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John Locke

First published Sun Sep 2, 2001; substantive revision Sat May 5, 2007

John Locke (b. 1632, d. 1704) was a British philosopher, Oxford academic and medical researcher, whose association with Anthony Ashley Cooper (later the First Earl of Shaftesbury) led him to become successively a government official charged with collecting information about trade and colonies, economic writer, opposition political activist, and finally a revolutionary whose cause ultimately triumphed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Much of Locke's work is characterized by opposition to authoritarianism. This opposition is both on the level of the individual person and on the level of institutions such as government and church. For the individual, Locke wants each of us to use reason to search after truth rather than simply accept the opinion of authorities or be subject to superstition. He wants us to proportion assent to propositions to the evidence for them. On the level of institutions it becomes important to distinguish the legitimate from the illegitimate functions of institutions and to make the corresponding distinction for the uses of force by these institutions. The positive side of Locke's anti-authoritarianism is that he believes that using reason to try to grasp the truth, and determining the legitimate functions of institutions will optimize human flourishing for the individual and society both in respect to its material and spiritual welfare. This in turn, amounts to following natural law and the fulfillment of the divine purpose for humanity. Locke's monumental An Essay Concerning Human Understanding concerns itself with determining the limits of human understanding in respect to God, the self, natural kinds and artifacts, as well as a variety of different kinds of ideas. It thus tells us in some detail what one can legitimately claim to know and what one cannot. Locke also wrote a variety of important political, religious and educational works including the Two Treatises of Government, the Letters Concerning Toleration, The Reasonableness of Christianity and Some Thoughts Concerning Education.

1. Historical Background and Locke's Life

John Locke (1632-1704) was one of the greatest philosophers in Europe at the end of the seventeenth century. Locke grew up and lived through one of the most extraordinary centuries of English political and intellectual history. It was a century in which conflicts between Crown and Parliament and the overlapping conflicts between Protestants, Anglicans and Catholics swirled into civil war in the 1640s. With the defeat and death of Charles I, there began a great experiment in governmental institutions including the abolishment of the monarchy, the House of Lords and the Anglican church, and the establishment of Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate in the 1650s. The collapse of the Protectorate after the death of Cromwell was followed by the Restoration of Charles II — the return of the monarchy, the House of Lords and the Anglican Church. This period lasted from 1660 to 1688. It was marked by continued conflicts between King and Parliament and debates over religious toleration for Protestant dissenters and Catholics. This period ends with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in which James II was driven from England and replaced by William of Orange and his wife Mary. The final period during which Locke lived involved the consolidation of power by William and Mary, and the beginning of William's efforts to oppose the domination of Europe by the France of Louis XIV, which later culminated in the military victories of John Churchill — the Duke of Marlborough.

1.1 Locke's Life up to His Meeting with Lord Ashley in 1666

Locke was born in Wrington to Puritan parents of modest means. His father was a country lawyer who served in a cavalry company on the Puritan side in the early stages of the English civil war. His father's commander, Alexander Popham, became the local MP, and it was his patronage which allowed the young John Locke to gain an excellent education. In 1647 Locke went to Westminster School in London. The importance of Westminster school in the intellectual life of the seventeenth century can scarcely be exaggerated. Locke was a King's Scholar. The King's Scholars were a small group of special boys who had the privilege of living in the school and who received a stipend for two or three years before standing for election for either Christ Church, Oxford or Trinity College Cambridge. While the “major elections” were probably political, the “minor elections” or “challenges” were among the most genuinely competitive admissions processes in English schools of the period. Locke did not succeed in the challenge until 1650.

From Westminster school he went to Christ Church, Oxford, in the autumn of 1652 at the age of twenty. As Westminster school was the most important English school, so Christ Church was the most important Oxford college. Education at Oxford was medieval. Reform came, but not in Locke's time there. The three and a half years devoted to getting a B.A. was mainly given to logic and metaphysics and the classical languages. Conversations with tutors, even between undergraduates in the Hall were in Latin. Locke, like Hobbes before him, found the Aristotelian philosophy he was taught at Oxford of little use. There was, however, more at Oxford than Aristotle. The new experimental philosophy had arrived. John Wilkins, Cromwell's brother in law, had become Warden of Wadham College. The group around Wilkins was the nucleus of what was to become the English Royal Society. The Society grew out of informal meetings and discussion groups and moved to London after the Restoration and became a formal institution in the 1660s with charters from Charles II. The Society saw its aims in contrast with the Scholastic/Aristotelian traditions that dominated the universities. The program was to study nature rather than books.[1] Many of Wilkins associates were people interested in pursuing medicine by observation rather than the reading of classic texts. Bacon's interest in careful experimentation and the systematic collection of facts from which generalizations could be made was characteristic of this group. One of Locke's friends from Westminster school, Richard Lower, introduced Locke to medicine and the experimental philosophy being pursued by the virtuosi at Wadham.

Locke received his B.A. in February 1656. His career at Oxford, however, continued beyond his undergraduate days. In June of 1658 Locke qualified as a Master of Arts and was elected a Senior Student of Christ Church College. The rank was equivalent to a Fellow at any of the other colleges, but was not permanent. Locke had yet to determine what his career was to be. Locke was elected Lecturer in Greek at Christ Church in December of 1660 and he was elected Lecturer in Rhetoric in 1663. At this point, Locke needed to make a decision. The statutes of Christ Church laid it down that fifty five of the senior studentships should be reserved for men in orders or reading for orders. Only five could be held by others, two in medicine, two in law and one in moral philosophy. Thus, there was good reason for Locke to become a clergyman. Locke decided to become a doctor.

