Alexander Bryan Johnson

United States philosopher and banker

Alexander Bryan Johnson (May 29, 1786September 9, 1867) was an American philosopher, author and banker. He was also admitted to the bar, but never practiced. Johnson had a particular interest in the study of the relationships between language and knowledge.



A Treatise on Language: Or, The Relation which Words Bear to Things, in Four Parts (1836)

  • All that the book contains is the elucidation of but one precept: namely, to interpret language by nature. We [generally and incorrectly] reverse the rule and interpret nature by language.
    • Preface.
  • As... the following sheets are the painful elaboration of many years, when my language or positions shall, in a casual perusal, seem absurd, (and such cases may be frequent,) I request the reader to seek some more creditable interpretation. The best which he can conceive should be assumed to be my intention: as on an escutcheon, when a figure resembles both an eagle and a buzzard, heraldry decides that the bird which is most creditable to the bearer, shall be deemed to be the one intended by the blazon.
    • Preface.
  • Man exists in a world of his own creation. He cannot step, but on ground transformed by culture; nor look, but on objects produced by art. The animals which constitute his food are unknown to nature, while trees, fruits, and herbs, are the trophies of his labour. In himself nearly every natural impulse is suppressed as vicious, and every mortification solicited as a virtue. His language, actions, sentiments, and desires are nearly all factitious. Stupendous in achievement, he is boundless in attempt. Having subdued the earth's surface, he would explore its centre; having vanquished diseases, he would subdue death. Unsatisfied with recording the past, he would anticipate the future. Uncontented with subjugating the ocean, he would traverse the air. Success but sharpens his avidity, and facility but augments his impatience.
    • Lecture I. Introductory.
  • To fix the fluctuating mass of theories, no man has suggested any other expedient than the construction of some new theory, to whose authority... all persons shall submit. The remedy is constantly augmenting the disease.
    • Lecture I. §4.
  • As theories are the means by which we attempt to discourse of external existences that our senses cannot discover; and as the desire for such discourse originates a large portion of our theories; I will teach you the capacity of language for such an employment, and thereby enable you to judge more understandingly than you can at present, the utility of most theories, and the signification of all.
    • Lecture I. §4.

The Philosophical Emperor, a Political Experiment, or, The Progress of a False Position: (1841)


dedicated to the Whigs, Conservatives, Democrats, Loco Focos, individually and collectively of the United States

