The Philosophy of John Locke
I. General Notions
Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes were not truly conscious of the phenomenalistic consequences of their theory of knowledge, which was based on Empiricism. Both considered sensation as phenomenal presentations and also as representations of reality. Thus they still had something upon which to build an absolute metaphysics. With Locke gnosiological phenomenalism enters its critical phase. By considering sensations merely as subjective presentations, Locke gives us a theory of knowledge of subjective data devoid of any relation with external objects. Hence Locke is the first to give us a logic for Empiricism, that is, for sensations considered as phenomena of knowledge.
Such an attitude excludes any consistent metaphysics of objective reality. Locke, however, overlooking everything he has established in his solution to the problem of knowledge, gives us a metaphysics which is not greatly different from the traditional Scholastic teaching. He even appeals to the familiar principles of Scholasticism, showing how difficult it is for man to withdraw from the philosophy of being. Berkeley, first, and then Hume went all the way and reduced being to the status of a subjective phenomenon. In so doing, these two philosophers merely drew the logical conclusions of the gnosiological phenomenalism proposed by John Locke.
II. Life and Works
John Locke (picture) was born in 1632 at Wrington, Somersetshire, England. He studied philosophy and the natural sciences at Oxford, and received his doctorate in medicine. Having entered into the graces of Lord Ashley, who later became the Earl of Shaftesbury, Locke held several political offices. Thus he had the opportunity to visit France, where he made the acquaintance of the most representative men of culture.
In 1683 he went into exile in Holland; there he participated in the political movement that placed William of Orange upon the throne of England. After the accession of William of Orange, he returned to England, retired to private life, and dedicated himself to his studies. He died in 1704. Locke is a representative of the English culture of his time. With a mind open to the most varied problems, Locke was a philosopher, a doctor of medicine, and educator, a politician and a man of action.
Locke's principal works, in chronological order, are: Treatises on Government; Essay Concerning Human Understanding (his masterpiece); Thoughts on Education.
III. Epistemology: Origin of Knowledge
Descartes had admitted that some some ideas are innate in the intellect. Locke dedicated the first book of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding to a refutation of Descartes' innatism. If we had innate ideas, says Locke, we would be conscious of having them. But it is an undeniable fact that children, savages, the unlearned, are not conscious of having innate ideas; they acquire knowledge during the course of a lifetime. It is impossible that anyone should have knowledge of something of which he is not conscious.
Furthermore, experience teaches that certain moral principles and the notion of God, far from being innate, vary with different people and at different times. Hence there exists no innate idea; our intellect, at the first moment of its being, is a tabula rasa, a clean sheet of paper on which nothing has yet been written. All impressions we later find thereon (which for Locke are ideas) come from experience. Locke's ideas are not to be confused with Aristotelian ideas, but are to be taken in the sense of representations, or better, of presentations.
Locke explains that experience is twofold: external and internal.
External experience, called sensation, gives us ideas of supposed external objects, such as color, sound, extension, motion. etc. Locke says "supposed objects," since their existence has not been proved. (In a theory of knowledge limited to the experience of mental content, such as that of Locke, it is utterly impossible to prove the actual existence of these supposed objects.)
Internal experience, called reflection, makes us understand the operation of the spirit on the objects of sensation, such as knowing, doubting, believing and so forth. In regard to the ideas furnished by sensation, it is necessary to distinguish the primary qualities (solidity, extension, figure, number, motion, etc.), which are objective, from the secondary qualities (color, sounds, etc.), which are subjective in their effect and objective in their cause. In other words the secondary qualities are powers for producing various sensations in us. (Essay, II, i and viii passim.)
For Locke, sensation and reflection are classified as simple and complex, according to whether they are irreducible elements, such as whiteness, rotundity, or reducible to more simple elements. Thus the idea of an apple is complex because it is a combination of the simple ideas of color, rotundity, taste, and so forth. The spirit is passive as regards simple ideas; no one can have the idea of sound, for example, if it is not furnished to him. On the contrary, the spirit is active concerning complex ideas because it can reduce them to simple elements and can construct new complex ideas from these elements. (Essay, II, ii, 1-30.)
