September 24, 2012
John Locke: A Way With Words
In Book III of From An Essay of Human Understanding John Locke goes into the signification of words and their subjective meanings. As a writer, words tend to become ambiguous in meaning, and in use. The exact purpose of words is just as vague as the meaning itself. I agree with Locke's definition on the function of words. They are meant to transcript thoughts and also to communicate those thoughts. Of course this will vary by culture and region on exactly which words are used to record what, in a general sense this may be the most commonly accepted function of words. Words are the symbols of yesteryear and probably the extinct version of recordings in the distant future. Once Locke goes into the communication of words thats when things start to complicate. The same words we used to write our ideas are the same ones we used to relay and communicate these ideas. Communicating ordinary day to day things and expressions is more of the "civil" function Locke mentions. The problem is the philosophical function. This one is a puppet of opinion and opinion is married to interpretation. Interpretation goes back to the primary functions of rhetoric as the interoperation is manipulated by the means of persuasion. So the more a word is used to persuade the more into the question its true meaning becomes.
In a real world sense lets take a cat (which i hate) and analyze it with the meaning of words. To simply say "the cat is spotted" is more of a civil meaning of expression. Something Locke defines and I have no challenges about. Now if I were to state that "The cat is a big cripple to the neighborhood" is a different story and more a philosophical function. Immediately the significations come into person. What does big suggest to you? What would a reader consider a cripple to the neighborhood? All of these will shape an opinion that may differ from reader to reader. Thats an illustration of how words lose their concrete significance.
Locke's essay defines all of this and is easy to read. As a writer I tend to agree with most of the prose. I can revert back to tons of different scenarios. In colloquial speak theres a hood term called "ol lady" In the southern region of South Florida this would be defined as a term used to mean someone's mother. However, in Tampa, the word is used to refer to someone's girlfriend. Imagine the collision of interpretation that could result from the meeting of two individuals using these terms.
Locke also does a wonderful job presenting the counter-argument in his accusations of words. People to refer to "common knowledge" or "common use" as a pass for those words where signification is assumed. My last example can easily refute this as common knowledge is subjective as well. The whole Pandora's box of questions that arrive from the analysis of words can shake the whole foundation of literature since it is the tool used to create literature and how we interpret literature. Locke seems to understand that words were created by man and man decided what word is fit to represent what. There is no standard by nature for the meaning of words.
Of course in a sense the imperative points of Locke's prose have been exaggerated in my blog post to highlight the significance. Some words are just simple enough in meaning in order to be understood without many raised eyebrows. Its just those compound terms that tend to raise questions.