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Saturday, February 11, 2006

A Historical question: Was John Locke an Empiricist?

Was John Locke an Empiricist?

In order to decide whether a given philosopher is an empiricist, one must first decide what sense of “empiricist” one is using. Locke certainly did believe that all our ideas arise out of experience, but, as Kant pointed out, whether our beliefs are justified by experience is an entirely different issue. Locke did not hold, as did Mill, that even logical and mathematical principles are justified by induction. He discusses tautologies, which he calls “trifling” or “identical” propositions, and asserts that they are known to be certain, but waffles between holding that they are justified because of intuition and holding that they are justified because they can only serve to explicate the meaning of a term. But what concerns me here is what I shall call metaphysical empiricism, which consists in the acceptance of Humean atomism. The doctrine of Humean atomism can be summed up thus: “Any [fact] can either be the case or not be the case, and everything else remain the same.”[1] Two passages make it clear that Locke did not believe this. First, he says, “[…] I fear the weakness of human understanding is scarce able to substitute another, which will afford us a fuller and clearer discovery of the necessary connexion and co-existence which are to be observed united in several sorts of [bodies].”[2] [My emphasis] And later he states more decisively, “I doubt not but if we could discover the figure, size, texture, and motion of the minute constituent parts of any two bodies, we should know without trial several of their operations one upon another, as we do now the properties of a square or a triangle.”[3] [My emphasis] Since such knowledge is by no means a part of the explication of terms, or an assertion of identity, it commits Locke to hold, together with Spinoza and the Absolute Idealists, that the world is "shot through" with (synthetically) necessary connections, to borrow a phrase from Blanshard. This is not merely the proposition that necessary connections obtain somewhere in the world, for even an occasionalist believes there is a necessary connection between God’s willing of an event and that event’s occurrence. But the occasionalist hypothesis could not be true if we suppose, as Locke does, that the effect of a physical cause could be deduced (i.e., “known without trial”) from a perfect knowledge of its cause. If effects can be deduced from their causes, then in every genuine instance of causation we have a necessary connection. And if every event has a cause, as Locke says they do,[4] then every event that occurs is necessitated by at least one other event. In respect of the metaphysics of causation, Locke is as much a rationalist as Spinoza himself. So is John Locke an empiricist? I think the only way we could answer that question is by having a much more sophisticated taxonomy of opposing positions than we now possess. Locke has an interesting mixture of views: He is apparently a psychological empiricist (that is, an anti-nativist), has ambiguous views on our justification for believing in necessary propositions, and apparently holds a strong rationalist thesis that natural laws hold through what we would now call a sort of metaphysical necessity, and that this necessity is nearly universal in scope given that evey event must have a cause. When we consider that 'rationalist' and 'empiricist' views can vary across many dimensions, and even intersect each other on some points, perhaps the only thing we can conclude is that the rationalist/empiricist dichotomy is a bad distinction, a crude oversimplification of an entire spectrum views that sometimes oppose and sometimes overlap.

[1] Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, C.K. Ogden translation

[2] Locke, Essay Concerning Human understanding, Part IV, Chap. III, Sect. 16
[3] Locke, Essay Concerning Human understanding, Part IV, Chap. III, Sect. 25
[4] Locke, Essay Concerning Human understanding, Part IV, Chap. X, Sect. 3 “In the next place, man knows by an intuitive certainty that bare nothing can no more produce any real being, than it can be equal to two right angles.”

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