Posts Tagged ‘John Locke’

Again, your lordship [Stillingfleet] charges me, that I do not place certainty in syllogism; I crave leave to ask again, and does your lordship? … And if you do, I know nothing so requisite, as that you should advise all people, women and all, to betake themselves immediately to the universities, and to the learning of logic, to put themselves out of the dangerous state of scepticism: for there young lads, by being taught syllogism, arrive at certainty; whereas, without mode and figure, the world is in perfect ignorance and uncertainty, and is sure of nothing. The merchant cannot be certain that his account is right cast up, nor the lady that her coach is not a wheelbarrow, nor her dairymaid that one and one pound of butter are two pounds of butter, and two and two four; and all for want of mode and figure; nay, according to this rule, whoever lived before Aristotle, or him, whoever it was, that first introduced syllogism, could not be certain of any thing; no, not that there was a God, which will be the present state of the far greatest part of mankind (to pass by whole nations of the East, as China and Indostan, &c.) even in the Christian world, who to this day have not the syllogistical methods of demonstration, and so cannot be certain of any thing.

John Locke, Mr. Locke’s Reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcester’s Answer to his Second Letter: Wherein, besides other incident Matters, what his Lordship has said concerning Certainty by Reason, Certainty by Ideas, and Certainty by Faith; the Resurrection of the Body; the Immateriality of the Soul; the Inconsistency of Mr. Locke’s Notions with the Articles of the Christian Faith, and their Tendency to Scepticism; is examined (1699), vol. 4, pp. 386-387 in the 1823 edition of Locke’s Works.

To post-Fregean ears, it is perhaps strange to hear that Locke’s Essay was, in the decades following its publication, regarded as a logic manual. Not only does the Essay (obviously) lack any treatment of symbolic logic, it doesn’t even give much attention to the question of validity or proper syllogistic form. At this time, however, logic was understood (as the subtitle of the Port-Royal Logic has it) as “the art of thinking.” Logic in this sense was something more like what philosophers today call normative or regulative epistemology: it was the study of how to use our cognitive faculties in such a way as to gain knowledge, or at least (perhaps especially, in Locke’s case) a degree of belief that is appropriately proportioned to the evidence.

Stillingfleet clearly reads Locke this way, for he is forever speaking of Locke’s method or way of certainty by ideas. He presents Locke as claiming to have discovered a new method of employing our cognitive faculties to gain knowledge (certainty), in a fashion that is inconsistent with what people had been doing before.

Locke, however, strenuously objects to this characterization in many places (including the quotation above). Locke repeatedly insists that, although the modern use of the word ‘idea’ may be due to Descartes and so (relatively) new, there is nothing new about the path to certainty he describes in the Essay. Back in his reply to Stillingfleet’s first answer, Locke insists that “if [the account given in the Essay] be new, it is but a new history of an old thing. For I think it will not be doubted, that men always performed the actions of thinking, reasoning, believing, and knowing, just after the same manner that they do now; though whether the same account has heretofore been given of the way how they performed these actions, or wherein they consisted, I do not know” (p. 135). This ‘history’, Locke says, is a description of the actions of his own mind, and his justification for publishing it lies in the assumption that other minds perform similar actions to his (pp. 138-9 and 143-5).

However, Locke’s own description of the Essay as a work of (natural) history—i.e., a mere description—is not inconsistent with its status as a logic—i.e., a work aimed at improving our thinking. The model for taking these things together is the Port-Royal Logic (1662), a work whose influence on Locke is well-documented. In the Preface to that work, the authors (Arnauld and Nicole) give the following account of the aims of logic:

… this art [of thinking, i.e. logic] does not consist in finding the means to perform [mental] operations, since nature alone furnishes them in giving us reason, but in reflecting on what nature makes us do, which serves three purposes.

The first is to assure us that we are using reason well, since thinking about the rule makes us pay new attention to it.

The second is to reveal and explain more easily the errors or defects that can occur in mental operations. For we frequently discover by the natural light of reason alone that some reasoning is fallacious without, however, knowing why it is so…

The third purpose is to make us better acquainted with the nature of the mind by reflecting on its actions (p. 23 of Buroker’s translation).

Arnauld and Nicole hold, as Locke does, that logic is in the first place descriptive because the ability to perform various cognitive operations is part of our natural endowment. The procedure, then, is to examine the functioning of human minds in order to understand the errors to which they are liable and, ultimately, to improve cognitive performance. To use an analogy, studying logic is more like athletic training than it is like learning to cook. It’s not a matter of learning to follow a new set of recipes, algorithms, or procedures, it’s a matter of practicing and training to hone a set of abilities naturally possessed by human beings.

To this end, Locke claims (still following Port-Royal, and both of them following Descartes), syllogisms and logical axioms are almost totally useless. As Arnauld and Nicole suggest, “those who could not recognize a fallacy by the light of reason alone would usually not be able to understand the rules behind it, much less to apply them” (Buroker, p. 135), and (as we saw in my last post) Locke makes basically the same case regarding maxims/axioms.

