An Essay Concerning Human Understanding | Study Guide

John Locke

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An Essay Concerning Human Understanding | Vol. 2, Book 3, Chapters 1–4 : Of Words | Summary



Vol. 2, Book 3, Chapter 1: Of Words or Language in General

Locke begins Book 3 with a brief account of how words arose from humankind's ability to form articulate sounds. Because these sounds are easily made and easily varied, Locke says, they were a natural means of signaling ideas which otherwise could not be made known. He argues that it was particularly important to develop a system that could signify general ideas (e.g., "man" or "horse") as opposed to simply specific ones ("Alexander," "Bucephalus"). If this could not be done, language would be far less useful, as people would have to learn a new vocabulary for every situation they encountered.

Vol. 2, Book 3, Chapter 2: Of the Signification of Words

Words, Locke asserts, refer first and foremost to ideas in the mind of the person who uses them. They also "secretly" and secondarily refer to the corresponding ideas in other people's minds. This, for Locke, is where the trouble begins, since a person may use a word with a mistaken confidence that it means the same thing to the hearer as it does to the speaker. Words are also taken to refer "to the reality of things," but Locke sees this as erroneous, since we do not know the true reality of things. Sometimes, he points out, words are used "without signification," because the sounds have been learned but not the underlying ideas. Finally, Locke claims that the signification of words is perfectly arbitrary, with no evident "natural connection" between a sound and its meaning.

Vol. 2, Book 3, Chapter 3: Of General Terms

Locke now expands on a point from Chapter 1—namely, that words are usually general, referring to a whole category of people, places, or things. "For every particular thing to have a name," he says, "is impossible ... and useless." Personal names, the most obvious exception to such generality, are adopted because people need to distinguish one another in speech; apart from that, there is nothing special about such words. Locke maintains that general terms are based on abstraction and simplification from a number of specific examples. In using the word "man," for instance, a child "make[s] nothing new, but only leave[s] out ... that which is particular" in such ideas as "Peter" and "James." This habit of mental classification and the words that arise from it are "the workmanship of the understanding, but have their foundation in the similitude of things." In other words, general terms are formulated by the mind, but only on the basis of observable real-world resemblances.

The last several sections of this chapter are a critique of the idea of a real essence. As discussed at length in Book 2, Locke is skeptical of the notion of an "unknown constitution of things" which makes them what they are. He grants that abstract ideas (e.g., modes) might have such an essence, but he denies that "substances" (i.e., real physical things and creatures) can have such an essence. That is, a sheep has no special, essential sheep-ness which permanently marks it as a sheep. Rather, Locke says, things have a nominal essence by virtue of the properties which assign them to a given category. A sheep is called a sheep because it conforms to a complex, abstract idea: it has four legs, grazes on herbaceous plants, tends to form herds, and so forth.

Vol. 2, Book 3, Chapter 4: Of the Names of Simple Ideas

Unlike the names of complex ideas (e.g., "sheep"), Locke argues that the names of simple ideas "signify both real and nominal essence." The word "red," for instance, refers to an essential redness which any given object either does or does not have. Locke suggests that simple ideas are also undefinable. How, he demands, could we define "motion" or "light"? The reason they cannot be defined, he says, is because such ideas "are only to be got by those impressions objects themselves make on our minds." They are either known through experience or not known at all. This reliance on immediate impression also means that there will be less "wrangling" about the meaning of a name applied to a simple idea.


Even in his book on language, Locke remains concerned with explaining and defending empiricism. His account of words and their usage in Chapter 1 circles back to the notion that all ideas arise from sensation or reflection. The sensation-reflection paradigm is also used in Chapter 3, where Locke describes the process by which abstract ideas are formed and named. For him—unlike Plato, Descartes, or Leibniz—the mind needs no preformed ideas in order to reason from specific things to general categories. Abstraction in the Lockean view is a process the mind undertakes, not a set of principles the mind knows in advance.

Locke, by the way, is not quite correct about the total arbitrariness of language. His theory that linguistic signs are arbitrary seems reasonable enough. After all, different languages often use quite different sounds to express the same idea. In the 20th century, this concept was formalized as the "arbitrariness of the sign" and was widely accepted by linguists. For a group known as the Structuralists, led by Ferdinand de Saussure, it became the "first principle" of their theory of language. The elements of linguistic signs—the sounds and graphemes that make up words—were deemed to have no relationship to the concepts denoted by those signs. Exceptions, such as onomatopoeia, were considered to be rare and limited to a few special cases.

However, several psychological and linguistic studies cast doubt on the idea of such near-total arbitrariness. Linguistic theorist Roman Jakobson (1959); logographic systems, including Egyptian hieroglyphics, Chinese hànzi, and Japanese kanji; and a 2001 study conducted by V.S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard all suggest otherwise. Perhaps ironically, such theories tend to confirm rather than refute Locke's empiricism by suggesting that humans form language in response to sensory stimuli.

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