Hannah Dawson. Locke, Language and Early-Modern Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 2007.

The following review was published in Seventeenth-Century News, [2010] vol. 68, nos. 1&2, pp. 65-68


Hannah Dawson. Locke, Language and Early-Modern Philosophy. (Ideas in Context Series) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xii + 361 pp. $90.00.

Review by Karin Susan Fester, University of Wales.

Hannah Dawson’s book is an impressive work about John Locke’s philosophy of language, in particular his critique of words, making it a valuable contribution to the field of seventeenth century studies and philosophy. The book is eloquent in style and rigorous and enduring in its presentation. Dawson makes extensive use of Locke’s original manuscripts, as well as engaging with works from various English, French and various other European philosophers. The book is an excellent reference text for those requiring a specialist treatment of seventeenth century philosophy of language, especially where it concerns the development of moral language in political philosophical thought during Locke’s time.

Dawson begins her book by stating: ‘Language was a problem for early-modern philosophers’ (1). For Locke, as well as most philosophers, language obstructed philosophy—they worried about the misuse of words, their ambiguity, and their ‘corruptible nature'(5). Locke especially was disenchanted with the way words were used in discourses about nature, morality and politics of his time, therefore he turned his attention to not only words but in how they generated moral language as a whole. Locke challenged the commonly held assumption that a universal language existed for communication among philosophers (see chapters eight and nine), arguing that semantic diversity—through private language and cultural attachments—was ultimately manifested in moral language and ideas.

The book is composed of three parts. Part I, ‘Language in the trivium’, consists of three chapters concerned with the Aristotelian trivium of logic, grammar and rhetoric, which formed the basis of early-modern philosophy of language. Dawson discusses the theories of language, elucidating how logic was used to facilitate the relationship between words, things and concepts, detailing the disputation among the grammarians of whether or not languages could be reduced to fixed rules or whether they were irregular and mutable. Finally, she points to how words could be used to disguise, manipulate and contradict, especially in how ‘rhetoric further diffracts language—particularly moral language—which is to be the major location of philosophical anxiety about semantic instability'(130).

Part II, ‘Philosophical Developments of the Problem of Language’, is presented in chapters four, five, and six. In chapter four Dawson expounds on the incompatibility between language and science, and philosophers were constantly ‘engaged in bringing language into congruence with things'(107). Dawson proceeds to invoke the thinking of Francis Bacon who held a culturally specific view of grammar/culturally relative view of semantics. Here she also considers the works of Descartes, Wilkins, Lodwick, Montaigne, Gassendi, Malebranche, and Hobbes to indicate that there was not such a clear cut distinction between the empiricists and the rationalists. Dawson considers these philosophers ‘to demonstrate the pervasive inclusion of thoughts and things in early-modern theories of language, whilst exploring the differences, developments and doubts therein'(92). In chapter five the focus is on how semantic instability disrupted the general assumption that language is universal. Early-modern philosophers relied on semantic universalism as a foundation for communication (130). Dawson points to the different currents that swept into philosophical dialogues, such as the historicist grammarians who claimed that languages were ‘diverse and mutating’ rather than adhering to fixed rules and how ‘rhetoric further diffracts language—particularly moral language—which is to be the major location of philosophical anxiety about semantic instability'(130). Skepticism about semantic universality and recognition of instability, Dawson points out, was addressed by only a few philosophers: Montaigne, Hobbes, Pascal, Spinoza, and Pufendorf. In chapter six Dawson focuses on the semantic opacity of words (155), drawing attention to how words engender ambiguity, persuasiveness and emotion—ultimately affecting development of moral language, which Dawson detailed in the final part of the book.

Part III, ‘Locke on Language’, is composed of chapters seven, eight, nine and ten. It is in the final part of the book where Dawson expounds on Locke’s individualism and private language theory and where she makes an excellent connection to her discussions on semantic instability, especially where it concerns moral language in earlier chapters. Dawson draws attention to one essential point pertinent to Locke’s private language theory—where critics often attempt to undermine his inherent individualism—that Locke was not a theorist who denied the possibility ‘of a common mental discourse and communication’, rather he used ‘the axiomatic premise of semantic individualism to prove that words are connected to their meanings arbitrarily'(219). Dawson expounds on how Locke viewed moral language as being connected to the culture of the individual person. Thus, for Locke, the individual was an important contributor to semantic instability. and ‘Locke’s radical contribution was to systematise this deep form of semantic instability’ (227). In chapter nine, Dawson expounds on Locke’s view that words essentially produce morality, that is language seems to have power in the moral sphere.

