Literary Criticism of John Locke

John Locke’s (1632–1704) philosophy has been enduring and widespread in its influence. He laid the foundations of classical British empiricism, and his thought is often characterized as marked by tolerance, moderation, and common sense. In general, Locke’s affiliations were with the Puritans; his father had supported the parliamentarians against the king, and he attended Oxford, which was Puritan in sympathy. While at Oxford, he fell under the influence of the leading British scientist Sir Robert Boyle, who advocated an experimental and empirical method. He also read closely the work of Descartes, and was a friend of Isaac Newton. In 1668 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. After the death of his patron, the earl of Shaftesbury, Locke sought refuge in Holland until the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which restored to the throne a Protestant monarch, William of Orange. Locke’s most important work, his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), immediately won for him a high reputation amid some opposition.

The implications of Locke’s empiricism are still with us: many ideological forces still encourage us to look at the world as an assemblage of particular facts, yielding sensations which our minds then process in arriving at abstract ideas and general truths. In our context, Locke’s views of language are particularly interesting since they not only provided the starting point for subsequent theories of language in the eighteenth century (both for and against Locke’s views) but also anticipate a great deal of modern literary-critical thinking about language.

maxresdefaultLocke’s fundamental endeavor is to show how closely language is connected with the process of thought and therefore to urge the need to use language in the most precise way so as to avoid unnecessary confusion in our concepts. Before turning to his views of language in general, it is worth remarking on two influential passages that impinge profoundly on literature and poetry. In the first of these passages, Locke makes his famous distinction between two faculties, wit and judgment:

men who have a great deal of wit, and prompt memories, have not always the clearest judgment or deepest reason. For wit lying most in the assemblage of ideas, and putting those together with quickness and variety, wherein can be found any resemblance or congruity, thereby to make up pleasant pictures and agreeable visions in the fancy; judgment, on the contrary, lies quite on the other side, in separating carefully, one from another, ideas wherein can be found the least difference, thereby to avoid being misled by similitude, and by affinity to take one thing for another. This is a way of proceeding quite contrary to metaphor and allusion; wherein for the most part lies that entertainment and pleasantry of wit, which strikes so lively on the fancy, and therefore is so acceptable to all people, because its beauty appears at first sight, and there is required no labor of thought to examine what truth or reason there is in it. (Essay, II, xi, 2)

In this passage, Locke effectively revives the age-old antagonism between philosophy, on the one side, and poetry and rhetoric, on the other. Where much classical and Renaissance thought had endeavored to combine the functions of poetry, as producing both pleasure and (moral) profit, Locke reawakens the ghost of a hard Platonism, separating (and even opposing) the spheres not only of profit and pleasure, but also of the faculties respectively enlisted by poetry and philosophy. The domain of poetry is governed by wit, which sees identities and affinities between disparate things, an imaginative and fictive operation designed to please the fancy. The realm of philosophy, on the other hand, is presided over by judgment, by the clear, cool ability to separate what does not belong together, to distinguish clearly between things, in the interests of furthering knowledge. The impulse of one lies toward confusion and conflation, while the impetus of the other is toward clarity. The poetic realm is the realm of fancy, of figurative language, of metaphor and allusion; the language of philosophy shuns adornment, and engages with the real world. Locke attempts to dismantle the effort of many centuries to fuse the claims of delight and instruction, viewing these as opposed rather than allied.

