Ideas, general reference and abstraction in Locke's Essay

Date of Completion

January 2002






In Book III of the Essay, Locke says that general terms are capable of referring to more than one particular thing. How does general reference work? The basic Lockean view of language suggests that words refer by evoking in the mind an idea—or mental intermediary—that stands in just the right relationship to the object the word is said to refer to. So a word refers by standing for an idea which itself is a sign for the right object in the world. So a general term must stand for an idea that stands in just the right relationship to many things. However, Locke's explanation of general reference is complicated by the fact that he also thinks that the ideas of particular things that we receive from the sensation are not themselves capable of standing in just the right relationship to more than one thing. So ideas gleaned passively from sensation cannot be the ideas evoked by general terms. ^ So what idea, then? Locke suggests that the mind must perform an operation of ‘abstraction’ on an idea of a particular to produce what he calls the ‘abstract idea’, an idea which is different from an idea of a particular in a critical respect that allows it to function as a general sign. How to interpret this is debated. Some have argued that the abstract idea is an idea of a particular that is ‘used’ by the mind in a way that allows it to serve as a sign for many things. Others argue that Locke thinks by abstraction the mind literally removes features from an idea of a particular, with the resulting attenuated idea capable of serving as a general sign. The main goal of this dissertation is to ground the latter interpretation in the text itself and to defend it against the traditional objections that have been brought against it. ^