Introduction To Locke


     Copyright © 2015 Bruce W. Hauptli


 1. Locke’s Life: [1632-1704]


The English Civil War [1642-1646][1] began when John Locke was ten years old—his father fought in the parliament’s army.  When he was fourteen, Locke was sent off to school, and when he was twenty he went to Christ’s Church, Oxford.  Locke received his B.A. in 1656, and then pursued a M.A. (1658), and a Bachelor of Medicine degree (the degree that licensed one to teach medicine then) was awarded much later, in 1675.[2]  He was not happy with the scholastic philosophy that predominated in the universities of the time, and he learned the new science and “corpuscular” theory through the work of Robert Boyle.[3]  In 1665 he left Oxford to serve on a diplomatic mission, but then declined other governmental positions, and, instead, returned to Oxford (he had been elected to a Senior Studentship).  There he taught Greek, rhetoric, and moral philosophy.  He also began reading Descartes, and his interests in philosophy deepened. 


     In 1667 Locke became the personal physician to the Earl of Shaftesbury (Lord Ashley), and began a lengthy service and connection with this important political figure (Locke served as his Secretary and political advisor).  Shaftesbury became Lord Chancellor in 1672 and Locke served as of his Secretary in charge of ecclesiastical business and, then, as Secretary to the Council of Trade and Plantations.  About this time, Locke also began collaborations with Thomas Sydenham (a noted physician of the day), and he was elected to the Royal Academy.  In 1671 he began work on the Essay [1690]. 


     Shaftesbury became alienated from King Charles II, and fell from power.[4]  From 1675-1679 Locke traveled to France for study and rest, and then returned to an England deeply in turmoil from the ongoing political conflict between Parliament and the Stuarts—the conflicts between parliament and the monarchy continued until 1687 when parliament invited William of Orange to rule England.  In 1681 Locke began work on his Two Treatises of Government [published anonymously in 1689], and during his stay in Holland he began work on his Epistola de Tolerantia [published anonymously in English as A Letter Concerning Toleration in 1689].  In 1689 he returned to England in a convoy that conveyed Mary of Orange (William’s queen).  In 1690 the Essay was published, and the next year Locke moved to the country estate of his friend Lady Marsham (he lived there till his death).  He published Some Thoughts Concerning Education [1693], and The Reasonableness of Christianity [published anonymously, in 1695]. 


2. Locke On Innate Principles and Ideas:


Locke describes his aim in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding [1690] as follows:


I i 2 inquire into the origin, certainty, and extent of human knowledge, together with the grounds and degrees of belief, opinion, and assent.[5] 


Like other Early Modern philosophers, he wishes to give an account of human knowledge.  He begins his Essay with an attack on the “doctrine of innate principles and ideas.”  This “doctrine” is at the heart of the continental rationalists’ theories.  Standard examples of innate principles for these thinkers (claims which they hold to be known a priori, and which are held to be intellectual intuitions that are held to be both self-evident and necessarily true) include: “What is, isand “It is impossible for the same thing to be, and not to be.”  The classic example of an innate idea for them is the idea of a deity. 


     A major problem for the continental rationalists is directly evident when we note the diversity of basic principles or ideas which these theorists champion, and the radically different conclusions which they draw from “shared” postulates or ideas.  Since they wished to offer objective theories (which all rational thinkers would have to accept), their differences at this fundamental level undercut their claim that these principles and ideas are innate.  Locke held that there are no innate principles or ideas.  Indeed, he contends that even if people universally agreed as to which principles or ideas were innate, there would be a simpler explanation than the “innateness view”—experience of a common world could well explain such uniformity in our conceptions. 


     Locke notes that there are two ways principles or ideas could be taken to be innate:


Explicitly Innate:

Implicitly (Virtually) Innate:

These ideas or principles are actually “in” us before we have any experience at all. 

Experience provides the “occasion” on which these ideas or principles manifest themselves in us. 


He maintains that there is in fact no universal agreement amongst individuals on either “principles” or “ideas:” consider idiots, children, and the great proportion of mankind who have never heard of the various innate principles or ideas which the continental rationalists champion—individuals who never think of, experience, or contemplate such as principles as “what is, is,” or “it is impossible for the same thing to be, and not to be;” individuals who lack the requisite “idea” of a deity.  The fact that many people don’t have the ideas and principles which the continental rationalists maintain are innate in all human beings means that they will not be able to hold that these ideas and principles are explicitly innate in us all. 


