Posts Tagged ‘meaning’

I think many of us are familiar with a sentiment expressed by Thomas Hobbes, namely, that it is possible for philosophers to be “deceived by the idiom of their own language” (1839-45: VII 81).  Francis Hutcheson expresses the same concern in his Nature and Conduct of the Passions when he issues the following warning: “The Nature of any Language has considerable Influence upon Mens Reasonings on all Subjects” (1728: 39).  Furthermore, we find this claim in Francis Bacon’s New Organon: “Plainly words do violence to the understanding” (2000: I xliii 41).  Here Bacon has in mind what he refers to as the “illusions which are imposed on the understanding by words” (2000: I lx 49).  I believe several other instances can be produced in which an early modern thinker expresses a similar view.

This seems like a fairly reasonable view to hold.  We should not take for granted that a term is meaningful.  And we should not conclude from the fact that a certain term is commonly used that it actually picks out something in the world.  One response to this worry about meaning is to devise a philosophical method for interrogating and evaluating the significance of a given term.  Such a method is employed by John Locke and David Hume.

However, some early modern philosophers hold the opposite assumption about the relationship between ordinary language and the understanding.  Accordingly, these philosophers soundly reject the prospect of evaluating the significance of a term by any means other than consulting ordinary language itself.  John Sergeant, for example, claims in his Method to Science that any other method must “fall infinitely short of that Certainty and Plainness which the Common and Constant Use of the Generality of Mankind, or the Vulgar, affords us” (1696: 104).  And in his Solid Philosophy he writes of “that Solid Maxim, that The true Signification or Sense of the Words is to be taken from the Common Usage of them” (1697: 188).

We find the following remarkable passage in Kenelm Digby’s Two Treasises: “it is the indisciplined multitude that must furnish learned men with naturall apprehensions, and notions to exercise upon them as they please; but they must first receive them in that plaine and naked forme, as mankind in general pictureth them out in their imaginations.  And therefore the first work of schollers, is to learne of the people…what is the true meaning and signification of these primary names, and what notions they beget in the generality of mankind of the things they designe” (1644: 8).  Here Digby appears to suggest that the components of ordinary language constitute the basic materials from which philosophical discourse is built.

The emphasis on the importance of ordinary language for our understanding of a given term, and for the discipline of philosophy in particular, carries over to at least one member of the Scottish Enlightenment.  George Turnbull, among whose students was Thomas Reid, claims the following in his Principles of Moral Philosophy: “Language, not being invented by philosophers, but contrived to express common sentiments, or what every one perceives, we may be morally sure, that where universally all languages make a distinction, there is really in nature a difference” (1740: 118).  Hence Turnbull takes it to be “an absurdity” to claim that some words “have no meaning at all” despite the fact that they are commonly used (1740: 15).

It is not obvious to me that this assumption about the importance of ordinary language is implausible.  It may have some methodological virtues.  But I am curious about whether those who hold this assumption are able to consistently adhere to it in matters of philosophy.  I am also curious about the extent to which this assumption may have pressured some early moderns to “speak with the vulgar.”


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