John Locke was the first philosopher in English to really think about the nature of language, its relationship to the mind, and the relationship between language and reality. In The Essay Concerning Human Understanding, written in 1690 at the behest of friends, Locke set out to describe mental processes, especially to refute the Cartesian notion of innate ideas. As he got deeper and deeper into his examination of mind, however, he realised that an examination of the interaction between mind and language and the world would be necessary. I must confess then that when I first began this discourse of the understanding, and a good while after, I had not the least thought that any consideration of words was at all necessary to it. But when, having passed over the original and composition of our ideas, I began to examine the extent and certainty of our knowledge, I found it had so near a connection with words, that, unless their force and manner of signification were first well observed, there could be very little said clearly and pertinently concerning knowledge. 3.9.21
Locke's thinking about language, contained in Book Three of the Essay is still one of the profoundest and most perspicacious analyses of the subject, and his ideas must be of interest to anyone who works with, or is passionate about language. His ideas anticipate the structuralism of Saussure, and the whole field of semiotics; he anticipates the ideas on the relationship between mind, culture and syntax posited by Sapir and Lakoff; and also the style guides of Strunk and White, as well as the political stylistics of Orwell.
Put simply, for Locke, words are arbitrary symbols of ideas in the mind, not of things in the world. This is an absolutely crucial distinction that he warns about again and again. The act of naming is tied up with the act of categorising ideas. When we name, we are not naming objects in the world, but first sorting our mental ideas of those objects into categories, and then naming those categories.
In the two most important chapters of Book 3, Locke dwells on the imperfections of words, and on the way words are abused.
Of the imperfections of words
Words are used for two purposes, to record and communicate our thoughts. For the first, a private use of language taking place perhaps only in the theatre of the mind, any words will do. For the second, words must have clear agreed-upon meaning.
Words are imperfect because when they refer to (ideas of) abstract concepts (mixed modes is Locke's term) these abstract concepts may in themselves be ill understood. Abstract concepts have no counterpart in nature by which we can judge their accuracy, they exist only in the mind.
Words are imperfect because when they refer to (ideas of) things in the world, the real nature of things in the world cannot be known by the mind, so we are in fact only referring to their nominal essence, not their real essence, which exists outside the mind. The mind can only perceive its own ideas; it cannot directly perceive the things of the world.
These two imperfections are inherent in the nature of language and mind, and must be borne in mind in disputes and discussions. Locke warns that many of the controversies and misunderstandings between societies arise through a misunderstanding of the real nature of language. People mistakenly assume that words reflect things, rather than ideas of things.
Were the imperfections of language as the instrument of knowledge, more thoroughly weighed, a great many of the controversies that make such a noise in the world, would of themselves cease; and the way to knowledge, and perhaps peace too, lie a great deal opener than it does. 3.9.21
His warnings have great pertinence today, when debates about the literalness of Scripture are beginning to influence policy and to hamper scientific progress and human rights.
Of the abuse of words
Locke identified seven different abuses of words, and they are as pertinent today
in this age of instantaneous computer mediated debate as they ever were.
The first abuse of words is using them without a clear understanding of their meaning, either because they had no clear meaning annexed to them to begin with, or because their clear meaning has become obscured by current false usage.
Second, is the unsteady application of them, by which Locke means using a word to mean one thing in one context, and then another thing in another context.
Third, is the affected obscurity by professional classes. Now, to anyone who has had to wade through swathes of the academic abuse of language by post-Derridean scribblers, this will strike a chord. Locke points his finger at academics and lawyers in particular, as masquerading a false subtlety. In fact, at this point in the book, Locke's human frustrations break through the coolheaded procession of taxonomies he is laying out, and he indulges himself in a marvellous rant against the artificial ignorance and learned gibberish (3.10.9) of the scholars and philosophers, who hide their own ignorance with the mist of obscurity.
The fourth abuse of words is to insist in their literalness, to insist that they refer to things, not to ideas of things. So, to use a current example, when a fundamentalist insists that the Bible is the Word of God, it is an abuse of language to think that these are words actually spoken by God, and not words which are merely related to the idea of 'god'. Locke warns that those brought up in the confines of one particular system are susceptible to the error of thinking that the terms used in that system reflect reality: These words men have learned from their very entrance upon knowledge, and have found their masters and systems lay great stress upon them; and therefore they cannot quit the opinion that are conformable to nature and are the representation s of something that really exists. 3.10.14
The fifth abuse of words is related to Locke's concepts of essence and substance, which we shall skate over here.
The sixth abuse of language is to use it as if it had no imperfections as outlined in the previous sections.
The seventh abuse of language is any kind of language use which emphasises its figurative qualities. For Locke, like Plato's attitude to the arts, had the notion that artistic uses of language: metaphor, symbolism, ironic double meanings and so on, were an abuse, because they occluded knowledge. Locke is motivated here by his certainty that knowledge - understanding- is possible; and that based on this certainty, language is the only way to arrive at this knowledge. Perhaps language that foregrounds itself, its own beauty, its own sense of play, undermines this certainty. Locke's own language use is for the most part dry, precise, transparent, at the service of explicating his ideas. Only occasionally does John Locke the man shine through, when he makes sarcastic remarks against the Scholiasts, or confesses to his inability to uncover certain aspects of mind, and on these occasions, his language foregrounds itself more.
All these abuses of language have made people conceited and obstinate, Locke notes. He must be spinning in his grave to observe the way people abuse language today.
Of the remedies of the foregoing imperfections and abuses of words
In Chapter 11 of Book Three, Locke outlines some preventative measures to guard against the imperfections and abuses of words. These measures are necessary for anyone concerned with the search for truth.
The first remedy is to use words only when you have ideas annexed to them. Users of, like, valley speak, like, take note, ok?
Second, to have distinct determinate ideas annexed to words, and to clearly define these ideas.
Third, to use words in the way common use has marked them.
Fourth, words can be defined in the following three ways: by synonyms, or examples; by definitions (technically, this means explaining the word by not using a synonym or an example); by showing (a picture of) the thing (of the idea) to which the word refers.
The fifth remedy is to use words consistently with the same meaning, and when one is not doing so, to explain the variation.
This I think I may at least say, that we should have a great many fewer disputes in the world, if words were taken for what they are, the signs of our ideas only, and not for the things themselves. 3.10 15.