On Book II (through ch. 20) of John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), discussed by Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Seth.
In ep. 257, we established that Locke didn't think we are born with any actual knowledge; we only have as the raw materials of knowledge what our five senses feed us. But there do seem to be some beliefs about, for instance, the existence of our thoughts (Descartes' "cogito") that we certainly don't get from sensation. Locke's solution is to say that perception is not just of the outside world, but involves both sensation and reflection. In fact, every perception is conscious, and so includes knowledge that you're perceiving something. This goes for animals like dogs too, meaning that you don't need to know words like "perceiving" or "knowledge" to in fact have this awareness of yourself as perceiving.
So there are simple ideas like "circular" or "white" or "thinking" that we get straight from perception, and then there are complex ideas like "sphere" or "human" or "democracy" which require more work for us to put together, but of course what complicates things is that if I contemplate a person or globe or whatever, I actually perceive it as a person or globe, as belonging to those general categories, as having (for people) human nature, though I might not have a clear idea about what that entails. So if we're doing phenomenology (i.e. trying to look honestly at our experience as we're having it, which is what Locke does), then perception seems to be delivering up complex ideas, not just simple ones. We have to analyze our experience to separate out, for instance, how I recognize that something is a sphere, and so why I might be mistaken, as when I see a globe in a film, which is not really spherical, but merely the two-dimensional image of a sphere. What my senses are really delivering to me are colors, separated with appropriate shading that, given my experience seeing globes in the real world, makes me see that screen image as spherical. Locke didn't see it as problematic to set aside these incursions of our judgment and get and what simple ideas our perceptions are delivering to us.
Now this type of analysis isn't just something the philosopher does in writing a book like this; it's what we all do as a precondition for developing an articulable concept like "white" or "spatial." Even to recognize a color as similar enough to one you've seen before to count as "the same color," you have to use memory and compare your current experience to a past one, which for Locke means you're actually recreating the old experience within your current consciousness. You can't just, like, look at some place in the back of your mind where the "white" file hangs out, because memorized information is stored, yes, in the brain, but not in the mind, which Locke defines as conscious experience itself. When you're not actually thinking of something, it's simply not in the mind at all. However, the mind (hopefully) has the capacity to find it again (we know not how; this is not something experience itself tells us any more than it tells us how our eyes and nerves and brain convert light waves to visual experiences) and create a new experience of remembering that enables the comparison. All this must be happening very quickly, because we identify objects as belonging to categories all the time without any apparent break for reverie about all the instances of white (or sphere, or whatever) you've run across before.
One of the confusing things about Locke's account is that ideas are all that are in the mind. This means that the raw material delivered by the senses are ideas (he doesn't use the term "sense data," which was an invention of later empiricists), and then we compare them with memories (also ideas, as is the act of comparing that we notice through reflecting on this experience), and then we relate the current and past experiences together in a single concept, which is also an idea, and in fact Locke called colors and shapes simple ideas even though I'm now saying that they must be general concepts built out of multiple, singular experiences (color "qualia," another useful term that Locke didn't have access to).
In the second half of the discussion, you'll hear more about Locke's accounts of how we get specific simple ideas: pain and pleasure, space and time, and we'll talk a lot about the primary/secondary quality distinction, which is where he really jumps to metaphysics.
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Mark: You're listening to The Partially Examined Life, a podcast by some guys who at one point set on doing philosophy for living but then thought better of it. Our question for Episode 258 is something like: How do we come to have the ideas we have? And we read the first part of Book II of John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding from 1689. For more information, please visit partiallyexaminedife.com. This is Mark Linsenmayer, and I get the idea of power from self observation in Madison, Wisconsin.
Seth: This is Seth Paskin, in a very simple mode in Austin, Texas
Wes: This is Wes Alwan, willing myself to will in New York, New York.
Dylan: This is Dylan Casey, having a clear and distinct idea of a philosophy podcast. In my understanding, however, the cause of that podcast came to my senses in Madison, Wisconsin.
Seth: Very nice... winner.
Mark: So folks, should definitely listen to the previous episode before listening to this, I think, where we started off this book, and we've already decided, I think, maybe Dylan you hadn't weighed in that we're going to do a third one to finish Book II… potentially get a little beyond that. But probably there's enough things like personal identity, and substance, and free will, and things that people traditionally associate with this book are solved in the second half of Book II, out of four, which... it was just too long for us to get there. There's plenty, plenty of stuff just outlining what his psychology is, what he’s run down of the basic types of ideas and his comments on all those to fill today.
