John Locke, A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

John Locke, a perspective

Who was he? He was the first of the three Empiricists (1632-1704) He believed the mind at birth is like a blank tablet to be written on by the world of experience. He was a political personality and the author of the liberal exposition ‘Two Treatises of Government’. He was a political philosopher. He was deeply influenced by the thoughts of Aristotle and wrote like rationalist like Rene’ Descartes. Being an associate of the Earl of Shaftesbury, he was exiled in Holland. He returned to England after the glorious and bloodless revolution of 1688. In modern philosophy he is known for his views on the nature of human knowledge expressed in his ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding’. He influenced many thinkers such as Berkeley, Hume and Kant. This essay is about the essence and nature of human understanding. What does this mean? This is about the way human mind collects, organizes, classifies and finally makes judgments grounded on data received by the senses. Being a close friend of two prominent and contemporary scientists, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, he tried to build the basis of human knowledge on a purely scientific ground. He studied Descartes’ ‘Meditation’; however, he rejected the rationalist philosophy which supported its conclusion.

There was no innate knowledge. In other words, whatever we know must be received from experience, by the actions of the physical world working on our senses. This is what is named as ‘Empiricism’. As you see, the philosophy of knowledge formulated by both Socrates and Plato are completely out of the window. Quine, the late professor of philosophy at Harvard University is said to have followed this philosophy in essence if not detail. Empiricism also influenced other thinkers as well. Quine, nevertheless, is also said to have changed his mind towards the end of his life and accepted Plato’s ideas. (Avram) Noam Chomsky, the professor of language at MIT, who is a linguist as well as a political writer, was a philosopher of innate, or generative, grammar. He seems to have acknowledged the importance of Plato’s philosophy.

Locke argued that our mind at birth is similar to a blank slate, or what we call ‘tabula rasa’, which is waiting to be written on through experience. Our mind, in other words, is a blank tablet. Being an Aristotelian thinker we wouldn’t expect otherwise.

Aristotle rejected Plato’s Forms of perfection, which are transcendent and immutable. Aristotle argued that those Forms are but concepts in our mind. For instance, I see hundred horses, and then I form a concept called ‘horse’. Of course, later on he must have realized that his pure Form, which was pure actuality, corresponded to Plato’s Form of the Good.

Locke believed all human knowledge comes from ideas presented to the mind by the world of experience. Nonetheless, these ideas can be divided into two kinds: there’re complex and simple ideas. The latter are directly produced by sensory stimulation like ‘yellow’, ‘bitter’, ‘warm’, ‘round’, ‘hard’ and rough. Complex ideas are put together by simple ideas, which are produced through mental functions. Tables, chairs, cats, dogs and horses are familiar material objects. We see these items in the world. Complex ideas, however, don’t have to represent anything real in our world. For example, when we see a horse and a bird with large wings, we could imagine a flying horse, which we call Pegasus. Pegasus itself is made up from combining ‘horse’ and ‘wings’ of a large bird like a turkey vulture or eagle.

Simple ideas can be divided between primary qualities of objects and secondary ones. There’re qualities that are inherent to all things and those that are visible based on the effects they have on our senses. The examples of primary qualities are solidity, extension, shape, motion or rest, and number. As to the secondary qualities, they’re like color, scent and taste. These qualities don’t inherent in objects themselves, but they become causally created just in our mind through the effect of the object’s primary qualities upon our senses. In other words, primary qualities are objective realities, namely, they really exist and secondary qualities are realities that only exist in our mind. Here is the difference between objective and subjective realities, primary one is objective while secondary is subjective.

When a tree falls in the forest, does it create a sound when there’s no one to hear it? Locke would solve this conundrum by saying that the falling tree produces vibrations in the air, but there’s no ‘sound’, because sound is not a ‘real’ or primary quality. This idea is sometimes named ‘scientific essentialism’. This would direct us to the metaphysical conclusion, which says in the absence of a perceiving mind, color or sound, sweet or sour facts don’t even exist. Nonetheless, there’re such things as shape, extension and solidity without the presence of a perceiving person. Of course, the Irish philosopher Bishop Berkeley responded to this by saying that God perceives everything even if we’re not there. Of course, this is very much anthropomorphic in nature. What is anthropomorphism? It is a word made of ‘anthropos’ (man) and ‘morphe’ (form). The attributing of human characteristics to gods, objects, etc. (Webster’s New World Dictionary)

In the Aristotelian philosophy of substance and accident Locke must have found out something to come up with his own intellectual project. Simple ideas could possibly match ‘accident’ and complex ideas can be thought of as ‘substance’. We have several kinds of apple. Some are green and others red or yellow. These are accidents, according to Aristotle. Their substance is simply apple. These complex ideas or substances are, as we said before, like tables, chairs, cats, dogs and horses. We think about something I can sit on. So, I create a chair out of wood. I made this out of simple ideas. However, complex ideas don’t have to correspond to anything real in the world we live in. Therefore, Pegasus comes in the show, which is a horse with two huge wings.

 As you suspect, rationalism is about to enter in. By dividing the simple ideas we come to the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. The former is about solidity, extension, shape, motion or rest, and number. The latter is regarding color, scent and taste.  Remember, Thomas Aquinas once said there’s nothing in the intellect that is not already in the senses.

