Post lecture notes for students of IR 6901: (Week 3) Locke: Nominalism and the language of governance and politics

By Farish A. Noor ~ March 22nd, 2010. Filed under: Lecture Notes.

Post lecture notes for students of IR 6901: (Week 3) Introduction to Discourse Analysis, with a special reference to religio-political discourse: (Part 2)

Locke: Nominalism and the language of governance and politics

John Locke (1632-1704) is known for his theories on governance and is widely credited with the development of the idea of separation of powers and the theory of possessive individualism. For the sake of this course, however, we are less interested in his political theory and more interested in his philosophy of language and theory of human understanding. During his time he was seen as an advocate of representative democracy and a supporter of capital accumulation; and his theories on land ownership and property rights were particularly favoured by colonists in America who read them as a rationalisation and justification for the appropriation of territory. Unlike Hobbes he did not offer a licence for any forms of despotic, centralised rule and did not share Hobbes’s anti-humanist notion that human beings were fundamentally selfish and potentially violent individuals who could only exist in a state of perpetual conflict and antagonism.

Students of political science however tend to overlook the fact that Locke was a philosopher in the traditional sense who also delved deeply into other areas of philosophical enquiry and like Descartes and Hobbes was also very much concerned with the question of knowledge, truth-claims and the use of language. For this reason one ought to read Locke’s political writings (his essays on governance) alongside his works on knowledge (esp. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1700) which puts the former in context and which, when read together, offers us a more complete account of Locke’s method and approach.

As we saw last week, Locke was a nominalist, who believed that there were only particulars and whose arguments – if pushed to their logical extreme – also rank him as a solipsist. This is best understood when we look at his theory of cognition and knowledge, which we shall turn to now:

A. Locke’s theory of knowledge: Sensory knowledge as the basis of ideas and language.

Simply put, Locke’s theory of ideas begins with the body as the seat of consciousness or specifically, the Mind. Now what exactly the ‘mind’ is (or where it is) is left vague in the writings of Locke and we need not dwell on that here. In brief, Locke totally rejects the metaphysical idealism of Socrates/Plato who opined that human beings are born with an innate a priori knowledge of perfect ideas that are retained from their perfect idealised existence prior to assuming the corporeal form of (flawed) human bodies. Locke insists that no such metaphysical idealism exists, and the human mind is born blank, ‘like a white sheet of paper’.(1)

If the mind is indeed born blank, then how do we learn about things and get to know them? Locke argues that the primary source of knowledge is sensation: We get to know things through experience, and this confirms Locke’s status as an EMPIRICIST. Locke’s empiricism is fairly straightforward and rather crude, and has a foundationalist ring to it. He argues that from infancy human beings gain knowledge of basic things such as the sensation of heat, cold, solidity, wetness, etc from direct experience with the material world around us. (In this sense Locke continues the assault on Platonic idealism and Aristotelian essentialism by insisting that the material world is real and is the source of knowledge.)

The ‘mind’ then processes all this data and builds up a vast assembly of ideas. Note that Locke’s notion of ‘ideas’ is NOT to be confused with Platonic idealism that is transcendental and metaphysical. For Locke ideas exist in the mind of the individual subject, and ideas are simply what is in the mind of the individual when she/he thinks (Locke, Bk 1. sc.8). Ideas can and are both simple and complex, and we begin from simple ideas like ‘hot’, ‘cold’, ‘red’, ‘sweet’ to complex ideas that are the amalgamation of simple ideas.

The process of combining simple ideas into more complex ones is what Locke refers to as ‘judgement’, which is a feature of the mind and mental reasoning. Note again that this confirms Locke’s nominalism and empiricism but also explains why he was sometimes assumed to be taking an extreme solipsist position. Locke goes further to argue that the mind is capable of not only making up complex ideas like ‘traffic jam’, ‘political crisis’, ‘constitutional government’ but also complex ideas that do not have a corresponding material/objective referent. This he does by demonstrating how human beings can imagine all sorts of wondrous and fantastic things like ‘two-headed monsters’, ‘Pegasus’, ‘Medusa’, ‘Unicorns’ and the like.