Locke distinguishes three classes of complex ideas:
1. Ideas of substance, representing a constant or stable collection of simple ideas related to a mysterious substratum which is their unifying center;
2. Ideas of mode, resulting from the combination by the intellect of several ideas, in such a manner as to form not a thing in itself but a property or mode of an existing thing -- for example, a triangle, gratitude;
3. Ideas of relationship, arising from the comparison of one idea with another, such as temporal and spatial relationships, or the relationship of cause. In addition to complex ideas, there are also general ideas, which result from the isolation of a simple idea from a complex one -- for example, whiteness -- and from the universalization of the idea in so far as it represents the characteristics common to several similar sensations. General ideas hence are abstract ideas, and are useful for signifying a collection of common sensations (nominalism). (Essay, II, xii, 1-8.)
IV. Epistemology: Value of Knowledge
Having thus analyzed and described the various contents of consciousness, man has to determine what he knows through these ideas -- that is, what is their logical and metaphysical value.
Logical Value of Ideas. By logical value we mean the perception of the agreement or disagreement between two ideas when they are compared to one another. This perception of agreement or disagreement, according to Locke, can be either intuitive or demonstrative. In the first case the relationship between two ideas is immediately seen by the spirit, as in the example "Two plus two equals four," or "A triangle is not a square." In the second case, the mind must have recourse to intermediate ideas in order to perceive the relationship of agreement or disagreement. Truths of this kind are obtained through demonstration. Being empirical concepts, they are inferior in value to intuitive truths. Thus, to know the existence of external objects man must have recourse to the intermediate idea of the passivity of thought -- for it is the external objects that are acting upon his mind and producing in it external sensations.
Metaphysical Value of Ideas. Analysis and the exposition of the relationship between different ideas lead to logical truths, that is, to truths which are valid only in the field of consciousness. Is it possible to break through this iron ring of phenomenalism and attain knowledge of external beings, essences existing outside the realm of the mind? In order to affirm the existence of external things we need demonstration, since things are not known immediately. Locke admitted this fact explicitly: "It is evident the mind knows not things immediately, but only by intervention of the ideas it has of them." (Essay, IV, iv, 2.) Locke believed that he could break the ring of subjectivism in which he had isolated himself, and demonstrate the existence of the three beings that constitute the object of traditional metaphysics: namely, our own being, the external world, and God. "We have knowledge of our own existence by intuition; of the existence of God by demonstration; and of other things by sensation," he wrote. (Essay, IV, ix, 2.)
Let us examine the value of the proofs which Locke gives for the existence of these three realities.
(1) Our knowledge of our own existence is intuitive: "As for our own existence, we perceive it so plainly and so certainly that it neither needs nor is capable of any proof. For nothing can be more evident to us than our own existence. I think, I reason, I feel pleasure and pain: can any of these be more evident to me than my own existence? If I doubt of all other things, that very doubt makes me perceive my own existence, and will not suffer doubt of that....Experience, then, convinces us that we have an intuitive knowledge of our own existence." (Essay, IV, ix, 2.)
So our own being is known intuitively through reflection; but reflection reveals only the operations of the mind; it tells us nothing about the actual substance of the soul. Even if Locke had attempted to determine the nature of the soul, he would have expressed it according to his own notion of substance. Since, for Locke, substance is nothing more than a mysterious substratum upholding or supporting the qualities of things, we would still know nothing of the soul in so far as it is a spiritual and immaterial reality.
