Selected Locke Criticisms For PHH 3402


File revised on: 02/23/15. 


I. Selected Problems With Locke’s Empiricism, Metaphysics, and Epistemology:


1. In his Moral Knowledge, Alan Goldman raises a problem regarding “secondary qualities” and properties: he notes that we can not specify “ a non-arbitrary way a class of normal perceivers and conditions such that objects have those shades of color that appear to such subjects in such set of subjects is best at discriminating over the entire range of discernible shades.”  This means that


...we cannot understand secondary qualities such as colors in terms of objects being such as to appear certain ways to normal subjects under normal conditions.  This account fails to capture a coherent set of properties.  The set of properties specified is incoherent in that we are forced by the analysis to ascribe incompatible properties to the same objects.  The empirical facts, together with some plausible assumptions about relations of inclusion and determinateness among color properties, seem to drive us to a nonrealist position on colors, to the claim that colors qualify only the ways objects appear.[1] 


2. In his Hobbes to Hume, W.T. Jones offers versions of a number of “classical criticisms of Locke” in a concise manner.  First, he maintains that Locke’s critique of innate ideas has a deep flaw:


Leibniz willingly acknowledged that, as Locke maintained, all our knowledge “begins in particulars and spreads itself by degrees to generals.”  But this is merely a statement about the psychological order of coming to know; it in no way affects the fact that “the generals” must be true in order for the particulars to be recognized.  Our knowledge, Leibniz pointed out, does indeed begin in experience; and there is noting in our minds other than their several experiences—nothing, that is except the mind itself.  In this way, Leibniz characteristically presented a compromise formula that, it might be thought, Locke could accept.  But about the nature of this mind that knows the experiences, the two thinkers were poles apart.  For Leibniz assumed that the real is rational; hence he believed that the mind must be the kind of thing that can know this universal rational order.  Locke, on the other hand, assumed that the real is actual, that the test of truth is experience, and that the mind, accordingly, is simply a surface on which experience writes. 

  From Leibniz’s point of view, Locke arbitrarily assumed that the mind is an illuminated surface and then triumphantly discovered that the surface is unmarked prior to experience.  Leibniz’s position was, in effect, that the mind has depth as well as surface.  Locke, for his part held the Leibnizian assumption of unconscious depths to be but a springboard to speculative and uncritical metaphysics.  We should, he thought, make no assumptions about the nature of the mind but wait to discover its nature, like the nature of everything else, in experience. 

  Thus the basic question was not whether there are innate truths (whether there are canned goods in the closet), but what sort of thing the mind must be to know (as everyone, including Locke, acknowledged that it does know) universal truths.[2] 


Building upon this discussion, Jones contends that Locke failed to distinguish psychological from justificatory theses:


...Locke concluded that his “historical plain method,” as he called it, had been established.  That is, he believed he had proved that there are no innate ideas, that “at its beginning” the mind is an empty surface, and hence that all its ideas come from experience, there being no other source from which they could come.  But Locke did not clearly distinguish between this psychological doctrine and the epistemological thesis that experience is the test for truth.  Hence the historical plain method was not only the procedure for tracing ideas to their origins in experience; it was also the fundamental thesis of empirical epistemology: Only experience can confirm or disconfirm our beliefs.[3] 


Jones contends that Locke’s use of his “historical plain method” to reduce complex ideas (like those of space, number, and substance) to collections of simples has a fundamental flaw:


the basic trouble is Locke’s assumption that the originals of all our ideas are simple elements.  Because of this assumption, Locke’s method became a search for simple units of sensation (or reflection).  But do we start with the ideas “red,” “sweet,” “spherical,” and compound them to get the idea of “apple”?  Or do we see an apple and then, by a process of selective attention, note that it is red, spherical, and so on?  Surely, the latter.  The world of ordinary experience is a world of objects, and Locke’s simple ideas, far from being starting points of experience, are terminals. 

