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Locke's Finely Spun Liberty

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Jack D. Davidson
Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011-1306, USA


Near the end of the long and often convoluted discussion of freedom in the chapter ‘Of Power’ in An Essay concerning Human Understanding, Locke states that in ‘The care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty’ (E 266). He goes on to explain that ‘we are by the necessity of preferring and pursuing true happiness as our greatest good, obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desire in particular cases’ (E 266). Locke then adds that the ability to suspend our desires in particular cases is ‘the hinge on which turns the liberty of intellectual Beings’ (E 266).

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1 E: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Nidditch, P. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1975)Google Scholar, cited by page number. Emphases are in the original unless otherwise noted.

2 See also C/L/4/625. CJL: The Correspondence of John Locke, Beer, E.S. de ed., 9 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1976-)Google Scholar, cited by volume and page number.

3 While the fourth edition was not yet in print, from 1697 until after Locke's death Coste stayed in the Masham household at Oates, where Locke spent the last years of his life. Coste was thus able to incorporate most of the changes Locke introduced in the fourth edition.

4 Locke's will can be found in C/L/8/419-27.

5 Locke seems to be of two minds about whether uneasiness is desire or is something that is ‘always accompanied with that of Desire’ (E 283).

6 The two ‘loophole’ theorists are Aaron, R. in John Locke (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1971), 268Google Scholar and Mabbot, J.D. in John Locke (London: Macmillan Press 1973), 66CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In contrast, Webb, T. in The Intellectualism of Locke: An Essay (New York: Burt Franklin 1857)Google Scholar, claims that the addition of the Suspension doctrine to the preceding theory involves ‘a latent paradox’ (149).

7 No doubt Leibniz's writing in this work, at times awkward and meandering, has contributed to its relative neglect, even among many Leibniz scholars. Catherine Wilson, on the other hand, writes that ‘[the] New Essays on Human Understanding is undoubtedly Leibniz's best composition: the richest, the most tightly argued, the most fertile in its application to contemporary philosophical problems’ (Leibniz's Metaphysics: A Historical and Comparative Study [Princeton: Princeton University Press 1989], 232).

8 See, for example, NE 181, where Leibniz refutes Locke's argument that when considering an action, our willing is not free since we cannot avoid willing. NE: New Essays on Human Understanding, Remnant, P. and Bennett, J. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996)Google Scholar, cited by page in A/6/6. A: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Sämtliche Schriften und Briefe (Darmstadt and Berlin: Berlin Academy 1921-), cited by series, volume, and page. Locke's argument appears in E 245-6.

9 ‘Leibniz on Locke on Weakness of Will,’ Journal of the History of Philosophy 28 (1990), 217

10 And in a letter to Coste of 19 December 1707, Leibniz writes ‘we can always assert, with respect to the will in general, that choice follows the greatest inclination (by which I understand both passions and reasons, true and apparent)’ (G/3/401-2; AG 194).G: Die philosophischen Schriften von Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Gerhardt, C.I. ed. (Berlin: 1875-90; Reprint Hidesheim: Olms 1965)Google Scholar, cited by volume and page. AG: G.W. Leibniz: Philosophical Essays, Ariew, R. and Garber, D. eds. and trans. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing 1985)Google Scholar, cited by page.

11 There are two reasons why, unlike God, our wills don't always follow the judgment of the understanding. First, we have finite minds that are disrupted by passions, which in Leibniz's analysis are the confused thoughts or passions caused by our bodies. Second, Leibniz holds that we think using Symbols, some of which represent the good only faintly. Both of these Claims play a role in Leibniz's explanation of how weak-willed behavior is possible. See NE 186-7.

12 ‘The free substance is self-determining and that according to the motive of good perceived by the understanding, which inclines it without compelling it: and all the conditions of freedom are comprised in these few words’ (T 288). T: Theodicy, Huggard, E.M. trans. (New Haven: Yale University Press 1952)Google Scholar, cited by section number. The whole issue of how to understand mental determination in these and other early modern philosophers is extremely complicated, and at present still awaits sustained analysis. I explore the issue of Leibniz's internalism in ‘Video Meliora Proboque, Deteriora Sequor: Leibniz on the Intellectual Source of Sin,’ Leibniz, Nature and Freedom, Cover, J. and Rutherford, D. eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming)Google Scholar.

13 In some remarks on Shaftesbury's Characteristics, Leibniz writes that reason ‘orders us to strive for happiness’ (G/3/473; L 630). And Locke writes, in a passage we have already seen, that ‘the highest perfection of intellectual nature, lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness’ (E 266). Locke identifies ‘good and evil’ with ‘pleasure and pain’ in (E 258-9, 351).

14 Vallati (1990), 225

15 In his other writings on Suspension, Leibniz tends to focus on the case where we suspend rational judgment or action. This is natural, for if one believes that we have been created with wills inclined to the good, and intellects inclined toward the true, the first question is why we ever go wrong. In a piece entitled ‘Against Indifference’ by Grua, Leibniz writes:

The mind has a faculty of choosing not only one of two but also of suspending judgment. No appearance of the good is so clear (except that of the highest good) that the mind if it wants is not able to suspend judgment prior to the last decision, and this happens while other thing to be thought are offered to the mind and it is either snatched away to new things without deliberation, or deliberating, it finishes thinking rather of other things (Grua 384).

Grua: Textes inédits, Grua, G. ed. (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France 1948; Reprint New York: Garland 1985)Google Scholar, cited by page. Leibniz's evaluation of the value of this power of Suspension is thus more ambiguous than Locke's, for not only can we use this power for good, but it is also one of the many ways our souls resist ‘the truth it knows’ (T 311). For other texts on Suspension, see (Grua 327; NE 187ff.; T 64).

16 For a subset of such texts, see (Grua 271, 276-7, 480; G/3/400-3; AG 193-6; T 175, 303).

17 Leibniz, like Locke, thought that orthodoxy and sound philosophy entalled that God's actions are determined by his nature and the objective value of the choices avallable to him, and that this, far from destroying divine freedom, perfected it. In addition to NE 198, see Grua 289/AG20; G/3/400-3; AG 193-4). The obvious corollary is that, insofar as we imitate God, our choices are determined and free as well.

18 Leibniz also comments favorably on Locke's account of freedom in a letter to Jaquelot (G/3/473) and in (NE 164). Nor does Leibniz mention the issue of freedom in the preface to the New Essays when he lists important differences between himself and Locke.

19 Reasoned Freedom: John Locke and the Enlightenment (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1992), 119Google Scholar

20 Ibid., 121n.

21 Ibid., 148

22 ‘Human Freedom and the Seif,’ in Pereboom, D. ed., Free Will (Indianapolis: Hackett 1997), 152Google Scholar

23 Metaphysics (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall 1983), 48

24 These passages are hard to reconcile with Colman's, John claim that ‘[we] are, therefore, most free when we choose to do that which we know to be morally right in the teeth of our inclination to do the opposite’ in John Locke's Moral Philosophy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 1983), 221Google Scholar. Colman's understanding of Lockean freedom, applied to God and the blessed, has the unfortunate result that they are the least free beings around.

Schouls notes ‘[that] Locke's position on human freedom is fundamentally one of pure voluntarism may seem to conflict with his Statement on divine freedom’ but replies that ‘the “necessity” under which God finds himself would, for Locke, not be different from that of human beings’ (Schouls, 167n.). The last claim, at any rate, is exactly right, which is why Locke is not a pure voluntarist with respect to either divine or human freedom.

25 These arguments are extremely Leibnizian in spirit. For (some of) Leibniz's claim that God's choices are determined and free, see A/2/1/117; L 146-7 and Grua 289; AG 20-1. For Leibniz's claim that breaking free from reason's constraints would be a fool's paradise, see A/2/1/117; L 147 and A/6/3/135.

26 Schouls, 155

27 Ibid., 175

28 Ibid., 155

29 ‘And he that is at liberty to ramble in perfect darkness, what is his liberty better than if he were driven up and down, as a bubble by the force of the wind?’ (E 279).

