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Locke 1

Commentary on Books II and IV of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Book II of the Essay

Book II of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding is where Locke begins his positive account of knowledge, but explaining what kinds of ideas we have. This account culminates in Book IV when he sets out his account of knowledge, and the different things which we can and cannot know. The selections we are reading are from both Book II and Book IV of the Essay. We are going to try to see how the discussion of the nature of ideas effects the discussion of knowledge. In the sections from Book II we are going to focus on Locke account of the origins of ideas in sensation and reflection (Chapters 1-12 of Book II, the distinction between simple and complex ideas, the distinction between primary and secondary qualities and the distinctions between substances, modes and relations. We will consider some comparisons and contrasts with Descartes. We will also consider Locke's account of free will as a transition to his political writings.

Reading Locke

How should one approach Locke's Essay? The first point is that you are reading chunks of text from different parts of the book. So, it is important to have some sense of what the structure of the book as a whole is, and what the subject matter of the chunks you are reading is, so that you understand how the part you are reading fits into the whole. In the last section of the background, I provided you with this information. Now, in approaching the chunks you are going to read, one strategy is to try to write something like an outline of each chapter. In this outline you should briefly describe the content of the chapter, and then list questions or things which you don't understand and also points of interest. Doing this will give you a sense of the range of topics about ideas which Locke is covering. This will be useful when you come to Book IV, because that range of topics about ideas will be mapped into conclusions about the extent of human knowledge. You should follow the same procedure with Book IV. In this commentary, I point out some of the interesting features of Locke's discussion of ideas.

Locke on ideas -- perception and reflection, simple and complex. Chapters 1 through 8

This section is intended to guide you through the first eight chapters of Book II of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

The term 'idea,' Locke tells us "...stands for whatsoever is the Object of the Understanding, when a man thinks." (Essay I, 1, 8, 25) This is similar to the account which Descartes gives of ideas. Thus, in his reply to the third set of objections to the Meditations, Descartes writes: "But I make it quite clear in several places throughout the book...that I am taking the word 'idea' to refer to whatever is immediately perceived by the mind." (Descartes, Selected Philosophical Writings, trans. Cottingham, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988. Pg. 132) Descartes and many other philosophers and theologians during this period believed in innate ideas and principles. Locke devotes the first book of the Essay to a refutation of the doctrine that there are innate ideas and principles. Having set aside the possibility of innate ideas, Locke announces at the beginning of Book II of the Essay that our ideas originate from two sources -- from sensation and reflection.

Locke's rejection of innate ideas and his claim that the mind is a blank tablet before experience writes on it, marks a significant difference between Locke and Descartes. Locke accepts while Descartes rejects what is often called the empiricist axiom -- that there is nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the senses. This has led historians of philosophy to characterize Locke as an empiricist, along with Berkeley and Hume; while characterizing Descartes, along with Spinoza and Leibniz, as a rationalist. It is true that all of the philosophers in the first group reject innate ideas and accept the empiricist axiom on one interpretation or another; while all the philosophers in the second group hold that there are innate ideas, and reject the empiricist axiom. It is also true that all of the philosophers in the first group, often called the British Empiricists, reject the Ontological argument for the existence of God; while all the philosophers in the second group, often called Continental Rationalists, accept some form of the Ontological argument. This argument purports to prove that God exists from the definition of God. Recent scholars have argued persuasively that the contrast between empiricists and rationalists has been much too over simplified, and that all of these philosophers have much in common. Still, grasping the distinction between rationalism and empiricism is probably a good place for someone beginning a study of this period to start.

For Locke, ideas in the mind correspond to qualities in objects (See Chapter VIII, 8.) In Book II, Chapter III we learn of simple ideas such as 'white' or 'cold' derived from a single sense. In Chapter V Locke mentions other simple ideas, such as extension, figure, rest or motion, which are derived from more than one sense. Thus, we learn about extension from both touch and sight. Chapter VI explores simple ideas derived from reflection rather than sensation. Our ideas of the faculties of the will and understanding are such simple ideas of reflections. Ideas such as remembrance, discerning, reasoning, judging, knowledge and faith are modes of the will and understanding. These ideas stand for operations of the understanding itself. In Chapter VII Locke explore s ideas derived from both sensation and reflection. These include pleasure and pain, power, existence and unity.

Locke, unlike Descartes, is an atomist. The two basic constituents of the world for an atomist are atoms and the void space between them and in which they move. Descartes is a plenum theorist -- that is, like Aristotle, he believes the universe is filled with matter and there is no void or vacuum. Thus the essential property of a body for Descartes is simply that it occupy space, for there is no space apart from body. For Descartes, there are bodies of different kinds, some denser, some more rarefied (he has three classes of matter), so that those of the second and third class can move through the less dense ones. For Locke, on the other hand, in order for something to be a body it must not only occupy space, but it must be solid or impenetrable as well. Thus Chapter IV "Of Solidity" serves to distinguish the Lockean conception of bodies from that of Descartes. On the one hand Locke distinguishes solidity from space, and on the other hand solidity from hardness.


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