  As William James said,

No one ever had a simple sensation by itself.  Consciousness, from our natal day, is of a teeming multiplicity of objects and relations, and what we call simple sensations are results of discriminative attention, pushed often to a very high degree.  It is astonishing what havoc is wrought in psychology by admitting at the outset apparently innocent suppositions, that nevertheless contain a flaw.  The bad consequences develop themselves later on, and are irremediable, being woven through the whole texture of the work.  The notion that sensations, being the simplest things, are the first things to take up in psychology is one of these suppositions.[4] 

Locke’s critique of innate ideas confused a psychological question with an epistemological question, asking “What are the causes of our ideas?” instead of “What is the test of their truth?”  Here, Locke made the opposite error.  Instead of the historical order (from complex to simple), he gave the logical order (from simple to complex).  But since he supposed himself to be giving the historical order, he had to invent various complicated mental processes to reconstruct the world of experience. 

  It seems likely that in this instance Locke was influenced by a physical parallel.  Psychology, he thought, must correspond to physics.  If the latter accounts for the behavior of gross bodies by showing that they are “composed” of particles in local motion, the former must deal with atomic sensations and account for psychic behavior in terms of various mechanical combinings and separatings of thought-elements. 

  Though such compoundings might conceivably account for such complex ideas as “centaur,” “gold mountain,” or “glass slipper,” they obviously cannot account for ideas like “substance,” which as Locke’s own analysis made clear, are not aggregates of elementary sensations.  Thus, if the idea of necessity is, as Locke said, a “conclusion,” it is manifestly not an original element.  It would seem that in using such vague terms as “collect,” “suggest,” “infer,” and “conclude,” Locke covertly introduced elements found neither in sensation nor in reflection.  This does not mean that “necessity” and “cause,” for instance, are innate ideas, in either the Cartesian or the Leibnizian sense.  On the contrary, it suggests...that the dispute over how ideas get “into” the mind was a red herring, and that the relation between the mind and its ideas must be conceived of in an altogether different way.[5] 


Jones points out that Locke’s acceptance of substance poses problems for him:


now consider solidity, figure, motion, and the other characteristics (or, as Locke called them, “primary qualities”) of bodies.  Is there more to both than these qualities?  Descartes had held that these qualities inhere in an “extended substance.”  In view of Locke’s ironic references to the “poor Indian philosopher” and his scorn for the Scholastic men “who suppose that real essences exist,” it might be expected that he would deny this.  But instead, he maintained in a Cartesian fashion that every object “has a real internal but unknown constitution whereon its discernible qualities depend.”  What is more, “all the properties flow: from this essence, so that, if only we could discover it, we could deduce these properties, just as we can deduce the properties of a triangle from its essence (which happens, of course, to be knowable). 

  No wonder Locke’s critics inquired whether his concept of substance was “grounded upon true reason or not.”  Locke simply refused to face up to the alternatives these critics were trying to force on him.  There was little point in holding onto essences while denying that they can ever be known; indeed, if they are unknowable, how could Locke claim to know that they exist?  Nonetheless, Locke wanted to retain the concept of substance.  Most of the things that both he and his critics conceived to be important—God, self, values, for instance—had been interpreted for centuries in terms of substantival modes of thought, to throw out substance seemed equivalent to rejecting them all.  Moreover, Locke wanted a basically rational real. Even though the historical plain method, which was supposed to be the test of truth and reality, revealed only sequences and groupings of simple sense experiences, Locke wanted to hold onto the view of his critics that this empirical order is somehow or other “grounded upon true reason.”[6] 


3. In his Descartes to Kant: An Introduction to Modern Philosophy, Garrett Thomson notes Leibniz’ critique of Locke’s attack upon innate ideas:


in his New Essays on Human Understanding, his commentary on Locke’s work, Leibniz replies to Locke’s attack on the theory of innate ideas by developing the theme of innate capacities.  He argues that the mind is innately determined to believe certain principles rather than others.  Leibniz argues against Locke that necessary truths are universally true and cannot be learned by sense perception, since sense perception can only give us knowledge of particulars.  Leibniz argues that induction from sense experience can never establish necessary truths as such, because necessary truths are universally true.  Consequently Leibniz sees a need for innateness to account of our knowing necessary truths.[7] 


