A Bird Is a Word: Having Locke’s Ideas

p.sdfootnote { margin-left: 0.5cm; text-indent: -0.5cm; margin-bottom: 0cm; font-size: 10pt; }p { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; }a.sdfootnoteanc { font-size: 57%; }

Having Ideas
     What does it mean to have an idea?  Does it require we have some image in the theatre of our mind?  Where do ideas come from? Can we make our own or do they all come in through the senses? For contemporary philosophers ‘having a idea’ usually implies some sort of disposition; something like, if a circumstance arose where a collection of beliefs and images were appropriate then I could have conscious access to the idea.  So why disposition?  Well, I think it has something to do with the fact that we can’t simultaneously hold all of our ideas at the fore of our consciousness (how confusing would that be?) but we need to explain how we can access ideas we’ve had in the past. 
    One thing about dispositions is that they imply that you’ve had the idea before but you’ve relegated it to some place in your memory for future use (appropriate circumstances/context or maybe just daydreaming…).  So, at some point the idea “got into you”…unless of course you were born with it; but that’s a different topic.  
      If I tell you to put the idea of a bird in your mind, what happens?  You probably get some sort of image of a bird.  Now think about where you got your idea of the bird.  The story is probably something like, when you were a kid out with your parents, there was a bird in your visual field and your parents indicated it and told you to call it a bird.  The point is that you had some sort of sensory experience that initially “produced” in your mind the idea of a bird.  And because you don’t always go around with the idea of a bird at the front of your consciousness, the idea of ‘bird’ is stored somewhere for later use.   The main point for Locke’s purposes is that it all started with you having a sensory experience of a bird, which incidentally, is a word.
     For Locke all ideas had their origins as sensory experiences…well, mostly.  Sensory experiences provide the raw material from which the activities of our minds can form new more complex ideas by comparing, compounding, and abstracting from the raw material. So, we can compare this type of ‘having an idea’ (havingE an idea) with the dispositional type (havingD an idea).   To make it more explicit ‘havingE’ an idea means something like seeing a picture of something in your head whereas the ‘havingD’ an idea means that it is contained in your memory but you can only really ‘haveE’ the idea in your memory when you have already had it and pull it to the fore of your consciousness.
     For Locke there is really only havingE ideas; we can’t haveE ideas we are not directly conscious of in the sense that we must perceive them in the theatre of our mind as an image.  For this reason we can interpret Locke as saying the experience of sensory perception and the experience of recalling something we previously experienced will in some way be the same sort of experience; they both involve conscious awareness of some image in the theatre of the mind.
     Ok, so lets get that straight one more time.  If I haveD an idea of a bird (which is a word) stored in my memory the only way I can haveE that idea is if I perceive it as an image in the theatre of my mind.  Also, I can haveE an idea of a bird if I’m looking at a bird–the physical properties of the bird produce in me a mental image of…a bird!  So here’s the quextion: if both recalling an idea and havingE an idea produced in our minds through sensory perception both involve perceiving some mental image, how can we distinguish between the two types of experiences?

     In the term paper I’m working on this issue is a sub-issue, here’s a little bit I’ve written on it so far, I apologize for the lack of ebonics…I hope you can still understand me 🙂