John Wilkins had left Oxford with the Restoration of Charles II. The new leader of the Oxford scientific group was Robert Boyle. He was also Locke's scientific mentor. Boyle (with the help of his astonishing assistant Robert Hooke) built an air pump which led to the formulation of Boyle's law and devised a barometer as a weather indicator. Boyle was, however, most influential as a theorist. He was a mechanical philosopher who treated the world as reducible to matter in motion. Locke read Boyle before he read Descartes. When he did read Descartes, he saw the great French philosopher as providing a viable alternative to the sterile Aristotelianism he had been taught at Oxford. In writing An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke adopted Descartes' ‘way of ideas’; though it is transformed so as to become an organic part of Locke's philosophy. Still, while admiring Descartes, Locke's involvement with the Oxford scientists gave him a perspective which made him critical of the rationalist elements in Descartes' philosophy.

In the Epistle to the Reader at the beginning of the Essay Locke remarks:

The commonwealth of learning is not at this time without master-builders, whose mighty designs, in advancing the sciences, will leave lasting monuments to the admiration of posterity: but every one must not hope to be a Boyle or a Sydenham; and in an age that produces such masters as the great Huygenius and the incomparable Mr. Newton, with some others of that strain, it is ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge … (pp. 9-10. All quotations are from the Nidditch edition of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.)

Locke knew all of these men and their work. Locke, Boyle and Newton were all founding or early members of the English Royal Society. It is from Boyle that Locke learned about atomism (or the corpuscular hypothesis) and it is from Boyle's book The Origin of Forms and Qualities that Locke took the language of primary and secondary qualities. Sydenham was one of the most famous English physicians of the 17th century and Locke did medical research with him. Locke read Newton's Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis while in exile in Holland, and consulted Huygens as to the soundness of its mathematics. Locke and Newton became friends after Locke's return from Holland in 1688. It may be that in referring to himself as an ‘under-labourer’, Locke is not only displaying a certain literary modesty, he is contrasting the positive discoveries of these men, with his own attempt to show the inadequacies of the Aristotelian and Scholastic and to some degree the Cartesian philosophies. There are, however, many aspects of Locke's project to which this image of an under-labourer does not do justice. (See Jolley 1999, pp. 15-17) While the corpuscular philosophy and Newton's discoveries clearly influenced Locke, it is the Baconian program of producing natural histories that Locke makes reference to when he talks about the Essay in the Introduction. He writes:

It shall suffice to my present Purpose, to consider the discerning Faculties of a Man, as they are employ'd about the Objects, which they have to do with: and I shall imagine that I have not wholly misimploy'd my self in the Thoughts I shall have on this Occasion, if in this Historical, Plain Method, I can give any Account of the Ways, whereby our Understanding comes to attain those Notions of Things, and can set down any Measure of the Certainty of our Knowledge… (I. 1. 2., pp. 43-4 — the three numbers, are book, chapter and section numbers respectively, followed by the page number in the Nidditch edition.)

The ‘Historical, Plain Method’ is apparently to give a genetic account of how we come by our ideas. Presumably this will reveal the degree of certainty of the knowledge based on such ideas. Locke's own active involvement with the scientific movement was largely through his informal studies of medicine. Dr. David Thomas was his friend and collaborator. Locke and Thomas had a laboratory in Oxford which was very likely, in effect, a pharmacy. In 1666 Locke had a fateful meeting with Lord Ashley as a result of his friendship with Thomas. Ashley, one of the richest men in England, came to Oxford. He proposed to drink some medicinal waters there. He had asked Dr. Thomas to provide them. Thomas had to be out of town and asked Locke to see that the water was delivered. Locke met Ashley and they liked one another. As a result of this encounter, Ashley invited Locke to come to London as his personal physician. In 1667 Locke did move to London becoming not only Lord Ashley's personal physician, but secretary, researcher, political operative and friend. Living with him Locke found himself at the very heart of English politics in the 1670s and 1680s.

1.2 Locke and Lord Shaftesbury 1666 to 1688

Locke's chief work while living at Lord Ashley's residence, Exeter House, in 1668 was his work as secretary of the Board of Trade and Plantations and Secretary to the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas. Lord Ashley was one of the advocates of the view that England would prosper through trade and that colonies could play an important role in promoting trade. Ashley persuaded Charles II to create a Board of Trade and Plantations to collect information about trade and colonies, and Locke became its secretary. In his capacity as the secretary of the Board of Trade Locke was the collection point for information from around the globe about trade and colonies for the English government. Among Ashley's commercial projects was an effort to found colonies in the Carolinas. In his capacity as the secretary to the Lords Proprietors, Locke was involved in the writing of the fundamental constitution of the Carolinas. There is some controversy about the extent of Locke's role in writing the constitution.[2] In addition to issues about trade and colonies, Locke was involved through Shaftesbury in other controversies about public policy. There was a monetary crisis in England involving the value of money, and the clipping of coins. Locke wrote papers for Lord Ashley on economic matters, including the coinage crisis.

While living in London at Exeter House, Locke continued to be involved in philosophical discussions. He tells us that:

Were it fit to trouble thee with the history of this Essay, I should tell thee, that five or six friends meeting at my chamber, and discoursing on a subject very remote from this, found themselves quickly at a stand, by the difficulties that rose on every side. After we had awhile puzzled ourselves, without coming any nearer a resolution of those doubts which perplexed us, it came into my thoughts that we took a wrong course; and that before we set ourselves upon inquiries of that nature, it was necessary to examine our own abilities, and see what objects our understandings were, or were not, fitted to deal with. This I proposed to the company, who all readily assented; and thereupon it was agreed that this should be our first inquiry. Some hasty and undigested thoughts, on a subject I had never before considered, which I set down against our next meeting, gave the first entrance into this Discourse; which having been thus begun by chance, was continued by intreaty; written by incoherent parcels; and after long intervals of neglect, resumed again, as my humour or occasions permitted; and at last, in a retirement where an attendance on my health gave me leisure, it was brought into that order thou now seest it. (Epistle to the Reader, p. 7)

James Tyrrell, one of Locke's friends was at that meeting. He recalls the discussion being about the principles of morality and revealed religion. (Cranston, 1957, pp. 140-1) Thus the Oxford scholar and medical researcher came to begin the work which was to occupy him off and on over the next twenty years.

