Locke Space and Time

Locke Space and Time

Locke on Complex Ideas and Knowledge

  1. Complex ideas are formed from simple ideas from: (i) combination, (ii) by comparison or (iii) by abstraction (‘separating them from all other ideas that accompany them in real existence.’)

(MP  p. 340)


  1. Complex ideas are modes, substances or relations. Modes may be simple or mixed.    Simple modes are composed of different combinations of the same simple idea.  Mixed modes include those compounded of ideas of different kinds.  (Examples include beauty (color and figure); theft (concealed change of possession without consent.)


  1. There are several simple modes of space: distance is the space separating points; distance considered in length, breadth and ‘thickness’ is capacity.  Immensity is an idea achieved by doubling or repeating ideas of distance.


  1. Body is to be distinguished from extension because a body is something that is solid. Extension is merely the space that exists between the extremities of a solid object.  (MP p. 342)


  1. According to Locke, Aristotle’s substance/accident ontology has little use in philosophy. He writes:  ‘substance, without knowing what it is, is that which supports accidents – so that we have no idea of what it (substance) is, but only a confused obscure one of what it does.  (MP p. 344)  Locke also questions the distinction that Descartes draws between God, finite spirits and bodies.  (See MP p. 344)


  1. God can be conceived to annihilate bodies while the entire universe is at rest. The annihilation of a solid body would result in space without a body.  (MP p. 345)


  1. Temporal ideas derive from reflection on the train of our own thoughts. The ‘distance’ between the ideas is duration.  Time itself is duration set out by measures.


  1. The idea of power is either active or passive, indicating what can make change or what is receptive to change. Will and understanding are two powers of the mind.  In thinking of the scope of the will, we distinguish liberty from necessity.  We are free if we are not hindered, and we will as we choose or prefer.  Freedom is being able to act or not act according to our will.  (MP p.  353)


  1. Our ideas of substance are complex. Spirits are examples of complex ideas of substance.   Spirits, according to Locke, are capable of change in position because they are associated with bodies.  However, the ideas of substance underlying finite spirits and bodies are unknown to us.  We do have coherent ideas of the solid cohesion of parts in bodies and of those that impart motion.  We also have coherent ideas of powers of the spirit, including thinking and the power of beginning or stopping thoughts or motions.


  1. Our idea of God is an idea of our own creation. “When we frame an idea …  most suitable … to the supreme being, we enlarge every one of those (simple ideas of reflection) with our idea of infinity and some putting them together make our complex idea of God.  (MP, p. 366f)  How would Descartes respond to this; in particular, what would Descartes’ think of Locke’s use of ‘infinity’?


  1. Our idea of identity is really derived from our experience of identifying objects over time rather than from determining the conditions under which we have two objects rather than one.


  1. This raises the question of personal identity, and it is important to sort out different aspects of the question. According to Locke, if one of the atoms of a body is taken away, it is no longer the same body.  Thus, the constituent parts of a body determine the body itself.  Second, the identity of the same man or human being consists in the participation of the same continued life by ‘constantly fleeting particles of matter in succession vitally connected to the same organized body.’  (MP, p. 369) Third, consciousness is what makes personal identity, or the same self.  But the question whether the same spiritual substance is what thinks in the same person is a different question entirely, and question that presumably cannot be answered.


  1. Scientific knowledge, indeed all knowledge, presupposes the use of terms that signify a variety of things. Those terms are called ‘general terms.’  Locke thinks that general terms are created essentially by acts of abstraction.  His account of just how this is done is one of the most controversial doctrines in his philosophy.  As we shall see in due course, Hume offers powerful objections to it.


  1. According to Locke, ‘words become general by being made signs of general ideas.’ (MP, P. 377)  Ideas become general by acts of abstraction, which separate the ideas from time and place and, beyond that, whatever ‘may determine them to this or that particular existence.’  (MP, p. 377)


  1. At first names are given to individuals, and then, noticing what those things have in common an idea as framed of ‘which those many particulars … partake.’ For example, the name ‘man’ might originate in this way.  Thus there is a general name for a general idea.  Proceeding from the general name for the general idea of man, we proceed to ‘advance to more general names and abstractions,’ like the name ‘animal.’  (MP, p. 378)


