Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding—Book III


     Copyright © 2015 Bruce W. Hauptli


Book III. Of Words:


Chapter i. Of words or language in general:


*III i 2 Sounds are signs of ideas. 


Locke contends that in their primary and immediate signification, words “stand for ideas.”[1]  In his “Locke’s Philosophy of Language,” Paul Guyer maintains that: “even if we are prepared to concede that our possession of ideas is a necessary condition of the meaningful use of articulate sounds, it is certainly not normally the case that we are talking about these ideas, or, as we now say, referring to them.  Indeed, it can be argued that even if our purpose is to communicate our ideas to others...it is usually our ideas about things that we are trying to communicate, and this purpose will best be served with words that refer to those things.....More generally...Locke’s thesis has implausible metaphysical and epistemological consequences.  First, it commits us to the idea that our meaningful use of terms must always be accompanied by a stream of ideas that, to put it kindly, introspection does not always reveal.  And as far as epistemology is concerned, Locke’s view seems to lead to a radical skepticism.  In order to know that another speaker means anything by his words, we have to know that he has ideas, and in order to know what he means, we have to know which ideas he has.  But another’s ideas are “all within his own Breast, invisible, and hidden from others”....”[2] 


*III I 3 Locke distinguishes names and general terms (“names...which are made to stand for general ideas”). 


III i 4 Locke discusses names for “absent things” (e.g., ‘nothing’). 


-They “...cannot be said properly to belong to, or signify no ideas: for then they would be perfectly insignificant sounds, but they relate to positive ideas, and signify their absence.” 


*III i 5 Words ultimately arise from simple sensible ideas. 


Chapter ii. Of the signification of words:


*III ii 1-5 In these sections Locke sketches his view of language use: the naming and communication of ideas (with words as basic). 


-1. Words are basic, and the basic words are names of simple ideas.  Here we see his atomism at work again.  Some later thinkers take sentences as basic [see below], others take language-games as basic.  Moreover, we need to consider Kant’s conception of the mind as more active in the processing of information. 


-2. Locke contends that the “primary and immediate signification” of words is to stand for ideas in the mind of the person who uses them. 


--This raises questions of the criterion of correct usagecf. Wittgenstein’s “private language argument.”[3] 


-3. At the next most basic level, words are used as marks of ideas in the minds of others—individuals “suppose” that the words they use mark ideas in others’ minds, and thus communication becomes possible. 


--Here, we can see, he moves from words as names for an individual’s ideas, to words as vehicles for communication amongst individuals. 


-4. Finally, individuals also “suppose” that their words name things (in the world). 


III ii 7 Words, however, are sometimes used without signification.  The study of their origins should help us avoid this! 


-Garret Thomson offers a concise version of a common criticism of Locke’s theory of language: “[several contemporary critics of Locke] ...claim that it is not necessary to have ideas in one’s mind in order to use a word meaningfully.  For example, when I meaningfully utter the words “this is blue,” I do not need to have an idea of blueness in mind.  All that is necessary is that I use the words intentionally and in accordance with the conventions of the English language.  Furthermore, they argue that, given his ideas on ideas, Locke’s account of language makes all meaning essentially private.”[4] 


-He also notes that “...according to many contemporary theories of language, the basic units of meaning are sentences rather than words, because only with sentences (and not individual words) can we say anything.  We should therefore treat sentence meaning as primary and seek to explain how the meaning of words contributes to the meaning of sentences.  Sentences are not mere combinations of words, because sentences have structure.”[5] 


Chapter iii. Of general terms:


III iii 1 While existing things are all particular, words are mainly general. 


-Note the nominalistic presupposition here.  Some (“realists” or “universalists”) contend that there are universals—that is, they maintain there are non-particular, existing things. 


*III iii 2 It is impossible to have names for each individual thing.  No one could operate with a name for everything she encountered!  Moreover, this would make what we call communication impossible. 


*III iii 6-11 Locke discusses the origin of general (and increasingly general) terms:


-6. General words are signs of general ideas which arise from particular ideas via abstraction: “words become general, by being made the signs of general ideas; and ideas become general, by separating from them the circumstances of time, place, and any other ideas.  By this way of abstraction they are made capable of representing more individuals than one; each of which, having in it a conformity to that abstract idea, is...of that sort.” 


-11. Locke reiterates his nominalism: “words are general...when used, for signs of general ideas; and so are applicable indifferently to many particular things; and ideas are general, when they are set up, as the representatives of many particular things; but universality belongs not to things themselves, which are all of them particular in their existence, even those words, and ideas, which in their signification are general.” 