In 1674 after Shaftesbury had left the government, Locke went back to Oxford, where he acquired the degree Bachelor of medicine, and a license to practice medicine, and then went to France. (Cranston, 1957. p. 160) In France Locke went from Calais to Paris, Lyons and on to Montpellier, where he spent the next fifteen months. Much of Locke's time was spent learning about Protestantism in France. The Edict of Nantes was in force, and so there was a degree of religious toleration in France. Louis XIV was to revoke the edict in 1685 and French Protestants were then killed or forced into exile.

While Locke was in France, Shaftesbury's fortunes fluctuated. In 1676 Shaftesbury was imprisoned in the tower. His imprisonment lasted for a year. In 1678, after the mysterious murder of a London judge, informers (most notably Titus Oates) started coming forward to reveal a supposed Catholic conspiracy to assassinate the King and put his brother on the throne. This whipped up public anti-Catholic frenzy and gave Shaftesbury a wide base of public support for excluding James, Duke of York from the throne. Though Shaftesbury had not fabricated the conspiracy story, nor did he prompt Oates to come forward, he did exploit the situation to the advantage of his party. In the public chaos surrounding the sensational revelations, Shaftesbury organized an extensive party network, exercised great control over elections, and built up a large parliamentary majority. His strategy was to secure the passage of an Exclusion bill that would prevent Charles II's Catholic brother from becoming King. Although the Exclusion bill passed in the Commons it was rejected in the House of Lords because of the King's strong opposition to it. As the panic over the Popish plot receded, Shaftesbury was left without a following or a cause. Shaftesbury was seized on July 21, 1681 and again put in the tower. He was tried on trumped-up charges of treason but acquitted by a London grand jury (filled with his supporters) in November.

At this point some of the Country Party leaders began plotting an armed insurrection which, had it come off, would have begun with the assassination of Charles and his brother on their way back to London from the races at Newmarket. The chances of such a rising occurring were not as good as the plotters supposed. Memories of the turmoil of the civil war were still relatively fresh. Eventually Shaftesbury, who was moving from safe house to safe house, gave up and fled to Holland in November 1682. He died there in January 1683. Locke stayed in England until the Rye House Plot (named after the house from which the plotters were to fire upon the King and his brother) was discovered in June of 1683. Locke left for the West country to put his affairs in order the very week the plot was revealed to the government and by September he was in exile in Holland.

While in exile Locke finished An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and published a fifty page advanced notice of it in French. (This was to provide the intellectual world on the continent with most of their information about the Essay until Pierre Coste's French translation appeared.) He also wrote and published his Epistola de Tolerentia in Latin. Recent scholarship suggests that while in Holland Locke was not only finishing An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and nursing his health, he was closely associated with the English revolutionaries in exile. The English government was much concerned with this group. They tried to get a number of them, including Locke, extradited to England. Locke's studentship at Oxford was taken away from him. In the meanwhile, the English intelligence service infiltrated the rebel group in Holland and effectively thwarted their efforts — at least for a while. While Locke was living in exile in Holland, Charles II died on Feb. 6, 1685 and was succeeded by his brother — who became James II of England. Soon after this the rebels in Holland sent a force of soldiers under the Duke of Monmouth to England to try to overthrow James II. Because of the excellent work of the Stuart spies, the government knew where the force was going to land before the troops on the ships did. The revolt was crushed, Monmouth captured and executed (Ashcraft, 1986).

Ultimately, however, the rebels were successful. James II alienated most of his supporters and William of Orange was invited to bring a Dutch force to England. After William's army landed, James II realizing that he could not mount an effective resistance, fled the country to exile in France. This became known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It is a watershed in English history. For it marks the point at which the balance of power in the English government passed from the King to the Parliament. Locke returned to England in 1688 on board the royal yacht, accompanying Princess Mary on her voyage to join her husband.

1.3 The End of Locke's Life 1689-1704

After his return from exile, Locke published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and The Two Treatises of Government. In addition, Popple's translation of Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration was also published. It is worth noting that the Two Treatises and the Letter Concerning Toleration were published anonymously. Locke took up residence in the country at Oates in Essex, the home of Sir Francis and Lady Masham (Damaris Cudworth). Locke had met Damaris Cudworth in 1682 and became involved intellectually and romantically with her. She was the daughter of Ralph Cudworth, the Cambridge Platonist, and a philosopher in her own right. After Locke went into exile in Holland in 1683, she married Sir Francis Masham. Locke and Lady Masham remained good friends and intellectual companions to the end of Locke's life. During the remaining years of his life Locke oversaw four more editions of the Essay and engaged in controversies over the Essay most notably in a series of published letters with Edward Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester. In a similar way, Locke defended the Letter Concerning Toleration against a series of attacks. He wrote The Reasonableness of Christianity and Some Thoughts on Education during this period as well.

Nor was Locke finished with public affairs. In 1696 the Board of Trade was revived. Locke played an important part in its revival and served as the most influential member on it until 1700. The Board of Trade was, in Peter Laslett's phrase “… the body which administered the United States before the American revolution.” (Laslett in Yolton 1990 p. 127) The board was, in fact, concerned with a wide range of issues, from the Irish wool trade and the suppression of piracy, to the governance of the colonies and the treatment of the poor in England. During these last eight years of his life, Locke was asthmatic, and he suffered so much from it that he could only bear the smoke of London during the four warmer months of the year. Locke plainly engaged in the activities of the Board out of a strong sense of patriotic duty. After his retirement from the Board of Trade in 1700, Locke remained in retirement at Oates until his death on Sunday 28 October 1704.

