John Locke

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John Locke's, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), was first criticized by the philosopher and theologian, John Norris of Bemerton, in his "Cursory Reflections upon a Book Call'd, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding," and appended to his Christian Blessedness or Discourses upon the Beatitudes (1690). Norris's criticisms of Locke prompted three replies, which were only posthumously published. Locke has been viewed, historically, as the winner of this debate; however, new evidence has emerged which suggests that Norris's argument against the foundation of knowledge in sense-perception that the Essay advocated was a valid and worthy critique, which Locke did, in fact, take rather seriously. Charlotte Johnston's "Locke's Examination of Malebranche and John Norris" (1958), has been widely accepted as conclusively showing that Locke's replies were not philosophical, but rather personal in origin; her essay, however, overlooks critical facts that undermine her subjective analysis of Locke's stance in relation to Norris's criticisms of the Essay. This paper provides those facts, revealing the philosophical—not personal—impetus for Locke's replies.

"Locke's Examination of Malebranche and John Norris" (1958), by Charlotte Johnston,1 connects John Locke's posthumously published treatise on the philosophy of Nicolas Malebranche to the replies he had written to an English philosopher and theologian, John Norris of Bemerton. When Locke first published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690),2 Norris, aided by the philosophy of Malebranche, responded with the first critique of the Essay, entitled "Cursory Reflections upon a Book call'd, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding," and appended to Norris's Christian Blessedness or Discourses upon the Beatitudes (1690).3 Three texts: "JL to Mr. Norris" (1692), An Examination of P. Malebranche's Opinion of Seeing All Things in God (1693),4 and Some Remarks Upon Some of Mr. Norris's Books, wherein he asserts P. Malebranche's Opinion of our Seeing all Things in God (1693),5 according to Johnston, were all a direct response to Norris.

Johnston's essay, which has been widely accepted, clearly shows the interrelatedness of the texts; however, her appraisal of them as a response to Norris, incorrectly devalues their philosophical seriousness by overestimating the importance of a personal quarrel between Norris and Locke. She concludes her essay with this summation: "the stimulus for these three papers came directly from Norris, from his criticisms of the newly published Essay, and still more from his personal relationship with Locke"; otherwise, "Locke's opposition to the theory of vision in God would surely have remained unexpressed, since he felt the notion to be sufficiently absurd to die of its own accord.

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"6 Her emphasis on the personal quarrel over the philosophical debate rests on the assumption that the personal dispute, which occurred in 1692, the same year as Locke's first rebuttal, "JL to Mr. Norris," prompted that response; her argument, however, neglects evidence that the philosophical debate predates the quarrel, which would indicate that Locke's replies were philosophically rather than personally invested, signifying that Norris's "Cursory Reflections," presented a potentially serious counter-argument to the empirical epistemology of the Essay.

In 1691, the year following publication, Locke's Essay was defended against Norris by Jean Le Clerc, a friend and correspondent with Locke. He first published this defense in his Bibliotheque universalle et historique 7; it was translated into English, also in 1691, for John Dunton's Athenian Gazette.8 Within the same circle of friends was another learned man, Benjamin Furly, who shared with Locke, as LeClerc did, a belief in religious tolerance, which Locke's Essay advocated. LeClerc and Furly clearly alerted Locke to the significance of Norris's "Cursory Reflections."

In a letter to Locke on October 16, 1690, Furly briefly outlined Norris's criticisms of the Essay.9 A few days later, Le Clerc wrote to Locke, stating that Furly had given him a copy of Norris's critique, which his Bibliotheque would review in defense of the Essay.10 Clearly, Locke was aware that a rebuttal was to be published just months following the May publication of "Cursory Reflections." Norris, however, was not silenced. In 1692, he published a second edition of Christian Blessedness, and this time, appended to "Cursory Reflections," was a sharp reply to the Athenian Gazette.11

It is doubtful that Locke owned the first edition of Norris's Christian Blessedness. His library, now housed at the Bodliean at Oxford, contains only the second edition.12 The personal quarrel, which ended the amicable relations between the two, involved the miscarrying of a letter addressed to Locke and entrusted to Norris by the Lady Masham, and began quite late in the year, on October 22, 1692.13 Furthermore, "JL to Mr. Norris," which is endorsed, "JL Answer to Mr. Norris Reflections 92," omits reference to the month in which it was written, and we also do not know the month in which the second edition of "Cursory Reflections" appeared; therefore, the chronology of events cannot be conclusively determined.

