Fuck the Bitch!
…the nonsense masquerading as revealed religion. Dreiser
Certainties are what we succeed in ascertaining, not things which we pick up by accident or benefaction. They are the wages of work, not the gifts of revelation. Ryle
Revelation was a key concept in what passed for religious belief in the skeptical age of the late 17th and 18th centuries. Attempts to prove or have a certain knowledge of the existence of God and indeed the other tenets of Xtianity having failed, a line was drawn between what could be known or proved and what was perceived as true by way of revelation. No matter that this fundamentally religious concept is well nigh incomprehensible outside of reference to the Bible or various patristic writings, the distinction between revelation and scientific knowledge appears to have been greeted with a certain degree of relief by those tired of fruitless speculation and the revolving door of deposed bishops and presbyters.
The great atheist writers, particularly in the 19th century, made short work of the concept of revelation as a way of justifying religious belief. However, insufficient attention is paid to the place of something like revelation at the very core of supposedly scientific philosophical theories. If we shine a light on the other side of the divide between revelation and philosophical knowledge, we find that certainty itself is characterized by something not at all unlike that flash of light that is supposed to found religious belief. This is particularly prominent in Locke’s philosophy of ideas with consequences that are both ironic and revealing. For Locke is generally credited as reintroducing to the modern scientific world the concept of a modest empirical skepticism whereby what can be known is severely delimited by what can be sensed, leaving the rest to preaching and edification. In fact Locke ends up (and he knew what he was up to) assimilating knowledge to religious belief. It is worthwhile recognizing this, not just because we should know where we are with our concepts and our proofs, but also because any hint of anything less than plain dealing in consequential issues like religion and the bases for our knowledge will nag at and ultimately weaken the minds of the most objective, and furnish a perhaps unconscious justification for persisting in their ways to those who feel themselves most comfortable with superstition.
Revelation as the high road to religious belief seems to have definitely been in bad odor by the time of The Way of All Flesh (Every third English intellectual seems to have been name “Samuel Butler”). Religious revivals threatened to dull the minds of Englishmen everywhere, who had been frightened out of their wits by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, until Darwin descended on a cloud. The revivalists had reached a century or so back to the concept of revelation for their intellectual support, though their efforts ended in little more than Low Church – High Church bickering, the world historical importance of which only the English can appreciate, and which Butler burlesques admirably in his portrait of Cambridge life. Butler’s contribution is to opine that, by admitting the concept of something like revelation as a foundation for scientific knowledge, philosophers open the way for the more hypocritical version in the mouths of priests and preachers.
We can best appreciate Butler’s doubts if we understand how Locke framed his philosophy. There are two distinct roles for the concept of certainty and related concepts (concepts such as intuition, intuitive knowledge, knowledge beyond doubt, clear and distinct ideas and the light of reason) in Locke’s Essay. First, people are “certain” of the simple ideas, usually of secondary qualities, that are in their minds and caused by objects outside the mind. More accurately, they are, upon reflection, certain that they have those ideas when they have them. Secondly, the propositions of Locke’s own theory or mind, and his philosophy in general, are either themselves certain or derived from certain propositions by rules of derivation which are also certain.
The very purpose of writing his Essay is, as Locke states at the outset, to distinguish knowledge from opinion. What characterizes knowledge is certainty:
He wishes to give an “account of the ways whereby our understanding come to attain those notions of things we have, and can set down any measures of the certainty of our knowledge….” In matters of opinion alone, “we have no certain knowledge….” Knowledge is not possible about those things “of which we cannot frame in our minds any clear or distinct perceptions….” Locke will draw the limits around what the understanding and the faculties can “attain certainty.” (p. 2) Some things can be known with certainty as being so and others only as probably so. (p. 3)
It is worth noting that, in his preface, Locke proposes to jettison “clear and distinct” as a distinguishing mark of certainty in favor of “determinate,” but in the text proper he constantly violates his terminological caveat. This inconsistency is apparently harmless:
“Clear and distinct” are terms which not everyone properly understands. “I have therefore, in most places, chose to put ‘determinate’ or ‘determined,’ instead of ‘clear’ and ‘distinct’ as more likely to direct men’s thoughts to my meaning….” He defines “determined,” as a property of an object in the mind, to mean “such as it is there seen and perceived to be;” as a property of simple ideas in the mind, “that simple appearance which the mind has in its view, or perceives in itself, when that idea is said to be in it;” as a property of complex ideas, “such an one as consists of a determinate number of certain simple or less complex ideas, joined in such a proportion and situation as the mind has before its view;” as a property of a name, “to be steadily the sign of that very same object of the mind, or determinate idea.” (p. xix)
This tells us little more than that Locke, the most Cartesian of philosophers, didn’t like to use the same words as Descartes. But we should remember that, where Locke uses “determinate” he means “clear and distinct.”
Locke refers back to the goal of the Essay at the end of the book where he asserts that the certainty of mathematical science consists in intuitive knowledge that comes from clear and distinct ideas: “…the great advancement and certainty of knowledge…”in the mathematical sciences comes “…from…clear, distinct, complete ideas” that lead to “intuitive knowledge.” (p. 544) Clearly Locke is asserting that our knowledge of mathematical truths does not derive by deduction from a set of axioms (He calls them “maxims” or “principles”), but from clear and distinct perception of particular instances that lead to general rules. And one cannot emphasize enough the importance of this view vs. a contrary view that knowledge of axioms precedes our knowledge that it applies to particular instances (“…knowledge began in the mind, and was founded on particulars” (Ibid.)). But equally it should not be ignored that Locke explains that “a country-wench”, for example, can know with certainty that the two apples in front of her added to the apple in the basket next to her yield three apples, only because she has clear and distinct simple ideas upon perceiving the apples and a clear and distinct association between this instance of two plus one and this instance of three.
Indeed the country wench’s immediate knowledge is one of Locke’s meanings when he speaks of certain knowledge and clear and distinct ideas: Simple ideas (of sense and reflection as Locke understands those terms) and the associations of those ideas are clear and distinct to someone who has them and it is beyond doubt to that person that he does have them. This is a fundamental first premise of Locke’s theory of ideas.
In his Epistle to the Reader Locke defines an idea as “Some immediate object of the mind, which it perceives and has before it….” (p. xx) Simple ideas generally correspond to the secondary qualities that we perceive in material objects, qualities such as yellow and round when we look at a tennis ball, and that are in our minds as a result of our perceiving the object. It is beyond doubt that a person knows that he has the simple ideas he has:
Every one finds in himself, that he knows the ideas that he has…Which, always being so (it being impossible but that he should perceive what he perceives), he can never be in doubt, when any idea is in his mind, that it is there and is that idea that it is…. So that all affirmations and negations are made without any possibility of doubt, uncertainty or hesitation, and must necessarily be assented to as soon as understood…. And therefore wherever the mind with attention considers any proposition so as to perceive the two ideas signified by the terms, and affirmed or denied one of the other, to be the same or different, it is presently and infallibly certain of the truth of such a proposition…. (p. 506)
Note that not only the simple ideas in isolation are clear and distinct to the mind that has them, but also the connections between those ideas. What Locke says about the general propositions, “A man is not a horse,” and “Red is not blue” also applies to simple ideas associated with perceiving patches of red or blue or individual men or horses:
The difference of the ideas as soon as the terms are understood makes the truth of the proposition presently visible….(p. 507)
This is intuitive knowledge and “…intuitive knowledge neither requires nor admits any proof….” (p. 519) Understanding the connections between simple ideas leads to the intuitive and certain knowledge of complex propositions about those ideas, and that sort of knowledge is distinct from belief: “…in all the parts of knowledge there is intuition; “each immediate idea, each step has its visible and certain connexion; in belief not so.” (p. 556) Intuitive knowledge is self-evident knowledge. In several passages Locke defines, or partially defines what he means by “self-evidence.” In the course of arguing against innate ideas, for example, he says, “Universal and ready assent upon hearing and understanding the terms, is …a mark of self-evidence.” (p. 20) And on p. 67 he refers to “…clear truths that either their own evidence forces us to admit, or common experience makes it impudence to deny.”