     This means that those who hold the innateness view will have to maintain that these ideas are implicitly (or virtually) innate—that they become explicit only when we have certain experiences or reflections.  Locke maintains that if one assumes that experience is necessary for the manifestation of the (virtually) innate ideas, however, one might as well maintain that sense experience itself provides us with these ideas (or with an account of our knowing such things).  This, of course, is the position his empiricism takes—our principles and ideas originate in experience (and, hence, they have an a posteriori, rather than an a priori, status). 


     Locke contends that only certain desires and cognitive abilities are “innate” in us—according to him, our mind has only various powers of reflection, association, and abstraction, and we naturally (innately) have a desire for happiness and an aversion to misery.  Thus, all our ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and knowledge arise from our sensory experience (and these powers, abilities, and desires).  Locke goes on to show how our ideas originate from sensation and reflection, how language originates, what the different sorts of knowledge are, and how extensive each sort of knowledge is.  In the process he develops a complex metaphysical theory, and he explains how skepticism is to be avoided. 


     Gottfried Leibniz criticizes Locke’s treatment of innate principles and ideas.  In his Leibniz’s New Essays Concerning Human Understanding: A Critical Exposition, John Dewey maintains that:


Locke always proceeds by inquiring into the way and circumstances by which knowledge of the subject under consideration came into existence and into the conditions by which it was developed....In the language of our day, Locke’s Essay is an attempt to settle ontological questions by a psychological method.  And...Leibniz meets him, not by inquiry into the pertinence of the method or into the validity of results, so reached, but by the more direct way of impugning his psychology, by substituting another theory of the nature of mind and of the way in which it works.[6] 


Dewey points to an important point here regarding the differences between the continental rationalists and the British Empiricists.  The continental rationalists see the mind as naturally containing certain fully formulated truths of reason (propositions which are self-evident, certain, a priori, and which have ontological implications).  The British Empiricists, on the other hand, hold that truths may be arrived at only a posteriori, so for them the mind is a “blank tablet” until experience has “written upon” it. 


     Of course, the empiricists can not really believe in an utterly blank mind—it must have some powers of memory, abstraction, examination, and inference if it is to be anything but a passive recipient of sensory experience.  The “debate” regarding innate ideas is perhaps best seen, then, as a disagreement over what is innate in the mind.  The rationalists hold that certain [determinate and specific] ideas are innate, while the empiricists hold that only certain powers (those of abstraction, association, and analysis, for example) and desires (happiness, pleasure, aversion to pain, etc.) are basic to the mind.  Kant’s insight at the end of the Early Modern period of philosophy is that “intuitions without concepts are blind; concepts without intuitions are empty.”[7]  He develops a theory which relies upon elements of both the continental rationalists’ and British Empiricists’ views. 


3. Locke’s “Idea” of Ideas:


To understand Locke’s “idea” of ideas, we need to note that he held that the mind is a blank tablet (that nothing is in the mind unless there has been some experience); and that the mind has the power to associate, abstract upon, and reflect upon the ideas which are provided to it by sensory experience.  He also held that bodies have the power to cause ideas of both primary and secondary qualities, and that the former sort of ideas are resemblances, while those of the latter sort are not such.  Finally, he held that there is a distinction between simple and complex ideas.  According to him, simple ideas can come from one sense (coldness, hardness, scent, color); come from several senses (extension, figure, rest, motion); or come from any of the sources of sensation or reflection (pleasure, pain).  All simple ideas are passively received—the mind can not invent them.  The mind may, however, combine these together in complexes (it may make up complex ideas out of the simples it has passively received). 


     The simple ideas, or at least some of them, provide us with direct representations.  They provide the basis for our knowledge claims.  Where the continental rationalists rely upon innate ideas, Locke’s empiricism relies upon an appeal to our sensory experiences, and he claims that there is a relation between some of these experiences and the world. 


