conclusions from the fact that what kind of correlations are found to hold between the diverse referents of such ambiguous terms as size, shape, and location is a matter purely of experiencesexperiences a sensible man will adjust his theories to, but which do not require that he invoke the two-world theory of appearance and reality.


The question whether secondary qualities are located in things in the external, or physical, world or are subjective representations of objective primary qualities is, according to Johnson, the unhappy result of our failure to realize the ambiguity of spatial prepositions. When we ask for the location of somethingwhether, for example, the green we see is in the leaf, in our minds, or in the brainwe fail to appreciate that there are several different sensible spaces and that visual, tactile, and olfactory space have each their peculiar properties. In the sense appropriate to visual space the term in is correctly used when we say that the (seen) color is in the visual leaf. If we speak of the tangible leaf, the color is neither in the leaf nor not in it. All that can sensibly be said to be in it or not in it is a feel. Colors not being feels, there is no sense to the question if it is based on the presupposition that a sight is a feel or can be felt.


Johnson thus understood that in some cases it makes no sense either to assert or deny that a certain object has a certain property, and hence that the law of excluded middle breaks down in certain ways. He made this insight the key to his treatment of many philosophical puzzles.

Since our questions and answers involve sentences, not isolated words or phrases, the meaning of such expressions is of fundamental importance. Declarative sentences, possibly expressing theories, such as "Air has weight," invoked to explain the phenomenon of water rising in a vacuum, gain their referential meaning from the facts, if any, to which they refer. To determine which facts these are, we must ascertain to what phenomena the sentences are attached by a given speaker.

Pressure, like every other word, possesses no invariable signification, nor any inherent signification. Its signification is governed by the existence to which we attach it. When it refers to the effort of my hand against this table, it names a feel; and when applied to the ascent of water in a vacuum, it names the ascent. If we suppose it names also some insensible operation of the air on the water, this is merely our theory, which signifies nothing; or rather it signifies all to which we refer in proof of the pressure. (p. 227)

The last clause expresses Johnson's view of statement or propositional meaning. A statement means, for a speaker, whatever evidence he adduces or can adduce in support of it. Speaking of Earth's sphericity, Johnson advises us to pay attention to the evidence given in support of it by an astronomer, such as Earth's shadow in an eclipse of the moon or various calculations, and concludes: "After hearing all that he can adduce in proof of the earth's sphericity, consider the proposition significant of these proofs. If you deem it significant beyond them, you are deceived by the forms of language" (p. 129).

This principle of the meaning of propositions is of the type now called the "operational" theory of meaning. Johnson's version, by virtue of his concentration on the referential function of language, implies that propositions change their meaning with every accretion of evidence in support of them. Propositions purportedly about the future must in fact refer to what has already occurred, since one cannot refer to what is not, nor can a speaker refer to what he has not experienced. False propositions must be devoid of (sensible) meaning, since they are false precisely because what they purport to refer to does not exist. Since, however, one is rarelyif everunable to adduce some kind of evidence in support of one's assertions, genuinely meaningless or false propositions are extremely rare. In fact, Johnson held that "nearly every proposition is true when interpreted as the speaker interprets it" (p. 133).

Despite the obvious difficulties of this conception of propositional meaning, which needs emendation to allow for what is called "sense" as well as "reference," Johnson was able to suggest some very interesting interpretations of statements that anticipate views now in the center of philosophical controversy.

He held that a theory is a tool whose value is determined by its utility in correlating phenomena already known and enabling us to make true predictions.

He claimed that psychological statements, especially those about other minds, feelings, and thoughts, exhibit duality of meaning. They refer in one interpretation to expressive, that is, external, manifestations; in another to what is supposedly expressed or manifested. This, he held, explains the dispute concerning the possibility of knowing other minds.

He said that true unrestricted universal propositions are such not because they hold in an infinite number of cases, but because the evidence offered in their support is our failure to find an exception. The statement asserting an exception refers to nothing and lacks sensible meaninghence the unrestricted scope of the universal.

Typical religious or theological propositions have meaning by virtue of their reference to sacred texts or to inner feelings. It is sensibly, but not verbally, meaningless to assert that the universe either had or did not have a creator.

