Realism and Appearances: An Essay in Ontology

By John W. Yolton | Go to book overview
Save to active project

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

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.


Notes for this page

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this page

Cited page

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited page

Bookmark this page
Realism and Appearances: An Essay in Ontology


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this book

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen
/ 157

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?