4. Locke on Ideas and Knowledge:


There is a big difference between maintaining that sense experience is the source of all our knowledge and maintaining that sense experience is the ultimate basis for the justification of our knowledge: Locke is not an empiricist in the latter sense.  Believing that he tries to be such an empiricist, many hold that he was an inconsistent thinker—on a common picture of Locke it is held that he would limit us to the ideas that we gain in experience and would nonetheless speak of our knowledge of substances (a self, a deity, and physical bodies).  Since he does not claim to have a clear idea of substance (he terms it a “something I know not what”), however, it seems to such thinkers that he is inconsistent here. 


     We must be careful in attributing inconsistency to Locke on this count however:


whether Locke was being consistent as an empiricist or not depends upon the kind of empiricist he was trying to be.  Locke’s empiricism does not include the principle that nothing must figure in our account of the world unless it has been, or could be, the subject of experience.  He wants to show ‘whence the understanding may get all the ideas it has’; that it is in experience that ‘all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself’; and that sensation and reflection together supply ‘our understandings with all the materials of thinking.’  This implies that the understanding is able to work on these materials.  He nowhere appears to be committed to the slogan ‘Nothing in the mind which was not first in the senses.’  He does not aspire to membership of the Vienna Circle[8]....[his] is the empiricism of the natural philosopher and is perfectly respectable if we recognize as Locke clearly did, that natural philosophy may not give us knowledge, in the strict sense, but may give us something valuable, namely, probable ‘conjecture’.[9] 


Locke believes that while our knowledge (in the strictest sense of the term) falls short of “all that exists,” it is sufficient for our purposes.[10]  Here his orientation is significantly different from those of the continental rationalists—they thought that the new developments in mathematics and science showed that all of reality could be rationally grasped.  While Locke believed in the reality of substance, he held that human understanding could not know the “real essences” of substances.  According to him, full knowledge and certainty were to be had by limiting ourselves to claims about the immediate agreement (or disagreement) of our ideas and he did not think this gave us a full picture of the world. 


     Nonetheless, Locke held that we could come to form appropriate judgments about the world.  According to him, our senses provide us with particular ideas, and the mind may abstract from these.  As Larry Laudan notes, his abstraction process can yield judgments that provide us, if not with knowledge in the strict sense, with probable knowledge about the world:


we need...[to pay attention to] Locke’s pivotal distinction between knowledge and judgment.  Knowledge, for him, is based on a true and infallible intuition of the relation of ideas.  To know that a statement x is true is to perceive that we could not conceive things to be other than the state of affairs which x specifies.  In this way we ‘know’ the truth of mathematics.  But we do not ‘know’ anything about the physical world.[11] 


For Locke, knowledge requires the direct perception of agreement and disagreement amongst ideas, while judgment is the process “...whereby the mind takes its ideas to agree or disagree, or which is the same, any proposition to be true or false, without perceiving a demonstrative evidence in the proofs.”[12]  Of course we will have to be careful with such passages—he says that “the mind takes the ideas to agree,” but doesn’t explicitly say what they are in agreement with!  Locke contends that while judgment doesn’t provide knowledge in the pure sense of the term, it provides something almost as good, and it extends the scope of human understanding far beyond what can be gained if one limits oneself to the immediate agreement and disagreement of ideas. 


     As noted above, Locke also distinguished between primary and secondary qualities (of bodies)—distinguishing those properties of bodies that are utterly inseparable from bodies from those that can be so separated.  Secondary qualities are those powers in bodies to cause ideas in us that don’t directly reflect actual properties of the bodies (color, taste, etc.).  The ideas we have which are caused by primary qualities, on the other hand, provide a direct bridge to the objects in the world themselves.  An example of this distinction would be the “power” in a body to cause in us an idea of the shape of the body (a primary quality) and the “power” in the same body to cause in us an idea of the color of the body—while its shape is an actual property of the body, and our idea of the shape directly represents this property, the idea of its color does not directly represent a property of the body (instead, this idea is the result of the body’s action upon us. 