How does Locke demonstrate the validity of this doctrine of simple ideas? He argues that the doctrine itself is obvious to anyone who understands it. It is known intuitively. Its components are clear and distinct. That is the second role that the concept of certainty plays in Locke’s Essay. The theory of ideas is itself clear and distinct or intuitively true:
I believe it will be easily granted to me that there are such ideas in men’s minds. Everyone is conscious of them in himself; and men’s words and actions will satisfy him that they are in others. (p.5)
And, “…it is past doubt that men have in their mind several ideas….” (p. 59) “…he that contemplates the operations of his mind cannot but have plain and clear ideas of them; yet, unless he turn his thoughts that way, and considers them attentively, he will” not have “clear and distinct ideas of all the operations of his mind….” (p. 61) “…there is nothing can be plainer to a man than the clear and distinct perception he has of’…”simple ideas.” (p. 71) “What perception is, everyone will know better by reflecting on what he does himself, when he sees, hears, feels, &c., or thinks, than by any discourse of mine.” (p. 92) As regards the theory of ideas, faculties and association of ideas: “…I must appeal to experience and observation whether I am in the right….” And, “…I can speak but of what I find in myself….” (p. 107) “A man infallibly knows, as soon as he ever has them in his mind, that the ideas he calls ‘white’ and ‘round’ are the very ideas they are…. if there ever happen to be any doubt about it, it will always found to be about the names, and not the ideas themselves….” (p. 425)
In other words, we have a clear and distinct idea that we have clear and distinct (and complex) ideas and so we know intuitively that we know intuitively that we have these ideas.
In the Introduction to the Essay Locke appears not just to assert that the fact that we have simple ideas in our minds is intuitively true, but to provide something of a proof to that effect: “for he that thinks must have some immediate object of his mind in thinking – that is, must have ideas.” (p. 6) And “I could not well treat of that faculty of the mind which consists in thinking, without considering the immediate objects of the mind, which I call ideas.” (p. 8) But if this is an argument, it isn’t a very good one, since the argument would consist in saying that the concept of ideas is analytically contained in the concept of thinking. But such an analytical relation is either stipulative or not stipulative. If it is stipulative, then it is on a par with any other relation I can stipulate. I could say that green is analytically contained in the concept of thinking. Anything I care to say about thinking including that ideas are analytically excluded from thinking could be true. Locke’s stipulation would have no special status. If the analytical relation is non-stipulative, then Locke’s argument is incomplete. He would have to show how ideas are analytically included in thinking in a non-stipulative way. So these comments from the Introduction do not really constitute an argument. They are just a restatement of Locke’s assertion that it is intuitively obvious that we have ideas in our minds.
That there are such things as simple ideas is not the only part of Locke’s theory that is intuitively or infallibly obvious. Other facets of Locke’s theory are also clear and distinct and so infallibly known to anyone who reflects on his thoughts and perceptions. Valid logical laws, for example, are also known infallibly: The laws of logic (“speculative maxims”) “carry their own evidence with them.” (p. 26) The Law of Non- Contradiction, for example, “carries its own light and evidence with it.” (p. 28) And, regarding the self-evidence of axioms (He calls them “maxims”), Locke says:
When the “agreement or disagreement” of ideas “is perceived immediately by itself, without the intervention or help of any other, there our knowledge is self-evident. This will appear to be so to any one who will but consider any of those propositions which, without any proof, he assents to at first sight; for in all of them he will find that the reason of his assent is from that agreement or disagreement which the mind, by an immediate comparing them, finds in those ideas….” (p. 505)
Even an issue as to whether a man can hold ideas in his mind for a long time cannot be demonstrated in any other way except through self-reflection and the resulting conviction of its obviousness: “…I can give no other reason but experience….” (p. 126) Locke says the same thing about his position regarding our ability “to suspend the prosecution of a desire”: “…everyone daily may experiment,” it “in himself.” (p. 185)
Locke considered both his theory of ideas and his own existence as self-evident. The self-evidence of his own existence invites obvious comparison with the Cartesian Cogito. One cautionary note: Descartes does not profess a theory of ideas like Locke’s. Idées claires are a methodological tool in Descartes’ hands and generally not explicitly part of his theory of the soul. (In Les Principes de la philosophie Descartes talks about the existence of the soul and its faculties but he doesn’t refer to ideas (pp. 574-575). Similarly Descartes refers to propositions, thoughts and things in his Discours de la méthode, and not ideas (pp. 148 ff.).) When he does speak of ideas (p. 153) he uses the term synonymously with “notions.” It is would be worthwhile to take a look at Descartes’ account of the senses in the Fourth and Sixth Discourses (pp. 201 ff.). While he speaks of impressions and movement along the nerves and of a transition in the brain where these impressions enter the soul, he does not really specify what impressions may become when they do enter the soul. When he argues against the presence of images in either the brain or the soul, he does not use the term “ideas” or any equivalent. As an aside, it is fascinating to follow Descartes’ attempt to provide a mechanistic explanation (Lacking, as he does, the concept of an electric charge) of the functioning of the nerves, following the analogy of the movement of a stick. So Descartes did not (and didn’t need to) address the issue of the existence of ideas (as distinct from the issue of the existence of a substantial soul and its faculties). As regards the Cogito the difference between geometric proof (Descartes) and introspective self-evidence (Locke) points up a significant difference in their philosophies. Descartes (and Spinoza (Setting aside Hobbes as something of a special case, those are the only two significant modern philosophers who preceded Locke’s devising of his theory of ideas) believed that everything that needed to be proved could be proved. Locke did not; at one point he says that the only doctrine capable of proof is that of the existence of God. Still Locke maintained, or wrote as if he believed, that important elements of his theories needed to be defended, even though his defenses are not actual proofs so much as appeals to intuitive, introspective self-evidence.
The parentage between self-evidence and revelation hints at how their differing approaches to philosophical argument reflect their differing assumptions about religion. Where Descartes both sees the need for a proof of his own existence and claims to have discovered such a proof, Locke denies the need for the proof. His own existence is also something intuitively self-evident:
As for our own existence, we perceive it so plainly and so certainly that it neither needs nor is capable of any proof. For nothing can be more evident to us than our own existence…. Experience…convinces us that we have an intuitive knowledge of our own existence and an internal infallible perception that we are. In every act of sensation, reasoning or thinking, we are conscious to ourselves of our own being; and in this matter, come not short of the highest degree of certainty. (p. 527)
One can stress this passage in either of two ways. The first, most widely accepted stress is to emphasize its appeal to experience as a source of knowledge and to distinguish it from Descartes’ ostensibly abstract proof that is divorced from experience. In point of fact this stress is not really accurate. Descartes does not include an explicit doctrine of experience as a part of his theory of knowledge in quite the same way as Locke does. But he uses experience and his own experiences throughout his philosophizing as the contents of his proofs. The Méditations are nothing if not a record of his experiences and a reflection on those experiences. (Rule II of the Règles pour la direction de l’esprit (p. 41) does say that all knowledge comes from experience or deduction. In those writings where Descartes confesses he is not overly fond of expériences, he obviously means experiments.) Likewise, Locke’s rejection of proof as far as his own existence is concerned is largely rhetorical. The first step in his proof of the existence of God is an assertion of his own existence. The explanation of this step appears to be a reiteration of the intuitive certainty of his own existence, beyond the need for proof. The passage, however, is in fact a (not very good) proof of his own existence that is not totally dissimilar to Descartes’ Cogito. (As in so many other instances, it is well nigh impossible to even construct a purely a priori proof completely empty of experiential content, just as it is nearly impossible to specify data that is not theory laden.) The second stress is equally visible and equally significant. This is the equivalence in Locke’s usage between experience, on the one hand, and intuitive knowledge, the highest degree of certainty and internal infallible perception. The infallible certainty of experience is also “plain.” The Cogito, which Descartes had cast in the form of a (geometric) proof, is recast by Locke as an example of something intuitively and introspectively self evident, just like the doctrine of ideas itself. Experience, the bedrock concept of empiricism, its very shibboleth, is, by its parentage with intuitive self-evidence, a concept baptized in Locke’s religion. It will prove immensely difficult to purge experience of its religious affiliations.
