|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.
Oftentimes, when one is exploring what exactly a particular thing is (in this case it is language), we find ourselves with the inclination to search for why this particular thing exists and also how it arose in the first place. This teleological basis of inquiry is explicitly mentioned in Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding during Chapter III (Of General Terms) when discussing why we have general terms in the first place and do not give particular names to each and every particular thing. Locke’s claims that, “If it were possible [to name each particular thing], it would yet be useless; because it would not serve the chief end of language. Men would in vain heap names of particular things, that would not serve them to communicate their thoughts. Men learn names, and use them in talk with others, only that they may be understood,”(1) helps to show us why language is used in the way it is, though this won’t be clear until some further explication.
When Locke claims that, “Words are sensible Signs(2), necessary for Communication of Ideas,” he is taking a very practical, and some might say surprisingly post-modern, view of the development of language. For Locke, language developed merely as a means to facilitate the development of society so that one may convey ideas which may otherwise remain hidden “within his own breast” so to speak. This account, however, seems to take a broad definition of the word thought since, by many accounts, there is somewhat of a chicken-egg relationship between thought and language where one cannot be seen to have arisen (at least not with their current complexity, as it is likely that thought facilitated language and language facilitated certain kinds of thought) without the other.
A recent article for the Harvard University Gazette(3) by William J. Cromie examines exactly this issue in regards to a study done with 5-month old children. Through the course of the study what was found is that children develop ways of thinking that are independent of language prior to learning their native tongue. The two languages used as examples were English and Korean where in the first we make distinctions between “in” and “on” and in the second, there are distinctions made between something which fits “tightly” or “loosely.” As we grow older and learn a specific language, it is not that we lose the capacity to make these same distinctions, and indeed recognize them when they are pointed out to us, but they do not come as readily as the distinctions which are more naturally recognized in our native language. With such a discovery, however, comes the question as to what, either in nature or otherwise, would cause these distinctions to be made differently. In any case, it seems to support Locke’s theory that, prior to the development of language, there are independent thoughts and distinctions which one needs to convey, indicating, at the very least, an innate capacity for language.
According to Locke, man has a “great variety of thoughts” which needs to be expressed for a variety of reasons, but seeing as how they are all contained within his own mind, they are not accessible to others and so needed an external method of communicating these thoughts. For Locke, this external method was words, and though they were “well adapted to the purpose” as the signs of their ideas, there is no connection between the particular sounds the ideas that they represent. An interesting, though convoluted, way of putting it might be to say that there is no inherent quality of “goldness” within the color gold. Rather, the inverse relationship seems to be the case wherein calling gold “gold” is what gives the property of “goldness” to other things. If it was the case that there was a natural connection between particular words and the things they represent then, according to Locke, there would be only one language. Instead, the only relation between a word and the particular idea it represents is completely arbitrary and words are merely “sensible marks of ideas.”
Gold, however, may or may not be a unique case when we consider other colors, or any descriptive word for that matter, and how we came to use those words. If one were to take the example of gold solely at face value, it might suggest that there must be something which is that named after that characteristic before we begin to use it as merely a descriptive characteristic. That is to say, we must first have an object whose sole name is “green” before we can say that other things possess the similar “green” characteristic. A fairly simple example of this would be someone looking out at the world and seeing what we would call a tree, and instead call it “green” after the color which he perceives it as being.
Locke’s contention that these words are merely a method by which we convey ideas between one another comes with one important caveat: These words, though they express roughly the same idea, will vary from individual to individual depending on their personal experience with what is being signified by our use of the word, and in this sense, words are used in the same way be it by an educated or uneducated individual. The ideas being expressed are fairly unique to us and Locke clarifies this by showing various examples wherein one’s idea of the thing changes depending merely on their ability to discern a variety of characteristics contained within the object. As a child merely notes the shiny color of the gold, so they apply this same term to the color on a peacocks tail; someone else observes the gold and notes it’s weight; another person comes along and remarks on it’s malleability, and so on and so forth. Each person who has the chance to use this word to describe their idea will do so, but in using this word they are not conveying the full extent of the meaning to the person with whom they are communicating.
This, however, seems to be somewhat of a simplistic account, unless one merely assumes that Locke is pointing out how a word attains its meaning. It seems as though with each new characteristic applied to a word, so long as that meaning is germane to the actual properties present (as with gold, this would be the color, weight, malleability, fusibility, et cetera), that will inevitably be added to the list of characteristics one might attribute to the word. Though, more often than not, unless one is referring to the object that is “gold” when one uses the signifier “gold” they are merely using it to signify the color. This, of course, does not deal with context specific usages of the word gold wherein someone signifies “gold” but is referring to “gold bars” (say, in a discussion concerning Fort Knox).
In a very simplistic way, and was perhaps implied, this account also applies to denotative and connotative aspects inherent in our acquisition of language that will concern the value judgments we often place on words. Locke explicitly claims that the thoughts we have are hidden and invisible from others, and if it is the case, then the possibility remains that these thoughts, even concerning specific things, will be different from one person to the next. This same relationship is examined in the examples given by Locke wherein he notes that someone’s idea of a thing will change depending, in part, on how discerning they are of the thing which they are observing. However, Locke does leave out the fact that our particular experience with a thing, good or bad, can influence our own personal thoughts on it. For instance, if someone is attacked by a dog, particularly in their younger and more influential years, from that point on they may attribute the characteristic of “bad” or “harmful” to all dogs following that incident, whereas someone who has had good experiences with dogs will likely attribute different characteristics to dogs. Though both individuals have the same definition of a dog, they have placed different value judgments on them because of their experiences.