Locke studied Descartes’ philosophy and based his philosophy on both of them. Like Descartes he believed in the mind and beyond mind. The world that is beyond mind is dealing with the primary qualities, which are objective and really exist. But the secondary qualities, which are subjective, exist only in the minds of observers. However, Locke is not able to bridge the existing gap between mind and body created by Descartes. Instead he reduces everything to experience. Mind and body division of Descartes evolved into empiricism and rationalism. The former system stays with the facts and the latter deals with the mind and its reason. Locke learned a lot from Descartes especially when it came to the difference between mind and body. What is not mind, to Descartes, is extension and volume. This reminds us of Locke’s primary qualities of objects. Body, according to Descartes is a different substance than mind. So mind and body have their own substance. This is missing in Locke’s philosophy.

John Locke followed Aristotle’s exclusion of women in politics. Women couldn’t vote in his political philosophy. Suffrage or the right to vote was taken away from women in the Greek society of Athens. Plato, however, tried to restore the status of women and believed even a qualified woman could become a philosopher queen. Aristotle disagreed with him on this matter. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) the third president of the United States was deeply influenced by Locke’s philosophy. Women in America didn’t have the right to vote till the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to Aristotle, Locke and Jefferson.

When Locke finally argued in reference to the tree falling in the woods, he maintained that in the absence of a perceiving mind, there’s no such a thing as color or sound, sweet or sour. However, there’re in fact such things as shape, extension and solidity whether someone perceive them or not. This is exactly where Bishop Berkeley attacked Locke by saying that what is your proof that there’re such things as shape, extension and solidity? After all, are not these also our ideas? The only knowledge we have is what we know of our ideas. Where did we learn about shape and extension? At the end of the day we’re not cognizant of the world beyond, if there’s one at all for us to observe. Berkeley very rightly said all what we know are our own ideas and nothing more. How do we know what is behind the curtain? What if there’s nothing there? How can we come to a metaphysical world from ‘scientific essentialism’? Descartes had the same problem and to solve it he tried to prove the existence of God, which he failed. If there’s a God, who knows the world beyond, how do I know there’s? Who is this God that I’m trying to prove its existence any way? Is this a God I have created for myself? Is this the God who is standing out there, which is exactly what the word ‘existence’ means? If we’re dealing with the Ultimate Reality, then it cannot be even proven, because it is beyond being and non-being, existence and non-existence. Then what are we left with? In fact Locke left us in a limbo as far as the other side, if there’s the side at all. We still have no idea what is beyond our mind. Death doesn’t seem to be able to help us in this matter. How do we know what the objective world is all about? Thus, we’re here with our subjectivity and its ideas.

When we don’t hear the sound of a falling tree, we conclude that no such a thing existed. Locke doesn’t help us understand that even if none of us were in the forest, God is present there and everywhere.

When the king abdicated his thrown after the bloodless revolution of 1688, the hierarchy of the British monarchy collapsed. The king ever since never ruled again. They say the king only reigned but didn’t rule. Symbolically God as the Ultimate Sovereign was also removed from the picture. This paved the way for our American revolution to start with the absence of God.

Am I making any sense at all? Who knows! This is just my opinion and let scholars of John Locke decide as to what they want to do.

The problem with Locke is that very subjectivism, which haunts him. We color our world or better, we’re the ones who give color to our black and white TV’S. He was the one who came up with ‘life, liberty, and pursuit of property, which later was changed by Thomas Jefferson as ‘life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness’. Indigenous people of this land didn’t even have a word for ownership. Before they knew it the whole continent was taken over by those who value properties. Was this the Promised Land? Would God have approved of this occupation? The whole Manhattan was bought for only a few dollars. However, Locke believed you just cannot own lands without working on them.

As far as social contract theory, he rejected Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), because of his view on this subject. Hobbes believed we’re inherently evil following Glaucon Plato’s older brother. Just like Aristotle he argued that we come into this world with potentials for doing good and vice versa. Plato believed we’re good by nature. Mencius (c.380-289) B.C, the Chinese philosopher, who was following Confucius a century later also, argued that we’re all good by nature. Another Chinese thinker believed otherwise. However, both of them advocated education. Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), the Swiss French philosopher was Platonist believing we’re all good by nature. He was behind our revolution and French one. When it comes to Locke, it seems he believed we could either swing one way or the other way. Remember he argued we’re like blank tablet. So we cannot be inherently good or bad.

Even though Locke followed Aristotle, he failed to come up with pure Form, which is pure actuality.

Locke was to avoid Plato’s philosophy of ‘Ideae’ or Form as it was called later on. If we’re not careful, we might confuse the word ‘Ideae’ with ‘Idea’. The former has nothing to do with the latter. ‘Ideae’ refers to wholeness. Plato’s Forms are perfect, immutable, and transcendent. By simple ideas Locke is trying to show they’re the immediate (direct) results of sensory stimulation. If you recall, he gave the examples of ‘yellow’, ‘bitter’. Complex ideas are made out of simple ideas, and are the consequences of internal mental functions. These are like tables, chairs. He is breaking down these ideas to show there’re no such things as table-ness or chair-ness. My computer also follows Locke not Plato. For him a forest is not a whole. It consists of individual number of trees. Therefore, eventually there’s no humanity but humans. If there’s, it is only a concept in our mind. These concepts are to correspond to the world.     

America was built Locke’s idea. He said you have liberty under the law. Let us not forget that Locke was the philosopher of the colonies at one point in history.

John Locke, nevertheless, was a great British thinker and a wonderful political philosopher.

Philosophy, 100 Essential Thinkers, by Philip Stokes