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Locke and Theory of Language




Locke's theory of language is best summed up by himself in his second point on language in general where he claimed that with regards to mere vocal noise he must be "able to use these sounds as signs of internal conceptions, and to make them stand for the ideas within his own mind, whereby they might be made known to others, and the thoughts of men's minds be conveyed from one to another." And this is the basis, for Locke, of language and communication. The key ideas are that words are arbitrary sounds, that they are used as signs of or marks of ideas, that these ideas are in the mind of the speaker only, and as shall be shown later they are communicated because these words excite the same ideas in the sound of the hearer, due to a tacit consent of their meaning.

Philosophically what is of great relevance to this definition is that for Locke their are individual minds, which somehow contain ideas, much like a blackboard is the unchanging background to the changing writing on it. Moreover for Locke minds start out as a clean slate as it were, free from all ideas, so that there are no innate ideas, but rather the mind picks up ideas primarily through sensory experience. Later on in the development the ideas gained from sensory experience, are applied to the internal workings of the mind itself, and these basic ideas are changed, compounded and developed into the more abstract ideas of what appears at first sight to be a purely mental conception. One key point in his theory that causes much confusion is that he interchangeably uses the terms ideas and thoughts to be the same and different, but generally they are taken to be the same, which is to say that the mind contains ideas or has thoughts.

The confusion as to Locke's use of the terms idea and mind makes it difficult to analyse, judge and criticise. For if Locke's meaning is accurately expressed by the blackboard and writing example, then it would be necessary to ask questions as to the nature and existence of the mind that is analogous to the blackboard, whereas if we take mind to be the stream of ideas, or rather merely the present idea, then questions as to the use of the term mind and the existence of a continuing personal identity must be asked. These two important philosophical questions are inappropriate to go into in this essay, yet they pose a great deal of significance in the understanding and adequacy of Locke's theory. A more relevant problem is caused by the poor definition of ideas and thoughts, and although this is on the boundary of language it poses a problem of such seriousness that it must be fully dealt with. It is not possible to analyse his theory of language without analysing thought, ideas, and minds to some extent. Hence this criticism shall start from this problem and highlight its significance.

For Locke "words, in their primary or immediate signification, stand for nothing but the ideas in the mind of him that uses them", the significance of this is that he doesn't say: language signifies nothing but the thoughts in the mind of him that uses them. It follows then that for Locke the mind has a sequence of ideas, where there is a one to one correlation between each idea and its representation by a word. Since Locke uses ideas and thoughts interchangeably, our thinking proceeds with a thought, a translation, another thought, another translation, so that each thought and word appear sequentially, with there logically being no thought or idea of the whole sentence. This would render all meaning to individual words and make sentences utterly meaningless. What this highlights is the fact that we actually have a thought which we then try to express in language, in the form of sentences. It is quite usual that while speaking or writing out the linguistic representation of the thought, that we have a sequence of linked thoughts of a simpler nature that go to comprise the divisions of the sentence, and also that we may get another large and complex thought to which our sentence construction of the previous thought is altered so as to make it run smoothly into this new point.

To further emphasise this distinction there is the fact that a thought may be expressed in language in a variety of ways, of possibly equal success or differently so. The end of the last sentence could quite possibly be written to better convey the thought behind it, not that the thought behind it is confused but that the thought 'excited in the mind of the hearer', are to be the same as the originating thought. According to Locke we use words as signs of our ideas, the concept of a sign, a mark and a pointer being for this purpose interchangeable. The purpose of a sign or a pointer is to locate or differentiate something from other things, in this situation the speaker's idea from the other possibilities. An accurate or good sign leaves little room for error, and is precise in its direction, and so it should be expected that a word can vary in its accuracy. However a word does not vary, it is possible only to have picked the wrong sign. Therefore, according to Locke's theory, misunderstandings occur because of using the wrong words, or rather that a word points to a different idea for one mind, than it does for another. This leaves out the possibility for a poorly constructed sentence. Although the different meaning a word may take may cause misunderstandings, unless there is an overall meaning in a sentence or annunciation then there would only be a very basic form of communication and many words such as 'and' would be meaningless. There is not necessarily a one to one correspondence between a thought and a word, indeed some thoughts take many words to describe, or rather define. And furthermore a complex thought can be thought about in greater detail, so that other thoughts of a simpler nature can be used to compose and cover the extent of the original thought.

For Locke, not only do only words signify an idea but only the speaker's ideas, "nor can anyone apply them as marks, immediately, to anything else but the ideas he himself hath, for this would be to make them signs of his own conceptions and yet apply them to other ideas, which would be to make them signs and not signs of his ideas at the same time, and so in effect to have no signification at all." Now certainly words must signify the thoughts that each has, but the thoughts that I have when producing this must hopefully be similar to the thoughts of the reader of this document. There are three levels of mentation in this, that concept or idea that is being thought about, the thinking over this idea and the representation of this in language. Therefore the words signify the thoughts of the thinker which also produces ordinarily the same thoughts of the same idea in the mind of another, so they are signs of a thought process that primarily is of the originator but this thinking becomes independent of the thinker after they have been thought. For the same flow of thoughts can flow through the minds of many subsequent others. If this were not to be so then communication would be impotent, were there to be no similarity in the thoughts of speaker and listener, writer and reader, then the idea would not be communicated. It cannot be argued that from different thoughts the same idea is grasped, unless there was a degree of similarity and understanding, and for this we have the same thoughts. An example of this is a conversation in which both people are in understanding until one is distracted and starts to lose the plot as it were, and can no longer follow the chain of thought and the idea that it conveys. A guess can be made, but as many real life examples show, we often think we know what the other is talking about but actually have completely the wrong end of the stick. Or rather a different stick entirely, since the two minds are reflecting different ideas.

