|John Locke and the Philosophy of Language
||[Feb. 28th, 2008|06:42 pm]
This is a paper I wrote for my senior seminar in philosophy for The Philosophy of Language, Selected Issues. Here is the Prompt: Locke claims in his Essay on Human Understanding, Book III, chapter ii, the second paragraph: Man, though he have great variety of thoughts, and such from which others as well as himself might receive profit and delight; yet they are all within his own breast, invisible and hidden from others, nor can of themselves be made to appear. The comfort and advantage of society not being to be had without communication of thoughts, it was necessary that man should find out some external sensible signs, whereof those invisible ideas, which his thoughts are made up of, might be made known to others. For this purpose nothing was so fine, either for plenty or quickness, as those articulate sounds, which with so much ease and variety he found himself able to make. Thus we may conceive how words, which were by nature so well adapted to that purpose, came to be made use of by men as the signs of their ideas; 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.|
Consider the last part of that claim, that the connections beween particular words and the ideas for which they stand are neither natural nor necessary but instead are arbitrary and conventon. And consider the argument Locke gives for this claim, "for then there would be but one language amongst all men. Augustine seems to be alluding to the same kind of relationship for the ideas which they stand way back behind our words when he says, "Within the dwelling of thought Truth (is) neither Hebrew nor Greek nor Latin nor barbaric in speech, without mouth or tongue or noise of syllables." (Augustine, Confessions, Book 11, Section 4). I tell you, "It's raining," but Piglet tells Pooh (in the Latin translation), "Il pluit." All of us get our umbrellas, all having said and all having understood the same.
There are problems with Locke's claim, including some very down home difficulties. One problem is that when we work with examples of something which could be said in different languages or which could be put different ways, as soon as the examples are developed enough to have a shape and an identity then what is being said becomes less pen to variation; the ways that it can be said become much more precise, exact, and restricted. This includes those examples in which the people speaking and conversing are fluent in more than one language. In those cases, the falsity of Locke's account especially emerges if the speakers raise questions about what exactly is being said, and the ability to say what is being said may be given in different languages but does not thereby involve saying different things.
( Read more...Collapse )
x-posted to ragnarok20