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Lockes Doctrine of Abstraction Essay

John Locke and George Berkeley are two famous philosophers whose work found similarities in their proximity of publication, but stark differences in their beliefs. In Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he argued passionately for his doctrine of abstract ideas. On the other hand, Berkeley, in his work, Principles of Human Knowledge, he made every effort to reject all of Locke’s claims. Although viciously attacked by Berkeley, Locke’s doctrine of abstraction holds true as a fundamentally sound and practical doctrine for the advancement of knowledge and communication.

In Book II of Essay, Locke formulates theories on how knowledge is acquired. Previously in Essay, Locke establishes his position as an empiricist through his discussion of simple and complex ideas. According to Locke, simple ideas come into the mind either through sensation or through reflection. With regards to complex ideas, Locke argues that, although the mind is a “blank slate” until impressed upon by experience, he acknowledges the power of the mind to be multifaceted. “The acts of the mind, wherein it exerts its power over simple ideas, are chiefly these three: 1. Combining several simple ideas into one compound one, and thus all complex ideas are made. 2.

The second is bringing two ideas, whether simple or complex, together, and setting them by one another so as to take a view of them at once, without uniting them into one, by which it gets all its ideas of relations. 3. The third is separating them from all other ideas that accompany them in their real existence: this is called abstraction, and thus all its general ideas are made. ”(Essay 146) This being so, it is apparent that Locke believes in the mind’s ability to manipulate content as it is received.

Locke entertains this notion by explaining that the mind subjects simple ideas to various processes such as combining, comparing, and abstraction. The most important of these three abilities is the mind’s ability to form abstract ideas. Further into Book III of Essay, Locke outlines his famous doctrine of abstraction, or rather, doctrine of general terms. Abstract ideas are formed by proceeding with particular ideas (which may either be simple and complex). As established earlier, abstract ideas are a result of the mind’s ability to manipulate. Locke further demonstrates this point by explaining that only particular things exist in the external world and can be determined by the senses.

The formation of abstract ideas is reliant on the existence of particular ideas and is therefore derivative of them. General or abstract terms come to fruition as the result of subtracting away particular qualities such as color, height, weight, and size from an idea. however , at the same time, maintaining the general or similar qualities that allow the idea to be paired or grouped with others. Locke illustrates this point in his discussion of general terms. For example, a particular idea would be, as Locke states, Peter, James or Mary.

Through the process of abstraction, one subtracts the qualities that are specific to Peter, James, or Mary, and instead retain the characteristics which are common to all three. Thus, the abstract or general term derived from the three, is human beings. (Essay 396) According to Locke the absence of the specific qualities and preservation of similarities is what makes the idea general or relatable to others. Thus forming the process of abstraction, a doctrine that is embraced by Locke, but wholeheartedly rejected by Berkeley. One aspect of George Berkeley that is safe to assume is that he was definitely not a fan of Locke, or Locke’s doctrine of abstraction.

This is evident in the sheer fact that Berkeley devoted his introduction of Principles to the refutation of the doctrine of abstraction. However this raises the question: Why did Berkeley feel so strongly? Why does Berkeley feel the need to reject abstraction? The answer to these questions is two-fold. First and foremost, Berkeley sees Locke’s doctrine of abstraction as a detractor from the overall purpose of his philosophical work.

“Philosophy being nothing else but the study of wisdom and truth.. a greater clearness and evidence of knowledge, and be less disturbed by with the doubts and difficulties of other men. yet so it is, we see the illiterate bulk of mankind walk the high-road of plain common sense. ” (PHK intro 1) In this example Berkeley establishes himself as the “no nonsense” defender of common sense . Throughout Principles, Berkeley often mentions his disdain for simply verbal philosophical questions that are ultimately speculative and accomplish nothing.

By disproving abstraction, he can avoid what he believes to be useless philosophy. Instead, Berkeley presents himself to be rooted more so in specifics and what can be known. An example of this exists in his discussion of mathematics, arithmetic and the natural sciences and abstraction. In this discussion, Berkeley argues that abstraction plays no part in these concepts. (PHK 118-122) Building on this, abstraction also threatens Berkeley’s overarching theme of “esse este percepi,” Or rather “to be is to be perceived. ” Throughout Principles, Berkeley essentially argues that specific qualities such as color, size, and odor cannot exist unless they are perceived.

By this logic, abstract ideas, ideas born absent of perception and stripped of specific qualities, cannot adequately fit into the constraints of hisrequirement  for existence. This being so, Berkeley openly objects to and attacks Locke’s doctrine. Despite this effort, Berkeley is unable to accomplish his intended goal. In his introduction, Berkeley launches a three pronged attack against Locke’s abstractionism. Beginning with the “inability to abstract” argument, followed by the “inconsistent and confusing” and ending with “unnecessary” argument, Berkeley outlines what he believes to be a “killing blow” to Locke’s doctrine. However, his rejection of abstraction is rather weak.

