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



Kapitel Introduction

As Locke declares, he had to discover in the course of writing the Essay that an assessment of human knowledge affords a systematic, separate analysis of the role which words play.<258> Locke therefore conceives the third book of the Essay on language as an important part of his overall epistemological programme. This epistemological outlook manifests in Locke‘s focus on general terms and universal propositions, since for him knowledge of the latter is the kind of knowledge which, in principle, enlarges our understanding at most since it relates to many particulars at once.<259> On first sight, however, one cannot discern an epistemological issue. The first step of Locke‘s argument is the development of a positive account of general terms which determines their signification and the nature of the species they denote. On this backdrop, he subsequently assesses the so-called


imperfections and abuses of words. Finally, Locke proposes a use of general terms which takes into account their imperfection and abuses. But what is the epistemological issue underlying the comments on names of bodies?

Generally speaking, I will argue that Locke advances his account to establish partly, or at least to pave the way for, his contemporary conception of a science of bodies. As will first be contended, the aim of the account of species and their essences is not simply to substitute his own views for Aristotelian ones. Rather, Locke primarily intends to make plain that contemporary classifications of bodies are far from being an ideal scientific sorting (cp. chapter 6), irrespective of whether they are Aristotelian or Lockean schemes.

This argument will be underscored by a radical re-interpretation of Locke‘s notion of real essence (cp. chapter. 7). In the light of previous results as well as of further aspects, ’real essence‘ is understood to be part and parcel of an ideal scientific classification. Given the “omipresence“ of the concept, this reconstruction has considerable impact on Locke‘s overall argument, especially on his theory of knowledge as we will see in part three.

This classificatory issue is further deepened and complemented by Locke‘s disclosure of the imperfection and abuses of names of bodies (cp. chapter 8). Locke attempts here to reveal important Cartesian and Aristotelian notions and connected knowledge claims as being based on an improper use of terms. These concepts are central for a Cartesian and Aristotelian science of bodies so that Locke‘s analysis adds up to a refutation of their conceptions of a science of bodies. Considering the influence which Cartesian and Aristotelian views enjoyed in Locke‘s time, his rejection is a remarkable attempt to annihilate these competing theories at once and all together on purely linguistic grounds.

This is also the aspect of the epistemological programme which Locke most strongly emphasizes. As he declares in the Epistle to the Reader, he attempts to expose alleged “deep Learning, and heighth of Speculation“ as the “frivolous use of uncouth, affected, or unintelligible Terms“ and as “[v]ague and insignificant Forms of Speech, and Abuse of Language“.<260> Locke likewise intends to highlight that language leads naturally to false knowledge claims and fruitless debates: “[t]he greatest part of the Questions and Controversies that perplex Mankind [depend] on the doubtful and uncertain use of


Words“.<261> In this sense, the language critic is supposed “[to remove] some of the Rubbish, that lies in the way to Knowledge“.<262> That is, Locke attempts to open the path for true knowledge by destructing wrong theories in the light of his analysis of language. And as we will see, Locke is indeed interested in the defects of language use virtually only in so far as they obstruct the enhancement of our scientific grasp of bodies.

On the backdrop of this dismissal of abuses, obscure notions, and untenable knowledge claims, Locke recommends a use of words in connection with his own theory of names, species, and essences. In fact, this account already establishes essential aspects of the kind of science of bodies which Locke approves. That is, the analysis of language paves the way for a conception of science which is developed and justified in the fourth book on knowledge. It thus becomes plain that the programme of Locke‘s argument on names of bodies is an analysis of their signification and usage in order to establish a specific conception of a science of bodies and to bury alternative ideas. The issue is what a science of bodies can and should consist in.

But desipite Locke‘s rhetorical stress on the “ill use of words“, one should not misconceive his account in two ways. First, the core of the argument is accomplished in the positive account of names, species, and essences. For Locke characterizes here the signification of names of bodies which will then serve in later parts as the basis of the reasoning. Locke‘s criticism of alternative theories as being rooted in abuses of words therefore explains, strictly speaking, only the source of what goes wrong in the opponent‘s reasoning. Second, for Locke language is not only a natural source for obstructions of knowledge, but also an indispensable means to establish comprehensive knowledge. Language is conceived as essential for the progress of knowledge because it is a crucial instrument for thinking and for the communication of thought.<263> The use of words thus makes it possible to enlarge human knowledge in the first place. Accordingly, one has to


conceive Locke‘s pronunciated language critic and his suggestions of how to use words in scientific discourse: the use of words is necessary for the systematic advancement of knowledge - but to achieve progress one has to use them in the right way.



401, II.xxxiii.19.


578, IV.v.10.


Epistle, 10.


Epistle, 13.


Epistle, 10.


476, III.ix.1ff.

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