Saturday, 17 November 2007

Locke on Substance

From part III of GJ Warnock's introduction to Berkeley's The Principles of Human Knowledge:
Finally, we must at least glance at Locke's rather desperate grapplings with the concept of substance; for this brings in two points on which Berkeley fastened with alacrity. What is substance, Locke asks? It is that to which qualities belong. And there must be substance, since we cannot intelligibly suppose mere qualities to exist in their own right, on their own, sine re substante. But what is substance itself? It seems to Locke that we just cannot say; for to say anything about substance is unavoidably to ascribe some quality to it, and this gets us no nearer to saying what it is. Locke finds himself left, then, with the bare idea of substance as being "something, I know not what" -- that unperceivable, indescribable something of which all we can say is that it is that to which qualities belong, or in which they inhere.

Now this conclusion leads Locke into a further difficulty. He wishes to hold, on general grounds, that there are two kinds or varieties of substance -- "material" substance, that something to which all the qualities of material things ultimately belong, and "immaterial" substance, in which inhere such non-material properties as consciousness, sensation, and the ability to think. But Locke sees, rightly, that he can really have no ground for this opinion. If all we can say of substance is that it is "something, we know not what," we can have no ground for saying that there are two varieties of substance; to say this we would have to know that the two varieties differed in some way; and we cannot know this since about substance we cannot know anything at all. Locke thus finds that , though he does not accept, he cannot disprove the supposition that the same substance which "supports" that qualities of matter might also have consciousness, sensation, the power of thinking: there might, that is, be only one thing "we know not what," and not, as Locke supposes, two.

No comments: