|Esser, Frederick: John Locke‘s Investigation into our Knowledge of Bodies |
In the preceding chapters, we have assessed Locke‘s account of bodies. Before picking up the overarching theme of this work how the general programme of the Essay to enquire into the Original, Certainty, and Extent of humane Knowledge; together, with the Grounds and Degrees of Belief, Opinion, and Assent<733> is spelled out with respect to bodies, Locke‘s train of thought will first be reconstructed as a whole on the basis of the foregoing results.
We have seen, Locke motivates his account of ideas on the backdrop of his criticism of knowledge based on innate ideas or propositions. The second book of the Essay thus serves Locke to determine the content of ideas in the light of an alternative theory of their genesis. This means in the case of bodies that the assessment adds up to an analysis of one‘s conceptual understanding of bodies. One part of this account comprises the explanations of archetypes according to which ideas of bodies are made in the perspective of a specific epistemic project. One intends to classify bodies in accordance to their similarities which they possess on the explanatory, microphysical stage: ideas ideally depict bodies by their real essences. Since, however, contemporary ideas do not portray bodies by these resemblances, one generates ideas which instead sort bodies by their similarities on the macrophysical level. But even though the account applies to all contemporary ideas, whether they are made by laymen, philosophers, or scientists, this classificatory ideal genuinely pertains only to the scientific context. Locke therefore conceives an ideal scientific account of bodies as including a classification of bodies. In Lockean terms, an ideal theory depicts bodies by real, abstract ideas classifying bodies by their real essences into species.
To depict similarities means for Locke that an idea is made in the light of the recurrent experience of the same set of properties which is posessed by various bodies. Ideas of bodies thus serve as copies to portray and sort bodies existing in nature because they
309reflect experience and can therefore guarantee that the depicted entities really exist or at least can exist. Correspondingly, Locke rejects throughout the Essay alleged ideas of bodies which are not acquired by experience, namely the Cartesian notion of body and the Aristotelian conception of species.
Locke‘s theory of substratum likewise manifests this empiristic conception. Locke conceives bodies as substances, or respectively, as possessing a substratum. A substratum is what explains the union of the properties being included in an idea. This grasp of bodies qua substances, i. e. the supposition that bodies have a substratum, is for Locke a response of the mind to the regular experience of bodies possessing the same set of properties. That the substratum, as has been argued, is what explains how properties are interrelated which are contained in an idea. And due to Locke‘s corpuscularian comprehension of body, the substratum is identified with a stuff which bodies consist of. In this sense, the confused idea of substratum, that is included in one‘s ideas of bodies, is for Locke the theory-neutral placeholder for the kind of stuff bodies are made of. This means, an ideal grasp of bodies does not only depict them by their real essences, but by their substratum as well. In Lockean terms, an ideal account sorts and portrays bodies by adequate ideas, namely by ideas representing bodies by their real essences and substratum.
One can illustrate this in terms of Locke‘s corpuscularian model for bodies. Bodies are conceived as consisting of corpuscles, atoms, which are solid, cohere, and are capable to move and interact by impulse. Explanatory features are thus identified with microphysical properties, real essences with microphysical structures, and the substratum of bodies with matter. And since the substratum highlights how the properties of bodies are interrelated, a thorough comprehension of substratum adds up to a characterization of matter that elucidates how corpuscles cohere, how impulse works, and how these features relate to the solidity of corpuscles. Our confused idea of substratum therefore corresponds to our impoverished understanding of body.
This account of the contemporary comprehension of bodies by comparison to an ideal scientific one is decisively specified in the comments on resemblance and qualities. The analysis of Locke‘s notion of resemblance and his argument on qualities revealed that ideal ideas portray bodies from a specific epistemological viewpoint. From this ideal scientific perspective, bodies and their properties are described in terms of which they are
310conceived independently from the way they are mentally represented. They are grasped in terms in which one depicts bodies and their properties as causes of our mental representations. As we have seen in connection with Boyle‘s rejection of real qualities, Locke calls the kind of properties, which are ascribed to bodies from this standpoint, as being real and as being in the things themselves.
