Friday, July 20, 2012

Quote of the Day: Locke on the Meaning of Words

"[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 Understanding, Book III Chapter XI


  1. Nice, but I prefer (as always) Hume:

    "Nothing is more usual than for philosophers to encroach upon the province of grammarians; and to engage in disputes of words, while they imagine that they are handling controversies of the deepest importance and concern. ...

    ...Every one may employ TERMS in what sense he pleases: but this, in the mean time, must be allowed, that SENTIMENTS are every day experienced of blame and praise, which have objects beyond the dominion of the will or choice, and of which it behoves us, if not as moralists, as speculative philosophers at least, to give some satisfactory theory and explication.
    A blemish, a fault, a vice, a crime; these expressions seem to denote different degrees of censure and disapprobation; which are, however, all of them, at the bottom, pretty nearly all the same kind of species. The explication of one will easily lead us into a just conception of the others; and it is of greater consequence to attend to things than to verbal appellations. "
    (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Appendix IX: Of Some Verbal Disputes)

  2. Fantastic quote -- I emphasize this often on my blog.  What would you call this position?  What is its opposite called?  In linguistics or philosophy are there terms for these?