The Mission: To Determine How Locke Thinks We Perceive Ideas of Concepts
In the first chapter of book two of The Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke says all knowledge (the materials of which are ideas) comes from one of two places: “external, sensible Objects; or about the internal operations of our minds, perceived and reflected on by our selves.” Basically, this means ideas can come from either sense perception of the external world or internal reflection of our mental processes. In the last post we focused on the former (in terms of sense perceptions and memories of past sense perceptions) and I didn’t think there was definitive evidence for a purely imagistic interpretation; I think we could also ascribe to Locke a less simplistic representationalist theory of mind. Bottom line, there’s weak evidence but there’s no knock down evidence (IMHO).
Ideas from Sense Perception Revisited
Just as I finished writing this last line I found the following passage (II. i. 2.) “[…] our senses, conversant about particular sensible objects, do convey into the mind several distinct perceptions of things […] and thus we come by those ideas, we have of Yellow, White, Heat, Cold, Soft, Hard, Bitter, Sweet, and all those which we call sensible qualities […].”
I think in this passage indicates that sense perception produced ideas are imagistic, but not necessarily visually. Obviously, when we sense coldness we don’t see anything, but in a general sense we can say there is a sensible quality to coldness. Of course, in this context we are not talking about having these general ideas as abstracts; how do I perceive them in non-sense (ha!) situations? For example, in this paragraph we are talking about “coldness” in an abstract, it is unlikely that any of you felt cold because you read that word. Moving on…
Ideas from Perception of the Operations of the Mind
How does Locke talk about ideas that we obtain through perceiving and reflecting on the operations of our own mind? Lets define operations of the mind first. The operations of the mind are the thoughts and attitudes we have toward the (usually?) sense ideas we have. For example, perception, thinking, doubting, believing, reasoning, knowing, willing or any other mental activity like abstracting, compounding, and comparing, of which we can be conscious. Regarding these internal objects of the mind Locke seems to take the position that we can only be said to be having them when we are conscious of them. Just as with sense ideas, the more I attend to the details the more clear and distinct the ideas will be, so too of ideas of operations of the mind. “Yet unless he turns his thoughts that way, and considers them attentively, he will no more have clear and distinct of all the operations of the mind…than he will have all the particular ideas of any landscape…who will not turn his eyes to it (II. i. 7.).
This position makes sense in that in is a bit strange to say you have an idea if you aren’t conscious of the idea; but on the other hand I’m not sure it’s a necessary condition. For example, you ‘doubt’ that sweet baby Jesus was sweet–maybe he cried a lot. In order do say you have the idea of doubting SBJ was sweet do you have to be consciously aware of the thought “I doubt SBJ was sweet”? I think it make more sense to say this is a disposition.
Consider another example: you are doing some maph problems. In order to ‘have’ the idea of addition and subtraction to you have in your mind the the thought “I am adding this…weeeee! and now I’m subtracting this……woohoo!…This is me adding and subtracting”. I’m not sure this is how it happens. I can’t speak for others but if I had a little voice talkin’ jive like that er’time I did maph it would take me years to do a problem set. It make more sense that these ideas are latent in some way. We can call them to the fore of our consciousness if we want, but I certainly don’t need to in order to do maph…and I’d say the fact that I can add and subtract is fairly good evidence that, in some capacity, I have the ideas of addition and subtraction.
OK, finally, after much torture I think I have a passage of some relevance to our task of interpreting what Locke thinks about ideas as concepts. In his discussion of how our mind abstracts from the particular to the general he says something like this: a) we use words to stand for our internal ideas of particular things, b) if we had to make a word for each particular thing of which we have an idea, we’ll need a heck of a lot of words (infinity), c) to prevent this we abstract general ideas from particular ideas “by considering them as they are in the mind such appearances, separate from all other existences and the circumstances of real existence, as time, place…” (II. xi. 9). So there we have it! Finally, the smoking gun! General ideas (abstract ideas) are appearances. For further confirmation, a few lines later Locke refers to general ideas as “precise, naked appearances in the mind”.
There is still a question about how we should treat simple ideas about the operations of our mind (non-sense ideas) because when we engage in composition and enlarging we “put together several of those simple ideas [the mind] has received from sensation and reflection, and combines them into complex ones” (II. xi. 6). I can understand how we form new ideas from those derived from perception but we are still unclear about the representational content of our ideas of “doubting”, “believing”, “reasoning”, and “knowing”. So, saying that we mix simple ideas from both perception and reflection to get complex hybrid ideas doesn’t give us any clue as to what the mind-operation idea content is like when we perceive it. And then there’s the problem of what it is like to ‘have’ those complex ideas when we recall them after having had them.
There is one final passage methinks fit to discern the views of Locke in regards to whether he thinks our ideas (both of perception and reflection) are imagistic, but of course we might contend that it is (once again) an extended metaphor and not necessarily a precise description. Here we go: external and internal sensation “are the windows by which light is let into this dark room” (i.e. the theatre of the mind). “For, methinks, the understanding is not much unlike a closet wholly shut from light, with only some little openings left, to let in external visible resemblances, or ideas of things without; would the pictures coming into such a dark room but stay there, and lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion, it would very much resemble the understanding of a man, in reference to all objects of sight, and the ideas of them” (II. xii. 17). Well, finally! Although, I have no idea how we have images of ideas that arise out of reflection (concepts, attitudes, etc…); but apparently they are also like “picture in a dark room” upon which we occasionally shine the light of awareness. Or as the late great Ronnie James Dio would say, “like a rainbow in the dark!”