Locke’s nominalist stand means that he takes all these abstract ideas – including fantastic ideas – to stand as true and existing, albeit on an ideational level. Not only do complex fantastic ideas exist (as ideas), Locke also holds that truth claims can be made of them. The statement ‘Superman can fly over buildings’ is therefore true, while the statement ‘Superman can make himself invisible’ is false – even though there is no material, objective corresponding referent to the sign ‘Superman’.

Thus from Locke’s theory of knowledge based on empirical experience we move to his theory of language and meaning:

Language, for Locke, works through reference, and so we can say that Locke has a REFERENTIAL THEORY OF MEANING. What this means is that for Locke, Language is made up of words/signs that must refer to things in order for them to be meaningful and make sense to us. Added to this is his idealism that is rooted in empiricism, and so we end up with a referential theory of meaning where words/signs refer to ideas that we have. In short, words/sign mean/refer to the ideas we have in our mind.(2)

Thus for Locke the word/sign ‘red’ means/refers to the idea ‘red’; and this applies equally to all simple words/signs that we use which refer to the simple ideas that we have (red, hot, cold, hard, etc.)

But Locke concedes that much of language is made up of general words/signs like ‘man’, ‘tree’, ‘dog’ etc. If words/signs are to stand for ideas, then how do general words/signs work? If, for instance, I use the general word ‘man’, do I necessarily have to have an idea of a ‘man’ in my mind, and if so, which man? What does he look like? What are his characteristic features? Locke admits that this would be impossible for when we make up general sentences like ‘I have all the men on my side’, ‘some men just don’t know how to behave themselves’ etc. we do not have or refer to an idea of ‘men’ that is detailed and specific; indeed we cannot, for that would make language clumsy and useless.

Locke tries to get out of this mess of universals by proposing abstraction as the basis of general word/signs and ideas. He argues that general word/signs and ideas are really reasoned abstractions that are drawn from the mental abstraction of similar qualities from particulars. So the idea ‘men’ is an abstraction of the qualities of singular/particular men and is the sum of their similarities rather than differences. The general word/sign and idea ‘men’ is therefore a nominal thing that is the product of mental abstraction.(3)

Abstraction – that is, to abstract or take away/neglect/overlook particular different features of things and to focus on their similarities instead – does not, however account for how some general words/ideas come about, for things can still belong to general categories even if their features were so different that it is difficult to abstract their differences and focus on their similarities. For instance, as Bernard Harrison (4) notes: Red and Blue are both understood as colours, but we cannot abstract redness from red and blueness from blue- yet they both come under the general idea of ‘colour’. Likewise a rocket launcher and a sword are both weapons, but no amount of abstraction of their particular features will leave us with any common features that they share, and yet they count as ‘weapons’. [Later on this problem will be addressed by Wittgenstein, who develops the notion of ‘family resemblances’ between words/ideas.]

Locke then builds up his account of knowledge by arguing that there are simplex and complex ideas, and word/signs that correspond to them as well. Simple ideas are, for Locke, ideas that cannot be defined (such as redness, which he argues is beyond definition). Complex ideas on the other hand are made up of simple ideas and such complex ideas can be defined via recourse to other word/signs and ideas. Here the nominalism of Locke looks like a sort of conceptual atomism where the world of ideas and language is made up of simple ideas and words that can be combined – by the mind, through abstraction, judgement and reasoning – to form more complex ideas which, as we have seen earlier, including complex ideas that may not necessarily have empirical referents.

