LOCKE: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding [Book III, Ch. 1-3, 9-11]

Book III
• Chapter 1 – Of Words or Language in General
• God fashioned man for a sociable animal. Language is the instrument and common tie of society.
• Men used articulate sounds to represent internal conceptions that could be conveyed to one another.
• These sounds that represent ideas were made to comprehend many particular things. It would have been inconvenient and likely impossible to remember a particular sound for every particular thing in the world.
• Words such as ignorance and barrenness do not signify an idea, but rather an absence of ideas.
• All our notions and knowledge, which are signified by words, are derived from sensible ideas. Even the abstruse significations that are not perceived by the senses – such as ‘comprehend’, ‘apprehend’, and ‘imagine’ – are words that are derived from the operations of sensible things.
• The following chapters will discuss the following:
o To what are names immediately applied?
o All, except proper, names are general and signify sorts and kinds of things. What are these sorts and kinds? Wherein do they consist? How were they made?
o By considering the preceding subjects, we will be better able to determine the right use of words; the natural advantages and defects of language; and the remedies to avoid the inconveniences and obscurity or uncertainty in the signification of words.

“We have, as has been proved, no ideas at all, but what originally come either from sensible objects without, or what we feel within ourselves, from the inward workings of our own spirits, of which we are conscious to ourselves within.”

• Chapter 2 – Of the Signification of Words
• Men have a great variety of thoughts that are profitable and delightful to others when communicated. Thus, it was necessary to develop a means of communicating these ideas within one’s mind to others. Nothing was so fit for this purpose as articulate sounds. Words thus became used as signs for ideas. There is no natural connection between articulate sounds and certain ideas; otherwise there would be one universal language.
• Men use words to record their own thoughts for the assistance of their memory or to convey their ideas to others. The purpose of speech is to make known the ideas of the speaker to the hearer.
• Words signify the ideas a man has. If a man uses the word gold to signify anything that is yellow, then he would say that a peacock’s tail feather is gold. If a man makes the further observation that gold is yellow and heavy, then he would say that anything which is heavy and yellow is gold. Another man might add fusibility to the previous qualities, another might add malleability, etc. each man uses the word ‘gold’ when they wish to express the idea which they have applied to it. It is clear that a man can only apply the word to his own idea; he cannot use it as a sign of a complex ideas which he does not possess.
• Men assume that the same sound represents the same idea in both their own mind and the mind of the hearer.
• Men assume that the articulate sounds represent things as they really are. Men pervert the use of words when they assume this. They ought to realize that the words only represent ideas within their mind. Otherwise it leads to obscurity and confusion.
• The habitual association of words with the objects they represent causes the mere utterance of a word to produce a similar sensation that the object itself produces.
• Some men use words as parrots do because they learn the sound before the idea associated with it. They have been accustomed to the sound and do not carefully examine the meaning of the sound. Men ought to know what idea the sound signifies.
• The common use of words appropriate certain sounds to certain ideas. There is no natural connection between sounds and the ideas they represent.

“The use, then, of words, is to be sensible marks of ideas.”

“When a man speaks to another, it is that he may be understood: and the end of speech is, that those sounds, as marks, may make known his ideas to the hearer.”

“Because many words are learned before the ideas are known for which they stand: some, not only children but men, speak several words no otherwise than parrots do, only because they have learned them, and have been accustomed to those sounds. But so far as words are of use and signification, so far is there a constant connexion between the sound and the idea, and a designation that the one stands for the other; without which application of them, they are nothing but so much insignificant noise.”

