Locke on Substance

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Locke on Substance

Abstract: First, I explore John Locke’s conception of substance. After, I argue that Locke’s theory of substance is necessary for his theory of identity, and therefore philosophically vital for Locke’s ethical and political theories. I consider objections to Locke, but ultimately defend Locke’s theory of substance and its primacy in Locke’s overall philosophy through a different interpretive approach. Locke’s Substrata:

John Locke’s doctrine of substratum—a metaphysical theory that posits that an imperceptible substance underlies all objects—unites properties into one discrete object (I use ‘properties’ synonymously with ‘qualities’). Consider daily experience: we individuate an array of sensory data into discrete objects, mentally recording which properties seem to cluster. For instance, we perceive blackness, softness, and smallness all moving together in one shape and we assume these qualities make up the single object of a dog.

However, we do not simply believe this cluster of properties is the object itself, but rather we believe the properties of the dog inhere in something—it stands to reason that we as humans do not simply believe that the qualities of objects could float off in space, rather we believe that the qualities of an object stick together. John Locke himself asserts, “substance in general contains properties” that must belong to something ((Locke Essay, II. viii. 42). As Locke further states, qualities “cannot subsist…without something to support them” (Locke Essay, II.viii. 41).

We might look at substance a different way: certainly Locke maintains qualities belong to objects, but what are objects over and above their properties? Consider stripping an object of its properties: all that seems to be left is a bare ‘something,’ which on pains of regress, has no properties of its own, except the property of being the holder or supporter of other properties. Locke names this bare ‘something’ substratam—the metaphysical entity which holds the properties of a discrete object.

Ultimately, as The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, “substance is he characterless substance that supports attributes of reality. Objections to Locke’s Substance: Critics, such as Ron Priest, argue that Locke’s doctrine of substratum is logically contradictory and therefore indefensible. Locke himself recognizes this glaring difficulty: “our Idea of Substance, is equally obscure … in both instances of material as well as immaterial substance; it is but a supposed, I know not what, to support those Ideas, we call Accidents” (Locke Essay, II.viii. 10).

Locke states substratum is something ‘we know not what,’ which is something unknowable (Locke Essay, III. vii. 8). Priest argues it defeats the purpose of invoking a substratum to suppose substratum capable of possessing properties of their own, rather than of the things whose substratum they were: for if things with properties need substrata to support these properties, then if substratum are themselves things with properties, they likewise will need yet other substrata in support of their properties and so on ad infinitum.

Thus, it seems Locke’s concepts of substratum cannot be propertied, because that would require substratum ad infinitum as Priest argues. On the other hand, Locke’s conception of substance would at least need to possess the “property of being a bearer or supporter of properties” in order to fulfill its ontological role (Priest 114). If this is the case, then substratum cannot possibly be perfectly property-less. Therefore, substance must be both propertied and property-less. Thus Priest’s critique is that, on terms of contradiction, Locke’s substratum cannot exist.

However, Priest’s objection fails because it conflates one-place property predicates and relational predicates. Indeed, the definition of substratum requires the property of being a thing that holds properties; however, the property of holding properties is not a primary property (a nominal relationship) or secondary property (a predicate relationship), but rather a relational property. We might say substratum stands in a relationship to the property of supporting properties, but this does not mean that substratum possess properties the same way an apple possesses the property of redness.

It is this distinction that the aforementioned objection fails to consider and ultimately why the respective objection fails. The second major objection from Priest and others maintains that Locke is excluded from using the substratum doctrine because of his empiricist background (Priest 117). Indeed, Locke is emphatic that substratum is ‘something’ in which properties ‘inhere’ and that substratum ‘supports’ properties, but Locke is equally emphatic in his contention that this ‘something’ is ‘something we know not what.

’ In other words, substratum is unknowable. Additionally, Locke says we have no ‘positive idea’ of substratum’s nature. Priest maintains that because Locke cannot account for our mental acquisition of substratum on empiricist grounds, Locke cannot consistently espouse the idea of substratum. Ultimately, I argue that Locke evades this objection but only if we read Locke in a more loose manner. Locke maintains that the mind perceives it cannot conceive how any collection of co-instantiated qualities, such as color, weight, density, etc., can exist and be united together without something to “support their existence” (Locke Essay, II. viii. 10).

Essentially, the mind finds free-floating qualities incomprehensible (Locke Essay, III. x. 2). Locke then argues that reason prompts us to suppose the existence of something that supports the qualities of a single object—the substratum. Ultimately, the mind possesses the materials for this reasoned inference, and these materials are supplied by the empirical simple ideas of sense and reflection.

Formulating Locke’s philosophy this way, Locke evades the objection that an empiricist cannot maintain the doctrine of substratum. Critics of my argument will maintain that Lock does not explicitly argue for this defense. I acknowledge that Locke himself does not explicitly evade these objections in the text; however, I pull the basic premises from the text and then make reasonable inferences. Thus, in order to defeat my argument one would need to demonstrate the faultiness of my inferences from Locke’s original propositions.

Ultimately, I make logical inferences from Locke’s propositions and merely extend his line of reasoning. Import of Substance for Locke’s Moral Philosophy: Locke’s conception of substrata plays a vital role for his ethics and politics. Through the doctrine of substratum, Locke successfully establishes the temporal-spatial continuum of identity. From Locke’s conception of identity, he constructs a viable ethical theory and political theory based on fundamental rights, property rights, and personal responsibility. First, Locke must establish the temporal continuity of personal identity.

