Empiricism and Meaning in Locke

Ott, Walter Richard, Department of Philosophy, University of Virginia
Jorge, Secada, Department of Philosophy, University of Virginia

What does Locke mean when he says ‘words signify ideas’? What role does this play in his empiricism and in his rejection of Aristotelian doctrines about real essence?
The dissertation attempts to answer these two main questions. I show that none of the interpretations dominant in the literature provides an adequate understanding of Lockean signification. Rather than sense, reference, or ‘making something known,’ signification is (roughly) indication. A sign in this sense is a symptom or a portent. This reading allows us to understand why Locke says that words and ideas are both signs, and to see in some key texts a reasonably sound argument for the thesis that words signify only ideas. By contrast, the dominant interpretations saddle Locke with a grossly fallacious argument. Locke also says that particles (words such as ‘if’ and ‘and’) do not signify ideas, but acts of the mind. How can this be made consistent with his semiotic thesis? Is there any motivation for this view? On the basis of considerations advanced by the early Wittgenstein and by John Wisdom, I argue that the view is well-motivated. I also show how it can be made to fit with the semiotic thesis: if signification is indication, it is easy to understand how acts of the mind can be signified by words.
The new interpretation of signification requires us to revise our understanding of the relation between Locke’s philosophy of language and his anti-Aristotelian arguments. Locke thinks that considerations simply about the way words function are sufficient to show the Aristotelian project incoherent. By exploring the ‘secret references’ Locke thinks we give our words, and by exploiting the notion of signification as indication, I am able to connect Locke’s arguments about language with his anti-Aristotelian arguments in a way that makes both intelligible.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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