Hence, at the end of book III of the Essay, entitled Of Words, Locke urges that figurative speech comprises one of the “abuses” of language. He acknowledges that “in discourses where we seek rather pleasure and delight than information and improvement,” the ornaments of figurative speech and rhetoric may not be considered faults. “But,” he warns, “if we would speak of things as they are, we must allow that all the art of rhetoric, besides order and clearness; all the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment; and so are perfect cheats: and therefore . . . they are certainly, in all discourses that pretend to inform or instruct, wholly to be avoided.” Locke goes so far as to call rhetoric a “powerful instrument of error and deceit.” In this passage, Locke opposes pleasure and delight to both the pursuit of knowledge and moral improvement. He acknowledges, however, that the attraction of eloquence, “like the fair sex,” has hitherto prevailed: rhetoric is “publicly taught,” and the “arts of fallacy are endowed and preferred” (Essay, III, x, 34). Whereas the Renaissance humanists aspired toward an integration of human pursuits and faculties, Locke demands a clear separation. Locke is here calling for a literalization of language, an extrication of words from their metaphorical and allegorical potential, a potential accumulated over many centuries. When language is thus reduced to denotation, stripped of all connotative potential, the word effectively becomes a transparent window onto meaning, and its material dimension is suppressed. Locke’s voice is perhaps the most pronounced sign of the bourgeois refashioning of language into a utilitarian instrument, a scientistic tendency that still infects some of our composition classrooms to this day.

Locke’s seemingly harsh views of figurative speech need to be appraised in the context of his views of language in general. These views unwittingly highlight some of the skeptical implications of Locke’s empiricism, which were also evinced in various ways by George Berkeley and David Hume. Locke defines words as the “signs of ideas” or “internal conceptions” (Essay, III, i, 2). Anticipating Saussure and many modern theorists of language, he emphasizes that the connection between signs (words) and ideas is not natural but is made by “a perfectly arbitrary imposition” which is regulated by “common use, by a tacit consent” (Essay, III, ii, 8). He also points out that whereas all things in existence are particular, the vast majority of words (apart from proper names) are general and do not designate specific objects, since to have a word for every object would not only be impractical and cumbersome but would also disable the very process of thought, which depends heavily on our ability to abstract from given circumstances and to generalize. Hence one word will usually cover an entire class of objects (Essay, III, iii, 1–6). Again Locke emphasizes that “general” and “universal” do not belong to “real existence” or to “things themselves”: they are inventions of the human mind, designed to facilitate our understanding of the world. In fact, the essences of genera and species are nothing more than abstract ideas: for example, “to be a man, or of the species man, and to have the right to the name ‘man’ is the same thing” (Essay, III, iii, 11–12). In other words, the essence of any general idea such as “man” is not found in the world; it is a purely verbal essence, though Locke hints that in forming abstract or general ideas, we are attempting to follow the similitude we appear to find among things in nature. He denies, however, that there are in the world any “real essences” that we can know (Essay, III, iii, 13).

In other parts of the Essay, Locke effectively acknowledges a skeptical position that what our minds know is not the world itself but the ideas we have of it. His discussion of language reinforces this implicit skepticism, especially in relation to the notion of essence which had dominated philosophy and theology for more than two thousand years. He suggests that there are two meanings of the term “essence”: it can be taken to refer to the “real internal . . . constitution of things,” which, however, is unknown; or it refers to the constituting characteristics of each genus, which is represented by an abstract or general idea, to which a given word is attached (Essay, III, iii, 15). Locke uses these two definitions to make his famous distinction between “real” and “nominal” essence: he urges that real essence and nominal essence are the same when we are talking about simple ideas and “modes” but that they are different in substances. The names of simple ideas – which cannot be broken down into smaller components – are the least doubtful because each of them represents a single perception (Essay, III, iv, 12–13). Simple ideas are not manufactured by the mind but are “presented to it by the real existence of things operating upon it” (Essay, III, v, 2). The names of modes (complex ideas which cannot subsist by themselves but depend on substances, such as “triangle,” “goodness,” “patricide”) are purely inventions of the mind and have no direct connection to real existence, hence their real and nominal essences coincide. But in the case of substances (which Locke defines as “distinct particular things subsisting by themselves”) such as “gold,” the real and nominal essences will be different: the nominal essence cannot be embodied in any particular real thing. Essentiality refers only to types and species, not to individuals (Essay, II, xii, 4–6; III, vi, 3–4). If there is a real essence of substances, we can only conjecture what this might be (Essay, III, vi, 6). Locke dismisses as fruitless any search after “substantial forms,” which are “wholly unintelligible” (Essay, III, vi, 10). Our knowledge of species and genera is constructed by the “complex ideas in us, and not according to precise, distinct, real essences in them.” Locke insists that we do not know real essences (Essay, III, vi, 8–9). He is here moving away from a conception of nature as harboring “certain regulated established essences.” He does acknowledge, however, that while the nominal essences of substances are made by the mind and not by nature, they are not entirely arbitrary, but attempt to follow the pattern of nature: we see certain qualities conjoined in nature, and we attempt to imitate these combinations in our complex ideas (Essay, III, vi, 15, 28).