Simple ideas are self-evident and so are the theory of ideas, logical axioms and Locke’s own existence (i.e. the proposition asserting Locke’s existence). Certain mathematical truths and truths about physical nature are also self-evident. On p. 508 he says, “…I think it is a self-evident proposition, that ‘two bodies cannot be in the same place.’” And, mathematical propositions “…at the very first hearing force assent….”
When he wades too far into the treacherous tides of physical science, however, the simplicity of the appeal to self-evidence wavers a bit. For example, Locke takes his stand in the Newton-Descartes controversy concerning empty space to the effect that it is self-evident that space and solidity are concepts and it is self-evident that they are distinct concepts: “If anyone asks me what solidity is, I send him to his senses to inform him…. If he thinks this not a sufficient explanation of solidity…I promise to tell him what it is and wherein it consists, when he tells me what thinking is or wherein it consists….” (p. 79) However, he acknowledges that others do not have a clear and distinct idea of space separate from solidity. The only explanation can be that such people are lacking one or more of their senses: “…I know not how men who have the same idea under different names, or different ideas under the same name, can in that sense, talk with one another, any more than a man who, not being blind or deaf, has distinct ideas of the colour of scarlet and the sound of a trumpet, would discourse concerning scarlet-colour with” a “blind man”…who fancied that the idea of scarlet was like the sound of a trumpet.” (pp. 78-79)
We should be only mildly surprised, given the Cartesian background and Locke’s own religion, to find that there is something like clear and distinct, intuitive and self-evident knowledge that spirits (spiritual substances) exist: “…we have as clear a perception and notion of immaterial substances as we have of material.” (p. 216) And (p. 217) “Everyone finds in himself that his soul can think, will, and operate on his body….” And (p. 219) “…it is as easy for him to have a clear idea how the soul thinks, as how body is extended.” And (p. 221) he uses “clear and distinct” as criteria for the validity of the concepts of body and of spirit. “…the idea of thinking in spirit,” is “as clear as of extension in body.” And (p. 222) “Sensation convinces us, that there are solid, extended substances; and reflection, that there are thinking ones: experience assures us of the existence of such beings….” And (p. 223) “…experimenting and discovering in ourselves knowledge and the power of voluntary motion, as certainly as we experiment or discover the things without us the cohesion and separation of solid parts, which is the extension and motion of bodies….” (Note, by the way, that Locke has completely given up by this stage his project of replacing “clear and distinct” with “determinate” or “determined.”) Who’s shittin’ who here? For one thing these confident assertions are at odds with Locke’s own cautions concerning the concept of souls or spiritual substances in his tortured treatment of personal identity. Indeed the existence of spirits is well within the bounds of controversy today as it was for Hobbes and Gassendi and assorted Levellers in Locke’s time. It is a belief that certainly does not inspire universal and ready assent upon first hearing and understanding, and the impudence of those who deny it is largely a matter of personal taste.
There are two problems with Locke’s method of clear and distinct certain knowledge based on introspection. The first is the obvious methodological problem that one man’s intuitive certainty is another man’s bullshit. The second is what you might call the religion virus. Locke quite consciously infected philosophical reasoning and even scientific research with his particular way of reaching religious conviction. The two are so closely related in Locke’s introspective prayer house that one is a variant of the other.
The methodological problem is apparent to anyone who is told that the existence of spirits could be a philosophical certainty on a par with the Law of Identity (I wonder, is the methodological fallacy of the introspective method an introspective certainty? Ah hah! The jeu de miroirs that’s almost as much fun as a good partouse!) Indeed the methodological problem haunts every facet of Locke’s theory of ideas, including the fundamental doctrines that simple ideas are clear and distinct and that it is introspectively obvious to our minds when we entertain them that we entertain them; it also haunts the intuitive certainty of the theory itself. We have the benefit of writings by Brentano, Ryle and Austin to show us what may be wrong with the theory of ideas and the very idea of introspection (The reference to Brentano et al. is obviously not intended in this context as based on an assumption that they are right and Locke is wrong; it is meant rather to show that Locke was wrong to assert that every one must upon examination assent to the validity of his theory of ideas, not just hypothetically, but with the concomitance that some find serious objections to that theory). What needs to be added is that there are significant disadvantages and fallacies to basing any theory on an appeal to the obviousness of its premises. What about the laws of logic and certain basic mathematical axioms? There are two problems in this case. The first is not so much that these laws are untrue as that Locke defends their truth by an appeal to an introspective certainty of their truth. The second is that the very laws Locke cites could be and have been revised.
What does the truth of a logical law have to do with the introspective certainty we feel when we try to understand it and judge its validity? Let us take the law of non-contradiction as a relatively uncontroversial example. Is it true because we are certain it is true when we entertain it, or are we certain it is true when we entertain it because it is true? If we were to lose that certainty would it thereby be false? What if a particularly exciting form of acid got in the world’s drinking water and as a result not a single individual present or future ever again found the law of non-contradiction to be introspectively true, would it thereby be false? Assuming that there is some sort of one-to-one correspondence between the truth of a logical law and its universal intuitive certainty (which is historically false, since I know for a fact that old Barney down in the receiving room never did put much faith in the law of non-contradiction; he told me so), the appeal to its intuitive certainty adds nothing to the truth of the law or to a proposed proof of the law. In fact the claim that a logical law is introspectively certain does not advance the proof of the law by one nanometer. It is a rhetorical add-on. (All this is consistent with Locke’s own views on truth. He was certainly not a prehistoric pragmatist: Intuitive certainty is a sign of the truth of certain propositions like logical axioms, not a definition of their truth. The unfortunate thing is that for Locke intuitive certainty also constitutes a proof of the truth of those propositions.)
Just as with the theory of ideas, we have the benefit of post-Lockean historical hindsight to understand that some of the laws he sees as clear, distinct, certain and obvious have had a bit of rough sledding. Let’s bring Butler back in:
Even Euclid, who has laid himself as little open to the charge of credulity as any writer who ever lived, cannot get beyond this. He has not demonstrable first premise. He requires postulates and axioms which transcend demonstration, and with which he can do nothing. His superstructure indeed is demonstration, but his ground is faith. Nor again can he get further than telling a man he is a fool if he persists in differing from him. He says, ‘which is absurd,’ and declines to discuss the matter further. Faith and authority, therefore, prove to be as necessary for him as for anyone else. ‘By faith in what, then,’ asked Ernest of himself, ‘shall a just man endeavour to live at this present time?’ He answered to himself, ‘At any rate not by faith in the supernatural element of the Xtian religion.’ (p. 407)
As we know the advent of non-Euclidean geometries and Einstein’s revision of the concept of three dimensional space have led some to opine that the basic axioms of mathematics (if not necessarily physics, which relies heavily on observation and experiment) are nothing more than revisable conventions. And yet these are the very “obvious truths” Locke cites to close his case (To be fair, Locke did regard the generalizations in mathematics as not obvious in themselves but as derived by habit from obvious individual perceptions).
