An Essay Concerning Human Understanding - Book II, Chapters 16-33 Summary & Analysis

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Book II, Chapters 16-33 Summary and Analysis

Book II continues with a discussion of number. Basically Locke's idea is that all of our conceptions of number come from our underlying idea of unity that we find in our own body and mind. We multiply this original unity over and over to get all of our other complex ideas of number up to and including different notions of the infinite. Basically the discussion of number leads directly into Locke's discussion of other ways that we can construct simple modes including the basic modification of sound, taste and other basic simple ideas.

In Chapter 20, Locke begins a long discussion of pleasure, pain and the active and passive powers, which will take up much of Book II. Although this discussion is within the context of Locke's larger discussion of complex ideas, this should be seen as an extended commentary on morality and freedom. Locke begins with a discussion of pleasure and pain. Pleasure and pain are both simple ideas that are given to us by sensation. There are important and very clear and powerful sensations that make a great impression on us. Locke goes on to argue that good and evil only really refer to pleasure and pain. That is, when we think of something as good we really are conjuring up an idea of some past pleasure. We think of things as good or bad insofar as those things tend to cause either pleasure or pain. This is all that we really mean by the terms good and evil. This is a strong claim by Locke and it is important to realize how radical this claim is as well as how it fits into his overall system. If Locke does not equate pleasure and pain with good and evil where would people learn about good and evil? That is, since all knowledge comes from experience and ultimately from sensation, Locke has to posit some sensory base for all our ideas, even those concerning morality. He cannot claim that we have inborn knowledge of morality because that would constitute an innate idea. Rather, he must claim, as he does, that our moral ideas can be reduced to sensory ideas of pleasure and pain. Locke here then is giving the basic argument that will inform all future utilitarianism.

Locke then goes on, in the same way to explain love and desire. Love is just the attitude of reflecting on something, which has a tendency to cause delight. Love, like our ideas in general, can and does fade over time if that original idea of delight is not renewed with the object. Desire is related and it is the uneasiness that a person feels in the absence of an object that has caused delight in the past. Locke explains this uneasiness as extremely troubling and claims that no man can be happy in its presence. As a result of the pain of unrequited desire, desire is able to motivate into action.

The next section begins an extended discussion of freedom of the will and the agent. Locke begins this discussion with an analysis of what he calls powers. A power is something that is capable of making a change in the world. Heat has the power to melt gold or cold the power to freeze ice. There are two kinds of power, active and passive. Passive powers are the powers of heat and cold aforementioned, that is, relational power that require no internal direction. Matter has passive powers by virtue of internal and external relations it has. Only agents, that is, things capable of moving themselves, have active powers. It is easy enough to see how we form the ideas of passive powers. Any kind of motion or transformation of matter that we see in the world gives us a basic idea of passive power. It is harder to see how we get an idea of active powers, since we are unable to observe active powers in nature. Locke thinks that we see in ourselves a will or volition that gives us the idea of active powers.

It is this idea of liberty that we find in ourselves that allows us to think of ourselves as free agents. Throughout the history of philosophy, philosophers have disputed whether or not the will is free or determined. Some have argued that since nature seems to work on the necessary, casual laws, we too must be bound by those laws and however much we think of ourselves as free, we are really determined though causal necessity by the events of the past. Other philosophers have held that despite the causal necessity that seems to rule the world of objects and matter, human beings, for whatever reason, have a free will; they are not bound by the casual necessity of the world. Philosophers who hold that people do not have free will are called determinist and those that claim humans do have free will are called libertarians. Locke is notable because he is one of the first proponents of a third position in this debate known as compatabalism. Although Locke does not use the word himself, compatabalists argue that freedom is compatible with determinism. Locke is able to hold this position because of an interesting distinction he makes between a free will and a free agent. Will, or the idea of liberty, is just the idea to act in accordance with one's preferences. Will itself is an idea, a power, and it is silly and mistaken to talk about the freedom of the will itself. Rather we should talk about the freedom of the individual agent who has a will.

Locke uses several ingenious examples to explain this basic idea. Locke asks us to imagine a man who, while he is sleeping, is carried into another room where a friend of his is sitting. Upon awaking he finds himself in the company of the friend and is delighted to stay in the room and converse with his friend. Unbeknownst to him, another person has locked him in the room with his friend. Despite being locked into the room, the man has no preference to leave the room and so stays happily discussing with his friend. Locke claims that the man's stay in the room is voluntary, that is, it is in accordance with his will and preferences to stay in the room. Still, the man, being locked into the room, is not at liberty to leave. This shows that the voluntariness of the action and the freedom of the action are not the same thing. Being free as an agent involves having the freedom to do what one may want to do whereas being free in terms of will means something else. The two things then, cannot be the same. Will or volition is a type of power; freedom or liberty is the ability to act in a way of his choosing. Locke then, believes that the entire debate about free will and determinism has been confused because those involved have not separated freedom of the will from freedom of the agent.

Locke then returns to an idea from above, namely that of desire as the felt uneasiness for some good or to relive some evil. He discusses how strong this urge can be in different cases and how desires to remove pain can be different from desires to seek pleasure. What all desires have in common however, is the motivating force to an agent to change his situation so as to alleviate the felt uneasiness. Happiness is the utmost pleasure that we can feel when we have no more desires. It is to the pursuit of happiness that all true liberty is aimed. Therefore we should direct our active powers to the pursuit of that state and make sure that all obstacles that would obstruct our liberty be removed so that we are able to move towards a greater state of happiness. Locke then deals with the question of moral and legal responsibility. Since we can never actually discern the colors and contents of a person's will or preferences, Locke argues that people should be held responsible solely for their actions, noting that God will ultimately punish the wicked and raise up the just.

After this extended discussion of morality and freedom, Locke returns to the main narrative of mixed modes where he discusses ideas of substance and relation. While discussing relations, he explains how cause and effect really derive from our basic ideas of relation. Then, he goes on to discuss identity over time, specifically the identity of persons over time. This is a complicated subject in general and a complicated discussion in Locke that we will only skim the surface of here. Personal identity is important for one reason because if we cannot pick out the same person over time, we cannot rightly praise or blame. Locke uses the example of a person who is drunk and does something wrong though does not remember it the next day. Children grow up and look nothing like they originally did, a man at night may think differently than a man during the day; how then are we to tell when a person is the same and when they are different? Locke chooses to distinguish between identity in consciousness and identity in body. Bodies can and do change over time but so long as consciousness remains similar, we still consider it to be the same person. This is a problem for Locke partly because he wants to allow for the possibility of the resurrection of the body at judgment day. Locke says that though those bodies will be new our consciousness will have remained similar and hence we will be the same person on the Day of Judgment.

Locke finishes this book by discussing several other, more minor relations and then discussing true and falsity. Locke holds what would be called today a "correspondence theory of truth" that is, something is true insofar as the ideas correspond with the world. He discusses the possibility of fantasy, falsity and several other important distinctions of truth before finishing up the book and preparing for the next book on words.

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