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From Cognition to Being

Henry Davis McHenry

Part I. Epistemology

3. Lockean certainty

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  • 1 In J. Rajchman and C. West, eds., Post-Analytic Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1 (...)

...when things exist, they are what they are, this or that, absolutely or relatively, not by will or arbitrary command, but by the necessity of their own nature.
—John Locke
I have no doubt that our discoveries are “objective,” simply because the styles of reasoning that we employ determine what counts as objectivity. My worry is that the very candidates for truth or falsehood have no existence independent of the styles of reasoning that settle what it is to be true or false in their domain.
—Ian Hacking1

1I take it that the first epigraph above expresses one of our bedrock assumptions. That a “thing” has a nature independent of what anyone says about it is so obvious a proposition that there seems no reason to state it. So clear an idea is this that we look right through it. As we have noticed in re-reading Descartes, though, looking through an accepted framework of ideas (or as Hacking puts it, using a given “style of reasoning”) may actually produce the objects we see. It is not a question of distortion, but of creation; not that the window may obscure the sight—Locke would heartily agree to that—but that the window may give the sight. We fail to see (or to hear, really) Descartes’ audacious insistence on the ordering of the world performed by our mental inspection, our judging. So it becomes a matter of some interest for us to explore what kind of power the window may exert.

2After beginning a conversation that allows for some malleability by including the power of judgment in the design of reality, Descartes went on to establish as one of his clear and distinct certainties that a material world exists separate from the mind. In Locke, that world hardens like coral removed from the sea, and man’s contribution to the world he lives in withers into re-presentation: the copying and recombining of what is already designed. Where Cartesian doubt reveals a “judging” at the heart of things, and thus opens the way for the construction of certainty, Lockean empiricism closes off any possibility that the construction of certain knowledge out of perceptions might be drawn from the well of inventing, co-poiesis: the sociality of the human coming-in to a world.

3As a master of inventing, Dustin will sometimes pull off a coup of being together. Tonight when I got home he invited me outside to watch him ride his bike. Pretty soon we were racing up and down the driveway, and up and down again, and again, making up different formats for the races as we went, each time trying to outdo the other in preposterous regulations:

“Yay, I win!” he began.

“No, you don’t; the finish line is way up here!

“Daddy, you can’t go that fast.”

“Oh no, my shoes won’t roll,” I puffed, “you have to drag me.”

“When I say go,” he responded brightly, “you give me a push...”

4I wish I had thought of that one. Once when he had opened up a big lead on me, I turned around to go the other way and called back “Hey, the finish line is this way!” He thought that was outrageous. How can you judge a race if the finish line keeps shifting? he might have asked. I might respond: How do we know where the finish line is? Don’t we get to say where it is? Do you see a place on the ground that has to be the finish line? Is it in the world, or in our speaking, which is our judging? I might have said all that, but I didn’t. Dustin hasn’t read Saussure, or Descartes, much less made the preposterous judgment that they belong together.

5In his own time, of course, Descartes’ conversation was not Saussurean, either. His thinking contains only that bare hint of what Saussure would develop into the founding sociality of language. By portraying him, in his Meditations, as a single isolated consciousness, alone in his study day after day or night, Descartes’ conversation focused authority rather in the individual, in his thinking and in his representing to himself, in his thinking, the world outside himself. Look now at the way John Locke takes up this Cartesian conversation for the possibility of individual authority—the authority of the mind surrounded by objects but disengaged from them and from other minds—and remakes it into radical empiricism: a conversation in which the highest kind of thinking I can do, the most valorized act, is to make my ideas “comformable to things as they exist.” One does not contribute to reality; one pays tribute to it. In quoting several passages from Locke, I do not hope, of course, to give more than a partial summary of his philosophy, but I do hope to bring into bolder relief for us some of the contours of his thought. I want us to hear the tenor of his conversation with his time, and to ask how nearly these—conversation and cultural moment—are ours as well.

  • 2 “Thomas Sprat tells us that the Royal Society (the formal organization of scientists in London, gi (...)

6At the beginning of his colossal Essay Concerning Human Understanding, then, Locke expresses his purpose in an Epistle to the Reader. He has set himself the task, he says, of “clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge.” Philosophy, Locke says, is “nothing but the true knowledge of things.”2 How do we arrive at that, then? There is a series of questions here: What is knowledge for Locke? How does it qualify or fail to qualify as true knowledge? And, perhaps more easily overlooked but no less crucial: what are the things that we aim to get knowledge of?

