Category: Locke


We read a ‘characterisation’ of empiricism by R. F. Holland from his book Against Empiricism: on Education, Epistemology, and Value, in which he alludes to three potential problems with empiricism. He believes that the empiricist account of the origin of ideas involves ‘raw materials’ entering the ‘factory’ of the mind in which they are ‘processed and emerge cut and dried.’ 

The notion of the ‘mind ‘processing’ ideas seems to be beyond the explanations of empiricist theory; neither Locke nor Hume offer any detail on this ‘process’, but then how could they? Why would they? What does Holland want? Mmm..?
Holland also, perhaps more importantly, brings up what we might call the homunculus problem‘. He characterises the empiricist theory of the way ideas spring from sense data as requiring a ‘mind’s eye’ that ‘surveys the products of its own efforts’, as if a little man (homunculus) is required to look at the ‘processed’ sense impressions in order to make sense of them. This of course suggests another homunculus inside the first and so on into infinite regress. 
I think Holland is probably missing the point, but this is not the time to say why. His criticism is powerful. 
Holland also gently mocks Hume’s notion of the pre-established harmony’  by which ‘we find that our thoughts and conceptions have occurred in an order matching the order of events in the other works of nature.’  Holland is here referring to the apparent flaws in empiricist thinking that seem to lead to ‘solipsism‘. If we never ‘advance a step beyond ourselves‘ as Hume suggests then how come we can reach agreement about the contents of our own minds?
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We saw how Hume, writing some 60 years later, builds on Locke’s empiricist foundations and develops many of his views. Hume also rejects innate ideas and believes that all our thoughts are given through the senses.
Hume believes that;
we can divide the mind’s perceptions into two classes, on the basis of their different degrees of force and liveliness. The less forcible and lively are commonly called ‘thoughts’ or  ‘ideas’.
For Hume, these ideas are pale copies of the more direct and immediate perceptions we have when we are actually experiencing something rather than thinking about it. He calls these more direct perceptions ‘impressions’, and explains that he uses this term to mean, ‘all our more lively perceptions when we hear or see or feel or love or hate or desire or will.’
So Hume thinks that ideas are got from the way we experience the world physically, emotionally and intellectually (although I’m not sure if he would approve of those divisions of our experience) but that all our ideas are ‘fainter perceptions of … our impressions.’ As he puts it, ‘all our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of our impressions or more lively ones.’




Hume’s Marvelous Method for Solving Philosophical Disputes!

As Hume believed that all ideas were faint ‘copies’ of the sense ‘impressions‘ that they originated in, he was able to propose a method for solving certain philosophical problems by tracing the ideas these problems involved back to their original ‘impressions‘. If an idea could not be traced back to its original sense ‘impression‘ then it must be empty, meaningless and not worth pursuing. 


I got you to try to apply this ‘method’ to the notion of  ‘a time when nothing happens’. This caused a lot of confusion and ‘debate’, but eventually we all agreed (I think) that because we could not have experienced a time when nothing happens, we cannot have a sense impression to base our idea on and therefore the idea was empty and meaningless. 

It is confusing because we ‘think’ we can imagine such a time, but we tend to imagine ourselves or someone ‘observing’ nothing happening, but of course the observation itself is something happening.

So we agreed that what we actually experience as ‘time’ is in fact change and ‘time’ as a ‘substance‘ separate from change does not exist if Hume is correct. 

Some catching up is required – apologies – sometimes life gets in the way. 


So I’ve lumped together several things, all of which are very important and your grasp of them will be crucial to your success. They are quite difficult ideas because they are counter-intuitive – we’re not used to thinking them, and so they tend to slip away if you don’t keep going over the ideas in your mind. If my explanations aren’t good enough for you there are lots of excellent resources on the internet, in particular the podcasts available at …….


Lets start with Wittgenstein


Wittgenstein asks us to imagine that everybody has a matchbox with a beetle in it (init?). No-one can see inside anybody else’s box, but we all agree that what’s in the box is ‘beetle’. The point is that it doesn’t actually matter what’s in the box, we could all have different things, or nothing at all, as long as we ‘play’ the language game referring  to the things in the boxes as ‘beetle’ it doesn’t matter. The meaning of the word exists in the ‘language use’ about the things in the boxes; the meaning is dependent on this community of language users. The meaning of the word does not depend on what’s in the box, but on the language use in which it is referred to. The meaning is not in the ‘label’ that the mind attaches to the sense impression, it is in the ‘negotiation’ and interaction with other language users that the meaning comes about. 