This phenomenon is now often described as being on the same wavelength as someone else, a modern phrase of great significance. This is when two peoples minds come into such a harmony that the listener knows exactly what the other means, and where their thinking is going, and can quite often end the others sentences, or help out with describing their ideas. This quite often occurs with identical twins, to the extent that we can almost say that they share a mind, their minds are in such harmony that they form a union. What is meant by this is that the path of thought around the realm of ideas is walked hand in hand by two mappers. That which is shared is the path of thought, the thinking which to Descartes is the mind, or what I might describe as the ego, the distinction lies in that it is mapped or represented alternately in two imaginations and exchanged via two physical bodies. The thinking selves temporarily merge and for the time being lose their personal nature as they become pure reflections of an objective realm of ideation.

If words are merely arbitrary representations of purely subjective ideas, then how is it possible for communication? Is one correctly using language if one pays no attention to the meaning that others may take from what one says? If I call black people niggers in everyday use, can I justifiably retort when criticised that in my mind the idea that it signifies is one of colour only and not of value? It is sure that anyone who uses the word nigger is aware of its racist undertones and that other minds will read into this a deliberate use of racist language and meaning. Is there a correct meaning for a word, a correct usage, whether or not this idea is in my mind or another? Both minds know the standard meaning of this word, and know that this meaning is excited in the mind of another when it is used.

Therefore the significance of the statement that words stand for our own ideas is rendered impotent since we should be both using the same idea and have the same thoughts, that is, the language that I use to represent my flow of thoughts should hopefully generate the same flow of thoughts in another. There may be differences according to experience of each concept but this is due to completeness of understanding the concept. A concept is presumably a finite thing in the sense that it can be partially or completely understood, or rather in reference to this problem misunderstandings in communication occur because of misunderstanding of concepts. The ideas must be the same for both minds, the thoughts of the ideas may well be specific to specific minds however, the idea is whole and complete, the understanding of it dependent on how completely it has been contemplated. For misunderstandings to be reduced we should, as we already do, explain our ideas as simply as possible, making small steps in thought, and covering the ideas from many angles. Then it is easy for others to follow our footsteps, and see all of the landscape that is to be shown.

Locke says words are chosen "not by any natural connexion that there is between particular articulate sounds and certain ideas, for then there would be but one language amongst all men; but by a voluntary imposition whereby such a word is made arbitrarily the mark of such an idea." Who makes this voluntary choice? If it is every individual speaker then it is not voluntary since there is no reasonable choice, if we are to communicate we are forced to use the common language of the society or the receivers. To this extent we find that we do not pick the words but that we are taught them by the social institution of education and it is here that we are taught the correlation between words and ideas, and how to use the socially accepted grammar. So he must mean originally they were arbitrarily chosen, indeed he explains, "how great a dependence our words have on common sensible ideas, and how those which are made use of to stand for actions and notions quite removed from sense have their rise from thence, and from obvious sensible ideas are transferred to more abstruse significations, and made to stand for ideas that come not under the cognisance of our senses" and from this "what kind of notions they were and whence derived, which filled their minds who were the first beginners of languages, and how nature, even in the naming of things, unawares suggested to men the originals and principles of all their knowledge" His position is clear, complex ideas of a seemingly mental nature have words that originate from words for simpler sensible ideas, and these were arbitrarily chosen by their creator. It is not however proved by Locke that all such words do stem from simpler ones, but more importantly even if they did far back in time originate so, what relevance? In their use now they applied, and their meanings changed according to education and social trend. A classic example is the word 'cool'. Originally it represents a simple and sensible idea, yet now it represented a complex social archetype judgement. The choice of word was certainly not purely arbitrary since it would not have been cool to have picked an adjective like 'knobbly'. And this raises the important point, when words for complex ideas were made from words for simpler ideas, the choice is not purely arbitrary. There are usually reasons for the choice of composition. If we look at a modern occurrence of this we see that the word 'Psychology' stems from the Greek words Psyche and Logos, but the choice of these words is by no means arbitrary, they were chosen to deliberately form the meaning 'A rational account of the mind'.

Lastly, we find another thing about language that is not purely arbitrary, and that is grammar. All languages have a grammar, and while they vary, the choice of grammar is not random or unimportant but evolved to be able to efficiently, accurately and conveniently express the flow of our thoughts. It is a serious question to what extent our thoughts mould our language, and our language chains our thoughts. It is the conclusion of this essay that while a common language has provided us with a basis for communication, perhaps communication can launch into, via empathy, telepathic union of thought, with no misunderstandings, no limitations of language, just a united exploration of ideas.