Locke and Berkeley on Abstract Ideas: From the Point of View of the Theory of Reference

Philosophia 50 (4):2161-2182 (2022)
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In the Essay Locke argues abstract ideas within the framework of the descriptivist theory of reference. For him, abstract ideas are, in many cases, conceptual ideas that play the role of “descriptions” or “descriptive contents,” determining general terms’ referents. In contrast, in the introduction of the Principles, Berkeley denies Lockean abstract ideas adamantly from an imagistic point of view, and he offers his own theory of reference seemingly consisting of referring expressions and their referents alone. However, interestingly, he mentions a general term’s “definition” and suggests that it determines the scope of the term’s referents. For example, he takes up the definition of a triangle as “a plain Surface comprehended by three right Lines” and suggests that just as Locke’s general idea of a triangle does, the definition determines the referents of the general term “triangle.” His definition reminds us of the fact that as Descartes grasps the content of the general idea of a triangle as “a figure enclosed by three lines,” so Locke grasps the abstract idea of a triangle as “a Figure including a Space between three Lines,” and so on. That is, since Berkeley is an imagist, he does not acknowledge Locke’s conceptual abstract ideas as “ideas,” but although he verbally denies “abstract ideas,” his theory of reference also actually has the same descriptivist framework consisting of referring expressions, their descriptive contents, and their referents. Thus, we understand the real reason why Berkeley’s criticism of Locke seems beside the point.



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Speech Acts.J. Searle - 1969 - Foundations of Language 11 (3):433-446.
Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language.John Searle - 1969 - Philosophy and Rhetoric 4 (1):59-61.

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