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What Is Wrong With Locke's Philosophy?

Preliminary Remarks

It should be noted, before reading the critique of John Locke's philosophy given below, that Locke, while in error on many points regarding the traditional philosophical questions, made a major contribution to the development of modern political philosophy. For instance, 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.

Locke also opposes Thomas Hobbes' theory of society 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, and so forth. From man's natural condition to the state of society, there is 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 classical liberal politics, and his influence during the centuries following his lifetime has been great, including his philosophical contributions to the founding of the American Republic. For more information about this, see my essay John Locke: Philosopher of Freedom and Natural Rights.

Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

A Critique of Locke's Philosophy

John Locke (1632-1704) was a notable exponent of empiricism. He was a native of Wrington in Somersetshire, England, and was educated at Oxford. His most notable piece of writing is An Essay Concerning the Human Understanding.

Locke had the characteristics of most of the articulate university men of his day: a petulant rejection of Scholasticism without understanding it; a self-confident notion of doing philosophy all over again from the ground up; a readiness to speak with an air of finality upon subjects imperfectly mastered.

Now, the desire to see philosophical doctrines so clearly expressed and proved that none may doubt them is human and natural and even admirable. But the assumption that all philosophy can be reduced to the clarity of A-B-C is fantastic. And the further assumption that all philosophers of past times have been woolly-minded blunderers is ignorance and intolerable "cheek." The old impatience, the old want of humility, which brought in Humanism, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and all the other thin veneerings which tried to pass for truth are evident in Locke as they are evident in Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and nearly all the philosophers who abandoned an authentic commonsense realism.

Locke had doubtlessly in mind the recasting of philosophy, for he was not wholly pleased with Bacon's plan for empiricism. Still, he seems to have had no detailed plan of his own. Indeed, he did not feel the need of any plan. He was convinced that, once the human mind had learned to grasp things clearly, once it knew its own powers and recognized its true limitations, once it was sure of the nature and extent of its knowledge, the developing of philosophy would be sheerly natural growth. Thus, Locke's special interest was the epistemological question, and he wrote of it in his famous Essay.

Keen as he was on clarity of knowledge, Locke did not escape the fatal confounding of sense-knowledge with intellectual knowledge. And so he proceeded to make confusion more confounded, so that one may take not only different, but opposite, doctrines from the premises his theories afford. Follow him in one set of principles and develop these to the end; you find yourself in idealism, the dream-philosophy which turns reality into shadow. Follow him in another set of thoughts, and you will be involved in sensism and positivism which takes the reality around us as the only thing there is, and denies value to the intellect and to reasoning (even to the reasoning by which you have reached this dull conclusion). This impossible agglomeration of conflicting theories was proposed, explicitly or implicitly, by a man of undoubted mental gifts who was thwarted at the outset by his muddling of the basic question of all philosophy, the epistemological question.

The Epistemological Question

Locke strenuously opposed Descartes' doctrine of innate ideas. All knowledge has its origin in experience, in sense-perception. The elements of knowledge are the ideas, and Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, explains the idea in the following manner:

"It being that term which, I think, serves best to stand for whatever is the object of the understanding when a man thinks, I have used it to express whatever is meant by phantasm, notion, species, or whatever it is which the mind can be employed about in thinking."

Descartes placed all sense-perception in the spiritual mind, thus identifying sense-perception with spiritual activity; Locke here does the reverse, by reducing ideas, at least in part, down to the level of sense-perception (phantasm, species). By thus arbitrarily blurring the nature of the idea so as to include sense-perception, he laid the foundation for sensism, where all thinking is nothing but a form of sensation. Another important feature of this definition of "idea" is, that the "idea" is the object of our understanding, instead of the reality of things being the object of our knowledge.

Ideas, according to Locke, are derived from two sources -- sense-perception and reflection; and all knowledge is restricted to ideas.

"Since the mind, in all its thoughts and reasonings, hath no other immediate object but its own ideas, which it alone does or can contemplate, it is evident that our knowledge is only conversant about them. Knowledge, then, seems to me to be nothing but the perception of the connection of and agreement, or disgreement and repugnancy of any of our ideas. In this alone it consists."

This means, of course, that we do not really know objects or things-in-themselves, but ideas or conscious states of the mind; and this is the standpoint of Descartes and idealism. Locke, however, did not deny the existence of material substances, such as bodies, nor of spiritual substances, such as the soul and God; but substance is unknowable to us, whether material or immaterial.

"Our idea of substance is equally obscure, or none at all, in both; it is but a supposed I-know-not-what, to support those ideas we call accidents...By the complex idea of extended, figured, colored, and all other sensible qualities, which is all that we know of it, we are as far from the idea of the substance of the body, as if we knew nothing at all."

While Locke, therefore, admits the existence of material and spiritual "substances," he asserts that they are unknowable; "accidents" or "phenomena" alone are knowable; he is in last instance an empirical phenomenalist.

Primary and Secondary Qualities

Locke is remembered for his distinguishing of primary and secondary sense-qualities in bodily things. In his study upon the nature of knowledge, he had constantly to face such questions as: are sense-objects really what they appear to be; is the grass really green; is the whirling wheel actually in motion; is the stone truly solid? Locke decided that there are certain qualities common to all bodies (impenetrability, extension, shape, rest, motion) and these are primary qualities which exist as objective things. He said that there are also other qualities not found in all bodies alike (color, sound, taste, odor, temperature, resistance) and these are secondary qualities which are largely subjective, that is, not so much objective things as the perceivings or feelings of the person who senses them.

Locke's distinction of sense-qualities as primary and secondary may serve us as a mere convenient list. But his theory of their objective reality cannot stand. For we are wholly unaware of the primary qualities except through the medium of the secondary. And if the secondary be unreliable (being largely subjective) we have no reason to put any trust in the actuality of the primary qualities. Locke's theory of sense-qualities points the way to the self-contradiction of complete skepticism.

Adapted from the book: "Modern Philosophy"

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