Essay III John Locke i: Words in general
Chapter i: Words or language in general
God, having designed man to be a sociable creature,not only made him with an inclination and a need to havefellowship with other men, but also equipped him with
, which was to be the great instrument and common
tie of society. So nature shaped man’s organs so that he
could make articulate sounds, which we call ‘words’. But this
wasn’t enough to produce language, for parrots and someother birds can learn to make distinct enough articulate
sounds, yet they are far from being capable of language.
Besides articulate sounds, therefore, man had also to be
able to use these sounds as signs of internal conceptions,
making them stand as marks of ideas in his own mind. This was so that he could make those ideas known to others, thus
conveying thoughts from one mind to another.
But this still didn’t sufﬁce to make words as usefulas they ought to be. If every particular thing had to begiven a separate name, there would be
words that the language would be too complicated to use; so a fully satisfactory language needs sounds that, as well as beingsigns of ideas, can be used in such a way that one wordcovers a number of particular things. So language wasimproved in yet another way by coming to include
, so that one word can mark a multitude of particular things. Sounds could be used in this helpful manner only
by signifying ideas of a special kind: names become general
if they are made to stand for general ideas, and namesremain particular if the ideas they signify are particular.
Locke regularly uses ‘name’ to cover not only proper names but alsogeneral words such as ‘woman’, ‘island’, ‘atom’ and so on.
Besides these names standing for ideas, there are other words that men use to signify not any idea but rather thelack or absence of certain ideas or of all ideas whatsoever.Examples are
in Latin, and in English ‘igno-rance’ and ‘barrenness’. These negative or privative words
can’t be said properly to have no ideas associated with them,for then they would be perfectly meaningless sounds. Rather,
they relate to positive ideas, and signify their absence.
Locke discusses the words referring to items far
removed from anything of which we have sense-experience .
The meanings of many such words, he says, are borrowedfrom ideas of sense-perception.] For example, ‘imagine’,‘apprehend’, ‘comprehend’, ‘adhere’, ‘conceive‘, etc. are all words taken from the operations of perceptible things and
applied to certain modes of thinking....
But to understand better the use and force of language
as a means for instruction and knowledge, we should tackle
In the use of language, what are namesimmediately applied to? Also, given that all words (except proper names) are general, and so stand not for particular things but for sorts and kinds of things,
thesesorts and kinds (or, if you prefer Latin, these species andgenera)? what do they consist in? how do they come to bemade? When we have explored these thoroughly, we’ll have
a better chance of ﬁnding the right use of words, the natural
advantages and defects of language, and the remedies that ought to be used to avoid obscurity or uncertainty in thesigniﬁcation of words. Without that, we can’t talk in a clear
and orderly way about knowledge; and knowledge, which has
to do with propositions (most of them universal ones), hasa greater connection with words than perhaps is suspected.
So these matters will be the topic of the following chapters.145