Thomson offers a good synopsis of Berkeley’s critique of Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities:


Berkeley criticizes Locke’s distinction by arguing that the resemblance thesis is inconsistent with Locke’s own view of perception.  Berkeley agrees with Locke that the immediate objects of perception are ideas in the mind and the “the mind perceives nothing but its own ideas.”  Berkeley, however, thinks that it is inconsistent to maintain concurrently (as Locke does) the resemblance thesis—that our ideas of primary qualities resemble the primary qualities themselves. 

  First, following Berkeley, we should ask how we could ever know that the resemblance thesis is true, given that we can only perceive our ideas.... 

  Second, Berkeley argues that the resemblance thesis does not even make sense.  The very idea of resemblance only makes sense if two things that are said to resemble each other can in principle be compared.  Berkeley claims that we should not talk of resemblance between mental ideas and material qualities, given that only the former can be perceived.... 

  Third, Berkeley claims that Locke has no reason for distinguishing between our ideas of secondary qualities and our ideas of primary qualities.  Both are really ideas in the mind, and both are equally subject to illusions; consequently, there is no reason to think that one type rather than the other fundamentally resembles the qualities of material objects.[8] 


Thomson offers a good summary criticism of Locke’s willingness to adhere to a “substance metaphysics:”


the notion of pure substance in general appears to be an anomaly in Locke’s usually Empiricist philosophy.  It is difficult to see how such a concept could be acquired from experience, as Locke’s Empiricism asserts that all ideas must be.  Yet Locke apparently argues that we need such a concept.  Thus, logic and reason seem to require such a concept, while experience appears to deny it.  There is clearly a conflict between Locke’s Empiricism and what he takes to be a demand of reason.[9] 


Thomson also points out that the distinction between an object’s properties and its “pure substratum” (which is behind the talk of substance) may rest on a confusion because “if the idea of properties without a substance is absurd, then the idea of pure substance without properties should be equally absurd.”[10] 


Thomson offers a number of criticisms of Locke’s theory of language:


[several contemporary critics of Locke] ...claim that it is not necessary to have ideas in one’s mind in order to use a word meaningfully.  For example, when I meaningfully utter the words “this is blue,” I do not need to have an idea of blueness in mind.  All that is necessary is that I use the words intentionally and in accordance with the conventions of the English language.  Furthermore, they argue that, given his ideas on ideas, Locke’s account of language makes all meaning essentially private.[11] 


...according to many contemporary theories of language, the basic units of meaning are sentences rather than words, because only with sentences (and not individual words) can we say anything.  We should therefore treat sentence meaning as primary and seek to explain how the meaning of words contributes to the meaning of sentences.  Sentences are not mere combinations of words, because sentences have structure.[12] 


4. In his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty offers an excellent version of the criticism that Locke confuses “origins and justifications”—see “Locke’s Confusion of Explanation With Justification.”[13]  In this discussion, however, Rorty notes that we must ask


for Wittgenstein, what makes things representational or intentional is the part they play in a larger context—in interaction with large numbers of other visible things.  For Locke, what makes things representational is a special causal thrust—what Chisholm describes as the phenomenon of sentences deriving intentionality from thoughts as the moon derives its light from the sun. 

  So our answer to the question “How can we convince ourselves that the intentional must be immaterial?” is “First we must convince ourselves, following Locke and Chisholm and pace Wittgenstein and Sellars, that intentionality is intrinsic only in phenomenal items—items directly before the mind.”  If we accept that answer, however, we are still only part of the way to resolving the issue.  For since the problem with which we have been wrestling has been caused precisely by the fact that beliefs do not have phenomenal properties, we now have to ask how Locke, following Descartes, can conflate pains and beliefs under the common term idea—how can he convince himself that a belief is something which is “before the mind” in the way in which a mental image is, how he can use the same ocular imagery for mental images and for judgments.[14] 


How was it that Locke should have committed what Sellars calls “a mistake of a piece with the so-called ‘naturalistic fallacy’ in ethics,” the attempt to “analyze epistemic facts without remainder into non-epistemic facts?”[15]  Why should he have thought that a causal account of how one comes to have a belief should be an indication of the justification one has for that belief? 