• Chapter 3 – Of General Terms
• Most words are general terms because of reason and necessity, not negligence or chance.
• It is beyond human capacity to remember a unique name for every particular thing.
• It would be impractical to use unique names for every particular thing because the purpose of communication is to be understood. One would not be understood by another who has not been acquainted with every particular thing that the speaker discusses.
• Knowledge is increased by the use of general propositions.
• When men often have occasion to mention particular things of a species, they will use proper names. For example, men use proper names when discussing other men because they interact with them frequently.
• Jockey often have occasion to mention particular horses, and thus use distinct names as other men do with humans.
• General words are made by the following process: words are used to signify general ideas; general ideas are formed by separating circumstances of time and place and any other ideas that may determine a particular existence [this is the process of abstraction which produces abstract or general ideas].
• By the process of abstraction, Peter becomes man, man becomes animal, animal becomes life, life becomes existence.
• General ideas are abstract ideas of more complex ones. For example, if we remove the qualities that distinguish men from horses, we arrive at the general idea of an animal, etc.
• Definitions are usually comprised of a genus and a differential quality because it is the shortest and easiest way. For example, man is defined as a rational animal. ‘Rational’ is the differential quality, and ‘animal’ is the genus of man – i.e. the abstraction of the idea of man. But this is perhaps not the best way to define things. A word can also be defined using the simple ideas that comprise the complex idea that the word signifies. For example, man can be defined as “a solid extended substance, having life, sense, spontaneous motion, and the faculty of reasoning.”
• General ideas are products of the mind, and do not have the real existence of things in the world, though the establishment of a general idea depends upon the similitudes of natures in particular things.
• Men sometimes do not agree about the essence of a thing. For example, what one man defines as covetousness, another man may define as not covetousness. Men disagree about whether a fetus is a man, etc.
• Every distinct general idea is a distinct essence. A circle is as essentially different from an oval as white from black. Two abstract ideas are as essentially different as any two of the most opposite abstract ideas in the world.
• There are two significations of the word ‘essence’. Real essence is that whereby a thing is what it is. The nominal essence is the general idea that a word represents. For example, the biological composition of a man is the real essence of a man. The abstract idea of an animal is the nominal essence of all animals.
• Essences are ingenerable and incorruptible. The essence of a circle [mermaid, unicorn, etc.] will always be a circle [mermaid, unicorn, etc.] regardless of whether a circle [mermaid, unicorn, etc.] exists. Thus, essences do not possess the real existence of perishable particular things. All things are subject to change. The grass becomes the sheep that becomes the man. The real essences of the particular grass and particular sheep must be supposed to be altered and destroyed, but the essences of grass and sheep do not change.

“That such abstract ideas, with names to them, as we have been speaking of are essences, may further appear by what we are told concerning essences, viz. that they are all ingenerable and incorruptible. Which cannot be true of the real constitutions of things, which begin and perish with them. All things that exist, besides their Author, are all liable to change; especially those things we are acquainted with, and have ranked into bands under distinct names or ensigns. Thus, that which was grass to-day is to-morrow the flesh of a sheep; and, within a few days after, becomes part of a man: in all which and the like changes, it is evident their real essence- i.e. that constitution whereon the properties of these several things depended- is destroyed, and perishes with them. The doctrine of the immutability of essences proves them to be only abstract ideas; and is founded on the relation established between them and certain sounds as signs of them; and will always be true, as long as the same name can have the same signification.”

“All the great business of genera and species, and their essences, amounts to no more but this:- That men making abstract ideas, and settling them in their minds with names annexed to them, do thereby enable themselves to consider things, and discourse of them, as it were in bundles, for the easier and readier improvement and communication of their knowledge, which would advance but slowly were their words and thoughts confined only to particulars.”

