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Title: John Locke and the problem of language in seventeenth-century philosophy
Author: Dawson, H.
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2003
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This thesis situates Locke’s deep and abiding concerns about language in their intellectual context. By recovering everyday assumptions about language and the reactionary developments they inspired in the seventeenth-century, I identify the arguments that Locke is simply reiterating as well as those that he is rejecting, thereby illuminating the distinctive force of his polemic. Part I examines the fundamental linguistic beliefs of the age. These I find in the textbooks on the three arts of language - grammar, logic and rhetoric - which grounded every gentle education. The trivium transmits a view of words as arbitrary signs which univocally signify their meanings. Meanings are thoughts which in turn, if one is talking about the external world, hook on to things. Words, thoughts and things are presented as operating in a harmonious and one-to-one parallel. Indeed, the yoke is so tight that thoughts are often subsumed beneath things, mental mediation eclipsed by a seemingly perfect realism. However, whether through the gaze of an external critical eye or under pressure of internal dissent, various sections of this linguistic cloth threaten to unravel. I have identified three concerns which are occasioned by such a critique and in Part II follow the way in which various philosophers address them. The first is that language might not in fact map things as they really are, but might pervert them instead. The second is that the same words might mean different things to different people. The third is that words might usurp the ideally sovereign place of thoughts and things and come to dominate the relationship. They potentially belie the truth and write the world in their own opaque image. Part III explores Locke’s intervention in these conversations. Immersed in each of the three concerns, he develops them into his own innovative polemic about language, a polemic also grounded in his revolutionary epistemology. First, he believes that we cannot know things in themselves, but only insofar as they affect us. Our talk about the external world is therefore bound to signify only ideas, never things directly. Second, he believes that we actively construct the meanings of complex words. They therefore differ from person to person according to the differences of their experience and beliefs. Third, he accords words pre-eminence over meanings. In themselves words are sensible ideas, sounds and squiggles that enter and fix themselves in our minds with greater ease than their ephemeral and complicated meanings. Words therefore dominate in private thought as well as in communication.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available