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ohn Locke, one of the greatest thinkers of modern times, was born
in the county of Somerset, England, August 29th, 1632. His father
was an opponent of royal prerogative, “a strict but genial Puritan," and his influence had much to do, no doubt, with making Locke the champion of the idea that the governed are the true source of all political power, and that government to be just must be representative. He was educated at Westminster School and at Oxford. His essay “Concerning the Human Understanding, which was written during the intervals of nearly twenty years, appeared in 1690. Supplementing the essay on “Toleration (1689), it exerted a revolutionary influence on the thought of the civilized world. The essay, “On the Conduct of the Understanding,” was originally intended to conclude the essay «Concerning the Human Understanding, but Locke withheld it, and it did not appear until after his death, which occurred October 28th, 1704.
REMEDIES OF THE ABUSE OF WORDS
0 Remedy the defects of speech to some degree, and to prevent the inconven
iences that follow from them, I imagine the observation of these following
rules may be of use, till somebody better able shall judge it worth his while to think more maturely on this matter, and oblige the world with his thoughts on it.
REMEDY TO USE NO WORD WITHOUT AN IDEA.– Firstly, a man should take care to use no word without a signification, no name without an idea for which he makes it stand. This rule will not seem altogether needless to any one who shall take the pains to recollect how often he has met with such words, as instinct, sympathy, and antipathy, etc., in the discourse of others, so made use of as he might easily conclude that those that used them had no ideas in their minds to which they applied them; but spoke them only as sounds, which usually served instead of reasons on the like occasions. Not but that these words, and the like, have very proper significations in which they may be used; but there being no natural connection between any words and any ideas, these, and any other may be learned by rote, and pronounced or writ by men, who have no ideas in their minds to which they have annexed them, and for which they make them stand; which is necessary they should, if men would speak intelligibly even to themselves alone.
To HAVE DISTINCT IDEAS ANNEXED TO Them IN MODES.— Secondly, it is not enough a man uses his words as signs of some ideas: those he annexes them to, if they be simple, must be clear and distinct; if complex, must be determinate, i. e., the precise collection of simple ideas settled in the mind with that sound annexed
to it, as the sign of that precise determined collection, and no other. This is very necessary in names of modes, and especially moral words; which, having no settled objects in nature from whence their ideas are taken, as from their original, are apt to be very confused. Justice is a word in every man's mouth, but most commonly with a very undetermined loose signification; which will always be so unless a man has in his mind a distinct comprehension of the component parts that complex idea consists of: and if it be decompounded, must be able to resolve it still on, till be at last comes to the simple ideas that make it up; and unless this be done, a man makes an ill use of the word, let it be justice, for example, or any other. I do not say a man need stand to recollect and make this analysis at large every time the word justice comes in his way; but this at least is necessary, that he have so examined the signification of that name, and settled the idea of all its parts in his mind, that he can do it when he pleases. If one, who makes his complex idea of justice to be such a treatment of the person or goods of another as is according to law, hath not a clear and distinct idea what law is, which makes a part of his complex idea of justice, it is plain his idea of justice itself will be confused and imper. fect. This exactness will, perhaps, be judged very troublesome; and therefore most men will think they may be excused from settling the complex ideas of mixed modes so precisely in their minds. But yet I must say, till this be done, it must not be wondered that they have a great deal of obscurity and confusion in their own minds, and a great deal of wrangling in their discourse with others.
DISTINCT AND CONFORMABLE IN SUBSTANCES.— In the names of substances, for a right use of them, something more is required than barely determined ideas. In these the names must also be conformable to things as they exist; but of this I shall have occasion to speak more largely by and by. This exactness is absolutely necessary in inquiries after philosophical knowledge, and in controversies about truth. And though it would be well, too, if it extended itself to common conversation, and the ordinary affairs of life, yet I think that is scarce to be expected. Vulgar notions suit vulgar discourses; and both, though confused enough, yet serve pretty well the market and the wake. Merchants and lovers, cooks and tailors, have words wherewithal to dispatch their ordinary affairs; and so, I think, might philosophers and disputants too, if they had a mind to understand, and to be clearly understood.