(2) Locke then goes on to treat the existence of God: "Man knows by an intuitive certainty that bare nothing can no more produce any real being than it can be equal to two right angles....If, therefore, we know there is some real being, and that nonentity cannot produce any real being, it is an evident demonstration that from eternity there has been something; since what was not from eternity had a beginning, and what had a beginning must be produced by something else...." (Essay, IV, x, 3.) "Thus from the consideration of ourselves, and what we infallibly find in our own constitutions, our reason leads us to the knowledge of this certain and evident truth, that there is an eternal, most powerful, and most knowing Being." (Essay, IV, x, 6.)
Certainly the existence of God is reasonably proved by force of the principle of causality. But it is to be observed that here the principle of cause and effect is taken in the sense of traditional philosophy, that is, as a metaphysical principle valid in the world of reality. Locke, however, in the analysis of the content of our consciousness, has advanced the idea that the principle of causality is based on the activity of thought and hence is valid only in the logical order and not in the order of reality. According to Locke's theory of knowledge, we do not know whether the principle of cause has validity also in the order of external reality.
(3) The existence of things is sensed invincibly, because we feel passive in relation to sensations that come from outside us, and hence such sensations must be caused by external things which do not depend on us. But such knowledge is reduced to knowledge of primary qualities, and these must be objective. Now, such primary qualities are complex impressions resulting from the activity of the spirit. What we call the nature of such complex ideas (substance) is, according to Locke, only a supposition that we make, and not a true and certain interpretation of their real nature.
In conclusion, Locke's theory of knowledge, isolated from "being" and limited to whatever happens inside the mind itself, cannot break through the ring of phenomenalism in which it is enclosed and reach metaphysical data.
What we say in regard to Rationalism, must be repeated here: Beginning with the data of reason alone, Rationalism, in order to attain truth, must appeal to some external element -- for Descartes, the veracity of God; for Malebranche, revelation; for Leibnitz, pre-established harmony.
Locke also begins with the data of the spirit (although the data are taken in the order of sense experience), and must appeal to the principle of causality in order to prove the existence of our being, of the world, and of God. But he has already denied that this principle of causality has validity in the world of real beings outside the mind. He forgets that a purely empirical theory of knowledge must end in pure phenomenalism, not only on the level of thought (logic), but also on the level of actual reality (metaphysics).
Also see: What is Wrong With Locke's Philosophy?
V. Locke's Ethics and Politics
In ethics Locke separates himself from Empiricism and comes close to Rationalism. There are no innate moral ideas; the criterion of moral actions is a man's well-being, for experience teaches that man tends to pleasure and flees from pain. Up to this point, Locke stands on utilitarian grounds and remains within the boundaries of English tradition. But this utilitarianism is not regulated by the savage rights of nature, as Thomas Hobbes taught.
Locke holds that rights can be determined from the relations that exist between an infinitely intelligent being (God) and a rational but dependent being. The moral norms are hence rational, and are identified with the divine right and then with natural right. Moral laws must have a due sanction (rewards and punishment) which is imposed on the will in such a manner as to restrain man from diverging from the tendency that leads to his own well-being.
With one's own pleasure as the foundation of morality, it is impossible to speak of free will: Locke says that there is no liberty of choice between two different goods; the greater good imposes itself per se upon the will. There exists liberty of execution, however, in so far as the will is able not to deliberate, or not to operate after having deliberated.
Regarding the origins of society, Locke, like Hobbes, distinguishes a state of nature (natural state) and the transition from this state to the state of society through a contract. However, he opposes Hobbes by holding that in the state of nature man did not live in a wild condition, in which right was force. Men even at this time were rational and had the notion of the fundamental rights of life, of liberty, property, etc. To better guarantee such rights, man has entered, through means of a contract, into society, and has conceded some of his natural rights to the sovereign, together with the power to defend them.
From man's natural condition to the state of society, there is hence a progression; but no innovation is involved. The sovereign who fails in his obligation to defend the rights of his subjects is no longer justified in his sovereignty and may be dismissed by his subjects.
Locke is considered the founder of liberal politics (classical liberalism), and his influence during the centuries following his lifetime has been great.
Adapted from the book: "Modern Philosophy"
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