Paul Heyer begins the work on the history of communication from the analysis of his understanding of the Enlightenment as a separate period and of its historical value. He points out that John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding can be chosen as an indicator to frame the period of Enlightenment. He continues the thought about the Age of Reason claiming that for the first time science and reason focused on the comprehensive examination of elements of human nature, society and history. Such point of view tended to differentiate itself from the theological and abstract metaphysical systems that took place at the previous times.
Heyer (1988) states that a lot of discoveries related to the sphere of human studies happened during the very period of Enlightenment. He pays attention to the fact that the intellectual character of the age is the main factor to perceive the period of Enlightenment properly, It is twice as important since the revelations of that period were treated negatively during the nineteenth and even twentieth century.
According to Heyer (1988), the philosophers of the Enlightenment period used to have strong disagreements on the matter of developments of the age, however, they used this information in their works. Rousseau, for example, one of the severest critics of the very idea of Enlightenment developments used them in order to support his own arguments. The philosophers realized the importance and novelty of the period and tried to explain its nature. However, it should be taken into account that the originality and newness attitude to the understanding of the Enlightenment period was challenged. For example, claimed that the philosophers were close to the medieval understanding of the world they were against. He singles out the fact that the philosophers “may have denounced the idea of six-day creation and the garden of Eden, but they substituted a beautifully articulated machine structured according to a rational plan, as well as notion of a state of uncorruption and innocence in ancient civilizations and savage society” (P. Heyer, 1988).
It is worth mentioning that a new conception of human nature arose during the period of Enlightenment, different from the one of previous times. Appeared theoretical definition of a human being – “human animal as a natural species whose habitat is society” (E. Cassirer, 1951). This point of view had its influence on the change in belief on theological notions. However, the attitudes on the matter varied widely and there was no unanimity in claims that there is no divide life after death as well as supporting the opposite idea. Heyer (1988) claims that the Enlightenment was characterized not only by the emergence of many individual learned minds, but by the rise of a separate class of educated entire learned class who took an active role in interacting with their society.
Going further, Heyer (1988) analyzes the meaning of reason for the philosophes of the eighteenth century and mentions Immanuel Kant who viewed reason as an active force in the world. Such understanding of reason was typical for the thinkers of the period. However, the author pays attention to the fact that the notion of order in science and nature is close to the notion of reason not being identical. He claims that the thinkers of the Enlightenment period did not manage to provide a clear distinction between these two notions. For example, Spinoza, Leibniz and Descartes argues that reason belongs to the field of eternal verities. According to Cassirer (1951), reason becomes "a concept of agency not of being". Hume and Rousseau claimed that reason can be both a motive for human activity and a goal toward which the actions take place. Moreover, Hume believed that reason gives pleasure to an individual.
During the Enlightenment period many philosophers were dealing in the realm of human understanding. It I worth noting that John Locke developed an entirely different notion of the basic nature of humankind, which he saw as innately good. Locke claimed that it is important to be aware of the limitations of human mind rather than start metaphysical discussions, his point of view was opposite to Descartes’ one.
In his “Essay concerning Human Understanding” Locke analyzes the notion of will and claims that it is determined by “an uneasiness of the mind for want of some absent good”. It is uneasiness or disquiet which «determines the will to the successive voluntary actions, whereof the greatest part of our lives is made up, and by which we are conducted through different courses to different ends” (J. Locke, 1959). Here we see Locke’s understanding of life and will as its main motive force that helps to perceive the world.
The concept of human nature can be seen as a basis for almost all the Enlightenment and social theory. Heyer (1988) pays a great attention to the work of Locke Essay on Human Understanding that became the most fundamental creation for the whole period. In the eyes of many representatives of the Enlightenment period his thoughts were the most important and respectful. Voltaire claimed that Locke analyzes human reason “as an excellent anatomist explains the parts of the body”. Nevertheless, in the nineteenth century the meaning of Locke’s works was underestimated and mistreated. This influenced further misinterpretation of Locke’s works lead to the fact that even today his works can be treated as controversial ones. Heyer mentions Aarsleff who was comparing the ideas of Locke and Descartes even though they has different attitudes to some questions. For instance, both Locke and Descartes rejected innate ideas insisting on the variations on the concept of innate operations of mind. Also, Locke’s provided a new plan for the new understanding of mind: He claimed that the mind at birth is a tabula rasa, therefore, all his future actions were related to the sense experience. In support of the point, Locke writes the following: “to remember is to perceive anything with memory, or with a consciousness that it was perceived or known before. Without this, whatever idea comes into the mind is new, and not remembered; this consciousness of its having been in the mind before, being that which distinguishes remembering from all other ways of thinking. Whatever idea was never perceived by the mind was never in the mind.” (J. Locke, 1959). From the quotation we can see that the meaning of memory played an important role in Locke’s understanding of the world. He claimed that it depends on the achieved experience whereas the consciousness itself does not save any information. We see that Locke in his work rejected the old scholastic model of knowledge in favor of empirically disciplined modes of inquiry achieving great success on it.