Locke also explains how language works as sentences are constructed and propositions are made about the world around us. Again, he falls back on his empiricist-nominalist and highly subjective account of the workings of language when he argues that the unity of sentences is found in the workings of the mind and how the mind frames sentences and propositions (what he calls an ‘act of judgement’). Starting from the premise that language is made up of simple words/signs that may be simple and/or abstracted and complex words/signs, he then argues that meaningful sentences are mentally put together by reasoning so as to communicate thoughts that the speaker may have.

There is one interesting (though flawed) consequence of this notion of unity of sentences, and it is this: It implies that the unity, coherence and meaning of sentences lie in the mental reasoning of the person who constructs that sentence rather than in any corresponding extra-linguistic reality in the world. If there is to be any correspondence at all, it is between the constructed sentence and the constructed mental thought in the mind of the speaker/language-user.

B. Criticism of Locke’s theory of meaning:

Locke’s theory of language-use and meaning are intimately connected to his understanding of the Mind, the workings of the mind, his empiricism and his belief that all knowledge is fundamentally grounded on simple ideas that are initially and primarily received through sensory experience. Now of course this opens him up to criticism from many quarters, of which we shall consider two main objections:

The first objection comes from those philosophers who held some doubts over Locke’s correspondence/referential theory of knowledge, not because of its emphasis on correspondence/reference, but because Locke posits the claim that language has to correspond/refer to an extra-linguistic thing that was actually the Mind and its ideas.

The mathematician and logician Gottlob Frege, for instance, argued that words cannot refer to ideas on the grounds of the solipsism that this implies: If our use of words/signs refer to the ideas that we privately have in our minds, then there can be no meaningful public communication as it would be impossible to know for certain what other people mean when they use the words they use. (This is, effectively, a critique of the theory of private language.)

This critique becomes even more evident when we apply it to Locke’s understanding of the unity of sentences and how sentences/propositions are constructed. Locke, as we have seen above, argued that sentences and propositions mean what they do because they correspond to a train of thought in the mind. So the sentence ‘the cat is on the mat’ would be, in this sense, a string of word/signs that correspond to the extra-linguistic ideas that I have in my head. But philosophers like Frege regard this as nonsensical for the sentence ‘the cat is on the mat’ does not correspond to my ideas of ‘cat’ and ‘mat’, but rather on the extra-linguistic reality of a cat really being on a mat. This is the objective turn that philosophers like Frege and Wittgenstein made when they insisted that words and sentences are only meaningful when they refer to some extra-linguistic reality that is outside the mental state of the speaker/language-user. (And they would also insist that the objective reality of the cat being on the mat is true even if it was not perceived/experienced by the subject.)

Added to this was Frege’s secondary objection that was based on his argument that words/signs signify what they mean, and not the ideas that stand for them. Frege argued, for instance, that when we do mathematics, we are not dealing with the ideas of numbers, but with numbers themselves. To take the position that Locke assumes would be to add another level of signification where words signify ideas which in turn signify things. Furthermore, this meant that language, operating as Locke suggests on the level of subjective ideas, was all about psychological states rather than about making truth-claims about the world. (Frege contemptuously labels this psychologism, and insists that mathematics and logic were concerned with things like numbers, equations, truth-claims and truth-values, and had nothing to do with the psychology of language-users.)

C. Relevance of Locke’s theories for our uses.

Many of the criticisms levelled against Locke were valid and correct as it is clear that the main weakness of Locke’s theory of language-use was its subjective idealism and the way in which it constantly took him down the path of solipsism. Nonetheless there are several ideas and themes in Locke’s work that do have some resonance until today and which are relevant in our understanding of discourse analysis and how discourses are constructed and work.

Firstly, notwithstanding the trap of solipsism that lies at the end of Locke’s theory, his argument that complex general words/signs correspond to complex ideas is of some importance when it comes to understanding Locke’s political theory. In his essays on governance he refers to concepts like sovereignty, rights, private property, capital etc. all of which happen to fall into this category of complex ideas.