  • His majesty recollected the celebrated quack doctor, who when asked why his patrons were more numerous than those of regular practitioners, replied, that he was patronised by the fools, who are numerous in every community, while regular physicians are patronised by the wise, who are few. His majesty could not see why the principle was not applicable to politics. He resolved to try it. He would so govern as to be patronised by the numerous class, and leave the desires of the few to be regarded by some future emperor, who should choose to make so unpromising an experiment.
  • Man soon finds what he wants to find. If he cannot find it otherwise, he creates it for his special enjoyment: for instance, if a man wants to see a ghost, he need only promulge his wish some night around a decaying fire, with a few alarmed and shocked listeners. Then let him ascend in the dark to a remote chamber, carefully looking over his shoulder every few moments; and if he will not see a ghost, he will feel as if he saw one, and that will be tantamount thereto.
  • In her youth she had indulged a passion towards a young monarch of a neighbouring island, Glanden, whose subjects, though they enjoyed the benefits of fairly-dispensed justice, suffered such disparities of condition, that some of them were born with saddles on their backs, and others booted and spurred to mount and ride during their lives. Shocking! yet countless eyes certified its truth: nay, even the Glandens admit the charge, but deem their island the most delightful in the world, and the most favourable for human improvement and comfort.
  • War and fights, like courtship and kisses, are seldom interesting except to the actors and their connexions; hence I will not burden my readers with the military operations of these remote regions.
  • The old lady Felderal had long railed at the emperor for not declaring war. She pretended that he feared to call on his subjects for the requisite means, lest their avarice, stronger than their patriotism, should depose him. When, however, war was declared, and the emperor's forces were victorious, she became enamoured of peace, and maintained that a moral and religious people ought not to rejoice at victories purchased by the sacrifice of human life. She invented a song, whose burden was "the golden days of commercial prosperity," and she organized a peace society, whose tenets compelled the members not to fight even an invading army. Finally, as these expedients failed to destroy the emperor, she collected the most desperate of her adherents, to concert means for tying his hands behind his back, "peaceably if they could, forcibly if they must," and delivering him to the king of Glanden.
  • The confectionary was useful enough to make its destruction eminently foolish; and fools were numerous enough to make its destruction eminently popular. Thus reasoned the emperor.
  • The doctrine of false position has been but little studied in the United States. In France it is understood perfectly. There everything is solved by false position, just as chymists solve everything by attraction and repulsion, mathematicians by circles and tangents, old people by loss and gain, young people by love and courtship.
  • We need not wade into the current of Niagara Falls unless we please; but, after we have waded in we must thereafter be governed by the course and force of the stream.
  • A young lady, being on a visit at a noble friend's mansion, was betrayed by complaisance into an admission that she was very fond of potted sprats, though she abhorred the sight, taste, and smell of them. This little falsehood brought her into a false position as respects her noble friend, who, to oblige her young guest, provided for her nothing but potted sprats. ...So the aforesaid young lady found herself suddenly seated beside a plate of sprats, with all their disgusting odours rising to her face, and their horrid forms spread out before her eyes. A moment ago, she might, with entire propriety, have declared her disgust of them; but she had taken her false position, and that was now to govern. ...But here the authority ended of all external government. The chyle would not digest the intruder, nor the pylorus permit its egress The whole inner woman suffered a state of rebellion; when a new actor appeared upon the stage... in the shape of fever, first mild and gentle, then importunate and bold, then raging, and then outrageous. The fever introduced, in turn, a new agent in the shape of a physician, grave and knowing; who introduced two others more knowing still, who introduced various cathartics, diaphoretics, lancets, leeches, blisters, and glysters, which together soon introduced debility, epilepsy, and catalepsy; which, to the astonishment of no one but the doctors, introduced death, who ended the false position.
  • My readers understand now something of the nature of a false position. I hope they will never know one experimentally. Should they unfortunately become entangled with one, they had better not flounder along in it till they are carried they know not whither, but adopt the practice of French and English statesmen, who, immediately on the happening of such a dilemma, submit to what they call a ministerial crisis, and quietly resign their official posts. An occasion of this kind has just transpired in France. ...They wisely chose the latter evil, and retired covered with glory for the great things they would have accomplished had the king only permitted them to carry forward their grand designs: thus the ministers preserve their credit the nation its peace.
  • The emperor relied on his popularity, the obedient habits of his subjects, and chiefly on the prejudices of the people against anything that could be subjected, right or wrong, to the charge of unconstitutionality.
  • The confectioner relied equally on the power which he possessed of injuring or benefiting, as he should elect, the property of nearly every man in the community. And, finally, he relied on the utility of his institution to the government, in the collection, safe keeping, and disbursement of its revenues; and to the public, in regulating domestic and foreign exchange, in furnishing a currency of nearly uniform value over the whole empire, and in which government dues could be paid without the procurement of sugar, that was scarce as well as cumbersome.
  • Among its [Boresko's] curiosities is a high rock, which overhangs a fearful precipice, whose bottom is just as much below the surface of the surrounding country as the summit of the rock is above the surface. From its summit the rock presents the most enchanting views that the country affords... The atmosphere exerts, however, a medical influence. While inhaling it, each person possesses in imagination whatever he desires at the moment: riches, health, power, or even a lady's love. The place is appropriately termed the pinnacle of hope. ...Hither come ...all persons who wish to cheat the present moment of its anguish by pleasant anticipations of the future. Occasionally, however, a peculiar madness seizes the visiters, and they jump from the delightful pinnacle into the abyss below, whose noxious vapours prostrate all the energies of life, and reverse all the reveries of hope.
  • No contrast is greater than a man on the pinnacle, erect in stature, confident, supercilious; and the same man in the pit, bent, irresolute, and servile. Some observers insist that, in the pit, a man usually loses his moral principles; but, on the pinnacle, is virtuously inclined, sensitive of reputation, faithful of trusts.
  • To jump occasionally into the pit is common to all who visit the mountain, and to some who keep on the plain; but the madness to which I have alluded consists in rapid alternations from the mountain to the pit, annoying all persons who are forced, by friendship or consanguinity, to consort with the unfortunate maniacs. To remain permanently either on the pinnacle or in the abyss is deemed a species of the same disorder, though not so common.
  • Many branches of knowledge exist in our world that are unknown to theory and untaught in schools.
  • In Boresko, the government, though imperial, grants the people some power. They collect annually, and, marching to the palace, signify to the emperor their wishes, which he is constrained to respect. To march at the head of such a procession confers power and influence, and those who thus march are called political leaders.
  • Their [the political leaders'] skill consists in a quick perception of the people's wishes as to the road which they desire to travel. This ascertained, the leader places himself at the head of the moving column, and shouts loudly for the people to advance on his lead, which he assures them is direct, suitable, and pleasant. ...They will diverge no inch to please him, but he must crook and turn as their wayward fancy may indicate. He must bear all their censure, too, when the path taken leads into a quagmire; and, notwithstanding the mud and bruises, of which he obtains a double portion, he must maintain by argument that no other road could have been taken consistently with the prosperity, honour, and security of a great, wise, free, and virtuous people.
  • After hearing incessantly that the people follow him without sense or discretion, he [the political leader] is liable to fall a victim of the delusion which he has created, and to imagine that he possesses some personal attraction, by virtue of which he is followed. The delusion soon develops itself. He will diverge from the authorized track... From habit, the people will move a little in his erratic course. Their compliance augments his delusion, and he will become increasingly regardless of the popular will, and more obstinately intent on his own. He soon becomes monomaniac, and is abandoned except by a few stragglers as crazy as himself; while he interprets the abandonment into ingratitude or heterodoxy, and grows scurrilous, turbulent, and impotent.

