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.
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.
Wes: The traditional question, right, is whether we need, you know, Seth called it an abstraction, but, you know, you might think of it as a platonic form or something else for an innate idea whether we already need the general idea in order to grasp the particulars, right? Can we get a particular qualia of yellow if we don’t already have the theory or the thinking of theory-ladenness or the general idea to apply to it? That leads us to the question of: has Locke chosen the right units? Right? It’s kind of a feeling of foundationalism here, where he’s trying to get, okay, what are the ultimate building blocks and then we’re gonna build up from there. But what if the ultimate building blocks were actually smaller than the particular qualia we’re talking about, so that there are mental operations that he can’t even describe, that build up those little fundamental building blocks into what we would call yellow before we get to talking about the operating on yellow and white and abstracting and reasoning? What if there are other unnamable mental processes that go even into producing the qualia yellow?
Mark: So I think Locke is trying to… like he talks about perception in the womb, and in that case, it really is not a matter of abstraction. He thinks that in the womb, probably the fetus will have an experience of warmth, will have an experience of pleasure and that these are the fundamental things and they do not require concepts, which is what I think, Dylan, you were just implying, that in order to see yellow… certainly for us to see yellow as yellow and to categorize it as yellow then we have to have comparisons with others. And comparison is one of the things he explicitly considers. But of course, he says, there are way more even of color, color qualia, than we have names for, that any instance of yellow, and then you see another instance of yellow, they’re probably not exactly the same. And, he says, as adults, the faculty of judgment -and this is one of the few times judgment comes in in our reading selection; I think it’s probably more in the later part of the book (I’m not sure)- that we get habituated to see things in certain ways. We know how light plays off of color, and so we know that if we see a yellow object and now there’s shadow kind of crossing it, and now it’s tilted away from us, we know that these are all the same thing. He talked about, I think, about a sphere, in particular just making sense of three dimensional objects, that these are things that we develop skills in perceiving. But foundationally, if you look at the fetus, the fetus might have or, you know, the infant being exposed to yellow for the first time, can have an authentic experience of yellow is just that it wouldn’t be categorized in any way, you would not need… Is this what you’re getting at, Wes? that maybe you need the general concept of color in some sense, to even experience something as yellow as opposed to just…
Wes: There are different ways to conceptualize this, right, and maybe this is too simple-minded, the way Locke would say, that maybe you need a… innate ideas of color, even to be able to interpret that particular. But we might, in contemporary terms, we might say you have to establish the right neuro networks first, or… I think it’s clear with spaciality -I’m not sure how color works exactly- but for an infant to get to the point where he can interpret things spacially, the brain has to develop, so… and what develops the brain are inputs. It’s just you’re not going to call those inputs by the names of yellow and everything else, yet. Whatever they feel like phenomenologically is unknown to us. They’re definitely inputs, whose def… I think there’s definitely in the subjective experience that goes with it. Maybe it’s just buzzing confusion, maybe it’s the, you know, being whatever the manifold feels like. But then we build the capacities in our minds, and then we can have those actual experiences of qualia. And, of course, this is something animals could do, too. It doesn’t imply any higher-level capacity for abstraction in the human sense or for reasoning or for language, although maybe it implies proto versions of those proto-languages or something like that. I don’t know. Does that make sense? There’s sort of different ways to conceptualize this, that we could reject the innatism and move to Locke’s focus on capacities. But the question is whether we could go into finer detail. Maybe Locke would say, “Yeah, sure you could,” but we have no way to think about that. Phenomenologically, we have to treat ideas and qualia as if they were building blocks and these various other capacities that we know about as the fundamental capacities.
Dylan: So this distinction between an infant can experience yellow but not experience yellow as yellow, right? That’s the kind of distinction we’re saying. He would classify that experiencing of yellow as sensations and it doesn’t become an idea until it’s understood as yellow?
Mark: I don’t think so, on his view.
Seth: I kind of agree with Dylan. So I’m glad you brought those two examples and, thank God, Locke is big on concrete examples, because if he was Germanic, and just talking abstractly about this stuff, it would be a lot harder to get through. But okay, so you have the fetus, not infant, but the fetus in the womb, and he says, we can’t test this, we can’t prove it. But you have to assume that sensation starts in the womb and that the fetus has an experience of warmth, of hunger or of privation and other experiences. So, he says, even at that early stage, we can start talking about how experience is being the building block. What is interesting about the globe example, that globe example seems to be taking a really hard, phenomenological line or manifold line, where he says, It’s only after you have a concept of three dimensions and all these are the sorts of things that you actually see the globe as a globe, he literally says you would just experience that it is kind of a shape. It’s almost like you have to come to an understanding of the three dimensionality of space in order to experience anything as a non-flat object, right? And what he’s at pains to say is he wants to say, getting to that point where you have that experience of space, you don’t have an idea of space that’s put in you, but, as Wes pointed out, it certainly seems as though the structure of our experience is such that it either educates us or we learn it, or it develops. It’s very much a developmental account. So pretty much all the work that (quote-unquote) “innate” or abstract universal ideas they’re supposed to do, he thinks you get through habit, repetition, development and experience over time. And so he has to then explain how, or at least justify that, you know, a one-year-old or a six-month-old baby is just having sensation and not conceptual, but they have to be able to get to the concepts which will then form the experience. So it’s kind of circular or cyclical, rather.