• Chapter 9 – Of the Imperfection of Words
• Words are used for recording and communicating our thoughts.
• Any words will suffice to record our own thoughts if we constantly use the same terms for the same ideas; for then we cannot fail to understand the thoughts, wherein consists the right use and perfection of language.
• We communicate with words for civil and philosophical purposes. Civil communication is the use of words to uphold common conversation and commerce about the ordinary affairs and conveniences of civil life. Philosophical communication is the use of words to convey the precise notion of things and express certain and undoubted truths in general propositions. A great deal less exactness is required in the use of words in the civil context than the philosophical.
• The end of communication is to be understood. Words do not accomplish this goal if they do not excite in the hearer the same idea which the words represent in the mind of the speaker.
• Language has natural imperfections. Some words are ambiguous because they represent very complex ideas. Some words have no natural connection in nature, and no standard to adjust them by. Some words are referred to a standard, but the standard is not easily known. Some words’ meanings are not exactly the same as the essences of the things that they represent.
• Moral words are very complex and therefore ambiguous.
• Words that denote a collection of ideas that have no standard in nature are ambiguous. For example, the term ‘murder’ is a collection of ideas such as the act and intention of the murderer. The intention of the murderer is not visible in nature.
• The words that denote simple ideas are learned by presenting the idea to a child and repeating the word that represents the subject. For example, a dog is shown to a child and the word dog is repeated. Moral words are learned differently. The sound is learned first, and then a child learns the meaning of the word through explication by another person or by his own observations. This contributes to the uncertainty of the meaning of moral words.
• Substances are ambiguous because they are complex ideas composed of many simple ideas. Depending on a man’s education and skill, many different interpretations of a substance will arise. For example, one man may denote everything that is yellow and shiny as gold. Another may denote everything that is shiny, yellow, and of a certain malleability and fixedness to be gold. Another may add fusibility, ad infinitum.
• The greatest part of disputes is about the signification of words rather than a difference in the conception of things.
• The names of simple ideas are the least doubtful. White and black are words that everyone easily comprehends.
• Words interpose themselves between us and the truth. They are like the medium which obscures the visible light that passes through it.
• The true meanings of the writings of the ancients are difficult to apprehend because the notions of the writers are much different from ours due to the remoteness in time and radical cultural disparities. Thus, we ought to be charitable to one another in the interpretations of ancient texts.

“It comes to pass that men’s names of very compound ideas, such as for the most part are moral words, have seldom in two different men the same precise signification; since one man’s complex idea seldom agrees with another’s, and often differs from his own- from that which he had yesterday, or will have to-morrow.”

“Where shall one find any, either controversial debate, or familiar discourse, concerning honour, faith, grace, religion, church, &c., wherein it is not easy to observe the different notions men have of them? Which is nothing but this, that they are not agreed in the signification of those words, nor have in their minds the same complex ideas which they make them stand for, and so all the contests that follow thereupon are only about the meaning of a sound. And hence we see that, in the interpretation of laws, whether divine or human, there is no end; comments beget comments, and explications make new matter for explications; and of limiting, distinguishing, varying the signification of these moral words there is no end.”

“I am apt to imagine, that, 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.”

“In discourses of religion, law, and morality, as they are matters of the highest concernment, so there will be the greatest difficulty. The volumes of interpreters and commentators on the Old and New Testament are but too manifest proofs of this. Though everything said in the text be infallibly true, yet the reader cannot choose but be, very fallible in the understanding of it. Nor is it to be wondered, that the will of God, when clothed in words, should be liable to that doubt and uncertainty which unavoidably attends that sort of conveyance, when even his Son, whilst clothed in flesh, was subject to all the frailties and inconveniences of human nature, sin excepted. And we ought to magnify his goodness, that he hath spread before all the world such legible characters of his works and providence, and given all mankind so sufficient a light of reason, that they to whom this written word never came, could not (whenever they set themselves to search) either doubt of the being of a God, or of the obedience due to him. Since then the precepts of Natural Religion are plain, and very intelligible to all mankind, and seldom come to be controverted; and other revealed truths, which are conveyed to us by books and languages, are liable to the common and natural obscurities and difficulties incident to words; methinks it would become us to be more careful and diligent in observing the former, and less magisterial, positive, and imperious, in imposing our own sense and interpretations of the latter.”

