- Locke, Language, and Early-Modern Philosophy
With the publication of Walter Ott’s Locke’s Philosophy of Language and Michael Losonsky’s Linguistic Turns in Modern Philosophy, serious scholarly attention has returned to Locke’s philosophy of language. In this exhaustively-researched book, Hannah Dawson presents a dark [End Page 143] vision of language and the desperate seventeenth-century struggles against it, culminating in Locke’s complete and catastrophic capitulation. She argues that the dominant issue is something called “the problem of language in philosophy.” Seventeenth-century philosophers started seeing the language they used in philosophy as unstable and, consequently, as a veil cutting us off from reality. Prior to Locke, most believed that this “semantic instability” was accidental and remediable, but Dawson argues that Locke viewed it as inherent to language and that he abandoned any hope of reforming language. It turns out that what dissolves the semantic ties between words and reality, making “the problem of language in philosophy” intractable, is the old problem of skepticism and the radical subjectivism entailed by it. Because words signify ideas and because skepticism dissolves the idea-reality connection, language is forever behind a veil, and irremediably so, according to Locke, because words can signify only ideas. Unfortunately, Dawson does not succeed in establishing her twin historical claims. The wealth of historical evidence cited is not always relevant to her thesis and the book has a tendency to jump to conclusions.
Dawson’s argument is almost exclusively text-based, documenting the problem with numerous quotations ranging over early-modern philosophical and linguistic texts. Given the current emphasis on contextualist history of philosophy and history of ideas, this might sound like a strength, but Dawson’s use of these texts is unfortunately acontextualist. She cites snippets divorced from context and jumbled together with snippets from different sects, different thinkers, and different works taken from across the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Thus we see “the Thomists” juxtaposed with Calvinist humanists (Burgersdijk and Keckerman) alongside an Anglican virtuoso (John Wallis), all apparently making the same substantive philosophical claim about language; or we see Locke presented as holding the same philosophical position across his 1650s and 60s correspondence (including, on occasion, his “love” letters), his 1670s and 80s journal entries, and his various published writings of the 1690s, without recognition of development or nuance. This might be acceptable were it somewhere defended, but Dawson tends to treat texts as if their meanings are obvious. This makes for neither good history of philosophy nor good history of ideas.
Perhaps Dawson finds these meanings to be obvious because she sees them through thick interpretive lenses. First and foremost seems to be a commitment to the radical subjectivity of thought and ideas, especially in Locke’s case. But given that this topic has been hotly debated in recent Locke scholarship, it seems unwarranted to assume it, especially since it plays such a central role in motivating her thesis. Dawson is aware of the scholarly debate—in a footnote she cites it and lists its main antagonists—but refuses to enter it herself, even in a perfunctory way.
Despite this, Dawson could still be on to something, though, prima facie, I do not think so. Locke does not appear to capitulate to “the problem of language in philosophy.” Indeed, he never seems to have capitulated to the more fundamental epistemic problem of skepticism. And he does not abandon the project of reforming language. Indeed, the final—and, pace Dawson, not overtly bleak or pessimistic—chapter of Book III of the Essay is entitled “Of the Remedies of the foregoing Imperfections and Abuses.” But more centrally, the linguistic problems Locke wrestled with simply do not appear to be the radical and skeptical ones Dawson alleges, but only the familiar and mundane “abuses” that led the Royal Society, for instance, to adopt the motto Nullius in verba. This, of course, refers to the perceived Scholastic tendency to make merely linguistic or conceptual distinctions into real, physical ones. I expected Dawson to devote some...