PROPRIETY.– Thirdly, it is not enough that men have ideas, determined ideas, for which they make these signs stand; but they must also take care to apply their words, as near as may be, to such ideas as common use has annexed them to. For words, especially of languages already framed, being no inan's private possession, but the common measure of commerce and communication, it is not for any one, at pleasure, to change the stamp they are current in, nor alter the ideas they are affixed to; or, at least, when there is a necessity to do so, he is bound to give notice of it. Men's intentions in speaking are, or at least should be, to be understood; which cannot be without frequent explanations, demands, and other the like incommodious interruptions, where men do not follow common use. Propriety of speech is that which gives our thoughts entrance into other men's minds with the greatest ease and advantage; and therefore deserves some part of our care and study, especially in the names of moral words. The proper signification and use of terms is best to be learned from those who in their writings and discourses appear to have had the clearest notions, and applied to them their terms with the exactest choice and fitness. This way of using a man's words, according to the propriety of the language, though it have not always the good fortune to be understood, yet most commonly leaves the blame of it on him who is so unskillful in the language he speaks as not to understand it when made use of as it ought to be.
To Make Known THEIR MEANING. — Fourthly, but because common use has not so visibly annexed any signification to words, as to make men know always certainly what they precisely stand for; and because men, in the improvement of their knowledge, come to have ideas different from the vulgar and ordinary received ones, for which they must either make new words (which men seldom venture to do, for fear of being thought guilty of affectation or novelty) or else must use old ones in a new signification; therefore, after the observation of the foregoing rules, it is sometimes necessary, for ascertaining the signification of words, to declare their meaning; where either common use has left it uncertain and loose (as it has in most names of very complex ideas) or where the term, being very material in the discourse, and that upon which it chiefly turns, is liable to any doubtfulness or mistake.
AND THAT THREE Ways. — As the ideas men's words stand for are of different sorts, so the way of making known the ideas they stand for, when there is occasion, is also different. For though defining be thought the proper way to make known the proper signification of words, yet there are some words that will not be defined, as there are others, whose precise meaning cannot be made known but by definition; and perhaps a third, which partake somewhat of both the other, as we shall see in the names of simple ideas, modes, and substances.
IN SIMPLE IDEAS, BY SYNONYMOUS TERMS, OR SHOWING. — First, when a man makes use of the name of any simple idea, which he perceives is not understood, or is in danger to be mistaken, he is obliged by the laws of ingenuity, and the end of speech, to declare his meaning, and make known what idea he makes it stand for. This, as has been shown, cannot be done hy definition; and therefore, when a synonymous word fails to do it, there is but one of these ways left. First, sometimes the naming the subject, wherein that simple idea to be found, will make its name to be understood by those who are acquainted with that subject, and know it by that name. So to make a countryman understand what feuille-morte color signifies, it may suffice to tell him it is the color of withered leaves falling in autumn. Secondly, but the only sure way of making known the signification of the name of any simple idea is by presenting to his senses that subject which may produce it in his mind, and make him actually have the idea that word stands for.
In Mixed MODES, BY DEFINITION.—Secondly, mixed modes, especially those belonging to morality, being most of them such combinations of ideas as the mind puts together of its own choice, and whereof there are not always standing patterns to be found existing; the signification of their names cannot be made known, as those of simple ideas, by any showing; but, in recompense thereof, may be perfectly and exactly defined. For they being combinations of several ideas, that the mind of man has arbitrarily put together, without reference to any archetypes, men may, if they please, exactly know the ideas that go to each composition, and so both use these words in a certain and undoubted signification, and perfectly declare, when there is occasion, what they stand for. This, if well considered, would lay great blame on those who make not their discourses about moral things very clear and distinct.
From the essay "On the Conduct of the Human Understanding.)
THE RIGHT USE OF WORDS
ve ends of language in our discourse with others being chiefly these three:
, to make "known one man's thoughts of ideas to another; Secondly, to
do it with as much ease and quickness as possible; and, thirdly, thereby to convey the knowledge of things: language is either abused or deficient when it fails of any of these three.
Firstly, words fail in the first of these ends, and lay not open one man's ideas to another's view: 1. When men have names in their mouths, without any determinate ideas in their minds, whereof they are the signs; or, 2. When they apply the common received names of any language to ideas, to which the common use of that language does not apply them; or, 3. When they apply them very unsteadily, making them stand now for one, and by and by for another idea.
To Do IT WITH QUICKNESS. Secondly, men fail of conveying their thoughts with all the quickness and ease that may be, when they have complex ideas, without having any distinct names for them. This is sometimes the fault of the language itself, which has not in it a sound yet applied to such a signification; and sometimes the fault of the man who has not yet learned the name for that idea he would show another.
THEREWITH TO CONYEY THE KNOWLEDGE OF THings. Thirdly, there is no knowledge of things conveyed by men's words, when their ideas agree not to the reality of things. Though it be a defect, that has its original in our ideas, which are not so conformable to the nature of things, as attention, study, and application might make them; yet it fails not to extend itself to our words too, when we use them as signs of real beings, which yet never had any reality or existence.