• Chapter 10 – Of the Abuse of Words
• Besides the natural imperfections of language, men render words less clear through wiful faults and neglects.
• Several sects of philosophy and religion have invented words that have no idea annexed to them, and thus are unintelligible. They coin new words to affect something singular, to support some strange opinions, or to cover some weakness of their hypothesis.
• Some men frequently use words that they do not know the meaning of. For example, many men frequently use words such as wisdom, glory, grace, etc. but cannot explain the meanings of the words. This is occasioned by learning the names before the ideas the names represent.
• Another abuse of language is the inconsistent use of words. Men will often use a word in many different senses as it suits his argument.
• Another abuse of language is affected obscurity – i.e. the use of new and ambiguous terms that are utterly meaningless upon close investigation.
• The abuse of language has obscured and perplexed the truths of religion and justice. “What have the greatest part of the comments and disputes upon the laws of God and man served for, but to make the meaning more doubtful, and perplex the sense? What have been the effect of those multiplied curious distinctions, and acute niceties, but obscurity and uncertainty, leaving the words more unintelligible, and the reader more at a loss? How else comes it to pass that princes, speaking or writing to their servants, in their ordinary commands are easily understood; speaking to their people, in their laws, are not so?”
• Another abuse of language is regarding words as real things. For example, asserting the existence of centaurs because the word centaur exists. Furthermore, ‘matter’ does not exist in the real world. It is an idea.
• Another abuse of language is setting words in the place of what they cannot signify.
• The complex ideas of mixed modes change as one simple idea is added or left out. For example, the mixed modes of murder, parricide, matricide, etc. are distinct from one another as one simple idea is added or removed. On the other hand, the complex ideas of substances do not change as one simple idea is added or left out, which leads to much confusion and uncertainty in discourse. For example, one man might consider gold to be of a certain malleable constitution while another may not take into account the fixedness of an object in his determination of whether the object is gold.
• There are two false suppositions commonly made about substances: 1) there are certain precise essences according to which nature makes all particular things; and 2) we have ideas of these precise essences – i.e. we know the precise essences of things.
• Another abuse of language is supposing that the hearer knows precisely what the speaker means.
• The purposes of language are to convey our ideas, to do it with as much ease and quickness as possible, and to convey knowledge of things [to convey knowledge, our ideas must agree with reality]. Language fails these ends when men use names without any determinate ideas in their minds whereof they are the signs, when they divert words from their common use and meaning, and when they apply names inconsistently – i.e. making them stand for one, and by and by for another idea.
• Another abuse of language is figurative speech. Though this type of abuse is serves for entertainment, it ought not to be used in the search for knowledge.

“Wisdom, glory, grace, &c., are words frequent enough in every man’s mouth; but if a great many of those who use them should be asked what they mean by them, they would be at a stand, and not know what to answer: a plain proof, that, though they have learned those sounds, and have them ready at their tongues ends, yet there are no determined ideas laid up in their minds, which are to be expressed to others by them.”

“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 things themselves. For, when we argue about matter, or any the like term, we truly argue only about the idea we express by that sound, whether that precise idea agree to anything really existing in nature or no. And if men would tell what ideas they make their words stand for, there could not be half that obscurity or wrangling in the search or support of truth that there is.”

“But however preposterous and absurd it be to make our names stand for ideas we have not, or (which is all one) essences that we know not, it being in effect to make our words the signs of nothing; yet it is evident to any one who ever so little reflects on the use men make of their words, that there is nothing more familiar. When a man asks whether this or that thing he sees, let it be a drill, or a monstrous foetus, be a man or no; it is evident the question is not, Whether that particular thing agree to his complex idea expressed by the name man: but whether it has in it the real essence of a species of things which he supposes his name man to stand for.”

“Though it be generally believed that there is great diversity of opinions in the volumes and variety of controversies the world is distracted with; yet the most I can find that the contending learned men of different parties do, in their arguings one with another, is, that they speak different languages. For I am apt to imagine, that when any of them, quitting terms, think upon things, and know what they think, they think all the same: though perhaps what they would have be different.”

“He that hath names without ideas, wants meaning in his words, and speaks only empty sounds. He that hath complex ideas without names for them, wants liberty and dispatch in his expressions, and is necessitated to use periphrases. He that uses his words loosely and unsteadily will either be not minded or not understood. He that applies his names to ideas different from their common use, wants propriety in his language, and speaks gibberish. And he that hath the ideas of substances disagreeing with the real existence of things, so far wants the materials of true knowledge in his understanding, and hath instead thereof chimeras.”