Dylan: I'm in for three.
Wes: And I think we should see this as continuous with our previous episode on innate ideas, where a lot of what he's doing in the early part of Book II serves the purpose of telling us how we get certain ideas from reflection, not from sensory inputs directly, but from reflection on our train of thought that we might otherwise have attributed to innate ideas. So things that it seemed like we couldn't get just from the outside. But Locke’s big solution is no, they're not innate, but yes, they come from this kind of meta-level reflection on ideas from perception, not from perception per se.
Mark: And how far did you guys all get? Chapter 21 is very long and kicked my ass. And I was not able to even get through that.
Wes: Like I got through 22.
Dylan: I did not make it to 22. I read through the first five sections of 21.
Mark: All right, well, that's some kind of consensus. So the big issue in 21 is whether we're gonna deal with free will or not. And I guess probably not. We'll see what happens when we get to it.
Dylan: I freely will that we do that in the next one.
Mark: [laughter] All right. But do you will that you will? [laughter]
Seth: Cause I was ahead of myself.
Wes: Which, Locke will say, is impossible. Spoiler alert at this.
Mark: You can't will your will?
Seth: Freedom can't be free. But it is free. It just can't be free, anyway. Sorry. [laughter]
Mark: So... Book II, Chapter 1 - of ideas in general, and their original.
Seth: Is that where we want to start, I assume?
Wes: So let's start with whiteness. There are seven chapters on that. [laughter]
Mark: We're gonna start with white. We're gonna end with power. [laughter]
Dylan: That was just awesome.
Seth: It's so funny. I have to say, I don't know. I mean, this is one of the foundational texts in philosophy. It's certainly, if you get an undergraduate or graduate education, you're gonna end up coming across this, you know, it's just like one of the ones. And my experience of reading it at this time versus my memory of reading it, you know, when I was in grad school or whatever it was that I read, is so radically different that I think I was so much more... credulous? Is that the right term? Before I just kind of was like, “Oh, you know, here's the framework: empiricist versus rationalists. And here's this...” And the first thing that struck me when I read this time is the first example he gives of a simple idea is an abstraction. I thought, how bizarre is that, that you would start with an abstract idea as the simple constituent instead of kind of taking it for granted? I sort of had to pause and think about, what would he mean? Because we talked about comparing this to Wittgenstein in the last episode. This limits of knowledge, understanding, and I think there's a sense in which you want to take his notion of a simple idea as something that's it's transparently given to you by perception, and it's clear that that's not at all what he's driving at and that the implication is there's a mechanism to get to these simple ideas, which is not just them being passed directly from experience and that you... they're not the same building blocks that I guess maybe I thought they were.
Wes: Lock is so different than the textbook description of him, in this sort of “the ambassador of empiricism,” because so much will turn out to depend on this idea of reflection. That's actually what he's really kind of excited about.
Dylan: This is one of the really great things about actually reading the books.
Mark: You want to think that there's a foundational experience that is simple, because that's kind of what we start with Descartes, that I perceived that I am thinking and so that sort of becomes the primary experience, or something simple about that, that thought being the essence of what consciousness is and then you build from that. Whereas I think, for these guys, you have to, by necessity, not build but analyze from that, that of course any particular impression we have is going to be complicated, right, is going to be something that you need to if you want to get the basic constituents like whiteness, hardness, sweetness, thinking, motion. You have to take them apart. And there are things that are, in fact, always together. He will eventually go into a long discussion of, you know, just looking at space. That seems like a super simple thing. And I think some other philosophers had analyzed it as being extension, right? You just look at the length of something and that's how we get the idea of space. And he wants to say even that, space and extension, are actually separate ideas, even though they always go together. And it just seems that would be really non problematic. He's going to rely on some pretty sophisticated... what I'm gonna have to call phenomenology. He, you know, just explicitly says: you just have to turn to your own experience and I'll turn to my own experience. If some people on the other side of the globe claim that they actually do have innate ideas, I guess they're welcome to them. But it's only we who, you know, can be honest with ourselves, I guess, that will come to similar analyses.
