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1 - Locke and the nature of language

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2012

Michael Morris
Affiliation:
University of Sussex
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Summary

Key text

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, book iii, chs. 1 and 2.

Introduction

This book is an introduction to philosophy of language in the analytic tradition. Analytic philosophy begins with Gottlob Frege, who wrote at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. So why begin this book with John Locke, whose principal work was written at the end of the seventeenth century? Briefly: because Locke presents in a clear and simple way the background to analytic philosophy of language.

In the first place, Locke's general theory of language initially strikes many of us as extremely natural. His views about what words are and what language is for are shared with almost the whole analytic tradition. But he is also a clear representative of a line of thinking about language which has been the main target of much of the analytic tradition. Frege's philosophy of language can be said to begin with a rejection of what seem to be central features of Locke's view. And much recent work on proper names and natural-kind terms (the topics of chapters 4 and 5) is defined by its opposition to a broadly Lockean kind of view.

What Locke says

One of the four books of John Locke's vast and seminal work, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, is dedicated to language. The core of his conception of language is laid out in one paragraph; here it is:

Man, though he have great variety of thoughts, and such, from which others, as well as himself, might receive profit and delight; yet they are all within his own breast, invisible, and hidden from others, nor can of themselves be made appear. […]

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2006

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