7To set the context for those questions, we may ask of Locke what this rubbish is which impedes philosophy’s advance toward true knowledge. His answer is not tentative: it is “the learned but frivolous use of uncouth, affected, or unintelligible terms introduced into the sciences, and there made an art of,” that ruins philosophy, making it “unfit or uncapable to be brought into well-bred company and polite conversation.” It sounds as if there had been a kind of language used by “couth” philosophers that certified not only their breeding but the nearness to truth of their discourses! But I think that while Locke may be positioning his own discourse here so that it fits into the proper social circles, what he is most concerned to expose as false is not the social standing of contemporary discourse, but something about its way of meaning:

  • 3 From the Epistle to the Reader prefixed to the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in Edwin A. B (...)

Vague and insignificant forms of speech, and abuse of language, have so long passed for mysteries of science; and hard and misapplied words, with little or no meaning, have, by prescription, such a right to be mistaken for deep learning and height of speculation, that it will not be easy to persuade either those who speak or those who hear them, that they are but the covers of ignorance, and hindrance of true knowledge.3

8Locke is on a high horse here, intending nothing less than “to break in upon the sanctuary of vanity and ignorance.” But what kind of language does Locke approve? What does he certify as the true and valid use of words? What is it for a term to be meaningful? In one kind of conversation we have fallacious depth, vain speculation and ignorance: what kind will give us true knowledge? The answer to that should be of considerable interest to teachers.

9To explore Locke’s answer, we first need to find out what he says knowledge is, and where it comes from. Locke’s most famous idea was the assertion that a person comes into the world without any knowledge whatever. A mind—for that is where knowledge is bound to reside—begins as a blank slate, a tabula rasa. If we come into the world with a blank chalkboard in our heads, what teacher writes on it, and what does the writing say?

  • 4 Essay, II.i.1.

Let us suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer in one word, from experience. In that all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself.4

10Notice that Locke is “putting a case” here: he begins with a supposition, continues with a question based on it, and then answers the question so that it accords with the supposition. He does not prove the initial assumed condition. Tabula rasa is simply the contrary of the doctrine of innate ideas, which Locke wants to demolish; he is building up a framework to support the opposite notion, to make it seem more plausible. But so far what we have are fairly bare assertions.

11So our first and only teacher is experience. What is experience, then, and where does it come from? Locke sets up a clear and unambiguous categorization of the sources of the ideas that constitute experience: “All ideas come from sensation or reflection.” Here is his first explanation of “sensation”:

  • 5 Essay, II.i.3.

First, our senses, conversant about particular sensible objects, do convey into the mind several distinct perceptions of things, according to those various ways wherein those objects do affect them... when I say the senses convey into the mind, I mean, they from external objects convey into the mind what produces there those perceptions.5

12What Locke is talking about here, in his elaboration of the framework supporting his initial supposition, is the notion of clear and distinct ideas, a notion that he has appropriated from Descartes. But there is a subtle difference between Descartes’ notion and Locke’s. Where for Descartes the intuition of clarity and distinctness entails a fundamental contribution, tacit and powerful, from the perceiver’s “mental inspection,” for Locke that implicit malleability is a source of confusion. To inspect, as Descartes had proposed, the fact of mental inspection, the contribution to what we see of the way we look, produces nothing but muddy water according to Locke; and in editions after the first he adjoins the following explanation, or admonition:

  • 6 The English Philosophers, 242.

Clear and distinct ideas are terms which, though familiar and frequent in men’s mouths, I have reason to think everyone who uses does not perfectly understand. And possibly ‘tis but here and there one who gives himself the trouble to consider them so far as to know what he himself or others precisely mean by them. I have therefore in most places chose to put determinate or determined, instead of clear and distinct...6

  • 7 Oxford English Dictionary, 268.

13So what does that move accomplish for Locke? What is the difference between clear, distinct ideas and determinate ones? “Determinate” is used to mean “definitely bounded, limited, fixed so as not to vary.”7 “Determined” is used like the words “ended,” “settled,” “fixed,” “decided,” “resolved upon,” “exactly defined.” Locke’s purpose here, it seems, is to fix into place, once and for all, the meanings of the words of our language—to arrive at stable, unfluctuating definitions—and accordingly to fix for all times and all speakers the precise characters of the objects to which words refer:

[By determinate or determined] I mean some object in the mind, and consequently determined, i.e. such as it is there seen and perceived to be. This, I think, may fitly be called a determinate or determined idea when such as it is at any time objectively in the mind and so determined there, it is annexed, and without variation determined, to a name or articulate sound, which is to be steadily the sign of that very same object of the mind, or determinate idea.