It is worth pointing out that there very debates around the Locke’s work and to many of the thinkers the notion of innate knowlenge and the possibility of its demonstration is closely linked to the discussion on the existence of God. Heyes states that Locke was not one of those connecting innate knowledge to the existence of God, however his researches showed radical antireligious background. Taking the a abovementioned into account, Heyer (1988) argues that Locke acquired “a reputation as a political theorist that parallels his acceptance as a founding father of the empiricist tradition in philosophy and psychology”.
Nevertheless, it is important to mention that there are also foundations for a philosophy of language and of communication in Locke’s writings. Many of his thoughts were interpreted by Condillac and other Enlightenment theorists of communication. Heyer (1988) emphasized his attention on the tripartite division of knowledge located at the close of Locke’s Essay. The first part Locke gave to the natural philosophy that studies the nature of mind, body, material world, then moved the second point that is related to the realm of ethics - to the use of human’s activities and powers towards the useful and the good; the third part was devoted to understanding of connection between the two previously mentioned parts. Also, Locke used a separate term “semiotike” in order to single out the nature of signs that were used to perceive the world and transfer the information achieved to the others. Therefore, we can see that John Locke understood the importance of semiotics and its role in the lives of every human being. Moreover, his thoughts were partially followed by a great linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in his works on semiotics.
Locke understood the language as a dominant sign system that is used to represent or exchange information about the world (P.Heyer, 1988). However, Aarsleff claims that Locke’s view of language in entirely functional which means that he pays attention to the theoretical use of the language. This point of view can be treated as communication as well since Locke highlights the fact that words are abstractions of the mind created “for convenience of communication” rather than separate species. The abovementioned attitude relates to both the use of the language and its origin.
The significance of Locke’s “Essay” can be seen in the works of Condillac who became a linking element between Locke’s philosophy and further theoretical discussions of the eighteenth century. The English edition of his “Essay on the Origins of Human Knowledge” was subtitled “A supplement to Mr. Locke’s Essay on the Human Understanding”. Heyer claims that Condillac developed a significant aspect of Locke further by arguing that knowledge is not something innate or priori, but a direct result of the nature and operation of the signs we use in communication (P. Heyer, 1988). Therefore, we see that Locke’s idea on the signs was reinterpreted by Condillac in a different way. We see that Condillac as well as Locke sees the importance of signs and creates his own threefold typology: accidental signs containing an object and its perception (cannot be controlled), natural signs (joy, sorrow, fear), instituted signs (chosen by an individual). Moreover, Candillac analyzes the question of language origin and widespread development of a great number of ways than human beings can use for communication. Therefore, Locke’s thoughts about signs became a basis for Condillac’s further studies of language and knowledge. The influence of Locke’s Essay can be also found in the works of Voltaire who used Locke’s idea that a moral sense of a human being is derived from the education and environment.
Heyer (1988) also mentions that for the philosophes of the eighteenth century, Locke’s attitude towards innate knowledge was followed by a detailed game plan aimed to explain how the knowledge is acquired. Taking into account the popularity of Locke’s Essay, his work had both followers and oppositionists. For example, the idea that categories and moral principles are acquired through senses and, as a result, bring experience and memories was challenged by Leibniz who tried to prove that the mind is irreducible source of various notions due to human experience rather than “blank page”.
In my opinion, the importance of Locke’s Essay lies in the fact that he is talking about the content of the mind and doesn’t discuss its abilities. This idea is visible in the notion “tabula rasa” under which Lock presupposes mind in a blank state. It is worth saying that the notion is rather ambiguous since its meaning can be perceived in different ways by different people.
On balance, I would like to say that Locke’s Essay is a fundamental work than gave rise to many important questions in the realm of human communication studies, linguistics and other related disciplines. Locke was the first to understand the importance of a sign in the communication between people. His ideas became basic for the forthcoming philosophes and theorists who managed to expand them.
Cassirer, E. (1951). The philosophy of the Enlightenment. Princeton: University Press.
Heyer, P. (1988). Communications and history: Theories of media, knowledge, and civilization. New York: Greenwood Press.
Locke, J. (1959). An essay concerning human understanding. New York: Dover Publications.