Locke rules

Ian Hacking

  • Locke. Vol. I: Epistemology by Michael Ayers
    Routledge, 341 pp, £90.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 415 06406 6
  • Locke. Vol. II: Ontology by Michael Ayers
    Routledge, 341 pp, £90.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 415 06407 4

If it is true, as it seemed to Whitehead, that the whole of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, then it must be equally true that the philosophical writing of the English-speaking peoples consists chiefly of ‘problems from Locke’. Not moral philosophy, for sure, but examinations of what we know, how we think, what there is, what a person is. It is astounding that Locke should have had this power. It is no surprise that philosophers are reread: Plato captivates his readers in any language, and most of the memorable philosophers can get us high on a phrase, a chapter, a book. Hobbes and Descartes had a great deal to do with forming the distinct prose styles of their respective languages, and hence, I imagine, formed our several ideas of what an argument is. But Locke – Locke plods. Aside from Michael Ayers, how many contributors to this issue of the Review, reviewers or reviewees, have read Locke’s Essay, word for word, from beginning to end? Fewer, perhaps, than would like to admit it.

But Locke rules. No matter how briefly he is skimmed or how conveniently abridged, he set an agenda which after three centuries shows no signs of fading. It is partly a matter of tone. Nelson Goodman, the senior representative of American pragmatism, speaks of his own ‘sceptical, analytical and constructionalist orientation’. Locke could have described himself in exactly the same way. Locke and Newton were the paired heroes of the French idéologues, but after the Revolution Locke faded from sight across the Channel. At home, however his fortunes may have gone up or down, the topics that he discussed came to constitute philosophy.

Locke was no sceptic, in the philosopher’s sense of that word, but he surely was sceptical. English-language philosophy has been sceptical ever since. Locke set the anti-scientistic style for three centuries of philosophising in English, and I’ll wager that it has at least another half-century to run. And that, too, is remarkable. For here is a Locke who collaborated with Robert Boyle, the man on whose premises (and in the hands of Robert Hooke) laboratory science arguably began. Here is the Locke who had significant if ill-understood relationships with Newton, our greatest theoretician. Here is an author who says at the outset that he will not vie with such great ones: ‘’tis Ambition enough to be employed as an Under-Labourer in clearing Ground a little, and removing some of the Rubbish, that lies in the way of Knowledge.’ In fact, however, he teaches that we should never be rushed into believing what the scientists tell us, and never attach too much importance to it when we do accept what they say.

Here may be the source of one of the great stabilising aspects of the English-speaking peoples, the ‘two cultures’ that C.P. Snow so deplored. Locke is honoured for his pleas for toleration in religion, but he knows the danger of dogma in all things. By all means know the Second Law of Thermodynamics (I imagine him retorting to Snow): ‘that is very agreeable to the natural vanity and curiosity of man’ – I’m putting into his mouth here what Hume said about Boyle. But don’t think that the sciences have some special rights on telling us how things are. And in our day, when that most influential of philosophers, W.V. Quine, teaches us that we must naturalise epistemology, and take what the scientists tell us as the core of all our knowing, Locke would be a wonderful prophylactic, if only he (or Ayers) were a little more lively.

At any rate, Locke is ‘relevant’, and directly so, to a vast amount of current analytic philosophy. He chose our topics. Ayers divides his study into two halves, which he intends to be largely independent of each other. The subjects that are discussed could perfectly well serve for two completely non-historical sets of lectures that made no mention of Locke, but were titled ‘Metaphysics’ and ‘Epistemology’. Whether that’s the right way to do Locke is another question, for he certainly did not carve up his territory in quite that way. Thus each of Ayers’s two volumes has to take a run through the whole of Locke’s Essay. In this respect Ayers is more true to a way of thinking about philosophy that emerged after Locke, the idea that philosophy is about a set of ‘problems’. Around 1910 William James, G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell each wrote texts entitled, with minor variants, ‘The Problems of Philosophy’. That way of seeing philosophy has stuck. But arguably it was Locke who made it possible to see philosophy as problems in the first instance; if so, then Ayers’s mode of presentation must be just right.

Certainly the idea of problems was the model for the ‘Arguments of Philosophers’ series when it was first conceived over fifteen years ago. Advance notices and early dust-jackets for the series implied a lack of interest in the historical context of argument. Arguments are arguments, good or bad, no matter when invented and no matter for whom they were intended. And that undoubtedly is one possible way of reading many of the philosophers – as timeless, speaking directly to you. That way of reading, once standard at British universities, has to some extent fallen from favour. Ayers does not go in for heavy-handed hermeneutics but he does think it is important to know what Locke read, and with whom he was arguing. Ayers spares us the lesser pamphleteers of the century, but each ‘argument’ of Locke’s is preceded by a careful rundown of major writers whose work Locke knew. There is also much interesting unobtrusive scholarship based on Locke’s numerous reading notes.

Dr Ayers, who has been teaching in Oxford for many years, has thus made happy use of the great Locke archive kept there. He nevertheless writes in an oddly distanced manner, as if he did not want to give away too much. ‘Another book more than familiar to Locke ... was the Port Royal Logic.’ True, of course, but a curious way to introduce what was already becoming the standard college text. Some scholars once went so far as to claim that he provided part of the translation into English. That’s almost certainly false, but what is Ayers building into ‘more than familiar’, we ask? In general, the claims about what Locke read, and how it led to changes in successive drafts of the Essay, are almost too carefully guarded. From the same page: ‘It is an attractive hypothesis that his reading Malebranche in the 1680s encouraged Locke to introduce elements into his argument not present in the draft of 1671.’ That is the standard modality of the historical remarks; out on a limb is where you won’t find this author. But how agreeable to have the potted summaries of Malebranche or Stillingfleet of whoever, men who the student vaguely knows are relevant to the talk of the time, but who are unlikely to be read by more than a handful of enthusiasts. And for all that Locke has attracted lots of work by first-class philosophers, there is no previous systematic placing of his arguments in their historical setting. There are excellent recent historico-philosophical studies of particular topics – I think, for example, of Nicholas Jolley’s Leibniz and Locke (1984) and The Light of the Soul: Theories of Ideas in Leibniz, Malebranche and Descartes (1990), the latter a rich source of origins that was published too late for Ayers to use. But there has hitherto been no work that a student could easily consult to get a sense of Locke’s roots in the whole canvas of 17th-century issues. Which is not to say that this book is intellectual history. It takes its mandate pretty strictly. It presents Locke’s arguments, but also at least sketches what Locke was arguing against.