  The answer, I think, is that Locke, and the seventeenth-century writers generally, simply did not think of knowledge as justified true belief.  This was because they did not think of knowledge as a relation between a person and a proposition.  We find it natural to think of “what S knows” as the collection of propositions completing true statements by S which begin “I know that....”  When we realize that the blank may be filled by such various material as “this is red,” “e=mc2,” “my Redeemer liveth,” and “I shall marry Jane,” we are rightly skeptical of the notion of “the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge,” and of a “department of thought” devoted to this topic.  But Locke did not think of “knowing that” as the primary form of knowledge.  He thought, as had Aristotle, of “knowledge of” as prior to “knowledge that,” and thus of knowledge as a relation between persons and objects rather than between persons and propositions.[16] 


Rorty also characterizes quite well Locke’s problem with representationalism when he says:


whereas Aristotle had not had to worry about an Eye of the Mind, believing knowledge to be the identity of the mind with the object known, Locke did not have this alternative available.  Since for him impressions were representations, he needed a faculty which was aware of the representations, a faculty which judged the representation rather than merely had them—judged that they existed, or that they were reliable, or that they had such-and-such relations to other representations.  But he had no room for one, for to postulate such a faculty would have intruded a ghost into the quasi-machine whose operations he hoped to describe.  He kept just enough of Aristotle to retain the idea of knowledge as consisting of something object-like entering the soul, but not enough to avoid either skeptical problems about the accuracy of representations or Kantian questions about the difference between intuitions with and without the “I think.”  To put it another way, the Cartesian conglomerate mind which Locke took for granted resembled Aristotelian...just enough to give a traditional flavor to the notion of “impression” and departed from it just enough to make Humean skepticism and Kantian transcendentalism possible.  Locke was balancing awkwardly between knowledge-as-identity-with-object and knowledge-as-true-judgment-about-object, and the confused idea of “moral philosophy” as an empirical “science of man” was possible only because of this transitional stance.[17] 


According to Rorty, the main problem with Locke’s theory of knowledge is his “shuffle:”


...between knowledge as something which, being the simple having of an idea, can take place without judgment, and knowledge as that which results from forming justified judgments.  This is the shuffle which Kant detected as the basic error of empiricism—the error most vigorously expressed in his criticism of the confusion of “a succession of apprehensions with an apprehension of succession,” but which bears equally upon the confusion between merely having two “juxtaposed” ideas—froghood and greenness—and “synthesizing” these into the judgment “Frogs are usually green.”  Just as Aristotle has no clear way to relate grasping universals to making judgments, no way to relate the receptivity of forms into the mind to the construction of propositions, neither has Locke.  This is the principle defect of any attempt to reduce “knowledge that” to “knowledge of,” to model knowing on seeing.[18] 


Rorty maintains that Locke’s (and, generally the Early Modern philosopher’s) view “...that we learn more about what we should believe by understanding better how we work can be seen to be as misguided as the notion that we shall learn whether to grant civil rights to robots by understanding better how they work.”[19] 


5. It should be noted that it is difficult to even “name” a “particular idea” without appeal to generality, and Locke sometimes switches from the particular to the general without noticing that he has done so.  Locke’s early examples of simple ideas of sensation, for example, are “yellow, heat, cold, soft, hard, etc. (II i 3), though later in Book II he begins to talk about extension, solidity, and mobility as such (Cf., II xxi 73-75).  In his “John Locke,” James Fieser maintains that:


his doctrine of modes is also affected by this same inattention of the fact that a simple idea must be really simple.  Thus he holds that “space and extension” is a simple idea given both by sight and by touch [II iv]....One would expect, therefore, that the original and simple idea of space would be the particular patch seen at any moment or the particular “feel” of the exploring limb.  But we are told that “each idea of any different distance, or space, is a simple mode” or the idea of space [II viii 4]....Here again the simple idea is generalized.  He professes to begin with the mere particulars of external and internal sense, and to show how knowledge—which is necessarily general—is evolved from them.  But, in doing so, he assumes a general or universal element as already given in the simple idea.[20] 