  1. General natures are abstract ideas. It is from abstract ideas that we first form general ideas and general names for them.  (MP, p. 378)  Thus, when we have collected a group of individuals and call them ‘human beings,’ we must be sure not to include any in the group who are not human beings.  This means that we must know what human beings have in common so that we can know whom to exclude.  (MP, p. 378)  Locke thinks that this account explains why it is the definitions take the form of differentiating species from genus.   (MP, p. 378)


  1. The general and universal pertain to the understanding. Empirical science exemplifies knowledge, and that knowledge obviously depends upon claims that are general or universal.    Abstract ideas are the essences of genera and species; they are founded on similarities.  Locke distinguishes what he calls the real and nominal essences of substances.  (Real and nominal essence are the same in ‘simple ideas and modes.’)    The nominal essence of a substance, say gold, is defined by the characteristics the gold things have in common by virtue of which the general idea and hence the general term for gold were derived.  These characteristics include properties like malleability, fusibility, the color gold, solubility in aqua regia but not in water.  Locke conceded that that he did not know the real essence of gold, but would surely have agreed with us that the real essence of gold is a function of its atomic constitution, which is marked in the Periodic Table, where gold is identified as the element with atomic number 79.  (MP, 381)


  1. Essence does not pertain to individuals, but rather to the species (denominated by abstract terms) to which they belong. It is perhaps natural to think that each particular thing has a real essence that is independent of the kind of thing that it is, but this is a big mistake.  That which is essential belongs to a particular thing as a ‘condition’ by which it is a thing of this or that sort, but take away the conception of the sort designed by the abstract idea and there is nothing essential to the thing.  (MP, p. 383)  What does this imply about Aristotle’s notion of substantial form?


  1. Knowledge is the perception, or agreement, of two ideas. Locke identifies four kinds of agreement:  identity or diversity; relation; coexistence or necessary connection and finally real existence.
  2. Some agreements or disagreements are perceived at first sight. For example, we know right from the start to distinguish “white and round” from “red and square.”
  3. Secondly we compare ideas by identifying the relations among them. Geometrical knowledge is largely of this sort. For example:  That ‘two triangles upon equal bases between two parallels are equal’ is an example of knowledge or relations among ideas.
  4. Coexistence refers to the ideas that are jointly exemplified in a subject. For example, malleability, fusibility, fixedness are all jointly exemplified by objects (of pure, viz. unalloyed) gold.
  5. Real existence: An existence assertion, like God is or God exists, is of this type

Degrees of Knowledge:

  1. This first degree or type of knowledge is intuitive. This is knowledge that is immediate, without the intervention of other ideas.  Examples, white is not black, 3 is more than 2. (MP, p. 389)
  2. Demonstrative knowledge is dependent upon reasoning. It arises when the mind cannot ‘bring its ideas together, as by the immediate comparison.’ (MP, p. 389)  Reasoning involves proofs.  Before a demonstration is given, the proposition is dubitable, and even after it has been proved it is not as clear as intuitive knowledge.  Finally, each step of the proof must be connected two prior steps by intuitive knowledge (cf:  Descartes  on the same  subject)
  3. Finally there is sensitive knowledge, which is knowledge of particular existences by perception.

Although this is called ‘knowledge’ it does not reach that ‘degree of perfection’ of the prior two forms.


  1. Locke thinks that he has justified the claims to knowledge in mathematics and to a reasonable use of the word in the case of empirical science generally, although he denies that we can have genuine knowledge of nature unless we actually know the real essences of things. The situation with God is ambiguous.  Locke claims ‘the existence of a God [that] reason clearly makes known to us, …’  (MP, p. 411)  But Locke’s assertion about what reason has shown is very cautious.  Locke claims that we cannot understand the operations of our own minds, much less the operations of the eternal mind.  (MP, p. 411)  Thus we are not entirely clear about the God whom reason makes known.  Moreover, if we were to ask about the God of Locke’s faith, the Christian God, Locke would agree that reason does not make the existence of that God clear to us.  So, although Locke shows some sympathy for the type of argument we find in Meditation III, he certainly does not think that the idea of God is innate or that we are in a position to demonstrate the existence of the God in which he and many of his contemporary believe.  It is clear (to me at least) that Locke is trying to show that belief in God is consistent with an empiricist view of idea  formation and knowledge and even that there are some considerations that commend theism to us.  However, he falls short of claiming that reason actually vindicates his own faith.



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