The comments on qualities and resemblance thus determine to which degree contemporary ideas depict bodies from this epistemological perspective. Locke presents a complex argument to establish that only few properties are real by which one grasps bodies. On the one hand, a general mechanical conception of bodies is claimed to be the only conceivable account of their properties and causal interaction with the result that in the course of this reasoning Boyle‘s corpuscularian set of physical features are identified with the mechanical features being real qualities. On the other hand, an Aristotelian theory of sense perception and of the explanatory properties of bodies is rendered implausible by empirical evidence. Locke thus attempts to show that contemporary ideas portray bodies largely by non-real qualities and only partially by corpuscularian, real qualities.
Importantly, due to Locke‘s proximity to the corpuscularian hypothesis, he expounds this argument in terms of the quality distinction and thus identifies real qualities with primary qualities and non-real qualities with secondary qualities. Accordingly, a characterization of bodies in terms of their microphysical primary qualities is conceived as a description from the perception-neutral viewpoint. Thus, since real essences and substratum are understood in relation to primary qualities, in an ideal theory bodies are depicted in perception-neutral terms. Since ideas portraying bodies from this perspective are called resemblances, this means in other words that an ideal theory represents bodies by adequate resemblances.
In the light of this epistemological standpoint, one can also determine in which sense properties are regarded here as explanatory. In general, these primary or real qualities are explanatory in the sense in which properties are explanatory in a true and comprehensive physical account of bodies, their features and causal interactions. Yet, given Locke‘s perception-neutral viewpoint, explanatory properties are additionally grapsed as the kind of features in terms of which one depicts bodies and their properties when they are
311conceived independently from the way they are mentally represented, namely when they are understood as causing ideas in sensation.
On this backdrop, Locke moves on to assess names of bodies in the third book. The core of the argument is his general analysis that names of species denote a sort which is represented by an abstract idea that is signified by a general term. Locke can thus identify the nominal essence of a species with the set of properties being included in the abstract idea signified by the name of the sort. In other words, it is the known abstract idea which determines the boundary of a sort, not an unknown real essence as the Aristotelians claim. In the case of bodies, Locke underscores this point by arguing that nominal essences cannot be said in any intelligible sense that they somehow depend on unknown real essences which exist in nature. There is no ontologically based devision of bodies that can exist independently of the classification scheme entailed by our own names and ideas. As Locke puts it, it is man, not nature, who sorts bodies in the light of their experience of similarities existing amongst bodies and their features.
I have argued, the overarching issue of this account is not to refute the Aristotelian theory of species, but to demonstrate that contemporary concepts do not amount to an ideal classification scheme. Names sort bodies neither in virtue of their real essences, nor in a way that is aquivalent to a classification in terms of real essences. Rather, experience shows us that contemporary classifications differ from an ideal scientific scheme. This view was confirmed by the interpretation of Locke‘s notion of real essence. The real essence of a body comprises the similarities in virtue of which a body qua member of a species is ideally sorted. Locke thus picks up an idea of classification that is already present in Boyle‘s attempt to adequately sort bodies as to their similarities. Bodies, he says, deserve a certain classification.<734> Locke calls the set of features of a body, in virtue of which it deserves to be sorted, the real essence of the body.
Locke‘s semantic contentions are likewise the starting point of his account of the imperfection and abuses of words. In the case of bodies, both one‘s ignorance of real essences and the classificatory purpose of our ideas come into play again. Since the real essences of bodies are unknown, speakers are legitimated to generate ideas which can
312include any regularly experienced collection of properties as a substitute for adequate ideas. Hence, there is no common standard for speakers to establish a uniform meaning for their names of bodies. And Locke regards the resulting ambiguity of general terms as the source of fruitless scientific debates really concerning the signification of names only: [t]he greatest part of the Questions and Controversies that perplex Mankind [depend] on the doubtful and uncertain use of Words.<735>
But whereas for Locke this so-called imperfection of words is an unavoidable consequence of our ignorance of real essences, speakers often carelessly abuse words in addition. According to Locke, abuses lead to misconceptions of what species, real essences, and bodies are. Aristotelian ideas stand here in the centre of his critic. Locke reconstructs the Aristotelian comprehension of species, universal propositions, and essences as the consequence of an abuse of words which takes names of bodies to refer to species being defined, not by known nominal essences, but by unknown real essences. As the analysis of Locke‘s notion of real essences displayed, Aristotelian real essences are conceived as being precise, i. e. as being specific for a species and its members. Locke explains this abuse by two factors. First, one has the tendency to remove the imperfection of names by supposing that one‘s ideas represent a species that is characterized by a real essence. Second, resemblances obviously existing on the macrophysical level lead to the assumption that there are corresponding similarities on the explanatory stage. This second presumption justifies in the eye of the abuse to use names as if they denoted sorts each one being defined by a real essence, even though this real essence is unknown. Allegedly, known resemblances on the macrophysical level stand for unknown, classificatorily fundamental similarities on the explanatory stage. This is the basis for their understanding of species and essences and, as a consequence, of general terms and universal propositions. Aristotelian theory and knowledge claims of bodies are rooted in confusion.
