Learning from Six Philosophers: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume - Vol. 2

By Jonathan Bennett | Go to book overview

Chapter 25 Secondary Qualities

187 Locke's Corpuscularianism

Locke was attracted by the kind of physics he called 'the corpuscularian hypothesis' (Essay 547:29)—the hypothesis that the physical world can be comprehensively explained in terms of how corpuscles are assembled into larger structures and how they move. One naturally thinks of the 'corpuscles' as atoms, unsplittable physical minima, but Locke does not confidently do so. Let us consider his troubles with atoms.

Like Descartes, Leibniz, and others at his time, Locke did not believe in attractive forces (§23). This left him, as he knew, unable to explain how bodies hang together so that there are rocks and grains as well as air and water (II.xxiii.23-7). This encouraged the view that there are no atoms because every portion of matter can be divided into still smaller bodies.

Just once Locke openly embraces that conclusion and affirms the infinite divisibility of matter. He is discussing whether God could be a material thing:

Though our general or specific conception of matter makes us speak of it as one thing, yet really all matter is not one individual thing, neither is there any such thing existing as one material being, or one single body that we know or can conceive. And therefore if matter were the eternal first cogitative being, there would not be one eternal infinite cogitative being, but an infinite number of eternal finite cogitative beings. (Essay IV.x.10)

In this astonishing passage Locke implies that every material thing is divisible into an infinite number of basic parts; he calls them 'beings', but drops the adjective 'material', because if they were material, they would be extended, so divisible, so unbasic. He here goes a good distance with Leibniz, but, unlike him, supposes that an extended thing can have unextended things as its ultimate parts (§88). This lets him work his way down to the simple substances, parting company with Leibniz in relating them to bodies as parts to wholes, not as reality to appearance. I do not make much of this passage, however. It was added in the second edition, and Locke seems to have made no other revisions in the light of it. In the New Essays, incidentally, Leibniz quotes it without comment.

More often we find Locke writing like a convinced atomist, most notably in II.xxvii.3, where he implies that the material world is composed of 'atoms' that can be neither split nor deformed. This is shown not just by his using the word 'atom', but by the structure of his thought in this chapter. He wants to explain what it is for a single F to last through time, for various values of F, ending famously with F = person (see Chapter 39). He starts with F = atom, and handles

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