The final chapter of the book is where Dawson elucidates the contradictions she noted in the coherence of Locke’s thought (277). Dawson points to these inconsistencies in the context of the three social aspects of Locke’s semantic theory. The first social aspect concerns the individual: ‘only when individuals have the same ideas in their heads do they properly communicate’ (295). Second, ‘it is the community, not individuals, that dictates which words and meanings are in common use.’ (297) The second social aspect contradicts the first; it was expounded upon in earlier chapters regarding moral language. Finally, the third social aspect is the ‘pull of society on individuals’, that is in how individuals strive to be virtuous and always ‘want to be liked by other men […] They are fixated on others as a result of being centered on themselves'(297). Dawson’s discussion of the inconsistencies inherent to the three social aspects in Locke’s semantic theory are especially thought provoking for anyone interested in analyzing Locke’s political theory.

John Locke is eminent for his epistemology and ethico-political theory, however this book demonstrates that he has also made a great contribution to the philosophy of language. Dawson has presented a thorough account of Locke’s philosophy of language. The only weakness to be found is in the latter portion of the book where the author could have delved deeper into Locke’s individualistic private language argument and its generation of moral language—especially important for Locke’s political philosophical thought; Locke’s critique of words is most essential in this regard. The book’s bibliography includes an extensive manuscript list, as well as a comprehensive subject index. Dawson’s book is not only a specialist text for seventeenth century scholars, but is also a valuable source for philosophers specializing in Locke’s political theory and philosophy of language. Dawson’s book is a definite must read, as it is an ambitious journey detailing Locke’s philosophy of language within the wider framework of seventeenth century philosophy.

You can access the original published book review at the following links.




J.T. Ismael. The Situated Self. Oxford University Press, 2007.

I wrote the following book review and it was published in The American Philosophical Association (APA) Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy, [Spring 2008] vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 19-20.

The Situated Self. J.T. Ismael. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007. 248 pages. $65.00.

ISBN 978-0-19-517436-6, ISBN 0-19-517436-4.

From the very moment one’s eyes scan the bold colored symbol of self-location on the cover of J.T. Ismael’s book The Situated Self, it will be quite evident that this book would be an exciting read, because it is a fresh and vivid challenge to dualist and physicalist views about the mind, language, and the self.

In this book J.T. Ismael rigorously argues for her view of mind, defined thus: “in favor of a view of the mind as a mapkeeper that stores the information coming through the senses in an internal model of self and situation that it uses to steer the body through a complex and changing environment. This view of mind makes self-representation one of its principle tasks and accords central role in the intrinsic dynamics of the body” (p. 201). Ismael is committed to clarifying the cognitive and epistemic gaps (pp.111, 134) that one confronts when attempting to understand how the “coordination of experience across minds” (p.109) is possible in a structured world of physics. Ismael takes on the challenge that has confronted philosophers for centuries: how human subjective experience relates with the physical universe. Therefore, Ismael’s book is not just another philosophy book—it is feminist scientific theory in the making about mind and language. Allison Jaggar and Sandra Harding, in their seminal books Feminist Politics and Human Nature and The Science Question in Feminism opened our eyes to other ways of understanding the world, that is, understanding it through a non-dualistic lens. A feminist method of inquiry—whether political or scientific—must recognize the human organism as being a part of an organic whole with its social and physical world. Ismael’s work is an example of one who embraces this method of inquiry for the interpretation of the self’s mind-world relationship within the physical universe.

Chapter 1 is the introduction to the book. Thereafter the book is divided into three well organized parts. Part I “The Situated Mind”, part II “Understanding Arguments for Dualism” and finally part III “Selves”, and is followed by a bibliography and subject index.

Part I “The Situated Mind” is comprised of six chapters entitled respectively as “Traditional Representation”, “Confinement”, “The Dynamical Approach”, “Self-Description”, “Context and Coordination”, and “Self-Representation, Objectivity, and Intentionality”. Each chapter expounds on the notion of the mind as being part of a complex dynamical system and addresses various aspects of Ismael’s theory and her criticisms. Chapter 2 starts off with a discussion about the Fregean Model of Thought and its continuous influence and in suceeding chapters move on to discuss why we must move away from a representationalist approach and more towards dynamical interfaces which confront thought. Ismael presents her view of the dynamical relation of the mind-world relationship she advocates; the dynamical relation emphasizes not the mind-body relationship, but instead the mind-world relationship. It is first in chapter 4, “The Dynamical Appoach,” where Ismael defines mind: “We treat the conscious mind—its introspectively accessible component, which I’ll refer to elliptically as ‘the mind’—as part of a larger dynamical system and focus on the interfaces with other parts of the system; that is experience, on the incoming end, and action or volition, on the outgoing end”(p.37).