Locke’s theory of language suggests that all the complex concepts of politics and political discourse are fundamentally man-made, and the result of human reasoning. Intuitively we can see the logic behind this, for it is clear that the idea of ‘private property’ has no direct empirical objective referent in the material world around us. Consider this in the light of what Locke has to say about how land is transformed into private property and productive capital through human labour, for instance. It is clear that when Locke explains how idle land is turned into productive capital that is the property of those who work on it, the material object he is referring to (i.e. the land) remains the same object: A field remains a field, the trees remain the same trees, etc. But it is the status of the land that has changed, from idle land to productive capital. This change does not take place in the ‘real’ material world and no change has happened to the thing itself, but rather it is a change in the epistemic status of an object (i.e. from ‘land’ to ‘capital’) which takes place on the conceptual/ideational level.

Locke’s theory and its implications for Ethics and Aesthetics:

Taking the line of this argument one step further, we can also see how such a theory of language would have an impact on our understanding of the categories of Ethics and Aesthetics. The immediate impact of Locke’s ideas is that it renders all ethical and aesthetical claims subjective – though not in the sense of Hobbes’s subjectivism in ethics, which was tempered by his own view of human subjectivity as being driven by primarily selfish ends of self-preservation.

Again, intuitively this makes sense to us. Consider the sentence ‘Amir stole David’s car yesterday morning’: Now ‘Amir’ and ‘David’ may be proper names and ‘car’ may be a simple abstract name for a general idea, but ‘theft’ and ‘to steal’ is not something that is found in nature so to speak. ‘Theft’ is not an object in the material world that we can refer to, for ‘theft’ is a concept that only makes sense in the broader context of a theory of rights, entitlements and property, and Locke would argue that all these ideas are complex general ideas that are invented by the reasoning of men. Ethnics (as well as aesthetics) therefore is not ‘of/in’ the world as we speak of it, but rather in the minds of men as language-users.

So where does Locke’s theory of language-use leave us?

In a sense, Locke’s solipsistic empiricism leads us to the conclusion that there is only the mind and its ideas, and there is nothing outside the mind that we can grasp. (In a literal sense, one cannot be ‘mindless’ for Locke). This immediately means that all knowledge is measured by human subjectivity, making knowledge and knowledge-claims necessarily anthropomorphic, culturally and historically contextually-bound and subjective.

But because language is the only means by which we can grasp, develop and communicate our ideas to ourselves and each other, then we can also conclude from this that for Locke there is nothing outside language. Language is the only means we have to grasp at any understanding and experience of reality and all our knowledge is invariably bound up with our understanding and use of language as well. Language and signification are therefore the foundations of all thought and knowledge.

Interestingly, Locke was already anticipating one of the first premises of all discourse analysts: namely that language – or more specifically, discourse – constructs reality as we know it. Later generations of philosophers would take up some of the premises of Locke while also trying to debunk and reject the extreme solipsism that his arguments will lead us to, while retaining the primacy of language as the measure of knowledge and truth about the world. Notably, as we shall see next week, the rejection of Locke’s subjectivism will come from several philosophers who would retain some of Locke’s theories of language use (in particular the referential theory of meaning) while rejecting his solipsism and the private language theory: Russell, Frege and Ludwig Wittgenstein.


(1) Locke states in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Book II, Chapter 1, section 2): ‘Let us then suppose the mind to be, let us say, a white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted upon it with almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer in one word: experience: in that all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself’.

(2) Locke states thus: ‘Words in their primacy or immediate signification, stand for nothing, but the ideas in the mind of him who uses them’. (Book III, Chapter 2, section 2)

(3) Locke argues: ‘Generals and universals belong not to the real essence of things, but are the inventions and creatures of the understanding, made by it for its own use, and concern only signs, whether words or ideas’. (Book III, Chapter 3, section 11)

(4), re: Bernard Harrison, An Introduction To the Philosophy of Language, Chapter 2, On Names, pg. 33.

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