2. The Limits of Human Understanding

Locke is often classified as the first of the great English empiricists (ignoring the claims of Bacon and Hobbes). This reputation rests on Locke's greatest work, the monumental An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke explains his project in several places. Perhaps the most important of his goals is to determine the limits of human understanding. Locke writes:

For I thought that the first Step towards satisfying the several Enquiries, the Mind of Man was apt to run into, was, to take a Survey of our own Understandings, examine our own Powers, and see to what Things they were adapted. Till that was done, I suspected that we began at the wrong end, and in vain sought for Satisfaction in a quiet and secure Possession of Truths, that most concern'd us whilst we let loose our Thoughts into the vast Ocean of Being, as if all the boundless Extent, were the natural and undoubted Possessions of our Understandings, wherein there was nothing that escaped its Decisions, or that escaped its Comprehension. Thus Men, extending their Enquiries beyond their Capacities, and letting their Thoughts wander into those depths where they can find no sure Footing; ‘tis no Wonder, that they raise Questions and multiply Disputes, which never coming to any clear Resolution, are proper to only continue and increase their Doubts, and to confirm them at last in a perfect Skepticism. Wheras were the Capacities of our Understanding well considered, the Extent of our Knowledge once discovered, and the Horizon found, which sets the boundary between the enlightened and the dark Parts of Things; between what is and what is not comprehensible by us, Men would perhaps with less scruple acquiesce in the avow'd Ignorance of the one; and employ their Thoughts and Discourse, with more Advantage and Satisfaction in the other. (I.1.7., p. 47)

Some philosophers before Locke had suggested that it would be good to find the limits of the Understanding, but what Locke does is to carry out this project in detail. In the four books of the Essay Locke considers the sources and nature of human knowledge. Book I argues that we have no innate knowledge. (In this he resembles Berkeley and Hume, and differs from Descartes and Leibniz.) So, at birth, the human mind is a sort of blank slate on which experience writes. In Book II Locke claims that ideas are the materials of knowledge and all ideas come from experience. The term ‘idea,’ Locke tells us “…stands for whatsoever is the Object of the Understanding, when a man thinks.” (Essay I, 1, 8, p. 47) Experience is of two kinds, sensation and reflection. One of these — sensation — tells us about things and processes in the external world. The other — reflection — tells us about the operations of our own minds. Reflection is a sort of internal sense that makes us conscious of the mental processes we are engaged in. Some ideas we get only from sensation, some only from reflection and some from both.

Locke has an atomic or perhaps more accurately a corpuscular theory of ideas.[3] There is, that is to say, an analogy between the way atoms or corpuscles combine into complexes to form physical objects and the way ideas combine. Ideas are either simple or complex. We cannot create simple ideas, we can only get them from experience. In this respect the mind is passive. Once the mind has a store of simple ideas, it can combine them into complex ideas of a variety of kinds. In this respect the mind is active. Thus, Locke subscribes to a version of the empiricist axiom that there is nothing in the intellect that was not previously in the senses — where the senses are broadened to include reflection. Book III deals with the nature of language, its connections with ideas and its role in knowledge. Book IV, the culmination of the previous reflections, explains the nature and limits of knowledge, probability, and the relation of reason and faith. Let us now consider the Essay in some detail.

2.1 Book I

At the beginning of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke says that since his purpose is “to enquire into the Original, Certainty and Extant of human knowledge, together with the grounds and degrees of Belief, Opinion and Assent” he is going to begin with ideas — the materials out of which knowledge is constructed. His first task is to “enquire into the Original of these Ideas…and the ways whereby the Understanding comes to be furnished with them.” (I. 1. 3. p. 44) The role of Book I of the Essay is to make the case that being innate is not a way in which the understanding is furnished with principles and ideas. Locke treats innateness as an empirical hypothesis and argues that there is no good evidence to support it.

Locke describes innate ideas as “some primary notions…Characters as it were stamped upon the Mind of Man, which the Soul receives in its very first Being; and brings into the world with it.” (I. 2. 1. p. 48) In pursuing this enquiry, Locke rejects the claim that there are speculative innate principles (I. Chapter 2), practical innate moral principles (I. Chapter 3) or that we have innate ideas of God, identity or impossibility (I. Chapter 4). Locke rejects arguments from universal assent and attacks dispositional accounts of innate principles. Thus, in considering what would count as evidence from universal assent to such propositions as “What is, is” or “It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be” he holds that children and idiots should be aware of such truths if they were innate but that they “have not the least apprehension or thought of them.” Why should children and idiots be aware of and able to articulate such propositions? Locke says: “It seems to me a near Contradiction to say that there are truths imprinted on the Soul, which it perceives or understands not; imprinting if it signify anything, being nothing else but the making certain Truths to be perceived.” (I. 2. 5., p. 49). So, Locke's first point is that if propositions were innate they should be immediately perceived — by infants and idiots (and indeed everyone else) — but there is no evidence that they are. Locke then proceeds to attack dispositional accounts that say, roughly, that innate propositions are capable of being perceived under certain circumstances. Until these circumstances come about the propositions remain unperceived in the mind. With the advent of these conditions, the propositions are then perceived. Locke gives the following argument against innate propositions being dispositional:

For if any one [proposition] may [be in the mind but not be known]; then, by the same Reason, all Propositions that are true, and the Mind is ever capable of assenting to, may be said to be in the Mind, and to be imprinted: since if any one can be said to be in the Mind, which it never yet knew, it must be only because it is capable of knowing it; and so the Mind is of all Truths it ever shall know. (I. 2. 5., p. 50)

The essence of this argument and many of Locke's other arguments against dispositional accounts of innate propositions is that such dispositional accounts do not provide an adequate criterion for distinguishing innate propositions from other propositions that the mind may come to discover. Thus, even if some criterion is proposed, it will turn out not to do the work it is supposed to do. For example Locke considers the claim that innate propositions are discovered and assented to when people “come to the use of Reason. (I. 2. 6., p. 51) Locke considers two possible meanings of this phrase. One is that we use reason to discover these innate propositions. Here he argues that the criterion is inadequate because it would not distinguish axioms from theorems in mathematics. Presumably the theorems are not innate while the axioms should be. But if both need to be discovered by reason, then there is no distinction between them. Nor will it do to say that one class (the axioms) are assented to as soon as perceived while the others are not. To be assented to as soon as perceived is a mark of certainty, but not of innateness. Locke also objects that truths that need to be discovered by reason could never be thought to be innate. The second possible meaning of ”come to the use of reason“ is that we discover these ideas at the time we come to use reason, but that we do not use reason to do so. He argues that this claim simply is not true. We know that children acquire such propositions before they acquire the use of reason, while others who are reasonable never acquire them.

