Thursday, September 29, 2011

Locke, Aristotle, and the Dictionary

After Wed's class and reading the Chapter from Locke's essay once more, I was struck by how much Aristotle I saw in Locke's writing. For one, it seems that both feel that it takes a special ability to be a good writer/audience. I remember for Aristotle, it had a lot to do with the age of the person, the young being too emotional, the old being too jaded, and the middle aged being just right. For Locke, it seems the best communicates are kind of like skilled craftmen, artisans whatever you want to call them. To be an effective communicator, Locke writes that "it is necessary that they excite in the hearer exactly the same idea they stand for in the mind of the speaker." (350, sorry I'm using the essay itself) This implies that the speaker has enough vocabulary to use the most precise word, and the reader has enough vocabulary to understand it correctly.

The issue of vocabulary also interests me about Locke. Someone said in class that Locke would have supported a very, very large dictionary where every word has one meaning. This does make a lot of sense because for Locke the reason words are so imperfect is because they signify different images to different people. But then again, even if words have one definition or one thing to signify will it make it any better? Even with a singular definiton, I wonder if people would understand that definition in the same way. It seems as if everyone has a different way of identifying an idea even if it is a common thing, and so even we have one definition for everyword I think we would still see miscommunication. Also, for words like "mad". The OED gives 7 definitions for the word "mad" if we were going to give every word 1 definition, who would decide which of the 7 would be eliminated and assigned to other words? What would be the basis for that decision? Does anyone have the authority to do something like this? I do not know how that process would go down, and I don't think that anyone really has the authority to make that decision. Is the word "mad" more appropriate to fill 1 definition more than the other 6. I think Locke would say "no" because he says words have "naturally no significance". In other words mad doesn't inherently fit into any other those definitons any better than the others, but it's something that we learn to understand. I'm sorry if I am not making any sense, but although Locke might have wanted a large dictionary, I wonder if that sort of thing is even possible.

1 comment:

  1. I'm intrigued by what you saw in both Aristotle and Locke.

    The quotation from Locke (page 818 in the class edition) doesn't refer to people, though. It refers to words - "To make words serviceable to the end of communication, it is necessary, as has been said, that they excite in the hearer exactly the same idea that they stand for in the mind of the speaker." Locke emphasizes that the communicator is fallible but that precise language can in some part make up for this.
    You mention the difficulty of multiple uses/significations of words - this is an issue I have run into in reading and using Locke's theory as well. Truthfully, I'm not sure what to do. I don't think that language can be quite as precise as Locke would like, as we have multiple definitions for words and also because language changes quickly. Words and their significations are not static. Also, words can have quite different significations depending on their cultural context (even within the same language).

    You bring up the word “mad,” which has multiple definitions. I am wondering if this might be explained in some part by Locke’s “mixed modes.” He writes of mixed modes, “What the word signifies can never be known from those things themselves: there be many of the parts of the complex ideas which are not visible in the action itself” (818). It seems to me that this might hold true for definitions: one definition does not necessarily account for the entire complex concept, just as one person’s signification of “mad” (perhaps he/she imagines an angry-faced, tantrum-throwing toddler) does not account for the whole concept. Multiple definitions are perhaps necessary for complex words. I recognize that this does not solve your entire quandary – often definitions of words may have nothing to do with each other.

    Locke does touch on the ways language develops over time, when he addresses the issue of reading/interpreting sacred text or other ancient texts. Locke simply states that it is necessary to be charitable in allowing other to interpret or misinterpret how they will (824). However, this part of his theory is not what I might call particularly robust, and so it doesn't address language change in a satisfactory manner.

    I've come to the conclusion that Locke's theory does not account for the complication of signification changes as use of language changes(though I would be very happy if someone else could articulate how it does).


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