Locke’s Essay: Commentaries

John Locke Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Final Edition, 1699 (Original 1690).

A selection of interpretations, summaries and critiques.

Wikipedia

Wikpedia opines:

Book II explains that every idea is derived from experience either by sensation – direct sensory information – or reflection – “the perception of the operations of our own mind within us, as it is employed about the ideas it has got”.

Despite his explanation, the existence of substances is still questionable as they cannot necessarily be “perceived” by themselves and can only be sensed through the qualities. In terms of qualities, Locke divides them into primary and secondary, in which primary give our minds ideas based on sensation and actual experience. On the other hand, secondary qualities allow our minds to understand something based on reflection, in which we associate what we perceive with other ideas of our own.

Book 3 focuses on words. Locke connects words to the ideas they signify, claiming that man is unique in being able to frame sounds into distinct words and to signify ideas by those words, and then that these words are built into language.

Thus there is a distinction between what an individual might claim to “know”, as part of a system of knowledge, and whether or not that claimed knowledge is actual.

Berkeley held that Locke’s conception of abstract ideas was incoherent and led to severe contradictions. He also argued that Locke’s conception of material substance was unintelligible.

Russell

In his History, Russell opines:

Not only Locke’s valid opinions, but even his errors, were useful in practice. Take, for example, his doctinre as to primary and secondary qualities. [Cites Berkeley.] [Yet] it proved fruitful as a souirce of many very important discoveries.

He is always sensible, and always willing to sacrifice logic rather than become paradoxical.

Locke may be regardeed as the founder of empiricism.

Perception, he says ‘is the first step towards knowledge, and the inlet of all the materials of it.’

Empiricism and Idealism alike are faced with a problem to which, so far, philosophy has found no satisfactory solution. This is the problem of knowing how we have knowledge of other things than ourselves and the opertion of our own mind.

Locke assumes it known that certain mental occurences, which he calls sensations, have causes outside themselves, and that these causes, at least to some extent and in certain respects, resemble the sensations which are their effects. But how, consistent wiht the principles of empiricism, is this to be known?

This difficulty has troubled empiricism down to the present day … .

A contemporary view

Paul Schuurman, in his doctoral dissertation, quotes Locke’s related works and correspondence thus:

The businesse of Education (…) is not as I thinke to make them [‘the yonge’]perfect in any one of the sciences but soe to open and dispose their mindes as may best make them capable of any,when they shall apply themselves to it.

This way of getting, and improving our Knowledge in Substancesonly by Experience and History,whichisallthat theweaknessofour FacultiesinthisStateofMediocrity,which we are in in this World, can attain to, makes me suspect, that natural Philosophy is not capable of being made a Science. (…) Experiments and Historical Observations we may have, from which we may draw Advantages of Ease and Health, and thereby increase our stock of Conveniences for this Life: but beyond this, I fear our Talents reach not, nor are our Faculties, as I guess, able to advance

That the certainty of Things existing in rerum Naturâ, when we havethe testimony of our Senses for it, is not only as great as our frame can attain to, but as our Condition needs. For our Faculties being suited not to the full extent of Being, nor to a perfect, clear, comprehensive Knowledge of things free from all doubt and scruple; but to the preservation of us, inwhom they are; and accommodated to the use of Life:they serve to our purpose well enough, if they will but give us certain notice of those Things, which are convenientor inconvenientto us

Paul Schuurman opines:

Mathematics settles in the minde ‘an habit of reasoning closely and in train’.174 It performs the task of teaching how to ‘reason well’,175 and in this respect it is a viable alternative to scholastic logic.176 This aim can be accomplished without it being necessarythat men should trytobecome ‘deepmathematicians,but that haveing got the way of reasoning which that study necessarily brings the minde to they might be able to transfer it to other parts of knowledg …’177 The importance that Locke ascribed to mathematics in the Conduct is thus of a predominantly didactic character. In this context Locke has little interest in the more technical aspectsofmathematics,andwhenhe embarksononeofhismany attacksagainst methodological one-sidedness, he does not forget to deride men who have ‘soe usedtheirheadstomathematicalfiguresthatgiveingapreferencetothemethods of that Science they introduce lines and diagrams into their study of divinity or politique enquirys as if noe thing could be known without them.

