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


Kapitel 6. Species and Essences

In his comments on general terms, Locke proposes a theory of classification, namely an account of what species are. He raises two chief claims with respect to sorts of bodies. First, species are determined by nominal essences and not by real essences. Second, nominal essences are made by men, not by nature. Locke thus puts forward a theory of, first, the criteria by which species are determined and, second, how in turn these criteria are determined. Moreover, the account is levelled at sorts to which speakers referred at his time by either scientific or common terms. This becomes plain partly by his examples and partly by remarks indicating that the sorts he speaks of are neither identical with nor aquivalent to species representing an ideal scientific classification of bodies.

In this way, the topic that the classification scheme being entailed in “our“ concepts is not an ideal scientific one is evidently present in his comments on species and their essences like in many other parts of the Essay. This is also the dominant view amongst commentators, since one usually agrees that for Locke one ideally sorts bodies in accordance to properties of the explanatory, microphysical stage.<264> My point will however be that this topic is not more or less loosely linked to the reasoning on species and essences as it seems to be on the face of Locke‘s remarks. Rather, his comments are manifestations of an issue overarching the two main arguments: in his chapter on the names of substances, Locke aims at demonstrating that prevailing classification schemes principally differ from an ideal scientific scheme. That is, contemporary classifications are neither identical with nor even aquivalent or analoguous to an ideal scheme. This is a crucial step forward for Locke‘s programme, since the assessment of our everyday species implies the refutation of the Aristotelian science of bodies and the foundation or conception of an alternative corpuscularian one. As will become plain in chapter eight,


on the backdrop of his theory of species and their essences, Locke can reveal Aristotelian knowledge claims as unintelligible and being based on an untenable abuse of words.<265>

To recontruct content and force of Locke‘s own view on species, it is sufficient to focus on those parts of his reasoning which directly argue for his two chief contentions. We will therefore set aside the various other strands, e. g. objections raised against alternative accounts of species like Aristotelian theory which attempt to show its unintelligibility as an explanatory account,<266> although we will touch on some of them in the present and the following chapters as well.<267> The key will be an adequate comprehension of what real essences are in this context. The interpretation thus proceeds as follows. The backdrop of both arguments is Locke‘s view on the signification of general terms which will therefore be highlighted first and what can be done straight forwardly since they are well known. Subsequently, the first argument will be assessed and then the second one, since the latter is based on the result of the former. On this backdrop, I will argue that Locke‘s grasp of his two key concepts, namely the distinction between nominal and real essences, shows that his theory of the species of bodies assesses our ordinary species in the perspective of ideal scientific sorts. An appropiate understanding of Locke‘s claim that species are made by man and not by nature will thereby serve as the key to disclose his account.

a. Locke‘s General Semantic Views

Norman Kretzmann<268> has rightly identified the main thesis of Locke‘s semantic theory as the claim that, by and large,<269> a general term stands immediately for an abstract idea: “The use then, of words, is to be sensible marks of ideas; and the ideas they stand for are their proper and immediate signification“.<270> Moreover, since an abstract idea represents


the entities being depicted by the idea, a general term is likewise conceived to signify the entities being represented by the idea for which the word stands.<271> As Locke explains, since an abstract idea can portray various entities due to its abstractness or generality, a general term signifies a class of entities: “That then which general Words signify, is a sort of Things; and each of them does that, by being a sign of an abstract Idea in the mind, to which Idea, as Things existing are found to agree, so they come to be ranked under that name; or, which is all one, be of that sort“.<272>

This understanding of the signification of general terms manifests Locke‘s general comprehension of the relationship between language, thought and world which was common at his time and conceived to be maintained by Aristotle.<273> Language signifies thought, and thought refers to, or represents, the world. Words gain semantic content in virtue of their relationship to thought. This is manifest in Locke‘s claim that words, if taken by themselves, do not signify anything and do so only if they are related to ideas.<274> There is no “natural connexion“<275> between words and entities in the world. A connection is only established by a conventional nexus between a name and an idea. Thus words refer to entities in the world in virtue of these entities being referred to by thought: “[...] this abstract Idea, being something in the Mind between the thing that exists, and the Name that is given to it; [...]“.<276> In this sense, words refer only indirectly to the world, namely via thought. And this relationship is expressed by Locke when he explains the reference or extension of a general term by the class of entities which the idea represents that is signified by the word.

There has been a recent debate of what Locke means by the primary signification of a


term. Clearly, he identifies an idea as the primary siginification of a general term. But what does this mean? Traditionally, Locke is conceived to assert a theory of meaning in the sense that he determines the extension of a word as the idea being signified by the term.<277> Several commentators have however attempted to revise this view, proposing different alternatives. To come to grips with the issue, I begin with E. J. Ashworth.

