Tuesday, April 26, 2011

John Locke II

Unlike us, Locke didn't think much of babies' mental abilities, which he compared to vegetables.

Another philosopher who is quoted a lot in the notes, and who seems to be a much clearer writer and better thinker than Locke, is Hume. Though the standard narrative at St John's, as far as I could make out, was that the extremely clever but in some sense facile Hume threatened to lead philosophy down a dangerous, materialistic path but was overcome by Kant, who restored the emphasis in the discipline to metaphysics where it belonged, and beautifully so, Hume at least offered evidence that a high order of philosophical thought could find expression in a mind formed within the confines of the English language, about which many people through the centuries have expressed varying degrees of doubt, including myself. Boy was he cocky though. I seem to have neglected to mark any specific examples of what I am talking about however, so I will have to hunt them up.

"The variety of smells, which are as many almost, if not more, than species of bodies in the world, do most of them want names." Surely now there are people who do this professionally.

Somewhere around page 167 I decided that the notes explaining Locke's ideas were harder to understand than his own sentences, that they were impeding my reading, and that I would stop. Then on page 185 (during the section on "Faculty on Perception") I wrote that I was having to read every sentence 4-5 times, while at that point having 813 pages to go.

"And how covetous the mind is to be furnished with all such ideas as have no pain accompanying them, may be a little guessed by what is observable in children new-born; who always turn their eyes to that part from whence the light comes, lay them how you please." A pleasant observation about babies in the midst of all this straight theoretical philosophy, though this instinct is probably not the most perfect illustration of his idea upon which he could have fallen.

Moving onto the "Faculty of Retention" chapter, a good illustration of my own mind, and my attitude towards it: "Thus the ideas, as well as children, of our youth, often die before us: and our minds represent to us those tombs to which we are approaching; where, though the brass and marble remain, yet the inscriptions are effaced by time, and the imagery moulders away."

On having a faulty memory: "This, if it be to a great degree, is stupidity; and he who, through this default in his memory, has not the ideas that are really preserved there, ready at hand when need and occasion calls for them, were almost as good be without them quite, since they serve him to little purpose." Real intellectuals are a pitiless crowd. "The dull man, who loses the opportunity, whilst he is seeking in his mind for those ideas that should serve his turn, is not much more happy in his knowledge than one who is perfectly ignorant." True.

A Great name comes up that I have not had occasion previously to reference on the site: "It is reported of that prodigy of parts, Monsieur Pascal, that till the decay of his health had impaired his memory, he forgot nothing of what he had done, read, or thought, in any part of his rational age." There is a footnote, however, which says that "This about Pascal must be taken with allowance. That he never forgot anything 'which he tried to retain' is what Madame Perier records of him."

There is a long section about the existence of space and body, which in brief asserts that man's capacity to conceive the extension and multiplication of distance, mass, space and so on is crucial to his ability to think, that can be skimmed, I believe.

Another Great man turns up at the beginning of Chapter XIV ("Idea of Duration and Its Simple Modes"), St Augustine, in reference to the time he was asked what Time was, which strikes me as a fitting question for a Great man, and a poor one for anyone who is not Great. The giant of Western thought replied "Si non rogas intelligo" which looks roughly to me to translate as "If you don't ask, I understand", but is explained by Locke as "The more I set myself to think of it, the less I understand it". Locke is willing to attempt some definitions, albeit of a more prosaic and technical nature than the Saint would likely have found it worthwhile to do. Locke did not however anticipate science's ever increasing ability (instant replay!) to measure and control very precise amounts of time--the comparison of two periods of equal duration, for example, he thinks ultimately impossible, because no two parts of it can be certainly known to be equal. This does not strike me as a concern that would afflict most scientists or philosophers today.

Going to leave this one off a little short.

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