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The Meaning of Words and the Role of Ideas in Locke’s Semantic Theory

The Meaning of Words and the Role of Ideas in Locke’s Semantic Theory

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Published by Paula Hicks
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Published by: Paula Hicks on Oct 06, 2012
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Hicks 1
 The Meaning of Words and the Roleof Ideas in Locke’s Semantic Theory
Paula Hicks
This essay discusses John Locke’s semantic theory, found in Book Three of 
 An EssayConcerning Human Understanding 
. His overall theory is quite broad and touches upon themeaning of words, general classification systems of words, as well as the abuse of language and itsremedies. The following shall focus simply on Locke’s theory on the meaning of words. Thegeneral definition shall be explored, followed by a criticism launched by John Stuart Mill, andlastly an assessment of the criticism to show that Mill’s argument is founded upon amisinterpretation of Locke, and consequently the two theories are actually different formulations of the same principle.The simplest articulation of Locke’s semantic theory is that “words in their primary andimmediate signification stand for nothing, but the ideas in the mind of him that uses them.”
Additionally, words do more than simply signify ideas, they are used by men to “record their ownthought for the assistance of their own memory; or as it were, to bring out their ideas, and lay them before the view of others.
Critical in understanding Locke’s theory that words signify ideas, is the meaning of “signify” in Locke’s day, as opposed to the present meaning. As Paul Guyer, author of “Locke’s
1 John Locke,
 An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
(Indianapolis, In: Hackett PublishingCompany, 1996), 178 (3.2.2).2 Ibid.
Philosophy of Language,” in the
Cambridge Companion to Locke,
 points out, to Locke, “signify”meant more than “our contemporary term ‘reference,’ and thus it should not be supposed thatLocke means to argue that our words primarily
to our own ideas.
 Guyer explains that‘signify’, (significare) is a technical term from late medieval philosophy of language thatmeans something quite general, namely representing something in some way to thecognitive faculty, and which thus includes functions like
, or 
making known
, which apply to meaning as well, if not better than to reference (Ashworth1981:309-11, 314).
Furthermore, there were several schools of thought amongst the Scholastic authors of this meaningof “signify.”
The prevailing view in Locke’s time, and the one to which he subscribed, held thatwords had two functions; primarily as “‘concepts in the mind, […] [and secondarily to] signifythings, but by means of concepts.’”
 From this viewpoint, it should be clear that Locke’s definition that words signify ideasmeans more than just the representation of ideas, but rather that words reveal something to thecognitive faculty. The definition of each individual word, “cat,” for example, is more than just arepresentation in the mind of cat or even the definition of cat, but the word actually reveals or expresses to the mind something about what a cat is.However, philosopher John Stuart Mill would later challenge this interpretation that wordsonly signify ideas, or even things through the employment of ideas. In his work 
 A System of Logic
,he attacks this theory in the Second Chapter, entitled “Of Names.” There he is rebutting philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ theory, which is that “a word (or set of words) serv[es] the double
3 Paul Guyer, “Locke’s Philosophy of language,” In
The Cambridge Companion to Locke
, ed.By Vere Chappell (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 120.4 Ibid., 120.5 Ibid., 122.6 Ibid.7 Ibid.
Hicks 3
 purpose of a mark to recall to ourselves the likeness of a former thought, and a sign to make itknown to others.”
This theory is sufficiently close enough to Locke’s theory, and according toPaul Guyer, it “follow[s] the argument although not the terminology of Hobbes,”
that we shalltreat Mill’s criticism as also applying to Locke. Norman Kretzmann, in his article, “The MainThesis of Locke’s Semantic Theory,”
was prompted to consider this criticism to apply to Lockeas well.The main thrust of Mill’s criticism is that he feels as though words do not simply refer toan idea in the mind of a man, such as instances where the thing is not present and is thus simply being recalled, but that words refer to the actual reality of things themselves.
 He doesacknowledge that at times words can be ideas, like the aforementioned instance of recollection, yethe argues that words have another role. This function is not simply the attempt to make known anidea one has to another, but rather, to actually express “a belief concerning the thing itself, notconcerning my idea of it.”
 It is clear from his objection that Mill makes a sharp distinction between an idea andobjects or things. This is most vividly observed in the follow argument,[w]hen I say, ‘the sun is the cause of day,’ I don’t mean that my idea of sun causes or excites in me the idea of day : or in other words, that thinking of the sun makes me think of day. I mean, that certain physical fact, which is called the sun’s presence (and which, inthe ultimate analysis, resolves itself into sensations, not ideas) causes another physical fact,which is called day.
8 John S. Mill,
 A System of Logic
, (London: Longman Group Limited, 1970), 14.9 Guyer, “Locke’s Philosophy of Language,” 119.10 Norman Kretzmann, “The Main Thesis of Locke’s Semantic Theory,”
The PhilosophicalReview
77, no. 2 (April, 1968),http://www.jstor.org/stable/2183319.11 Mill,
 A System of Logic
, 14.12 Ibid., 15.13 Ibid.

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