The Physiology of the Senses: Or, How and what We See, Hear, Taste, Feel and Smell (1856)

  • Theorem I. Any sight of which seeing has not informed me of, is unknown to me. Comments. 1. Sensible knowledge discriminated from intellectual knowledge. 2. The intellectual injury from the privation of any sense.
    • Part II. Of the Extent of Sensible Knowledge.
  • Whoever estimates the sensible sameness by the verbal identity of their common name will commit the error of mistaking for physical what is only intellectual. ...the sensible signification of language is strictly limited by the sensible knowledge of the hearer.
    • Part II. Of the Extent of Sensible Knowledge.
  • Locke supposes that a person acquainted sensibly with the colours which compose a rainbow, can by the names of such colours in a verbal description, be made visually acquainted with a rainbow. The verbal description will give such a person's intellect a good verbal definition of the word rainbow, but it cannot communicate the sight to the extent that it differs, in any manner from the sights he already knows.
    • Part II. Of the Extent of Sensible Knowledge.
  • In every particular in which a picture constitutes a sight that is not identical with the sight represented, the picture will fail to communicate the represented object.
    • Part II. Of the Extent of Sensible Knowledge.
  • Theorem II. Any feel which feeling has not informed me of, is unknown to me. Comments. 1. Words are sensibly intelligent to a man of only such words as he has experienced. 2. The intellectual signification of words discriminated from the sensible signification. 3. Intellectual intimations discriminated from sensible revelations.
    • Part II. Of the Extent of Sensible Knowledge.
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