The Prolem: Are All Locke’s Ideas Necessarily Imagistic?
Those of you who are facebook friends know I that I recently posted about a little issue I’m having wif my Locke paper. Here’s the prolem: most of my analysis and criticisms of Locke’s epistemology rest on the premise that, for Locke, all ideas are images in the theatre of the mind. I’ve read a couple of secondary sources that corroborate this interpretation but after frantically scanning my paper last night I realized that I don’t a any direct quote from Locke to support this assertion.
Now, it is fairly evident that he thinks ideas caused by sense perception are images but Locke is aware that there are other types of ideas. Locke says we get all our ideas one of two ways: through sense perception or through reflection. By reflection he means comparing, mixing, and abstracting from the sense perception ideas. For example, I have an idea (image) of a chair and of a large chair. By comparing these two ideas I can create the new ideas of size and relative size, or “big” and “bigger than”. That much is clear in Locke, but what isn’t clear is the phenomenological (what-it-is-like-to-have-ness) properties of the ideas size or “bigger than”. Another way to state it would be to ax, what does it mean to experience ideas of concepts? This is the prolem I’m having; I’m not sure what Locke thinks about this…so, it’s time to do a little reading of the primary “litra-cha”.
Ideas Produced by Sense Perception
Lets start with what I know, or at least what I think I know about how Locke thinks about ideas produced by sensory perception (did you get all that?). The relevant passage is this, “But our ideas being nothing, but actual perceptions in the mind, which cease to be any thing, when there is no perception of them […]”. So from here it appears fairly easy to ascribe an imagistic theory of mind to Locke but now I’m not so sure. Sure he says ideas are perceptions in the mind but does this necessarily mean the perceptions have to be images? I don’t think this passage on its own is sufficient to make that case.
Lets consider some of the language he uses to talk about perceiving ideas, in the context of memory, that occur in this same paragraph. He says the purpose of memory is to “revive again in our minds those ideas, which after imprinting have disappeared, or have been as it were laid aside out of sight”. To talk of ideas “laid aside out of sight” certainly sounds imagistic, but notice he qualifies the phrase with, “as it were” in order to indicate an analogy, not a statement of fact. Still no verdict.
However, later in the paragraph, again discussing the purpose of memory, he says that memory allows us to “bring in sight, and make appear again, and be the objects of our thoughts, without the help of those sensible qualities, which first imprinted them there”. Again, phrases like “bring in sight”, “make appear again” and “objects of our thoughts” sound very imagistic but there is no reason why Locke my not be using them as analogies. In particular the phrase “objects of our thoughts” does not necessarily imply images, he might simply be saying “the content of the idea about which we are conscious”. I can’t see why this commits him to an imagistic theory of mind, or even a phenomenal theory of mind.
He could be just about any brand of representationalist. All he’s really saying is that there is something in the content our perception of ‘X’ and in our recalling our perception of ‘X’ that are similar (the same?). Maybe in the case of sense perception we can ascribe an imagistic or phenomenological theory to Locke but there’s nothing that unusual in saying our memory of a perception and the actual perception have some imagistic qualities in common. In regards to ideas and recollections of concepts, however, I don’t think we have any evidence one way or another to determine Locke’s position….more research