Dylan: I really like the way he starts just in the first two sections of Book II where, you know, we've already mentioned whiteness. It basically refers to words, abstract words, whiteness, hardness, sweetness, thinking, motion, man, elefant, army drunkenness and basically says, “Look, these are ideas and then we're gonna talk about that.” And then the second section, which I'm just going to read, because to me it provides a concise summary without answering a whole bunch of questions of what he's doing, he says, “Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas:—How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the MATERIALS of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE. In that all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself. Our observation employed either, about external sensible objects, or about the internal operations of our minds perceived and reflected on by ourselves, is that which supplies our understandings with all the MATERIALS of thinking. These two are the fountains of knowledge, from whence all the ideas we have, or naturally have, do spring.” I really liked that section when I read it, and then having gotten through Book II and reading it again, like that's exactly the summer. There's a whole big long book after that. [laughter]
Wes: So we start out with these simple inputs. It reminds me a little bit of our car nap and Chalmers episodes where you start with these basic sense data, and then you talk about how everything is gonna be constructed of that. So that's one part of it. There's that kind of what he talks about as compounding, and abstracting, and reasoning about ideas, the ways in which we build more complex ideas out of them. But in addition to that, again, just to emphasize, what he's calling experience includes the observation of our own minds. It includes reflection, it includes the ability to talk about these faculties that we have, including, for instance, perception and understanding and volition and all that stuff.
Dylan: I just want to underline. It's absolutely key, right from the very beginning, that experience is a very rich word, a very rich idea that you have to constantly remind yourself. It’s not about something like sensory facts or basic inputs to our brain. It actually encompasses the whole idea that our mind, through ideas, works on itself, and that is absolutely fundamental to the notion of experience. In fact, to me, it opens up the idea that there's something like an internal experience to a mind that is not solely driven by the input through the senses.
Mark: It's gonna be an interesting thing to watch, as we go through this, what’s the relationship between his description of the mind and his metaphysics, that what you were just referring to, Wes, in like the Chalmers episode that was actually explicitly a metaphysical project. And what are the basic elements of an ontology? So something like, you know, the atomic facts of Wittgenstein, plus the facts of qualia, right, things of red looks this way, like Chalmers thought that those things, the mental is irreducible to the physical. So to build a whole world, you would have to have both of those things well locked, since everything that we could possibly know comes from experience in some way or is built out of, you know, abstraction or these other operations we're gonna perform upon our experiences. Then everything we could, at least know about the world itself has to, I don't want to say run in parallel or be similarly constructed, but there's gonna be a definite relation between those, and that's what the second half of Book II that we're not going to talk about today, I think, is more about those really metaphysical problems. But even in this part, when he's gonna be talking about space is gonna be talking about time, it's kind of like everything that we can say metaphysically, we can get just by talking about our experiences because that's the whole world that we have access to.
Wes: Time it will turn out, will also be a matter of reflection. That's not something that comes in directly through sensory experience, but it's something we get by reflecting on experience.
Seth: I think there's something to be said about the fact that looking at the structure of our own ideas and their relations reveals something about the actual structure of the world. Not that he really talks about that and what we've been... the reading we've done for today, but I think that's the direction we're headed in.
Seth: Having that got into the second half of Book II, I don't know whether he has a strong metaphysical or ontological position. But to reiterate what Dylan quoted, his concern here is to make the point that any idea you have, you can reasonably claim you got from experience. And there's a bunch of mechanisms: abstraction, succession. There's a variety of different mental activities and in fact, at one point, Wes, and as in the latter part of what we read, I thought, okay, well, he's enumerating all these different (quote-unquote) “faculties” that we have or the ways that we experience things. I thought, oh, well, this kind of his presaging Kant because he's just basically enumerating the categories to some extent. But what he wants to claim is there's no knowledge that you come to. There's no idea that you come to through an idea that doesn't come from experience from which you deduce things. And so he's basically saying the whole process of building knowledge is inductive and it's structured. It's not completely unstructured, and it's not simple in the way that I first thought when I came to the book before reading it that there's a metaphor that comes from one of the things we read way back in Plato, I think, or Aristotle, about the retreating army and one guy makes a stand and then another one makes a stand and eventually you have a group that's actually defending and that that's how ideas come to be imprinted on this tabula rasa. And I think there's an element of that in him. But there's really very little in the way of ideas without some kind of mental activity associated with them.
Wes: I would even be wary of the word “induction”, although that may turn out to be right. But I'm a little wary of it because I think there's more of an immediate relation to structure. So, for instance, if we come to understand duration and time from looking at the succession of ideas in our minds, it's not clear to me that we are... It may be that we're engaged in some kind of induction there, but it seems to me that we're just more immediately reflectively aware of the structure that connects our ideas together. So the same thing goes for things like time, I think it will go for some things like number... There's something about reflection that I think may go beyond an induction.
