Wednesday, April 13, 2011

John Locke--Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) Part 1

Having become somewhat more aware in recent years of what studying an academic discipline such as philosophy both really entails and signifies to people who have hard-earned degrees in a subject, I am careful now never to declare myself as having studied anything at a quasi-serious level. This is the type of thing that we used to read quite a bit at my old school, however, so while I do not often plow through 17th century philosophical tomes anymore, I was able to settle in comfortably right away and was transported back to those days, which, seemingly having suppressed all of the unpleasant memories, which latter experiences at the time I am quite certain ran quite neck and neck at the least with the more fortifying ones, was productive of what I took to be an unusually fruitful reading. Something of the form and spirit of the Great Books--among which Locke is always accounted a member with a minimum of controversy--must have managed, after all, to insinuate itself in me, for I felt as though an aspect of my brain and indeed entire existence that had long been closed off was (at least) temporarily opened.

While we did read John Locke at school, I have no recollection of the specific titles. If we did read any of this--and I have no memory of it--it would merely have been excerpts, as my edition of the book is two volumes and 996 pages, though without the extensive footnotes it would probably be slimmed down to 600-700 or so. There was also a 140 page prolegomena (introduction) which I skipped. In spite of my overall enjoyment at engaging with the Enlightenment again, my armchair St. Johnsian impression of the philosophy in it was that it was not especially persuasive or airtight by the standards of the greatest practitioners of the field that I am aware of anyway--i.e. the Greeks and the Germans--whom I would be quickly exposed as having no understanding of if put to the test but whose presentation and arguments I know at least try to account for every contigency or objection to them that might arise that even a dull reader could conceive of, which Locke seemed to me to fail to do. Given the general extensiveness and thoroughness of the book in general, and contemplating the task of attempting to arrange a work of the intellect on such a scale and with the necessity of such thoroughness and precision of thought myself, this led me to the conclusion that writing a successful work of philosophy might be the most difficult of all mental/literary tasks to achieve, though at the time I was forgetting about epic poems, which may actually be harder.

Locke was renowned in England for his extreme seriousness. There was one story in particular that I remember, I believe it was in one of the books from the Samuel Johnson-o-sphere, in which Locke was invited somewhere for dinner and could not be brought to sit and fritter away an evening of his life at the card-table, and went home the instant the conversation dropped beneath a level that was acceptable to him. Unlike places such as Germany and Russia where almost all writers and intellectuals maintain this level of seriousness at all times and on all subjects by our standards, this attitude was pretty rare in Restoration England. The poets and dramatists of Locke'e age, and the novelists of the next, Pope not least among them, give the impression that a substantial portion of the life of the elite centered around the card-table, and indeed depict these sessions so vividly that one wonders whether the video game will perhaps find its poet in the coming years. As well the Cavalier poet and anthology favorite Sir John Suckling was long attributed as the inventor of the game of cribbage, though, as is their wont, in recent years the scholars of card games have dug deeper into this legend and found it not to hold water.

On page 10 of 996, our author states: "...when I put pen to paper, I thought all I should have to say on this matter would have been contained in one sheet of paper..." That was a serious underestimation of the vastness of his subject, I'd say.

A note on page 31 (still in the Introduction) on the sentence "Our business here is not to know all things, but those which concern our conduct" suggests that it could serve as the motto of English philosophy generally. I should add that the notes appear to date from 1894, so they are not exactly current either, though I am certainly willing to give them a fair hearing.

Classical philosophers in general have little use for children, considering them incapable of reason among other deficiencies. Perhaps we would not be unwise to remember this sometimes in our assessments of their development, especially at early ages (The first section of the book is spent establishing Locke's contention that there are no such things as innate universal principles in the mind, of which the crudity of children's natural understanding and consequent behavior, in Locke's view, is a prime illustration).

After using the examples of rampaging armies and cannibals in Peru who reputedly ate the children they begot on their female captives (and indeed kept them for that purpose) to demonstrate the absence of innate moral principles, caps the argument with "The saints who are canonized among the Turks, lead lives which one cannot with modesty relate."

Locke's Victorian editor--Alexander Campbell Fraser--did not wholly like this idea of principles, moral ones especially, not being innate and offered the suggestion that while perhaps these do not involve "actual realisation in the consciousness of each individual from birth," they might be "potentially innate, and only evoked in the consciousness of the few who are highly educated, morally and intellectually." He then further goes on to declaim that "to awaken a response in individuals to the principles on which human life reposes is the aim of the higher education", and that "from Socrates onwards this has been recognized by teachers of religion and philosophy." I would have to say that the peculiar biases of his generation and culture are negatively affecting his reading here, as doubtless mine do my reading, and almost everyone else theirs too. Indeed almost half of almost every page is given over to notes either contradicting or refuting Locke's arguments, and the case would probably be the same if I were to annotate my own edition, which after a time led me to wonder why exactly it was (is?) considered so great. Is it asking the right questions? Are there specific points that are so well expressed and so well important that they compensate for the many seemingly weaker parts of the work?

In addendum to the previous note, Locke's definitions and the other grounds/postulates of his arguments are also far from impregnable. Among other issues he seems to accept a God very like the Christian God as an absolute fact, "He Is," though he puts forth the argument that as most people have but "odd, low and pitiful" ideas about God's actual nature, this is an indication that even this knowledge is not innate though "wise men of all nations have come to it". I would venture to say that modern philosophy, perhaps even modern life, has made the Christian God appear no more natural or logical than any other deity, and all real believers of specific faiths to be peculiar above anything else.

"Nor is it a small power it gives one man over another, to have the authority to be the dictator of principles, and teacher of unquestionable truths; and to make a man swallow that for an innate principle which may serve to his purpose who teacheth them." One of my own obsessions.

"And how great a mass of knowledge soever he imagines to be lodged there, he will, upon taking a strict view, see that he has not any idea in his mind but what one of these two (ed--the objects of his senses or the operations of his mind) have imprinted;--though perhaps, with infinite variety compounded and enlarged by the understanding, as we shall se hereafter." Didn't Shakespeare already break all this down, and more pithily?

"But he that would not deceive himself, ought to build his hypothesis on matter of fact, and make it out by sensible experience, and not presume on matter of fact, because of his hypothesis, that is, because he supposes it to be so; which way of proving amounts to this, that I must necessarily think all last night, because another supposes I always think, though I myself cannot perceive that I always do so." I included this somewhat inscrutable quote because it seems to me that I do this myself all the time, and that it is a major factor in my being essentially philosophically weak, which among other tragedies, hinders one from having any hope of ever being a true St Johnny, which having had few other potential associations which ever struck me as particularly desirable, would have meant something to me. It seems to me there must be some consolation in talking of intricate matters one has some degree of mastery over with a mind of nearly equal status and development, though I suppose everything always seems magical to those outside the pale. This is merely routine thought and human intercourse for the people I am aspiring to be, and signifies nothing exciting to them.

Liebniz, who apparently addressed many of the same ideas Locke is concerned with in this book, is much excerpted in the notes where the comparison of his perception with Locke's suggests itself. Gottfried seems to be the better thinker of the two by no insignificant margin. He is certainly the clearer thinker at least.

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