Part II consists of three chapters respectively entitled “Jackson’s Mary”, “Inverted Spectra” and “Grammatical Illusions.” In chapter 8 , Frank Jackson’s arguments for dualism are analyzed using the thought experiment about Mary’s encounter with the tomato and the fact she is supposed to learn and what it is like to see a red thing like a red tomato (p. 96- 97); Ismael takes this very simple appearing example and transforms it into thought provoking activity for the reader; the terms “intrinsic architecture”, “incomplete content” and “inexpressable content” are also introduced (pp. 94-95). Ismael challenges the idea that physical knowledge sufficently supplies us with all we need to know about something. Ismael writes it thus: “It comes down to the question of whether any communicable body of knowledge could be complete”(p. 95); and she uses this argument to confront both the dualist and the physicalist (p. 94). Ismael describes how to view the problem about epistemic and cognitive gaps: “The problem is not one about knowing how to map our own experience into a shared description of a common world; it’s a problem about knowing how to establish specifically internal relations between the properties exemplified in disjoint domains”(p.113). In her expositon about “coordination of experience across minds”(p.109) Ismael makes us aware of the epistemic and cognitive gaps that need to be accounted for. Ismael defines it thus: “The problem is not that properties exemplified in either your visual experience or in mine cannot be identified in terms of their role in the production of behavior or causal relations to features of the external landscape, it’s that once we’ve indentified the intrinsic properties of my experience by their causal relations to the environment and their role in the production of my behavior, and identified the intrinsic properties of your experience by their causal relations to the environment and role in the production of your behavior, this tells us nothing about the internal relations between properties that play parallel roles in our respective functional architectures. It tells us nothing, in short, about how the kind of experience you have when you see red relates qualitatively to the kind that I do when I see red. And this is a quite general problem. It goes not just for color, but for all of the qualities exemplified in experience: tactual, auditory, gustatory….”(p.111).

Part III “Selves”, is comprised of three chapters respectively entitled “Identity over Time”,

“The Unified Self” and finally “Reprise”. This final part of the book Ismael is focusing on the identity and individuality of selves; throughout reference is made to Anscombe, Descartes, Frege, Kant, Locke, Parfit, Strawson and others. Chapter 11 surveys the views of no-subject theorists, theories of the self, criteria of identity, problems with identity over time. Chapter 12 is devoted to an extensive exposition on Dennett and covers the self as intentional object, the stream of consciousness and the inner monologue. The final chapter 13 concludes by saying how the mind implements and depends upon “self-description to bridge the gap between its properties and what they represent in precisely the way a map uses self-location to bridge the gap between its parts and what they stand for”(p. 230). Therefore, the epistemic gap could be explained by “reflexive structure” and “self-locating sentences”(p. 231).

The book’s greatest strengths are in Ismael’s systematic approach in how she articulates her theory. The book is certainly well organized and therefore efficient for teaching purposes. I was quite pleased with the organization of the material and design of each chapter. For those trained in both the scientific and philosophical disciplines, like myself, this work will only enhance our traditional understandings of the self while confronting physicalist objections. Ismael’s writing is a detailed exposition of how the self comes to find its place in the physical world, observing, interacting and continuously self-locating and self-describing itself within its physical environment. The book has few weaknesses. This elaborate work deserves a more detailed index—in particular if it is to be used by students—especially in light of the consistent and substantial use of terminology that Ismael uses to expound her dynamic theory. Ismael’s writing style is geared towards the philosophical academic audience and it is not necessarily a book for students new to philosophy of mind or philosophy of language. However, it is certainly a book for advanced students. Even though much of book tends toward analyzing language and self-description, this in no way has limitations for those who seek to work exclusively in philosophy of mind; because of its constant thought provoking content, it is certainly one that all philosophers of mind—feminist or not, ought to read, especially if they seek out a fresh approach to non-traditionlist views of the mind-body and mind-world relationships. Moreover, The Situated Self is certainly a book for those advanced students who crave reading a profound text of scientific theory focused on language, subjectivity and philosophy of mind.

Dynamic, thought provoking and innovative is the only way to describe J.T. Ismael’s The Situated Self , it is a definite must read for those wanting to get their heads into a serious scientific theory driven work in the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language.


Harding, Sandra. The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986

Jaggar, Allison. Feminist Politics and Human Nature. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanhead Publishers, 1983.

Reviewed by:

Karin Susan Fester

Philosophy M.Phil/Ph.D. student.

University of Wales, Lampeter, Wales, U.K.

You can view the pdf file of the review here     http://www.quantumbionet.org/admin/files/APA%20April2008.pdf



This blog will present my reviews of philosophy books as well as other works which I consider containing philosophical elements.  Books across many disciplines will be considered, and not all necessarily authored by academic scholars.  The purpose  here is to offer reviews of interesting and unique works of books published in English but also in other languages.

And I will be providing fresh new reviews of old classics…those works which live on forever.