Philosophy / Human Nature And Philosophy

Human Nature And Philosophy

This essay Human Nature And Philosophy is available for you on! Search Term Papers, College Essay Examples and Free Essays on - full papers database.

Autor:  anton  24 August 2010
Tags:  Nature,  Philosophy
Words: 7383   |   Pages: 30
Views: 638

Human Nature

Human beings are physical objects, according to

Hobbes, sophisticated machines all of whose functions

and activities can be described and explained in

purely mechanistic terms. Even thought itself,

therefore, must be understood as an instance of the

physical operation of the human body. Sensation, for

example, involves a series of mechanical processes

operating within the human nervous system, by means of

which the sensible features of material things produce

ideas in the brains of the human beings who perceive

them. (Leviathan I 1)

Human action is similarly to be explained on Hobbes's

view. Specific desires and appetites arise in the

human body and are experienced as discomforts or pains

which must be overcome. Thus, each of us is motivated

to act in such ways as we believe likely to relieve

our discomfort, to preserve and promote our own

well-being. (Leviathan I 6) Everything we choose to do

is strictly determined by this natural inclination to

relieve the physical pressures that impinge upon our

bodies. Human volition is nothing but the

determination of the will by the strongest present


Hobbes nevertheless supposed that human agents are

free in the sense that their activities are not under

constraint from anyone else. On this compatibilist

view, we have no reason to complain about the strict

determination of the will so long as we are not

subject to interference from outside ourselves.

(Leviathan II 21)

As Hobbes acknowledged, this account of human nature

emphasizes our animal nature, leaving each of us to

live independently of everyone else, acting only in

his or her own self-interest, without regard for

others. This produces what he called the "state of

war," a way of life that is certain to prove

"solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

(Leviathan I 13) The only escape is by entering into

contracts with each otherВ—mutually beneficial

agreements to surrender our individual interests in

order to achieve the advantages of security that only

a social existence can provide. (Leviathan I 14)

Human Society

Unable to rely indefinitely on their individual powers

in the effort to secure livelihood and contentment,

Hobbes supposed, human beings join together in the

formation of a commonwealth. Thus, the commonwealth as

a whole embodies a network of associated contracts and

provides for the highest form of social organization.

On Hobbes's view, the formation of the commonwealth

creates a new, artificial person (the Leviathan) to

whom all responsibility for social order and public

welfare is entrusted. (Leviathan II 17)

Of course, someone must make decisions on behalf of

this new whole, and that person will be the sovereign.

The commonwealth-creating covenant is not in essence a

relationship between subjects and their sovereign at

all. Rather, what counts is the relationship among

subjects, all of whom agree to divest themselves of

their native powers in order to secure the benefits of

orderly government by obeying the dictates of the

sovereign authority. (Leviathan II 18) That's why the

minority who might prefer a different sovereign

authority have no complaint, on Hobbes's view: even

though they have no respect for this particular

sovereign, they are still bound by their contract with

fellow-subjects to be governed by a single authority.

The sovereign is nothing more than the institutional

embodiment of orderly government.

Since the decisions of the sovereign are entirely

arbitrary, it hardly matters where they come from, so

long as they are understood and obeyed universally.

Thus, Hobbes's account explicitly leaves open the

possibility that the sovereign will itself be a

corporate personВ—a legislature or an assembly of all

citizensВ—as well as a single human being. Regarding

these three forms, however, Hobbes himself maintained

that the commonwealth operates most effectively when a

hereditary monarch assumes the sovereign role.

(Leviathan II 19) Investing power in a single natural

person who can choose advisors and rule consistently

without fear of internal conflicts is the best

fulfillment of our social needs. Thus, the radical

metaphysical positions defended by Hobbes lead to a

notably conservative political result, an endorsement

of the paternalistic view.

Hobbes argued that the commonwealth secures the

liberty of its citizens. Genuine human freedom, he

maintained, is just the ability to carry out one's

will without interference from others. This doesn't

entail an absence of law; indeed, our agreement to be

subject to a common authority helps each of us to

secure liberty with respect to others. (Leviathan II

21) Submission to the sovereign is absolutely

decisive, except where it is silent or where it claims

control over individual rights to life itself, which

cannot be transferred to anyone else. But the

structure provided by orderly government, according to

Hobbes, enhances rather than restricts individual


Whether or not the sovereign is a single heredetary

monarch, of course, its administration of social order

may require the cooperation and assistance of others.

Within the commonwealth as a whole, there may arise

smaller "bodies politic" with authority over portions

of the lives of those who enter into them. The

sovereign will appoint agents whose responsibility is

to act on its behalf in matters of less than highest

importance. Most important, the will of the sovereign

for its subjects will be expressed in the form of

civil laws that have either been decreed or tacitly

accepted. (Leviathan II 26) Criminal violations of

these laws by any subject will be appropriately

punished by the sovereign authority.

