Friday, September 12, 2014

Essay Concerning Human Understanding - Locke

(This concerns various chapters of Book 3 only.)

In this piece by Locke, he considers how language came about.  In the first three chapters, he opens by suggesting that early man made sounds and that over time, those sounds gained shared meaning.  The concrete items would be first (rock, fire, animal, etc.).  More abstract terms would take time and would have a much greater amount of potential misunderstanding.  I don't know how this squares with our modern understanding of early languages but this makes sense to me.  I'd never considered the probable differences between concrete and abstract concepts, but that also makes sense.  'Fire' is 'fire' and there isn't much argument about it.  On the other hand, even common abstract terms like 'love' are very subjective and easily misunderstood. 
Chapters 9-11 deal more with the imperfection of words (and those that use them).  He speaks of such things as words with double meanings and poorly defined terms.  The most interesting part to me though was Locke's observation on how badly we talk about important things, like art, religion and politics.  This seems to include increasingly technical language.  He says:
What have been the effect of those multiplied curious distinctions, and acute niceties, but obscurity and uncertainty, leaving the words more unintelligible, and the reader more at a loss? How else comes it to pass that princes, speaking or writing to their servants, in their ordinary commands are easily understood; speaking to their people, in their laws, are not so?
 This section came back to me several times while I was trying to puzzle out Kant.  It also made me think of Mark Twain, of all people.  If you read various 19th century novels, you'll note an enormous stylistic difference between writers like Hawthorne and Dickens and Mark Twain.  The former have always given me problems while the more plain spoken, easy going Twain never has.
The other thing that I wondered was how much of an influence did Locke's thoughts have on eventual dictionaries?  Locke published this essay in 1690.  Samuel Johnson's landmark 'A Dictionary of the English Language' was published in 1755.  Could be.

I enjoyed this.  Locke had made a somewhat Aristotelian attempt to classify language, find common problems and propose solutions to them.  

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