In the Essay on the other hand, mathematics is not merely presented as a predominantly didactic instrument, but linked to a promising kind of new knowledge that is a goal in itself and that is exemplified by ‘Mr. Newton’, who ‘inhisneverenoughtobeadmiredBook,hasdemonstratedseveralPropositions, which are so many new Truths, before unknown to the World, and are farther Advances in Mathematical Knowledge …’181 New knowledge is very much the resultof‘thediscovering,andfindingoutofproofs’;182andthismeansdiscovering intermediateideas. Thus, from each of Newton’snew propositionsit can be said that it rests on ‘that admirable Chain of intermediateIdeas, whereby he at first discovered it to be true’. When Locke stresses the success of mathematics in finding intermediate ideas, he especially mentions algebra.184 Algebra is capable of finding the proofs that are exposed in a geometrical demonstration: ‘Till Algebra,that greatInstrumentand InstanceofHumaneSagacity,wasdiscovered, Men, with Amazement, looked on several of the Demonstrations of ancient Mathematiciens, and could scarce forbear to think the finding several of those Proofs to be something more than humane.’ Locke is probably referringhere to Descartes’s new analytical geometry that, by reducing geometrical lines to algebraical symbols, had openedup new vistas in the search for the intermediate ideas that arerequired for mathematical proofs Locke’s two stage analysis of ideas should be understood within the context of a reaction against what he saw as he predominant features of scholastic logic.From the late sixteenth century onwards syllogisms had held a place of eminenceinthe study of valid inference. They formed the principlebutt of Locke’sattacks on Aristotelian ‘Masters of Logick’. As we have noted, the first stage of his way of ideas implies a careful inspection of the clarity and distinctness of our ideas. However,Locke’sproblem withsyllogisms is that they are used, and can be used correctly,without this prior inspection.Syllogisms merely consist of words, and for a syllogism to be correct, its words do not have to correspondwith clear and distinct ideas. This makes syllogisms eminentlysuited for senseless disputations.

OneofLocke’spointsintheConduct isthatwhenweenquireinto probability it is not enough to analyse oneargument to its source. Instead, we will have to analyse and then to weigh differentchains ofargument against eachother. He stresses that the old logic doesnot provide the instruments that are needed for such an analysis, so that on this subject its adherents are led completely astray: ‘nor is it to be wonderd since the way of disputeingintheschools leadsthemquiteawayfromit[truth]by insisting on ne topical argumentbythesuccesseofwhichthetruthorfalsehoodofthequestionis to be determind…’ According to Locke, instead ofcomparing different chains of arguments, as should be done in the case of probable knowledge, scholastic logicians ignore the argument that do not fit in withtheir pre-conceivedtheses.

although Thomas Sprat, founding member of the Royal Society, denied the usefulness of Aristotelian logic in the generation of new knowledge,heat the same time acknowledged that disputing, a favouriteactivity of traditional logicians, ‘is a very good instrument, to sharpen mens wits, and to make them versatil, and wary defenders of the Principles,which they already know …’ If Locke showed more aggression here, this was because he wanted to supplant Aristotelian logic with his own logic.

We have seen Malebranche presentinghis Recherche de la vérité as an alternative to scholastic works on logic, although he refrained from giving it the explicit name of ‘logic’. Locke’sEssay and Conduct provide us with a similar case. In the seventeenth century ‘logic’ was Aristotelian logic. In the Essay, Locke uses the word ‘logic’or ‘logician’most frequently in Bk. II, Ch. xvii ‘Of Reason’,and he uses it in the clearly pejorative context of his attack against Peripatetic logicians.