This is most relevant for us because it sheds light on the empiricist idea that words name sense impressions that are ‘sealed’ inside the heads of individual observers, hidden away from everyone else just like the beetles. Because we cannot share the sense impressions, but we clearly share meaning, the meaning must be outside our heads in the use of language within our language community. 


The idea that we all name the same ideas inside our heads – that all our beetles just happen to be identical is clearly absurd. (well, when I say ‘clearly’ …) Nigel Warburton in his excellent book Philosophy the Classics describes it like this;  
I have privileged access to the contents of my own mind that does not extend to the contents of yours. It is as if I have special access to a private cinema in which my thoughts and feelings are displayed; no one else has any idea of what happens within my private cinema. My experience is private to me, and yours to you. No one can really know my pain or my thoughts. I can describe my inner experience to myself, and no one else is able to judge whether or not my descriptions are accurate.

SOLIPSISM

Once you have fully grasped the notion of ‘sense impressions’ as things that exist inside the mind then it’s not difficult to see how empiricism falls into solipsism
Be certain you really get what is implied when Hume says,The mind never has anything present to it except the perceptions, and can’t possibly experience their connection with objects.’ 


Although Hume has little in common with him, it might be useful to think of this as a little like Plato’s ‘cave’ analogy. All the prisoners had were the shadows on the wall, they could not turn their heads or leave the cave to check the status of the shadows; it would never occur to them to do so because, to them, the shadows were reality. Similarly we cannot leave our heads to check how fully sense impressions mirror reality. 

Hume didn’t see this as problematic, but the kind of philosophers who want to find some objective ground, some ‘certainty’ beyond the particular circumstances of time and chance do. The kind of philosophers who want to escape the ‘cave’ and see the ‘reality’ behind the appearance, do. But Hume insists that, ‘We never really advance a step beyond ourselves, nor can conceive any kind of existence, but those perceptions, which have appeared in that narrow compass.’  For Hume, we just are inside our heads with the ideas that are ‘dimmer’ copies of the original sense impressions. 

So if we are locked into our heads with our own individual sense impressions then how do we come to attach any meaning to the ‘ideas’ that the sense impressions leave us with? 

PRIVATE LANGUAGE

Wittgenstein’s so called ‘private Language Argument makes  the point that a language that attempts to ‘name’ or give meaning to private sensations is impossible because it has no ‘touchstone’, no point of reference to keep its meaning consistent. This argument seems to rely on the very concept of ‘meaning ‘ being almost synonymous (meaning the same thing) with ‘sharing’.  If it isn’t then you wouldn’t need a ‘touchstone’.  

If language is an intrinsically public phenomenon, and language sets the limits of our thoughts then the contents of our minds don’t seem as private as we might have believed.  Certainly it seems to make the notion of solipsism illogical. How can we define ourselves as solitary and locked in when the very use of the word shows us to be part of a language community.

If a private language is impossible then simply knowing a language refutes solipsism. We cannot be locked in if we are part of a language community and simply knowing a language confirms us as members of a language community

I’m beginning to repeat myself, so I’ll stop.

You should be aware that this interpretation of Wittgenstein’s views is known as the community view for obvious reasons, it is not the only view, but it is the one that makes the most sense to me. (And Nigel, I believe.)

Don’t watch this!

I think he’s losing his grip on Locke, consciousness and reality.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y693BveTT48

But he might be brilliant. If I can bring myself to watch again I’ll probably know. Probably.

I’ve done a little summarising of the Locke we’ve done this week, but I’m going to save the primary & secondary ideas stuff until you’ve done the homework!

John Locke ‘Primary & Secondary Qualities
  • Explain Locke’s distinction between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ qualities. 
  • Why does Locke feel it is necessary to distinguish between primary & secondary qualities?
  • Can you think of any problems or flaws in the idea of primary & secondary qualities?
  • Why does this distinction make Locke a realist? 
  • Could he justify or ground his ‘realism’ – if so how? if not why not?
  • What are the implications of Locke’s view in terms of constructing an epistemological theory?  
Have a good think about these things and say as much as you can. 
Due Wednesday 21st October

I wanted to remind you of the point of the stuff we’d looked at – why did Descartes bother to sit in his oven searching for certainty? What was the story? So we wrote  a little note that was similar to what follows except I’ve tried to improve and clarify it. And I’ve added a long rambling introduction. 