Butler talks as if scientific certainty and the certainty of religious revelation were all pretty much one and the same, an analogy that might appear to be nothing more than a bland “association of ideas” to anyone unfamiliar with protestantism and the peculiarly rank garden of protestantism that shot up in the English countryside. The relation between the intuitive certainties of Locke’s theory of ideas and religious revelation are more nuanced than just identifying one with the other. So we need to fill in the picture a bit.
God was obviously near and dear to Locke’s heart, so he wants to secure the old fellow’s existence any which way but loose. So he proves God’s existence by his variant of the causal proof. Locke also asserts that God’s existence is something of which we are intuitively certain not through revelation but with the same intuitive certainty we have of the theory of ideas. His claim in this case is a variant of what would be called the design proof. “…I judge it as certain and clear a truth as can any where be delivered, that ‘the invisible things of God are clearly seen from the creation of the world, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead.’” (p. 530) Additionally, one step of Locke’s causal proof involves an appeal to introspective, intuitive certainty. “…it is impossible to conceive that ever bare incogitative matter should produce a thinking intelligent being, as that nothing of itself should produce matter…. I appeal to every one’s own thoughts, whether he cannot as easily conceive matter produced by nothing, as thought to be produced by pure matter, when there was no such thing as thought or an intelligent being existing.” (p. 531)
We have found that Locke has introduced a new and largely unique theory to philosophy, the theory of ideas. We have also found that part of the theory as well as part of the defense of the theory is the claim that certain things are simply obvious, namely our simple ideas and the philosophical propositions that Locke advances about those ideas. There are other truths that to Locke are simply obvious, viz. the existence of God, the laws of logic, his own existence, the existence of spiritual substances, and the fact that something cannot be caused by nothing. Finally, we have seen that there is more than just a passing relationship between Locke’s concept of intuitive certainty and the currently fashionable notion of religious revelation. Now let’s take a step back from all these trees and glance at the forest for a moment.
The theory of ideas is not just the major part of Locke’s Essay. It is in effect the entire book. From the first page to the last Locke expounds and develops the theory and draws its consequences for language, knowledge, religion and even jurisprudence. The theory of ideas is a positive theory of the structure of the mind just as Newtonian mechanics was a positive theory of the functioning of the universe. But it also has an important negative or critical side. In this respect, the most significant consequence of the theory of ideas is Locke’s conclusion that genuine knowledge must start with external perception and/or the sort of internal perception Locke calls “reflection.”
One not entirely accurate assumption concerning the limits placed on knowledge by the theory of ideas is that it targets the schoolmen and their syllogistic speculation. This assumption is not entirely accurate because, while scholastic metaphysical speculation is indeed harnessed by the theory of ideas and while Locke does address their philosophizing directly in several passages, scholastic syllogizing is not the primary target of the critical side of Locke’s theory. For one thing, attacking the schoolmen was something of a tired tune, having been premiered by the humanists roughly two centuries before Locke wrote and so familiar that it had become a commonplace of popular literature. Secondly, Bacon’s observation that school syllogisms rocketed from concrete instances straight to the most empty abstractions such that, the validity of syllogistic reasoning aside, most of what they preached and wrote was utterly meaningless, had the advantage that it did not involve the profession of a full blown theory to make its point. The theory of ideas could turn out to be wrong, while Bacon made no assumptions not also accepted by the schoolmen to show the foolishness of their enterprise. The attack on scholasticism was old hat.
However, one reigning philosophical approach during Locke’s time, one that appeared to be armed with actually valid arguments and meaningful concepts, was what people referred to as Cartesianism. Yet, if the theory of ideas as Locke proposed it was aimed at Cartesian first philosophy (i.e. if the textbook obfuscation of Continental rationalism vs. English empiricism makes any sense), then it does not succeed in showing up or refuting or whatever else that philosophy. However, it is doubtful whether Locke even intended that to be the case. Namely, it is doubtful whether Locke even intended to attack Cartesian first philosophy directly. Cartesian first philosophy comes down to three basic proofs: the proof of his own existence, the proof of the existence of the soul and the proof of the existence of God. Locke embraced the conclusions of the first two proofs as intuitively certain truths. And, while he did not endorse Descartes’ proofs of those conclusions, he did not attack them either, nor does Locke’s theory of ideas place any limitations on the concepts used in Descartes’ proofs. As regards the existence of God, Locke did not acknowledge the primary Cartesian proof. But he did provide a proof of his own, which was a version of the causal proof and not unlike the causal proof Descartes came around to accepting in Les Principes de la philosophie. And the Lockean theory of ideas does not place any limitations on the concepts used in Descartes’ proof of the existence of God. (In fact, Locke and Descartes shared the prevailing theological definition of God as a most powerful, most wise, most good and existing entity, though Locke held that this entity need not be anthropomorphic.) Locke’s attack on innate ideas is supposed by some to be an attack on Descartes, but it is unclear whether it was aimed directly at Descartes, since Descartes did not hold a theory of innate ideas as described by Locke. The most direct attack on a position actually held by Descartes was to dispute Descartes’ physical theory that there was no such thing as empty space. But that is not an issue of first philosophy or the limits of our knowledge.
Still Locke opposes Descartes in a different way, not by attacking, questioning of refuting Descartes’ philosophical proofs, but by offering a different model of how we reach philosophical certainty and how the basic clear, distinct and certain truths of philosophy articulate with the rest of our body of knowledge, and indeed with the rest of our lives. Descartes was obviously his starting point. The method of doubt merged and possibly confused what is true with what can be known, since, for purposes of certain proof it was irrelevant whether a proposition, for example, was true or not as long as it was dubitable. Focusing on the mind and what could be known by the mind was for Descartes largely methodological; his description of the mind and its operations was fairly sketchy compared to Locke’s. But the theory of ideas is Descartes’ methodological principle writ large. Instead of the lonely conclusion that the soul is a separate substance, we have a full-blown and very detailed theory of the mind, its contents, its faculties and its operation. But the need for and purpose of this theory would have been missing without the methodological merger of truth and knowledge.
At this point Locke’s philosophy deviates from Descartes’ and does so in a significant way. Recall a few salient points about Cartesian first philosophy. First of all, Descartes professes a deductive relationship between the conclusions of his three basic proofs and other truths including the truths discovered by scientific research. But this deductive relationship is nothing like the deductive systems hawked about by the Einheitswissenschaft crowd or the relationship between philosophy and science advertised in the Cartesian Meditations (as Husserl acknowledged). Rather the proof of the existence of God and God’s goodness is a sufficient premise on which to base the denial of the kind of universal error Descartes entertains and to deduce the truthfulness of the corpus of scientific knowledge (though Descartes is not clear how God’s goodness can be reconciled with specific errors or revisions of scientific theory and observation; he switches immediately to discussing perception and understanding). Locke paints an alternative picture. While never affirming or denying a deductive relation between the existence and goodness of God and the certainty of the corpus of scientific knowledge, Locke proposes a model where our knowledge of certain basic truths (like the truth that there is a certain simple idea in one’s mind at a certain time) and the truths discovered by scientific research and religious truths such as the “truth” of the existence of God are not dissimilar. The kind of knowledge we have in all three cases is the same. I know that I have a simple idea of blue in my mind when I look at the sky in the same way that I know that everything is identical to itself, and also in the same way that I know that the theory of ideas is valid. These are bedrock certainties that do not require further proof. The steps of Locke’s proof of the existence of God also consist of bedrock certainties. So in the end, at one remove, I know that God exists in the same way that I know all those other things. A scientific truth that is not simply a report of a simple idea in my mind does not have the same sort of fundamental certainty, but it comes very close. It is highly probable. Locke does not advertise a deductive relation between such a probable truth and his knowledge of the existence of God, but he does not deny it. His model is one of several basic certainties, which are all certain in the same way, and a hierarchy of probabilities resting on top of these certainties.
