September 24, 2012

The complex idea of Substances having complex ideas as modes.

I have always enjoyed Locke's philosophy and I find it very fitting that the prologue stated that he had a distaste with the curriculum in school, and began searching for something deeper in philosophy. Locke's treatment of the epistemic is unique, and he dives about as deep into each and every thought as humanly possible. Many times I found myself wondering if he was trying to convince the reader, or himself. The fact that he italicized a brief synopsis of his argument above each proposition was certainly helpful, and necessary to following his ideas.

In class we discussed the definition of a substance, and concluded that understanding substances requires an understanding of several other terms in which we also sought to define (Modes, simple ideas, complex ideas, relations, powers, and abstracts).

It seems to me that a substance is a constituent of a complex idea. A complex idea would be a collaboration of simple ideas which carries many different significations. Locke doesn't ever come out and provide a single definition of a substance, perhaps because a substance is a complex idea in itself and cannot be named or generalized.

Locke does say that "The simple ideas that are found to coexist in substances being that which their names immediately signify, these, as united in the several sorts of things, are the proper standards to which their names are referred, and by which their significations may be rectified"(826-827). Here, Locke expresses the difficulty in naming substances. Locke argues that no individual has the authority to say which words should signify certain objects, ideas, or substances. Locke says that the trouble with naming substances is that "Their signification is supposed to agree to the real constitution of things, from which all their properties will be impossible to know what things are or ought to be called a horse, or antimony, when those words are put for real essences that we have no ideas of at all"(820). By italicizing "the real constitution of things", it feels like Locke is sarcastically referring to the non existence of innate knowledge, but in this case he makes a very valid point in that.

The most definitive example of a substance that Locke offers may be when he says that "For though in the substance of gold one satisfies himself with colour and weight, yet another thinks solubility in aqua regia as necessary to be joined with that colour in his idea of gold, as they have been taught by tradition or experience...From hence it will unavoidably follow, that the complex ideas of substances in men using the same names for them, will be very various, and so the significations of those names very uncertain"(821).

Interpretting Locke's theory for me was like interpreting bible verses. The prose resembled biblical scripture, the examples of men's thoughts and actions being used to explain ideas, and the lack of concrete definitive terms. Many times I wouldn't understand what Locke meant by something until it was described, pages later, in relation to a new idea. The organization leads me to believe that Locke had more ideas about ideas than he could get onto paper. His essay is argumentative and certainly takes quite a firm stance, yet I dont feel he treated this essay as sensitive as he could have in order to coherently present his theories. However, I'm sure that I certainly was not Locke's target audience and his philosophical language may have been necessary at the time.

I found Garth Kemerling's guide to Locke's essay extremely helpful in clarifying some of the concepts that I was still slightly fuzzy on. Kemerlings's guide can be found at <>. Kemerling describes Substances and Complex ideas more clearly for me in a paragraph, then Locke does in the entirity of his essay. Kemerling says that "Locke's view proposes that complex ideas are of three varieties: Modes- are invariably conceived as the features of something else, which are never capable of existing independently. Substances- are understood to be the existing things in which modes inhere. Relations- are nothing more than mental comparisons in some respect among other ideas. Complex ideas of all three sorts are manufactured by the mind from simpler components"(1). 

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