Lesson 7: Metaphysical Moderation? Locke's Essay

A. Basic Themes

Locke states his intention and explains the aim and style of the Essay in two introductory epistles and the introduction proper (1.1) [1]. The clearest statement of aim is often quoted: "This, therefore, being my Purpose to enquire into the Original, Certainty, and Extent of humane Knowledge; together with the Grounds and Degrees of Belief, Opinion, and Assent" (1.1.2). Why did Locke set this purpose for the work to begin with? The second part of the statement of aim holds the answer: a consideration of the grounds of belief and opinion. The development of the statement of purpose clearly links the search for the origin of knowledge with the problem of opinion. He is in quest of a "measure" for human persuasions. Opinions of men are so "various, different, and wholly contradictory" and yet "asserted with such assurance and confidence" that one is led to doubt the existence of truth or man's capacity to know it. Locke begins his work with the classic philosophical distinction between opinion and knowledge and the concern for the contradictory character of opinion [2]. Locke too wants to make the firm distinction between knowledge and opinion, certainty and probability; and this so as to moderate and regulate opinion. He wishes to avoid skepticism and presumption. Yet from the "in-between" a search begins for a knowledge of first things, a trans-historical standard and perspective [3]. The philosopher is in search of a view of the whole, "sub specie aeternitatis." The original intention does have a classical resonance. But the classical intent is quickly changed and undermined. Locke does not really share this philosophical quest of the ancients. His purpose involves the avoidance of perplexity; he urges great caution about the difficult things [4]. The philosopher should avoid the "vast Ocean of Being" wherein man has no sure footing (1.1.7), and rest content with a short tether. Locke is tired of the talk and dispute (see also 3.10.13). Yet Locke does not embrace a classical form of skepticism either. For the skeptic is idle and useless. The mind is narrow, but it can be usefully employed. The human understanding is suited, not to metaphysical speculation, but to practical matters: "Our business here is not to know all things, but those which concern our Conduct" [5]. The philosopher is concerned with the contrariety of opinion in order to regulate its ill-effects and to turn human understanding to useful pursuits.

The practical aim of the Essay entails a reform, a reorientation, of both natural philosophy and ethics. Natural philosophy is reoriented from speculation to utility, from certainty to probability. Ethics is reoriented from a matter of prudence and gentlemanly opinion to mathematical certainty. The Essay introduces a great reversal: speculative science is probable and practical science, ethics, is certain. Ethics is superior to natural philosophy both because of its greater certitude and because natural philosophy issues ultimately in practical fruit and convenience. This stands in great contrast to Aristotelian philosophy in which natural philosophy, a contemplative science, leads to metaphysics. And speculative science is superior to practical because of its certitude and the dignity of its subject matter. And further, ethics issues ultimately in contemplation.

The Essay is an experiment in "free-thinking." It is a model of free-thinking and a guide to those who wish to do like-wise. Free-thinking is the foundation for ethics and political philosophy. By adopting the perspective of rational consciousness Locke draws the reader into a radical position by which personal happiness and political order can be evaluated and pursued. Both the individual and the society will profit from the experiment in free-thinking. Locke begins with an appeal to the innocent delight of thinking, a "hunter's satisfaction," he calls it in the "Epistle to the Reader." By the end of the work he deems liberty of thought to be the greatest liberty of all, for "he is certainly the most subjected, the most enslaved, who is so in his Understanding" (4.20.6). And the laws and fashions of the regime correspond to the liberty of thought, enslaving men or freeing them. The "liberty and opportunities of a fair Enquiry" are more important than the economic and material conditions which impose the crushing burden of necessity on mankind (4.20.4). When men are forced to accept the opinions they are enslaved in "the freest part of Man, their Understandings." Men should be free to think, and most of all to be free to "chuse the Physician, to whose Conduct they would trust themselves." Locke the "under-laborer" has really become Locke the physician by the end of the Essay. Locke is the model whose conduct of understanding throughout the Essay stands to cure and free men of their bondage. The Essay's call for a demonstration of morality is also integral to this motif of freedom of thought:

Whilst the Parties of Men cram their tenets down all Men's Throats, whom they can get into their Power, without permitting them to examine their Truth or Falsehood; and will not let Truth have fair play in the World, nor Men the Liberty to search after it; What improvement can be expected? What greater Light can be hoped for in the moral Sciences. (4.3.20)

The great light in moral science comes from the experiment in free-thinking and the appropriation of oneself in rational consciousness, a task embodied in the Essay itself.

