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Locke 1

Substances, Modes and Relations -- Chapter 12

The distinction between modes and substances is a fundamental one in Locke's philosophy. Material substances are external objects. We try to grasp the nature of these objects and to represent what we have grasped by creating an idea. We put into this complex idea those simple ideas which correspond to the qualities which we find in the object. Some properties are apparent and others are not; some are easy to grasp and others are not. On the whole, mankind made up as it is of cooks and tailors, lovers and fisherfolk, make ideas, and language, for quite pragmatic and ordinary purposes and they use apparent qualities to do so. These are mainly ideas of secondary qualities. Scientists come along latter to try to determine if the connections between properties which the ordinary folk have put together in a particular idea as represented by it in a corresponding word, in fact holds in nature. Still, even scientists, in Locke's view are restricted to using secondary qualities to catagorize things in nature. Sometimes, the scientists may find that the ordinary folk have erred, as when they called whales fish. A whale is not a fish, as it turns out, but a mammal. There is a characteristic group of qualities which fish have which whales do not have. There is a characteristic group of qualities which mammals have which whales also have. To classify a whale as a fish therefore is a mistake. Similarly, we might make an idea of gold which only included being a soft metal and gold color. If so, we would be unable to distinguish between gold and fool's gold. Unfortunately for our knowledge of material substances and thus science, on Locke's view we can never really get at the clockwork which produces the apparent qualities we do perceive. The most that even scientists can do is to try to determine if apparent qualities are always connected in nature. But the underlying machinery, the atomic constituion of things, which causes apparent qualities to be linked together is hidden from us.

The Great Strasbourg Clock
In Book III, Locke illustrates this point by comparing our situation to that of a gazing countryman who comes to see the great clock at Strasbourg. This clock was a mechanical marvel of its time. The clock was built in 1570-74. At ground level the main features were, in the center a three foot astronomical globe with a 24 hour movement, and behind it a 10 foot rotating calendar and clock, recording years and months, days and nights, equinoxes and festivals; above this presided the titular deity for the day of the week. Two fixed side panels recorded the eclipses. At first floor level the central astrolabe plotted the position of the planets in the zodiac and marked the hours, minutes and quarters were shown by the dial at the front of the balustrade. The dial above the astrolabe depicted the current phase of the moon. At the third level, rotating jacks struck the quarter hours and Death the hours. The whole structure was elaborately sculpted and painted with religious, allegorical and secular motifs. The tower on the left housed the weights and was surmounted by a mechanical cockerel, which sprang into life after each carillon but was damaged by lightening in the early seventeenth century. The clock was derelict by the late eighteenth century and was redesigned and rebuilt in 1839-42.

The great clock at Strasbourg was used by a variety of philosophers in the 17th and 18th century as an analogue or model for the universe which suggested that God was a great clock maker. So, Locke is saying that while we can come and be astonished by the outward appearances of things (as the gazing countryman is of the outward marvels of the clock), we can never get at the inner springs and wheels (the organization of the atomic constitution of material substances), which are known only to the clock maker (God) and his assistants (the angels). As a result, our ideas of material substances are always likely to be inadequate, and our knowledge of the material world, such as it is, is of the lowest kind. In fact, in Book IV Chapter 3 sections 8-18, Locke points to the limits on our knowledge of substances and does not even call this kind of cognition knowledge.

Our ideas of modes are remarkably different from our ideas of substances. Our ideas of modes are complex ideas, just as our ideas of substances are. So we make such ideas, rather than passively receiving them. But the archetype of the ideas of modes is not external. Rather the ideas themselves are the archetype. Rather than measuring the adequacy of our idea by comparing it with the external archetype which we seek to copy and represent as we do with substances, we take the ideas of modes to be perfect, and simply ask whether things in the world have the characteristic group of simple ideas in that mode or does not. If a thing does, we call it by the word corresponding to that modal idea, if not, then we deny that that name applies. Thus, having made the idea of 'bachelor' our of 'unmarried' and 'adult human male' -- we can go around determining who is a bachelor and who is not. When we find an adult human male who is not unmarried, this does not cause is to reflect that there is something inadequate about our idea of bachelor. Rather we simply conclude that that term does nor apply to this person. The implications for knowledge are profound. We can know modal objects perfectly, in a way in which knowledge of substances is not possible. The objects of mathematics, such a numbers, and geometrical figures like triangles, circles, and squares are all modal ideas. As a consequence it is possible to have a deductive science of mathematics.

Science and Knowledge of Morality --Book IV Chapter 4

Because ethical ideas are modes, Locke holds out the possibility that there might be a deductive science of morality, just as there is a deductive science of mathematics. Thus, in principle it is possible for us to know the nature of morality with complete certainty, and thus to guide our conduct with some assurance. It is striking that in this age of incredible scientific advancement, of which Locke was perfectly aware, Locke is much more pessimistic about the possibility of scientific knowledge than he is about the knowledge of morality. One has only to look at the contrast between what he says in Book IV Chapter 4 about what we can know on the basis of our ideas of substances with what we can know about modal ideas to see how sharp this contrast is. This may well reflect the fact that Locke thinks God has given us enough light to perform our duties in life. It may be that what we can know, reflects what is really important for these purposes.


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