Moreover, in the context of maxims, the Cartesian notion of body is disclosed as being the result of an abuse of ’body‘ which conflates one‘s ordinary notion with an artificial one. According to Locke, Cartesians take their peculiar idea of bodies to be the one which is
313usually named by ’body‘ to the effect that they understand their idea to refer to existing entities, namely to bodies known from experience. However, Locke points out, our ordinary idea of body is not the Cartesian one, but the one he has specified. Locke thus undermines the foundation of a Cartesian science of bodies.
Both Aristotelian and Cartesian ideas of a science of bodies are disclosed as being rooted in an unintelligible use of language. That is, Locke refutes these alternative conceptions of a science of bodies on purely semantic grounds: deep Learning, and heighth of Speculation consists in the frivolous use of uncouth, affected, or unintelligible Terms and in [v]ague and insignificant Forms of Speech, and Abuse of Language.<736> In this sense, Locke attempts [to remove] some of the Rubbish, that lies in the way to Knowledge.<737>
This argument is furthermore complemented by Locke‘s recommendation of how to use words properly in order to serve knowledge. Scientists should use their words unequivocally and as standing for species defined by nominal essences. This is not only a practical consideration, but has also a direct bearing on the content and purpose of a science of bodies, since it relates to developing a natural history, namely to the gathering of experimental results. The recommended use of words thus amounts to the core conception of a contemporary science of bodies, i. e. to a dictionary that compiles experimental findings in terms of a nomenclature. In the light of these results, it becomes plain why Locke attaches so much importance to his account of words. For his language critic paves the way for his idea of a science of bodies.
In the fourth book, Locke explicitly turns on knowledge. He first advances a general definition which, if correctly understood, is a rather innocuous depiction. Knowledge is the awareness of facts that is achieved by a truth yielding cognitive process. Locke thereby distinguishes between three types of cognitive process that differ in the difficulty of grasping the reasons conveying knowledge of a fact. In Lockean words, there are three different degrees of knowledge which vary in their degree of certainty or evidence respectively. In this sense, knowledge is said to be the perception of the (dis-) agreement of
314two ideas which is produced by either intuition, or demonstration, or sensation. One immediate consequence of Locke‘s understanding of these three types of knowledge is that general knowledge is either intuitive or demonstrative whereas sensitive, or empirical, knowledge is only about a finite number of entities. There only are opinion and probability as to empirical universal propositions.
In this conception of knowledge, facts are the objects of knowledge. Ideas thereby serve as constituents of mental representations of the states of affairs that hold, since these states of affairs are represented by the joining or separating of two ideas. An ideal scientific grasp of bodies does therefore not simply consist in a set of ideal ideas. But the foregoing analysis of ideas is an important, preparatory step. Locke‘s assessment of human knowledge thus spells out the implications of the preceding analysis of ideas as to knowledge on the backdrop of his conception of knowledge.
Importantly, when assessing human knowledge of bodies, Locke ingenuously applies his general account of knowledge with respect to the realm of bodies to the effect that a conception of an ideal of a science of bodies sets the stage for his analysis. Locke understands his conception of knowledge to imply that an ideal axiomatic theory enables one to deduce the possession of properties in the light of causal connections. These causal relationships hold between the real essence of a species and a further property or respectively between the real essence and the idea of the property. Thus, if one had a thorough grasp of the microphysical properties of bodies, namely a general understanding of matter, one could deduce properties, just as one can do in mathematics. I argued as to the character of such a science of bodies that Locke is committed to a quasi-geometrical model only in the sense that a comprehensive theory of bodies is an axiomatic, mathematical-like account which allows for deductive, demonstrative knowledge. The scope of this ideal account pertains in principle to all bodies irrespectively of whether they are of macro- or microphysical size and irrespectively of whether they exist on Earth or elsewhere in the universe. Correspondingly, the range of properties being deducible is only limited by our possession of ideas of them.