  • 8 The English Philosophers, 242 and 243. determined, when applied to a complex idea, I mean such an one as consists of a determinate number of certain simple or less complex ideas, joined in such a proportion and situation as the mind has before its view, and sees in itself, when that idea is present in it or should be present in it, when a man gives a name to it. I say should be, because it is not everyone, nor perhaps anyone, who is so careful of his language as to use no word till he views in his mind the precise determined idea which he resolves to make it the sign of.8

14In threading our way through the clauses here, we must be careful of Locke’s philosophical vocabulary. An “object” in the mind means an idea, not a stone or a table, and all Locke’s talk of objective determination really applies to the delimitation of ideas, not to the limits of real objects, things in the world. He is not in danger of claiming that when one speaks the word “table,” a table falls out of the mouth. But true meaning, in the paradigm Locke is developing, resides only in “precise determined ideas” and precisely delimited definitions, steady recipes. Ideas are (or ought to be) like chemical compounds, elements joined invariably according to precise proportions. Thus knowledge, in Locke’s formulation, depends on and prescribes representation. The mode of knowledge is representation, correspondence of this particular “determinate” character.

15Nor is the conversation about precise determination unattended with that certain hauteur we remarked in the first quoted passage—a warm disdain for careless ordinary usage. In Locke’s speaking here, there is present a certain way of being, is there not? What kind of speaking would count as a failure to communicate? Dostoevsky’s profanity, perhaps, or slang? In Locke’s picture, could silence communicate?

16What is it that precisely determines the content of an idea, and thus the meaning of a word in Locke’s ideal language? At root, remember, the building blocks of ideas are sense impressions; we receive ideas into our minds by way of the senses. So what determines what he calls “simple ideas” is things in the world outside the mind, acting through impulses conveyed by the nerves to the brain, which Locke characterizes, in regal spatiality, as “the mind’s presence-room.” By the end of the thirty-three chapters in Book One of Locke’s Essay, the vocabulary of Ideas as the Sense-images in the Mind of Objects outside has grown strong and plausible. (And there are still three Books to go.) Locke is here installing into our intellectual discourse the vocabulary of, and conversation for, referentiality. With its pervasive image and metaphor of knowledge as a kind of directed sight, Locke’s vocabulary becomes the one in whose terms everything we know and do fits together.

17To appreciate how durable this vocabulary and conversation have been, how resilient in the face of challenge, we have only to look at a newspaper, or an article on an issue in education:

  • 9 Deanna Kuhn, “Thinking as Argument,” in Harvard Educational Review (vol. 62 no. 2, summer 1992), 1 (...)

...the research described here contributes to defining what it means, cognitively speaking, to be an educated person, or at least to define an educated person as one who thinks well… knowing is an ongoing process of evaluation, which the ever-present possibility of new evidence and new arguments leaves always uncompleted. Central to this process is reflection on one’s own thinking—metacognition in its most basic and important sense—and beneath its surface is the structure of argument examined in this article. It is this structure that must be in place for someone to hold a reasoned belief or make a reasoned judgment, which we can think of as the building blocks of educated thinking.9

  • 10 Essay, III.x.22.

18What the researcher is after, in the realm of the cognitions of an educated person, is a definition; the educational discourse into which this article fits has called for a recipe for combining building-blocks. For beneath the process of thinking lurks the structure of argument, without which there can be no building blocks for educated thinking. As Locke had put it, “Knowledge and reasoning require precise determinate ideas.”10 And it is seen here to be in the nature of building blocks that they reside in “one’s own thinking,” the mental process of a single person. It is true that the very next section of the recent article is called “Thinking as a Social Activity,” and recommends that thinking skills be taught in “argumentative dialogue,” which “corrects individual thought.” And in the sentence “knowing is an ongoing process of evaluation, which the ever-present possibility of new evidence and new arguments leaves always uncompleted,” we find the intrusion of a vocabulary of social function into the vocabulary of structured knowledge. But the word “dialogue” is soon supplanted in the article by “discourse,” and Descartes is back in his study, arriving at the correct formulations, the correct representational furniture, required by Locke.

19In Locke’s picture, notice now also that the mind has gained a third dimension along the way; it has become more like a box with slots for input than like a blank canvas. Somewhere in the Essay Locke probably acknowledges that he is far from speaking literally in formulating his pictures of how the mind works, that he is himself artfully using metaphors, figurative instead of representational language. Under the auspices of clearing away the rubbish, he is inventing pictures. And the picture of the mind as a factory, operating with its own internal machinery on raw materials supplied from outside, quickly comes to dominate the discussion, so that Locke’s second great source of experience, reflection on the mind’s own operations, itself looks like another input:

  • 11 Essay, II.i.4.

Secondly, the other fountain, from which experience furnisheth the understanding with ideas, is the perception of the operations of our own minds within us, as it is employed about the ideas it has got... which we, being conscious of, and observing in ourselves, do... receive into our understandings as distinct ideas, as we do from bodies affecting our senses.11

20Locke makes explicit the pictured similarity between sense impressions and internal operations: “and though it be not sense as having nothing to do with external objects, yet it is very like it, and might properly enough be called internal sense.” When we say nowadays that “an idea came into my head,” when we accept without even a first thought the input-output analogy between a mind and a computer, we are re-committing ourselves to this picture of the brain as a box, an enclosed room that receives data into itself like so many bytes. We have settled into a style of reasoning.