Despite his firm insistence on the vital role of the

sovereign as the embodiment of the commonwealth,

Hobbes acknowledged that there are particular

circumstances under which it may fail to accomplish

its purpose. (Leviathan II 29) If the sovereign has

too little power, is made subject to its own laws, or

allows its power to be divided, problems will arise.

Similarly, if individual subjects make private

judgments of right and wrong based on conscience,

succomb to religious enthisiasm, or acquire excessive

private property, the state will suffer. Even a

well-designed commonwealth may, over time, cease to

function and will be dissolved.

History of Philosophy Philosophical Ethics Political


Previous Next Previous Next Previous Next


В©1997, 1998, 1999 Garth Kemerling.

Questions, comments, and suggestions may be sent to:

gkemerling@delphi.com1994 Lecture Notes

Hobbes: Leviathan

Now I wish to turn to the philosophy of Hobbes. He was

primarily a political, rather than ethical

philosopher. While ethics stresses the good for the

human being, political philosophy emphasizes the good

for society. We saw in Plato a functional notion of

the social good. Justice is the proper functioning of

a society, where each plays the appropriate role and

no one interferes with anyone else. This view was

based on the optimistic analogy with health: the good

state is the one functioning in a way that is best


Christian political philosophy was of two minds.

Augustine typifies the attitude that the community of

the church and state constitute two entirely separate

realms. A political philosophy of the "city of man" is

independent of that of the "city of God." The opposite

view is that the state should be a theocracy, in which

the laws of the state are the laws of God. There are

some theocratic states in existence now (e.g., Iran),

and in the medieval period most states in Europe were

closely tied to the Roman Catholic Church.

Theocracies can flourish only when there is a

considerable unity of religious thinking. With the

Reformation and the breakup of the Roman Catholic

Church, the close connection between church and state

began to be torn asunder. Deadly religious wars were

fought across the European continent. It was in this

climate the Thomas Hobbes proposed the first modern

political philosophy.

Hobbes returned to human nature as the basis of the

state, but the nature he found was quite different

from that discussed by Plato, Aristotle and most of

the other Greek philosophers. Taking his cue from

modern natural science, which rejected the

Aristotelian world-view, Hobbes declared the human

being to be nothing more than matter in motion: he was

a materialist. Reason, formerly arbiter of the good,

now becomes a mere calculating device, no different in

principle from a computer.

Material man has as his end merely the preservation

and promotion of his own existence. The ethical view

here is known as egoism: the good is what is in my

interests alone. Egoism works against social

relations, Hobbes believed. It leads to competition,

creating enmity among persons; to distrust, which

leads us to master others for our own protection; to a

lust for recognition for others, leading to revenge

when it is not given. Further, each one of us is

capable of subjugating or even destroying anyone else,

through the use of technology, through collusion with

others, etc.

This, Hobbes proclaimed, is the natural condition of

the human race. It can only result in a war of all

against all, with the consequence that all normal

human endeavors (agriculture, industry, trade, etc. as

in Plato's Republic) are doomed to failure. Life in

the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish

and short. There is no right or wrong, justice or

injustice. These things come into being only with the

creation of the state.

We may contrast Hobbes' description of the state of

nature with that of Locke, whose work inspired the

founders of the United States. He claimed that the

natural state is one of peoples' liberty to do what

they please without requiring permission of anyone

else. This must be done in conformity with a law of

nature, according to which "no one ought to harm

another in his life, liberty, or possessions" (Second

Treatise of Government, Book II, Chapter 2, p. 308 of

our text). Locke emphasized the equality of all

persons in their creation by God. He implicitly

criticized Hobbes by claiming that the state of nature

is not one of war, for in a state of war, one inflicts

force on others without right, thus violating the law

of nature.

Although in the state of nature, there is no right or

wrong, no justice or injustice, there are still a

"right of nature" and "laws of nature." The right of

nature is that of self-preservation, and the only road

to preserving one's self is through seeking peace and

following it. Corresponding to this right is a law of

nature, which enjoins us to defend ourselves. We can

defend ourselves best when we give up our liberty, our

"right to all things."

In Book II of Plato's Republic, Socrates' antagonists

had claimed that this kind of agreement is in the

interests of those who do not have the power to commit

injustice. Hobbes could reply by pointing out that in

the state of nature, everyone has the power to destroy

anyone else, either through contrivance or through

collusion with others. So the contract is in the

interest of the strong as well as the weak.

Locke held that what we give up to form civil

government is nothing more than inconvenience which

results from the extreme liberty in the state of

nature. In that state, each person must be the judge

of right and wrong, which leads inevitably to

conflicts. There is no recourse when there are

transgressions, so the state is erected to adjudicate


Once one lays down one's rights, then one incurs a

duty or obligation not to interfere with others who

wish to take that which has been renounced. One would

do this only for something in return. A contract is

only good so long as it can be enforced, which

requires that there be a "coercive power." Thus

justice requires both a contract and the power of

enforcement. Hobbes found many other conditions for

giving up one's rights, some of them sounding quite

modern. Punishment should be for the end of

rehabilitation, there should be no overt declarations

of hatred (compare the UCD "Principles of Community"),

one has a right to govern one's own body, etc.