Would the qualities of an individual person inhere together, over time, without substratum? As inanimate objects—collections of properties—require substratum to unite their properties, so do animate bodies require substratum to unite their various properties. If substratum is not a metaphysical reality, then the unified, continual identity of an individual is dubious for Locke. If the unified, continual identity of an individual is dubious, then it becomes difficult to hold individuals responsible for crimes, because after the crime is committed the individual’s properties change.

Essentially, without substance, Locke cannot defend personal autonomy, so vital to his ethical system. For example, without substance we are then left wondering if the individual who committed the crime is actually the individual who we want to punish. Consider this example: imagine that Jack kills Jane at time T1. Thirty years later Jack is captured at time T2. However, at his arrest, Jack’s appearance and character have changed. Jack no longer possesses the same properties as he did when he killed Jane at T1.

The difference in properties becomes problematic when holding Jack culpable at T2 for Jane’s death at T1, because Jack at T1 is qualitatively different than Jack at T2; Jack at T1 is wholly different than Jack at T2. Do we then punish Jack at T2 for the actions of Jack at T1? If a qualitative difference exists between Jack at T1 and Jack at T2, then we cannot hold Jack at T2 responsible for Jack at T1’s actions because they are qualitatively different entities and two, separate people. But this is counterintuitive! Ultimately, Locke’s doctrine of substratum resolves this problem.

If the qualities of Jack at T1 inhere in a property-less entity that subsists through time and space such as substratum, then grounds exist for asserting that Jack at T2 is the same entity as Jack at T1, because a subsisting substance exists. If that is the case, then we might hold Jack at T2 responsible for the murder committed by Jack at T1, because Jack at T1 is essentially Jack at T2 with different qualities, but the same metaphysical core; the main point is that Jack is simply the sum of his qualities and if any quality changes over time, then Jack at T1 is not identical to Jack at.

T2. Ultimately through his notion of substratum, Locke is able to resolve problems associated with identity and establish personal responsibility and individual autonomy—both essential to Locke’s ethical theory. Critics of my argument might object that Locke does not need the theory of substance to hold individuals responsible because of his theory of identity. Ultimately, the doctrine of substance supplements Lockean notions of identity but it more importantly helps to provide continuity in time and space of individual autonomy whereas the theory of identity alone does not.

Substratum also serves as a foundation for Locke’s theory of rights. According to Stephen Priest, Locke maintains “People… carry the fundamental, God-given, natural rights to ‘the preservation of the life, liberty, health, and goods. ’”(Priest 112). The theory of fundamental rights is incomprehensible without the doctrine of substratum. Ultimately, a collection of properties cannot hold fundamental rights without a substratum because a collection of properties is not an entity, but simply a collection of properties. How would a collection of properties hold fundamental rights?

The same problem associated with secondary properties, namely the absence of a substance to inhere in, also exists with the notion of fundamental rights. One cannot conceive of rights without first conceiving of an entity in which rights inhere. With substratum, fundamental rights may inhere in an individual; without substratum, rights have nothing to inhere in. Therefore, fundamental rights only become relevant when the doctrine of substratum is established. Lastly, Locke’s doctrine of substratum establishes Locke’s theory of property rights.

Locke contends that property is a function of one’s metaphysical self. For example, according to Locke, an individual acquires property by ‘mixing’ his labor with the land. We might say an individual owns the land when he metaphysically extends his substance into the land. According to Locke, this mixture of labor and land entitles the individual to ownership of the land and therefore Locke establishes property rights. However, without substratum or metaphysical substance, how would an individual extend herself into the land?

Clearly, a mere collection of properties possess no ability to fuse itself with the land, unless the concept of substratum exists whereby the substance might be mixed with the land. Thus, Locke’s doctrine of substratum also proves crucial to his theory of property rights. It becomes very difficult for Locke to defend his theory of property rights without his notion of substance. Conclusion: Locke’s doctrine of substratum unifies not only properties of objects, but more interestingly Locke’s doctrine of substratum unifies his system of ethics.

Ultimately, Locke’s philosophy hangs from the doctrine of substratum. Perhaps this is why Locke’s doctrine of substance is most scrutinized amongst contemporary philosophers (see Priest and Priest); if we can dismantle Locke’s conception of substratum, then we might deliver crushing blows to Locke’s identity, ethical, and property theories. As I demonstrated, Locke’s theory is at least defensible against common objections. Therefore, we must look to other means of criticism when evaluating the legitimacy of John Locke’s doctrine of substratum. REFERENCES: 1. Priest, Stephen.

2004. The British Empiricists. Oxford University Press. 99-154. 2. Priest, Ron. 1999. Responding to Locke. Owl Purdue Publishers. 34-62. 3. John Locke. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Harper Edition. 4. Nimbalkar, Namita. 2011. John Lock on Personal Identity. National Library of Medicine. 268-275 5. Locke J. Of Identity and Diversity. In: Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1694. p. 51. 6. Butler J. 1975. ’Of Personal Identity’ in the Analogy of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1736. p. 100.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 17 November 2016

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