When Locke turns from speculative principles to the question of whether there are innate practical moral principles, many of the arguments against innate speculative principles continue to apply, but there are some additional considerations. Practical principles, such as the Golden Rule, are not self-evident in the way such speculative principles as ”What is, is“ are. Thus, one can clearly and sensibly ask reasons for why one should hold the Golden Rule true or obey it. (I, 3. 4. p. 68) There are substantial differences between people over the content of practical principles. Thus, they are even less likely candidates to be innate propositions or to meet the criterion of universal assent. In the fourth chapter of Book I, Locke raises similar points about the ideas which compose both speculative and practical principles. The point is that if the ideas that are constitutive of the principles are not innate, this gives us even more reason to hold that the principles are not innate. He examines the ideas of identity, impossibility and God to make these points.

In Book I Locke says little about who holds the doctrine of innate principles that he is attacking. For this reason he has sometimes been accused of attacking straw men. John Yolton has persuasively argued (Yolton, 1956) that the view that innate ideas and principles were necessary for the stability of religion, morality and natural law was widespread in England in the seventeenth century, and that in attacking both the naive and the dispositional account of innate ideas and innate principles, Locke is attacking positions which were widely held and continued to be held after the publication of the Essay. Thus, the charge that Locke's account of innate principles is made of straw, is not a just criticism. But there are also some important connections with particular philosophers and schools that are worth noting and some points about innate ideas and inquiry.

At I. 4. 24. Locke tells us that the doctrine of innate principles once accepted ”eased the lazy from the pains of search“ and that the doctrine is an inquiry stopper that is used by those who ”affected to be Masters and Teachers“ to illegitimately gain control of the minds of their students. Locke rather clearly has in mind the Aristotelians and scholastics at the universities. Thus Locke's attack on innate principles is connected with his anti-authoritarianism. It is an expression of his view of the importance of free and autonomous inquiry in the search for truth. Ultimately, Locke holds, this is the best road to knowledge and happiness. Locke, like Descartes, is tearing down the foundations of the old Aristotelian scholastic house of knowledge. But while Descartes' focused on the empiricism at the foundation of the structure, Locke is focusing on the claims that innate ideas provide its first principles. The attack on innate ideas is thus the first step in the demolition of the scholastic model of science and knowledge. Ironically, it is also clear from II.1.9. that Locke sees Descartes' claim that his essence is to be a thinking thing as entailing a doctrine of innate ideas and principles.

2.2 Book II

In Book II of the Essay, Locke gives his positive account of how we acquire the materials of knowledge. Locke distinguishes a variety of different kinds of ideas in Book II. Locke holds that the mind is a tabula rasa or blank sheet until experience in the form of sensation and reflection provide the basic materials — simple ideas — out of which most of our more complex knowledge is constructed. While the mind may be a blank slate in regard to content, it is plain that Locke thinks we are born with a variety of faculties to receive and abilities to manipulate or process the content once we acquire it. Thus, for example, the mind can engage in three different types of action in putting simple ideas together. The first of these kinds of action is to combine them into complex ideas. Complex ideas are of two kinds, ideas of substances and ideas of modes. Substances are independent existences. Beings that count as substances include God, angels, humans, animals, plants and a variety of constructed things. Modes, are dependent existences. These include mathematical and moral ideas, and all the conventional language of religion, politics and culture. The second action which the mind performs is the bringing of two ideas, whether simple or complex, by one another so as to take a view of them at once, without uniting them. This gives us our ideas of relations. (II. xii. 1., p. 163 ) The third act of the mind is the production of our general ideas by abstraction from particulars, leaving out the particular circumstances of time and place, which would limit the application of an idea to a particular individual. In addition to these abilities, there are such faculties as memory which allow for the storing of ideas.

Having set forth the general machinery of how simple and complex ideas of substances, modes, relations and so forth are derived from sensation and reflection Locke also explains how a variety of particular kinds of ideas, such as the ideas of solidity, number, space, time, power, identity, and moral relations arise from sensation and reflection. Several of these are of particular interest. Locke's chapter on power giving rise to a discussion of free will, voluntary action, and so forth, is of considerable interest. Some of these topics will be discussed in separate Encyclopedia entries. I have provided an account of Locke's views on personal identity and the immateriality of the soul in a supplementary document:

In what follows, I focus on some central issues in Locke's account of physical objects.

Locke offers an account of physical objects based in the mechanical philosophy and the corpuscular hypothesis. The adherents of the mechanical philosophy held that all material phenomena can be explained by matter in motion and the impact of one body on another. They viewed matter as passive. They rejected the ”occult qualities“ and ”causation at a distance“ of the Aristotelian and Scholastic philosophy. The corpuscular hypothesis is that all matter is composed of particles. In the material world, all that exists are particles and the void or empty space in which the particles move. Some corupscularians held that corpuscles could be further divided. Atomists, on the other hand, held that there were indivisible or atomic particles. Locke was an atomist.

Atoms have properties. They are extended, they are solid, they have a particular shape and they are in motion or rest. They combine together to produce the familiar stuff and physical objects, the gold and the wood, the horses and violets, the tables and chairs of our world. These familiar things also have properties. They are extended, solid, have a particular shape and are in motion and at rest. In addition to these properties that they share with the atoms that compose them, they have other properties such as colors, smells, tastes that they get by standing in relation to perceivers. The distinction between these two kinds of properties goes back to the Greek atomists. It is articulated by Galileo and Descartes as well as Locke's mentor Robert Boyle.