Marion Montgomery observes that "Locke contributed to the break with the past and to the intellectual and spiritual fragmentation of our world . . . for Locke reinterprets significantly the old sense of the individual in community and of the community in nature" (Trilogy 129). Yet despite the radical consequences of Locke's thought and its secularizing tendency, Locke appeared to be a friend of the religious man. He was read by many people who decried a Hobbes or Spinoza. Montgomery correctly judges that "Bacon is too robust a creature to supply that empirical thought to the Puritan mind; piety requires the pious Locke" (213). This remark perfectly uncovers the great success of Locke's philosophical rhetoric. The "pious" Locke uses the old terminology, such as virtue, natural law, and even God, but he invests them with a new meaning. Only by the greatest of equivocations can Locke's ethics be called a doctrine of natural law. It departs entirely from the traditional meaning. Yet he uses the ambiguity to its full rhetorical advantage. Although this can be shown in the Two Treatises of Government it is fully clear in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In that massive work we encounter the darker side of Locke's cheerful and Christian surface. Montgomery is to be commended for pursuing this line of inquiry. I would suggest that it be taken further.

The Puritan's were attracted, Montgomery says, to Locke's statement that we should avoid the "vast Ocean of Being" wherein a man has no sure footing. They shared his distrust of the world. In the Essay Locke recommends that the mind rest content with its short tether, because if the mind is not suited for metaphysical speculation, it is suited for practical matters: "Our business here is not to know all things, but those which concern our conduct" (1.1.6) [7]. Human conduct, Locke says, must be concerned with "convenience" and "virtue"; it is within our reach to discover "the comfortable provision for this life and the way that leads to a better" (1.1.5). Locke combines in his account both the Puritan goal, heaven, and the goal of the "robust Bacon", earthly convenience. In the Essay Locke treats of now one goal and then the other; at times he merges the two together. In the final analysis, Locke puts forward a secular Baconian goal and dresses it in Christian garb.

It is the supreme irony of the Essay that the divine law is reconstrued in the very attempt to reassure the Christian believer. Locke does not explicitly deny the integrity of faith, nor the existence of a life beyond this world. But he makes the conditions for knowledge of divine law so strict reason cannot discover it. For example divine law requires knowledge of divine existence, attributes and the immortality of the soul. But in the Essay Locke admits that reason cannot prove the status of the soul. And the divine attributes are very sketchy. So he allows faith to appropriate the rational morality of earthly peace and convenience. But the "rational morality" is vastly different from the traditional Christian and Aristotelian ethic come to be known as natural law.

The traditional doctrine of natural law appeals to nature as a norm. Within the context of a teleological understanding of nature, the good is defined in terms of human perfection. The good attracts the human agent by its fullness and beauty. The good man performs his functions well and perfects his human faculties of reason and will. Locke constructs a science of ethics that does not depend on a notion of nature with purpose and fulfillment, nor does is depend on any notion of spiritual faculties to be perfected. A notion of "person," as a conscious self, replaces the traditional notion of soul. Consciousness of self has the highest degree of certainty according to Locke. This consciousness is not an abstract or pure mind, however. It is a consciousness of pleasure and pain; it is an agent's awareness of its own ease or uneasiness in the world and is defined in terms of the self's awareness of its own happiness and misery:

Self is that conscious thinking thing, (whatever Substance, made up of whether Spiritual, or Material, Simple or Compounded, it matters not) which is sensible, or conscious of Pleasure and Pain, capable of Happiness and Misery, and so is concern'd for itself, as far as that consciousness extends. (2.27.17)

The certainty of existence of the entire external world rests upon practical truths connecting the operation of things with the pleasure and pain they produce in the agent. The certainty of things "existing in rerum Natura" is as great "as our condition needs" (4.11.8). Human faculties are not suited to a "perfect, clear and comprehensive Knowledge of things" but are suited rather to "the preservation of us, in whom they are; and accommodated to the use of Life: they serve to our purpose well enough, if they will but give us certain notice of those things, which are convenient or inconvenient to us." He goes on to say that the evidence for the external world is as great as we can desire, i.e., "as certain to us, as our Pleasure or Pain; i.e., Happiness or Misery; beyond which we have no concernment, either of Knowing or Being" (4.11.8). Locke avoids the "ocean of being" and speculative philosophy because it is not necessary for preservation. Personal convenience dictates Lockean sensibility.