21How much of the rest of our conversation nowadays arises from and reinforces just this picture? I have heard teachers say—in jest, of course, or maybe in frustration—that kids cannot get ideas through their thick skulls, or that a child has a “Teflon-coated mind.” In no case that I know of has that conversation made any difference in the student’s performance in school. It seems rather to have cemented into place a picture of the student with just these attributes: it makes the attributes permanent.

22What expressions have you heard and used in your own case? How do these expressions serve you? To what extent do we use them, and to what extent do they use us, channel our thinking about causes and cures? I do not intend this as a rhetorical question; the answers that matter are those that come out of our own examination of the teaching and learning situations we participate in. Derided though it may be, the idea of pouring knowledge in through a funnel may insinuate itself unnoticed into our colloquy and our practice. To the extent that our practice depends on our students hearing what we have to say, the unclogged funnel may be an apt image. To the extent that what we have to say, and how we say it, comes out of Locke’s paradigm of knowledge, we may be shooting ourselves in the mouth. For it may be that the only way to pour in the “finish line,” to bring it present in a classroom so that everyone can see it and dwell in its presence, is to invent it together. What would such a co-invention look like, then? Does a Lockean pedagogy allow for the sociality of inventing? Let us look further.

23Having fixed the character and sources of knowledge into the system of his explication, so that we now have an elaborate vocabulary displaying what knowledge is and where it comes from, Locke expands the picture by, as he says, observing another fact about ideas “in” the mind. Once the “simple ideas” of sensation are stored, the mind has the power to “repeat, compare, and unite them, even to an almost infinite variety.” It can build castles from its blocks. But it can neither fashion the blocks on its own, nor alter their shape:

  • 12 Essay, II.ii.2.

it is not in the power of the most exalted wit or enlarged understanding, by any quickness or variety of thought, to invent or frame one new simple idea in the mind, not taken in by the ways before mentioned... the dominion of man in this little world of his own understanding, being much-what the same as it is in the great world of visible things; wherein his power however managed by art and skill, reaches no farther than to compound and divide the materials that are made to his hand...12

  • 13 This is an oversimplification of the position of the Essay, if not an exaggeration of its emphasis (...)

24Here again the dominant image of knowledge as sight, and here again the divorce between minds and things material. But the vocabulary of regal presence has shifted: man’s dominion in matters of understanding, hence of knowledge, appears rather paltry now, like that of a prisoner in a cell, hardly dominion at all. And here is the treachery: humans are reduced in this way of speaking from architects to slab carriers, constrained in this picture to re-presentation, the copying and combining of what is already designed. Lockean certainty, as it develops here, is opaque to the self, resolutely turned away from personal (that is, social) contribution, immune to the co-poiesis of meaning. In stark, brute facticity the elements of the world confront us. Outside perception and before perception, the elemental objects govern with an iron dominance. To know is to be informed.13

25That we actually manufacture and destroy, nowadays, the chemical elements which make up matter, is not the point to be made to contrast Locke’s picture, though that fact in itself might give us pause in assigning absolute primacy to any set of building blocks purportedly laid close to the foundation of knowledge. (We do not know exactly what’s what; and my students, at least, are on to that.) Rather, the point is that whatever elements we take to be primary, indissoluble budding blocks, all the way down to electrons, positrons and quarks, are values in a system. Their valueness is no less important than their objectness. (In my home town there is a restaurant whose name lights up with valueness, engaging it in the language of the city’s commerce. It is called the Silvertron Café. The food is not bad, either.) In designating the things that we aim to get knowledge of, Locke has assigned ontological primacy to the objectness of objects, leaving out of the picture that “judging” which Descartes-Saussure glimpsed as the engagement of human beings that occurs in a system of values, a language.

26Early in the spring a year or two ago, there had been a light dusting of snow during a cold snap, and as daylight faded from the overcast sky, I was wishing, as I had off and on during the winter, that our house contained a fireplace. Dustin, who had been playing outside as I puttered around, sometimes attending to his own interests and more often seeking to interest me in joining his play, suddenly announced: “I know, Daddy! Let’s build a snow fire.” And he began to gather the icy sticks and leaves that rumpled the surface of the snow-crusted yard, piling them up in a fairly well wrought model of the lean-to fire I had taught him about. But he hadn’t remembered to put underneath them any “tinder,” shavings or twigs that could be “lighted” with a “match.” So I asked him how we’d get the fire to burn, since we didn’t have any kerosene to pour on the sticks. “Don’t worry,” he said confidently, “I know how to handle fires like this.” Locke might have smiled benignly at the childish imitation of knowledge.

  • 14 For Locke’s genial, caring generosity toward children, see his Some Thoughts Concerning Education,(...)