Locke makes this distinction early in Book II of the Essay and using Boyle's terminology calls the two different classes of properties the primary and secondary qualities of an object. This distinction is made by both of the main branches of the mechanical philosophy of the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Both the Cartesian plenum theorists, who held that the world was full of infinitely divisible matter and that there was no void space, and the atomists such as Gassendi, who held that there were indivisible atoms and void space in which the atoms move, made the distinction between these two classes of properties. Still, the differences between these two branches of the mechanical philosophy affect their account of primary qualities. In the Chapter on Solidity Locke rejects the Cartesian definition of body as simply extended and argues that bodies are both extended and impenetrable or solid. The inclusion of solidity in Locke's account of bodies and of primary qualities distinguishes them from the void space in which they move.

The primary qualities of an object are properties which the object possesses independent of us — such as occupying space, being either in motion or at rest, having solidity and texture. The secondary qualities are powers in bodies to produce ideas in us like color, taste, smell and so on that are caused by the interaction of our particular perceptual apparatus with the primary qualities of the object. Our ideas of primary qualities resemble the qualities in the object, while our ideas of secondary qualities do not resemble the powers that cause them. Locke also distinguishes tertiary properties that are the powers that one substance has to effect another, e.g. the power of a fire to melt a piece of wax.

There has been considerable scholarly debate concerning the details of Locke's account of the distinction. Among the issues are which qualities Locke assigns to each of the two categories. Locke gives several lists. Another issue is what the criterion is for putting a quality in one list rather than another. Does Locke hold that all the ideas of secondary qualities come to us by one sense while the ideas of primary qualities come to us through two or is Locke not making the distinction in this way? Another issue is whether there are only primary qualities of atoms or whether compounds of atoms also have primary qualities. And while Locke claims our ideas of primary qualities resemble the primary qualities in objects, and the ideas of secondary qualities do not resemble their causes in the object, what does ‘resemble’ mean in this context? Related to this issue is how we are supposed to know about particles that we cannot sense. Maurice Mandelbaum called this process ‘transdiction.’ It seems clear that Locke holds that there are certain analogies between the middle sized macroscopic objects we encounter in the world, e.g. porphyry and manna for example, and the particles that compose these things. These analogies allow us to say certain things about the nature of particles and primary qualities, but may not get us very far in grasping the necessary connections between qualities in nature. Yet another issue is whether Locke sees the distinction as reductionistic. If what we mean by reductionistic here is that only the primary qualities are real and these explain the secondary qualities then there does not seem to be a clear answer. Secondary qualities surely are nothing more than certain primary qualities that affect us in certain ways. This seems to be reductionistic. But on Locke's account of ”real ideas“ in II. XXX both the ideas of primary and secondary qualities count as real. And while Locke holds that our ideas of secondary qualities are caused by primary qualities, in certain important respects the primary qualities do not explain them. Locke holds that we cannot even conceive how the size, figure and motion of particles could cause any sensation in us. So, knowing the size, figure and motion of the particles would be of no use to us in this regard. (See IV. III. 11-40. Pp. 544-546)

Locke probably holds some version of the representational theory of perception, though some scholars dispute even this. On such a theory what the mind immediately perceives are ideas, and the ideas are caused by and represent the objects which cause them. Thus perception is a triadic relation, rather than simply being a dyadic relation between an object and a perceiver. Such a dyadic relational theory is often called naive realism because it suggests that the perceiver is directly perceiving the object, and naive because this view is open to a variety of serious objections. Some versions of the representational theory are open to serious objections as well. If, for example, one makes ideas into things, then one can imagine that because one sees ideas, the ideas actually block one from seeing things in the external world. The idea would be like a picture or painting. The picture would copy the original object in the external world, but because our immediate object of perception is the picture we would be prevented from seeing the original just as standing in front of a painting on an easel might prevent us from seeing the person being painted. Thus, this is sometimes called the picture/original theory of perception. Alternatively, Jonathan Bennett called it ”the veil of perception“ to emphasize that ‘seeing’ the ideas prevents us from seeing the external world. One philosopher who arguably held such a view was Nicholas Malebranche, a follower of Descartes. Antoine Arnauld, by contrast, while believing in the representative character of ideas, is a direct realist about perception. Arnauld engaged in a lengthy controversy with Malebranche, and criticized Malebranche's account of ideas. Locke follows Arnauld in his criticism of Malebranche on this point (Locke, 1823, Vol. IX: 250). Yet Berkeley attributed the veil of perception interpretation of the representational theory of perception to Locke as have many later commentators including Bennett. A.D. Woozley puts the difficulty of doing this succinctly: ”…it is scarcely credible both that Locke should be able to see and state so clearly the fundamental objection to the picture-original theory of sense perception, and that he should have held the same theory himself.“ Just what Locke's account of perception involves, is still a matter of scholarly debate. A recent review of this issue by a symposium including John Rogers, Gideon Yaffe, Lex Newman, Tom Lennon, and Vere Chappell at a meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association in 2003 and later expanded and published in the Pacific Philosophical Quarterly found most of the symposiasts holding the view that Locke holds a representative theory of perception but that he is not a skeptic about the external world in the way that the veil of perception doctrine might suggest.

Another issue that has been a matter of controversy since the first publication of the Essay is what Locke means by the term ‘substance’. The primary/secondary quality distinction gets us a certain ways in understanding physical objects, but Locke is puzzled about what underlies or supports the primary qualities themselves. He is also puzzled about what material and immaterial substances might have in common that would lead us to apply the same word to both. These kinds of reflections led him to the relative and obscure idea of substance in general. This is that ”I know not what“ which is the support of qualities which cannot subsist by themselves. We experience properties appearing in regular clumps, but we must infer that there is something that supports or perhaps ‘holds together’ those qualities. For we have no experience of that supporting substance. I think it is clear that Locke sees no alternative to the claim that there are substances supporting qualities. He does not, for example, have a theory of tropes (tropes are properties that can exist independently of substances) which he might use to dispense with the notion of substance. (In fact, he may be rejecting something like a theory of tropes when he rejects the Aristotelian doctrine of real qualities and insists on the need for substances.) He is thus not at all a skeptic about ‘substance’ in the way that Hume is. But, it is also quite clear that he is regularly insistent about the limitations of our ideas of substances. Bishop Stillingfleet accused Locke of putting substance out of the reasonable part of the world. But Locke is not doing that.