One may relate this relationship to the claim that Alfred Korzybski made that “the map is not the territory.”(4) In this sense one can liken the “map” to the denotative (or definitive) aspects of a word, and the territory as being the connotative aspects of a word. What is often meant by “the map is not the territory” is that the representation of the thing is not the thing itself. While these two interpretations of the claim may seem different, they are much intertwined. If we consider the map to be the objective thing itself (that which we are defining), and if it is the case that we are merely seeking to represent the thing then we realize that word is not the thing itself. Further, when we speak we are representing a representation. Before we can represent it through language we must first have an idea (or representation of it) in our mind, which likely means that we have to experience it, to a certain degree (even if just through another person telling us about it) before we can really put it into words. (Here there seems to be some groundwork being laid wherein one can refute the claim that language as a system of signs, in a certain sense, will imply an infinite regression.)
In any case, each person will have a different representation of the thing itself in their mind because they experience it differently. This is both determined by the particular (rather than general) thing itself which they experienced, and also due to some innate characteristic at the biological level and an acquired characteristic at the sociological level. As such, this will lead to different “territories” (or connotation) for each person, though the “map” (or denotation) is the same.
Linguistically speaking, one may relate this to a term which is oft-considered in “politically correct” cultures to be outdated: colored people. In recent years, this word has been replaced by the term “people of color” (which some may object to, but that is a moral argument best left for another time) though both ought to indicate the same concept. However, the problem lies in that many people have attached a connotation to the word; one which is particularly negative and has contributed to the rise of the term “people of color,” and though there is not a universal acceptance of the term (due to the map-territory distinction made above) it has been accepted by a great many people, and shows how Locke’s point is supported in that we agree to certain terms and definitions merely because they facilitate communication. If one were to slip and use the latter of the two terms, communication often breaks down because of the emotive connotation one places on the word. To contrast the usages of both these words, and how it is nothing innate in the actual meaning that leads us to prefer one or the other, as both are technically correct in what they signify, there is still the tendency to refer to Caucasians as “white people” rather than “people of whiteness” as no negative connotations have been attached to the latter and both are, yet again, technically correct.
However, if Locke’s defense of the claim that “there would be but one language amongst all men” is correct and similar to Augustine’s claim that, “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,” then what does this imply? While the former claim seems to have a much broader interpretation available to it that shall be dealt with shortly, there is a sense in which it can be seen as restrictive of the first. Within Augustine’s claim there seems to be a claim in which all languages relate to one form of thought that is unchanging regardless of who the person doing the thinking is. If this was the case, then it would seem that different languages could be directly translated between one another. While this is true in some cases, it is by no means a universal principle as with the more complex, or culture specific, the idea being expressed the more difficult it becomes to translate from one language or another.
It would be simple enough to translate some names from one language to another as a direct translation, though in some cases a literalist translation will yield a different set of words with a similar meaning. For instance, in some other language the word for “pillow” might be literally translated into “soft head resting thing.” But there still yet remain circumstances in which a translation of any kind, either literal or otherwise will simply not suffice. A clear example of this would be the German word zeitgeist, which has a long history in the philosophic discipline, wherein a literal translation would yield “time spirit” but were one to make an attempt at getting closer to the meaning of the word, it would be “spirit of the age.” A problem arises, however, in that neither translation seems sufficient, largely because of how spirit is often used in the English language. When one says, “spirit of the law,” they are not literally talking about a “law spirit” as it were, but rather a guiding principle or the intention of the thing, whereas when one speaks of zeitgeist (at least in the Hegelian sense) there is the distinct impression that this an actual existing being rather than merely a description of a particular time.
If Locke’s claim is to be interpreted in a different way then we find ourselves with many more options, and such an interpretation will have to rely on how one takes the claim that, “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.” If one sees Locke’s claim as being one that describes man as a general concept applying to “human” and therefore all people (as was the tendency back then, and still has some use in modern speech), then one gets a narrow version of his claim wherein all men possess the same kinds of thoughts and merely need to express them, which they will do in different ways, though direct translations will be possible.
If, however, one puts more emphasis on the last part of Locke’s claim, that these thoughts “within his own breast, invisible and hidden from others,” then one is capable of attaining a wider interpretation of his claim, which is very much unlike the claim made by Augustine. Because these ideas are within our own breast, and these ideas having relied upon our experience with the thing, then it is the case that our ideas of the things will be different, at least initially. If the representations of the things differ in our own mind then there is a way in which our languages will differ from one another, and the more complex our ideas of nature and social relationships become, the more complex our languages will become to reflect this which will make it more difficult to translate between languages. So, Locke’s claim need not necessarily imply the same thing as Augustine’s claim as the ideas “within our own breast” will differ from one person to the next and in considering this, the fact that we managed to develop a public language at all is amazing.
1) Locke, John. “Essay On Human Understanding.” Philosophy of Language: The Big Questions. Ed. Andrea Nye. Blackwell Publishers Inc, 1998. pg 19.
2) Locke, John. “Essay On Human Understanding.” Philosophy of Language: The Big Questions. Ed. Andrea Nye. Blackwell Publishers Inc, 1998. pg 18
3) Which Comes First, Language or Thought? Babies Think First. 22 July, 2004. Harvard University Gazette. <http://www.hno.harvard.edu/gazette/2004/07.22/21-think.html>
4) Computational Mathematics. University of Oregon. Date Accessed: February 28th, 2008. <http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~moursund/math/computational_math.htm>
x-posted to ragnarok20