Esser, Frederick: John Locke‘s Investigation into our Knowledge of Bodies



Kapitel Introduction

In the first book of the Essay Locke begins the execution of his overall programme by a thorough dismissal of a conception of knowledge based on innate ideas or propositions.<15> For Locke, the proposal of innate ideas and propositions is the result of a misconception of what our immediate assent to true propositions consists in.<16> He thus rejects both that there is knowledge adding up to innate ideas or propositions and that knowledge can be justified by innate ideas or propositions serving as principles to enlarge human knowledge.<17> On this backdrop, Locke motivates the analysis of the second book on ideas. He intends to show that ideas are not innate, but acquired in the light of experience, e. g. the idea of substance.<18> For this purpose, he inquires into the origin and content of our


ideas, examines the faculties being involved in their genesis, and assesses their content in different epistemological perspectives. This approach, Locke indicates, eventually leads to an alternative explanation of knowledge and of what immediate assent consists in.<19> The general aim of the account thus is to pave the way for a correct assessment of human knowledge by determining its foundation.<20>

In the comments specifically concerning ideas of bodies, Locke primarily aims at establishing one‘s limited grasp of bodies. The point of his reasoning is however not to give simply an account of the content of our ideas, since he apparently has a specific epistemological issue in mind. This becomes plain, when Locke insists that his assessment is to be distinguished from a scientific, explanatory account of bodies, of their properties, and of the physical processes that cause ideas in the human mind.<21> However, as indicated in the introduction, despite his repeated efforts to differentiate his own programme from that of a natural philosopher, it is hotly disputed what the epistemological topic is.

The aim of this part is to make plain that Locke‘s major contentions on ideas of bodies determine their content from a specific, ideal scientific viewpoint. Locke thus intends to show, I argue, that one‘s conceptual understanding of bodies is far from being an ideal scientific grasp. This account comprises several aspects specifying by which properties bodies are ideally to be depicted and in which kind of concepts these properties are to be understood.

In the first chapter, I will argue for two points. First, Locke‘s analysis of ideas of bodies is an assessment of one‘s conceptual understanding of bodies, i. e. of the depiction of bodies as it is entailed in our concepts of them, e. g. ’gold‘ and ’man‘. Second, in the comments on archetypes Locke conceives ideas of bodies in the perspective of a specific epistemic project, namely of an ideal scientific classification. The next chapter delineates Locke‘s characterization of the substratum of bodies and its identification with matter in explanatory terms which are neither confined to corpuscularian nor to any other theory. Chapters three, four, and five reconstruct successively: Locke‘s notion of resemblance,


what it means for qualities (not) to be real, and the argument establishing the account of qualities as a whole. As will be contended, crucially for all three aspects, ideas and properties of bodies are discussed in an ideal scientific perspective depicting bodies and their properties from a perception-neutral viewpoint.

Locke‘s comments on ideas thus assess the contemporary conceptual comprehension of bodies from a twofold epistemic viewpoint. It specifies both in virtue of which properties and in terms of which concepts bodies are ideally grasped, depicted and classified. For this purpose, Locke relies partly on corpuscularian theory and partly goes beyond it. In fact, the result is an intriguing and complex relationship between Locke‘s ideal epistemological viewpoint and Boyle‘s physical theory, since the intelligibility of Locke‘s arguments draws in part on Boyle‘s model of body. But though Locke‘s views on an ideal grasp are decidedly inspired by Boyle‘s hypothesis, it likewise becomes plain that he pursuits a genuine philosophical project. The programme of Locke‘s analysis is to determine one‘s conceptual grasp of bodies in the perspective of what he regards a scientific understanding ideally to be.



43, I.i.2. Cp. 44, I.i.3. Quotations from the Essay refer to the Nidditch edition. I abbreviate them as follows: page, book.chapter.paragraph. Citations from other works by Locke refer to the edition of his collected works from 1823 and are identified by the short title ’Works‘. Other references are by page number to the editions listed under ’Bibliography‘.


Cp. 43, I.i.2; 140, II.viii.22; 287, II.xxi.73; 376, II.xxxi.2;548, IV.iii.16.


102f, I.iv.25; 104, II.i.1.


401, II.xxxiii.19; 579,


720, IV.xxi.1f.


Alexander (1985), 6f.


McCann (1994), 58ff.


Atherton (1992), 122.


Cp. Ayers (1991), II, 65-77; Mackie (1975), 85-88; Woolhouse (1971), 99-105; Yolton (1970), 28-34.


Cp. Ayers (1991), II, 76.


In other words: if the real essence of a specimen were traditionally conceived, namely as comprising the microphysical properties corresponding to the nominal essence of its sort (or, alternatively, as comprising all the microphysical features a body possesses), many of Locke‘s prominent reasonings would be incoherent, conceptually confused, or would in some passages openly contradict his use of ’real essence‘.


As Locke emphasizes when introducing the Essay to the reader, he attempts to “[remove] some of the Rubbish, that lies in the way to Knowledge“ by displaying “frivolous use of uncouth, affected, or unintelligible Terms“. Cp.Epistle, 10.


Cp. Ayers (1970), 39; Ayers (1991), I, 102, and II, 147; Krüger (1973), 243-46; Mackie (1975), 100-103; Wilson (1979), 143 and 147; Wilson (1982), 249; Woolhouse (1971), 19, 25, and 136.


Cp. Alexander (1985), 282f; Ayers (1991), I, 103 and 126; Jenkins (1983), 196ff; Lowe (1995), 174; Specht (1989), 129f.


104, II.i.1.


99, I.iv.22; 101, I.iv.24.


Cp. 55, I.ii.15; 58, I.ii.19. Cp. ch. 8b and 10d.


48, I.ii.1; 104, II.i.1f; 95, I.iv.18.


Cp. 55, I.ii.15.


102, II.iv.25.


Cp. 43, I.i.2; 140, II.viii.22; 287, II.xxi.73; 376, II.xxxi.2; 548, IV.iii.16.

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