Secondly Descartes’ first philosophy is more concerned with religion than it is with science. Herein lies the significance of Locke’s picture and how it differs from Cartesianism. Of Descartes’ three basic proofs, the last two are theological or religious, and, abstracting from the historical context, somewhat arbitrarily so. Neither the prevailing measurement of the distance of the moon from the earth nor the distance in fact of the moon from the earth would change one inch because Descartes has certain knowledge that he has a soul nor because Descartes has certain knowledge of God’s existence. The only change in Descartes’ view is that, as a result of his proof, he is now in possession of certain knowledge (or relatively certain knowledge) that, because God is good, the moon is indeed so many miles from the earth. However, these proofs are pretty necessary for someone concerned about whether or not he has eternal life and so whether or not he should organize his earthly life along the precepts of (in this case Xtian) religion. Descartes was a papist so Xtianity for him meant popery. But, beyond his three basic proofs, he did not much get into the down and dirty of which religious beliefs were valid and which maxims need be followed. (Just as Hobbes leapt suddenly from his theory of man to his political interests without much transition, so Descartes leapt suddenly from his fundamental proofs to writings about physics and physiology without much transition.) The implication is that, once you have proved to your satisfaction that God exists, just do what the pope says and you’ll be fine.
Locke was a roundhead, and if there was anything all roundheads could agree on it was that the pope was wrong. About nearly everything. So a roundhead who followed Descartes’ proofs all the way to proof of the existence of God could not take the final leap and just pull out the dicta of the Roman church as his Baedecker through life. So what kind of bull replaced papal bull in the roundhead’s mind? The common answer was the certainty and illumination that comes from the individual’s private communing with God. However differently it may have been interpreted, this theme united Levellers and presbyters, army and parliament, Quakers and bishops. It even came to be generally accepted by that fuzzy nonentity that went under the name of the Church of England. Christopher Hill’s histories paint a helpful picture of the intellectual life of protestant England. The “reliance on the holy spirit within one, on one’s own experienced truth against traditional truths handed down by others….was common to Milton, Dell, Winstanley, Bunyan, Ranters and Quakers.” (p. 368). Religious truths and morals were communicated by an inner light or an inner voice. Winstanley spoke of an inner light of reason. And Edward Burrough wrote, “ ‘The light which shineth in every one of us’…brings us to perfect knowledge.” (p. 372) The common thread through the protestant rejection of authority was an appeal to conscience or the inner voice.
The concept of inner certainty spread beyond individual devotional practices. As revelation it became something of an official position of English protestants of all stripes. Revelation was the answer for those who did not want to accept the officially sanctioned proofs of the existence of God, or who, whatever their personal inclinations, saw the official proofs battered by Descartes and others. The unofficial treaty hammered out at the end of the seventeenth century, for the sake of peace if nothing else, was that there was no proof of God’s existence or other theological niceties, but that we came to know these things by revelation. That was the gate at which argument about first principles ended; the only questions that remained were the application of the principles learned though revelation.
Locke turned protestant reflection and reliance on inner certainty into a philosophical method. This is the sense of his stress on the obviousness or certainty of simple ideas (i.e. the obvious truth to the individual of the proposition that he has those simple ideas) and the obviousness or certainty of the theory of ideas to philosophers and others who reflect on the matter. It is also a motive for dropping proofs of the existence of the mind and the existence of God in favor of the (inner) obviousness that those conclusions are true. The intellectual historical context does not, of course, by itself entail that Locke was wrong or that his theory was incorrect. In fact you cannot prove wrong (in either the logical or Cartesian sense of “proof”) any non-self-contradictory theory that, like the famous snake, dines on its own tail, viz. any theory that says that certain things are just obvious and that the theory that certain things are just obvious is just obvious. The best you can do is, like Brentano, Ryle and Austin, devise a competing picture that is just as reasonable as the theory of ideas. You can also examine the philosophical argument itself to see whether concepts like certainty and obviousness have any real meaning and to see whether there are other sorts of arguments that forego grand claims to certainty, and are more convincing for just that reason.
It is worth pointing out a couple of occasions where Locke uses unequivocal protestant metaphor and protestant rhetorical tropes to describe his philosophical enterprise. The metaphor is the light of evidence. On p. 28 Locke states that our belief that “it is impossible for the same thing to be, and not to be…carries its own light and evidence with it, and needs no other proof….” The metaphor of light is not only Cartesian (and of a long theological and philosophical pedigree), it saw significant revival in Dissenter rhetoric. The light of evidence was a metaphor for one every important thing among English protestants, viz. the superiority of the individual’s introspective discoveries over the authority of popes and bishops. Winstanley’s identification of God with the Light of Reason (Cf. Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, pp. 370 and 372) is Locke avant la lettre. The trope is plain and simple speech. On the very first page of the Introduction to the Essay Locke affirms that his will be an “historical plain method”. Later in the chapter entitled “Of the Abuse of Words,” he opines that it would be better “for mankind, whose concernment is to know things as they are and to do what they ought…that the use of words were made plain and direct.” (p. 402) The pledge to use only plain and simple speech was a popular affirmation on the part of English puritans that they would express themselves directly and without obfuscation. That is certainly an admirable ambition abstracted from any rhetorical overtones, but the claim was made so frequently by protestant preachers that it turned into a means of rhetorically identifying oneself as a nonconformist. And indeed of opening oneself to the jeers of skeptics: Tourneur’s puritan hypocrite, Langebeau Snuff, prefaces nearly every one of his malapropisms with the refrain, “in plainness and truth.” So when Locke frequently refers to his intention to use plain and simple speech in the Essay, he not only extends the meaning of the trope to include his disdain for the bloated terminology of the schoolmen (“genus” and “species” vs. “kind” and “sort,” for example) he also rhetorically asserts his adherence to the Country Party of dissenting protestants.
A couple of parenthetical remarks might well be inserted here.
First, Locke’s “plain and direct” trope is closely bound to his notorious opinions about rhetoric and poetry. Rhetoric, and indeed any kind of “figurative speech” constitute for Locke a form of abusing words. “…we must allow that all the art of rhetoric, besides order and clearness, all the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheats….” (p. 411). Poetry fares not much better: If “…in all discourses wherein one man pretends to instruct or convince another, he should use the same word constantly in the same sense...many of the philosophers’ …as well as poets’ works might be contained in a nut-shell.” (p. 423)
Secondly, the “plain and simple” trope has become so ingrained in the English personality (The puritans after all shared the trope with Bacon, who admittedly transmitted it from humanist attacks on the schoolmen), extending all the way from theological thunder to a defense of English cuisine, that one wonders whether a “plain and simple” dendrite might not have grown permanently into the English brain to be transmitted hereditarily from generation to generation. Even Butler, no friend of religious revelation makes use of the trope, transformed into its sister metaphors of “sensible people” and (the dreaded) “common-sense.” Once the hero of The Way of All Flesh discovers there is no “system based on absolute certainty,” the narrator suggests, “he had arrived at the conclusion which sensible people reach without bothering their brains so much….his bringing-up…had doubtless done much to impair his power of taking a common-sense view of things.” (pp. 474-475) “Plain good sense” and “plain and simple speech,” those synonyms for the unexamined canon of English middle class beliefs and prejudices, were used in the 17th century as code words by Protestant preachers. And, when writers of any stripe try to insinuate their findings into that canon, their unvarying strategy is to characterize those findings as good sense. The result is such terms become so tediously overused, they end up as damn near meaningless.
