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Locke's Theory of Meaning CHARLES LANDESMAN ThE THEORY In Book Three of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke formulates an account of meaning which he sums up in the claim that "words, in their primary or immediate signification, stand 1or nothing but the ideas in the mind oJ him that uses them" (3.2.2.)1That this is intended to be a theory of meaning rather than an observation about some non-semantic aspect of words is established by this passage: "The meaning of words being only the ideas they are made to stand for by him that uses them" (3.4.6). These formulas stand as answers to two questions. One is: What sorts of things are word meanings?, the answer given being "Ideas." The other is: What makes an idea the meaning of a word?, the answer being that words stand for or sicily ideas. How adequate these answers are depends, of course, on what is meant by "idea" and by "signification." Although Locke's theory had great influence when it was first published, in recent years it has not been thought to deserve much attention. It has been interpreted as a mentalistic or psychologistic theory of the sort that had been refuted by Frege, Wittgenstein, and others. Anti-mentalistic critics of Locke have argued against the theory on the basis that meanings cannot be identified with introspectible items such as mental images or sensations, that introspection itself reveals that the use of a word is not invariably accompanied by the recurrence of the same image in the mind of the speaker,-" that if meanings were mental particulars or episodes of a private variety, then one person could never know what another means by the words he utters,s A different type of criticism is that such terms as "signify" and "stand for" require just as much explanation as "means."* In this paper I shall attempt to establish that these criticisms are all beside the point; Locke's theory is not mentalistic in the sense required by the criticisms although it has mentalistic components, and Locke does provide, by implication at least, an account of signification. Ideas of the sort required by his theory are not mental images or private episodes but rather, as I shall explain, intentional objects. Locke's theory has, I think, a good chance of being true, although here I shall merely try to establish its plausibility. Neglect of the theory has been caused by misinterpretations which have incorrectly imputed defects of a fundamental and obvious sort to it. I might add that attempts to arouse interest in it by finding that it anticipates contemporary views succeeds at best in making 1 All quotations are taken from John Yolton's reprinting of the fifth edition of the Essay (Everyman's Library, 2 vols. [New York: Dutton, 1968]). Although Yolton has modernized the spelling and punctuation, he has retained Locke's italics. The reader should note that his system of italicization does not conform to contemporary usage. 2 William Alston, Philosophy of Language (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1964), pp. 24-25. a Jonathan Bennett, Locke, Berkeley, Hume: Central Themes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971),p. 5. 4 Ibid., p. 3. [23] 24 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY it an object of historical interest. At least two interpreters have argued that Locke anticipates the distinction between meaning and reference.5 Yet the manner in which he expressed that distinction is not nearly as interesting as the accounts, say, of Frege and Church. In fact, I shall establish that there is no reason to think that Locke did anticipate the distinction or required it for the plausibility of his theory. I shall use the following brief formulation of Locke's theory: Words immediately signify ideas in the mind of the speaker. Several points should be noted. First, Locke concedes that there are exceptions: neither particles nor negative terms signify ideas. The scope of the theory is names, general and proper. General names include common nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs, at least,n Strictly taken, Locke's theory is that names immediately signify ideas in the mind of the speaker. Second, signification for Locke is a three termed...


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