Descartes was working in a difficult period, (aren’t we all?), he was very keen on the new scientific thinking or ‘natural philosophy’ as it was called, which had begun to question the dominant religious ideology of the time. It was only 100 years since Copernicus had rather upset the church by demonstrating the ‘revolutionary’ idea that the Earth revolved around the sun, thus shifting ‘man’ from the centre of the universe where God had apparently put him. 

Descartes himself was big on maths inventing Cartesian coordinates by which you can identify the precise spot at which a fly is located on a ceiling!  Anyway, he wanted to apply the new ‘scientific’ way of thinking to the most fundamental questions like ‘is Scott right about the Matrix?’  He wanted to turn the rigour of rational thought inward and examine the contents of his mind. But we could also read his Meditations as a program for rebuilding society: Descartes wanted to sweep away superstition and received wisdom and replace it with rationally constructed principles.  He also wanted to show that he could prove a) the power of ‘men’ to use rational thought and b) that God existed. If he could use the power of rational thought to prove that God existed then he hoped the church might see the rational enquiring mind as less threatening and more helpful.

So, if Descartes was to challenge all the strange ideas of his time he had to have a strong foundation for his own knowledge claims. that foundation is of course provided by his ‘cogito’, and on this point of certainty that he ‘grounds’ his epistemology. The cogito is thus ‘foundational’. 

Having established beyond any scepticism the certainty of his existence as a thinking thing, Descartes can claim epistemological grounds for his subsequent ideas about the nature of the physical world that he perceives through his senses, (like the wax) but knows and understands through his faculty of Reason.

John Locke, some 50 years later, rejects Descartesʼ ideas as to how to ground knowledge. For Locke the mind is a blank slate – a tabula rasa, and all the ideas, all the knowledge that we come to possess comes to us through our senses. 

This dispute sets up a philosophical debate that has, in various forms, rumbled on into contemporary philosophy. 

The argument can be summed up in basic terms as a dispute about how the kinds of things that seem to go on inside our heads relate to the kinds of things that seem to go on outside our heads. Do we have accurate representational knowledge of the world? Is that even a sensible question? 

This is a little out of order, but it occurred to me that we (I) hadn’t blogged anything about this and I should have done. (I’ve also pasted it into an earlier Locke note, but you might not notice it there. Or here probably.)

We saw how Locke’s views on ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ qualities emphasise his belief in the physical world as grounding the sense data that empiricism relies on.

Locke’s famous snowball has primary qualities of ‘solidity, extension, figure and mobility’, in other words it takes up a certain round space in the world, you can see it and if it hits you, you’ll feel it! These qualities are in the snowball itself and will not vary according to the circumstances of the person experiencing it: they are what we might call (although I don’t think Locke does) objective qualities.

On the other hand the secondary qualities such as colours sounds and tastes vary as the circumstances of the person experiencing the snowball vary: the first snowball to hit you feels colder that than the fifth, the colour and sound it presents to your senses varies according to when, where and how you experience it.

So, if Locke thinks that the objects in the real world have primary qualities that are independent of observers then he is a ‘realist’. He thinks the world is, and is in a particular way.

We considered a ‘characterisation’ of empiricism by R. F. Holland from his book Against Empiricism: on Education, Epistemology, and Value, in which he alludes to three potential problems with empiricism. He believes that the empiricist account of the origin of ideas involves ‘raw materials’ entering the ‘factory’ of the mind in which they are ‘processed and emerge cut and dried.’ 


The notion of the ‘mind ‘processing’ ideas seems to be beyond the explanations of empiricist theory; neither Locke nor Hume offer any detail on this ‘process’, but then how could they? Why would they? What does Holland want? Mmm..?

Holland also, perhaps more importantly, brings up what we might call the ‘homunculus problem’. He characterises the empiricist theory of the way ideas spring from sense data as requiring a ‘mind’s eye’ that ‘surveys the products of its own efforts’, as if a little man (homunculus) is required to look at the ‘processed’ sense impressions in order to make sense of them. This of course suggests another homunculus inside the first and so on into infinite regress. 

I think Holland is probably missing the point, but this is not the time to say why. His criticism is powerful. 

Holland also gently mocks Hume’s notion of the ‘pre-established harmony’  by which we find that our thoughts and conceptions have occurred in an order matching the order of events in the other works of nature.’  Holland is here referring to the apparent flaws in empiricist thinking that seem to lead to ‘solipsism‘. (See Solipsism above).

