Published Humanitas, Volume XIX, Nos. 1 and 2, 2006

“Nothing that is said has its truth simply in itself, but refers instead backward and forward to what is unsaid.”

—H. G. Gadamer

“The use of language is, by short sounds to signify with ease and dispatch general conceptions: wherein not only abundance of particulars may be contained, but also a great variety of independent ideas, collected into one complex one . . . .”

—J. Locke

Opening Statement

John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding contains an implicit hermeneutics. Following Hans-Georg Gadamer’s assertion that “the sense of a text in general reaches far beyond what its author originally intended” (Gadamer 1989, 372), I will reconstruct and reinterpret Locke’s treatment of language in the third book of his Essay to show that there is a nascent hermeneutical understanding at work. Whether or not this is a robust hermeneutics is yet to be seen, but it does open an avenue of thinking beyond the empiricist tradition. In this vein, I will begin with J. C. Weinsheimer’s objection that Locke’s philosophical outlook is thoroughly anti-hermeneutical. This assertion is drawn from his chapter devoted to Locke in Eighteenth-Century Hermeneutics, Philosophy of Interpretation in England from Locke to Burke. I will outline Weinsheimer’s general positions, and then present an alternative interpretation. I will then provide a brief overview of Locke’s descriptions of the relations among words, ideas and objects of experience; however, I will not attempt to delve into the issues of his philosophy of language, for that would take this project too far afield. Instead, my approach will be informed by Gadamer’s assertion that “Language is the fundamental mode of operation of our being-in-the-world and that all-embracing form of the constitution of the world” (Gadamer 1977, 3), which was in part anticipated by Locke’s philosophy.

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