Saturday, February 19, 2011

Seeing the Purple Elephant

The essential feature of the orthodox interpretation of Locke is the reification of ideas. He is taken to have meant by 'idea' a special kind of thing, distinguished from other things such as tables and chairs in that, while they are material things, it is a mental thing locked up inside the mind. And everything that Locke says about ideas and their relation to what they are ideas of is then interpreted in acccordance with the presupposition of that basic model: the mind is regarded as if it were somehow the analogue of a box, into which ideas can be introduced or in which they can be produced, but from which they cannot escape. Consequently, all sense-experience, and whatever knowledge of belief may be acquired from it, is irremediably second hand. We never directly experience objects and happenings in the external world, but only our own ideas which serve as proxies for whatever goes on outside. Sense perception consists of having ideas which represent what goes on outside, some of the ideas actually resembling what they represent, others not, the first being ideas of primary qualities, the second being of secondary qualities. We can never break out of the circle of ideas, and knowledge, which Locke defines as the perception of the agreement or disagreement of our ideas, is inescapably bound within the circle as is sense perception itself. Two consequences follow: first the general consequence that Locke was an epistemological dualist, committed on the one hand to the world of ideas to which all human experience and thought is restricted, and on the other to a quite separate mind-independent world somehow causally related to the first; and secondly the special consequence that he held a crudely reprsesentative theory of perception, according to which we can never observe anything in the mind-independent world, but find out whatever we do find out about it solely by scrutinizing the proxy-ideas which are all that we have access to.

Now, if that was Locke's view of ideas, the objections to it are so elementary and so obvious that it hardly needed a Berkeley to point them out. If sense perception simply consists of having ideas, which are alleged to be literal pictures, some accurate and other inaccurate, of inaccessible originals, there would be no justification for supposing that there were any originals at all, let alone for supposing that some of the pictures did resemble them but others did not, still less for claiming to be able to say which were the accurate pictures and which were not. On such a view there would be no explanation how it could occur to anyone that ideas were pictures of originals, and no reason whatever for his thinking so, even if he did. For the picture-original thesis to have any ground at all, there would have to be some occasion of experienceing an original, and some possibility of confronting picture with original; but of neither, on this view of Locke, could there be any possibility at all. The condition of his thesis being true would be precisely that we could have no possible ground for supposing it to be true, nor even rational explanation of one's entertaining it. It would be hard to understand why anybody should want to rate Locke as an important philosopher if his whole theory rests on errors so elementary that a first-year student in philosophy has no difficulty in spotting them.

A. D. Woozley, Introduction to John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Well, now, Professor, let's see:

If I were sitting in my screen-enclosed porch and saw a purple elephant go wheeling by and that was that, I might conclude that I had finally had that flashback I was promised all those decades ago.

But if I saw that elephant go wheeling by, and heard it trumpeting, and felt the thunder of its feet transmitted through the ground and porch, and, upon walking out into the yard, no doubt with eyes a-bulge, saw its footprints in the grass, and saw and smelled as well obviously fresh and steaming evidence of an elephant's passage, I would conclude that some idiot had been painting an elephant purple, and it got loose.

The concepts here, Professor, are induction, cross-comparison or -checking of senses, and exploration/experiment, all of which you surely have heard of before.

Would I flunk your first-year philosophy course over this, Professor?

And if not, what would that say about your no doubt keen first-year philosophy-student you so highly tout, and no doubt helped manufacture by the score?

The real problem here, perhaps, is that the questions in question are in fact questions of neurology, not philosophy or academic philosophastering, on which subject I have more to say here and here.

And if it's a matter of bandying non-neurological authorities on the nature of the world and our experience of it, Professor, I'll take Locke or Planck over Bishop Berkeley any time:

It is important to realize that the outside world is something independent from man, something absolute.

Max Planck

Me and Planck flunk again, I guess, Professor?

Keywords: academic bullshit, Berkeley, checking, comparison, elephant (purple), experiment, exploration, induction, Locke, neurology, perception, philosophastering, philosophy, Planck, real world, sensation, sensory transforms


Anonymous Peter said...

Interesting. Not at all sure what point(s) the Professor is attempting to make . . .

As for the "purple elephant" - how do you know it hasn't all been one long flashback since those giddy days of yore?

Planck's assertion is precisely that; two can play that game: he is mistaken not to say desperate when he utters this vague generalisation of his, that there is "something absolute" transcending man; if there is anything absolute it is surely intrinsic to man.

Man is, after all, part of the so-called "outside world"; the observer is not some twig that can be split off from the tree without damage to the whole.

August 15, 2012 at 11:01 AM  
Blogger John Kennard said...


The only thing I can tell you about the professor is that he was a Platonist.

I agree absolutely about us being as "natural" as anything else.

August 15, 2012 at 11:08 AM  

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