Such an axiomatic theory leads to the kind of knowledge which in this context Locke calls instructive and real. Real, instructive knowledge concerns a species of (possibly) existent bodies and is not trifling, i. e. which does not concern the possession of properties
315defining the sort. This conception of knowledge of bodies being about (possibly) existing entities touches the crucial issue of any axiomatic theory of nature, namely of how one knows that a given account is truly the ideal one. However, Locke is apparently naive about the problem. If one only had microscopical eyes, one could discern the fundamental structure of matter and the operations of bodies.
This account of deductive knowledge of properties becomes further complicated by additional considerations. According to Locke, a comprehensive grasp of a feature involves knowledge of all the circumstances conditioning the possession of the property. To pick up his example, if being alive were causally determined by distant stars, one would have to know this condition for a thorough understanding of being alive. As Locke indicates, a comprehensive grasp of bodies and their properties adds up to an understanding of matter under all circumstances. In fact, this contention simply corresponds to Locke‘s conception of ideal knowledge as affording a thorough grasp of matter and physical laws.
To return to Locke‘s train of thought, after having expounded his general account of knowledge, Locke quantitatively and qualitatively assesses contemporary knowledge on the background of his preconception of what ideal knowledge of bodies consists in. Thereby, he is genuinely interested only in our knowledge of universal propositions, e. g. that gold is fixed, because they relate to a class of entities and can thus enlarge human understanding as to many particulars at once. Given Locke‘s conception of the three degrees of knowledge, only intuitive and demonstrative knowledge concerns universal propositions. The result is, as Locke can easily point out, that contemporary general knowledge chiefly comprises facts that are grasped in the light of one idea including another one, e. g. that gold is not silver or that gold is yellow. For general knowledge comprises only few intuitively known universal propositions, e. g. that being uniformly coloured in one way excludes the possession of another colour, and comprises no demonstrative knowledge. In modern terms, knowledge by and large consists simply in conceptual analysis. In Locke‘s words, we largely know trifling propositions, but hardly any real, instructive ones. It is this viewpoint from which Locke judges knowledge of
316bodies as very short and scanty.<738> The reason is simple: since one is ignorant of real essences and causal relationships, one can attain instructive knowledge of only few facts.
On the other hand, according to Locke, one does intuitively know the coexistence of some primary qualities. And, even though he seems to underestimate their significance, they effectively represent knowledge of fundamental laws: to have figure entails the possession of extension, being capable of passing on or receiving motion by impulse supposes to be solid, and being both solid and in space implies the filling of space. In principle, these propositions can serve as the starting point of the development of a deductive science of bodies because they relate to the defining features of bodies qua bodies. Moreover, I argued, one has knowledge entailed in one‘s present conceptual understanding of macrophysical bodies, e. g. that this key opens that lock or that millstones grain corn.
In addition, one has sensitive, i. e. perceptual or experimental, knowledge of bodies. But, as already indicated, sensitive knowledge only pertains to a finite number of bodies. For, since we do not conceive any causal connections between, for instance, the defining features of gold and the property of being fixed, experiments can only show that particular bodies are fixed, but not that all gold is fixed. In this context, Locke is concerned with language. The reason is that, on the one hand, language is regarded as an indispensable means for thought and communication which is therefore relevant for knowledge and that, on the other hand, the Aristotelian abuse of words leads to false knowledge claims in terms of universal propositions about coexisting properties. The point of Locke‘s discussion of the Aristotelian abuse in this context is, I argued, that large parts of Locke‘s argument on knowledge of bodies could be questioned if the Aristotelian (ab)use of words led to knowledge. For, if the Aristotelian account of names, species, and precise essences were true, this would open the possibility to bypass Locke‘s analysis of knowledge and to establish these far reaching knowledge claims which in truth are unwarranted according to Locke‘s position.
