Rebirth of Reason


Locke on Essence
by Merlin Jetton

    This new website's name, Rebirth of Reason, reminds me of the Enlightenment. John Locke was one of leaders of that era.  This article will address his views on essence. All quotes from Locke are in Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

    Locke strongly criticized the traditional idea of essence, as used by either Plato or Aristotle. Even the Aristotelian idea of essence, which is something common "in" each individual entity or attribute which is a member of a category. For Locke such a thing, which he called "real essence," was beyond the human powers of perception. He did not reject real essence totally. His belief in God allowed him to describe real essence as the internal constitution of the substance that God in his wisdom put there (M. Ayers, Locke: Epistemology & Ontology, II, 40.) This essence is, however, beyond the powers of human knowledge, so really there is little point in talking about it in this way. However, momentarily we will see that he did write about real essence in another way.

    Locke's "nominal essence" is an epistemological essence and nothing more, a criterion by reference to which we mark off the members of a species, sort, or category. The boundary owes its existence to our marking it, based on the resemblances that reality supplies. 

"For I would ask any one, What is sufficient to make an essential difference in nature between any two particular beings, without any regard had to some abstract idea, which is looked upon as the essence and standard of a species? All such patterns and standards being quite laid aside, particular beings, considered barely in themselves, will be found to have all their qualities equally essential; and everything in each individual will be essential to it; or, which is more, nothing at all" (III, vi, 5.) 
   Nominal essences usually consist of a few obvious qualities observed in things. The mind of man rarely puts any together that do not really co-exist; and so it truly borrows that union from nature. Yet the qualities combined depend upon the various care, industry, or fancy of him that makes it. "Men generally content themselves with some few sensible obvious qualities; and often, if not always, leave out others as material and as firmly united as those that they take" (III, vi, 29.)
   He also says that real and nominal essence are the same in simple ideas and modes (attributes) but not in substances. "[C]oncerning that parcel of matter which makes the ring on my finger; wherein these two essences are apparently different. For, it is the real constitution of its insensible parts, on which depend all these properties of color, weight, fusibility, fixedness, & c., which are to be found in it; which constitution we know not" (II, III, 18.) What insensible parts does he mean?
   Some commentators have said Locke conceived of a substance as something indeterminate in itself to which God might annex any attribute or essence he chose. Yet there is no need for ascribing this to Locke. One could interpret Locke as saying we do not know the essence that constitutes all physical things (Ayers, 41.) The "insensible parts" could simply be the nature of matter beyond our powers of perception, like atoms or subatomic particles. Indeed, his discussion of ignorance in Book IV, Chapter III is evidence that this is in fact the case.
   The topic of the nature of reality beyond our perceptual powers should be considered in context -- the state of scientific knowledge at the time. Locke subscribed to the corpuscular theory -- as atomism was then called -- like his famous friend Robert Boyle. His Essay preceded the chemical revolution of the 18th century, but chances are he knew about Isaac Newton's work on optics and theory of light.
   It is easy enough to ignore Locke’s view of "real essence" as not that important to Locke's positive theory of knowledge. After all, it is not generally a part of human knowledge and redundant in the case of simple ideas. We would be left with only "nominal essence" that is remarkably similar to Ayn Rand's idea of essence. He also criticized the traditional views like Rand did. So Locke's position on essence can be regarded like Ayn Rand's in this way -- essence is not metaphysical but epistemological (ITOE, 2nd ed., 52.)

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