Locke’s Anxiety of Influence

At the beginning of the Essay, Locke asserts that the rigorous thinker should follow his own experience and not the theories of others. Of course, this claim is not derived from Locke’s experience but is a trademark of modern thought whose heritage goes back through Descartes to Bacon. But inspite of themselves and their self-confident rhetoric, the moderns persisted in an uneasy dependence on their philosophical forebearers.

Witness, for example, Locke’s chapter on time or “duration” (Essay, XIV), which opens by alluding to St. Augustine: “The answer of a great man, to one who asked what time was, Si non rogas intelligo [“If you don’t ask, I know”] (which amounts to this: The more I set myself to think of it, the less I understand it), might perhaps persuade one that time, which reveals all other things, is itself not to be discovered” (XIV.1).

It is interesting that Locke calls Augustine a “great man,” but neither names him (as the scholastics would) nor submits to his authority on this issue. Instead Locke insists that through careful reflection one may indeed arrive at a “clear and distinct” idea of time or duration. For the “great man” time remains an enigma because it depends on our experience of ourselves, the whole of which exceeds our grasp (“I do not grasp the whole that I am”). I cannot have a “clear and distinct” idea of time because I cannot have such clarity about myself—only God knows me like that.

So Locke appears to mention the (Christian) tradition’s most outstanding thinker on the subject only to sidestep him, just Descartes in the Regulae will introduce familiar terminology only to say that he is giving it “an entirely different meaning from that of the schools.” But despite this apparent lip-service dismissal, Locke’s explanation for time follows essentially Augustinian distentio: “There is another sort of distance, or length, the idea whereof we get not from the permanent parts of space, but from the fleeting and perpetually perishing parts of succession. This we call duration . . .” At first Locke appears closer to Aristotle, who thinks time starting from motion in space. But then after his allusion to Augustine, he says that we come to the idea of duration by “reflection” on the “train of ideas which constantly succeed one another in [our] understanding.” In other words, like Augustine, Locke thinks of time in terms of mental, interior space, not like the Bishop of Hippo’s “cavern” but more like a number line: the flattened immanent space of modernity vs. the natural contours of the patristic/medieval cave or house. Locke, under the anxiety of influence that characterizes modern thought in general, disavows or at least cloaks both the Augustinian pedigree and the Cartesian-mathematical episteme of his far-from-“clear and distinct” metaphor for time.

Next, Locke follows Descartes’ temporality of the ego: “For whilst we are thinking or whilst we receive successively several ideas in our minds, we know that we do exist; and so we call the existence or the continuation of the existence of ourselves, or anything else commensurate to the succession of any ideas in our minds, the duration of ourselves or any such other thing co-existing with our thinking” (XIV.3). Although Locke had earlier denied the Cartesian egological deduction of being from thought or consciousness on the grounds that I and the world wouldn’t exist while I am sleeping, here, by working backward through the text, we see that he reduces being for us (“we call”) to the assurance of our own existence, which is a product of thought’s duration (“whilst we are thinking”). Things may indeed exist in themselves (as noumena) but insofar as known (as appearing or ‘phenomenalizing’ to us) they submit to the objectifying dominance of thought’s succession of ideas—that is, to thought’s categorization. Like Descartes and in anticipation of Kant, Locke deploys a mathematicalized Augustinian temporality (succession thought in terms of a ‘number line’ instead of natural progression like the rising of the sun) to reduce the self and the world to the complete grasp of the modern subject. Like Descartes and Bacon, Locke hides his all-too-evident dependence on philosophical authority.

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