An Essay Concerning Human Understanding - Book III Summary & Analysis

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Book III Summary and Analysis

Locke's discussion in Book III is very important to his overall theory, but it is also very complex. Having explained the different forms and origins of ideas in Book II, Locke goes on here to look at the different forms and origins of the words that refer to ideas. Locke begins by claiming that God has formed mankind so as to be sociable. In so doing, God and nature have also given man the necessity and the ability to use words and language to communicate with one another. Without this communication, social life would be impossible. Words, according to Locke, are signs or sounds that refer to internal ideas. The actual form of the signs and words are arbitrary and are not essentially related to the ideas that they reference.

Although words have an arbitrary relationship to the underlying ideas that they refer to, since the purpose of language is ultimately communication, it is important to understand and use words in a way that one's fellows can understand. As Locke says, everyman has the liberty to make words refer to any internal ideas that he chooses, though he will necessarily have to pay a price in intelligibility if he does so.

It is, according to Locke, the use and invention of general terms that has led to the pervasiveness and usefulness of language. All words refer to and are generated by ideas and all ideas are originally simple ideas. Why then, do we not find most of our words referring to simple ideas? As Locke argues, in fact, most of our words are general rather than particular or simple. He argues that the reason that most words are general is of necessity. First, if most words referred to particular things then every particular thing would require a separate word, but this would be impossible. Second, even if it were possible to name everything individually, this would not serve the propose of communication because it would be impossible to hold enough words in common or to remember them to actively communicate with others. Finally, using only particular names would impede knowledge. To a large extent the increase of intellectual powers and intelligence in general follows the abstraction of our ideas. Similarly abstraction from particulars in language has a similar effect. Once we abstract, we are able to talk about chairs and furniture and objects rather than just one particular chair in my living room right now. The process of abstraction involves subtracting every aspect of a idea into its most basic form. Remove the color and the specific shape of a particular chair and we are left with the notion of "chair" in general. Combine that abstract idea with other things that are used for the same purposes as a chair and we are left with "furniture," thinking about what the kinds of furniture have in common. Once we do this, we are left with bodies or things in general. This process can be repeated for any given idea.

When we define a word, we make use of the next general word to help define the original word. So, when defining a horse, we use the idea of an animal. Some words cannot be defined any further and those words are simple ideas. Once a word can no longer be defined we have found the essence of an idea. An essence of something is the properties of the thing that make it distinctly part of one species of things rather than another. Ultimately, every abstract idea that cannot be broken down, that is, every distinct idea is also an essence.

Scholars, especially the Scholastics, divided essences into real and nominal. Locke makes a great deal out of this distinction and spends some time discussing essences. He is responding in part to the post-scholastic philosophers of his time who were very concerned about essences, though the entire idea of essences is drawn from Thomistic, scholastic philosophy and is of little interest today. He also goes on to connect the idea of essence with substance. This debate harkens back to medieval, Catholic philosophy and need not concern us here. The interesting point, however, is that Locke is basically claiming that to understand the properties of things we can only look and analyze our ideas of those things. Locke himself does not focus too much on the radical implications of this view, implications that will be taken up later by Berkeley, Hume, and Kant among others.

Locke also has an interesting discussion of particles in grammar, focusing specifically on the particle "But," though he spends only about a page or two on what might have been an interesting subject. Locke then goes on to discuss the imperfections of words and the abuse of language. He distinguishes between two different type of words or usages of words, civil and philosophical. Civil words are used in communication between people in normal, everyday language. Philosophical usages are specialized and, Locke claims, prone to obfuscation and misuse. It is, in some sense, according to Locke, one of the most important jobs of the philosopher to get clear on the meanings and usages of words. Words are the currency, the medium of communication, and since words refer back to ideas, which come to us through the senses, philosophers using reflection should be able to fix, to some extent, the proper meaning of words. In so doing, we would clarify not only our communication, but also our thinking in general.

Locke then goes on to discuss what he calls the "abuse of words." One way of abusing words is to use words without any clear meaning, that is without any actual referent to ideas. Others will use words that have a meaning but, not knowing the meaning themselves, they will use the words loosely. Others will use words in an intentionally obscure manner. He charges the scholastic, catholic philosopher with this crime. Another abuse is what we now call reification, that is, taking words to be things rather than words. He claims metaphysical philosopher of all kinds, especially Platonists, are especially guilty of this sin. After laying out in some detail these abuses of language, Locke goes on to explain how philosophers can do a service by trying to scale back these crimes against language and reform the usage and meaning of words. This project largely foreshadows the movement in ordinary language philosophy that becomes popular in the English-speaking world in the early twentieth century. This project of conceptual and linguistic analysis is still an important aspect of English-speaking analytic philosophy to this day.

This section contains 1,104 words
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)
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