Locke: On Word Agreements

So many debates are centered less on deep understanding than on words usage.  Some people feel abstract words [“complex ideas”, in Locke’s words] have fixed definitions and don’t realize they are merely flexible tools.  Such words are contracts or agreements to help us make our idea transactions. Even a slight exposure to the history of any language makes that abundantly clear.

To add to my language posts, below is John Locke (1632 -1704) explaining the same (emphasis mine):

“[M]en talk to one another, and dispute in words, whose meaning is not agreed between them, out of a mistake that the significations of common words are certainly established, and the precise ideas they stand for perfectly known ; and that it is a shame to be ignorant of them. Both which suppositions are false ; no names of complex ideas having so settled determined significations, that they are constantly used for the same precise ideas. Nor is it a shame for a man not to have a certain knowledge of anything, but by the necessary ways of attaining it ; and so it is no discredit not to know what precise idea any sound stands for in another man’s mind, without he declare it to me by some other way than barely using that sound, there being no other way, without such a declaration, certainly to know it. Indeed the necessity of communication by language brings men to an agreement in the signification of common words, within some tolerable latitude, that may serve for ordinary conversation : and so a man cannot be supposed wholly ignorant of the ideas which are annexed to words by common use, in a language familiar to him. But common use being but a very uncertain rule, which reduces itself at last to the ideas of particular men, proves often but a very variable standard.”
— John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human UnderstandingBook III Chapter XI

Also see my post: The Myth of Definitions
HT: Words, Ideas, and Things


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

9 responses to “Locke: On Word Agreements

  1. Absolutely. Words aren’t always what people assume they stand for. Language might have been used in the Stone Age, but meanings are anything but set in stone. I will even create a word while writing poetry at times, knowing the reader will be able to realize a suitable meaning. Hell, once I even did it subconsciously.

  2. mikespeir

    Hm. What, exactly, does he mean by “common” and “significations” and “uncertain”? 😉

  3. Some years ago while I was still in college, I read of a study done by a couple professors of philosophy. The professors analyzed a number of disputes and concluded that about 8 in every 10 of them boiled down to disputes over the meanings of words. I have not since then had any reason to believe that ratio was any less in the broader world than found in their study.

  4. TWF

    We’re caught in a trap, because we don’t have infinite time to establish and agree upon the meanings of every word every time we get into debates. I guess we just have to keep bludgeoning away while the words we use we think are swords, instead of clubs. That, and try to be extra perceptive of when those on the other side appears to be using different meanings, instead of just arguing past their meanings.

  5. This is why a little attention to semantics at the outset of a discussion can help to prevent the entire thing from turning on semantics in the end.

  6. Wow, I neglected this post. Sorry!

    @ myrthryn :
    So you are a Stone Age poet ! Awesome. Love your site.

    @ mikespeir :

    @ Paul Sunstone :
    8/10 Wow! Close to my perception too — well for intellectuals. Normal people do it far less. The problem with higher education is higher self-deception, eh?

    @ TWF :
    Building dialogue skills to get around this predicament is an art.

    @ danielwalldammit :
    I agree.
    But the least you could have done was supply a link to that word: semantics!
    I like Sanford for the big words!

  7. Earnest

    I love Ogden Nash, he invented words in almost every poem he wrote just because the poem sounded better. I especially like the one about the panther.

  8. Earnest

    Here are the last 2 lines:

    Better yet, if called by a panther
    Don’t anther.

  9. @ Earnest:
    As I get older I have been able to appreciate made-up words. Found the poem:

    The Panther
    The panther is like a leopard,
    Except it hasn’t been peppered.
    Should you behold a panther crouch,
    Prepare to say Ouch.
    Better yet, if called by a panther,
    Don’t anther.

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