• Chapter 11 – Of the Remedies of the Foregoing Imperfections and Abuses of Words
• There are two types of disputes: 1) those between two men who both acknowledge themselves to have an imperfect understanding of a thing; and 2) those between two men who disagree as to the nature of an idea. For example, in the first type of disputes, both men will seek the true nature of an idea. In the second type of disputes, the men will argue over mere sounds; for if they both agreed as to the signification of the name, then it would be impossible to dispute about it.
• First Remedy: Use no word without an idea annexed to it.
• Second Remedy: Have distinct, determinate [precise collection of simple ideas] ideas annexed to words that are conformable to reality.
• Third Remedy: Apply words to such ideas as common use has annexed them to.
• Fourth Remedy: Declare the meaning in which we use words. This may be done in three ways: 1) by defining the term; 2) by showing examples; and 3) by showing and defining.
o One declares the meaning of simple ideas by synonymous terms or by showing examples.
o One declares the meaning of mixed modes only with precise definitions; for mixed modes are ideas that men have arbitrarily fashioned. Thus, morality is capable of demonstration as mathematics is. The real essence of moral words may be perfectly known.
o One declares the meaning of substances by showing and defining. The physical qualities of a substance that are conspicuous are best understood by showing [the shape of a horse would be crudely imprinted on the mind by the use of words, but is powerfully impressed upon the mind by showing a picture of a horse]. The ideas of the powers of substances are best understood by definition [the powers of a substance – such as fusibility, solubility, fixedness, etc. – are not obvious to our senses, and thus best understood by definition].
• Fifth Remedy: Use the same word constantly in the same sense.

“For he that shall well consider the errors and obscurity, the mistakes and confusion, that are spread in the world by an ill use of words, will find some reason to doubt whether language, as it has been employed, has contributed more to the improvement or hindrance of knowledge amongst mankind. How many are there, that, when they would think on things, fix their thoughts only on words, especially when they would apply their minds to moral matters? And who then can wonder if the result of such contemplations and reasonings, about little more than sounds, whilst the ideas they annex to them are very confused and very unsteady, or perhaps none at all; who can wonder, I say, that such thoughts and reasonings end in nothing but obscurity and mistake, without any clear judgment or knowledge?”

“Let us look into the books of controversy of any kind, there we shall see that the effect of obscure, unsteady, or equivocal terms is nothing but noise and wrangling about sounds, without convincing or bettering a man’s understanding. For if the idea be not agreed on, betwixt the speaker and hearer, for which the words stand, the argument is not about things, but names.”

In these chapters, Locke discusses language, and its role in our search for and dissemination of knowledge. Locke sets forth the several natural imperfections and the abuses of language, which convinces Locke to conclude that language has been a hindrance to our acquisition of knowledge rather than an important aid. He asserts that the majority of all disputes arise from different ideas about what certain words signify. If men would recognize this fact – i.e. that they are arguing over sounds rather than the nature of things – then most disputes would vanish; for the real essence of substances is indisputable, and moral terms are the unique products of the minds of men. Disputes can only arise in cases of preference.

The remedies that Locke provides for the abuses and imperfections of language are so simple that it seems absurd that the faults and errors of language still persist. I believe that the five remedies may be reduced into one simple maxim: Consistently use words that have distinct ideas attached to them.

Locke’s discussion of language also clarifies his epistemology. He asserts that all our ideas are formed from our perceptions, and demonstrates the process by which we form ideas. According to Locke, we begin by perceiving simple ideas that affect one of the senses. Then we proceed to form complex ideas by judging what we perceive – i.e. comparing one object of our perception with others. This process of judging is the faculty that distinguishes us from every other thing in the world. We form general ideas using this process by abstracting certain qualities such as time, circumstance, place, and any other quality that may determine a particular existence. General ideas are important in advancing our knowledge of the world.


3 thoughts on “LOCKE: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding [Book III, Ch. 1-3, 9-11]”

    1. Yes, the reading plan has done a great job thus far at assigning manageable reading selections. Locke discusses so many different subjects in this essay that it is almost necessary to approach the text in segments to understand and retain the concepts.

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