30 Schouls, 155

31 See Coste's letter to Leibniz in (G/3/398).

32 Van Limborch, for example, entrusts his son's emotional and commercial welfare to Locke when the son came to England after a business deal nearly ruined him in Holland.

33 Indeed, Locke makes his expectations quite clear to van Limborch on several occasions during this exchange: ‘You see how freely I deal with you, expecting the same freedom from you in return’ (C/L/7/329). He makes a similar remark later; see C/L/7/402.

34 This a near quotation of Molina's, Luis famous definition in the Concordia, ‘that agent is said to be free, who, all the requisites for acting having been posited, can act or not act, or so perform one action that he is able to do the contrary,’ in Liberi Arbitri cum Gratiae Donis, Divina Praescientia, Providentia, Praedestinatione et Reprobatione Concordia (ϕna and Madrid: J. Raeneck 1953), 14Google Scholar.

35 Van Limborch was not the only early reader of Locke to misread Lockean Suspension as indeterministic. In his A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevalling of the Freedom of Will, published in 1754, Jonathan Edwards writes that anyone who supposed ‘that these [libertarian] difficulties and absurdities may be avoided, by saying that the liberty of the mind consists in a power to suspend the act of the will, and so to keep it in a State of indifference…is [making] a great mistake’ in P. Ramsey, ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press 1954), 209-10. Edwards does not mention Locke by name in this context, so it is an open question whether Lockean Suspension is to be included in this attack on the Arminian notion of freedom. Edwards was profoundly influenced by Locke's Essay, and on many issues was a Lockean. My own view is that Edwards thought Locke's introduction of Suspension, at the least, invited appropriation by Arminians, and was not among Locke's best thoughts on freedom. Edwards goes so far as to be skeptical of the very existence of Suspension as a feature of our psychology: ‘this suspending of volition, if there be properly any such thing…’ (ibid., 210).

36 Having now explained as clearly as possible his grounds for this view, Locke seems to have judged that the discussion had advanced as far as it was going to, given their fundamental differences; consequently he writes little more on freedom thereafter to van Limborch.

Unfortunately neither Colman nor Schouls, the two most systematic expositors of a libertarian reading of Locke, take the van Limborch correspondence into account in their treatments of Locke on freedom.

37 After Locke's death, Coste sent Leibniz the additions to the fifth edition, and reported on the Locke/Limborch exchange. Leibniz's answering letter to Coste can be found at (G/3/400-4; AG 193-6).

38 These additions introduce an interesting scholarly question of their own. Consider the following two fifth edition sentences:

… every Man is put under a necessity by his constitution, as an intelligent Being, to be determined in willing by his own Thought and Judgment, what is best for him to do… (E 264).

… it be certain that in all the particular actions that he wills, he does, and necessarily does will that, which he then judges to be good (E 270-1).

In the early sections of editions one through five, when an agent ‘is not at Liberty, that Agent is under Necessity’ (E 238). Thus in Locke's preferred terminology, necessity means, not ‘causally determined,’ but simply ‘not free.’ Yet this new species of necessity is compatible with freedom. A conservative reading of the above is that, to distance himself from libertarian construals of his view, Locke is, in the above passages, using ‘necessity’ for ‘causally determined.’ On this reading, Locke's changes are merely terminological. However, if, as in the earlier sections, ‘necessity’ means more than ‘causally determined,’ then Locke is attributing an even stronger modality to our cognitive and decision making structure, in particular to the relation between willing and judging, and thus embracing an even more robust version of compatibilism. Unfortunately, by the time of his exchange with van Limborch, Locke's poor health kept him from doing much philosophy, and so these new thoughts, whether (merely) terminological or conceptual in nature, remain unexplained.

39 See E255-6n.

40 See also the letter to van Limborch of 12 August 1701 (C/L/7/405-6).

41 For Thomas’ explication of the distinction between ad exercitium actus and ad specificationem actus, see Summa Theologica III Qs. 9 and 10.

