Realism and Appearances: An Essay in Ontology

By John W. Yolton | Go to book overview
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4
Locke on the knowledge of things themselves

The idea is the cognitive response of the organism to the cognitive experience of a stimulus.

John Deely, New Beginnings: Early Modern Philosophy and Postmodern Thought, p. 134

The main focus of the Essay concerning Human Understanding was on the nature and extent of our knowledge. What can we know? how much knowledge do we have? what kinds of items can be known? what are the areas of knowledge? These are some of the guiding questions for Locke. The final chapter of the Essay classifies the areas in which knowledge may be possible as the nature, properties and relations of things, the principles that should guide our moral actions, and the function of words and ideas in the pursuit of knowledge. Perhaps this third division of what he classifies as “the sciences” is the knowledge of knowledge. That may be what the doctrine of signs yields.

In the body of the Essay itself (and in other works by Locke), we find him exploring the nature and limits of what can be known, including God, bodies or external objects and their properties, the self and personal identity, liberty and necessity, causation and power, religious doctrines and dogmas. Knowledge is defined as our awareness or apprehension (Locke writes “perception”) of the relation of ideas, ideas as signs. So ideas and the other sort of signs, words, function to produce knowledge in conjunction with the operations of the mind. Locke's reference to the doctrine of signs may be an inheritance from scholastic writings where there was such a doctrine, well-developed and extensively used.1 One of the bothersome questions about Locke's talk of ideas as

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1
See John Deely, New Beginnings: Early Modern Philosophy and Postmodern Thought (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994) and especially Robert Pasnau, Theories of Cognition in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Deely calls attention to the concluding section of the Essay, where Locke gave a division of the sciences, the doctrine of signs being the third of those sciences. Deely sees this passage in the Essay (a passage which C. S. Peirce took up later) as a reflection, unknowingly, of some late scholastic doctrines, especially the work of John Poinsot (John of St. Thomas), his Tractatus de Signis. “The doctrine of signs as Locke sketched it was, therefore, all unwittingly, actually more than a bare proposal. It was at the same time a kind of archetypically unconscious summary of developments of the recent past achieved in the Iberian Latin world, and a harbinger of a contemporary development that would take place after Peirce” (New Beginning s, p. 140). Deely believes that Locke's suggestion about a doctrine of signs leads to a different concept of sign than is at work in the body of the Essay. I discuss Deely's distinction in section vi of this chapter.

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