Since Berkeley, Locke's doctrine of the substratum or substance in general has been attacked as incoherent. It seems to imply that we have a particular without any properties, and this seems like a notion that is inconsistent with empiricism. We have no experience of such an entity and so no way to derive such an idea from experience. Locke himself acknowledges this point. (I. IV. 18. Pg. 95.) In order to avoid this problem, Michael Ayers has proposed that we must understand the notions of‘substratum’ and ‘substance in general’ in terms of Locke's doctrine of real essences developed in Book III of the Essay rather than as a separate problem from that of knowing real essences. The real essence of a material thing is its atomic constitution. This atomic constitution is the causal basis of all the observable properties of the thing. Were the real essence known, all the observable properties could be deduced from it. Locke claims that the real essences of material things are quite unknown to us. Locke's concept of substance in general is also a ‘something I know not what.’ Thus, on Ayers' interpretation ‘substance in general’ means something like ‘whatever it is that supports qualities’ while the real essence means ‘this particular atomic constitution that explains this set of observable qualities’. Thus, Ayers wants to treat the unknown substratum as picking out the same thing as the real essence — thus eliminating the need for particulars without properties. This proposed way of interpreting Locke has been criticized by scholars both because of a lack of textural support, and on the stronger grounds that it conflicts with some things that Locke does say. (See Jolley 1999 pp. 71-3) As we have reached one of the important concepts in Book III, let us turn to that Book and Locke's discussion of language.

2.3 Book III

Locke devotes Book III of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding to language. This is a strong indication that Locke thinks issues about language were of considerable importance in attaining knowledge. At the beginning of the Book he notes the importance of abstract general ideas to knowledge. These serve as sorts under which we rank all the vast multitude of particular existences. Thus, abstract ideas and classification are of central importance in Locke's discussion of language.

There is a clear connection between Book II and III in that Locke claims that words stand for ideas. In his discussion of language Locke distinguishes words according to the categories of ideas established in Book II of the Essay. So there are ideas of substances, simple modes, mixed modes, relations and so on. It is in this context that Locke makes the distinction between real and nominal essences noted above. Perhaps because of his focus on the role that kind terms play in classification, Locke pays vastly more attention to nouns than to verbs. Locke recognizes that not all words relate to ideas. There are the many particles, words that ”…signify the connexion that the Mind gives to Ideas, or Propositions, one with another. (II., 7. 1. p. 471) Still, it is the relation of words and ideas that gets most of Locke's attention in Book III.

Norman Kretzmann calls the claim that ‘words in their primary or immediate signification signify nothing but the ideas in the mind of him that uses them’ Locke's main semantic thesis. (See Norman Kretzmann, “”The Main Thesis of Locke's Semantic Theory“ in Tipton, 1977. pp. 123-140) This thesis has often been criticized as a classic blunder in semantic theory. Thus Mill, for example, wrote, ”When I say, “the sun is the cause of the day,” I do not mean that my idea of the sun causes or excites in me the idea of day.“ This criticism of Locke's account of language parallels the ”veil of perception“ critique of his account of perception and suggests that Locke is not distinguishing the meaning of a word from its reference. Kretzmann, however, argues persuasively that Locke distinguishes between meaning and reference and that ideas provide the meaning but not the reference of words. Thus, the line of criticism represented by the quotation from Mill is ill founded.

In addition to the kinds of ideas noted above, there are also particular and abstract ideas. Particular ideas have in them the ideas of particular places and times which limit the application of the idea to a single individual, while abstract general ideas leave out the ideas of particular times and places in order to allow the idea to apply to other similar qualities or things. There has been considerable philosophical and scholarly debate about the nature of the process of abstraction and Locke's account of it. Berkeley argued that the process as Locke conceives it is incoherent. In part this is because Berkeley is an imagist — that is he believes that all ideas are images. If one is an imagist it becomes impossible to imagine what idea could include both the ideas of a right and equilateral triangle. Michael Ayers has recently argued that Locke too was an imagist. This would make Berkeley's criticism of Locke very much to the point. Ayers' claim, however, has been disputed. (See, for example, Soles, 1999) The process of abstraction is of considerable importance to human knowledge. Locke thinks most words we use are general. (III, I. 1. p., 409) Clearly, it is only general or sortal ideas that can serve in a classificatory scheme.

In his discussion of names of substances and in the contrast between names of substances and names of modes, a number of interesting features of Locke's views about language and knowledge emerge. Physical substances are atoms and things made up of atoms. But we have no experience of the atomic structure of horses and tables. We know horses and tables mainly by secondary qualities such as color, taste and smell and so on and primary qualities such as shape and extension. So, since the real essence (the atomic constitution) of a horse is unknown to us, our word ‘horse’ cannot get its meaning from that real essence. What the general word signifies is the complex of ideas we have decided are parts of the idea of that sort of thing. These ideas we get from experience. Locke calls such a general idea that picks out a sort, the nominal essence of that sort.

One of the central issues in Book III has to do with classification. On what basis do we divide things into kinds and organize those kinds into a system of species and genera? In the Aristotelian and Scholastic tradition that Locke rejects, necessary properties are those that an individual must have in order to exist and continue to exist. These contrast with accidental properties. Accidental properties are those that an individual can gain and lose and yet continue in existence. If a set of necessary properties is shared by a number of individuals, that set of properties constitutes the essence of a natural kind. The aim of Aristotelian science is to discover the essences of natural kinds. Kinds can then be organized hierarchically into a classificatory system of species and genera. This classification of the world by natural kinds will be unique and privileged because it alone corresponds to the structure of the world. This doctrine of essences and kinds is often called Aristotelian essentialism. Locke rejects a variety of aspects of this doctrine. He rejects the notion that an individual has an essence apart from being treated as belonging to a kind. He also rejects the claim that there is a single classification of things in nature that the natural philosopher should seek to discover. He holds that there are many possible ways to classify the world each of which might be particularly useful depending on one's purposes.