Locke is one of the principal purveyors of the use of rhetorical devices to attack rhetoric (and poetry). We might call it the Platonic Fallacy in honor of its first appearance in western philosophy. One wonders - since the Platonic Fallacy appears so relentlessly among those who claim to have found a superior (i.e. clearer, more “one word-one meaning”) type of discourse - whether there really is such a superior discourse and whether we should just learn to deal with ambiguities lurking in the way we communicate, even for scientific and philosophical purposes.
But there is a much more integral and substantial rhetorical structure to Locke’s assertion of a continuity between revelation and intuitive certainty than the rather silly use of preacher talk. For Locke provides no argument to support his position, nor does he even take the trouble to state that the assimilation is intuitively certain. Rather the continuity is established by rhetorical insinuation. This is a grand scale “argument" by suggestion that provides no reasons why revelation and philosophical certainty are even concepts in the same category, much less comparable. Naughty boy! The assimilation of revelation to intuitive certainty is a rhetorical move and this is far more damaging to the theory itself than the simple use of the “plain and simple” trope. I will of needs return to this subject further along when I take a look at the contribution the assimilation of revelation to intuitive certainty makes to demonstrating the validity of Locke’s theory of ideas and his philosophical outlook.
These observations are not a “reading” of Locke’s Essay, nor do they result from a free association of otherwise unrelated trends of thought. Locke was well aware that there was a continuity between his philosophical methodology and protestant introspection. He was also aware that the benefit of this continuity extended both ways. Philosophy, as he practiced it, supposedly benefited from a meditative method that was successful for religion. But equally it was a way of demonstrating (by example, so to speak) that the conclusions of religious revelation came from the same source as philosophical and scientific truths and so enjoyed an equivalent validity. Even though the relation was intentional on Locke’s part, many of his readers remain blissfully unaware of the fact (Ryle (The Concept of Mind, p. 159, observes the relation between introspection and protestantism, though he fails to draw any conclusions from the relation itself about the validity of the introspective method, or intuitive certainties. Equally Ryle does not address the consequences of his polemic against epistemology for the Xtian belief in the soul. Did he think the issue had faded in importance? Or did he just not want to rock the C of E boat? I don’t know.)
At one point Locke attributes our knowledge of scientific truths to revelation and spells out the continuity between scientific and religious revelation.
“When we find out an idea, by whose intervention we discover the connection of two others, this is a revelation from God to us by the voice of reason.” The truths we discover are not deduced from axioms (maxims). “…in the one…” (scientific knowledge) “the things themselves afford it, and we see the truth in them by perceiving their agreement or disagreement; in the other…” (the study of divinity) “…God himself affords it immediately to us, and we see the truth of what he says in his unerring veracity.” (p. 511)
Concerning the existence of spirits, we do not have acquaintance with them through the senses as we do spatio-temporal objects. So we do not have the sort of certainty of their existence that simple ideas provide. However, we have a different assurance of their existence that is simply further up the certainty scale. In the first place, we do have an internal certainty of the existence of God (The premises of Locke’s proof of the existence of God are self-evident truths). And we have assurance of the existence of spirits through God’s revelation. “We have ground from revelation, and several other reasons, to believe with assurance that there are such creatures…” (p. 542)
In an important paragraph that concludes the chapter on Degrees of Assent, Locke actually attributes the “highest” (presumably the most certain) certainty to divine revelation:
The bare testimony of revelation is the highest certainty. - …there is one sort of propositions that challenge the highest degree of our assent, upon bare testimony, whether the thing proposed agree or disagree with common experience and the ordinary course of things or no. The reason whereof is, because the testimony is of such an one as cannot deceive nor be deceived, and that is of God himself. This carries with it assurance beyond doubt, evidence beyond exception. This is called by the peculiar name “revelation,” and our assent to it, “faith;” which as absolutely determines our minds and as perfectly excludes all wavering, as our knowledge itself: and we may as well doubt of our own being as we can whether any revelation from God be true. So that faith is a settled and pure principle of assent and assurance, and leaves no manner of room for doubt or hesitation….in truth it be nothing else but an assent founded on the highest reason. (p. 566)
This paragraph concludes a chapter devoted to degrees of evidence and the probabilities of the sorts of truths that do not enjoy the utter certainty of the theory of ideas and consequent upon our apprehension of simple ideas. That there can be no doubt that Locke equates religious “truths” with the most extremely certain sorts of truths his philosophy allows, he assures us of the existence of God and our own existence in the same breath.
In the next chapter Locke reiterates the incontrovertible nature of intuitive knowledge:
Some of the ideas that are in the mind, are so there that they can be by themselves immediately compared one with another: and in these the mind is able to perceive that they agree or disagree as clearly as that it has them. Thus the mind perceives that an arch of a circle is less than a whole circle, as clearly as it does the idea of a circle: and this therefore…I call ‘intuitive knowledge,’ which is certain beyond all doubt, and needs no probation, nor can have any; this being the highest of all human certainty. In this consists the evidence of all those maxims which nobody has any doubt about, but every man (does not, as is said, only assent to, but) knows to be true, as soon as ever they are proposed to his understanding. In the discovery of and assent to these truths, there is no use of the discursive faculty, no need of reasoning, but they are known by a superior and higher degree of evidence. (p. 579)
He goes on to opine that angels and human spirits enjoy the same sort of intuitive knowledge with a greater scope and a higher degree of insight:
And such, if I may guess at things unknown, I am apt to think that angels have now, and the spirits of just men made perfect shall have in a future state, of thousands of things which now either wholly escape our apprehensions, or which our short-sighted reason has got some faint glimpse of….(Ibid.)
Our mathematical certainties and the intuitive certainties of angels are not distinct. Angels are just certain about more things.
One of the most “scientific” doctrines of the theory of ideas, namely the distinction between primary and secondary qualities is described in terms of revelation. We have an intuitive certainty that we apprehend the simple ideas of the secondary qualities that we have. But knowledge of primary qualities is the product of revelation. It “is utterly impossible to be known by us without revelation…” “all the effects of matter under its diverse modifications of bulk, figure, cohesion of parts, motion, and rest,” namely “what primary qualities of any body produce certain sensations or ideas in us.” (p. 503) Pulling the theory of primary and secondary qualities into the scale of certainty partially delimited by revelation shows how seamlessly Locke associated his new theory and method with the protestant approach to knowledge of things divine.
The general conclusion is “…the precepts of natural religion are plain, and very intelligible to all mankind, and seldom come to be controverted….” And there are also “…other revealed truths, which are conveyed to us by books and languages….” (p. 397)
Locke makes two important distinctions to qualify his theory. The first is a distinction between revelation and “enthusiasm.” The second is a distinction between knowledge acquired through revelation and knowledge acquired through reason (namely “the discovery of the certainty or probability of such propositions or truths which the mind arrives at by deduction made from such ideas which it has got by the use of its natural faculties, viz., by sensation or reflection.” (p. 583))
In the same paragraph where Locke qualifies revelation as enjoying the “highest certainty,” he takes care to distinguish revelation from “enthusiasm.”
Only we must be sure that it be a divine revelation, and that we understand it right: else we shall expose ourselves to all the extravagancy of enthusiasm, and all the error of wrong principles, if we have faith and assurance in what is not divine revelation…our assent can rationally be no higher than the evidence of its being a revelation….(p. 566)
The unprejudiced observer might consider this just a way to kick the philosophical can down the road, that, if revelation be deemed intuitively certain, there is no need to support it with the intuitive certainty that it is indeed revelation and not just “enthusiasm.”