How Men's WORDS FAIL IN ALL THESE. — Firstly, he that hath words of any language, without distinct ideas in his mind to which he applies them, does, so far as he uses them in discourse, only make a noise without any sense or signification; and how learned soever he may seem by the use of hard words, or learned terms, is not much more advanced thereby in knowledge than he would be in learning, who had nothing in his study but the bare titles of books, without possessing the contents of them. For all such words, however put into discourse, according to the right construction of grammatical rules, or the harmony of well-turned periods, do yet amount to nothing but bare sounds, and nothing else.
Secondly, he that has complex ideas, without particular names for them, would be in no better case than a bookseller, who had in his warehouse volumes that lay there unbound, and without titles; which he could, therefore, make known to others only by showing the loose sheets, and communicating them only by tale. This man is bindered in his discourse for want of words to communicate his complex ideas, which he is, therefore, forced to make known by an enumeration of the simple ones that compose them; and so is fain often to use twenty words to express what another man signifies in one.
Thirdly, he that puts not constantly the same sign for the same idea, but uses the same words sometimes in one, and sometimes in another signification, ought to pass in the schools and conversation for as fair a man as he does in the market and exchange, who sells several things under the same name.
Fourthly, he that applies the words of any language to ideas different from those to which the common use of that country applies them, however his own understanding may be filled with truth and light, will not by such words be able to convey much of it to others, without defining his terms. For however the sounds are such as are familiarly known, and easily enter the ears of those who are accustomed to them, yet standing for other ideas than those they usually are annexed to, and
are wont to excite in the mind of the hearers, they cannot make known the thoughts of him who thus uses them.
Fifthly, he that imagined to himself substances such as never have been, and filled his head with ideas which have not any correspondence with the real nature of things, to which yet he gives settled and defined names, may fill his discourse, and perhaps another man's head, with the fantastical imaginations of his own brain, but will be very far from advancing thereby one jot in real and true knowledge.
He that hath names without ideas wants meaning in his words, and speaks only empty sounds.
He that hath complex ideas without names for them wants liberty and dispatch in his expressions, and is necessitated to use periphrases. He that uses his words loosely and unsteadily will either be not minded, or not understood. He that applies his names to ideas different from their common use wants propriety in his language, and speaks gibberish. AI he that hath the ideas of substances disagreeing with the real existence of things, so far wants the materials of true knowledge in his understanding, and hath instead thereof chimeras.
How IN SUBSTANCES.— In our notions concerning substances, we are liable to all the former inconveniences: e. g., 1. He that uses the word Tarantula, without having any imagination or idea what it stands for, pronounces a good word; but so long means nothing at all by it. 2. He that in a new-discovered country shall see several sorts of animals and vegetables, unknown to him before, may have as true ideas of them as of a horse or a stag; but can speak of them only by a description, till he shall either take the names the natives call them by, or give them names himself. 3. He that uses the word Body sometimes for pure extension, and sometimes for extension and solidity together, will talk very fallaciously. 4. He that gives the name Horse to that idea which common usage calls Mule talks improperly, and will not be understood. 5. He that thinks the name Centaur stands for some real being imposes on himself, and mistakes words for things.
How IN MODES AND RELATIONS.— In modes and relations generally we are liable only to the first four of these inconveniences; viz.: 1. I may have in my memory the names of modes, as gratitude or charity, and yet not have any precise ideas annexed in my thoughts to those names. 2. I may have ideas, and not know the names that belong to them; e. g., I may have the idea of a man's drinking till his color and humor be altered, till his tongue trips, and his eyes look red, and his feet fail him; and yet not know that it is to be called drunkenness. 3. I may have the ideas of virtues or vices, and names also, but apply them amiss: e. g., when I apply the name Frugality to that idea which others call and signify by this sound, Covetousness. 4. I may use any of those names with inconstancy. 5. But, in modes and relations, I cannot have ideas disagreeing to the existence of things: for modes being complex ideas made by the mind at pleasure; and relation being but by way of considering or comparing two things together, and so also an idea of my own making; these ideas can scarce be found to disagree with anything existing, since they are not in the mind as the copies of things regularly made by nature, nor as properties inseparably flowing from the internal constitution or essence of any substance; but, as it were, patterns lodged in my memory, with names annexed to them, do denominate actions and relations by, as they come to exist. But the mistake is commonly in my giving a wrong name to my conceptions; and so using words in a different sense from other people, I am not understood, but am thought to have wrong ideas of them, when I give wrong names to them. Only if I put in my ideas of mixed modes or relations any inconsistent ideas together, I fill my head also with chimeras; since such ideas, if well examined, cannot so much exist in the mind, much less any real being ever be denominated from them.
From the essay « On the Conduct of the Human Understanding."