Ashworth makes two important points by highlighting aspects of Locke‘s main thesis in connection with a medieval discussion. As she argues, in saying that ideas, and not entities in the world, are the primary signification of words, Locke takes sides in a medieval discussion of how to determine the relationship between language, thought, and world, i. e. an adequate order of priority amongst words like categorematic terms, abstract ideas, and classes of entities.<278> Locke‘s contention that words primarily signify ideas is simply the claim that words denote entities in the world only by means of ideas.<279> This manifests in his argument that words, if taken by themselves, signify nothing, i. e. that words do not refer to anything if they are not related to ideas,<280> and that the extension of a term is the class of entities being represented by the idea that is signified by the word.<281> Ashworth‘s second major point is likewise correct that Locke does not assert that words denote ideas and not entities in the world. Locke is rather in line with the medieval standard view that entities are the extension of terms irrespective of whether they primarily signify ideas or entities.<282> This becomes evident in Locke‘s claim that words signify ideas only in order to denote entities: “[...] our Words signifie nothing but our Ideas, yet being designed by them to signifie Things [...]“.<283>

Ashworth however sees an even stronger affinity between Locke‘s account and the medieval topic with the result that Locke‘s main thesis does not concern meaning.


’Primary signification‘, she claims, adds up to the medieval concept ’significatio‘ which is the central concept of the mentioned medieval discussion. Accordingly, she takes Locke‘s primary signification of a word to be what the term makes known.<284> In this sense, she says, a word can make known either concepts or entities in the world (or both). She thus distinguishes Locke‘s primary signification from the reference and the meaning of terms, i. e. from their extension and intension. Moreover, on the backdrop of her conception of meaning as what is given in a definition or translation,<285> she turns to Locke‘s explanations on definition and identifies the meaning of a general term with a “series of simple ideas“.<286> The result is that not Locke‘s main thesis, but his explanation of definition is about meaning.<287>

Michael Losonsky convincingly destructs Ashworth‘s argument in this respect.<288> In a nutshell, she conflates a theory of meaning with a theory of definition and reads the medieval notion of significatio into Locke‘s concept of signification.<289> He rather highlights Locke‘s comments in connection with contemporary discussions relating to communication and linguistic meaning.<290> According to him, this shows that Locke‘s notion of ’primary signification‘ and his main thesis concern likewise linguisitc meaning. Losonsky thus supports Kretzmann‘s interpretation that Locke‘s distinction between immediate and mediate signification corresponds to the modern distinction between intension and extension, i. e. between meaning and reference.<291>

In principle, I join Kretzmann as well. There are two contexts in which an idea qua primary signification of a term is conceived as its meaning or intension. First, in Locke‘s explanation of definition an idea qua primary signification is depicted as a set of features


comprising the meaning of a word: “For Definition being nothing but making another understand by Words, what Idea, the term defined stands for, a definition is best made by enumerating those simple Ideas that are combined in the signification of the term Defined: [...]“.<292> Of course, like in many other contexts, simple ideas are here understood as properties; for Locke does certainly not intend to make the daring claim that in a dictionary a general term is defined by a list of simple ideas qua intentional objects. Second, in connection nominal essences an idea qua primary signification is also comprehended as a set of features comprising the meaning of a term. As will shortly be delineated, the nominal essence of a species is for Locke the set of properties determining kind-membership. Locke thereby identifies a nominal essence with the abstract idea that is signified by the term which denotes a species. Thus, in this context an abstract idea is identified with its content. If one therefore understands the meaning or intension of a term to be the kind of characterization which a speaker knows, if he or she knows its meaning, and which a speaker uses to establish the reference of the word or respectively that determines its extension, an idea qua primary signification is here the intension or meaning of a general term.

However, in other contexts ideas qua primary significations are intentional objects or intentional states respectively. In other words, ideas are linked to mental states as being their content: “[...] Words in their primary or immediate Signification, stand for nothing, but the Ideas in the Mind of him that uses them [...]“.<293> This also manifests in Locke‘s comments on communication which are centred around the claim that a speaker can only attempt to convey the primary signification he or she attaches to a word since other people do not have direct access to the idea of the speaker.<294> That is, the root of Locke‘s issue of communication is the “mental privacy“ of the primary signification which a speaker attaches to words when using them.<295> Moreover, as we have seen, it is crucial for Locke that ideas qua primary signification are intentional objects, i. e. the content of mental representations, in order to explain the reference or extension of a general term. A


word denotes the class of entities being represented by the signified abstract idea. It is therefore not unimportant that Lockean primary signification is not simply a set of features, but the set of features that is included in a mental representation.<296>