Dylan: He is trying to think about examples of experiences that don’t have any structure until you begin to parse them out, compartmentalize them, like kinds of tastes or smells. There would be categories of taste, bitter and sweet would be examples, but even other ones, where your experience is one of a kind of broad landscape of it. And until you start trying to refine it into particular kinds of taste or kinds of smell, it’s just kind of a mash. You see it when people struggle to talk about how does the wine taste? or how does the food taste? or how…? What is the smell like? Until you go through the activity of saying: “Well, you know, there’s hints of chocolate and a sense of coffee and a little bit of grass… All of those things are categories of grouping the likenesses in that sensation. But before that, the way you’re talking about, you just have a quality, well, it’s “I like the way it smells” or “smells good” or stuff like that. But when you start having the activity of parsing it out and say, “Well, it smells like the ocean with a little bit of grass, plus some cow manure in there”…
Mark: …“Tobacco and leather.”
Dylan: …that’s an example of an experience where you’re parsing out the raw sense data into ideas, the way he’s talking about it, right? That’s what I found myself thinking about a lot. And this is, rather than experiences of this transition that I don’t have any, you know, frontal knowledge of any more than I know, I remember learning how to walk, you know, talking about the experience of a fetus in the womb, I think is useful, and interesting, but it’s not as accessible to understanding the generation of ideas. Because that’s to me, one of the conundrums that’s trying to be solved here is, how do you get a new idea from raw sensory experience that you didn’t have? Because the claim for Locke is that you didn’t have to have the idea before. The idea comes out. And the contrary thing is, you have to have the idea before, you have to have a form that exists out there, that’s successful, that you latch onto. And those are contrary things. And Locke is, as Seth was saying, is a kind of evolutionist and a creativist, a builder of ideas out of sensory experience. And if that idea is true, then that happens all the time. Constantly. And we effect in our individual lives as well as throughout, sort of, the history of humanity. We should be able to point to examples where that happens for us.
Wes: There is something innate with Locke, right? We should always keep that in mind. He’s not an anti- nativist completely. It’s just that his nativism is all about capacities or powers or faculties. He wants them to be these live abilities that we have and not sort of these dead free floating ideas that are somehow there in us and then get used, and it’s an important distinction. But I think even though we’re kind of elaborating on this, I don’t think he himself gives a lot of thought to the actual development of the faculties and that the idea that perception, as he thinks of it, though it may not be a faculty that we’re actually born with, it maybe some proto-perception that inputs early on help build, right. So our capacity to see color, maybe something that gets built so that there’s an existing capacity, there’s an existing faculty. It’s not yet a robust faculty of perception. It gets subjected to certain inputs, which do not yet feel like qualia as we know them, that faculty gets developed. And then now we have something that is receptive that can produce qualia in us, for instance. So that’s a more developmental approach. And I think you could make it square with modern neuroscience to some extent, and… but I don’t think he really gets into that. I’m not saying he wouldn’t be open to that. It’s just we don’t get that here.
Seth: I like the way you characterize that, Wes, and I’m perfectly comfortable with that as a reading of what he’s offering here. By the way, that metaphor I was talking about, the retreating army comes from Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, FY I. So Dylan should be happy with me for saying that.