As stated above, the social contract requires that

power be conferred on an individual or assembly, the

sovereign. Otherwise, there can be no confidence that

surrendered rights will yield security in return. This

security is needed for there to be any hope of

enjoying the fruits of one's labors. Hobbes listed

various rights of the sovereign, including censorship,

lawmaking, judging, and making war and peace. There is

never a right to revolution against the sovereign,

since this is a breaking of the contract. The

sovereign cannot break the contract, since the

contract itself gives him the right to do what he

thinks fit.

In a discussion of the best form of the commonwealth,

Hobbes came down in favor of the monarch, where the

power is invested in one person. The chief advantage

is that the monarch's public and private interests

correspond exactly. (Compare the granting of stock

options to corporate executives, on the grounds that

if they have a personal stake in the company, they

will perform better.) Locke later argued against the

absolute monarch, on the grounds that there is no

appeal to his decision. Since government is

established to mediate disputes, if one cannot dispute

with the monarch, the purpose of instituting

government is underc

At this point, we turn to Plato's more sophisticated

treatment of the matter. In the Republic, Socrates was

challenged to "tell us how justice benefits a man

intrinsically, and in the same way how injustice harms

him" (p. 61). To do this, he had to show what justice

is. His model of the just state was that of a healthy

organism, where all the parts function for the benefit

of the whole, and the whole benefits the parts.

Socrates gave an elaborate account of the elements

which go into the making of a city (a small state).

Many different kinds of roles are undertaken by

different people. The survival of the whole depends on

each one performing their functions properly. Justice

is sticking to one's role, doing one's own work and

not interfering with others. It, along with the other

virtues of a state, temperance, courage and wisdom,

contributes to the excellence of that state. Indeed,

justice is necessary for the other three virtues.

In the case of the individual, Plato also appealed to

a model of harmonious functioning. The soul has its

divisions just as the state does. There is reason, the

passions and the "spirit" that enlivens them. The just

man is one who keeps these in harmony with one

another. "Justice, like health, depends upon the

persence of a natural order governing the soul in the

relation of its parts and in the conduct of the

whole." This is how justice benefits a man

intrisically, just as good health does.

In the discussion of Plato's theory of virtue, we

found that he considered virtue to be an excellence of

the soul. Insofar as the soul has several components,

there will be many components of its excellence. The

excellence of reason is wisdom, of the passions,

attributes such as courage, and of the spirit,

temperance. (Spirit is a kind of intensity of the

soul, for Plato.) Finally, justice is that excellence

which consists in a harmonious relation of the three

parts. In the state, justice is each individual

fulfilling his or her own function, without

interfering with the others. So it is for the soul.

Now the question arises what relation this account of

justice has to the theory of the forms. When I queried

Professor Malcolm, an expert on the Republic, he

replied that the account stands on its own, and so

requires no reference to the forms at all.

Nonetheless, there is this relation. The forms were

sometimes described by Plato as ideal objects, such as

triangle itself. The state and the soul that is really

just is also an ideal. No actual individual attains

the state of overall virtue adequate to Plato's


Next Lecture

Plato's ultimate answer to the sort of question

Socrates asked, what makes a kind of thing the kind of

thing it is, was that the "form itself" does so, and

that the form is something different from the thing,

having an eternal existence on its own. Thus beautiful

things are beautiful because they partake of beauty

itself, and just acts are just insofar as they partake

of justice itself, and so forth. The highest form was

that of the good. In the Republic, Plato undertook to

describe this form through two famous analogies, that

of the line and that of the cave.

The analogy of the line has to do with the theory of

knowledge. Plato recognized that knowledge is better

than opinion. If Euthyphro was to know what piety is,

he must know it through the form, which can only be

thought and not sensed. Thus knowledge belongs to an

invisible, intangible, insensible world of the

intellect, while of the visible, tangible, sensible

world we have only opinion. The intelligible world is

more real and true than the sensible world, as well as

being more distinct.

Suppose we say in the abstract that there is some

proportion of reality, truth and distinctness between

the invisible and visible worlds. This can be

represented on a line. (You can suppose the ratio be

whatever you like, say 3:1).

Now Plato says that within each realm there is a

further division. In the realm of the visible, there

are real objects and their images (shadows, etc.). The

images give us the lowest grade of belief, mere

conjecture. If I see a shadow of an object, I get very

little information about what specific object it is.

Plato lays it down that the proportion of truth,

reality and distinctness holding between the object

and the image is the same as that holding between the

intelligible and sensible worlds (e.g., 3:1).