From Locke‘s perspective, there is of course no big difference between ideas qua sets of features determining the reference of general terms and ideas qua intentional objects determining the reference of words, since the features characterize the intentional objects. One intentional object is distinct from other ones in virtue of the properties characterizing it. In his comments on semantics, e. g. on communication, Locke can thus easily move back and forth between the intentional object that is signified by a term to its meaning. In this sense, one has to pay attention not to read modern distinctions too readily into Locke where he does not attempt to make any.<297> To conclude, Locke‘s comments include a theory of meaning in two important respects. The reference or extension of a general terms is identified with the class of entities in the world that are represented by the idea being signified the word; and the meaning or intension of a term is said to be the set of properties being the content of the idea that is signified by the word.

Locke‘s comprehension of species is closely attached to his account of words. According to him, a species is commonly understood as the class of entities which is signified by a general term: “[for an entity] to be of any Species, and to have a right to the name of that Species, is all one“.<298> Given this grasp of ’species‘, Locke can directly deduce from his view on the meaning of general terms that a species is the class of entities being represented by the idea which is signified by the word.<299> The topic of species therefore is


not only confined to bodies (and spirits), but relates to sorts of any kind of entities. Yet, as his comments show, the issue of species especially arises with respect to bodies, since he regards the topic to be only controversial there.<300>

Locke similarly determines the essence of a species. According to him, the essence of a species is commonly understood as “[what] makes any thing to be of that Species“.<301> In other words, the essences of species are what determines kind membership. And since species are classes of entities being signified by a name, Locke‘s notion of essences implies that essences are ascribed to entities only if they are denoted by a name. Given this understanding of ’essence‘, Locke can again easily infer from his previous conclusion (namely, that a species is the class of entities being represented by an idea which is signified by a name) that the essence of the sort is the abstract idea.<302> That is, Locke derives from his comprehension of ’species‘, of the signification of general terms and of ’essence‘ that the essence of a species is the abstract idea being signified by the respective term. To say that essences are abstract ideas, of course, is effectively an identification of essences with the sets of features which are the content of ideas. For the possession of


these sets determines whether an entity is represented by an idea, i. e. whether an entity is member of the species represented by the idea.

After having established this result in the chapter on general terms, Locke moves there on to distinguish between two different meanings of ’essence‘. He calls essences determining kind membership nominal essences and distinguishes them from so-called real essences.<303> We turn to the notion of real essence in the next chapter, but a provisional understanding as to the real essences of bodies is helpful for what follows. Locke maintains that people conceive the real essences of bodies in two different ways, namely in an Aristotelian and in a corpuscularian one.<304> Locke highlights the former one in connection with the Aristotelian doctrine of forms and comprehends the latter ones as sets of microphysical properties in terms of corpuscularian primary qualities. For Locke, bodies do not possess Aristotelian real essences, but corpuscularian real essences. Aristotelian real essences are even unintelligible according to him.<305>

b. The First Argument

We have seen, in the light of his theory of meaning Locke elucidates what he takes to be our common notions of essences and species.<306> Locke is interested in this because it has tremendous impact on a theory of our classification of bodies. The immediate upshot is that the abstract idea, i. e. nominal essence, determines which entities belong to the sort being depicted by the idea. In the chapter on the names of substances, Locke can thus easily decide whether bodies are sorted in species in virtue of nominal essences or real


essences, given his presupposition of what is true for him past doubt, namely that ideas do not include real essences - no matter what real essences precisely are. For, since Locke believes that one can easily become aware of the fact that general terms signify an abstract idea representing a sort of entities by properties not being real essences and since he regards his analysis of ’species‘ and ’essence‘ as elucidating common notions, from his perspective the argument consists in a simple analysis of how we talk about entities belonging to species. Consequently, when Locke examines the question, whether real or nominal essences determine the boundaries of species, his answer is clear-cut:

“§7. The next thing to be considered is, by which of those Essences it is, that Substances are determined into Sorts, or Species; and that ‘tis evident, is by the nominal Essence. For ‘tis that alone, that the name, which is the mark of the Sort, signifies. ‘Tis impossible therefore, that any thing should determine the Sorts of Things, which we rank under general Names, but that Idea, which that Name is design‘d as a mark for; which is that, as has been shewn, which we call the Nominal Essence. [...] And I desire any one but to reflect on his Thoughts, when he hears or speaks any of those, or other Names of Substances, to know what sort of Essences they stand for.“<307>