Dylan: You're saying that the way in which we get time out of motion might not be an inductive kind of conclusion?
Wes: Well, he's gonna claim we don't get time out of motion. He wants to say that motion, in fact, is not how we get time.
Dylan: Maybe I'm confusing... I was thinking... maybe it was a motion and space? Extent of the void was motion. From motion, we got the concept of space. But I guess my point was without going into the specifics of the example. What your point is, is that that kind of thinking is one not of induction for him, necessarily. Or at least you're wondering it. It seems more of a kind of corollary to the primacy of the idea itself in the activity of a reflective mind, that correlate activity that's going on that takes your senses and turns it into an idea takes also a reflection on an idea into another idea in a similarly present way.
Mark: I mean, here's another way of putting it. It's not just that, okay, we have all these inputs and they're just somehow randomly arranged, right? They are structured in a certain way. And by becoming aware of that structure, that itself is also experience.
Dylan: And what I like about this is that it takes a complicated notion or potentially complicated notion of sort of... I call rationally computing about something, to come to conclusions out of it, and makes it lower level about the activity. And maybe there's something to talk about with the distinction between thinking, or mind activity, that takes senses and generates ideas, thinking in mind activity that takes ideas and generates new ideas, and rational thinking or deductive thought as being distinct from one another. Because I think that he wants to have those things be distinct from one another.
Mark: Let's get into the beginning of that, then. So, Section 3: “First, our Senses, conversant about particular sensible objects, do convey into the mind several distinct perceptions of things, according to those various ways wherein the objects do affect them. And thus we come by those IDEAS we have of yellow, white, heat, cold, soft, hard, bitter, sweet, and all those which we call sensible qualities; which when I say the senses convey into the mind, I mean, they from external objects convey into the mind what produces there those perceptions. This great source of most of the ideas we have, depending wholly upon our senses, and derived by them to the understanding, I call SENSATION.” Is this entirely clear to you guys?
Seth: This Is where I feel like your characterization of this is being phenomenological and my original somewhat so surprised and discomfort comes in. If he was being more phenomenological, he would say: “Our senses, conversing about sensible objects, convey to the mind the various ways in which a particular object…” It gives us idea of a particular thing, of particular shape, particular size, particular color. But instead what he's saying is: “we come to the ideas of yellow, white, heat, cold, blah, blah, blah, that we call sensible qualities.” So I'm not disagreeing. I don't think it's unreasonable. In fact, I, you know, agree that our senses are the means by which we ultimately come to the ideas. We can have any content to the idea of yellow or white or heat, but I don't think that we sense yellow or white or heat in the way that he sort of throws it out here.
Wes: Yeah, that's interesting, because it's kind of a correlative, an innatist argument, which is that you might say that perception is theory-laden. Or we might go Wilfrid Sellars, a Sellars’ route and talk about the myth of the given and say… and what we're talking about here, right, what contemporary philosophers would talk about qualia of at this point. This is what he's talking about with perceptions, yellow, and all that stuff. And we might say that, well, actually, we need a lot of other stuff in the mind, and maybe we need other ideas. Maybe we need innate ideas in order to even understand those things as yellow. And you could think about this developmentally right. You could say infants probably don't see color. Their brain is actually not yet developed enough to see color or to interpret space, for instance. And there's developmental process in which the actual... certain inputs from the world lead to the development, neurologically, of those capacities, which I don't think is fatal to Locke’s project exactly, but it complicates it.
Seth: Yeah, And just to clarify, I don't think I'm taking an innate disposition, and I'm not suggesting that that's the route out. What I'm saying is there's an activity or a mechanism above and beyond what it is that sensation gives you that you need to get to whiteness. He describes it later on. He calls it abstraction.
Dylan: One of the obvious things is that, I think, restating what you're saying, is that in terms of a fundamental sensation, we don't see yellow. We see, even in his point of view, it seems some particles of light are impinging upon us and, at best, there would be sort of this vast multiplicity, however you want to break it up. And any of those ideas that he says... he calls them ideas: white, yellow, cold, soft, are groups of likenesses. And so lurking behind there, something we talked about before, is just the whole notion of likeness that you have to have in order to gather up things into this qualia that you say, “well, these things are hard, these things are white, these things are yellow” and their equality in terms of being yellow or white or whatever, is not identity. He's not even any kind of quantitative numerical quality because we'll all say “this whole range of things is white.” And, you know, you'll get in the argument at its edges, but there is an idea that's holding them together. And one of the things driving that idea is how they're like one another.
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