Ayers does a fine job of showing that epistemology is a kind of enquiry, central to Locke, that is worth preserving. Richard Rorty has made famous the thesis that epistemology is dead, eliminated by some generations of analytic philosophers who showed it to be an impossible pursuit. Rorty took epistemology to be a matter of finding foundations for knowledge. Ayers rightly urges that Locke was not trying to establish foundations for anything. The search for firm foundations is an affair of Continental writers, Descartes or Carnap, for example, from whom we always have much to learn. We in our different tradition, should nevertheless rein in our disposition to follow them. To generalise on what Ayers says so much more cautiously, a search for foundations in general has never been a significant part of British philosophy. Even Russell made plain that the greatest degree of evidence lies, not in the axioms used to organise a branch of knowledge, but rather in their more familiar consequences.

So what then is epistemology? Ayers takes one of its tasks to be to analyse notions such as knowledge, belief, opinion and probability. He is best on knowledge, and here we see one of the characteristics of these two volumes. For after several short chapters explaining Locke’s motivations and theses, we suddenly stumble upon a chapter that is really pure Ayers – contending that what happens to be Locke’s position is about right. ‘Knowledge’ is a term that applies to a family of conditions, but among them some are primary – there’s an excellent brief critical treatment of Wittgenstein on family resemblance here. The primary instances are closely connected with perception. Seeing provides that standard of primary knowledge to which other kinds of knowledge are related by various strands radiating from the core examples. A dominant theme here is the relation of consciousness to knowledge; hardly a startling idea, except to philosophers who have done their best to suppress the very idea of consciousness. In this context we get Ayers’s own answer to the question: why read old philosophers? Because of a ‘peculiar and deep feature of philosophical discourse and inquiry: it is possible to lose sight of what was once more clearly seen, and it is possible to discard truth together with the error with which it became entangled. More, it is almost impossible not to do these things. That is why it is possible for philosophy to renew itself, now as in the 17th century, by learning from the past.’

Are we going to get a renewal from reading Locke and Ayers? Will consciousness once again occupy a central role in Anglophone philosophy? I fear not. For one thing, although the point is made again at the end of the first volume, its details are buried without sign-posting, and hedged in by what are, for my taste, too many cautions. Even the passage just quoted began with a parenthetical ‘(unless what has been argued is utterly remote from the truth)’. But the effect of Ayers on Locke is a separate question from the correctness of this vision of a use for the history of philosophy. It is one use, but it cannot explain why we read or at any rate sample the accepted canon. Canons are much challenged nowadays, but the canonical philosophers will look after themselves very well, whether or not they renew us.

The second volume of Ayers’s study breaks naturally into three parts: substance, laws of nature (plus God), and personal identity. On identity Locke is very much mainstream today; anyone who disagrees with him has to refute him, in person. But it is in the first two parts that Locke deserves the epithet ‘anti-scientistic’. He famously held that we can’t ever know the ‘inner constitution of things’, and that the boundaries between kinds of things have to do with how we sort them. There’s a memorable passage about ‘the workmanship of the understanding’ (earning for Locke Nelson Goodman’s self-description as ‘constructionalist’). In a paper published some years ago Ayers seemed to concede that with the advent of chemistry and molecular biology we had found inner constitutions – and so Locke, writing what was valid in his day, is no longer germane. Fortunately for the reader, Ayers here takes a stronger line, urging that Locke was right about biological taxa being artifacts of people who devise taxonomies.

In particular, he urges that more recent philosophers simply haven’t taken seriously Locke’s worry – and the worry of his contemporaries – about how one draws lines around kinds of things. Even in the case of substances, Locke’s ideas still stand up well, or so Ayers argues. Here he is taking on the recently fashionable notions of Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam. Those are formidable opponents, but Locke is a staunch ally. His central analytical concepts of mode and substance are rather carefully tailored to much common experience which we still have, science or no. The most that Ayers will grant is that the original Aristotelian project of understanding things and kinds of things branches in the 17th century. Leibniz responded to Locke by blazing the scientific route. He even made one of the first pleas for better funding of scientific research departments: if patrons would just spend a little more money, we’d find out some inner constitutions that much more quickly. Locke developed the route that I call anti-scientistic, that doesn’t want for laboratories nor even much financial support. It insists that meta-physics as well as epistemology should be human-centred and humane inquiry.

Ayers’s book is a fine tool for students. Locke, I unkindly said, plods, Ayers does not speed things up; this is not a manual for the hasty reader, who all things considered, had still better have a go at Locke himself. The book has many great merits, not the least of which is the thorough independence of mind of its author. Each of the philosophical positions Ayers urges is maintained on its own ground, often self-consciously distant from widespread assumptions popular among our contemporaries. The volumes will become standard secondary material. The topics discussed will persist as they have done these three centuries. The positions taken by Ayers are so little infected with Nineties common places that this study of Locke will surely outlive this decade, and perhaps several to come.