     Whatever epistemological problems this distinction raises for Locke, he was convinced that the new corpuscular natural philosophy required it:


[Robert] Boyle [1627-1691] was arguing against explanations of natural phenomena in terms of the real and occult qualities and substantial forms of the scholastics, the alchemists and others.  He was looking for explanations of as many phenomena as possible in terms of as few basic concepts as possible, those concepts to be derived as directly as possible from sense-experience.  Locke, in putting forward an empiricist basis for knowledge, was codifying the principles of the experimental natural philosophy which Boyle was championing against speculative natural philosophy.[13] 


Thus, Locke held that the ideas caused by the primary qualities are indeed representations of things in the world—that is, he held to a representational theory of perception.


     Berkeley and Hume accept Locke’s empiricistic principle (that all of our ideas originate in experience) while attempting to indicate what aspects of Locke’s epistemology and metaphysics are inconsistent with an empiricism which speaks not only of the origins of our empirical knowledge but also of its justifications or grounds. 


Notes: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] Cromwell led the followers of Parliament to victory over the Royalists; but there was almost as much dissension between the army and the Parliament as there had been amongst the followers of Parliament and the Royalists.  While much of the country and Parliament wished to reunite itself with King Charles I and establish some new form of government with him at the head, Cromwell and the army did not.  They fought against and conquered the lot.  The army set up a Parliament to its liking, tried Charles I, and (on January 30, 1649) executed him.  Cromwell was established as “Lord Protector.”  Following his death in 1658, Cromwell’s son served as Lord Protector for one year, and then a year of anarchy followed.  The Stuart line was then “restored” in 1660 when the son of Charles I (Charles, the Prince of Wales) was invited to become King of England (Charles II) and reined until his death in 1685.  From 1685-1688 his brother, James II ruled, but his Catholicism aroused Anglican opposition, and in 1689 William of Orange (a Protestant prince) and his Wife, Mary (James II’s daughter) were invited to England to rule. 

[2] Much of the information about Locke's life and activities which is contained in this section is taken from James Clapp, “John Locke,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy v. 4, ed. Paul Edwards (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 487-503. 

[3] Robert Boyle [1627-1691] was instrumental in the popularization of experimental science and corpuscular theory against the natural philosophy of Aristotelian Scholasticism.  His Skeptical Chymist was published in 1661. 

[4] Shaftesbury was tried for treason in 1681 and had to flee to Holland. 

[5] John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding [1690], abridged and edited by Kenneth Winkler (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996), p. 4.  Citations to the Essay are generally indicated by the following device: Book, Chapter, Section—thus the reference here would be: to the First Book, Chapter 1, Section 2.  I will use this method of reference throughout rather than referring to the page numbers of the text. 

[6] John Dewey, Leibniz’ New Essays Concerning Human Understanding: A Critical Exposition [1888].  The citation is from selection reprinted in From Plato to Wittgenstein: The Historical Foundations of the Modern Mind, ed. Daniel Kolak (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1994), pp. 317-360, p. 335. 

[7] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason [1781], trans. Norman Kemp Smith (N.Y.: St. Martins, 1965), A 51/B 75. 

[8] Philosophers of the twentieth century who held that metaphysics is “meaningless nonsense,” and that the only meaningful propositions are either tautologies or empirically testable statements. 

[9] Peter Alexander, “Boyle and Locke on Primary and Secondary Qualities,” in Locke on Human Understanding, ed. Ian C. Tipton (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1977), pp. 62-76, pp. 74-75.  The essay originally appeared in Ratio v. 16 (1974), pp. 51-67. 

[10] His metaphor at I i 6 of the sailor’s fathoming line being useful even if it can not “fathom” the depth of the ocean is indicative of his view of knowledge as an instrument—it is useful even if it can not wholly reflect or embrace all that is.  His discussion in I i 7 deepens this view, and he clearly indicates that we may well be lost if we attempt to “let loose our thoughts into the vast ocean of being.” 

[11] Larry Laudan, “The Nature and Sources of Locke’s Views on Hypothesis,” in Locke On Human Understanding, ed. Ian Tipton, op. cit., pp. 149-162, p. 152.  The essay originally appeared in Journal of the History of Ideas v. 28 (1967), pp. 211-223.  Emphasis (italics) has been added to the passage. 

[12] Locke, Essay, op. cit., IV xiv 3. 

[13] Peter Alexander, “Boyle and Locke on Primary and Secondary Qualities,” op. cit., p. 66. 

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