*--III iii 12 Critical Note: if we are to successfully communicate with each other on Locke’s view, then, not only do we need to have similar particular ideas (similar simple ideas), but we also need to abstract similarly!  This poses a problem not only within groups of similar individuals, but between diverse groups.  In her “East Versus West: One Sees Big Picture, Other Is Focused,” Sharon Begley maintains that: “when you ask each [a Japanese and a Briton] to decide which two—a panda, a monkey and a banana go together.  The Japanese man selects the monkey and the banana; the Brit, the panda and the monkey. 

  ….“Human cognition is not everywhere the same,” concludes psychologist Richard Nisbett…in his…”The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners think Differently…and Why.” 

  ….As the MONKEY-PANDA example shows, Westerners typically see categories (animals) where Asians typically see relationships (monkeys eat bananas). 

  The cognitive differences start with basic sensory perception.  In one study, Michigan’s Taka Masuda showed Japanese and American students pictures of aquariums containing one big fast-moving fish, several other finned swimmers, plants, rock and bubbles.  What did the students recall?  The Japanese spontaneously remembered 60% more background elements than did the Americans.  They also referred twice as often to relationships involving background objects (“the little frog was above the pink rock”). 

  The differences were even more striking when the participants were asked which, of 96 objects had been in the scene.  When the test object was shown in the context of its original surroundings the Japanese did much better at remembering correctly whether they had seen it before.  For the Americans, including the background was no help, they had never even seen it. 

  ….“Westerners and Asians literally see different worlds,” says Prof. Nisbett.  “Westerners pay attention to the focal object, while Asians attend more broadly—to the overall surroundings and too the relations between the object and the field. 

  ….Cognitive differences likely originate in child rearing and social practices, but are far from hard-wired…West and Westerners in Asia often find that their cognitive style goes native.  Similarly, bicultural people in Hong Kong with its British and Chinese history, show patterns intermediate between….”[6] 


*III iii 15-20 Locke distinguishes real from nominal essences:


-15. “Essence may be taken for the very being of anything, whereby it is, what it is.” 


--Cf., the criticism at II xxxi 6! 


-Real essences: these are “the supposed real constitution of the sorts of things” which there are. 


-Nominal essences: these are the abstract ideas or sortals which we employ in our use of kinds, sorts, or species. 


-17. Locke notes that the existence of monsters, changelings[7], strange issues of human birth, etc., show that not only do we not know real essences, but that the world may not divide up as “neatly” as we are prone to divide it up: “...the supposition of essences, that cannot be known; and the making of them nevertheless to be that, which distinguishes the species of things, is so wholly useless, and unserviceable to any part of our knowledge....” 


--In her “Introduction,” Vere Chappell notes that “...the terms ‘nominal essence’ and ‘real essence’ do not, as Locke uses them, stand for two coordinate species of a single genus.  Nominal essences belong to one ontological category—they are ideas in people’s minds—and real essences to another—they are physical objects somehow belonging to individual bodies.”[8]  Cf., T.E. Wilkerson’s “Natural Kinds,” for an excellent background discussion of this topic.[9] 


-18 In the case of simple ideas and modes, there is no distinction between real and nominal essences. 


Chapter iv. Of the names of simple ideas:


III iv 2 Names of simple ideas refer (to the ideas).  Names of substances refer (though he means that they refer to complexes of simple ideas, not to things), but names of mixed modes need not refer. 


III iv 4 Names of simple ideas are “undefinable.” 


III iv 12 Names of complex ideas are “definable.” 


Chapter v. Of the names of mixed modes and relations:


III v 2 Locke says that these are names for abstract ideas—ideas which are made by the mind. 


Chapter vi. Of the names of substances:


*III vi 1 Locke contends that the common names for substances stand for “sorts of things”—they are names for complex ideas.  


*III vi 2 The different common substances are marked out by essences—and here, of course, it is nominal essences which we are talking about (not the real essences of things—about which we know nothing). 


III vi 8-29 Locke points out that we can’t “sort” species according to “real essences,” and points to a large number of difficulties in attempting to do so:


*-III vi 8 Locke points out that the discussion of substances can not be presumed to mark out real essences.  We “know not” real essences: “...the species of things to us, are nothing but the ranking them under distinct names, according to the complex ideas in us; and not according to precise, distinct, real essences in them....” 