Similarly, there is a division within the intelligible

realm, between the forms themselves and images of the

forms. Knowledge of the forms themselves through

reason is the highest kind of knowledge, while

knowledge of the images of the forms through their

images through the understanding is a lower form.

(Again, the ratio would be 3:1).

This identification may perhaps be understood in this

way. Our opinions about the objects of the world are

formed through the use of the senses, by observation.

We can observe that things tend to go together all the

time, and thus form the opinion that those things

belong together. If Euthyphro had the right

information about the preferences of the gods, he

could observe that certain acts are pleasing to all of

them. But he has not explained anything. He is left

with mere opinion.

We might try to understand objects of the visible

world by using our understanding. We can make

assumptions and show what follows from them. The use

of these assumptions can enable us to generate laws

which explain why things go together the way they do.

For example, Newton assumed that bodies in motion tend

to stay in motion, and bodies at rest tend to stay at

rest, unless some outside agency acts on them. This

assumption about inertia helped him generate further

principles about motion, but it is not itself proved.

It is an unexamined assumption, in Plato's terms. This

method of proceeding is not the best way possible. One

must instead start with forms and use them in

explaining other things

. The cave analogy is in many respects similar to that

of the line. It distinguishes between the most true,

real, and most distinct (in this case, it is compared

to the world outside the cave) and the least (the

shadows in the cave and higher than them the objects

in the cave casting the shadows when illuminated by

fire within the cave).

The difference between the analogies is that the cave

analogy is more vivid in its depiction of the sensible

and intelligible realms, and that it illustrates the

problems of coming to know through the forms. Each

step in our progress, from conjecture, to opinion, to

knowledge, has its difficulties. The images on the

wall of the cave are easily mistaken for the real if

they are all one can experience. When one breaks free

and looks toward the fire, the objects casting the

shadow are now mistaken for the truly real, and the

light of the fire is painful and dazzling. This effect

of bewilderment is even more intense outside the cave.

Here, however, one has reached the real at last.

Finally, if a person trained by the state reaches this

higher form, he has the responsibility to govern. The

philosopher-king knows the good itself, and hence

knows what is good to do.

A last point about the forms. They are what gives us

knowledge, but they are also what gives things their

reality. The sun casts light upon the earth, allowing

us to see what is there, and it also supplies the

energy through which things grow and prosper. So the

form of the good gives to the sensible world the

reality it has. Later philosophers in the early days

of Christianity were to adapt this image of the sun

into a thought of God as the source of all reality and


Lectures on John Locke

Locke is generally considered the first in the line of

British empiricists, with Berkeley and Hume adopting

his starting point. The fundamental claim is that

human knowledge begins with sense experience and

primarily is derived from it. Locke begins his

philosophical examination of knowledge by trying to

refute the claim that some of our knowledge is

original, in the sense that it comes from ideas which

are innate or inborn. This view was held most

prominently by Descartes.

Locke's attempted refutation depends on a questionable

assumption: if an individual has an idea, then that

individual would understand it and assent to its

content. If, as Descartes claimed, I am born with the

idea of God, who implanted that idea in me at my

creation, then my understanding of what God is should

conform to that idea. But Locke points out that there

is widespread disagreement over the concept of God.

Furthermore, it does not seem to be present at all in

small children. In II,I,6, Locke states that we come

to our knowledge by degrees.

However, the proponents of innate ideas need not agree

to Locke' assumption. Descartes in one place wrote

that innate ideas are dispositions, which require the

proper circumstances to become fully clear to the

mind. Leibniz responded that we can have ideas of

which we are not conscious. Thus both disagreed with

the fundamental Lockean assumption that to have an

idea is to be aware of it.

Locke concluded from his attack on innate ideas that

the only way ideas could arise is as the result of

sense experience. We form ideas as the endpoint of the

action of physical bodies on our own bodies. Locke

points out in II,VIII,7 that sometimes he uses 'idea'

to refer to the end product, what exists in the mind,

and sometimes he uses it to refer to the quality in

the body which causes the idea.

The ideas of sense are the first ideas we have. Once

the mind begins to be populated with them, it can

operate upon them. This operation is the source of a

second kind of idea, the idea of reflection. Unlike

many ideas of sense, which force themselves upon us,

so that we cannot help but be aware of them, all ideas

of reflection require that attention be paid to the

workings of the mind. Thus Locke says that children

and even some adults fail to have ideas of reflection,

because they lack the requisite attentiveness to what

their mind is doing.

Locke classified ideas as simple and complex. All

complex ideas are said to be made up, ultimately of

simple ideas, and their complexity is the work of the


A simple idea is "one uncompounded appearance," said

Locke. But it should be noted that the relation of

simple to complex ideas is not the relation of part to

whole. (Berkeley and Hume both thought that there are

minimum sensible units, like the dots making up a

newspaper picture.) A simple idea is perhaps best

described as being of a certain sort or kind. Thus we

have a simple ideas of solidity. When I press a

football between my hands and feel its resistance to

their joining together, I have a simple idea of


In general, our simple ideas are the effects of the

operations of bodies on us (sensation) or the

observation of the workings of our own minds

(reflection). In a famous passage (II,XI,17), Locke

compares the mind to a "dark room" (in the Latin,

"camera obscura") with only a narrow inlet. Ideas are

analogous to the images projected onto the back of the


Locke classified the various simple ideas according to

the following scheme.

