Locke on substanceWhen faced with a question of plausibility one must do extensive research in order for there to be as few hermeneutical gaps in our knowledge as possible, to ensure this I will be using many sources as well as selecting only the vital information, finding objections to Locke’s theory of substance and ultimately provide sufficient context to ensure the plausibility of Locke’s theory of substance
Understanding substance can prove to be quite difficult, as throughout our history there is no universal definition that all agree on but while studying Locke’s theory of substance it has the ability to be universally plausible. As humans our modest ideas represent properties for us to think of a substance like an elephant or a mouse but rather ”we need to think of these qualities as inhering in or be unified by some underlying substratum” CITATION HEL18 l 1033 (ROBERTSON, 2018) according to Locke this is the single idea we have, and that there is no other idea that is any more determinate, this idea according to Locke will not further our understanding of external objects.
Now I will explore John Locke’s doctrine of substratum and in this I will answer how we have come to this idea of substance.
John Locke’s doctrine of substratum unites properties/qualities into one distinct object. Consider your day to day experience: we individuate a collection of sensory data into distinct objects, mentally recording which properties seem to group. For instance, we perceive greyness, hardness, and bigness all moving together in one shape and we assume these qualities make up the single object of an elephant. Here we see where we began using a single word for the entire combination like an elephant, but this single word misleads us to thinking that there is an idea of a unitary thing i.e. substance
However, we do not simply believe this collection of properties is the item itself, but rather we believe the properties of the elephant inhere in something—it stands to reason that we as humans do not simply understand that the qualities of objects could roam off in the universe, rather we understand that the qualities of an item form a combination, and ”we form the idea of that which underlies the combination and unites it” CITATION HEL18 l 7177 (ROBERTSON, 2018). John Locke further asserts, that “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).
Moreover, we might look at substance in a unique way: undoubtedly, Locke maintains qualities belong to objects, but what are objects in addition to their properties? Consider stripping an object of its properties: all that seems to be left is a plain ‘something,’ which on pains of regress, has no properties of its own, but the property of being the vessel or supporter of other properties. Locke names this basic ‘something’ substance
Moving forward with the new finding, we can explore some objections to John Locke’s theory of substance. There are no absolutes there can only be compelling evidence with this being said let us explore the objections: Stephan Priest’s objection to Locke’s theory of substance argue that it is rationally inconsistent and consequently indefensible, Locke distinguishes this evident difficulty and goes on to say “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 shows substance is something ‘we know not what,’ which is something incomprehensible (Locke Essay, III. vii. 8). The objection to Locke argues it defeats the purpose of raising a substance to suppose substance can hold properties of their own, rather than of the things whose substance they were: for if things with properties need substance to support these properties, then if substance are themselves things with properties, they likewise will need yet other substance in support of their properties and so on ad infinitum. (Follows the story in work book with poor Indian philosopher I.e. what gave support to elephant … what gave support to tortoise supporting elephant … and lastly what supports the tortoise, and this continues forever …)
Accordingly, it seems Locke’s theory of substance cannot be propertied because that would require substance ad infinitum (Forever and ever) as the objection to Locke’s theory argues. Alternatively, Locke’s theory of substance would at least need to own the qualities of being a conveyor or supporter of properties to fulfill its ontological role as the objections states. This being so, then substratum cannot possibly be flawlessly property-less. Thus, substance must be correspondingly propertied and property-less. Therefore, the objection critique is that, on relations of contradiction, Locke’s substance cannot occur.
Nevertheless, the objection nosedives because it conflates one-place property predicates and personal predicates. Undeniably, the meaning of substratum requires the property of being an object that holds properties; however, the property of holding properties is not a main property or subordinate property but rather a private property. We might say substratum stands in a connection to the property of supporting properties, but this does not mean that substratum possess properties in the same manner as a carrot possesses the properties with being orange
It is this difference that the abovementioned objection fails to contemplate and at last why the respective objection fails. Stephan Priest next objection follows that Locke is excluded from using the substratum doctrine because of his pragmatist background. Certainly, Locke is insistent that substance is ‘something’ in which properties ‘inhere’ and that the substance ‘supports’ properties but he is equally emphatic in his argument that this ‘something’ is ‘something’ we know what not.
To put in another way, substratum is incomprehensible. Moreover, Locke says we have no ‘positive idea’ of substratum’s nature. The objections maintain that since Locke cannot reason for our mental attainment of substratum on empiricist grounds, Locke cannot constantly adopt the idea of substratum. Ultimately, I argue that Locke dodges this objection but only if we read Locke in a looser manner. Locke maintains that the mind perceives it cannot conceive how any group of co-instantiated qualities, such as color, heaviness, thickness, etc., can occur and be combined without something to “support their existence” (Locke Essay, II. viii. 10).
Fundamentally, the mind discovers free-floating qualities unfathomable (Locke Essay, III. x. 2). Locke then contends that reason prompts us to presume the reality of something that supports the qualities of a single object. Ultimately, the mind possesses the resources for this rational inference, and these materials are supplied by the empirical basic ideas of wisdom and reflection
With this thinking would individual qualities of a human inhere together, with time, without substance? As inanimate objects need substance to unite their properties, so do animate bodies to unite their various properties. Since substance is not a metaphysical reality, then the integrated, continual identity of an individual is uncertain for Locke and this will mean its difficult to hold criminals accountable for their actions as after the crime the criminal’s properties change.
Fundamentally, with no substance, Locke cannot defend personal autonomy, which is so important to his ethical system.
years later Jack is captured at time T1. Though, at his arrest, Mack’s presence and character have transformed for instance, without substance we are then left wondering if the criminal who committed the crime is the person who we want to judge. Consider this example: envision that Mack kills Jill at time T0. Twenty. Mack no longer holds the same properties as he did when he murdered Jane at T0.
The differences in properties becomes problematic when trying to hold Mack accountable for Jill’s passing at T0 because Mack at T0 is qualitatively different than Mack at T1 and since this is the case we look at Mack at T0 and T1 as to entities and two separate humans. Nonetheless this is counterintuitive. In the end, Locke’s doctrine of substance resolves this issue.
If the properties of Mack at T0 inhere in a property-less being that exists through time and space such as substance. Then grounds exist for asserting that Mack at T1 is the same entity as Mack at T0 because a subsisting substance exists. If this is the case, we might hold Mack at T1 accountable for the murder at T0 even though he has different qualities he has the same metaphysical core. This being said the main point is that Mack is simply a sum of his qualities and if any qualities change Mack at T0 is not identical to Mack atT1
Finally, through his concept of substance, Locke is able to resolve issues connected with identity and create personal responsibility and individual independence. Criticizers of my argument might disagree that Locke does not need the concept of substance to hold individuals accountable because of his theory of identity.
Ultimately, Locke’s philosophy suspends from the policy of substance. Perchance this is why Locke’s doctrine of substance is most examined amongst contemporary philosophers (see Priest). If we can pull to pieces Locke’s theory of substance, then we might bring devastating misfortunes to Locke’s identity, ethical, and property theories. As I verified, Locke’s theory is at least defendable against shared objections. Hence, we must look to other means of criticism when assessing the plausibility of John Locke’s doctrine of substratum.
1.Priest, Stephen.2004. The British Empiricists. Oxford University Press. 99-154.
2. Course handbook/course lecture slide Robertson 2018
3. John Locke. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.