From the perspective of personal consciousness and its own convenience, a rational ordering of choice is possible. The future consequences of an action must be taken into account. And so too must the conditions for continuance of any present good be assured into the future. The fear of loss extends self-consciousness into the future. Ethics is oriented not by a notion of duty or perfection, but by self-advantage and self-interest. Utilitarian calculation harmonizes the interest of the self with the interest of others. But this harmony can be established only by radically restricting the scope of ethics. The content of moral precepts must be pared down to a minimum. It must be made to focus on the civil goods of life, liberty, and property. Without these rules one can be neither safe nor secure. So despite the variability of and the subjectivity of happiness [8], the precepts of this restricted morality are universal. Everybody requires the protection of their life, liberty, and property whatever their notion of happiness. By lowering the aim of ethics, restricting it scope, Locke can assure its effectiveness. By reorienting ethics to the demands of self-conscious temporal concern he can assure its certainty.

Such is the ethic appropriated by faith: the rational pursuit of happiness, however happiness may be defined, is virtuous conduct. It is really an astounding remark, incorporating as it does, such moral relativism and concern for temporal convenience. The appropriation of the rational laws of utility by faith reorients that faith to the things of this world. The concern for the better world, an after life, is superfluous. For if by following the rules for happiness on earth one is de facto virtuous, no other special "religious" concern is called for. In some other passages Locke drops out the aim of finding the way to a better life after this one and speaks only of the aim of using knowledge to increase the stock of conveniences for the advantages of ease and health (4.12.10). And when the two aims are put into juxtaposition the greatest praise by far goes to the inventor as the "greatest benefactor." It does not go to the works of mercy and charity. Nor does it go to contemplation, philosophic or religious[9]. He praises the discoverer of iron and deems him the "Father of Arts and Author of Plenty" (4.12.11). These are striking juxtapositions, that could border on a form of blasphemy. At the very least, the judgment entails an elevation of human power and places God in the background. Technological "know-how" is to be esteemed above the quality of mercy. Technology saves men from the grave, Locke says. But we know that works of mercy may secure men's "eternal estate." Whatever Locke's interest in Christianity, it surely differs from the traditional Christianity in which works of mercy and charity are the stuff of sanctity, and not technological discovery and entrepreneurial ambition. Despite the acknowledgement of God and religious duty, the temporal focus of Locke's practical aim is manifest. Locke has constructed a purely secular ethic.

If faith is superfluous, then why is it even retained? We know that Locke wished to communicate his new ethic to various audiences, including Christian believers. The use of a familiar terminology is retained so that the new ideas are made "easie and intelligible to all sorts of readers," as Locke admits in his "Epistle to the Reader." John Yolton quotes approvingly a statement that "Locke secured for posterity advances by radical and progressive forces." Those who openly professed themselves "antithetical to revealed religion" found in Locke "tools to be exploited." Yolton notes that others of more moderate temperament, aligned to orthodoxy, effected more gradual and long lasting modifications:

It was in the hands of these men, even more than in those of the Deists who appealed to Locke's epistemology, that the new tendencies within religion were most aided and abetted by the theoretical structure of the Essay. The application by the Deists was flashy and superficial; that of the traditionalists much more penetrating, perceptive, and positive. [10]

Locke found a way to enter into the most sacred and guarded of domains -- such as theology, morality, and religious belief -- and left his philosophic mark. Whereas Bacon, Descartes, and especially Hobbes and Spinoza, stirred up great resistance, Locke was able to introduce modern rationalism and the conquest of nature into the theological heart of the moral and political order. Indeed, Montgomery is right to assign to the "pious Locke," by way of the Puritans in the north and the enlightened statesmen in the south, the most devastating effect on American sensibility.