Locke supplements this main argument by further objections against the possibility that real essences determine species. But given Locke‘s straight forward view, these reasonings can only be meant to make plain why real essences do really not specify sorts. His arguments are of many kinds. One objection often raised is that bodies cannot be classified into species in virtue of their real essences because we do not know them, i. e. since we do not have ideas of them.<308> This reasoning is effectively aquivalent to his main argument where he presupposes that our ideas do not include real essences. And as long as one grants Locke our ignorance of real essences, this reasoning applies whether one conceives real essences in corpuscularian or Aristotelian terms. By contrast, other objections seem to be directed rather against either corpuscularian or Aritsotelian real essences since in these passages Locke depicts real essences in terms of corpuscularian internal constitutions or Aristotelian forms.<309> But since it is Locke‘s main argument that establishes his view that


bodies are sorted in virtue of nominal essences not being aquivalent to real essences, I will not go into the details of his objections against the claim that bodies are sorted as to Aristotelian or corpuscularian real essences. We will however reconstruct two objections as to corpuscularian real essences in the next chapter when discussing Locke‘s notion of (corpuscularian) real essences.<310>

c. The Second Argument

After having established in the chapter on the names of substances that we sort bodies in virtue of nominal essences which are not real essences, Locke asks there whether nominal essences are made by men or by nature. What does he mean by that? One passage in the chapter on general terms suggests that to say nominal essences are made by men simply means that nominal essences are made by men in virtue of being abstract ideas which are generated by the mind of human beings.<311> In this sense, a nominal essence is obviously the “Workmanship of the Understanding“,<312> given Locke‘s theory of essences and ideas. However, the more detailed explanations in the chapter on the names of substances show that Locke has a far more complex thesis in mind. The issue is to understand aright our everyday classification of bodies in the perspective of an ideal scientific one.

The main thrust of the argument is to refute that there are “precise and unmovable Boundaries“ classifying bodies in species, being “made by Nature, and established by Her amongst Men.“<313> Nominal essences, Locke insists, are not “exactly copied from precise Boundaries set by Nature, whereby it distinguish‘d all Substances into certain Species.“<314> To speak simply of precise boundaries set by nature, may seem vague; but this is no lack of clarity on Locke‘s side, since he finds this position unintelligible, as his criticism of the


Aristotelian theory of forms shows.<315> The punchline of Locke‘s dismissal of precise, unmovable boundaries becomes plain, if one draws on Locke‘s own positive account where he spells out what he means by saying that nominal essences are made by men. After having repeatedly argued for his view, Locke makes a stock-taking in §§36 and 37:

“§36. This then, in short, is the case: Nature makes many particular Things, which do agree one with another, in many sensible Qualities, and probably too, in their internal frame and Constitution: but ‘tis not this real Essence that distinguishes them into Species; ‘tis Men, who, taking occasion from the Qualities they find united in them, and wherein, they observe often several individuals to agree, range them into Sorts, in order to their naming, for the convenience of comprehensive signs; under which individuals, according to their conformity to this or that abstract Idea, come to be ranked as under Ensigns: so that this is of the Blue, that the Red Regiment; this is a Man, that a Drill: And in this, I think, consists the whole business of Genus and Species.
§37. I do not deny, but Nature, in the constant production of particular Beings, makes them not always new and various, but very much alike and of kin one to another: But I think it is nevertheless true, that the boundaries of the Species, whereby Men sort them, are made by Men; since the Essences of the Species, distinguished by different Names, are, as has been proved, of Man‘s making, and seldon adequate to the internal Nature of the Things they are taken from. So that we may truly say, such a manner of sorting of Things, is the Workmanship of Men.“<316>

Locke outlines the following picture. Humans generate ideas of bodies in virtue of their experience, i. e. they make ideas comprising a set of properties on the macrophysical level. These ideas or nominal essences respectively distinguish bodies into species. True, Locke concedes, there are similarities amongst bodies on the microphysical level: bodies “do agree with another [...] in their internal frame and Constitution“. Yet, he insists, we do not sort bodies in virtue of these microphysical similarities, i. e. (corpuscularian) real essences: “but ‘tis not this real Essence that distinguishes them into Species“. Rather, it is one‘s collections of experienced sets of properties on the macrophysical stage, i. e. one‘s ordinary nominal essences, which determine species: “‘tis Men, who, taking occasion from the Qualities they find united in them, and wherein, they observe often several individuals to agree, range them into Sorts“. This means, Locke maintains that species are


not sorts classifying bodies in virtue of their (corpuscularian) real essences.