After having advanced this disenchanting stock-taking, Locke develops a conception for a contemporary science of bodies. He suggests so-called remedies, means to advance the
317progress of knowledge. The proposed remedies add up to the development of a natural history. Scientists are recommended to compile their experimental findings in terms of a uniform, standardized nomenclature classifying bodies as precisely as possible with respect to known similarities. However, Locke regards this measurement as an ideal which cannot easily be established universally amongst scientists and which can therefore be realized rather by individual scientists with respect to their own work. At any rate, natural history is a conception of a contemporary, experimental science of bodies, since it is not an axiomatic theory, but a collection of similarities on the macrophysical level. In the light of Locke‘s ideal, a natural history is only a provisional account of bodies.
Besides collecting and compiling data in a natural history, Locke also recommends the employment of hypotheses. As has been suggested, hypotheses are probably conceived as suggesting new experiments which lead to the discovery of new properties and similarities. In this sense, hypotheses are means to enhance knowledge. Yet, Locke does not give any prominence to them, even though he uses the corpuscularian hypothesis in his argument on qualities and resemblance, because he apparently thinks that only natural history can genuinely advance human knowledge.
When assessing knowledge, Locke also comments on the prospects of a natural history to achieve significant progress. According to him, they are bleak. For besides his disillusioning stock-taking Locke also raises principal concerns over achieving a comprehensive understanding of bodies and their properties. For him, it is doubtful whether we will ever find out features of bodies that are part and parcel of an ideal grasp. Locke doubts whether mankind will ever know: real essences, matter, causal interactions amongst bodies, all the circumstances causally determining a property, and the causal relationship between body and the human mind.
As has been pointed out, these five aspects of an ideal account of bodies differ as to the inadequacy of our grasp of them and as to the difficulty of discovering them. With respect to real essences, Locke is pessimistic about our discovery of these microphysical structures since it seems to him too difficult to construct instruments aquivalent to microscopical eyes, i. e. to microscopes of a far higher resolution than were invented at Locke‘s time. But we have at least a general corpuscularian conception of what real essences are, namely of real essences being microphysical structures consisting of cohering corpuscles,
318even though this depiction is not specific enough to determine for a given quality the corresponding microphysical feature. In the other cases, however, we even lack an adequate conception of the features so that the outlook of exploring them is even more gloomy. For instance, one has no convincing conception of what matter is, namely of how corpuscules cohere and how impulse is transmitted. In this sense, knowledge of matter is more inconceivable than knowledge of real essences. This ignorance of matter is of course likewise present in one‘s grasp of causal interactions, since they are understood in terms of impulse and, partly at least, of cohering corpuscules. This moreover implies that, due to its complexity, knowledge of all the circumstances causally determining a certain property is even more difficult to achieve than a general comprehension of matter and causal interactions, since it includes a comprehension of causal relationships all of which one can hardly recognize. Finally, the discovery of the causal relationship between body and mind, e. g. sense perception, is for Locke the most doubtful one, since we do not even come close to having an idea of the kind of causal interaction being involved. Is mind after all matter, or are they two numerically distinct kinds of substances? How do they interact? Here, we lack a conception of the most general kind of how this relationship is to be understood.
Corresponding to this gloomy outlook, Locke concedes that a classification of bodies in accordance to their real essences might be possible one day, but regards the attainment of real, instructive knowledge - not to speak of an axiomatic theory - as being out of reach. In the light of Locke‘s serious doubts about mankind advancing an axiomatic theory, natural history appears not only to be a provisional conception for a science of bodies, but also to be an everlasting one: This way of getting, and improving our Knowledge in Substances only by Experience and History [...] makes me suspect that natural Philosophy is not capable of being made a Science [scil. a mathematical-like, axiomatic theory].<739>
So far to the course of Locke‘s argument. We can now take on the question of what the specific topic of Locke‘s theory of bodies is. In the light of the developed interpretation, one can naturally distinguish between four aspects comprising the account and elucidating its character.