Nonetheless, there is textual evidence that strongly suggests Norris's second edition was published before Locke wrote "JL to Mr. Norris": the endorsement seems clearly to refer to the 1692 edition of "Cursory Reflections"; the content of the reply indicates that Locke had a copy of the text in his possession&emdash;again, there is no record that Locke owned a first edition; Furly's brief outline of the reflections cannot account for the details of Locke's reply; and, finally, Locke simply had no reason to reply to Norris before the "Reflections" reappeared in a second edition&emdash;his friends had already defended the Essay.

Neglecting these facts, Johnston relies, instead, on her subjective analysis of Locke's "tone" in his reply, asserting that it shows the reply was instigated by the personal quarrel between the two men: "it seems to have been this personal quarrel rather than Norris's criticism of Locke's philosophy that decided Locke to reply to Norris' Reflections," a reply, she argues that was only "occasioned by the second edition of Norris's Cursory Reflections." She insists that Locke's "tone" in the letter reflects "Locke's annoyance with Norris as a person."14 In her argument, however, she presents several pieces of contradictory evidence that she does not incorporate into that hypothesis: "The remarks were perhaps not written to be published, but it is interesting to see that many of the features of these observations, the asperity, irony, and repetition of the theories elaborated in the Essay, are marks which reappeared later in the Letters to Stillingfleet."15 Edward Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worchester, has been historically recognized as a worthy opponent to the Essay. The fact that Locke's unpublished reply to Norris has much in common with his published replies to Stillingfleet—including their tone—is inconsistent with her argument, which denies the philosophical seriousness of Locke's reply to Norris. And although the reply to Norris remained unpublished during Locke's lifetime, unlike the Letters to Stillingfleet, the changes Locke made to the Essay in response to Norris, which Johnston recognizes, negate her argument as well16; Norris's criticisms did not merely provoke an unpublished personal reply—they were considerable enough to effect subsequent changes to the Essay.

Johnston quotes a letter from Locke to his friend William Molyneux, revealing that Locke was considering publishing the Examination of Malebranche in his forthcoming edition of the Essay, but she dismisses this plan by invoking the phrasing that also appears in her conclusion: "Locke felt that Malebranche's theory was 'an opinion that spreads not and is like to die of itself or at least do no great harm.' It was because he felt this that he did not publish the Examination. Locke would not have written against a 'very groundless opinion'."17 Johnston, however, takes this statement out of context by taking it out of chronological order. Her assertion seems to indicate that this was an opinion expressed by Locke during the years that he wrote the three texts; however, the statement comes from a letter to Peter King, written by Locke on his deathbed in 1704, regarding the disposal of his writings.18 We really cannot assume that Locke's deathbed opinion expresses the same view he held eleven years earlier; and, in fact, there is evidence to suggest that he did not.

Locke first wrote to Molyneux on July 16, 1692.19 They corresponded throughout the four subsequent lifetime editions of the Essay, and Locke repeatedly asserted his confidence in Molyneux's judgment. Molyneux vigorously encouraged Locke's proposal to publish the Examination in the second edition of his essay, because he recognized the importance of Malebranche's philosophical contributions, and considered them a potentially serious counter-argument to the Essay. In the same year, for example, Molyneux had recognized Malebranche's Search After Truth, the text that the Examination attacks, "as one of the works that had liberated logic from the shackles of Scholasticism."20 According to Charles McCracken, Locke had good reason to consider publishing the Examination "in the Essay, for Malebranche had come to be known as a formidable opponent of belief in the empirical origin of ideas—the doctrine that the first two books of the Essay sought to establish."21

Although Locke did not include the Examination in the second edition of the Essay (1694),22 he continued to consider publishing it. In a 1695 letter to Molyneux, Locke writes, "What I have writ concerning seeing all things in God, would make a little treatise of it self. But I have not quite gone through it, for fear I should by somebody be tempted to print it. For I love not controversies and have a personal kindness for the author."23 Here, Locke notes that he has not finished the Examination, which remains fragmentary, as both Johnston and McCracken have pointed out.24 It remains unknown what "personal kindness" Locke had for Malebranche, since according to E. S. De Beer, as well as McCracken, Locke never knew Malebranche personally.25 Furthermore, a fundamental difficulty of the Examination is that several of its criticisms are equally applicable to the Essay. For example, McCracken writes that in it Locke's central objection is that Malebranche does not explain how ideas are produced—a problem that remained unsolved in the Essay.26 Before he died in 1704, Locke admitted his unpublished works were problematic, calling them "imperfect draughts," which were "never finished though intended to be revised and further looked into."27 There are many significant reasons that may have dissuaded Locke from publishing the Examination—and the parallel responses to Norris—but indifference to Malebranche's and Norris's philosophical counter-arguments was not one of them.

