At the conclusion of An Essay Conerning Human Understanding (IV.XXI.4-5), John Locke coins the word "semiotics" ("the doctrine of signs") to describe a branch of science which is neither wholey speculative ("the contemplation of THINGS themselves, for the discovery of truth") nor wholey practical ("about the things in [one's] own power, which are [one's] own ACTIONS, for the attainment of [one's] own ends") but a combination of the two ("both in the one and the other"). In his analysis, the primary concern of semiotics is to correct the abuses of language which lead to confused ideas. Figurative language, he says, is entertaining but useful "for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment..." (III.X.34)
Not surprisingly, this caused a counter-revolution among poets. Locke's theory, particularly his emphasis on the arbitrariness of language, ignited a "Cratylus"-like debate about the "natural" or "conventional" status of language. That debate continues to the present day (e.g., Chomskian "natural grammar"), but it saw especially heightened expression among the Romantics and Transcendentalists. Blake expressed "Contempt & Abhorrence" for Locke because his books "mock Inspiration & Vision"--i.e., they disavow innate ideas and make the mind a passive receptor of images; Coleridge appealed to an "eternal language" uttered by God; and Thoreau (cryptically and half-jokingly?) divined inherent meaning in phonetics.
Despite the ready opposition, Locke's philosophy had opened the door for WILL. For the word "arbitrary" itself has connotations of power (deriving from the concept of legal "arbitration"). And language, seen as a political institution, became a battleground for competing interests. See, for instance, Ishmael's attempt to re-appropriate the meaning of "whiteness" in Moby-Dick, and modern feminist discourse on language.
For Blake, the great "axis of evil" was Bacon, Locke, and Newton. In Novum Organum, Bacon attacked four "idols"--of the tribe, cave, market, and theater--each resting on confused notions. "The syllogism is made up of propositions, propositions of words, and words are markers of notions. Thus if the notions themselves...are confused, and recklessly abstracted from things, nothing built on them is sound. The only hope therefore lies in true Induction."
For this meetup we will read Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Aphorisms 1-68.
This meetup will be the first in a series tracing the philosophy of language in roughly chronological order from Locke through the Romantics. Although situated in a historical context, we will discuss each text on its own terms. This list represents a tentative itinerary of the other stops along this "tour":
John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book 3, Chapter 5
Berkeley - Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, "Introduction"
James Burnett, Lord Monboddo - Origin and Progress of Language
Condillac - An Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge
John Horne Tooke - The Diversions of Purley, pg. 9-22 (Part[masked]):
Destutt Tracy - A Treatise on Political Economy, pg 1-26 (Aphorisms through section 2.1):
Rousseau - Essay on the Origin of Languages
Wordsworth - Preface to Lyrical Ballads
Coleridge - Biographia Literaria, Chapter 13 "On the imagination, or esemplastic power":
Coleridge - Aids to Reflection
Shelley - "In Defense of Poetry"
Emerson - "Nature," Chapter 4
Tennyson - "In Memoriam"
Charles Kraitsir, "Signifiance of the Alphabet"