Archive | June, 2009

John Locke’s ‘The Epistle to the Reader’

29 Jun

From An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Halfway through the first paragraph I was thinking that I was, essentially, reading Locke’s own blog posting for the period. His direct conversation and acknowledgment of his readers puts him on their level- he demands no reverence, nor does he expect to persuade those that don’t agree. He fully admits that his Essay is written more for him and “the satisfaction of a few friends,” than for any general audience and most certainly not for those people that had “a thorough acquaintance with their own understandings.”   (2153) This aspect of his Epistle makes the subject matter seem very approachable, and Locke’s admission of personal fallibility opens a possibility for dual reception- all are welcome to partake in his explorations, and he, in turn is open to possibilities. Locke’s work has been described as “humble and anti-dogmatic,” and yet the subject matter that he is dealing with is lofty. His ability to blend the two is estimable.

And really, his assertion that communication needs a common ground is valid. Common, determined symbols and shared understanding of their signifiers creates a ‘ground zero’ for communication. As Locke puts it: “‘Clear and distinct ideas are terms which, though familiar and frequently in men’s mouths, I have reason to think everyone who uses does not perfectly understand.” (2154)  How many of us humans have had difficult conversations due to different connotations of words, or how many of us cannot even decipher what we want to communicate? Locke’s determined/determinate standard for signs and signifiers is a linguistic and philosophical version of the Scientific Method – in order to replicate or communicate a theory, the steps must me laid out in clear, communicative terms. Terms that share the same symbol for all that read them. It brings up the age old questions, though, when the practice is applied to abstracts…where the need for such absolute definitions is both necessary and contrary to the very nature of the abstraction. (Necessary in the sense of our understanding of them – we can only understand them in terms of concrete examples of human experience.) What is Love, what is Justice, what is Truth, Morality, and so on with the capitalized virtues. No answers, only questions.

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