Locke on Philosophy and “Ordinary Language”

Modern philosophers—and sometimes philosophy in general—have often been charged with speaking in a rarified discourses of their own making, unintelligible to the general public. Here’s what Locke has to say on the subject:

“Nor do I deny that those words and the like are to have their place in the common use of languages that have made them current. It looks like too much affectation wholly to lay them by; and philosophy itself, though it likes not a gaudy dress, yet when it appears in public must have so much complacency as to be clothed in the ordinary fashion and language of the country, so far as it can consist with truth and perspicuity” (Essay, II. xxi. 20).

Now of course, by and large the British empiricists are exempt from this charge—Bacon and Hume more so than Hobbes and Locke (in practice). But here we see Locke rejecting (in theory, at least) the utopic dream of a conceptually transparent philosophical discourse—such as was imagined by Leibniz. For philosophy is not the private domain of gnostics, but intended for the benefit of the public—philosophy must communicate itself through its submission to what Wittgenstein called “ordinary language” (or as Locke puts it, “the ordinary fashion and language of the country”). Hence Locke asserts (in this context) that words like “faculty,” although ambiguous, may—indeed must—be employed, with clarification. Like Plato and Aristotle, Locke works from and along with ordinary language.

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