As those philosophers before him, or at least as far back as Descartes, John Locke is “perplexed with obscure terms and useless question” (qtd. in Jones 238), and is interested in starting fresh and free from the opinions of his predecessors. He devises the historical plain method in order to examine the knowledge we posses, with the assumption that the mind is “white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas,” (qtd. in Jones 245). My interest here, however, is to briefly describe, and to evaluate Locke’s historical plain method. The following passages are to demonstrate the chief values and key limitations of the historical plain method as it pertains to its own investigation of what is true from experience, and to show that Locke mistakes a logical approach for a historical approach, meaning that his method is a logical plain method.
The historical plain method allows us to distinguish between what is true, and therefore important enough to warrant our consideration, and what is fantasy and not worth our time. It accomplishes this by examining an object to see whether it has originated from our sense perception, and is thus a sensation, or from the operations of the mind, and thus a reflection. If the object is thus found to have its origins in either the senses or the mind, then it is to be a true object, or one that does exist.
Objects that are conveyed by the senses are such as “hard,” “red,” “loud,” and the like. Some are combinations of more than one simple idea derived from more than one sensory input. In the case of “fast,” the speed of something can both be derived from seeing motion as well as feeling motion. Objects conveyed by the operations of the mind are such a...
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... reality of objects, but it may not have the ability to be proven beyond any doubt, and is thus less certain than the logical inquiry.
Locke’s historical plain method, named so incorrectly, endeavors to show what is true and false, what is meaningful and meaningless, and therefore, what is important and what is not important. By examining objects it deems to demonstrate their origin as being of sensation or reflection. Since Locke assumed all ideas to be based on simple elements however, he pursued in that direction, which is a psychological and logical one. Thus, Locke developed the logical plain method, but mistakenly named it the historical plain method. For the historical order begins with the objects, and through investigation of it, we derive its simple elements.
Jones, W. T. Hobbes to Hume. 2nd edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt, 1980.
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