As we have just seen in connection with §36, Locke calls the kind of microphysical similarities, which he speaks of in this context, the real essences of specimens. In §37 Locke insists again on his view. Importantly, he claims there that “the Essences of the Species, whereby Men sort them (scil. substances), [...] are [...] seldom adequate to the internal Nature of the Things they are taken from.“<317> Given the nexus to §36, this means on the face of it that our ordinary nominal essences do not sort bodies in accordance to their real essences in the sense that they do not classify bodies in correspondence to their microphysical similarities. Thus, here Locke has not in mind the kind of microphysical resemblances which correspond to a nominal essence that comprises features of the macrophysical level and that is shared by all members of a species. For microphysical similarities are depicted as, first, underlying and, second, as differing from the resemblances which exist among bodies on the macrophysical stage and which are represented by our nominal essences. But if real essences do not comprise the microphysical properties that correspond to nominal essences, what kind of microphysical resemblances are they?

When debating in another passage whether nature sets unmovable boundaries, Locke similarly points out that our ordinary species do not depict bodies by their resemblances “which would best shew us their most material differences and agreements [on the explanatory, microphysical stage]“.<318> Apparently, Locke‘s dismissal of the view that our species are made by nature includes the assertion that ordinary species do not sort bodies into classes which mirror their most substantial resemblances on the explanatory, microphysical stage. Now, it seems to me hardly disputable that the “most material differences and agreements“ are the kind of microphysical similarities according to which bodies are ideally to be classified in Locke‘s eyes. Thus, taking all quoted passages together, in the second argument (corpuscularian) real essences are conceived as the microphysical similarities by which one would ideally depict and sort bodies into species and which do not correspond to known resemblances on the macrophysical stage.


In turn, in this perspective one has to read the claim that ideas are the workmanship of the understanding and the denial that nominal essences reflect precise boundaries amongst bodies which are set by their real essences. Locke makes two points. First, nominal essences are made by men in the sense that speakers generate ideas in virtue of their own experience of similarities existing among bodies on the macrophyiscal level. Second, whether one conceives real essences in Aristotelian or corpuscularian terms, nominal essences are not determined by nature in the sense that our species represent a classification of bodies in accordance to their unknown real essences, i. e. in correspondence to the resemblances existing on the explanatory stage in virtue of which bodies are ideally to be sorted. Arguing that our classification scheme is made by us and not by nature, Locke maintains that the scheme does not reflect one which can be said to be present in nature in any stronger sense than simply that on the macrophysical stage the similiarities exist among bodies by which bodies are depicted and classified by the scheme. In other words: there is no reason to assume that the scheme expresses an underlying order in nature which is established by unknown real essences. Instead, as the first contention tells us, the scheme simply represents the sorting of bodies which corresponds to the ideas a speaker has acquired. These two claims are raised independently of the question whether real essences are corpuscularian or Aristotelian ones. When refuting the essences-are-made-by-nature thesis, Locke especially attacks Aristotelian theory, but not exclusively.<319> The difference between spelling out the thesis in corpuscularian and in Aristotelian terms is only that the latter position is less comprehensible due to the unintelligible notion of Aristotelian forms.

So far to the reconstruction of Locke‘s position. But what are Locke‘s arguments for holding it? There are two chief reasonings. First, there is Locke‘s own positive account of how nominal essences are made in the light of one‘s experience of bodies. Second, there is a principal objection against the alternative view that nominal essences are copies from


precise boundaries. Locke‘s strongest argument certainly is his own account of the formation of nominal essences. But in his debate these explanations stand in the rhetoric shadow of his principal objection, since Locke expounds his own account of nominal essences in his discussion of the objection. The reason for this is, it seems to me, that for Locke the objection obviously manifests the falsity of the alternative view. I now spell out the two reasonings which are both present throughout the discussion whether nominal essences are made by nature or by man.<320>

First argument. The exposition of Locke‘s position of course has already alluded to his own positive account. In addition, we are in fact familiar with the details of Locke‘s theory of the genesis of nominal essences, since it is effectively aquivalent to his theory of the formation of ideas because of the identification of nominal essences with abstract ideas. As we have seen in the first chapter, speakers form an idea of bodies by copying a set of properties which they have repeatedly found to coexist in bodies. In this sense, an idea is depicted as borrowing its content and union from nature, namely from an experienced set of coexisting properties.<321> It follows that nominal essences are the workmanship of the understanding: nominal essences are sets of properties determined by the selection humans choose. And for this reason nominal essences are in no stronger sense made by nature than that they correspond to sets of properties found in nature.