The fact that “enthusiasm” was a favorite term of abuse in restoration society for the defeated dissenters (Cf. The World Turned Upside Down, p. 355) has little immediate bearing on the philosophical awkwardness into which Locke descends with his introduction of this distinction. But it is part of an emerging picture that integrates evidence in first philosophy and natural philosophy to religious sorts of “evidence,” both interpreting the former and, more importantly, justifying the latter. Locke’s design may have been to set up enthusiasm as a third pole of bad certainty and a kind of conceptual balance to the good certainties of reason and revelation. But it is equally likely that he was simply concerned with extreme protestant dissenters as an historical reality, and that he felt the need to exclude them, under the heading of enthusiasm, in order to prevent enthusiast doctrines from sheltering under the concept of true revelation as he describes it. It was, after all, central to Ranter and Seeker beliefs that the only source of revelation was within each individual.
The chapter devoted to enthusiasm consists mostly in a rhetorical denunciation of enthusiasm (Another instances of Locke’s use of the rhetoric he so despises), but a sketchy definition of enthusiasm emerges along the way. There are, Locke says, three kinds of assent to a proposition. The first is rational assent, which consists in assent to self-evident propositions and to propositions deduced from self-evident propositions by steps which are themselves self-evident. The second is assent through revelation, which is a kind of inspiration accompanied by rational demonstration that the inspiration does indeed come from God. Enthusiasm, the third sort of assent, is inspiration that is not supported by rational demonstration that its source is God, but believed only because of the strength of the enthusiast’s personal persuasion. Again our initial impression is correct that Locke is saying no more than that some things are certain, other things are certainly certain, and other things are not certain because they are not certainly certain. But we can give it some content.
Enthusiasm and “true” revelation are both a type of “seeing” or “perception” of the truth of a proposition (metaphors again!). But revelation is “well-grounded or manifested” because “God is the revealer of it.” (p. 593) The question arises, how do we understand that God is the source for some internal inspiration? On what grounds is something a revelation from God? For a revelation can have two sources other than God. The first is “my own fancy” and the other “some other spirit,” the prime candidate being, as usual, Satan. The decision procedure involves what Locke calls “attested revelation,” namely what is written in the Bible (scripture) and “outward signs” or “some other mark.” By the latter Locke seems to mean only miracles. At least he doesn’t give any examples of any other kind of outward sign. So, if a presumed revelation be "conformable” to the Bible or be supported by miracles, then it is genuine revelation. If not, one’s belief in it is motivated only by the strength of his emotions. It is enthusiasm.
As a way of attaching names to things that people already believe in, Locke’s exposition might be harmless if fatuous. However, as a way of providing a criterion for distinguishing between these kinds of assent and demonstrating that there is a valid difference between each kind and a valid distinction of groundedness, so to speak, it is an utter failure. And yet, within the context of a philosophical discussion where Locke purports to offer us absolutely certain grounds for accepting his theory of ideas including the theory of a continuity between knowledge and revealed belief, such a criterion is necessary. Otherwise we might insist that unsupported revelation is still revelation or, worse like Butler, that knowledge is itself a kind of enthusiasm.
The first problem is that Locke muddles the distinction between revelations attested to by the Bible and those lacking “any extraordinary signs.” (p. 596) The latter he says may be valid revelation, or at least “we run no risk in entertaining it as such….” (Ibid.), as long as it is “consonant” with “the written word of God.” But wait a minute. Didn’t he just say that attested revelation is “conformable” to “the word of God” as contained in the Bible? For most people “consonant” and “conformable” mean the same thing and Locke does not define a istinction between the two. But he must do so or else there is no difference between attested revelation and harmless unattested revelation. The difference has to be that the content of conformable revelations are already in the Bible. But if the revealed truth is so current that it has already been written down (in the Bible), how is it a new revelation? A 17th century non-conformist didn’t have to have the ten commandments revealed to him personally. He could just go and look them up. So Locke’s distinction is not really meaningful.
Some examples of revelations are also troublesome. Various Ranters believed that it was OK to strip naked in the middle of a prayer meeting. I’m not sure if the Bible anywhere explicitly prohibits stripping naked in the middle of prayer meetings, but if it does not, then this revelation is both consonant with and conformable to scripture. At the other end of the spectrum are various passages in the actual Bible that would make your hair stand on end. A great example (This is too easy) comes from good old Deuteronomy (22/21) where we are told that any “damsel” not found to be a virgin shall be brought “to the door of her father’s house, and the men of the city shall stone her with stones that she die.” By Locke’s criteria this is attested revelation and, if Jerry Falwell ever told us he heard from God one night that Xtians really have to start doing this, then his revelation would be inspired by God and both conformable to and consonant with scripture.
The other problem with our evidence for genuine revelation lies with miracles. Burning bushes and snake rods are pretty good examples (as long as you don’t think that Moses was really an Egyptian necromancer). If a talking burning bush appeared in the middle of my living room without an obvious natural cause I would feel some obligation to listen to what it had to say (followed immediately, of course, by a bemused investigation as to what was really going on). But Locke had already said that Satan could be the source of my candidates for revelation just like God. And we know that Satan is one son of a miracle man (Ask St. Anthony). So on what basis can I judge whether the miracle comes from God or from Satan? Another revelation? Then what guarantees that the revelation of the divine origin of the miracle is not just some bit of enthusiasm? Another miracle? This seems to actualize the specter of the world supporting elephant that Locke so dreads. He does not provide any sort of comprehensible criterion for distinguishing between good and bad revelation.
Does Locke need philosophically to distinguish between revelation and enthusiasm, or is it just a contingency of life in post revolutionary England that he had to broach the subject? I rather think the distinction is essential to Locke’s theory. For he himself tells us that the concept of revelation is upset by revelations stemming from “opposing parties.” Contradictory revelations cannot both be true and, if the opposing parties are both Xtian, then there is a good chance that contradictory revelations would also both be “attested.” But, unless the distinction could be made, what in Locke’s mind was valid revelation could not be successfully assimilated to introspective certainty or “rational” deduction from introspective certainties. Locke would have done well to follow his own advice: “as (a proposition) can receive no evidence from our passions or interests, so it should receive no tincture from them.” (p. 590) But as religious motives largely inspire Locke’s first philosophy as they did Descartes’ (in Locke’s case it is the concern to secure a status for religious “truths” as revelation and not the product of speculative proofs such as those produced by the schoolmen and, so Locke erroneously believed, Descartes), that option was not really on the table.
Chapter XVIII distinguishes between reason and faith, and so it distinguishes between truths apprehended by reason and truths apprehended by revelation. Reason is “…the discovery of the certainty or probability of such propositions or truths which the mind arrives at by deduction made from such ideas, which it has got by the use of its natural faculties, viz., by sensation or reflection.” (p. 583) Faith “is the assent to any proposition, not thus made out by the deductions of reason, but upon the credit of the proposer, as coming from God in some extraordinary way of communication.” Revelation is “this way of discovering truths to men.” (Ibid.) Locke makes a further distinction between original revelation (“…the first impression which is made immediately by God on the mind of any man…”) and traditional revelation (“…those impressions delivered over to others in words, and the ordinary way of conveying our conceptions one to another.”) . (p. 584) By the latter Locke presumably means the Bible and some unspecified canon comprising the rest of the Xtian written and oral tradition. (Cf. also p. 432 where Locke denies that certainty is a predicate that can be applied to faith: “…‘certainty of faith’…has nothing to do with certainty of knowledge. Their grounds are far from being the same, or having anything common, that when it is brought to certainty, faith is destroyed….”)
This distinction is not one of kind, but, to use rather loosely Locke’s own terms, one of type. Reason and revelation are not like cats and numbers; they are more like Persian cats and Siamese cats. Reason is a type of revelation. It is “natural” revelation (p. 590), where by “natural” Locke, if he is consistent, should mean revelation that comes from our senses and reflection.