-9. “Nor indeed can we rank, and sort things, and consequently...denominate them by their real essences, because we know them not.  Our faculties carry us no further towards the knowledge and distinction of substances, than a collection of those sensible ideas, which we observe in them; which however made with the greatest diligence and exactness, we are capable of, yet is more remote from the true internal constitution, from which those qualities flow, than, as I said, a country-man’s idea is from the internal contrivance of the famous clock at Strasburg.”[10] 


--Garrett Thomson offers a good summary criticism of Locke’s willingness to adhere to a “substance metaphysics:” “the notion of pure substance in general appears to be an anomaly in Locke’s usually Empiricist philosophy.  It is difficult to see how such a concept could be acquired from experience, as Locke’s Empiricism asserts that all ideas must be.  Yet Locke apparently argues that we need such a concept.  Thus, logic and reason seem to require such a concept, while experience appears to deny it.  There is clearly a conflict between Locke’s Empiricism and what he takes to be a demand of reason.”[11] 


-12. There is probably a far greater variety of spiritual species than we generally acknowledge. 


-16. We would need to know that nature always produces each kind of thing. 


-17. There would have to be no “middle-ground” cases (monsters, etc.).  


-18. We would have to be aware of the real essences of things (and through them we would have to make our distinctions). 


-19. We would have to know the real essences to accomplish “natural sorting,” but these are beyond us. 


-22. Our abstract ideas are our “measure of the species.” 


-26. They are “made by the mind,” and not by nature. 


-27. The definitions we employ are imperfect, inexact, and allow for loose cases. 


-*28. But, the “essences” which we speak of are not as arbitrary as what we find in the case of mixed modes.  The substances (co-subsisting simple ideas) have a “character,” and the nominal essences which we arrive at here are important.  We use common language to accomplish the “ordinary affairs of life:”


--“...though men may make what complex ideas they please, and give what names to them they will: yet if they will be understood, when they speak of things really existing, they must, in some degree, conform their ideas to the things they would speak of; or else men’s language will be like that of Babel; and every man’s words, being intelligible only to himself, would no longer serve to conversation, and the ordinary affairs of life....” 


III vi 32 Locke contends that “the more general our ideas are, the more incomplete and partial they are.”  The process of increasingly general generalizations leads to less and less specificity in the complex idea. 


Chapter vii. Of particles:


Locke notes that if we are to have language we will need more than names.  “Particles” will be necessary to join words together to form sentences!  Consider ‘is’ and ‘is not’—these don’t function as names which signify simple ideas, and they do not function as general terms either!  Locke contends that these words function “...to show or intimate some particular action of its own” in relating particular ideas to each other.  If Locke’s endeavor is to be successful, a lot will ride upon his success in so accounting for these elements of language.  The importance of this sort of consideration can be brought clearly to the fore by attempting to conceive of a language consisting exclusively of names and general terms! 


*III vii 4 Particles, according to Locke, “show what relation the mind gives to its own thoughts….They are all marks of some action, or intimation of the mind; and therefore to understand them rightly, the several views, postures, stands, turns, limitations, and exceptions, and several other thoughts of mind, for which we have either none, or very deficient names, are diligently to be studied….” 


In Chapters viii-xi of Book III, Locke discusses further the distinction between abstract and concrete terms [viii]; how words may be misused, and how individuals may misuse words [ix and x]; and how such misuse may be overcome [xi].  We will be skipping over these sections, but they are of central importance to Locke himself.  One of his purposes in writing the Essay was to assist individuals in avoiding the meaningless metaphysical explorations and “unscientific” explanations that were the staple of the Scholastics and continental rationalists.  He believed that if we could only be clear and accurate in our use of language, we can avoid many of the mistakes characteristic of philosophers over the ages.  Here his remarks in the “Epistle to the Reader” are relevant. 


Notes: [click on note number to return to the text for the note]  

[1] Cf., III x 23—not included in this abridgment. 

[2] Paul Guyer, "Locke’s Philosophy of Language," in The Cambridge Companion to Locke, ed. Vere Chappell, op. cit., pp. 115-145, p.120. 

[3] Cf., Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscome (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1953) part I, sections 243-315. 

[4] Garrett Thomson, Bacon to Kant, op. cit., pp. 171-172. 

[5] Ibid., p. 172.  Emphasis added to the passage. 

[6] Sharon Begley, “East Versus West: One Sees Big Picture, Other Is Focused,” The Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2003. 

[7] As the Glossary makes clear, changelings are half-wits or persons left by fairies in exchange for others. 

[8] Vere Chappell, "Introduction," in Locke, ed. Vere Chappell, op. cit., pp. 1-23, p. 17. 

[9] T.E. Wilkerson, "Natural Kinds," Philosophy v. 63 (1988), pp. 29-42. 

[10] Information regarding the Strasbourg Clock can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strasbourg_astronomical_clock (accessed on 02/11/13).  An informative You Tube video of the third clock can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ha7UlUvNpG0 (last accessed on 02/11/13).  Locke, was, of course, referring to the second of the three. 

[11] Garrett Thomson, Bacon to Kant, op. cit., p. 162-163. 

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