We saw how Hume, writing some 60 years later, builds on Locke’s empiricist foundations and develops many of his views. Hume also rejects innate ideas and believes that all our thoughts are given through the senses.


Hume believes that;

we can divide the mind’s perceptions into two classes, on the basis of their different degrees of force and liveliness. The less forcible and lively are commonly called ‘thoughts’ or ideas’.

For Hume, these ideas are pale copies of the more direct and immediate perceptions we have when we are actually experiencing something rather than thinking about it. He calls these more direct perceptions ‘impressions’, and explains that he uses this term to mean, ‘all our more lively perceptions when we hear or see or feel or love or hate or desire or will.’


So Hume thinks that ideas are got from the way we experience the world physically, emotionally and intellectually (although I’m not sure if he would approve of those divisions of our experience) but that all our ideas are fainter perceptions of … our impressions.’ As he puts it, ‘all our ideas or more feeble perceptions are copies of our impressions or more lively ones.’




Locke goes on to distinguish between simpleandcomplexideas.
In Book 2, Ch 12, he says that the mind ‘exerts its power’ on simple ideas in 3 ways:
 
(1)  Combining several simple ideas into one compound one; that is how all complex ideas are made.


(2)  Bringing together two ideas, whether simple or complex, setting them side by side so as to see them both at once, without uniting them into one; this is how the mind gets all its ideas of relations.
 
(3)  Separating them from all other ideas that accompany them in their real existence; this is  called abstraction, and it is how all the mind’s general ideas are made.


He goes on to tell us that:

Ideas thus made up of several simple ones I call complex. Examples are ·the ideas of· beauty, gratitude,  a man, an army, the universe.’


So, to make complex ideas we take simple ideas and mix them, put them side by side, or try to see them in isolation from other simple ideas that they may be muddled and confused with. 

Easy!

We read from ‘Book 2, Chapter 1’ of Locke’s  An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ and saw how he believed our minds come to be filled with ideas.  We saw that,  for Locke all ideas come from two sources: 

1. experience of ‘external objects’ received through our senses 
(SENSATION)

  2. experience of the workings of our own minds. 
(REFLECTION)

As he puts it: 

Our understandings derive all the materials of thinking from [1] observations that we make of external objects that can be perceived through the senses, and [2] of the internal operations of our minds, which we perceive by looking in at ourselves. 

For Locke, those are the only ways that we ideas. He says, ‘These two are the fountains of knowledge, from which arise all the ideas we have or can naturally have.’
 (‘Essay’ Bk ii Ch.1)

Today I tried to speed you up a bit. You did the following:

1. You tried to answer the very easy question, ‘What is the relationship between thought and reality?’  This is what we’ve been trying to do all along in case you hadn’t noticed. It is the question at the heart of epistemology.  The way to approach a question like this is to define your terms: what do we mean by ‘relationship’, ‘thought’ and ‘reality’? 
Then think about whether there is anything anything implied by the question that might prejudice your answer? Are there assumptions built into the question? Yes. Lots of them.
Most of you had a good stab at answering it and that’s the most important thing.

2. As a an anecdotal follow up to our discussion of innate ideas, I explained how Mr Scarisbrick’s view of human nature informs his political stance. As mine does my own. Even though I don’t think we have one. A ‘human nature’ that is.

3.  We read a little more of Locke on innate ideas and how he thought that experience occured in the womb. Which is interesting. Isn’t it?

4.  We read some of the text book as preparation to reading some Hume, and saw how he thought that as all ideas come from experience it is possible to ‘spot’ pointless abstract theories by tracing their origin and seeing if they can be traced back to experience. 
His example of trying to conceive of ‘a time in which nothing happens’ caused some debate and confusion. and we will have to return to it, so I’ll save my feeble explanations for later. 

5.  I told you about the homework which is below. 

We ought to record, so we don’t forget, that we saw that Locke had several arguments against the notion of innate ideas and they went something like this:

1. If any idea were innate in all human minds then surely certain ideas would be universally accepted and agreed on. But they’re not.

2. It makes no sense to speak of an idea being in our minds without us being aware of it. How can we have ‘understandings’ that we don’t understand. Surely the whole point of an idea is that it is ‘had’. (As in, “I’ve just had an idea!” said Clive.) 

3.  The argument that we only come to knowledge of these ‘innate’ ideas when we develop our ‘reason’, is again non-sensical and seems circular’ according to Locke. (And Sam.) Because in order to know innate ideas we have to have reason, but the evidence that we have ‘reason’ is our knowledge of innate ideas.