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Managing Expectations: Locke on the Material Mind and Moral Mediocrity

  • Catherine Wilson (a1)


Locke's insistence on the limits of knowledge and the ‘mediocrity’ of our epistemological equipment is well understood; it is rightly seen as integrated with his causal theory of ideas and his theory of judgment. Less attention has been paid to the mediocrity theme as it arises in his theory of moral agency. Locke sees definite limits to human willpower. This is in keeping with post-Puritan theology with its new emphasis on divine mercy as opposed to divine justice and recrimination. It also reflects his view that human beings are (probably) essentially material machines.


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1 Intertextual references: References are cited by book, chapter and section to John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. P. H. Nidditch, (Oxford, Clarendon, 1975). R = John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity, Volume VII in The Works of John Locke. 10 vols., 12th ed. (London: Tegg, Sharpe, et al. 1823).

2 See Shapin, Steven, ‘Descartes the Doctor: Rationalism and its Therapies’, The British Journal for the History of Science 33 (2000), 131154. Locke's approach to medicine is studied by Kenneth Dewhurst, John Locke, 1632–1704, Physician and Philosopher (London: Wellcome Historical Medical Library, 1963), more recently by Walmsley, Jonathan, ‘Sydenham and the Development of Locke's Natural Philosophy’, British Journal for the History of Philosophy 16 (2008), 6583.

3 On the conflict between empiricism and philosophy of religion, see Richard Ashcraft, ‘Faith and Knowledge in Locke's Philosophy,’ in John Locke: Problems and Perspectives, ed. John W. Yolton, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 194–223.

4 On superadded powers see Wilson, Margaret D.Superadded properties: the limits of mechanism in Locke.American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979), 143150; Ayers, M. R., ‘Mechanism, Superaddition and the Proof of God's Existence in Locke's Essay,Philosophical Review 90 (1981), 210–51; and Stuart, Matthew, ‘Locke on Superaddition and Mechanism, British Journal for the History of Philosophy 6 (1998), 351379. It is clear that Locke is really departing from ‘pure’ mechanism, but this is not surprising since there are no pure mechanists in early modern philosophy with the possible exception of Hobbes.

5 We have the Ideas of Matter and Thinking, but possibly shall never be able to know, whether Matter thinks, or no; it being impossible for us, by the contemplation of our own Ideas, without revelation, to discover, whether Omnipotency has given to Matter fitly disposed, a power to perceive and think, or else joined and fixed to Matter so disposed, a thinking immaterial Substance: It being equally easie, in respect of our Notions, to conceive, that GOD can, if he pleases, superadd to our Idea of Matter a Faculty of Thinking, as that he should superadd to it another Substance, with a Faculty of Thinking; since we know not wherein Thinking consists, nor to what sort of Substances the Almighty has been pleased to give that power, which cannot be in any created Being, but meerly by the good Pleasure and Bounty of the Creator.’ ((IV. iii. 6). This mode of argumentation echoes that of Galileo. In his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems of 1632. Simplicius observes that, insofar as God might have produce the celestial phenomena by any number of underlying systems, ‘it would be excessive boldness for anyone to limit and restrict the Divine power and wisdom to some particular fancy of his own.’ (tr. Stillman Drake, New York: Modern Library 2001), 538).

6 ‘For since we must allow he has annexed Effects to Motion, which we can no way conceive Motion able to produce, what Reason have we to conclude, that he could not order them as well to be produced in a Subject we cannot conceive capable of them, as well as in a Subject we cannot conceive the motion of Matter can any way operate upon?’ (IV. iii. 6) Locke also held that ’ All stones, metals, and minerals, are real vegetables that is, grow organically from proper seeds, as well as plants,’ which requires superadded powers. Works III: 319.

7 Locke, A Letter to Edward, Bishop of Worcester, The Works of John Locke, 10 vols., 12th edition (London: Tegg, Sharpe et al, 1823) IV: 461–2.

8 Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education 3rd ed. (1695), ed. J. W. Yolton and J. S. Yolton, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), 246.

9 Cf. IV. iii. 27: ‘But that there are degrees of Spiritual Beings between us and the great GOD, who is there, that by his own search and ability can come to know?’