As stated before, Berkeley begins his rejection of abstraction by stating that the human mind is unable to abstract. He illustrates his point through a thought experiment, “I can consider the hand, the eye, the nose, each by itself abstracted or separated from the rest of the body. but then whatever hand or eye I imagine, it must have some particular shape and color… I cannot by any effort of thought conceive the abstract idea above described. And it is impossible for me to form the abstract idea of motion distinct from the body moving. ” (PHK intro 10) In this example, Berkeley demonstrates his attempt to form a general idea through the process of abstraction.

He concludes that the human mind is unable to accomplish this as it is impossible not to attribute specific and particular qualities to an idea when abstracting it. This being so, when imaging an idea, one cannot view it in general terms, but instead can only view it particularly. This argument doesn’t really develop any strengths or weakness for or against Abstraction. If posed with the same thought experiment, Locke would surely answer that he would be able to form abstract ideas within his mind.

Because Locke believes all human minds have the same capabilities, Locke would argue that because he is able to form abstract ideas, Berkeley must also be able to do so, thus rendering the point moot. Berkeley moves on from the psychological inability to form abstract thoughts and onto the argument that the abstraction is inconsistent and therefore inadequate as a doctrine. Holding back no punches, Berkeley directly quotes Locke in his introduction to Principles. “. . does it not require some pains and skill to form the general idea of a triangle . . . for it must be neither oblique, nor rectangle, neither equilateral, equicrural, no scalenon, but all and none of these at once. ”(Essay 596)

Berkeley is quick to respond to this statement. “In effect, it is something imperfect that cannot exist, an idea wherein some parts of several different and inconsistent ideas are put together. ” (PHK intro 13) In this example, Berkeley criticizes Locke’s doctrine as not only being impossible to achieve, but also inconsistent. In his reading of Locke, Berkeley states that Locke’s’ description of the abstraction process as encompassing “all and none. ” Berkeley outlines the contradiction that object or idea cannot posses both all and none of the same qualities.

Because there exists a contradiction within Locke’s argument, Berkeley asserts, that the doctrine of abstraction is flawed and therefore impossible. However, it is in this example it becomes apparent that Berkeley mis-interprets Locke’s doctrine. Perhaps in angst to defeat abstraction, Berkeley gets tripped up on Locke’s wording. Abstraction only deals with the subtraction of the differences, but keeps the commonalities between ideas. In fact, it appears that Berkeley is the more inconsistent of the two as he accurately describes Locke’s true position on abstraction earlier in the intro, yet discounts it later on. (PHK intro 9).

The third and final argument against abstraction Berkeley outlines is the questioning of the necessity for abstraction. Berkeley argues, “from all which the natural consequence should seem to be, that so difficult a thing as the as the forming abstract ideas was not necessary for communication, which is so easy and familiar to all sorts of men. But we are told, if they seem obvious and easy to grown men. it is only because by constant and familiar use they are made so. ” (PHK intro 14) In this example, Berkeley states that general are utterly useless because they fail to appropriately define an idea.

Instead, generalizations are adopted because they’re easy and familiar, not because they are useful. Furthermore, according to Locke, the meaning of a general term is an abstract idea. Berkeley refutes this notion and explains that a general term denotes a range of particular ideas. As a result, Berkeley explains that abstraction is not only useless, but also confusing. Again, Berkeley refers to triangles in his description. “How can we know any proposition to be true of all particular triangles, except we have first seen it demonstrated of the abstract idea of a triangle which equally agrees to all?

For, because a property may be demonstrated to agree to some one particular triangle, it will not thence follow that it equally belongs to any other triangle. ” (PHK intro 16) In this example, Berkeley demonstrates that abstracted general terms lead to confusion. The abstract term for a triangle cannot adequately encompass the idea of a triangle because it can be attributed to a wide range of triangles. (Right, obtuse, acute etc. ) By using abstraction, Berkeley argues, one could be referring to a range of particular ideas without properly defining one.

Simply using the general term “triangle” does not appropriately account for a triangle because it is impossible tou nderstand exactly what triangle is being talked about. Because of this, Berkeley argues, the lack of specificity in abstract terms allows for confusion which hinders human development of knowledge. While Berkeley has his moments, ultimately, Locke appears to be the more philosophically sound of the two. This is mainly because of the the application of the doctrine of abstraction and its ability to enhance human knowledge and communication.

In Book III Locke notes the importance of abstract general ideas to knowledge. He explains that abstract ideas and classification are of central importance to a common understanding and communication of language. “Words ultimately derived from such as signify sensible ideas. It may also lead us a little towards the original notions how great a dependence our words have on common sensible ideas. ” (Essay 388) In this example, Locke explains the purpose of abstraction. With the ability to attach commonly held and general terms to ideas, people are able better communicate ideas to each other because they hold a common understanding.

For example if one attempted to explain the qualities of a cat, imagine how tedious it would be under Berkeley’s system of particulars for one to explain every perceivable quality of a cat. In Locke’s system, however, ideas can be abstracted and it is commonly known that cats are felines, walk on 4 legs, and are mammals. When someone uses the general term “cat” others are able to recognize the term and know what is being discussed without further and unnecessary explanation.

The ability to make this classification helps the growth of knowledge because it allows all to hold a commonly known concept. Qualities of size, color, etc are irrelevant. General terms attach an efficiency, and the ability for all to understand.


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