IntheSecondRepliesto the Meditationes,Descartesexplainsthat we can proceedeithersynthetically,and start withgeneralaxioms fromwhichwecandeduceconclusionsaboutparticular truths, or analyticallyand start with particular problems untilwe have arrived at their constituentclear and distinct ideas.275 The first directionis most suited for the proofof truths that we have already obtained and was used most typically in traditional geometry. The second direction is especially apt for the discovery of newtruthsandusedwithgreatsuccessinDescartes’sanalyticalalgebra.Lockedid not make an explicit distinctionbetween analysis and synthesis, but he was well aware of the difference in using our reason in discoveringproofs and in proving them (see above,

For Descartes, there is no fundamental difference between the principles of physics and those of mathematics.283 For Locke on the other hand, physics is an object of empirical investigation while mathematics are not.

Locke shared with Descartes some fundamental preconceptions that formed a logic wide enough to accommodate either innate knowledge or empirical knowledge.

Paul also quotes from Locke’s Conduct of Understanding, which was written as an easier read, for the education of the children of gentle folk.

The businesse of Education (…) is not as I thinke to make them [‘the yonge’]perfect in any one of the sciences but soe to open and dispose their mindes as may best make them capable of any,when they shall apply themselves to it. Ifmen are for a longtime accustomd only to one sort or method of thoughts, theyr mindes grow stif in it and doe not readily turne to an other. Tistherefor to give them this freedom that I thinke they should bemade looke into all sorts of knowledg and exercisetheir understandings in soe wide a variety. But I doe not propose it as a variety and stock of knowledg but a varietie and freedom of thinkeing as an increase of the powers and activity of the minde, not as an enlargment of its possessions.

Few men are from their youth accustomed to  strict reasoning, and to trace the dependence of any truth in a long train of consequences to its remote principles and to observe its connection. … Nay the most of men are soe wholy strangers to this thatSu ffisance they doe not soe muchas perceivetheir want ofit.they dispatchthe  ordinary business of their callings by roat22 as we say as they have learntitandifatanytimetheymisssuccesstheyimputeittoanything ratherthanwantofthoughtorskil,thattheyconclude,(becausethey know noe better) they have in perfection. or if there be any subiect that interest or phancy has recommended to their thoughts, their  reasoningaboutitisstillaftertheirownfashion.beitbetterorworse it serves their turns and is the best they are acquainted with and there for when they are lead by it into mistakes and their businesse succeedsaccordingly,theyimputeittoanycrosse accidentordefault of others rather than to their owne want of understanding.

Nay the most of men are soe wholy strangers to this thatSu ffisance they doe not soe muchas perceivetheir want ofit.they dispatchthe  ordinary business of their callings by roat22 as we say as they have learntitandifatanytimetheymisssuccesstheyimputeittoanything ratherthanwantofthoughtorskil,thattheyconclude,(becausethey know noe better) they have in perfection. or if there be any subiect that interest or phancy has recommended to their thoughts, their  reasoningaboutitisstillaftertheirownfashion.beitbetterorworse it serves their turns and is the best they are acquainted with and there for when they are lead by it into mistakes and their businesse.

succeedsaccordingly,theyimputeittoanycrosse accidentordefault of others rather than to their owne want of understanding.23 That is what noe body discovers or complains of in him self.24 What so ever made his business miscary it was not want of right thought  and judgment in him self. he sees noe such defect in himself But is satisfied that he carrys on his designes well enough by his owne reasoning or at least should have done had it not been for unlucky traverses not in his power. Thus being content with this short and imperfect use of his understandhingihe never troubles him self to  seekoutmethodsofimproveinghismindandlivesallhislifewithout any notion of close reasoning | in a continued connectionof a long  train of consequences from sure foundations,such as is requisite for the makeing out and clearing most of the speculative truths25 most men owneto beleive and are most concerndin.not to mentionhere  whatIshallhaveoccasiontoinsistonbyandbymorefully.26 vizthat in many cases tis not one series of consequences will serve the turne but many different and opposite deductions must be examined and laid to geather before a man can come to make a right judgment27 of the pointin question.What then can be expected from men that neitherseethewantofanysuchkindeofreasoningasthisnorifthey doe knowthey how to set about it or could performe it. you may as  well set a country man who scarce knows the figures and never cast up a sum of three particulars, to state a merchants longaccount and finde the true ballance of it.