27Descartes, remembering his “knowledge” of men passing in the street, might have worn an expression somewhat more doubtful, as if the nature of Dustin’s speaking might not be so plain. For its purpose had clearly been to include the two of us in a shared activity, the adventure of inventing snow fire. Dustin’s speaking (as I heard it) had not been geared to deal with objects in a real world: it was a declaration of possibility. Though Locke would never have wanted to squelch that childish spirit of declaration,14 his grown-up philosophical position makes it rather difficult to sustain the kind of attention that Bakhtin sets at the heart even of literary study. (“The real object of study,” Bakhtin says, “is the interrelation and interaction of spirits.”) When I told Dustin, on one of his recent visits to my office, that I was writing about his snow fire, and recounted the story to him, he asked in wonderment: “But Daddy, how did it burn? You didn’t get warm from it, did you? Did we really light it with a match?” In these questions about what things are by the necessity of their own nature, I heard him asking another question: What is Prometheus?

28Over and over again, Locke reiterates that no one can ever “fashion in his understanding any simple idea not received in his senses from external objects, or by reflection from the operations of his own mind about them.” Over and over he dismisses received opinion to the contrary as folly, and stands firmly on the ground of his own clear and systematic classification, appealing to his readers’ observation of their own experience to certify its validity. The picture in the background is always the same: words represent internal ideas that represent external things. To select a passage almost at random:

  • 15 Essay, IV.v.8.

it may not be amiss to consider that though our words signify nothing but our ideas, yet being designed by them to signify things, the truth they contain when put into propositions will be only verbal, when they stand for ideas in the mind that have not an agreement with the reality of things.15

29In light of Dustin’s snow fire, we might say: that may be so, if one accepts the story about determinate ideas and their combinations, but this is not the whole story. In fact, its effect, like that of any vocabulary taken to be comprehensive, “final,” is to hide other stories. We want to have an idea of the way fire really works, so that we can handle the real thing, but Locke’s philosophical picture devalues the context of human being together that allows for our handling it. There is no soobschenie here, no becoming together. We are obliged to build real fires sometimes, but what are we building with them? Where is the originary fire located? Perhaps it is the being-together which handles fires, makes fires possible. Maybe the spirit of Prometheus is born here, in our being-together-for-something.

30Locke’s picture of knowledge and truth as representation, as “agreement with the reality of things,” gives him decided opinions about the proper means toward “improvement of our knowledge.” Under the rubric of improving our knowledge he is talking about what we would now refer to as research, but his thinking has clear implications for pedagogy as well. Having in the background now Locke’s picture of what knowledge is, and what makes it “true,” we can ask what Locke means by “improvement” of knowledge.

  • 16 This is pre-Kuhn. Locke does not get that even experiments are paradigm-determined.

31In the chapter devoted specifically to that topic, he speaks of “building” our knowledge of a subject, of the “advancement” and “certainty of real knowledge,” of “enlargement” of knowledge. We notice the directionality, the implied progress toward the goal of certainty, in the talk of improvement and advance; of sequence and cumulation in the talk of building and enlargement. Here Locke is using a vocabulary appropriate for one kind of improvement: that which comes from observations of and experiments on the physical universe.16 While the Essay elsewhere distinguishes other kinds of knowledge and other kinds of improvement, Locke’s overriding purpose, to establish clear and incontrovertible principles that will lead to true and certain knowledge, leads him to set up this kind—the empirical, experimental, “objective”—as the foundation and test of the others. At bottom, this kind is the touchstone of knowledge. Thus Locke shifts the conversation of his time away from reliance on what he calls “general maxims, precarious principles, and hypotheses laid down at pleasure”—away from that merely verbal rubbish that impedes philosophy’s advance.

  • 17 Essay, III.iv.11.

32So according to Locke, the question for us teachers must be: what kind of language use, what kind of conversation, will lead toward true knowledge? How do we talk so as to communicate knowledge to our students? In all this conversation between Locke and his contemporaries which we have been overhearing, we have been led to valorize a language that works with two inter-related presuppositions in the background: 1) there is a natural distinction between subject and object, perceiver and perceived; 2) language is referentiality (words refer to ideas of things). From these a third follows: 3) our knowledge depends on accurately communicated information. Locke’s whole system, as we have seen, assumes that sense experience involves two distinct terms: the mind inside, and the outside objects that affect it. “Simple ideas, as has been shown, are only to be got by those impressions objects themselves make on our minds, by the proper inlets appointed to each sort.”17 While Locke distinguishes several sorts of ideas other than the simple sense-impression, and acknowledges that most of these are “inventions and creatures of the understanding,” his purpose in doing so is to reinforce the separation between words and ideas, whose “seat” is in the mind, and things outside it. The “inventions” of the understanding he calls “creatures”: created objects with their own distinct identities, in analogy with the objective identities that make up the material world. An idea, especially a precisely determined idea, has the character of an identity, like the bead of an abacus. In this formulation, that is, this way of talking, Locke has focused his attention and ours on “inventions”—things already invented—thus diverting our eye from the possibility of an ongoing activity of inventing. His language enables description and not play. In our interest in the relative motions and spins of the billiard balls, we forget to ask who made the game up, and where the pleasure in playing it comes from.