The best gloss Locke puts on the distinction is that reason puts an absolute barrier on revelation. If a proposition we reach by revelation contradicts a truth we have come to know by reason, then we must reject the revelation-derived proposition. Where we assent to the propositions of revelation by faith, the truths of reason constitute knowledge. And knowledge is more certain than the propositions of faith.
However, not all the conclusions of reasoning lead to certain knowledge. Some lead only to probabilities. In such cases, reasoning does not necessarily take the palm. It is OK to accept a revelation that conflicts with a rationally investigated conclusion whose status is no more than probable:
…since God, in giving us the light of reason, has not thereby tied up his own hands from affording us, when he thinks fit, the light of revelation in any of those matters wherein our natural faculties are able to give a probable determination, revelation where God has been pleased to give it, must carry it against the probable conjectures of reason….
(As regards those propositions) concerning which (the mind) has but an uncertain evidence, and so is persuaded of their truth only upon probable grounds, which still admit of a possibility of a contrary to be true, without doing violence to the certain evidence of its own knowledge, and overturning the principles of all reason…an evident revelation ought to determine our assent even against probability. (pp. 587-588)
The only further contribution reason can make is to check to see that (presumably traditional) revelation is in fact a revelation. “…it still belongs to reason to judge of the truth of…” a purported revelation “…being a revelation.” (Ibid.)
This principle can be used as a basis for disbelieving religious “absurdities” or disapproving of “extravagant opinions and ceremonies.” (p. 589) The revelation that tells us that these absurdities are wrong and those ceremonies foolish does not contradict any certainties of reason. And so it may be accepted without criticism.
All this might make them happy down in the rectory, but it is manifest nonsense. It does not solve the problem of one’s absurdity being another man’s revelation. It simply retires reason’s adjudicatory role in such matters. Locke maintains a respectful silence about the color of priestly vestments or the correct placement of altars, even though those are some of the issues that raised the greatest passions among his contemporaries. But his definitions and distinctions add not a quantum of light (his own metaphor) to such products of revelation as papal infallibility and the merit of killing infidels.
Indeed the simple injunction that a “truth” of faith not violate the certain knowledge of reason is practically empty. You can’t set the bar any lower and still refrain from talking nonsense. For Locke restricts certain knowledge to logical axioms, the truths of mathematics and the knowledge that you have the simple ideas that you have. Setting aside mathematics (which a modern day Lockean would probably exclude), this means that any revealed “truth” might qualify for assent as long as it does not contradict the law of non-contradiction or my certainty that I see green when I see green.
Not the least of Locke’s problems is that any argument from “traditional” revelation is circular, a problem Descartes saw from the beginning. Take the “revealed truth” that God is a Xtian. Tradition, namely scripture, tells us that this is so. Why should we believe scripture? Because the Xtian God told us to do so. (Cf. the introductory letter to the Méditations, pp. 257-258: “…on ne saurait néanmoins proposer cela aux infidèles, qui pourraient s’imaginer que l’on commetrait en ceci la faute que les logicians nomment un Cercle.”) We are supposed to accept the existence of God because Scripture tells us so and we are supposed to accept the authority of Scripture because that is the word of God. Any of us quick-witted infidels, by whom I assume Descartes means any unprejudiced individual of greater than minimum intelligence, would begin to suspect a circularity.
Our ultimate suspicion is that Locke is really unconcerned with good vs. bad revelation or setting rational limits on faith. Locke’s real goal seems not so much to be to provide a rational perspective on religious disagreements as to confer a borrowed prestige on revelations by arguing that they do not differ in kind from truths of which we have certain knowledge. Reason is not just “natural revelation,” revelation is also the twin sister of knowledge. Despite his definition, he really means revelation is knowledge, just not certain knowledge. The consequence, however, is the opposite. An understanding of its religious basis and motives causes us to doubt the validity of anything like introspective certainty or the theory of ideas (itself supposedly introspectively certain) upon which the notion of the subjective light of reason or introspective certainty is based.
The rhetorical weight Locke gives to the concept of revelation as kindred to philosophical argument brings a specifically religious vocabulary to discussion of scientific issues. Secondly, it forecloses further examination, for “genuine” revelations and introspective certainties are interpreted as unimpeachable for much the same reasons. The view that the theory of ideas cannot be questioned because it is revealed to the natural light of reason is surely unacceptable. The proximity to revelation does nothing to support the theory of ideas or any other philosophical theory particularly for non-believers. Indeed it simply protects certain theories from revision. But if, as is nowadays believed, there is little to recommend the theory of ideas, then one must question the revelation that suggested it to Locke. And if that revelation may be questioned, why not every other “truth” whose value is guaranteed by revelation? The result is that there is no greater certainty adhering to a revealed “truth” or, as it may otherwise be called, “introspectively certain” truth than to any other “truth.”
But the major problem with arguing from certainty, as Locke presents it, is that one doesn’t say anything. To assert that a proposition is known with certainty does not add one bit of content to the assertion that it is known. To say that it is intuitively true adds nothing to saying it is true. This is most exposed where Locke tries to distinguish between enthusiasm and genuine revelation. One man’s enthusiasm is another man’s revelation. Equally one man’s dubious doctrine is another man’s intuitive certainty. The doctrine of intuitive certainty is neither true nor false; it is empty. It is meaningless. There is merit in distinguishing between degrees of assent and degrees of probability, and there may be lurking somewhere a way of distinguishing conclusive proof from mere probability. But the doctrine of intuitive certainty is not that way; to say that I hold a proposition (even a proposition arrived at by deduction) to be intuitively certain is tantamount to saying that I hold that proposition to be true. (Ryle, of course, thought that introspection was just muttering under your breath. Locke would say he was intuitively certain that Ryle was wrong.)
To return to what English protestants made of the doctrine of revelation: Just as the dissenters’ appeal to the individual and his conscience constituted a legitimate revolt against the authoritarianism of popes and bishops, but resulted in both the flimsiest basis for belief and a sort of doctrinal solipsism, so Locke’s illiberal use of introspection, while constituting a legitimate revolt against scholastic authoritarianism in matters philosophical (Cf. in particular pp. 55-56 where Locke comments on the role of authority in philosophical reasoning: “I can only appeal to men’s unprejudiced experience and observation, whether they be true or no….”), leads to a theory that gives every appearance of being unjustified, whatever may be its merits (kind of like the “honest woman” the whole village thinks is a whore) and, as Berkeley would exploit, to a pretty thorough cognitive solipsism. There is also a difference between the philosophical use of introspection and inspection of conscience. The multiplicity of religious views that resulted from reliance on the individual’s conscience seemed acceptable to English dissenters (but, of course, Diggers need not apply). But philosophy lives in the medium of proof, justification and defense. And science operates with the form of argument called experimentation and largely with the methodological presupposition that there is one true picture of the world but that actual theories are always subject to revision. Neither are what they are if each man could, along the model of inspection of conscience, have his own science or his own philosophy. They are something else, myth making perhaps.
Hill says that the English protestant sects embraced a “principle of individualism which rejects all mediators between man and God.” (p. 42). Lockean introspection is a brand of Protestant introspection. A proof, Cartesian style is, roughly and somewhat metaphorically, a papist instrument since it forces consent, whereas truths discovered by introspection come from the individual himself. The problem with philosophical truths is that they are supposed to have universal validity. Locke’s unfortunate solution is that the results of each individual act of introspection all just happen to match.
Does the excursus into intellectual and theological history help at all with the philosophical issue of whether the theory if ideas is valid or not? Obviously it is not a proof on the order of the Cartesian Cogito or basic logical deductions. But, in a way similar to many historical exposés, it provides presumptive evidence against the theory. For it shows that Locke had a motive that contributed to his devising of the theory, and this motive is not one that everyone will share. Nietzsche’s “cui bono?” caution is entirely appropriate to this situation.