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Locke and the Mind-Body Problem: An Interpretation of his Agnosticism

  • Han-Kyul Kim (a1)

From the Lockean point of view, the mind-body problem is conceived as a problem created by us. It is an error to think there is a problem with mind and body, an error of confusing nominality with reality. I argue that Locke's agnosticism should be understood as a warning not to confuse our human point of view with what really is. From this perspective, the mind-body problem is a nominal problem, not a real one. It appears to us as a problem, but is not really so. But what makes it appear to us as a problem? This is Locke's starting point for solving the mind-body problem.

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1 McGinn Colin, ‘Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem?’, Mind 98 (1989), p. 351, footnote 4.

2 All references to Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding are to Peter H. Nidditch's edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975). References are given by book, chapter, and section numbers.

3 Galen Strawson has used this term to argue that although the term ‘physical’ could turn out to be nothing more than a descriptively empty synonym for ‘real’, the “?-ism” is not completely vacuous since it at least claims that something real exists: Mental Reality (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1994), p. 99.

4 In chapter ii of Book IV Locke divides our knowledge into three categories: intuitive, demonstrative, and sensitive. Besides intuitive and demonstrative knowledge, sensitive knowledge is “another perception of the mind” that concerns “the particular existence of finite Beings without us” (4.2.14). Although this type of knowledge goes “beyond bare probability”, Locke concedes that it does not reach “perfectly to either of the foregoing degrees of certainty [intuition and demonstration]” but he maintains that it deserves “the name of Knowledge” (Ibid). This knowledge does not concern the real nature of things.

5 Note that contemporary physicalism is also committed to the constitution thesis. Physicalists claim not only that everything should be studied by the scientific methods of physics, but also that everything is physically constituted. David Papineau notes that the emphasis on the ontological rather than the methodological marks “a striking contrast with the ‘unity of science’ doctrines prevalent among logical positivists in the first half of the century” (See his ‘The Rise of Physicalism’ in The Proper Ambition of Science, edited by M. W. F. Stone and Jonathan Wolff, London: Routledge, 2000, p. 174). The logical positivists' chief concern was with “whether the different branches of science, from physics to psychology, should all use the same method of controlled observation and systematic generalization”. It should be stressed that they paid little attention to the question of “whether everything is made of the same physical stuff” (Ibid). This is a striking shift of emphasis from the logical positivists to contemporary physicalists (For some brief history on this shift in the 1950s and 1960s, see Papineau, pp. 175–7). But one point of continuity between them is that neither offers a positive account of matter.

Locke would endorse the logical positivists' approach to the term ‘physical’. Throughout this paper we shall argue that Locke is an anti-materialist. The ‘materialism’ he contests is the doctrine that everything is materially constituted. The term ‘physicalism’ is also occasionally used in this paper by way of contrast to Locke's position. When this term is used, it is with the meaning that everything is physically or materially constituted (with no distinction between the material and the physical). Although the term ‘physicalism’ carries methodological considerations, there is little point in distinguishing between the ‘physical’ and the ‘material’ in discussion of Locke's theory of mind and body.

6 The Philosophical Writings of Descartes (CSM), translated and edited by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch, Anthony Kenny (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), vol. I, p. 215.

7 For this description see Lennon, The Battle of the Gods and Giants: The Legacies of Descartes and Gassendi, 1655–1715 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 320.

8 Quoted from Lennon, p. 320. In fact Cudworth does not specifically refer to Hobbes as the philosopher who maintains this materialist position, but just uses the expression “Modern Writer”. Lennon remarks that it is John Yolton who believes that “the reference is clearly” to Hobbes, and that the quoted passage outlines a “reductionist thesis”. For this discussion, see Yolton, Thinking Matter: Materialism in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), pp. 67.

9 Berkeley, Philosophical Works, edited by Ayers M. R. (London: J. M. Dent, 1975), p. 251.

10 CSM II, p. 192.

12 CSM II, p. 185.

14 CSM II, p. 88.

15 CSM I, p. 215.

16 In the following quotation, Locke appears to talk about the self in a way that is similar to Cartesian immaterialism: “The Knowledge of our own Being, we have by intuition” (4.11.1). The “intuition” here sounds very much like Descartes' self-awareness. But Locke holds that “intuition” enables us to be aware of the existence of “our own being” without perceiving its nature. In much the same way that sensitive knowledge deserves “the name of Knowledge” (Ibid). This intuitive knowledge does not concern the real nature of things, but their existence only.

17 Nicholas Jolley interprets Locke as an anti-essentialist regarding natural kinds. Jolly appears to focus on the essence of natural kinds, rather than the mental and material categories. He remarks: “Locke's primary concern may seem to be to argue that there are no natural kinds independently of our classification”: Leibniz and Locke: A Study of the New Essays on Human Understanding (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 146. Although a thing's hidden structure explains its observable properties, Jolley's interpretation is that Locke thought our classifications of things do not necessarily correspond to how things are in the real world. On the other hand, John Mackie argues that Locke anticipated Kripke's view of natural kinds, referring to the “not yet made so arbitrarily” passage: Problems from Locke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 93–100. See also McGinn Colin, ‘A Note on the Essence of Natural Kinds’, Analysis 35 (1975), pp. 177–83; and Ayers Michael, ‘Locke versus Aristotle on Natural Kinds’, Journal of Philosophy 78 (1981), pp. 247–71.

18 Mr. Locke's Reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcester's Answer to his Second Letter, London, 1699; reprinted in The Works of John Locke (Darmstadt: Scientia, 1963), vol. 4, p. 460.

19 Nagel Thomas, The View From Nowhere (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 1986, p. 30.

20 Hanson Philip, ‘McGinn's Cognitive Closure’, Dialogue 32 (1993), p. 585, footnote 3.

22 Mr. Locke's Reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcester's Answer to his Second Letter, p. 462.

23 The first edition of Locke's Essay was published in 1690, the second in 1694, the third in 1695, the fourth in 1700, the fifth in 1706, and the sixth in 1710.

24 Tom Stoneham, ‘The ‘Idealism’ of Richard Burthogge’, an unpublished manuscript, 2007.

25 Burthogge Richard, Essay upon Reason, reprinted and abridged in Landes M. (ed.), The Philosophical Writings of Richard Burthogge (Chicago: Open Court, 1921), p. 78.

27 I am grateful to Roger Woolhouse, Tom Stoneham, Michael Della Rocca, Nicholas Jolley, Michael Ayers, Sukjae Lee, and Matthew Ryan for their comments, suggestions, and criticisms concerning the topic of this paper. I particularly wish to thank Tom Stoneham for making his writing on Richard Burthogge available to me, and Michael Della Rocca for his encouragement and the lively conversations I had with him in my postdoctoral work at Yale between 2006 and 2008. This paper is part of a project that explores Locke's philosophy of mind and body in terms of his distinction between the nominal and real essence, and examines the relevance of his views to contemporary issues and debates.

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