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

By Jonathan Bennett | Go to book overview

Chapter 26 Locke on Essences

195 Essences of Individuals

Much more than any other of our six philosophers, Locke had language as a major theme; Essay III, 'Of Words', constitutes nearly a fifth of the work. Its largest topic is a theory about the meanings of general, classificatory words, a theory presented in conscious opposition to a kind of view that Locke thinks one might be tempted into by optimistic corpuscularianism. Locke's own corpuscularianism is, we shall see, highly pessimistic. A key term here is 'essence', to which I now turn.

A thing's essence consists in a certain privileged subset of all its properties or qualities. Usually these days the privilege is that of absolute indispensability: hardness belongs to the essence of this stone if it is impossible that this stone should exist and not be hard, and to the essence of diamonds if it is impossible for anything to be a diamond without being hard. That notion of essence, however, is not prominent when Locke discusses essences; until III.vi.4 it is not even mentioned. Locke there contends that no property of an individual thing is essential to it per se. Essentialness, he maintains, is not a dyad relating a property to a substance, but rather a triad relating a property, a substance, and a kind: my rationality is not essential to me simpliciter, though it may be essential to me qua human. Locke means this quite generally—'Essence . . . is considered in particular beings no farther than as they are ranked into sorts'—but he tries to persuade us of it only by applying it to examples, including himself:

There is nothing I have, is essential to me. An accident or disease may very much alter my colour or shape, a fever or fall may take away my reason or memory or both; and an apoplexy leave neither sense nor understanding, no nor life. . . . None of these are essential . . . to any individual whatsoever until the mind refers it to some sort or species of things. (III.vi.4)

Although he expresses this in terms of properties of mine that I could lose, Locke should be willing to say the analogous thing about properties of mine that I could have lacked from the outset. Believers in individual essences sometimes distinguish these, saying that even if a man could become a woman, someone who was male at the outset could not possibly have started out female. Locke has no reason to treat those kinds of essences differently, and would presumably reject both.

He does not consider any of the most abstract or general properties that an individual can have. That heron over there, for instance: could it become a lizard?

-92-

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