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



Kapitel Introduction

The fourth book of the Essay on knowledge and probability is the natural climax of the overall argument to “enquire into the Original, Certainty, and Extent of humane Knowledge; together, with the Grounds and Degrees of Belief, Opinion, and Assent“.<481> In the case of bodies, Locke‘s assessment is thereby advanced almost entirely in connection with knowledge. The account readily falls into two parts. First, there is the general depiction of knowledge with a definition and subdivision of knowledge in different degrees and realms. Second, on this backdrop, Locke takes stock of contemporary knowledge, evaluating human knowledge and proposing means to enhance it. Locke‘s analysis thus attempts to establish an appropriate conception of a contemporary science of bodies. The results are disillusioning, however: human knowledge is “very short and


scanty“ and we are able to achieve “very little general Knowledge“.<482>

The root of this predicament is Locke‘s conception of knowledge which he conceives as straight forward and hardly controversial. Locke first presents a definition of knowledge and subsequently introduces a variety of subdivisions of knowledge to assess human knowledge. Moreover, when discussing bodies, Locke ingenuously applies the general conception of knowledge to the effect that a conception of an ideal science of bodies manifests in his account of contemporary knowledge and the means to enhance it. This ideal thus forms the backdrop of Locke‘s idea of a contemporary science of bodies. And this ideal is likewise Locke‘s viewpoint, I will argue, from which he judges contemporary knowledge as little and the prospects of progress as bleak.

On the basis of his notion of knowledge, Locke also refutes the Aristotelian conception of means founding and enhancing human knowledge. Given the interpretation of the preceding part, this analysis completes Locke‘s rejection of an Aristotelian idea of a science of bodies. The controversy with the Aristotelians also looms in the background of his own account as to real essences. Importantly, I contend, the developed interpretation of Locke‘s discussion of real essences is crucial to understand why this debate is present in the argument on knowledge. In this context, the issue of real essences is what a contemporary science of bodies should consist in: how experimental findings are to be understood and which means are appropriate to advance knowledge. It thus becomes plain why and in which sense Locke puts so much weight on the analysis of language as to his overall account in the context of bodies.<483>

The first chapter of this part reconstructs Locke‘s conception of knowledge, namely his definition of knowledge and its devision into three degrees. On the contrary to the orthodox line of interpretation, I will argue that Locke‘s definition of knowledge applies uniformly and coherently to all degrees, i. e. not only to intuitive and demonstrative knowledge, but also to sensitive knowledge. There is no obvious flaw in his reasoning, which Locke fails to recognize, and he is not injudicious to apprehend the modern criticism which already figured in his correspondence with Stillingfleet. A careful


reconstruction of Locke‘s comments on the background of his views on language shows instead what he believes to be conspicuous, namely that the advanced definition fits with his account of sensitive knowledge. A corresponding assessment of Locke‘s conception of degrees of knowledge will moreover evolve as part and parcel of the debate. The account thus shows how Locke highlights knowledge and its degrees in terms of its certainty.

To understand anew Locke‘s conception of knowledge, does not however have a genuine impact on the analysis of his argument on contemporary knowledge (chapter ten). As we will see, Locke‘s account is primarily based on a philosophical analysis of what knowledge and language consist in. Given this type of reasoning, it represents an extremely powerful argument for the favoured conception that also questions the principal legitimacy of the discussed, alternative theories. It will particularly be pointed out that one cannot fully apprehend the analysis, if one does not relate it to Locke‘s conception of real essences as being prima-facie specific and as being not precise as the Aristotelians claim. Pickung up the thread of the two foregoing parts, the focus is moreover on Locke‘s idea of an ideal science of bodies. Crucially, I will argue for a re-interpretation of the nature of Lockean demonstrative knowledge of bodies and thus of his conception of an ideal science of bodies. Contradicting the prevailing view, the interpretation attempts to show that Locke‘s ideal is not a deductive science which only affords microphysical knowledge of the figure of bodies, but is an axiomatic, empirical theory which rather presupposes a comprehensive grasp of matter. This point is crucial, since it re-positions Locke in the history of philosophy. In rough and ready terms, Locke is farer away from Descartes‘s rationalism and closer to Hume‘s empiricism than is usually thought.



43, I.i.2. Cp. 44, I.i.3.


652, IV.xiv.1; 644, IV.xii.9.


Epistle, 10 and 13f; 401, II.xxxiii.19; 579,

[Titelseite] [Widmung] [Danksagung] [Einleitung] [1-1] [1-2] [1-3] [1-4] [1-5] [1-6] [2-1] [2-2] [2-3] [2-4] [3-1] [3-2] [3-3] [Zusammenfassung] [Bibliographie] [Selbständigkeitserklärung]

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