33Interesting. Dividing subject from object has the effect of making everything, subjects included, into an object of one kind or another. The object-objects are res extensa and the subject-objects are res cogitans. We have extended things, objects whose boundaries are delimited in space, and we have mental or dunking things, whose boundaries are delimited... but rather than completing the partition, notice the dominant background, the whole of which the two kinds of things are parts: everything is delimited, everything is res. We don’t live in a kingdom any more (much less a Kingdom with a dapple-dawn-drawn falcon for a Dauphin); we live in a thingdom.

34Looking at the “piece” of wax, Descartes had begun his conversation by raising the question whether subjects are really separated from objects. (Reading his early conversations with his reader, one might have asked “Where is this piece of wax?”) Then, examining the action by which the wax is perceived, Descartes’ way of talking draws our attention to inventing, judging, inspecting as ongoing actions (or better, ongoing acting) rather than already finished processes that have issued in completed products, the objects and ideas we deal with every day. This is a difference of enormous moment. For the opposite of “thing” is not “process.” The opposite of thing, surprisingly, is being, or more exactly, giving being, inventing being. Processes are made up of things, A causing B causing C, D, and F. (Did our system, the alphabet, cause you to ask “What happened to E?”) Inventing being is made up of nothing. It gives things, gives systems. These windows are, literally, worlds apart. Locke’s window is epistemology. Descartes-Saussure’s window opens into ontology. But we are ahead of ourselves here; we will look at ontology in Part Two.

35Let us return then to the assumptions that make up Locke’s window, the frame around which he traces. One member of the frame, one edge of the window, let’s say, is the subject or mind; the edge opposite that is the object world. The other pair of edges that make up the frame come from the background assumption that words refer to or correspond to or conform with things as they exist in themselves. (Or rather, that they should so conform if our knowledge is to be as exact and complete as is possible for finite creatures.) Here again is Locke:

  • 18 Essay, III.iii.13.

Nature, in the production of things, makes several of them alike: there is nothing more obvious, especially in the races of animals, and all things propagated by seed. But yet I think we may say, the sorting of them under names is the workmanship of the understanding, taking occasion, from the similitude it observes amongst them, to make abstract general ideas, and set them up in the mind, with names annexed to them, as patterns or forms... to which as particular things existing are found to agree, so they come to be of that species, have that denomination, or are put into that classis.18

36We might draw a picture of the frame that is present in this discourse; Locke is drawing it himself in this passage and countless others:

37Objects confront men, and men try to describe them. Things produce ideas to which words are “annexed”; words relate to things by representing their ideas. Determinate things solicit the naming of classes, abstract general ideas, like a set of templates for sorting other already determined objects. This, of course, is a crude, first-approximation diagram of what gives Locke his vision. He refines it so skilfully that its presence is not noticed: he sees through it, and we see through it with him, not noticing that we are seeing through just this window.

38What else is there to this window of Locke’s? What is the color or tint of the panes, for instance? Locke strives, as his model of knowledge requires, to make them as clear and colorless as is humanly possible. But here is another hint. Man’s acumen, weak and stunted compared with the Creator’s omniscience, sets a limit on the adequacy of his perception, his invention of taxonomies, on the validity of his ranking of reality. Looking through this window, the purpose of invention is to serve description, which can be more or less accurate, more or less “conformable to things as they exist” in God’s ultimately unfathomable creation. And here is a bind indeed. We are required to conform our knowledge to an ultimately unknowable fabric of substances and attributes. And then we are required to speak as if we had achieved an adequate description:

  • 19 Essay,

For, though men may make what complex ideas they please, and give what names to them they please; yet, if they will be understood when they speak of things really existing, they must in some degree conform their ideas to the things they would speak of; or else men’s language will be like that of Babel; and every man’s words, being intelligible only to himself, would no longer serve to conversation and the ordinary affairs of life, if the ideas they stand for be not some way answering the common appearances and agreement of substances as they really exist.19

39Doesn’t this sound like just plain good common sense? Doesn’t it resonate with our sense of how things are, what we have to do to get things accomplished, what our job as human beings is? It is not something one can disagree with.

  • 20 Essay, IV.xiii.1.

40But notice the window in the background. In the reference to Babel, the coloring of the panes shows up: they are tinted with the prideful insufficiency of man’s understanding of the creation God made independently of us. “Here we see as through a glass darkly,” Locke implies, and our speech, like our knowledge, “has so great a conformity with our sight”20 that we can rely on nothing but clear communication to avoid failure. Here is the framework again: Clear communication, our stay against confusion and the antidote for pride, presumes and requires an absolute difference between men and other “things really existing,” and depends totally on conformity between things, ideas, and words—on stable reference. And the coloring of the panes appears in that resignation to the limits of our human powers of perception and our aspiring axioms: “our faculties are not fitted to penetrate into the internal fabric and real essences of bodies,” Locke concludes.