6. In her “Postmodernism, Pluralism, and Pragmatism,” Catherine Elgin maintains that:


...we justify our theories by the method of reflective equilibrium.  Locke to the contrary notwithstanding, we do not start with an empty slate.  We begin any inquiry with a host of beliefs, standards, methods, and values that we are inclined to accept and consider relevant to the subject at hand.  These are our working hypotheses.  They are apt to be inadequate.  They may be incomplete, or mutually inconsistent, or entail consequences that we cannot on reflection endorse.  If so, we augment and revise them until we arrive at a constellation of commitments that we consider acceptable.  The elements of such a constellation must be reasonable in light of one another, and the constellation as a whole must be reasonable in light of our antecedent commitments.... 

  The commitments in question are not all beliefs about the subject matter.  We bring to an inquiry methodological commitments, techniques, criteria, and objectives.  All provide grist for the mill.  Like beliefs, they are subject to revision and rejection in the process of constructing a tenable system of thought.[21] 


7. In his “Locke’s Idea of ‘Idea’,” Douglas Greenlee maintains that:


it is a great lapse on Locke’s part neither to have asked nor to have answered in the Essay questions about the idea of idea, its origin and its classificatory location.  Presumably this idea, like that of the faculty of perception, is from reflection.  But Locke does not even come out with this observation.  The closest he comes is to discuss the idea of the faculty of perception, about which he says what he may well be expected to say of the idea of idea, that ‘it is the first and simplest idea we have from reflection, and is by some called thinking in general’ (II, ix, 1).”[22] 


8. Locke contends that in their primary and immediate signification, works “stand for ideas.”  In his “Locke’s Philosophy of Language,” Paul Guyer maintains that:


even if we are prepared to concede that our possession of ideas is a necessary condition of the meaningful use of articulate sounds, it is certainly not normally the case that we are talking about these ideas, or, as we now say, referring to them.  Indeed, it can be argued that even if our purpose is to communicate our ideas to is usually our ideas about things that we are trying to communicate, and this purpose will best be served with words that refer to those things.....More generally...Locke’s thesis has implausible metaphysical and epistemological consequences.  First, it commits us to the idea that our meaningful use of terms must always be accompanied by a stream of ideas that, to put it kindly, introspection does not always reveal.  And as far as epistemology is concerned, Locke’s view seems to lead to a radical skepticism.  In order to know that another speaker means anything by his words, we have to know that he has ideas, and in order to know what he means, we have to know which ideas he has.  But another’s ideas are “all within his own Breast, invisible, and hidden from others”....”[23] 


9. In his A History of Western Philosophy: Philosophy From the Renaissance to the Romantic Age, A. Robert Caponigri maintains that:


Locke believes that we do possess such an apprehension [of “real existence”—that is, things, rather than ideas] or perception.  It is the perception which the conscious subject has of itself.  This perception renders the subject present to itself as a real existent, and may therefore, presumably form the point of departure of the kind of knowledge and proof we are seeking.[24] 


He continues, noting that:


the judgment [here] of existence, however, has certain features of its own.  As a matter of fact, this judgment, in the case of the subject’s own existence is unique.  The only other judgment having any similarity to it is that concerning the existence of God.  The uniqueness of this judgment resides in the fact that in it not only the ideas, but the mind itself, is present to the understanding.  No idea or sign of any kind is needed to represent the mind.  It is not as a “tertium quid,” but as the very substance and actuality of the entire process.  This unique knowledge of the subject’s own existence becomes, however, the basis and the model for the knowledge of other orders of real existences.”[25] 


10. In his “The Problem of the Criterion,” Roderick Chisholm maintains that:


it seems especially odd that the empiricist—who wants to proceed cautiously, step by step, from experience—begins with such a generalization [genuine cases of knowledge are derived from experience].  He leaves us completely in the dark so far as concerns what reasons he may have for adopting this particular criterion [of knowledge] rather than some other.[26] 




I. Selected Problems With Locke’s View of Personal Identity:


1. Butler’s criticism of Locke on this point went: how can one be conscious of personal identity without having personal identity in the first place? 