In his later writings Johnson allowed conceptual as well as verbal meaning to propositions. He came to believe that there are certain "predestinate ideas," concepts or intellections, that express man's intellectual nature. For example, in certain senses of the term, causal connections cannot be sensed, but all men nevertheless think causally. Men likewise impute personal identity to themselves and others, although what is sensibly or emotionally given does not exhibit the implied unity or connection. The verbal meaning that remains when sensible and emotional meanings are eliminated seemed no longer adequate in such cases, and he invoked intellectual meanings, which however are not objective or external; the intellectual words standing in relation to their referents, according to Johnson, as imprecations do to the feelings that give rise to them: "as therefore, the internal organic feeling which prompts an imprecation is the unverbal meaning of the imprecation; so the organism of the intellect that conceives any given words is the unverbal meaning of the verbal conception" (The Meaning of Words, p. 202). He thus treated them as expressing certain tendencies of our intellectual nature, though using the language of referential meaning.

The Meaning of Questions

Johnson's anticipation of a form of the operational theory of propositional meaning was accompanied by a detailed discussion of the topic of the meaning of questions. Like Ludwig Wittgenstein he arrived at the view that "the riddle does not exist," that there are no unanswerable questions. Corresponding to the verbal meanings of statements are the verbal questions to which the statements are answers. In every interrogation we must make clear the nature of the answer desired, whether verbal, emotional, sensible, or intellectual. For example, the question, "What is life?" may be answered by a definition or a theory, by an inner experience, or by indicating certain forms of overt observable behavior.

Necessary Truths

Concerning necessary, analytical, logical truths, Johnson held to a twofold doctrine. These truths express verbal necessities based on meanings assigned to their constituent words, but these definitions or verbal necessities are themselves based on physical, nonverbal necessities.

Why cannot the same spot be, at the same time, both white and black? Because the word white implies that the spot is not black. But how came white by this implication? Was it arbitrarily imposed by the framers of language? No. The incompatibility of the two colours is a result of experience. If I assert that the same spot cannot be both white and hard, the proposition will be untrue. Why? Because my senses can discover such a coincidence. No other reason exists. (A Treatise on Language, p. 195)

The same reasoning applies to the axioms of geometry. For instance, the transitivity of the relations of equality is ultimately based not on verbal but on physical facts. Nothing will explain why two sticks equal in length to a third are necessarily equal in length to each other except what one finds when one tries to construct two sticks equal in length to a third but not to each other.


Johnson's works are studded with striking and revealing aphorisms:

The heathen make graven imageswe make verbal ones; and the heathen worship not more ardently the work of their hands, than we the work of our pens. (A Treatise on Language, p. 205)

Though we deem any mental phenomenon inexplicable unless we can show it to be analogous to physical operations, we deem the operations of Deity well explained when we can show them to be analogous to mental operations. (p. 263)

We employ words as though they possess, like specie, an intrinsick and natural value; rather than as though they possess, like banknotes, a merely conventional, artificial, and representative value; We must convert our words into the natural realities which the words represent, if we would understand accurately their value. (p. 174)

We can no more exemplify with words that there is a limit to their applicability, than a painter can demonstrate with colours, that there are phenomena that colours cannot delineate. (p. 246)

See also Language; Semantics.


works by johnson

The Philosophy of Human Knowledge, or a Treatise on Language. New York: G. and C. Carvill, 1828.

A Treatise on Language: or the Relation Which Words Bear to Things. New York: Harper, 1836; edited, with introduction and critical essay, by D. Rynin, Berkeley, CA, 1947; 1947 edition, reprinted 1959.

Religion in Its Relation to the Present Life. New York: n.p., 1841; 2nd ed., retitled Morality and Manners, 1862.

The Meaning of Words: Analysed into Words and Unverbal Things, and Unverbal Things Classified into Intellections, Sensations, and Emotions. New York: Appleton, 1854; 2nd ed., 1862.

The Physiology of the Senses: or How and What We See, Hear, Taste, Feel and Smell. New York: Derby and Jackson, 1856.

Deep Sea Soundings and Explorations of the Bottom; or the Ultimate Analysis of Human Knowledge. Boston, 1861, privately printed.

works on johnson

Johnson's views were ignored in his lifetime and were lost sight of for nearly a century. Despite the recent publication of some of his writings, he remains almost completely neglected. For biographical and bibliographical information and evaluations see the introduction and the critical essay in D. Rynin's 1947 edition of A Treatise on Language and M. M. Bagg's The Pioneers of Utica (Utica, NY: Curtiss and Childs, 1877). The Dictionary of American Biography contains a brief entry on Johnson. For an account of Johnson as an economist see Joseph Dorfman's The Economic Mind in American Civilization (New York: Viking, 1946).

David Rynin (1967)

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