Second argument. Locke‘s principal objection against the alternative view is based on the observation that our general terms are not used by all speakers to signify the same species or ideas respectively: nominal essences cannot be made by nature, Locke argues, because if they were made by nature, this would mean that a general term would be used by every speaker for the same species or idea, but this is simply not true. Locke exemplifies this as to ’man‘. Controversies which entities are properly called a human being show that people use ’man‘ differently.<322>

In addition to pointing out the fact of non-equivocal use of names, Locke explains why people do not use the same word with the same signification. Since subjects acquire ideas or nominal essences in virtue of their own experience, this experience varies from


speaker to speaker, for what reason they do not use the same word to stand for the same idea. For instance, ’gold‘ signifies bodies having a specific yellow colour for children, whereas ’gold‘ stands for bodies having a specific yellow colour, weight and fusibility for other people.<323> On the other hand, if one takes into account what Locke says in a different context, there is also a certain degree of conformity between the ideas being designated by the same term by various speakers since subjects intend to use the words with the meaning other speakers do due to the need of being understood.<324> Thus, there is both conformity as well as variation amongst the ideas of subjects which they signify by the same words as Locke‘s example of gold demonstrates. And the variation between ideas being signified by the same term establishes for Locke that nominal essences cannot be made by nature, but by humans, i. e. that speakers generate nominal essences in virtue of their own experience of coexisting properties on the macrophysical level.<325>

In fact, Locke has a third argument at hand. In other parts of his comments, Locke points out that Aristotelians have to make intelligible what it means that there are precise real essences by which nature is supposed to distinguish bodies into species.<326> Given this criticism of Aristotelian theory, one might expect Locke to raise a similar objection in connection with the issue whether nominal essences are made by nature or by men. That is, Locke could have demanded an explanation of how one has to understand precisely that nature distinguishes bodies in species by nominal essences reflecting boundaries set by real essences. However, Locke seems not willing to discuss the issue in this way. For, when he raises his principal objection, he consciously concedes - hypothetically - the possibility that there might be precise boundaries as the if-clause indicates: “Since the Composition of those complex Ideas, are, in several Men, very different: and therefore, that these Boundaries of Species, are as Men, and not as Nature makes them, if at least there are in Nature any such prefixed Bounds.“<327> That is, the diversity of ideas being called by the same name shows that there are no species which sort bodies in accordance


to some prefixed bounds, even if they existed. Thus, in this context Locke apparently intends to refute the alternative view not by questioning its intelligibility, but by referring to facts demonstrating the falsity of the theory. Yet, this shows, Locke has a third substantial argument in peto, namely to point out that it has not yet been highlighted convincingly how nature can distinguish bodies into species by unknown real essences.

d. The Overarching Issue

It has become apparent that the topic of the two leading issues of species is a theory of classification, namely which features serve as criteria to determine kind membership and how these criteria are established. Locke argues, firstly, that we usually sort bodies in species by nominal essences and not by unknown real essences and, secondly, that nominal essences are made by us in virtue of our experience of coexisting properties and not by nature in accordance to unknown real essences.

Furthermore, in connection with the second argument the sorting of bodies as to (corpuscularian) real essences is conceived as the end of classification. Correspondingly, the kind of species Locke discusses are species which do not represent an ideal scientific scheme. This is the reason why in his debate classifications are on par whether they are made by the laymen or by scientists: the schemes are alike if conceived in the ideal, scientific perspective. In this sense, there were for Locke only “ordinary“ species at his time. The second argument assesses our ordinary species and essences in the perspective of an ideal classification.

This shows that the essence distinction expresses the opposition between the sets of properties as to which bodies are ordinarily classified and the sets as to which bodies are ideally sorted. On the one hand, an ideal scientific classification of bodies as to their microphysical similarities is in Lockean terms a sorting according to their (corpuscularian) real essences or internal constitutions respectively. On the other hand, our usual notions of bodies represent a classification scheme that sorts bodies as to nominal essences comprising features on the macrophysical level. But to say that is not to claim that the opposing roles of real and nominal essences in classification are of a


conceptual kind. This of course is not the case, since (ideal) nominal essences comprise real essences. Yet, in the debate, nominal essences are always understood as not comprising real essences and real essences are conceived as consisting of the microphysical similarities as to which bodies are ideally sorted. Thus, as a matter of fact, real and nominal essences fulfill these roles.

On the backdrop of this reading of the second argument, the essence distinction apparently serves the same purpose when used in the first argument. There, Locke argues in one passage that it must be the nominal essence with respect to which we sort bodies, simply because, on the one hand, we are ignorant of their real essences whereas, on the other hand, we do know their nominal essences because they make up the content of our ideas: “Nor indeed can we rank, and sort Things, and consequently (which is the end of sorting) denominate them by their real Essences, because we know them not.“<328> In the light of the second argument, the quote implies on the face of it that the goal or purpose of scientific classification is expressed by saying that bodies are sorted as to their (corpuscularian) real essences, i. e. as to their similarities among their internal constitutions.<329> This means, real and nominal essences perform here the same roles, namely to characterize ordinary species respectively ideal scientific sorts.