319First, Locke expounds a conception of an ideal science of bodies. This ideal account is more than simply a true, comprehensive physical theory of body. First, bodies are sorted as to their most significant resemblances. Second, bodies are understood in causal, explanatory terms describing their properties in a perception-neutral way. Third, an axiomatic theory assigns further properties to specimens of sorts in virtue of causal relationships holding between (the ideas of) these features and the defining properties of the species. Fourth, to enable the corporative search for proofs, the account is expressed in a generally accepted, unambiguous language, i. e. speakers use the same names to denote the same ideas and species. Thus a Lockean ideal science of bodies includes four elements in particular: a classificatory component, a perception-neutral viewpoint, an axiomatic character, and a semantic aspect. One crucial upshot is a partial re-positioning of Locke‘s place in the history of philosophy. Since, in rough and ready terms, Locke‘s conception of an ideal account of bodies is substantially farer away from Descartes‘s rationalism and closer to Hume‘s empiricism than is usually thought. The problem with Locke‘s conception is not that it has a Cartesian, mathematical-like a priori character, but that Locke is rather naive on the question of its material adequacy.
Second, Locke‘s theory of bodies assesses contemporary knowledge on the backdrop of his ideal. Most of Locke‘s chief contentions are negative accounts of the limited contemporary grasp of bodies. First, there is virtually no knowledge of the explanatory, microphysical properties. One does know the existence of matter, but has no adequate conception of its properties. Similarly, one is ignorant of real essences and of causal relationships in terms of microphysical features. Moreover, on the supposition of corpuscularian theory, contemporary ideas depict bodies largely by non-real, secondary qualities and only by few real, (macrophysical) primary qualities. That is, ideas of bodies hardly resemble their properties. On the other hand, given corpuscularian theory, one‘s knowledge of macrophysical primary qualities amounts to knowledge of the concepts in terms of which (some) microphysical properties are understood qua real qualities, i. e. one knows the conceptual type of (some of) the explanatory basic features of bodies.
Second, this attested ignorance of microphysical features implies of course that one is not even close of having an axiomatic theory. Contemporary knowledge is very short and scanty, namely it comprises few intuitively known instructive propositions, and no
320deductive, demonstrative knowledge. Contemporary knowledge consists largely of trifling propositions which simply spell out the content of ideas. Third, a positive account of human knowledge is however advanced as well. Besides numerous trifling propositions, one knows some very basic laws of nature. Fourth, there is no established, standardized scientific vocabulary in terms of which scientists can compile their experimental findings to a natural history. Fifth, given Locke‘s comprehension of knowledge, the prospects are bleak for him that one will ever achieve significant progress: to discover real essences, the substratum of bodies, the causal relationships amongst bodies, all the causal circumstances fully determining the possession of properties, and the causal interaction between mind and body.
Third, Locke advances a conception of an experimental science of bodies. Given our ignorance of causal relationships, only natural history can enhance knowledge of similarities existing amongst bodies on the macrophysical level. Scientists are recommended to compile corporatively their results of regularly experienced coexisting properties. Ideally, they do so in terms of a uniform language to avoid confusions and to promote corporation. The introduction of hypotheses is furthermore welcomed to guide and to inspire scientists to conduct new experiments and thus gather new data, but this is not conceived as being essential for the progress of knowledge. Instead, careful observation and systematic collection of empirical facts are proposed.
Fourth, Locke complements the argument for his own conception of a science of bodies by a thorough refutation of other contemporary accounts of bodies. These alternative ideas of a science of bodies are based on confusion for the most part, namely on abuses of names of bodies. First, the Cartesian notion of body dissolves in the face of language criticism just as, second, Aristotelian knowledge claims as to universal propositions, species and their essences. Third, in the light of Locke‘s conception of knowledge, Aristotelian maxims are moreover revealed as not founding a science of bodies. Finally, as alluded to, additional objections are raised against the intelligibility of the Aristotelian theory of essences and species as to its explanatory value. These latter reasonings however stand rather in the shadow of Locke‘s sweeping, semantic arguments.
In the light of this line of interpretation, the programme of Locke‘s comments on bodies emerge as amounting to a theory which: (1) specifies what a science of bodies ideally
321consists in, (2) assesses contemporary knowledge in this perspective, (3) advances an experimental conception of a contemporary science of bodies that proposes means to enhance contemporary knowledge, and (4) refutes alternative ideas of a science of bodies. These are the chief issues of Locke‘s discussion of bodies. In his comments on bodies, John Locke therefore spells out the general programme of his epistemology to determine the origin, certainty, and extent of human knolwedge in terms of a philosophical framework for a science of bodies.
43, I.i.2. Cp. 44, I.i.3.
Boyle (1772), III, 34f.
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