1/9. Locke on Abstraction

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1 1/9 Locke on Abstraction Having clarified the difference between Locke s view of body and that of Descartes and subsequently looked at the view of power that Locke we are now going to move back to a basic question concerning Locke s view of ideas. One of the key basic elements of our ideas consists in the capacity to distinguish between them. It is due to the possession of this capacity that we can arrive at views of different degrees of evidence and certainty attaching to distinct ideas. Locke terms the ability to be able to distinguish differences between ideas judgment. In order to exercise this ability it has to be the case that the mind deals with ideas that can be seen to be clear and determinate. It is necessary for this ability of judging ideas to operate that we can compare them with each other and comparison is a primary act of the mind with regard to reflection on its ideas. It is due to this ability to compare ideas that we can speak of relations. However the mind s reflection on ideas involves another element than distinction and comparison and this next element will effectively lead us to the matter that we are going to concentrate most on. The next element is the ability to combine together simple ideas. The combination of simple ideas together produces complex ideas and by this operation of combination we also enlarge the scope of ideas. This process of enlargement requires us to attend to the nature of ideas in a more specific way. Locke s genetic description of the basis of knowledge begins from the observation that our

2 2/9 names for things arise from our ideas relating to particulars in the first instance. The problem here is that if each particular idea had a distinct name there would be no end to the process of producing names. So, to the mind, as Locke puts it, makes the particular ideas, received from particular objects, to become general. How is this done? The particular idea has to separated from other things to which it is related and considered on its own. This consideration is what Locke terms abstraction. What occurs in abstraction is that we take this particular idea away from the other particular ideas to which it is related and make it stand in for these other ideas. We make the particular idea, in other words, general. In this process all ideas of a certain kind are nominated by the single idea so that the name given to this idea serves as a short-hand reference for all the types of idea in question. An example that Locke gives of this process concerns the generation of the name whiteness. A colour that appears before us in two different settings are detached from the specifics of these settings and thereby a general notion is generated on the basis of the similarities in question. In this way we arrive at universals. Going back to the general understanding of simple ideas and their relationship to complex ones we should remember that simple ideas, whether of sensation or reflection, are ideas in relation to which the mind is passive. With complex ideas, by contrast, the mind is active, it constructs these out of the materials of the simple ideas. The process of formation of

3 3/9 complex ideas occurs through combination in the first instance since only by combining together simple ideas can we arrive at a complex one. Secondly, however, we can also simply compare ideas together and this comparison, even without combination, is itself an active act of the mind and can involve relation of simple ideas to each other, simple ideas to complex or complex ideas with each other. The process by which the comparison of ideas moves a further stage to the point where an idea is, after comparison, separated out from the other ideas to which it is related, is what Locke is terming the process of abstraction. Complex ideas are subsequently described by Locke as being of three sorts: modes, relations and substances. We have previously treated the modes of space and duration but in general we should term a mode something which is dependent on a substance. Some modes are simple in the sense that they just involve combination of units together whereas others are complex as they involve combination of many types of simple ideas and these complex modes are also termed by Locke mixed modes. Substances involve combinations of simple ideas in which a particular, conceived of as existing in itself, has added to it other simple ideas such that we distinguish between types of substance. This notion of substance applies both to individuals to give us ideas of single substances and to groups to give us collective ideas of substances (such as a flock of sheep). Relations, by contrast, involve comparison of ideas with each other.

4 4/9 When Locke later turns his attention to consideration of maxims he does so with a dual purpose. Part of the purpose is polemical as he wishes to argue against the view that certain general principles, often referred to by defenders of innate ideas, are the foundation of all knowledge. However, another part of his purpose is positive, as he here returns to the account of abstraction and adds an important element to it. Maxims are here meant to refer to principles that are taken to be self-evident and it is due to this selfevidence that they are often presented as having (as Descartes would put it) intuitive certainty. Locke speaks of knowledge as consisting in the perception of the agreement or disagreement of ideas so it is based ultimately on acts of comparison. However with these self-evident propositions it appears that we don t have to go through a process of comparing our ideas as the agreement or disagreement appears to arise without this being required, as it were, appearing simply automatic. The principles in question are, it is said, assented to as soon as understood. Locke s response to this view is interesting as he does not, as one might expect from some of his cruder remarks, simply dismiss the argument by reference to experiences of children or idiots. Rather, his first move is to point to the need for a general notion of identity to be acknowledged in our perception of ideas in order for the differences between distinct ideas to appear before us at all. But rather than deduce that this immediate need for identity is evidence for