Those that come to the mind by one sense only, such as

color or odor.

Those that come in to the mind by more than one sense.

These include extension, figure, rest and motion.

(Note that these will later, for another reason, be

called "primary" qualities.)

These that come to the mind by reflection only.

Perception (in the broad sense of sensibly perceiving,

thinking, imagining, remembering) and willing are the

two simple ideas of this type.

Those which accompany all our other ideas: pleasure

and pain, unity, existence, power, succession.

Pleasure and pain will assume importance later because

of their role in the motivation of human action. Power

is a most fundamental idea, as will be seen. In

II,VII,8, Locke notes that we get this idea both from

our thinking and from the effects of bodies on one


Now let us consider the kinds of powers bodies have.

Locke sometimes identifies the qualities corresponding

to our ideas as powers. Thus the sun has the power to

melt wax, and heat is the quality which brings this

about. Call a bare power one by which a body can bring

about a change in another body, such as the heat of

the sun, which melts the wax. (The wax also has the

power to be melted by the heat of the sun.)

Other powers of bodies are such as can produce ideas

in our minds. There is are powers in the sun to

produce the idea of light as well as the idea of heat

and that of roundness and that of yellow. Locke

divided these powers (or as he puts it, the qualities

of the bodies) into two kinds, the primary and


The basis of the division is our ability to conceive

bodies in general. There are some qualities without

which we cannot conceive a body. Thus we must conceive

a body as being solid and extended, as having a

figure, as being in motion or at rest. These qualities

are primary. Other qualities are dispensable. Locke

said he can conceive a given body as being neither

warm nor cold, as having no color at all (as when it

is in the dark).

The distinction between primary and secondary

qualities is, at root, a conceptual distinction

concerning how we can represent bodies. A primary

quality is one which must represent a body as having

in every possible circumstance. No matter how small a

body is, it has some extension. No matter how fluid it

is, it has some solidity, no matter where it is at a

time, it must be moving or at rest at that time.

Secondary qualities come and go, depending on whether

they are in the right relation to a perceiver. An

object has color only insofar as it can be seen. If

there is no light, there is no color.

To be sure, a body always has a power to produce ideas

of colors under the right circumstances, but this

power is nothing more than a function of its primary

qualities. Thus a body always has a certain texture,

due to the arrangement and solidity of its component

parts. Locke subscribed to the "corpuscularian

hypothesis," according to which bodies are made of

indivisible particles. Each of them has all the

primary qualities, but they lack secondary qualities.

They do not even have the power to produce ideas which

we could call their color.

Locke made the further claim that our ideas of primary

qualities resemble the qualities, while those of the

secondary do not. Berkeley will raise the question how

Locke can make any claim of resemblance, given that he

has no data other than the ideas themselves, and hence

cannot compare them to their supposed originals. Locke

seems to have held the resemblance view because he

could not conceive of bodies any other way.

The claim of the non-resemblance of the ideas of

secondary qualities and their originals requires

further argument. Even if there are conditions under

which bodies lack the qualities, why say that when

they do produce the ideas, say of their color, what

produces them is not colored? Locke appeals to a

relativity shown by the ideas of secondary qualities,

not had by those of primary qualities. No matter what

the conditions under which I perceive a body, my idea

of it always includes extension. But the perception of

bodies can yield, under some conditions, an idea of

heat, and under others, an idea of cold. Worse, at a

distance from a fire, I have an idea of warmth, which

is replaced by an idea of pain when I mistakenly place

my hand in the fire.

I have skipped various peripheral material to turn to

the idea of power, one of the most important of all. I

have already noted that his idea includes that of the

ability to bring about change (active power) and to

suffer it (passive power).

Locke claimed that experience shows that the mind has

the active powers of beginning or ceasing its own

operations and of initiating or inhibiting motion in

the body. This power is activated by a preference. He

claims that if a mind can, merely on the occasion of a

preference, affect the operations of the mind or the

motion of the body, that mind is free to do so. If it

cannot, it is necessitated to do something else.

Suppose we call the preference for a state of affairs

the motive. My motive for typing these notes is my

preference for my students to suttee them. I need not

do so; I am free to go play golf instead. Locke says

that my preferences are determined by the pleasure or

pain I project as the result of the contemplated act.

But then it seems as if my actions are determined by

what is pleasurable for me and what is painful for me.

Locke' response is that the situation is more

complicated than it would seem. I am at liberty to

ignore, say, an intense, immediate pleasure because I

understand that it would in the long term produce more

pain. So ultimately, it is our ability to reason about

pleasures and pains which constitutes the foundation

of our freedom.