Finally, Johnston's assertion that the personal quarrel "decided" Locke to reply to Norris, is conclusively refuted by Locke's second letter to Molyneux, dated September 20, 1692, which she entirely overlooked:

I…desire your advice and assistance about a second edition of my Essay, the former now being dispersed. You have, I perceive, read it over so carefully, more than once, that I know no body I can more reasonably consult about the mistakes and defects of it. And I expect a great deal more from any objections you should make, who comprehend the whole design and compass of it, than from any one who has read but part of it, or measures it, upon slight reading, by his own prejudices.28

Locke's letter, written over a month before the personal quarrel, echoes the complaints of his draft "JL to Mr. Norris," which reads:

But if it be not the priviledge of a Cursory Reflector to take notice of or pass by what he pleases the very next words would have told him what the author intended and I suppose readers versed in civil conversation who think it no prejudice to truth the world and their own ingenuity to be willing to understand what the author intends will not find it hard by reading those words contained in the same sentence. 29

Clearly, Locke is voicing the same complaint concerning Norris's criticism in both of these documents. Even supposing that "JL to Mr. Norris" was, in fact, written after the quarrel, Locke would have been continuing a critical debate that he had begun in his letter to Molyneux, if not a year earlier in his correspondence with LeClerc and Furly. Johnston's assertion that it was a quarrel that "decided Locke to reply to Norris's Reflections"30 is almost certainly inaccurate.

Johnston's concentration on the personal quarrel between two notable late-seventeenth-century philosophers reduces Locke's replies to personal attacks on Norris and seems to trivialize both philosophy and the quest for Truth, something these two thinkers took very seriously, if only because of the theological implications they entailed. What the correspondence and philosophical documents finally reveal is that Locke's replies to Norris, and the Malebranchian doctrines that Norris advocated, were serious rebuttals. Norris's critique of the Essay required Locke to seek a second opinion from Molyneux and to make changes to all subsequent editions.31 Locke perceived Norris's "Reflections" as a serious threat to the empirical epistemology of the Essay. Their debate was philosophical—not personal—in origin.

1. Charlotte Johnston, "Locke's Examination of Malebranche and John Norris," Journal of the History of Ideas 19 (1958): 551-558.

2. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding (London, 1690).

3. John Norris, Christian blessedness, or, Discourses upon the Beatitudes of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; to which is added, reflections upon a late essay concerning human understanding (London, 1690).

4. First published by Richard Acworth, "Locke's First Reply to John Norris," The Locke Newsletter 2 (1971): 7-11.

5. John Locke, Posthumous Works, ed. Peter King (London, 1706).

6. Johnston 558.

7. Jean Le Clerc, Review of "Cursory Reflections," Bibliotheque Universelle et historique, eds. Jean Le Clerc, J.C. de Lacroze, and Jacques Bernard, 20 (A Amsterdam, 1691) 145.

8. Jean Le Clerc, Review of "Cursory Reflections," Supplement to the Third Volume of the Athenian gazette: or Casuistical Mercury, eds. John Dunton, et al., 3 (London, 1691) 2.

9. E. S. De Beer, The Correspondence of John Locke, 8 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976-89) 4: 145-46.

10. De Beer 4: 150.

11. John Norris, Christian blessedness, or, Disourses upon the Beatitudes of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To which are added reflections upon a late essay concerning human understanding, with a reply to the remarques made upon them by the Athenian Society, 2nd ed. (London, 1692).

12. De Beer 4: 145, n. 6.

13. De Beer 4: 546-48.

14. Johnston 552.

15. Johnston 553.

16. Johnston 551.

17. Johnston 557.

18. De Beer 8: 412-13.

19. De Beer 4: 478-80.

20. Charles McCracken, Malebranche and British Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983) 9.

21. McCracken 119.

22. John Locke, An essay concerning humane understanding: in four books, 2nd ed. (London, 1694).

23. De Beer 5: 352-53.

24. Johnston 556; McCracken 122.

25. De Beer 5: 353, n. 1; McCracken 120, n. 6.

26. McCracken 122-23.

27. De Beer 8: 412.

28. De Beer 4: 522-23.

29. The Locke Newsletter 2: 8.

30. Johnston 552.

31. John Aaron, John Locke, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1955) 136-37.

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