10 J. W. Yolton, Thinking Matter: Materialism in Eighteenth-century Britain (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

11 Locke's hedonism was definitively established by von Leyden; see his Introduction to Locke's Essays on the Law of Nature, Works III: 70–72. Von Leyden comments on ‘the inherent difficulty in the issue between Locke's hedonism and his belief in an absolute system of moral principles. Since he wished to retain both, he had on the one hand to avoid strong hedonistic expressions in his theory of the nature of the good, and on the other to show reserve in putting his case for natural law and the ‘proper basis’ of morality.’

12 Locke, Essays on the Law of Nature, Works III: 326.

13 Ibid., 265.

14 ‘I am … taught by nature that various other bodies exist in the vicinity of my body, and that some of these are to be sought out and others avoided … [T]he fact that some of the perceptions are agreeable to me while others are disagreeable makes it quite certain that my body, or rather my whole self, in so far as I am a combination of body and mind, can be affected by the various beneficial or harmful bodies which surround it.’ Descartes, Meditation VI in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, 2 vols., tr. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff and D. Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) II: 81. Cf. The Passions of the Soul, op. cit I: 141: ‘As for desire, it is obvious that when it proceeds from true knowledge it cannot be bad, provided it is not excessive and that it is governed by this knowledge … [I]if we had no body, I venture to say we could not go too far in abandoning ourselves to love and joy, or in avoiding hatred and sadness. But the bodily movements accompanying these passions may all be injurious to health when they are very violent; on the other hand, they may be beneficial to it when they are only moderate.’

15 ‘[I]n the first place I put for a generall inclination of all mankind a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth only in death.’ Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 70.

16 See James, Susan, ‘Passion and Politics,Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 52 (2003), 221234.

17 For the contrary view, see Davidson, Jack D., ‘Locke's Finely Spun Liberty,Canadian Journal of Philosophy 33 (2003), 203227, esp. 204–6.

18 Von Leyden quotes an unpublished note on volition that reads as follows: ‘Voluntas: That which has very much confounded men about the will and its determination has been the confounding of the notion of moral rectitude and giving it the name of moral good. The pleasure that a man takes in any action or expects as a consequence of it is indeed a good in the self able and proper to move the will. But the moral rectitude of it considered barely in itself is not good or evil nor any way moves the will, but as pleasure and pain either accompanies the action itself or is looked on to be a consequence of it. Which is evident from the punishments and rewards which God has annexed to moral rectitude or pravity as proper motives to the will, which would be needless if moral rectitude were in itself good and moral pravity evil. J. L.’ Works III: 72.

19 Locke, The Conduct of the Understanding, ed. J. Yolton (Bristol: Thoemmes, 1996), §4.

20 Ibid. §6.

21 Ibid. §27.

22 Ibid. §37.

23 Locke, Letter to Carey Mordaunt, September/October 1697 no. 2320 in Locke: Selected Correspondence ed. Mark Goldie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 253.

24 Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, ed. Yolton and Yolton, 178.

25 Molyneux to Locke, August 12, 1693, in Some Familiar Letters Between Mr. Locke, and Several of His Friends, Works IX: 318.

26 Locke, Some Thoughts, 164.

27 Locke to Molyneux, August 23, 169, Familiar Letters, 324.

28 R. S. Crane argued in an influential essay that the introduction of a new sentimentalism in moral theory – the dominant framework of 18th century philosophy – with its constant references to sympathy, benevolence, and even pity, was stimulated by the theology of the ‘Latitude-Men.’ See Suggestions Towards a Genealogy of the ‘Man of Feeling,English Literary History 1 (1934), 205230. Anticipating the doctrines of Hutcheson, Hume and Smith, Barrow refers in one of his sermons to ‘that general sympathy which naturally intercedes between all men since we can neither see, nor hear, nor imagine another's grief without being afflicted ourselves.’ Isaac Barrow, Sermon XXIX: ‘Of a Peaceable Temper and Carriage’, Works of Dr. Isaac Barrow, 2 vols., ed. T.S Hughes (London: A. J. Valpy, 1831) II: 287.


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