The “Best Fence” against Nature’s Ambiguity
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John Locke

How to Cite

The “Best Fence” against Nature’s Ambiguity: The Role of Language in Locke’s Thought. (2022). The Political Science Reviewer, 46(2), 89-122.


 John Locke’s An Essay concerning Human Understanding indicates that nature has minimal “form” and is morally, politically, and ethically neutral. For these reasons, it provides little guidance for how humans ought to live. However, Locke observes that most people remain undisturbed by nature’s lack of form, a fact he attributes to the potentialities inherent in language. “Civil” or common discourse emerges over time as individuals formulate ideas based on their experiences and use words to label their thoughts and communicate with others. Although many of these words describe reality “inadequate[ly]” or not at all, they give life shape when nature does not. Because common words with common meanings can mask nature’s ambiguity and facilitate social and political order, Locke defends the practical utility of civil discourse. Indeed, he understands his own political works as essentially rhetorical exercises, though their success as political works depends upon obscuring their status as rhetoric. 

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