Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Are Locke's Abstract Ideas Fictions?

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Are Locke's Abstract Ideas Fictions?

Article excerpt

JOHN YOLTON HAS CONTRIBUTED A Locke Dictionary as a recent addition to his many works on the life and philosophy of John Locke. In the entries on "abstraction" and on "abstract or general ideas (and words)" in that text, Yolton makes some rather bold assertions. He argues that, despite Berkeley's attack on Locke's theory of abstract or general ideas, Locke's theory is in fact quite similar to Berkeley's own account. In the course of this discussion, Yolton concludes that, for Locke, abstract or general ideas are fictions and that they exist only as "modes of mind." In this paper I discuss the Lockean theory of abstraction and explain the meaning Locke gives to the term "fiction," showing that, for Locke, to call an idea a fiction is by no means to say that the idea exists only as a mode of mind. I also show why Locke's theory of abstraction cannot be understood to be similar to Berkeley's account in the way Yolton suggests, focusing on the central point of Berkeley's criticisms of Locke and emphasizing the essential difference between the two accounts.

Yolton says that for Locke abstract or general ideas are fictions that exist merely as "modes of mind." This claim resolves into two parts and there are therefore two questions that need to be addressed:

1) Are Locke's abstract or general ideas fictions?

2) Do Locke's abstract or general ideas exist merely as modes of mind?

I begin with the first question: are Locke's abstract or general ideas fictions? Yolton claims that they are, and he interprets that claim as denying that, on a Lockean view, there is any such thing as an abstract or general idea. He insists that for Locke "there are no kinds in nature, just as there are no general ideas in the mind."(1) Moreover, consider Yolton's gloss on the passage from the Essay Concerning Human Understanding in which Locke speaks of abstract or general ideas as fictions:

   ... when we nicely reflect upon them, we shall find, that general Ideas are
   Fictions and Contrivances of the Mind, that carry difficulty with them, and
   do not so easily offer themselves, as we are apt to imagine. For example,
   Does it not require some pains and skill to form the general Idea of
   Triangle, (which is yet none of the most abstract, comprehensive, and
   difficult) for it must be neither Oblique, nor Rectangle, neither
   Equilateral, Equicrural, nor Scalenon; but all and none of these at once.
   In effect, it is something imperfect, that cannot exist; an Idea wherein
   some parts of several different and inconsistent Ideas are put together.(2)

Yolton remarks that "there is some ambiguity in this passage about whether what cannot exist is the idea or the triangle, but since Locke does say of abstract ideas that they are fictions, he seems to be denying the existence of both under the description he gives."(3) Here Yolton makes it plain that he is attributing to Locke a denial of the very existence of abstract or general ideas. Now this denial rests, Yolton thinks, on Locke's use of the term "fiction" to describe such ideas. Thus, if we are to evaluate the legitimacy of Yolton's claims, we must consider what Locke meant, typically, when he used the term "fiction" in the Essay in reference to an idea.

In this case we are quite in luck because Locke only used the term "fiction" in one other context in the Essay. There are in fact only three places in the Essay, other than the above passage, where Locke describes an idea as a fiction, and they are as follows:

   And thus our simple Ideas are all real and true, because they answer and
   agree to those Powers of Things which produce them in our Minds, that being
   all that is requisite to make them real, and not fictions at Pleasure.(4)

   And so each Sensation answering to the Power, that operates on any of our
   Senses, the Idea so produced, is a real Idea, (and not a fiction of the
   Mind, which has no power to produce any simple Idea). … 
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