Btw, I enjoy writing in my blog way more than writing essays…why?  This essay is KILLING me!
The Relation Between Sensing and HavingE ideas
     It is quite apparent that Locke sees a close relation between sensing something and havingE an idea of that thing. However, this does not necessarily commit him to the view that this is the only way we can haveEideas because he speaks of havingE ideas when we dream, remember, abstract, and think of things in their absence (Stuart 40). It is clear from several passages that Locke maintains there is—perhaps–a self-evident difference between havingE ideas produced by perception and havingE ideas by recalling them.
      To make his point Locke asks us to consider our mental contents while we look at the sun (I hope he knew not to look directly at the sun!) at T1 and contrast them with our mental contents at T2 when we recall looking at the sun back at T1. He tells us that if we do so we will “as plainly find the difference there is between any Idearevived in our minds by our own Memory, and actually coming into our Minds by our Senses, as we do between any two distinct Ideas” (IV.ii.14). That is to say, the difference between our mental contents at T1 and T2 will be as evident as the difference between two unrelated ideas. His conviction leads one to wonder why, if the difference is so obvious, doesn’t he explain that in which it consists?
      In IV. xi. 5, Locke offers a possible criterion by which we can distinguish both types of havingE ideas. The “manifest difference difference” between the Ideas “laid up in my memory” and those that are the result of sensory perception is that the latter type “force themselves upon me” and “I cannot avoid having” them. So, if we cannot avoid havingE an idea then we must be in the act of perceiving through the senses; and if we can “at pleasure” have the ideas of the scent and colour or a rose, for example, then we are havingE an idea of something we previously sensed.
      But does this distinction always hold? One objection to this distinction is to question the passive-active dichotomy. When Locke speaks of ideas “forcing themselves upon” him the implication is that in perception we are passive agents; however, this it not true. Obviously, I have some control over whence I direct my sensory organs but Locke easily meets this challenge. He can simply reply that while we may be able to chose whence we direct our sensory organs, there is no way for me to “unperceive” the ideas that have been produced though sensory perception; and it is in this respect that we are passive. 
       This is certainly true in some instances but perceptual psychology has demonstrated that we are often blind to sensory objects to which we do not consciously attend. 
 Before reading further click on the link and do the selective attention test:

The classic demonstration of this phenomena is observed in an experiment where the subject is asked to watch a video in which two groups of players—half wearing white, half wearing black—pass multiple basketballs between themselves. The ostensible task of the subject is to count the passes the white team makes. Since the subject is attending so strongly to their task, after watching the video when they are asked if they noticed anything unusual they do not report noticing a man in a gorilla suit that strolled right across the screen, despite the fact that he was in their visual field. The upshot of the experiment is that at least to some degree in perception we are not totally passive; if this were true subjects would notice the man in the gorilla suit.
      We do not always recall things “at our pleasure” is the other objection to Locke’s distinction between how the two ways we come to haveEideas in our minds is that . There are two related counter-examples to this assertion. The first is demonstrated by the impossible challenge of not thinking of monkeys when someone commands “don’t think of monkeys”. If we interpret Locke in the strong sense of our being able to access ideas from our memory at our pleasure—that is we have total control of what we access–then we’d expect to be able to not think about monkeys when commanded not to do so! But, as most of us learned when we first encountered this paradoxical command, it one with which it is nearly impossible to comply. In fact, I would be willing to wager that at this moment the reader is vainly trying to block out images of monkeys!
      There are other instances where we have limited control over our thoughts, and in these case the ideas “force themselves” from within. Consider situations when you get a song stuck in your head—what’s worse is that it’s usually a song that you can’t stand. Perhaps this is only anecdotal but it certainly seems like the harder I try to expunge the offending tune from my mind, the more entrenched it becomes. Certainly, I did not recall the idea of this song “at my pleasure”! Nightmares are another example of the lack of control we have over what ideas appear in our mind–for even after we wake up our attempts to will away the disturbing images from our minds are futile.
      One could argue that these counter examples do not entirely discredit Locke’s position that there is an obvious difference between ideas produced through perception and accessing ideas that were “layed up” in the memory; however, I think that while we can maintain a distinction, to call it an obvious distinction is to overstate the case. What the above examples have demonstrated is that resting the distinction on the passive-active criteria does not apply to all cases.   I think Locke is correct in his premise that there is a distinction between havingE and idea as produced through sensory perception and havingE an idea as a recalling of a prior experience but I’m not sure that the criterion by which he distinguishes the two does the work he needs it too.  How should Locke make this distinction? Can we find a better way within his own work?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s