42 Lee's work, entitled Anti-Scepticism: or, Notes Upon each Chapter of Mr. Lock's Essay concerning human Understanding, and published in 1702, is almost a chapter by chapter commentary on the Essay. Lee, like many of his contemporaries, attacks the skepticism he sees pervading the Essay. His reading of 24ff. can be found in Anti-Scepticism (1702; fac. New York: Garland Press 1978), 103.

43 Some scholars read Thomas’ views on freedom in this way. See, for example, a short commentary entitled ‘Liberty with Limits’ in the Blackfriars edition of the ST, III Qs. 6-17.

44 Colman, 219 and Schouls, 151-2

45 Parts of 56 (E 270-1) can also be read in a like manner.

46 I take Darwell, Stephen one of the few commentators to take up this question, to be def ending something close to this third explanation. See The British Moralists and the Internal Ought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1995), 165.Google Scholar

47 ‘I see the better way and approve it, but I follow the worse way.’ This quotation also appears in Theodicy 154, with Leibniz's endorsement.

48 As he puts it to van Limborch, ‘[for] an action of willing this or that always follows a judgment of the understanding by which a man judges this to be better for here and now’ (CJL/7/410).

49 One might claim that some cases of weakness of will, and in particular those of choosing the lesser good while staring at the greater one, are precisely those cases that undermine my solution to the consistency problem. Consider Locke's drunkard. Moved by uneasiness he goes to the tavern although ‘he has in his view’ the greater good which he ‘confesses is far greater than the tickling of his palate with a glass of wine or the idle chat of a soaking club’ (E 253). In Locke's account, (a) goodness is happiness, i.e., a State of pleasure, and (b) the greater the goodness the greater the happiness and pleasure, and (c) the greater the goodness, the greater the perception of happiness and pleasure. My reading, combined with (a) - (c) entalls, (d) what is perceived to be the greater good, and hence the greater pleasure, at the very moment it is so judged must not appear to be the greatest pleasure of the avallable options. Since (d) is absurd, my solution to the consistency problem is false. Fortunately (d) does not follow from the interpretation I am recommending, for Locke maintains that in the kind of case under consideration, (c) is false. (c) is false when, under the influence of present desires for his companions and cups, the drunkard's perceptions of the pleasures of the greater good of sobriety and the life to come are occluded by the promise of present pleasure. This is why Locke can repeat Medea's lament that ‘I see the better way, but pursue the worse way,’ and maintain that since ‘every intelligent Being really seeks Happiness, which consists in the enjoyment of Pleasure, without any considerable mixture of uneasiness; ‘tis impossible any one should willingly put into his own draught any bitter ingredient, or leave anything in his power, that would tend to his satisfaction, and the completing of his Happiness, but only by a wrong Judgment (E 274-5). I am indebted to an anonymous reader for the Canadian Journal of Philosophy for calling a version of the above objection to my attention.

50 The terminology, of course, is Frankfurt's, Harry from ‘Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,’ Journal of Philosophy 68 (1971) 5-20CrossRefGoogle Scholar. I use it because it states in more precise language and detall what is, in essence, a Lockean story about desire and willing.

51 For both Locke and Leibniz, the road to true freedom is paved with proper cognition. For such passages in Leibniz, see (G/3/403; AG195; Grua 327,481; NE 187ff.; T 64). For more on Locke's views on the relation between intellectual and moral training, see Some thoughts concerning education.

52 For Locke's sensitivity to the nuances of language and metaphor, especially in connection with the problem of freedom, see C/L/7/406.

53 Fully delineating these two senses of freedom in Locke is beyond the scope of this paper, which was written before I came across Yaffe's, Gideon Liberty Worth the Name: Locke on Free Will (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2000)Google Scholar. Those interested in exploring this distinction further should consult chapters one and two of Yaffe's excellent book.

54 Early versions of this paper were read at the Midwest Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy at the University of Chicago, a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar in Syracuse, and at Trinity College, Hartford. I am indebted to my audience on those occasions for helpful comments and questions. I am particularly grateful to Jonathan Bennett, Andy Bettle, Vere Chappell, David and Mary Norton, Robert Sleigh, Catherine Wilson and two anonymous readers for the Canadian Journal of Philosophy for comments that improved the paper.

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