41What are our faculties fitted for, then? Looking through Locke’s window, how are we to proceed in improving or enlarging or advancing our knowledge and that of our students? Locke gives us two rules:

  • 21 Essay, IV.xii.14.

The first is to get and settle in our minds determined ideas of those things whereof we have general or specific names.... And if they be specific ideas of substances, we should endeavor also to make them as complete as we can, whereby I mean, that we should put together as many simple ideas as, being constantly observed to co-exist, may perfectly determine the species; and each of those simple ideas which are the ingredients of our complex ones, should be clear and distinct [that is, determined] in our minds. For it being evident that our knowledge cannot exceed our ideas; as far as they are either imperfect, confused, or obscure, we cannot expect to have certain, perfect, or clear knowledge.21

  • 22 Essay, IV.xii.14.
  • 23 I and Thou, trans. Kaufman (New York: Simon & Schuster Touchstone), 56.

42And the second rule is to find out “those intermediate ideas, which may show us the agreement or repugnancy of other ideas, which cannot be immediately compared.”22 “O piling up of information!” Buber would say. “It, it, it!”23

43I still remember my favorite project in the ninth grade. We were to pick out, somewhere on the school’s hundred acres, one square meter of ground, which we would observe, as closely and regularly as we could, for the whole semester. Our observations were to culminate in a report on the contents of our square meter, a compendium of observed data, hypothesized relationships among the facts, and conclusions about the “nature” of our adopted territory. We had to get and settle in our minds determined ideas, and annex names to them—these were the facts we reported. We were looking for “steady signs.” We had to look deep, using as many of our senses as we could to explore the phenomena, to amass data for correlation: we had to look for the constant co-existence of datum with datum. And the report was to be an interpretation of the data we had observed, a finding out or supplying of ideas “intermediate” between datum and datum. We had to show how phenomena on one side of our square meter were related to phenomena on the other side. John Locke assigned us that project.

  • 24 See E. D. Hirsch, “The Primal Scene of Education,” New York Review of Books, March 2, 1989.

44To acquire knowledge, through Locke’s window, is to set up a vast honeycomb, with rows and columns of cells into which information is deposited for later recall. In this array, knowledge is built on prior knowledge; learning depends on prior learning.24 Though the data that are ordered and correlated in the honeycomb are as various as the impressions entering at our senses, once it is coded into the honeycomb of our knowledge, it becomes just information like everything else. We can recall it, manipulate it, massage it and report it, but it is no longer ours. I said the square meter was my favorite project. Why did I get such a charge out of it? Was it because I was finally getting to be outside doing things, instead of sitting at a desk taking notes? But I enjoyed taking notes in other classes, though not in all classes. Was it because my friends were all assigned the same project, and we could call across the pond to each other? (“Oh, man, I found a stump!” “Hey, today the ground is wet—I wonder what that means?!”) Perhaps it was because I had the opportunity to invent the data—I got to make up the facts about my territory and the relationships between them. My “observing” was inventing. I got an A+ on the report. How did I know that what I was supposed to be doing, even in a Lockean project, was inventing? How did they teach me that?

  • 25 Locke himself recognized that men have the original say, perform the invention that gives them a w (...)
  • 26 In The Question concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper an (...)

45In fixing the identities of natural and human objects for human subjects to perceive and understand—in cementing the foundations of knowledge—Locke’s picture, ratified and augmented by the ascendancy of science, had catalyzed not only the split between man and his world, but also a massive retreat from what might be seen as the responsibility of Adam: that naming of the world that symbolizes man’s ever-original say in it. This last, now, is not obvious to us, because the picture we receive through Locke’s window prevents us from recognizing the say we have in forming the world, populating it with forms.25 We are always renewing our culture by speaking and listening in its terms—repeating and participating in its conversation. We are always responsible in committing ourselves by speaking as we do. When Heidegger says that “the fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture,”26 he is pointing to the hegemony of representation that Locke so magisterially voiced. If we re-open the questions Locke has already answered so forcefully, we may open a way toward responsibility—having a say in the world—that does not ignore the facts, the rocks, or the rock stars, but re-establishes our intimacy with them. What is it to be with facts powerfully?

  • 27 Thomas Jefferson to Henry Dearborn, 1807.