There is, however, a further line of argument, which is quite explicit in the quote at the top of this post, and is my reason for using the word ‘populist’ in the title: ordinary people, who haven’t been given a ‘Scholastic’ education and have never heard of Aristotelian syllogisms or maxims/axioms are perfectly capable of reasoning and gaining knowledge. It follows from that explicit awareness and employment of this method is not the primary or only basis for reasoning or knowledge. Of course, particular self-evident truths fall under universal maxims, and particular instances of good reasoning fall under syllogistic rules. But these are descriptive generalizations drawn by the philosopher trying to understand the human mind; they are not (or at least not ordinarily) tools employed in reasoning. This can be seen as a kind of externalism, holding that one can follow a rule of reasoning without having knowledge of the rule (see “How Berkeley’s Gardener Knows his Cherry Tree”). This kind of externalism has a populist basis: it is supported (in part) by Locke’s insistence that the dairymaid needs no help from Aristotle in order to be capable of reasoning and knowledge.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)


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The Rules established in the Schools … seem to lay the foundation of all other Knowledge in these Maxims … [but in fact] where our Ideas are determined in our Minds, and have annexed to them by us known and steady, Names under those settled Determinations, there is little need, or no use at all of these Maxims … he that needs any proof to make him certain, and give his Assent to this Proposition, that Two are equal to two, will also have need of proof to make him admit that What is, is.

John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding (1689), §§4.7.8, 19

herein lies the fundamental Mistake, that you presume that we are not to judge of things by the general Principles of Reason, but by particular Ideas.

Edward Stillingfleet, The Bishop of Worcester’s ANSWER to Mr. Locke‘s Second Letter; Wherein his NOTION of IDEAS Is prov’d to be Inconsistent with it self, And with the ARTICLES of the CHRISTIAN FAITH (1698), 156

It is typically assumed (primarily, I suppose, due to the influence of Reid) that critics of the ‘Way of Ideas’ are mainly concerned with its (alleged) introduction of a veil of ideas. Some early critics are indeed concerned about this. For instance, John Sergeant writes, “when a Gentleman bids his Servant fetch him a Pint of Wine; he does not mean to bid him to fetch the Idea of Wine in his own head, but the Wine it self which is in the Cellar” (p. 33). Sergeant’s book was published in 1697, the same year as Stillingfleet’s Vindication, and the two of them are the earliest writers I know to use the phrase “Way of Ideas.”

Stillingfleet, however, does not seem particularly concerned with the veil of ideas. Stillingfleet flails around a bit trying to locate what’s actually wrong with the Way of Ideas, and he frequently misunderstands Locke’s theory. However, in his second reply to Locke he finally clearly and explicitly indicates a principle of the Way of Ideas to which he objects.

As I documented in §3 of “How Berkeley’s Gardener Knows his Cherry Tree,” beginning from Descartes’s Rules for the Direction of the Mind (c. 1628) proponents of the Way of Ideas held that knowledge by means of particular ideas was prior to knowledge by means of the knowledge of the universal ‘maxims,’ ‘axioms,’ or ‘principles’ of Aristotelian science. One way this was sometimes expressed was as the claim that particular propositions were just as eligible (perhaps more eligible) to be first principles as universal propositions. Thus, knowledge that 2=2 is prior to the general knowledge that ∀x(x=x). On this view, particular agreements and disagreements of ideas fall under general or universal maxims, but the truth of these universal maxims is recognized, at least in part, through the truth of their instances. Someone incapable of recognizing the truth of ‘2=2’ would be equally incapable of recognizing the abstract general statement ‘∀x(x=x)’. As Locke says, “Who perceives not, that a Child certainly knows, that a Stranger is not its Mother; that its Sucking-bottle is not the Rod, long before he knows that ’tis impossible for the same thing to be, and not to be?” (Essay, §4.7.9). Locke’s chapter “Of Maxims” (Essay, ch. 4.7) is in fact one of the clearest statements of this view.

In his preceding polemics against the Way of Ideas, the objection toward which Stillingfleet had been flailing was a lack of objectivity in the Way of Ideas: ideas are subjective mental states, anyone can associate any idea with the word ‘person’, and the agreements or disagreements the thinker finds in with this idea will count as items of knowledge. Thus there are no fundamental, objective truths about personhood.

In the course of trying to make this objection stick, Stillingfleet keeps getting tripped up by use and mention. Locke keeps pointing out that of course it is arbitrary what the English word ‘person’ means! But this is not the kind of arbitrariness Stillingfleet is driving at. Finally, near the end of his last entry into the controversy, Stillingfleet hits on Locke’s attack on Aristotelian maxims as the core of his objection. And this is precisely where Stillingfleet should be pushing, because what Stillingfleet needs is emphatically not an objectively right answer to the question “what idea/concept/notion should be associated with the word ‘person’?” Rather, what Stillingfleet needs is for a sentence like “a person is a thinking being” to express an objective truth about the world, and not just a description of the idea the speaker associates with the word ‘person’. Thus when Stillingfleet insists that his (Trinitarian) “Difference of Nature and Person is not imaginary and fictitious but grounded upon the real Nature of things” (157), he is not merely saying that ‘nature’ and ‘person’ happen, contingently, to signify different ideas for him. The distinction between these is not merely a distinction within his own ideas. Rather, self-evident ‘principles of reason’ can be expressed using these words, but in order to express these principles by these words we must use the words with different significations.

There is, however, a problem here: people cannot agree on what is ‘self-evident’. Aristotle seems to just shrug this off: not everyone’s intellect functions properly. But the Way of Ideas was supposed to make some progress on this issue, by requiring careful scrutiny of ideas to discern their agreements and disagreements. Of course this raises the problem of whether our ideas themselves might be somehow wrong, but proponents of the Way of Ideas addressed this issue at length, and some discussions yield more objectivity and less skepticism than Locke’s. Stillingfleet must answer the question, how do we recognize something as a principle of reason? Reid would later address this question in great detail, but Stillingfleet does not. As a result, it is far from clear that Stillingfleet’s ‘Way of Certainty’ provides any more objectivity than Locke’s Way of Ideas. It is no more difficult for a philosopher (or theologian) to insist that her own starting points are principles of reason than for her to insist that her starting points are manifest agreements among her ideas.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)

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