Philosophy Compass 4 (5):877-879 (2009)

Authors
Walter Ott
University of Virginia
Abstract
Although a fascination with language is a familiar feature of 20th-century empiricism, its origins reach back at least to the early modern period empiricists. John Locke offers a detailed (if sometimes puzzling) treatment of language and uses it to illuminate key regions of the philosophical topography, particularly natural kinds and essences. Locke's main conceptual tool for dealing with language is 'signification'. Locke's central linguistic thesis is this: words signify nothing but ideas. This on its face seems absurd. Don't we need words to signify things as well? But its very absurdity – our inclination to dismiss Locke as a 'linguistic idealist'– should signal to us that we have not yet understood Locke. Doing so must begin with an analysis of signification. Each of the three main interpretations on offer allows Locke to escape the charge of linguistic idealism, although they do so in very different ways. Locke's text also offers an influential account of linguistic particles, words like 'is', 'and' and 'if'. These signify, not ideas, but acts of the mind. These acts can either take place within a proposition, uniting its constituent ideas into a thought that admits of a truth-value, or they can take propositions as their objects, in which case they express attitudes like doubt, assertion and so on. Even this seemingly innocuous sketch of Locke's view is controversial, and many writers, from J.S. Mill onwards, have argued that Locke cannot make sense of propositional attitudes. Apart from the intrinsic interest of these questions, understanding how Locke thinks language works is a prerequisite for understanding his arguments against scholastic essentialism. It also illuminates later discussions of language in Berkeley, Hume and Mill. Author Recommends: 1. Losonsky, Michael. 'Language, Meaning, and Mind in Locke's Essay. ' The Cambridge Companion to Locke's Essay . Ed. Lex Newman. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. 286–313. In addition to making some original points, Losonsky provides an excellent overview of the three main competing positions on Lockean signification: the Fregean reading, the Scholastic reading and the Indicator theory (see entries 2–5 in the following). 2. Kretzmann, Norman. 'The Main Thesis of Locke's Semantic Theory.' Locke on Human Understanding . Ed. I. C. Tipton. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975. 123–40. Kretzmann's influential paper offers a broadly Fregean analysis, according to which primary signification is sense and secondary, reference. Locke can then avoid the charge of linguistic idealism, as it is not the case that words signify only ideas. 3. Ashworth, E. J. 'Do Words Signify Ideas or Things?' Journal of the History of Philosophy 19 (1981): 299–326. Ashworth rejects Kretzmann's view, partly on the grounds of anachronism, and sets Locke in his historical context. As she reads Locke, he holds a scholastic position, according to which signification amounts to 'making known' or 'expressing'. This preserves the portmanteau analysis of Kretzmann: words can primarily signify or express ideas, while secondarily signifying things. 4. Lowe, E. J. 'Language and Meaning,' chapter 4. Locke . London: Routledge, 2005. This is a spirited defense of Locke's claim that words signify ideas against contemporary prejudices. Like Ian Hacking (see entry 7 in the following), Lowe argues that Locke is not offering a semantic theory in anything like the contemporary sense; rather, he is concerned with explaining human communication. 5. Ott, Walter. Locke's Philosophy of Language . Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. On the interpretation offered in chapter 1, Lockean signification is indication: words signify ideas in the same sense in which clouds signify rain. If this view is correct, Locke is departing from the particular scholastic tradition Ashworth focuses on, and embracing instead a tradition running from the Stoics through Thomas Hobbes. http://www.springerlink.com/content/xv362655719101n3/ 6. Winkler, Kenneth. 'Signification, Intention, Projection.' Forthcoming, Philosophia . http://www.springerlink.com/content/xv362655719101n3 Although previous commentators acknowledge the role of intentions in Locke's view (see especially Kretzmann's argument from the uses of words), Winkler claims that they are far more central to Locke's view than has been supposed. In particular, Winkler uses these considerations to criticize the indicator interpretation. 7. Hacking, Ian. Why Does Language Matter to Philosophy? Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1975. Much broader in focus than these other works, Hacking's classic text has much to say about early modern views on language. Hacking argues that Hobbes and Locke do not, properly speaking, even have theories of meaning. Online Materials The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on Locke, by William Uzgalis: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke/ > The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on Locke, author unknown: http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/l/locke.htm > Sample Syllabus Weeks 1–2: What is Locke's linguistic thesis? Is it a semantic thesis at all? Ashworth, E. J. 'Do Words Signify Ideas or Things?' Journal of the History of Philosophy 19 (1981): 299–326. Kretzmann, Norman. 'The Main Thesis of Locke's Semantic Theory.' Locke on Human Understanding . Ed. I. C. Tipton. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975. 123–40. Locke, Essay III. i–iii. Lowe, E. J. 'Language and Meaning,' chapter 4. Locke . London: Routledge, 2005. Week 3: Propositions and attitudes Locke, Essay III. vii. Ott, Walter. 'Propositional Attitudes in Modern Philosophy.' Dialogue 41 (2002): 1–18. Owen, David. 'Locke on Judgment.' The Cambridge Companion to Locke's Essay . Ed. Lex Newman. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. 406–35. If one wanted to explore whether and how Locke applies his semiotic theory in his anti-essentialist argument, one might add (or perhaps replace Week 3 with): Week 4: Applications Bolton, Martha. 'The Relevance of Locke's Theory of Ideas to his Doctrine of Nominal Essence and Anti-Essentialist Semantic Theory.' Locke . Ed. Vere Chappell. Oxford: OUP, 1998. pp. 214–225 Locke, Essay III. vi; III.xi. 4–22. Ott, Walter. 'Locke's Argument from Signification.' Locke Studies 2 (2002): 145–76. Focus Questions 1. What is a semantic theory? What do we want out of such a theory, and does Locke even purport to provide one? 2. What are the differences among the three main competing readings of Locke? What is at stake here? What, if anything, turns on which of them accurately captures Locke's view? 3. How does Locke think his linguistic thesis tells against competing views, such as those of the scholastics? 4. What is the difference between a proposition and a list? Can Locke account for this difference? 5. There is clearly a difference between merely thinking that the cat is on the mat and asserting that it is. Can Locke account for this difference?
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DOI 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2009.00232.x
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