Summing up, in the comments on the names of bodies the essence distinction is effectively understood as expressing the contrast between ordinary species and ideal scientific sorts. This in turn has implications for the topic of the comments. Firstly, Locke‘s way of debating the issue what determines our ordinary species as to the question whether sorts are determined by real or by nominal essences means that he assesses whether ordinary species are identical or aquivalent to ideal sorts or not. He insists, they are not. Secondly, the second argument aims at excluding the possibility that ordinary species are ideal scientific ones even if they are not determined in the light of real essences. This is indicated by the role of the essence distinction and by the order of Locke‘s reasoning to discuss whether nominal essences are determined by humans or by nature after having settled the first question. He intends to exclude the possibility that


Aristotelians accept that our ordinary species are sorted by nominal essences different from their real essences, but reaffirm that the species are still determined by the real essences by arguing that nominal essences are regulated by the unknown real essences. In the light of the essence distinction, Locke therefore insists that ordinary species are not aquivalent or identical to ideal ones when arguing that species are man-made. Consequently, the overarching topic of the comments on names of bodies is to contrast the classification scheme entailed in our everyday concepts with an ideal scientific one. The claim is: our common species do not classify bodies into the same sorts as one would ideally do from the scientific perspective, since resemblances on the macrophysical level are superficial and do not generally correspond to microphyiscal similarities.

The comments on names of bodies thus re-establishes what Locke has contended in his explanations on archetypes. As has been pointed out in the first chapter,<330> to depict bodies by their real essences, is to grasp and classify them from the ideal scientific viewpoint. In the perspective of science, our ordinary nominal essences are only a remedy for the time being, namely as long as real essences are unknown.<331> From the scientific viewpoint, nominal essences serve only as proviso for real essences, since the scientific end of classification is to sort and to grasp bodies in terms of their real essences. This goal of scientific classification will be further delineated in the following chapter where Locke‘s notion of real essences will be determined.



This view is usually expressed by saying that, according to Locke, bodies are ideally sorted by their real essences. Cp. Ayers (1970), 39; Mackie (1975), 100. Yolton concedes that Locke‘s views entail that, in my words, an ideal science of bodies depicts them by real essences, but insists that Locke himself is not able to see this. Cp. Yolton (1970), 33.


Cp. 8c.


Cp. especially 448f,


Cp. 7d-e.


Kretzmann (1968), 124.


404ff, III.ii.1ff. Some general terms are said to signify the absence of ideas, however. Cp. 133, II.viii.5; 403, III.i.4. Moreover, not all signs being words stand for ideas. The so-called particles signify relations between ideas. Cp. 471ff, III.vii.


405, III.ii.1. Cp. 405, III.ii.2. Consequently, if parrots use words, Locke does not conceive them to have any reference or meaning, since they are not used as signs standing for ideas. Cp. 402, III.i.1f. But this is likewise the case when people use words without a definite primary signification, i. e., roughly speaking, without knowing their meaning. Cp. 407f, III.ii.7; 614, IV.viii.7.


414, III.iii.11f.


414, III.iii.12. Consequently, if parrots use words, Locke does not conceive them to have any reference or extension, since they are not used as signs standing for ideas and can therefore not denote entities. Cp. 402, III.i.1f. But this is likewise the case when people use words without a definite primary signification, i. e., roughly speaking, without knowing their meaning. Cp. 407f, III.ii.7; 614, IV.viii.7.


Cp. Ashworth (1984), 56 and 62.


405, III.ii.1.


405, III.ii.2; 408, III.ii.8.


386, II.xxxii.8.


Cp. Alston (1964), 22; Bennett (1971), 27; O‘Connor (1967), 131.


Ashworth (1984), 62 and 64.


Ashworth (1981), 324f.


405, III.ii.1. Correspondingly, according to Locke, parrots use words without any meaning because their terms do not stand for ideas. Cp. 402, III.i.1f. But this is likewise the case when people use words without a definite primary signification, i. e., roughly speaking, without knowing their meaning. Cp. 407f, III.ii.7; 614, IV.viii.7.


414, III.iii.12.


Ashworth (1984), 62; Ashworth (1981), 322 and 325.


577, IV.v.8.


Ashworth (1984), 60-64; Ashworth (1981), 310f. Ashworth enlarges on the scholastic background of Locke‘s theory of words in the earlier article. She however concedes that it is difficult to pinpoint Locke‘s knowledge of the medieval discussion. Cp. Ashworth (1981), 303f. This difficulty is also manifest in J. R. Milton‘s effort to identify scholastic authors with whose work Locke was acquainted. Cp. Milton (1984).


Ashworth (1981), 311.


Ashworth (1981), 325f.


Ashworth (1981), 326.