Locke's pragmatic account of language and the distinction between nominal and real essences constitute an anti-essentialist alternative to this Aristotelian essentialism and its correlative account of the classification of natural kinds. He claims that there are no fixed boundaries in nature to be discovered — that is there are no clear demarcation points between species. There are always borderline cases. There is scholarly debate over whether Locke's view is that this lack of fixed boundaries is true on both the level of appearances and nominal essences, and atomic constitutions and real essences, or on the level of nominal essences alone. The first view is that Locke holds that there are no natural kinds on either the level of appearance or atomic reality while the second view holds that Locke thinks there are real natural kinds on the atomic level, it is simply that we cannot get at them or know what they are. On either of these interpretations, the real essence cannot provide the meaning to names of substances. A.O. Lovejoy in the Great Chain of Being, and David Wiggins are proponents of the second interpretation while Michael Ayers and William Uzgalis argue for the first. (Uzgalis, 1988; Ayers, 1991 II. 70.)

By contrast, the ideas that we use to make up our nominal essences come to us from experience. Locke claims that the mind is active in making our ideas of sorts and that there are so many properties to choose among that it is possible for different people to make quite different ideas of the essence of a certain substance. This has given some commentators the impression that the making of sorts is utterly arbitrary and conventional for Locke and that there is no basis for criticizing a particular nominal essence. Sometimes Locke says things that might suggest this. But he also points out that the making of nominal essences is constrained both by usage (where words standing for ideas that are already in use) and by the fact that substance words are supposed to copy the properties of the substances they refer to.

Let us begin with the usage of words first. It is important that in a community of language users that words be used with the same meaning. If this condition is met it facilitates the chief end of language which is communication. If one fails to use words with the meaning that most people attach to them, one will fail to communicate effectively with others. Thus one would defeat the main purpose of language. It should also be noted that traditions of usage for Locke can be modified. Otherwise we would not be able to improve our knowledge and understanding by getting more clear and determinate ideas.

In the making of the names of substances there is a period of discovery as the abstract general idea is put together (e.g. the discovery of violets or gold) and then the naming of that idea and then its introduction into language. Language itself is viewed as an instrument for carrying out the mainly prosaic purposes and practices of every day life. Ordinary people are the chief makers of language.

Vulgar Notions suit vulgar Discourses; and both though confused enough, yet serve pretty well for the Market and the Wake. Merchants and Lovers, Cooks and Taylors, have Words wherewith to dispatch their ordinary affairs; and so, I think, might Philosophers and Disputants too, if they had a mind to understand and to be clearly understood. (III. Xi. 10. p. 514)

These ordinary people use a few apparent qualities, mainly ideas of secondary qualities to make ideas and words that will serve their purposes.

Scientists come along later to try to determine if the connections between properties which the ordinary folk have put together in a particular idea in fact holds in nature. Scientists are seeking to find the necessary connections between properties. Still, even scientists, in Locke's view, are restricted to using observable (and mainly secondary) qualities to categorize things in nature. Sometimes, the scientists may find that the ordinary folk have erred, as when they called whales ‘fish’. A whale is not a fish, as it turns out, but a mammal. There is a characteristic group of qualities which fish have which whales do not have. There is a characteristic group of qualities which mammals have which whales also have. To classify a whale as a fish therefore is a mistake. Similarly, we might make an idea of gold that only included being a soft metal and gold color. If so, we would be unable to distinguish between gold and fool's gold. Thus, since it is the mind that makes complex ideas (they are ‘the workmanship of the understanding’), one is free to put together any combination of ideas one wishes and call it what one will. But the product of such work is open to criticism, either on the grounds that it does not conform to already current usage, or that it inadequately represents the archetypes that it is supposed to copy in the world. We engage in such criticism in order to improve human understanding of the material world and thus the human condition.

The distinction between modes and substances is surely one of the most important in Locke's philosophy. In contrast with substances modes are dependent existences — they can be thought of as the ordering of substances. These are technical terms for Locke, so we should see how they are defined. Locke writes: ”First, Modes I call such complex Ideas, which however compounded, contain not in themselves the supposition of subsisting by themselves; such are the words signified by the Words Triangle, Gratitude, Murther, etc.“ (II. xii.4, p. 165) Locke goes on to distinguish between simple and mixed modes. He writes:

Of these Modes, there are two sorts, which deserve distinct consideration. First, there are some that are only variations, or different combinations of the same simple Idea, without the mixture of any other, as a dozen or score; which are nothing but the ideas of so many distinct unities being added together, and these I call simple Modes, as being contained within the bounds of one simple Idea. Secondly, There are others, compounded of Ideas of several kinds, put together to make one complex one; v.g. Beauty, consisting of a certain combination of Colour and Figure, causing Delight to the Beholder; Theft, which being the concealed change of the Possession of any thing, without the consent of the Proprietor, contains, as is visible, a combination of several Ideas of several kinds; and these I call Mixed Modes. (II, xii. 5., p. 165)

When we make ideas of modes, the mind is again active, but the archetype is in our mind. The question becomes whether things in the world fit our ideas, and not whether our ideas correspond to the nature of things in the world. Our ideas are adequate. Thus we define ‘bachelor’ as an unmarried, adult, male human being. If we find that someone does not fit this definition, this does not reflect badly on our definition, it simply means that that individual does not belong to the class of bachelors. Modes give us the ideas of mathematics, of morality, of religion and politics and indeed of human conventions in general.

Source: Uzgalis, William, "John Locke", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

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Topic: 3. British enlightenment



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