46When Locke shifted the conversation of philosophy away from the authority of “first principles” toward skeptical observation and experiment—toward structured knowledge as the alpha and omega of consciousness—he undercut another possible way of looking, listening, and being, too: the way I’m calling inventing. Locke’s purpose, especially as it was heard by Thomas Jefferson, was to empower the solidarity of free men. “The field of Knowledge,” said Jefferson, “is the common property of mankind, and any discoveries we can make in it will be for the benefit of yours and of every other nation, as well as our own.”27 I am not obliged to genuflect because of some first principle like the Divine Right of Kings. As a political position, this worked rather well. But as epistemology, Locke’s writing cements into place a picture of individuals—objects and men and women—acting on each other in determinate ways, rather than generating the possibility of freedom in their encounter. Locke’s picture is not wrong: like the old Brooklyn Bridge, its capacity to carry traffic has been exceeded. If a scientific hypothesis must not be made “at pleasure” (which means at random), is it so also for, say, a declaration of truth? Do “things” govern the truth of declarations? Do facts in the objective world limit possibilities, constraining invention? Or is inventing the vehicle of engagement, of being together? Can we be only when we be together coming into a world?

47When you tell your child things about the world, when you impart knowledge to him, what happens? Does he use it as information, or as material for inventing, for play? Or does he avoid or ignore information presented as information? Last fall, my son had been playing in a tarp full of leaves that had been left in the middle of the yard. It was a ship for him, and he had been sailing the sea of grass, master of his career through the deep. Because I had had to empty the tarp to get another load of leaves, I was faced with the opportunity to make another ship for him. Filling the tarp with leaves, I dragged one end up onto a small tree stump, so that it looked tolerably like a ship’s prow. But now the question arose: how will I present this construction to the child? If I tell him, “See, the bow is riding over a big wave,” how he takes this and what he does with it will come out of the way I am being when I say it. If I say it as an already rehearsed line, he may get my saying as acting, and decide either to participate in the play or not. But if I invent the line newly, at the precise moment in our dialogue when he needs it or can use it—then he may get my saying as his homeland, and the ship will live again. What is it to invent together?—for I need his homeland as the listening into which I may speak. How do he and I both know that what we are supposed to be doing, even amidst the brute facticity, the heavy mass of those millions of leaves, is inventing? How does Prometheus pull off the theft?


1 In J. Rajchman and C. West, eds., Post-Analytic Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 146.

2 “Thomas Sprat tells us that the Royal Society (the formal organization of scientists in London, given a royal charter in 1662, to which Locke was elected in 1668) believed that’ the true Philosophy must be first of all begun, on a scrupulous, and severe examination of particulars.’ Sprat warns against letting general theories turn into metaphysical systems unchecked by reference to things themselves. Sprat (with some reservations) spoke for the scientists of the Royal Society. Locke was one of them, strongly in agreement with the methods and attitudes of its members.” (John W. Yolton, John Locke and Education [New York: Random House, 1971], 8.) It is the examination of particulars which frees men from the preconceptions, about themselves as well as about nature, embodied in “vague and insignificant forms of speech.” That a person was born with ideas already installed—especially such ideas as attributed to him in scholastic disputations—such an assumption was to be swept away with the cobwebs.

3 From the Epistle to the Reader prefixed to the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in Edwin A. Burt, ed., The English Philosophers from Bacon to Mill (New York: Modern Library, 1939, 1967), 242.

4 Essay, II.i.1.

5 Essay, II.i.3.

6 The English Philosophers, 242.

7 Oxford English Dictionary, 268.

8 The English Philosophers, 242 and 243.

9 Deanna Kuhn, “Thinking as Argument,” in Harvard Educational Review (vol. 62 no. 2, summer 1992), 173-4.

10 Essay, III.x.22.

11 Essay, II.i.4.

12 Essay, II.ii.2.

13 This is an oversimplification of the position of the Essay, if not an exaggeration of its emphasis. See John W. Yolton, John Locke and Education (New York: Random House, 1971), chapter 3, 53 ff.

14 For Locke’s genial, caring generosity toward children, see his Some Thoughts Concerning Education, written as letters to a friend between 1684 and 1691, and compiled for publication in 1693.

15 Essay, IV.v.8.

16 This is pre-Kuhn. Locke does not get that even experiments are paradigm-determined.

17 Essay, III.iv.11.

18 Essay, III.iii.13.

19 Essay,

20 Essay, IV.xiii.1.

21 Essay, IV.xii.14.

22 Essay, IV.xii.14.

23 I and Thou, trans. Kaufman (New York: Simon & Schuster Touchstone), 56.

24 See E. D. Hirsch, “The Primal Scene of Education,” New York Review of Books, March 2, 1989.

25 Locke himself recognized that men have the original say, perform the invention that gives them a world, a system to live in. (See Book III, chapter vi, especially paragraphs 36 forward.) But his eye is always turned toward the adequacy of the invention: its conformity with the “particular things” made by Nature.

26 In The Question concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 134.

27 Thomas Jefferson to Henry Dearborn, 1807.

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