Mark: The thing that haunts me throughout this is what he means to be in the mind and what is not. That if we take seriously, and I was really going gung ho on this interpretation last episode, that the mind is this very narrow, blank slate in which there are just kind of only a few ideas at a time, really, then so much of what we call psychology and so much of what he actually has to use for his account seemingly is not in the mind at all, right? When we get to memory, he’s going to say specifically, yes, memories get stored, of course, they get stored in the brain, but they’re not in the mind. They really just go away, and then we have the capacity to revive them somehow, and he seems to want to play the game that, because we have the capacity to reflect on our own mental operations, then we can say those operations are also part of the mind, right? Perception itself is part of the mind and these other ideas that we get of abstraction and comparison, that these are all things that are in the mind. These are actually all ideas that when you’re reflecting on your own mental operations, you see that they, right alongside whiteness and chair and elephants are right there in the mind. But there has to be so many other things. You know, Wes, these capacities you’re referring to, that are in play here, that are part of the psychology, that are part of the account but that are not, I guess, in the mind. But I think Locke thinks that they are in the mind. And this is just… I think you might just be wrong about this. And it’s a little, likewise, ambiguous to me. So even again, in just that Section 3 that we read, are the qualia themselves, so the sensation, is that an idea or is that a means of getting me an idea? And that is related to what I was just saying, because does the sensation itself…? Clearly there are parts of it, their external objects bouncing off our eyes, bouncing into our ears… He talks about… these are probably smaller than the smallest particle… Those are clearly not part of mind, but they’re part of the process of sensation and sensation is the process by which… (see? he just doesn’t use sense data, or qualia, or something) …by which ideas are delivered to the mind.
Dylan: But ideas aren’t delivered to the mind.
Mark: No, they’re not. Ideas are…
Dylan: …generated in the mind.
Mark: …generated in the mind, but out of experience.
Mark: No experience equals no ideas. It’s almost like you have to think qualia is like trees going into the mill and you’re coming out lumber and the mill is your mind. And there’s trees whether you’ve got no mill and there’s a mill if you’ve got no trees, but nothing comes out of it. At least that’s the way I‘m reading it.
Seth: So you’re saying that there are experiences, but they are not yet ideas, because I thought we established…
Dylan: Yeah, it’s just there’s just sensation.
Mark: Ideas are what the mind does. They are… the one and only thing that is in the mind is ideas. And now we’re saying, “No, there’s this other stuff.” That’s proto-ideas.
Wes: Yeah, I think ideas are the atoms, and you would have to identify these perceptual ideas with qualia or with sense data. These would be the smallest components. But, I mean, we do get this picture of, you know, we have invisible particles bouncing off things and going into the eyes, and then he says, affecting the nerves and nerves going to the brain. So he understands the physiology of all this, and that’s part of what all this is predicated on. And then how we get from brain activity to ideas, you know, like that’s a mystery. We’re not going to talk about that. But I think that the point that we get to, the first thing that comes on the scene subjectively, phenomenologically, is what we call an idea. That is the atom of experience.
Dylan: That last sentence, I don’t think I agree with, with Locke, as I think experience is rich, in his case, that would include… yes, you have experience that is structured in ideas. But you also have experience that is unstructured, that generates ideas, so ideas come out of experience and experience also happens with ideas.
Seth: Okay. There, I’m not sure I’m with you on that one, Dylan.
Mark: You seem to be talking about a manifold.
Seth: I wanna rephrase the problem because I feel like Locke has two things. He’s got five senses that furnish you with all of this raw material of sensation. And then he’s got a bunch of mental activities: comparison, relationship, abstraction. There’s all these mental operations that you can perform with the help of your memory, obviously, on all of the sense data. And he says, ”combine those two things together and you can identify how we came to any idea that we have.” So if you turn it around and you say, okay, you want to argue against Locke or you want to challenge this position, what would be the mental operation and what would be the source material that you would perform that mental operation on to come up with an idea that didn’t come from experience?
Wes: Are you talking about reflection?
Dylan: Could be reflection. I mean, reflection…?
Wes: Yeah, which he sees as a form of experience. So again, we’re thinking of experiences…
Dylan: That’s because you can only… in his mind, you can only reflect on past exp… your own experience or your own ideas.
Wes: All ideas, he says, come from sensation or reflection, right? And so our first… what you’re calling sense data are just the sensation ideas.
Dylan: I may be attributing a distinction to Locke that he doesn’t have, having there be ideas generated out of a manifold, that Locke may not quite have that. In section 23 of Chapter I, he answers the question along the lines of what we’re asking right now: “If it shall be demanded then, when a man begins to have any ideas, I think the true answer is,—when he first has any sensation. For, since there appear not to be any ideas in the mind before the senses have conveyed any in, I conceive that ideas in the understanding are coeval with sensation; which is such an impression or motion made in some part of the body, as produces some perception in the understanding.” To sense these impressions made on our senses by outward objects that the mind seems first to employ itself in such operations as we call perception: remembering, considering reasoning. He seems to be then saying that even if we have an experience of yellow before we understand yellow, we will have an idea in our mind that structures that experience, that sensation. I think that he’s saying that all of our experience is in the form of ideas.