B. Outlines and Study Guides

1. John Locke Questions on epistemology for Review

  • What is knowledge?
  • Why is Locke's approach idealistic?
  • How does he know about the existence of the external world?
  • Why is Locke's approach a case of "epistemological atomism"?
  • Nature and essences of things
  • What is the nominal essence of a thing? How is it made?
  • What is the real essence of a thing? How is it known? (what is hypothetical deductive method? see notes) if at all
  • What is corpuscularism and its relation to real essences?
  • Difference of secondary and primary qualities?
  • What is a mixed mode? What are the imperfections and abuses of a mixed mode?
  • Compare with knowledge of substances
  • Why does morality need to add a rule to the mixed mode? What does the rule add?
  • What are the three norms or rules? (e.g. source, type of sanction)
  • Compare specifically the three norms.


    1. Essay 2.13.27

    "Tis not easie for the Mind to put off those confused Notions and Prejudices it has imbibed from Custom, Inadvertancy, and common Conversation: it requires pains and assiduity to examine its Ideas, till it resolves them into those clear and distinct simple ones, out of which they are compounded."

    2. Essay 2.28.14

    Whether the Rule, to which, as to a Touchstone, we bring our voluntary Actions, to examine them by, and try their goodness, and accordingly to name them; which is, as it were, the Mark of the value we set on them: Whether I say, we take that Rule from the Fashion of the Country, or the Will of a Law-maker, the mind is easily able to observe the Relation any Action hath to it; and to judge, whether the Action agrees, or disagrees with the Rule: and so hath a Notion of Moral Goodness or Evil, which is either Conformity or not Conformity of any Action to that Rule: And, therefore, is often called Moral Rectitude. This Rule being nothing but a collection of several simple Ideas, the Conformity thereto is but so ordering the Action, that the simple Ideas, belonging to it, may correspond to those, which the law requires. And thus we see, how Moral Beings and Notions, are founded on, and terminated in these simple Ideas, derived from Sensation or Reflection. (e.g. murder as a collection of simple ideas)...This collection of simple Ideas [murder] may be found to agree or disagree, with the esteem of the Country I have been bred in; and to be held by most Men there, worthy Praise, or Blame, I call the Action vertuous or vitious: If I have the Will of a supreme, invisible Law-maker for my Rule: then, as I supposed the Action commanded, or forbidden by God, I call it Good or Evil, Sin or Duty: and if I compare it to the civil Law, the Rule made by the Legislative of the Country, I call it lawful, or unlawful, a Crime, or no Crime. So that whensoever we take the Rule of Moral Actions; or by what Standard soever we frame in our Minds the Ideas of Vertues or Vices, they consist only, and are made up of Collections of simple Ideas, which we originally received from Sense or Reflection: and their Rectitude, or Obliquity, consists in the Agreement, or Disagreement, with those Patterns prescribed by some Law.

    3. Essay 2.28.7

    The Laws that Men generally refer their Actions to, to judge of their Rectitude, or Obliquity, seem to me to be these three. 1. The Divine Law. 2. The Civil Law. 3. The Law of Opinion of Reputation, if I may so call it. By the relation they bear to the first of these, Men judge whether their Actions are Sins, or Duties; by the second, whether they be Criminal or Innocent; and by the third, whether they be Vertues or Vices.

    4. Essay 2.21.55

    The Mind has a different relish, as well as the Palatae; and you will as fruitlessly endeavour to delight all Men with Riches or Glory, (which yet some Men place their Happiness in,) as you would satisfy all Men's Hunger with Cheese or Lobsters; which though very agreeable and delicious fare to some, are to others extremely nauseous and offensive: And many People would Reason preferr the griping of a hungery Belly, to those Dishes, which are a feast to others. Hence, it was, I think, that the Philosophers of old did in vain enquire, whether Summum bounum consisted in riches, or bodily Delights, or Virtue, or Contemplation: and they might have as reasonably disputed, whether the best Relish were to be found in Apples, Plumbs, or Nuts; and have divided themselves into Sects upon it. For as pleasant Tastes depend not upon the things themselves, but their agreeablneness to this or that particular Palate, wherein there is great variety: so the greatest Happiness consists, in the having those things, which produce the greatest Pleasure; and in the absence of those, which cause any disturbance, any pain. Now these, to different Men, are very different things.


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