Archive for November, 2012

Early in book three of Leibniz’s New Essays, he indicates a structural contrast between his own account of language and Locke’s.

Theo: General terms do not merely improve languages but are required for their essential structure. If by ‘particular things’ you mean individual ones, then if we only had words which applied to them—only proper names and no appellatives—we would not be able to say anything. (p. 275, Bennett and Remnant)

The context for this is that Locke offers a sort of “practical necessity” argument for general terms; language would be pretty unhelpful without it.  Leibniz here suggests that Locke does not go far enough.  It is not that language would be unhelpful, but impossible, if all categorical terms were singular.  I think that this exchange highlights a very deep structural difference in their views of language, though this post is motivated by my frustration at the paucity of discussion the issue receives in both Locke and Leibniz.

Leibniz here suggests a fundamental contrast between proper names and appellatives.  If I am reading him correctly, he seems to be suggesting that a basic sentence will need to consist of terms of both types:  “Elizabeth is human” for instance, features the subject term “Tom” and the predicate “is human”.  It seems to me that this point actually crosscuts the singular/general issue that is also being addressed.  We could have a plural term as the subject, for instance, or a unique appellative as the predicate.  That is, language needs subject-typed terms and predicates, so not all categorical terms are names.  This point from Leibniz implicitly criticizes Locke for having a view on which all categorical terms are names.  And I think that is a fair understanding of Locke, especially in light of Locke’s account of the copula (offered briefly in Essay III.vii).  Paradigm sentences involve the copula, flanked by names, indicating agreement of the signified ideas.  Structurally, this account resembles Mill’s views in “System of Logic” as well as elements of Hobbes’s account.  Leibniz on the other hand, seems to be more aligned with a sort of Fregean picture of the roles of different terms in language (to be marginally anachronistic about it).

So, Leibniz has this criticism, namely that Locke seems to think you could have a genuine language where all the categorical terms are proper names, and Leibniz disagrees.  Why am I frustrated?  Well, because Leibniz raises this criticism briefly in the quote above, transitions into a point about the chronological or historical development of proper names from appellatives (rather than the reverse position, articulated by Locke), and leaves it be.  So I flipped to New Essays III.vii, where Philalathes presents Locke’s account of the copula, hoping that Theophilus would take him to task and, in so doing, elaborate a bit more on this conception of the structure of language, or his view of the failings of Locke’s copula-flanking-names approach.  Sadly, we get no such discussion.  Theo basically ignores the account of the copula, and focuses on proper treatment of prepositions and the like.

Pointers to places in Leibniz’s work where these issues are discussed would be welcome, though to my mind, it won’t make up for the missed opportunity in the New Essays to see him directly criticize the competing approach.

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Burnett, on maps

I’ve been thinking about the correspondence of Thomas Burnett of Kemnay, particularly his correspondence with Leibniz (thus this earlier post and indeed this one).[1] Here I’d like to think a little bit about Burnett’s travels, and the geographical distribution of the correspondence. For now I’d like to focus on correspondence with Leibniz, and on the years 1695 to 1705.[2]

Figure 1 shows what might seem to be the three most important geographical locations involved. It shows Kemnay (where Burnett was from), London (where he spent a good deal of time) and Hanover (where Leibniz was, for the most part).


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Measuring and mapping

I’ve been thinking about Justin Smith’s post Philosophometry, with its reference to Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, and more generally to “the value of quantitative, digitally based study” of the texts one is interested in. There is, as Smith says, a good deal of such discussion of such approaches in the humanities, if not in philosophy — this is part of what goes on under the name of ‘digital humanities’. This is something by which I’ve been persistently intrigued, despite never really doing anything about it.

There is a problem — at least a practical one — with the approach Smith has in mind. One apparently needs “to compile a massive database of texts, titles, key words [and] key arguments”. But how do we do this? Generating a database in this way apparently requires a good deal of interpretation. Do we have to commit to close reading of everything, before we can do the data analysis? If the project is to map the locations of occurrence of certain views, then probably yes. But is there the same necessity in all ‘digital humanities’ approaches to history of philosophy?

One paper that has attempted an approach of this sort in the history of modern philosophy, with explicit reference to Moretti, is Shaun Nichols’ ‘The Rise of Compatibilism: A Case Study in the Quantitative History of Philosophy’ (Midwest Studies in Philosophy 31 (2007), 260-70) [pdf]. And Nichols addresses this problem:


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