Locke' view of human liberty is directed forward in

time. It does not matter how one gets to the point of

choice, so long as the mind is able bring about the

desired event, the act is free. Many people find this

kind of freedom to be of small comfort. They think

that how one' preferences are determined is the key to

liberty. If my preferences are determined by pleasure

and pain alone, then I am no better than a robot with

no control over my destiny.

The next topic of interest is that of substance. Given

his starting point, Locke is able to pronounce that in

many cases we observe certain ideas to go together

constantly. A certain bulk, shape, array of colors,

speech patterns, etc., go together so constantly that

we give them one name, say Bill Clinton. Calling this

collection of ideas by a single name need not have any

significance beyond the mere co-existence of the

qualities, as Berkeley pointed out. But Locke made the

further claim that the co-existence can only be

understood if there is something which is the reason

for their co-existing in just that way. Call this the

"support" or "substratum." Then our idea of a

substance in general is that of co-existing qualities

supported by something.

Of course, it would help the explanation if Locke

could go beyond mere metaphor. The word 'support'

cannot be taken literally (again as pointed out by

Berkeley), since it then would be just another

observable thing, like the foundation of a building.

But there is nothing more to be said. Locke says that

we are in the position of children, who can only say

"something" when asked what is responsible for an

event. Or, we are like the philosophers of India who,

when asked about the support of the world, say that it

rests on an elephant, and when asked further what

supports the elephant, say that it rests on the broad

back of a turtle. Finally, when asked what supports

the turtle, he says, "something, I know not what."

Suffice it to say that Locke's doctrine of substance

was a weak point in his system.

The same story goes for mental substance. Our minds

contain ideas and operations upon them. But the spirit

which is responsible for these ideas and operations is

also an unknown something. Thus although we know what

spirit does, we do not know what it is. This leads to

skepticism about whether the spiritual substance is

absolutely immaterial. Bishop Stillingfleet, in

particular, attacked Locke for leaving open the

possibility that matter thinks.

The skepticism about mental substance spills over into

the issue of identity over time. Could the same spirit

be connected to different bodies or different

personalities? Locke claimed that the criterion of

identity over time is the same beginning. A rock is

formed out of molten lava. Its existence begins at

that time and it continues until the rock is broken.

So long as there is continuity from the beginning, it

is the same rock. The breaking constitutes a new

beginning for each of the fragments.

The most simple case of identity is that of identity

of mass. A mass is the same when all the particles

making it up are the same. Substitute one for another,

and it is a different mass. This notion of the same

mass is not very useful, however, since very few

masses in the universe are so stable that they are not

adding or losing parts, and hence becoming new masses.

A more complicated case of identity is that of a

vegetable. We acknowledge that vegetables need not

have exactly the same particles in order to be the

same. What is the same, rather, is the dispositions

and organization of the thing, which Locke seems to

identify with its life. A tree sheds its leaves and

grows new ones, all the while remaining the same tree.

By extension (and with an extended use of 'life') we

can say that a machine is re-identified by its

dispositions and organization. Animals are too, the

only difference being that they are self-moving.

Insofar as a man is an animal, a man is subject to the

same-life identity condition.

Given this condition, it seems that Locke can solve

the old problem of the identity of a ship which is

wholly rebuilt. In its original location, a part of

the ship is removed to another place, then replaced by

a new part. An adjoining part is removed and

transported, attached to the first removed part, and

replaced. Eventually, there is a ship in the original

place which has all new parts. It seems to be the same

ship as the original, by Locke' criterion. (Compare

the claim that all the cells in the human body are

replaced in ten years.)

We move now to Book IV of the Essay, wherein Locke

presents his theory of knowledge. The material

discussed in the lecture is tied to the handout

distributed in class. The handout provides a matrix.

The content of the cells is the extent of what is

known for fifteen classifications of knowledge ((4 x

4) - 1, due to a consolidation of two


One dimension of the matrix is the degree of

knowledge. Actually, the lowest degree of "knowledge"

is not knowledge at all, but mere opinion. The lowest

degree of knowledge proper is sensitive knowledge,

which is based on sense experience rather than merely

on ideas. Knowledge not based on sense experience is

intuitive (in which ideas are compared directly with

each other) and demonstrative (in which they are

compared indirectly, via intermediary ideas). The

presence of intermediaries in demonstrative knowledge

introduces an element of slight uncertainty not

present with intuitive knowledge.

The second dimension is the objects of knowledge and

opinion. Identity and diversity is the simplest sort:

two ideas are known to be (qualitatively) identical or

different from each other. Black is not white and

white is white, etc. All are known intuitively.

Relations among abstract ideas are all known either

intuitively or demonstratively, if they are known at

all (mathematical speculation is a matter of opinion).

