Posts Tagged ‘maxims’

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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