In his chapter The Imperfection of Words, Locke suggests that language is used primarily for two purposes: for recording our own thoughts and for communicating these thoughts to others (Essay, III, ix, 1). He also defines language as “the instrument of knowledge” (Essay, III, ix, 21). The imperfection of words lies in the uncertainty of what they signify. He appears to define clarity as a situation where a word or group of words will “excite in the hearer the same idea which it stands for in the mind of the speaker” (Essay, III, ix, 4). Locke attributes inaccuracy to a number of causes: since there is no natural connection between words and their meanings, and no natural standards, different people will attach different ideas to the same words; the rules governing meaning are not always clear or understood; and words are often learned without awareness of their full range of meaning (as by children). These imperfections tend not to disable everyday or “civil” discourse but are of serious consequence in philosophy, which seeks general truths (Essay, III, ix, 4–15).

In an even more strongly entitled chapter, The Abuse of Words, Locke lists a number of willful faults which contribute to the failure of communication. These include: the use of words without “clear and distinct ideas,” or the use of “signs without anything signified”; using words inconstantly and without distinct meanings; affecting obscurity, by using words in new and unusual ways; using obscurity to cover up conceptual difficulties and inadequacies; taking words for things (i.e., assuming that one’s own views describe reality itself ); and assuming that the meanings of certain words are known and need not be explained (Essay, III, x, 2–22). Locke’s remedies for these situations are to annex clear and distinct ideas to words, respecting their common usage, elaborating their meanings where necessary, ensuring that words agree as far as possible “with the truth of things” or what actually exists, and using the meanings of words with constancy. Locke even airs the idea, which he thinks to be unrealistic, of a dictionary, which might standardize and clarify all language usage. If this advice were followed, he believes, many of the current controversies would end, and “many of the philosophers’ . . . as well as poets’ works might be contained in a nutshell” rather than in long-winded tomes (Essay, III, xi, 9–26).

In his philosophy of language, as in his general advocacy of empiricism, Locke wavers uneasily between a view of the human mind constructing the world with which it engages, and the mind “receiving” this world from without. The general thrust of his commentary suggests that we construct the world through language: we ourselves impose general ideas, categories, and classifications upon the world. We can no longer talk of Platonic Forms or Aristotelian essence or substance: the essences that we “find” are our own constructions, constructions of language. Nature itself contains only particulars, and its apparent regularity and order are projections of our own thought processes whose medium is language. All of this points to a “coherence” theory of language, whereby language is not referential (referring to some external reality), but acquires meaning only through the systematic nature and coherence of its expression of our perceptions. On the other hand, Locke seems to intimate that the connection between language and reality is not entirely arbitrary: at some level – that of simple ideas – our perceptions do somehow correspond to external reality. Locke is at a loss to explain this correspondence, but he will not relinquish this last vestige of purported objectivity. Indeed, his urgent desire for linguistic clarity is perhaps a reaction to the failing system of referentiality: the entire edifice, the entire equation and harmony of language and reality, promulgated through centuries of theological building on the notion of the Logos (embracing the idea of God as both Word and the order of creation expressed by this), is about to crumble.



1 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. A. D. Woozley (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1975), p. 89. Hereafter cited as Essay.

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