5 5/9 innateness Locke uses it to show that what would follow if innateness were admitted would be that any and every idea, as distinct from any other idea, would thus have to granted to be innate. The conception that each idea has to be understood as distinct from each other idea requires further, on Locke s understanding of it, that we know the ideas we are having at the point at which we have them. Each idea, as we have it, is one we are aware of having and in having it we understand what it is we have. So there should never be any doubt concerning what is in our mind. This should also apply regardless of the level of generality, comprehensiveness or abstractness of the ideas in question. So it does not just apply to such maxims as the principle of contradiction and the principle of identity. So if we have intuitive certainty it should touch all our apprehensions of each particular idea by contrast with every other particular idea. Co-existence of ideas in which we suppose a necessary relationship to exist between certain of them is, by contrast to identity, an area in which there is little intuitive certainty as there is rarely immediate perception of any relations of ideas between each other. A rare example where Locke grants this is concerns the proposition that two bodies cannot be in the same place where there does appear to be a necessary relation here between body and place such that this possibility is one we automatically rule out.

6 6/9 With regard to modes Locke mentions that mathematicians have generally argued that there are complicated intuitive ideas with regard to equality but in response Locke reduces these to simple relations of equality that govern all numbers and, just as he has generalised the notion of equality to all concepts, so he does the same for equality in regard to all numbers effectively suggesting that all is intuitive here is the simple ability to operate the numerical system at all. In next turning to the arguments given by proponents of innatism for the primacy of the maxims they allege to be innate Locke first denies, on familiar and inadequate grounds, that such notions are genetically primary. After doing this however he points to a deeper problem he has with the notion that these maxims really represent primary elements of knowledge stating that we should begin with the ideas that are really first in the mind. In arguing this he returns to his own genetic account but now clarifies it. What we first have ideas about are particular things which we distinguish from each other and only afterwards arrive at general ideas subsequent to the particular ones. A basis for this claim is next brought forth with an important example, the example of what Locke terms the general idea of a triangle. As Locke puts this, it must be neither oblique, nor rectangle, neither equilateral, equicrural, nor scalenon; but all and none of these at once (IV. vii. 9). These different types of triangle have different types of angle so that an equicrural triangle has two equal sides whilst an equilateral

7 7/9 triangle has all its sides equal and a scalenon triangle three unequal sides. The point is that all these are types of triangle from which it follows that the general idea of triangle must be something different from each of these and yet in some way contain them all. Due to this, Locke describes the general idea of the triangle as something imperfect that cannot exist since it contains different and inconsistent ideas. The mind has need of the idea of this general triangle however in order for knowledge to be enlarged and it is furthermore a convenient idea for communication. What the examination of the general idea of the triangle shows, though, Locke says, is the imperfection of our mind and, furthermore, that such general ideas cannot be the first ones we have as they involve such complicated elements. The specific example of the general idea of the triangle will be one we will return to again next week as it is one that is of some considerable importance. For Locke, however, the treatment of this general idea is related to his discussion of general maxims and the problem he poses with general maxims. The maxims that are cited in favour of a view of knowledge that rests it upon general truths in the first instance are ones that Locke argues are neither logically nor chronologically the first elements of knowledge. The logical reason is that such general maxims are not ones that he takes it can confirm or prove less general propositions. This argument is a peculiar one as it seems that Locke does not seriously consider the question as to

8 8/9 whether other propositions would have epistemic standing where it not for the prime place occupied by the maxims he is considering. After all, without the principle of contradiction as a guide-line, what sense could be given to other propositions? Is this not a normative principle that prevents the assertion of two propositions that assert contraries? The more general point that Locke makes concerns the lack of appeal to such general maxims in the construction and explicit justification of bodies of knowledge. So Newton for example does not discover anything by mere appeal to these maxims. This point is then re-stated so that we can see the ground of Locke s point. Locke distinguishes between methods of discovery and methods of exposition of discovery pointing out that whilst Newton, for example, does not discover anything by means of appeal to general maxims that it may later, to teach his discoveries to others, help to use a demonstrative method of exposition that appeals to such general maxims. Locke also presents a general problem with appealing to some maxims, which is that such appeal may serve simply as a way to confirm an idea already adopted. So, for example, a follower of Descartes can simply appeal to the law of identity to show that body is only extension, an argument that is no more than a trick since it is only a way of stating what is already thought.

9 9/9 The general case Locke makes thus has two elements: firstly, abstraction comes after the formation of particular ideas and we should not confuse the generality of abstract ideas with primacy and, secondly, the appeal to general principles and axioms is one that has little permit in advancing or defending real knowledge. These two points put together enable him to make claims against the appeal to a primary place for either general ideas or general propositions.

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