All interpretations of ideas in Locke are mistaken – really? A response to Kenny Pearce

I’m exaggerating, but only a bit. Earlier this year, Kenny Pearce* wrote a fine post on “Locke’s Experimental Philosophy of Ideas”, highlighting what is often forgotten: that Locke’s Essay ties in with Baconian natural history. He then goes on to argue that we should also see Locke’s account of ideas as part of that project and concludes:

“This line of interpretation has consequences for how we must understand Locke’s account of ideas. If Locke is following this kind of Baconian methodology then, although he does at various points seek to explain various phenomena, his ‘ideas’ cannot be understood as theoretical posits aiming to explain how we perceive external objects.”

If this is correct, almost all interpretations of Locke’s theory of ideas are mistaken. Locke’s account amounts to nothing more than an unsystematic catalogue of the “ideas of which we are aware”. Indeed, the whole Essay is to be seen as an “intentionally unsystematic work”. Or so Kenny Pearce claims.

I think this is a challenging approach and certainly deserves more attention. At this point, however, I would like to address just one issue, i.e. the claim that ideas are to be seen in a “natural historical” sense. Given the evidence, I think this is correct and has been overlooked too often in attempts at making sense of book II of the Essay. But I would like to add two observations that might put a wholly different spin on Locke’s account.

(1) Natural history is not simply an account of what we “are aware” of. Locke sees his natural history of ideas as one that proceeds from simple ideas to the more complex. Starting from the simple ingredients, however, is not meant to imply that we are aware of simple ideas as givens. Locke doesn’t think that our awareness starts with simple ideas. Rather, Locke starts with simple ideas for two reasons: firstly, he wants to account for the origin of ideas; secondly, he starts with simple ideas for what one might call didactical reasons: “Because observing the faculties of the Mind, how they operate about simple Ideas …, we may the better examine them and learn how the Mind abstracts, denominates, compares, and exercises its other Operations, about those which are complex …” (II, xi, 14)

(2) Perhaps more importantly, Locke explicitly finishes this natural historical account early on and begins an entirely new discussion of ideas: here, he is interested in relations between different kinds of ideas and in what I’d call their epistemic content: “Though in the foregoing part, I have often mentioned simple Ideas, which are truly the Materials of all our knowledge; yet having treated them there, rather in the way that they come into the Mind, than as distinguished from others more compounded, it will not be, perhaps amiss to take a view of some of them again under this Consideration …” (II, xiii, 1) Thus, a great part of book II is not owing to the natural historical perspective.

The upshot is that Locke introduces two different perspectives on ideas: the natural historical one, accounting for the origin, and the epistemic one, accounting for representational content. As I elaborate in a paper of mine, I think that the former perspective focuses on the causal history of ideas, while the latter is intended as a consideration of the different kinds of representational content in our episodes of thought. In other words, the former explains how ideas originate in experience, while the latter explains how we end up taking things as something, e.g. as substances, modes or relations.

If this is correct, we should indeed acknowledge Locke’s reliance on Baconian natural history. But we should also carefully consider where Locke introduces different ways of treating ideas. After all, in conjunction with the considerations on language, Locke took his account of ideas as something that would “afford us another sort of Logick and Critick, than what we have been hitherto acquainted with.” (IV, xxi, 4)


* Kenny Pearce regularly blogs on early modern philosophy.