Wes: I mean, maybe one stumbling block here is the fact that, for Locke, the word idea can mean either qualia or concept, right? So we shouldn’t take the fact that he’s using the word idea to mean that he’s talking about concepts. When we talk about these initial sensations of yellow and white, he’s talking about particular sense data and those sense data are ideas.
Dylan: That makes sense. But where does experience fall in there? So one way of understanding the way experience was working, the way I was understanding it, was experience is a machine that works with ideas as input and also, I’ll call it, uncategorized data as input, the output of which is ideas. And it may be that second thing that I’m wrong about for Locke.
Wes: I don’t think he would dislike that. I just don’t see him talking about that.
Seth: Can I read section 4 here? Because we’re having trouble with basic concepts here, and it is difficult. This is not trivial at all. Section 4: “Secondly, the other fountain from which experience furnisheth the understanding with ideas is,—the perception of the operations of our own mind within us.” So experience is not the machine. The understanding is the machine, Dylan. The understanding, also, I think, is the container, the white sheet. The understanding is the mind. And I think he also, elsewhere, just calls that perception. Perception and understanding weirdly for someone, you know, because for Kant, right, those are different stages.
Mark: I know he identifies perception and thinking. I forget if he also identifies perception and understanding specifically,
Seth: Yes. So, definitely, thinking and understanding are the same thing. So I think all three of those things…
Wes: I mean, sorry, thinking and perception he identifies…
Seth: Yes, thinking and perception and the understanding, I think, are all the same thing. And experience is the thing that is furnishing the understanding with ideas, which doesn’t sound like it furnishes it with raw material with the understanding that makes into ideas. [laughter]
Dylan: No, I agree. That’s why I call experience a machine. Experience is the machine generating ideas that the understanding works on.
Seth: Yeah, and I’m willing to backtrack on what I said earlier about… and just make a distinction between ideas and concepts, where ideas can be simple things and concepts are related to our abstractions that require the mechanisms of comparison and all the various things that the mind does. But I think if you’re just calling an idea anything that impresses itself upon the understanding from experience, you say, well, but we also have to have this mechanism of memory and recollection. If you want to be able to do anything useful with those (quote-unquote) “ideas”, then I think it really impoverishes the… we’re just still talking about sense data. And what would it mean to have five million ideas of particular instances of yellow?
Mark: We do. [laughter] They just don’t all have names. There are way more ideas than there are names for them.
Wes: Right. We could give a proper name to every single different qualia.
Seth: Here’s the thing. You’re saying, like, okay, I have 500,000 ideas of yellow from my experience of seeing yellow. Now I can’t put names to all of them, but at least I have the ability to talk about yellow, like, well, what’s doing the work there? It’s the concept of yellow. If you can’t name it and you can’t reproduce it, and it’s just like how different, as you say, “I had five million experiences of yellow, some of which I can put a name to, because I can identify them again, using my memory and recollection, and I can accurately do that and I can categorize them as yellow.” But if it’s just saying that notion of idea is pretty weak.
Wes: Seth and Dylan, what you guys were saying is plausible, right? It’s like a myth of the given type of thing, or it’s wanting to start earlier and talk about how the manifold or some sort of buzzing confusion is used to construct ideas, like we want to go deeper, we want to talk about how ideas get constructed. But for Locke, ideas are the atoms of experience. And that’s where we start. And to experience yellow, we don’t need the concept of yellow. We get… Rather, it’s the other way around. We build up the concept through these particular ideas of yellow, and the mind just has the capacity to do that, he wants to say. We don’t need a platonic form of yellow. We don’t need an innate idea of yellow. We can just use these. We actually get enough from the raw experience to build the concept out of them.
Mark: The trouble we’re having with the engine, Dylan, is that experience (and experience… sensation is a type of experience, reflection is a type of experience) delivers up ideas. It’s a black box. We don’t actually know. We can do scientific experiments on, like “let’s blind somebody and see how their sensation changes.” But that’s not part of the mind. Experience is not part of the mind. It delivers ideas to the mind. From whence it comes? Who knows? But also the understanding is a machine as well, because clearly these operations, like comparison and things that we’re doing, those take place in the mind, and we can reflect on them. I think where things are becoming difficult is this myth of the give and stuff when judgment comes in and maybe we’ve done something consciously or something accessible to conscious if we reflect on it, some sort of operation to, like, connect all the types of yellow. But, then, once we’ve done that, going forward, we’re going to see them as yellow. And so it’s sort of like the processing that was going on in a transparent place is now pushed out to the black box part.
Dylan: That last point is really, really important. I mean, that’s the magic of the mind, right? And then, one of the exciting things with Locke is that process of pushing out what we’re actually working on in experience. That experience can work on those things pushed out.
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