Since they are abstract, knowledge about them is not


Co-existence and connection are relations that hold of

real objects, as opposed to abstract ideas. I have

combined the categories of the intuitive and

demonstrative here, since Locke has little to say

about them. Few relations of co-existence are known

through the examination of ideas alone. Of greater

importance are relations discovered to hold in sense

objects. Most of them are subjects of opinion, and

only those which are actually present in perception

are known sensitively. Thus I may know that my yellow

watch is gold.

Knowledge of existence is somewhat artificially

divided among the various degrees. I know myself

through the direct inspection of ideas. There is a

demonstration of God' existence, and there is

sensitive knowledge of objects actually present to my

senses. Thus I do not know that the classroom in which

the lectures are given exists at the very moment I am

typing these notes in my office. So in truth, we know

very little sensitively, since what we perceive at any

time is very limited.

Locke painted himself into a corner in his description

of knowledge as concerned only with ideas. Paradigm

examples of knowledge, on this view, are that white is

not black, and that the sum of the squares of the

sides of a right triangle is the square of the

hypotenuse. But both are independent of any facts

except those concerning ideas themselves. Locke,

rightly, asks why on his account of knowledge anything

which comes into anyone' head does not count as


He notes that we intend for some of our ideas to refer

beyond themselves to an external reality, and that the

title of knowledge must be reserved for those ideas

which correspond to it. But this raises the problem of

the criterion for distinguishing which ideas conform

to reality and which do not. Rather than giving a

general criterion of knowledge, Locke proceeds on a

case-by-case basis.

The second case he considers is the least interesting.

We have seen already that mathematical knowledge is

supposed to be based on intuition and demonstration

concerning abstract ideas. Locke adds that they are

representative of themselves, and the question of

external reality touches them only indirectly. If

there are things that correspond to our abstract

ideas, then demonstrations about them apply to those

things. The same goes for other kinds of abstract

ideas, including moral ideas.

The first case of correspondence is that of simple

ideas to their originals. Locke assumed that these

ideas are not made up by ourselves (we can only

operate on given simple ideas), they correspond to

what causes them. Note, however, that Locke has not

yet shown that we have knowledge of the existence of

other things. It still remains open whether the source

of these ideas is an external reality, and the nature

of the correspondence has not been established.

The third case is the least ambitious. This concerns

complex ideas of substances. To what extent does my

idea of a raspberry correspond to the thing? Locke

provisionally answers that the correspondence is


Finally we turn to the question of our knowledge of

the existence of things. That we know our own

existence intuitively is based on appeal to the

argument of Augustine and Descartes, that doubting

one' own existence presupposes the existence of a

doubter, and hence is futile. This knowledge is

intuitive, it seems, because one can hold this thought

in its entirety at a single time.

The proof of the existence of God is problematic. As a

good empiricist, Locke gave a proof a posteriori, or

from experience. The starting point is the

already-demonstrated existence of himself. From this

narrow basis he moves outward using a version of the

principle of sufficient reason (itself never

justified), that nothing cannot produce anything. To

avoid a regress of producers, he claims that we must

acknowledge that from eternity there has been

something. (It is not clear why he could not appeal

instead to a first cause which was not produced,

rather than produced by nothing).

Next he claimed that this something is most powerful.

This conclusion is quite dubious on the grounds that

the only thing he need account for is the existence of

himself. But even if he did invoke this being as the

cause of the existence of the world, the being need

only be as powerful as it takes to produce the world

as its effect.

Finally, this eternal, most powerful, being is said to

be most knowing. Locke has noted that he himself is an

existing thinking thing, and now claims that thinking

cannot arise spontaneously from matter. Only a

thinking thing could give rise to a thinking thing.

Further, the being is most knowing. But the same

problem as before arises here: the being need only be

powerful enough to produce the level of thinking found

in the world. In general, proofs a posteriori have the

problem that the infinite properties of a God seem to

surpass what is required to explain the world around


Having given a flawed argument for the existence of

God, Locke moved to give a shaky account of our

knowledge of the existence of other things. This

knowledge is sensitive, and is very limited in its

scope. One can know of the existence only of those

things with which one is in sensory contact.

Locke' theory of sensitive knowledge is very much like

some contemporary theories of knowledge. It has two

components, one "external" and the other "internal."

The external component in knowledge is that a causal

relation between the knower and the object is a

necessary condition for knowledge. "It is therefore

the actual receiving of ideas from without that gives

us notice of the existence of other things, and makes

us know, that something doth exist at that time

without us, which causes that idea in us; though

perhaps we neither know nor consider how it does it"

(IV,XI,2). Although this external connection is

necessary for knowledge, however, it is not


The second ingredient is what is Ernest Sosa calls an

"epistemic perspective," or an assessment of the way

our faculties operate to produce the ideas in us. The

eyes are said to give "testimony" in which we have

confidence. "If we persuade ourselves that our

faculties act and inform us right concerning the

existence of those objects that affect them, it cannot

pass for an ill-grounded confidence" (IV,XI,3). One

thing he said in this connection caught the eye of

Berkeley, that we cannot doubt the existence of the

things we see and feel. But what, Berkeley asked, do

we see and feel other than the ideas themselves?

