In his speculation on the noun-phrase ‘landscape’ in Paragraph 65 of the Pensées, Pascal explains how language fixes or designates reality and at the same time surrenders to the indeterminacy and flux of signifieds: ‘A town or a landscape from afar off is a town and a landscape’, he writes, ‘but as one approaches, it becomes houses, trees, tiles, leaves, grass, ants, ants’ legs, and so on ad infinitum. All that is comprehended in the word “landscape”.’ 1 A single noun-phrase is shown at once to conceal and yield an infinite asymptotic analysis of reality, and here Pascal intimates how our words remain always undefined until we actually use them, even though there is always something we know of a word’s meaning which enables us to use it in the first place. However, it is clear from Pascal’s analysis that even when we have used a particular word, we can never be entirely certain of its exhaustive definition.
Now, in the Port-Royal treatise on the categorical theory of propositions, Logic or the Art of Thinking, Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole invoke precisely this discussion of the infinite divisibility of the world and the difficulty this presents for our use and understanding of words. They explain how every word we use summons at best a confused idea of the signified, which will always be accompanied by what they call ‘incidental ideas’ which the mind perforce adds to basic verbal meanings. Such confusion is at an absolute maximum in the case of the demonstrative pronoun hoc, ‘this’, used instead of a proper noun. When the supremely indeterminate pronoun ‘this’ is used to display, say, a diamond, the mind does not settle on conceiving it as a present apparent thing, but adds to it the ideas of a hard and sparkling body having a certain shape, besides connotations of wealth, beauty, romance and rarity. 2
This qualification of our certainty regarding the meaning of words forms the basis of Arnauld’s and Nicole’s attack on the Calvinists’ metaphorical interpretation of the Eucharist. For the Calvinists, they argue, assume in full nominalist fashion (probably influenced by the French Calvinist humanist Petrus Ramus), that the word ‘this’ establishes a firm attachment to a