John Locke: Essay Concerning Human Understanding

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Locke should have put Book IV first, not because of order of argument but of style.  Books 1-3 are so badly written and tedious, whereas Book IV is interesting and occasionally funny.  Be that as it may.

The how of knowledge

(1) At the risk of oversimplification, ideas for Locke are sense-impressions.  If I see a tree, light waves from the tree reach my eye, go to my brain/mind, and from there form a mental image of a tree in my mind. An idea is the object of understanding when a man thinks.  The power to produce any idea is a quality (II.8.7). Ideas are in the mind, qualities the body.

On the Soul

problem of identity: the soul cannot be reduced to physical causes/objects, otherwise how does one account for personal identity if we are just matter in motion (II.1.12)

  • primary qualities are inseparable from a body: solidity, extension, figure.
  • secondary qualities are that which produce various sensations in us by means of the primary qualities: colors, sounds, tastes.

Substance: combinations of simple ideas representing distinct things subsisting in themselves (II.8.6)

Modes of thinking:  

  • thinking: when the mind contemplates itself (II.19.1)
  • sensation: the entrance of any idea into the understanding by the senses (II.1.24).
  • intention: the mind focusing on an object

Thinking is the action of the soul, not its essence.  Otherwise, when we stop thinking we stop having a soul (implications for pro-life arguments).   

On Free Will

power: the possibility of acting change.

  • The will is a power.
  • we can’t speak of free will.
    • Liberty is a power that belongs to agents (II.21.14).
    • It doesn’t make sense to ask if one power has another power.
  • will is the ability to choose.
    • the mind operates the will.  
    • faculty, ability, and power are names of the same thing.
    • The mind determines the will (II.21.29).
  • Uneasiness: psychological determination of the will (II.21.34-40).  Locke has a very perceptive chapter on the difficulty of “willing ourselves to be better.”  A drunkard knows his decisions are destructive, but he is habituated in them. A direct charge to change won’t do anything for him.  
    • The good cannot determine our wills (practically, psychologically) because we are so overwhelmed with desire and unease.
    • There might be some spiritual import to this.  Fasting and other disciplines “turn down the volume” of the flesh.  
    • Our wills are only truly free when we suspend the desire.  
  • Psychological remarks (very perceptive)
    • We cannot directly change our beliefs (doxastic voluntarism), but we can change the surroundings which condition our beliefs (II.21.62).
    • The pain anyone actually feels is the most intense of any possibly present pains.
    • Future pleasure (absent good) is usually unable to prevent uneasiness/wrongdoing. This is why social justice programs have universally failed to reformed poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

Essences

Essence is “the very being of anything, whereby it is, what it is” (III.iii.15).  Locke held to the corpuscular hypothesis: the constitutions of things consists of minute particles of some sort, and that their workings are entirely due to such configurations (IV.iii.25).

 

The Ethics of Belief (Courtesy of Wolterstorff)

(2) Our assent is regulated by the grounds of probability (IV.16.1).

Doxastic Duty

Book IV. 17.24

“Faith is nothing but a firm assent of the mind…regulated…as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything but good reason…He that believes without having reason for believing…neither seeks truth as he ought nor pays the obedience due to his Maker.”

(3) For Locke epistemology is linked with doxastic duty.  

Epistemic justification is deontological justification.  Is this Knowledge as Justified, True Belief? Maybe; however, Locke applies duty to belief, not knowledge.

Critique

(~1) Is Locke’s account of belief-formation really how the mind works?  Following the godly and right-thinking Mr Reid, we offer the critique: “idea” is a visual term.  How does Locke’s project work when we take a non-visual sensation like “touch?” How does the mind form an “image” of a non-imagery sensation?

(~2) This seems true and it is probably a wise way to live, but as later thinkers have pointed out (Wm. James, Wolterstorff, Plantinga, Kelly James Clark), what is the evidence for this claim?

One thought on “John Locke: Essay Concerning Human Understanding

  1. Pingback: Locke (Edward Feser) | Factory of the Soul

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