Locke says that he "has reason to rely" on the

testimony of the senses. He argues that has the

assurance of God. It appears from IV,XI,3, that he

thinks that since God has given him these faculties,

and they are correlated with the production of

pleasure and pain ("one great concernment of my

present state"), he can be confident in the testimony

of the senses. This is reminiscent of Descartes' claim

that God would be a deceiver had he been created with

faculties whose manifest testimony is erroneous.

Locke then gives four concurrent reasons to be

confident in the testimony of the senses (or

equivalently, to support his "epistemic perspective.")

The first is that we cannot invent specific kinds of

ideas, say the taste of a pineapple, so that they

require "exterior causes." Locke can cite only

empirical evidence for this conclusion, i.e., that

"nobody" gets the taste of a pineapple until they

actually bite into one. It is not clear that this

establishes the impossibility of so doing, however.

But even if the empirical evidence Locke cites is

sufficient for his purposes, note the weakness of the

conclusion. Locke cannot say what the exterior cause

is. As Berkeley noted, the exterior cause might be


The second reason is also vulnerable to the same

objections. Locke claims that the production of some

ideas seems to be forced on me. I have no control over

them (the come "willy-nilly" into the mind), and so

they are the product of an exterior cause. As with the

first case, Locke cites empirical evidence which may

or may not be sufficient for his conclusion. And he

again is vulnerable to Berkeley's criticism that the

specific exterior cause is not established by the


The fourth reason (which is more continuous with the

first two than is the third), is that the senses bear

testimony to one another. This is a sound principle

for evaluating testimony when there is some other

evidence, but it does not work well in the present

case. If a number of witnesses giving testimony are

systematically lying or systematically deluded, then

the coherence of their testimony is of no value. The

only conclusion Locke could draw is that whatever the

exterior cause of sensitive ideas may be, it is likely

to be the same for all the sense modalities. Coherence

may well be a criterion separating the dreamed or

imagined from some other ideas to be called "real,"

but the nature of the real is unknown, at least on the

basis of these three arguments.

The third reason is an apparent difference between

ideas, in that the pleasure or pain associated with

some is dramatically more intense than what is

associated with ideas of imagination, dreams, etc.

This argument is not very strong, since hallucinations

can bring on great pain, as with Delayed Stress


. Locke went on to delimit the extent of our knowledge

to objects actually affecting the senses, as is

implied by his externalist condition discussed above.

(I did not mention in lecture that this condition

allows knowledge on the basis of memory of actually

sensed objects, since the ideas were caused originally

in the appropriate way.) On the other hand, we cannot

know that other minds exist, though it is highly

probable that they do. The required external causation

falls short. We are not affected by the minds of

others, but only by physical phenomena: what we see,

hear, feel bodies to do.

This introduces the topic of the use of reason in

matters that fall short of knowledge. Locke's general

principle is that we ought to assent to a proposition

when the preponderance of evidence is on its side,

i.e., when it is highly probable. On the other hand,

it is not always the case that we ought to withhold

assent when there is not a preponderance of evidence.

This loophole exists because there are some matters

which are "above reason," in the sense that there is

no way to adduce empirical evidence for or against.

These cases allow for consent on the basis of faith.

On the other hand, there are cases in which there is

an absolute preponderance of evidence against a

proposition, when it is "contrary to reason." I may

not give my assent to what conflicts with what I know

to be true.

What is wrong with assenting to a proposition (e.g.,

that there is more than one God) that is contrary to

reason? It is an abuse of the faculty of reason which

God gave us. Thus, Locke held that the true God would

never give us faculties which we are supposed to

subvert in order to know God. If we may revert to

Descartes once again, God would be a deceiver if such

a condition holds.

Locke' religious convictions were rationalistic. That

is, he thought that religious belief has a rational

basis. We have already seen that he tried to

demonstrate from rational principles the existence of

God. He also held that revealed religion can be

considered testimony which has its own evidential


There are two sorts of revelation possible: direct

implantation of ideas in our minds by God, and public

signs such as the content of scripture. In both cases,

whether we should place confidence in these sources

depends on whether they have good credentials, i.e.,

whether we have good reason to think that they are

actually the word of God.

Here Locke began his attack on enthusiasm, which would

set up revelation without reason. Locke states that

this is impossible, so that anyone professing to do

this must be stating his own fancies. The mark of the

enthusiast is the justification of the belief by the

mere degree to which it is believed. Locke diagnosed

the syndrome as the product of an overheated brain.

Back to Lecture Menu

Eighteenth Century Philosophy Home Page

Get Better Grades Today

Join and get instant access to over 60,000+ Papers and Essays

Please enter your username and password
Forgot your password?