2. Reid’s “transitivity” critique:


suppose a brave officer to have been flogged when a boy at school for robbing an orchard, to have taken a standard from the enemy in his first campaign, and to have been made a general in advanced life; suppose also, which must be admitted to be possible, that when he took the standard he was conscious of his having been flogged at school, and that, when made a general, he was conscious of his taking the standard, but had absolutely lost the consciousness of his flogging.  These things being supposed, it follows from Mr. Locke’s doctrine, that he who was flogged at school is the same person who took the standard, and that he who took the standard is the same person who was made a general.   Whence it follows if there be any truth in logic, that the general is the same person with him who was flogged at school.  But the general’s consciousness does not reach so far back as his flogging; therefore according to Mr. Locke’s doctrine, he is not the same person who was flogged.  Therefore the general is, and at the same time is not, the same person with him who was flogged at school.[27] 



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

[1] Alan Goldman, Moral Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 77. 

[2] W.T. Jones, Hobbes to Hume: A History of Western Philosophy (second edition) (N.Y. Harcourt Brace, 1969), pp. 244-245. 

[3] Ibid., p. 245. 

[4] Jones cites from William James, The Principles of Psychology (N.Y.: Holt, 1890) v. 1, p. 224. 

[5] Jones, loc. cit., pp. 251-252. 

[6] Ibid., pp. 256-257. 

[7] Garrett Thomson, Descartes to Kant: An Introduction to Modern Philosophy (Prospect Heights: Waveland, 1997), p. 117. 

[8] Ibid., p. 121. 

[9] Ibid., p. 129. 

[10] Ibid., p. 130. 

[11] Ibid., p. 137. 

[12] Ibid., p. 138. 

[13] Cf., Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1978), pp. 139-148. 

[14] Ibid., pp. 27-28. 

[15] Rorty cites Wilfrid Sellars, Science, Perception and Reality (London: Routledge, 1963), p. 131. 

[16] Rorty, loc. cit., pp. 141-142. 

[17] Ibid., p. 144. 

[18] Ibid., p. 146. 

[19] Ibid., p. 255. 

[20] James Fieser, “John Locke,” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. James Fieser <>, accessed on February 20, 1998). 

[21] Catherine Elgin, “Postmodernism, Pluralism, and Pragmatism,” in her Between the Absolute and the Arbitrary (Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 1997), pp. 161-175, pp. 196-197. 

[22] Douglas Greenlee, “Locke’s Idea of `Idea’,” in Locke On Human Understanding, ed. Ian C. Tipton (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1977), pp. 41-47, p. 43.  The essay originally appeared in Theoria v. 33 (1967), pp. 98-106. 

[23] Paul Guyer, “Locke’s Philosophy of Language,” in The Cambridge Companion to Locke, ed. Vere Chappell (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1998), pp. 115-145, p.120. 

[24] A. Robert Caponigri, A History of Western Philosophy: Philosophy From the Renaissance to the Romantic Age (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame, 1963), p. 309. 

[25] Ibid. 

[26] Roderick Chisholm, “The Problem of the Criterion,” in The Theory of Knowledge: Classical and Contemporary Readings (second edition), ed. Louis Pojman (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1999), pp. 26-34, p. 30.  The essay originally appeared in Chisholm’s The Foundations of Knowledge (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota, 1982). 

[27] Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man [1785], ed. Ronald Beanblossom (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), III, Ch. 6 (pp. 217-218). 

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File last revised on 02/23/15.