Abuses of Language

Locke's primary concern in Book 3 is clearing up abuses in language. He thinks that these abuses pose a threat to natural philosophy by ensuring that obscure terms such as "essence" continue to get bandied about and taken seriously, despite the fact that they are utterly incoherent and meaningless as they are currently used. Locke feels that this stubborn adherence to incoherent terms is hindering the acceptance of real scientific progress.

In order to eradicate the abuses of language, Locke first develops a general theory of how our words get their meaning. Then he breaks down types of words, category by category, and shows how we should and should not be using such kinds of words.

Words, Locke claims, refer to ideas. If there is not a clear idea to which our word refers, we should not use that word. In addition, we must take caution to ensure that the ideas to which we refer our words are similar to the ideas to which others refer the same words. Defining our terms and sticking to strict policies of usage are important means by which we can ensure that language does not lead us astray.