John Locke’s Understanding of LanguageJune 27, 2021
Book 3 of Essays is on language and words.
According to Locke, God created man as a social being and gave him language for this. Man makes sounds that are not found in other living things and makes these sounds the signs-symbols of his ideas. Man uses words, which are regular sounds, as symbols of ideas in his mind. Then he uses these symbols in place of other people’s ideas. Finally it uses them as symbols for objects. In this way, communication with other people is achieved through words.
Most words are general. This generality is inevitable, since it is impossible to name thousands of particulars one by one. A general term is the name given to a general or universal idea formed in the mind by combining the things common to all, leaving aside the specific ones, in each of the similar entities. General genus and species names such as human, animal, plant are produced in this way. These are first formed in our minds as a universal concept, then a general term is formed by giving a name to this concept or idea. This understanding of universals in philosophy is called conceptualism.
According to Locke, these general terms are abstract. These are mental beings; therefore, it is futile to seek a response to them in the external world in terms of a single concrete entity. In other words, generality and universality, regardless of the field, are the product of our pure thinking ability. In this way the terms genus and species are obtained: although these terms are the product of the understanding, there is a similarity of things in their basis. They form the true essence of things that are alike, and these abstract ideas form the essence of genera and species of things that are alike. These essences cannot be created and are not corrupted; because these abstract essences continue to exist, even if the individuals of the species come and go. Later, these abstract ideas will be severely criticized by Berkeley for their existence.
Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Omer YILDIRIM’s Personal Lecture Notes. Atatürk University Sociology Department 1st Year “Introduction to Philosophy” and 2nd, 3rd, 4th Grade “History of Philosophy” Lecture Notes (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook