Locke's Philosophy of Language

Locke's Philosophy of Language

Locke's Philosophy of Language

Locke's Philosophy of Language


Walter Ott proposes a new interpretation of John Locke's thesis--that words signify ideas in the mind of the speaker. Ott argues that Locke relies on an ancient tradition that defines signification as reliable indication. He then uses this interpretation to analyze crucial areas of Locke's metaphysics and epistemology.


With the previous chapters, we have established both the content and the application of Locke's views of language. It is now possible to look at some of the most important reactions to those views, with an eye both to correcting misunderstandings on the part of Locke's respondents and to deepening our grasp of Locke's views themselves.

An exhaustive treatment of this chapter's topic would demand a further monograph. Here, I shall begin by considering two critiques of Locke from his contemporaries (or near-contemporaries) that come from opposite sides of the debate between the Aristotelian and the modern forms of empiricism. Although rarely recognized, Locke's indefatigable Aristotelian critic John Sergeant anticipated many of the most popular objections to Locke's view. Much more often mentioned in this connection is Berkeley; we shall see that his relation to Locke is quite complex, since he seems to misunderstand key parts of Locke's view of language. Exploring Berkeley will also afford us the opportunity to see how the traditional conception of signs sketched above (chapter one) was both exploited and transformed in the modern period.

Next I discuss perhaps the most common source of objections, the privacy of the mental. I distinguish between epistemic and metaphysical versions of the privacy argument. It will emerge that whether Locke can successfully respond to these arguments will turn on his conceptions of mental representation and ostensive definition. in the final chapter, I offer a broader assessment of Locke's overall view from a contemporary perspective.

An aristotelian CRITIQUE: john sergeant

Sergeant's official comment on Book iii suggests that he thinks Locke's views on language insignificant:

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