… .For if you would enlarge their thoughts and setle them upon more remote and surer principles they either cannot easily apprehendthem; or if they can, know not what use to make of them, for long deductions from remote principles is what  they have not been used to and can not manage.

(.)He that hasto doewithyongescholars espetialyinMathe- Practise maticks may perceive how their mindes open by degrees and how it is exercise alone that opens them. Some times they will stick a long  time at a part of a demonstrationnot for want of willor application but realy for wantof perceiveingthe connectionoftwo Ideasthat to one whose understandingis more exercised is as visible as any thing can be. The same would be with a grown man begining to study Mathematicks, the understanding | for want of use often sticks in   very plain wayhsiand he himself that is soe puzzeld,when he comes to see the connection wonders what it was he stuck at in a case so plain. (.) I have mentioned mathematicks as a way to setle in the Mathematicks(§ ) minde an habit ofreasoningclosely and in train.not that I thinkeit  necessarythatallmenshouldbedeepmathematicians,butthathaveing got the way of reasoningwhich that study necessarily brings the mindeto theymight be able totransfer itto otherpartsofknowledg as they shall have occasion. For in all sorts of reasoning every single argument should be managed as a mathematical demonstration,  the connection and dependence of Ideas should be followed till the mindeisbroughttothesourseonwhichitbottomsandobservesthe coherenceall along,thoughinproofsofprobabilityonesuch trainis not enoughto setle the judgment as in demonstrative knowledg

My Comments

It seems to me that Locke is trying to improve on reasoning based on classic logic and ‘innate ideas’, in conformity with ‘Cromwell’s rule‘. His criticisms seem sound. As was common, he takes Newton’s kind of mathematical reasoning as ‘the gold standard’, along with other reasonings that he regards as equally good.

In particular, Locke distinguishes between reasoning about ideas in themselves, and reasoning about what might ‘really’ lie behind them. He accepts that there is more than just ideas, and the thinker’s interaction with this external reality leads to the perception of objects, qualities, relationships and ‘abstractions’, and in particular theories of ‘causality’. But we can only really know these in so far as they are ideas: we cannot know that they correspond to anything real: they could be an artifact of the way we perceive.

All this seems reasonable. Some of Locke’s remarks seem not fully thought through, or simply overtaken by subsequent developments in logic, but his overall approach seems sound. Indeed, some of the criticisms of that are still commonly held seem to have been addressed by him in the later editions.

As a mathematician, I note that mathematics has moved on since Newton’s day. If we are to follow Locke (or just Cromwell’s rule), maybe we should distinguish between different types of mathematical reasoning and  take the best as our ‘gold standard’? (Compare Berkeley.)

Locke never explicitly critiqued pragmatism: it had not been developed. When faced with a particular decision, the two approaches seem very little different in practice. Allegedly, “Pragmatism focuses on a changing universe rather than an unchanging one as the idealists, realists and Thomists had claimed.” But Locke, even in his simplified account for gentlefolk, draws attention to a problem: While it may seem pragmatic to develop a science pragmatically, it is not: since in a ‘changing universe’ what was once pragmatic may no longer be so. Hence – Locke is implicitly recommending – one should maintain a more logical (if less ‘actionable’) version of the theory, and that even while acting pragmatically (through force of circumstance) one should always seek to reconcile one’s more logical and pragmatic theories, developing both as necessary, maintaining their respective logicality and pragmatism. (This seems to me as rare today as it ever was, and possibly as important as it was in Locke’s time)

Dave Marsay

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