Losonsky (1994), 124-130.


Losonsky (1994), 125 and 141.


Losonsky (1994), 130-141.


Kretzmann (1968), 131f. Cp. Yolton (1970), 210 and 215.


413, III.iii.10.


405, III.ii.2.


408, III.ii8; 409, III.iii2; 476f, III.ix.3ff.


Cp. Brandt and Klemme (1997), 170.


The here defended account clearly differs from the Landesman‘s interpretation, since he rejects Kretzmann‘s reading. Cp. Landesman (1976), 24 and 34f. However, I am not sure about the root of the disagreement since I am not clear about the ontological status which according to Landesman ideas have qua intentional objects: “Ideas in the required sense are themselves outside the mind; they are not private mental entities; they are intentional objects, things conceived and thought of“; “Ideas as immediate significations are things in so far as they are conceived of. Things signified and things immediately signified are the same things.“ Cp. Landesman (1976), 34 and 33.


Having said that, one could agree with Lowe in so far that ideas qua primary significations do also serve for Locke to express thought. Yet, I disagree with him that this is the sole or primary conception of primary signification. Cp. Lowe (1995), 144-49.


414f, III.iii12. Cp. the footnote after the next one.


414, III.iii.12: “That then which general Words signify, is a sort of Things; and each of them does that, by being a sign of an abstract Idea in the mind, to which Idea, as Things existing are found to agree, so they come to be ranked under that name; or, which is all one, be of that sort.“


Locke conceives this result as a deviation from the traditional, Aristotelian view, namely that ’species‘ does not apply to entities other than substances like bodies. Cp. 462f,; 465, On the other hand, Locke does not regard himself as modifying an existing concept, but rather as elucidating an old concept anew and aright. This becomes evident when he blames the Aristotelians to have misconceived the issue of species in an unintelligible way. Cp. 573, IV.iv.17. For Locke, the fundamental meaning of ’species‘ is the class of entities which a general term signifies and which thus is represented by the abstract idea being signified by the name. Cp. 414, III.iii.12; 462f,


414, III.iii.12. Locke again regards the given explication as simply reporting the common meaning of the word in question, namely of ’essence‘, as his remarks on ’nominal essence‘ show: “And this we shall find to be that, which the Word Essence imports, in its most familiar use“. Cp. 417, III.iii15. Cp. also 440, Substituting the Aristotelian understanding of essences by his own one is therefore correcting a false conception of what essences are. Similarly, Locke conceives his explication of ’real essence‘ as elucidating another, but less widespread use of ’essence‘. Cp. 417, III.iii15.


414f, III.iii.12: “That then which general Words signify, is a sort of Things; and each of them does that, by being a sign of an abstract Idea in the mind, to which Idea, as Things existing are found to agree, so they come to be ranked under that name; or, which is all one, be of that sort. Whereby it is evident, that the Essences of the sorts, or (if the Latin word pleases better) Species of Things, are nothing else but these abstract Ideas. For the having the essence of any Species, being that which makes any thing to be of that Species, and the conformity to the Idea, to which the name is annexed, being that which gives a right to that name, the having the Essence, and the having that Conformity, must needs to be the same thing: Since to be of any Species, and to have a right to the name of that Species, is all one.“


417, III.iii.15.


417f, III.iii.17. Cp. 7c.


380, II.xxxi.6; 418, III.iii.17; 448f,


Similarly to ’species‘ and ’essence‘, Locke explains the notion of a property being essential to an entity. A feature, he argues, is commonly said to be essential to an entity in the sense that it belongs to an entity qua being the member of a sort (440, This means, if a property is part of a species‘s nominal essence, the feature is essential to the entity in virtue of being specimen of the sort. That is, a property is essential to an entity always with respect to its being member of a species. In no other way, Locke insists, a feature is essential for an entity. For if one does not conceive an entity with respect to its membership of a species, all properties are equally essential to the entity or respectively are not essential to the entity at all (440ff,


443, Cp. 447f,; 452,


442, III.vi6; 444,


For instance, 443f, and 445,


Cp. 7d-e.


415, III.iii.12.


415, III.iii.12.














Cp. 452, “§24. Upon the whole matter, ‘tis evident, that ‘tis their own Collections of sensible Qualities, that Men make the Essences of their several sorts of Substances; and that their real internal Structures, are not considered by the greatest part of Men, in the sorting them. Much less were any substantial Forms ever thought on by any, but those who have in this one part of the World, learned the Language of the Schools: [...]“.










408, III.ii.8; 409f, III.iii.3.










Cp. 647, IV.xii.12. Locke implicitly declares the goal of scientific knowledge as conceiving bodies as to their real essences.


Cp. 1b.


Cp. 10c.

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