In his essay entitled “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” John Locke, the seventeenth century English “enlightenment” thinker who had vast influence on other thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau and of course on the American Revolutionaries like Samuel Adams, James Otis and Thomas Paine, said the following,
“For when we reflect on general ideas accurately and with care we’ll find that they are artifacts, contrivances of the mind, which have a lot of difficulty in them and don’t offer themselves as easily as we tend to think. For example, it requires some effort and skill to form the general idea of a triangle (though this isn’t one of the most abstract, comprehensive, and difficult), for it must be neither oblique nor rectangle, neither equilateral, equicrural, nor scalenon; but all and none of these at once. In effect, it is something imperfect, that cannot exist; an idea in which some parts of several different and inconsistent ideas are put together. The mind certainly needs such ideas, and hurries to get them as fast as it can, to make communication easier and to enlarge knowledge. But there is reason to suspect that abstract ideas are signs of our imperfection; and at least I have said enough to show that the most abstract and general ideas are not those that the mind is first and most easily acquainted with, nor what its earliest knowledge is about.” (Book IV, ch. 7, section 9)
In other words…he is saying that there is no such thing as abstractions. There are no universals. There is no such thing as a general idea.
Or rather…these things exist, but only as “contrivances” of the mind!
Well, as his own example concerning “the general idea of a triangle” illustrates, there is a slight problem. What exactly?
Let’s do a little Socratic dialogue to help make this clearer. We will pretend that Locke is teaching this idea to Langley.
Locke: Ok Langley, so you think that there is such thing as ‘the universal?’
Langley: Yes, I do.
Locke: Would you be so kind as to give me an example?
Langley: Yes, nothing would give me more pleasure Mr. Locke. I have always loved Euclid and so I can think of no universal idea more clearly than that of the triangle. The word triangle is of course a word that signifies the universal concept of a three sided plane figure.
Locke: Ahhhhh, I see. And so you evidently have an idea in your head about a triangle. It is not a specific triangle- but rather a triangle that has properties that every triangle shares? Is this why you call it a universal idea?
Langley: Well yes… quite so.
Locke: Yes, but perhaps you have not really considered this very carefully, my good friend.
Langley: Actually I have been thinking about triangles for as long as I can remember. I don’t see any problem whatsoever in claiming the existence of this universal idea.
Locke: Well let me ask you some questions about your supposedly universal triangle.
Locke: Does every triangle have three sides?
Locke: And must every triangle be equilateral, isosceles, or scalene…or can a triangle be more than one of these at the same time?
Langley: uhhhh….err… would you be so kind as to repeat the question? I don’t quite see what you mean.
Locke: Well, must a triangle either have all its sides unequal, or two sides equal or all three sides equal? Or is it able to be all of these at the same time?
Langley: Well…no…any specific triangle must be one of the three.
Locke: In other words a triangle can’t be, for example, both scalene and equilateral at the same time?
Langley: Quite so…No it cannot.
Locke: Nor can any triangle have only two sides equal and at the same time have all three sides equal
Langley: quite true, quite true
Locke: So when you say that you have a universal idea of triangle… May I ask you which is it? Is your universal idea of a triangle equilateral, isosceles, or scalene?
Langley: Well….I don’t want to say…I mean, I guess it isn’t any one of those.
Locke: But you admitted before that every triangle must be one of the three, did you not?
Langley: Yes I did.
Locke: So which is it?
Langley: Well….I really cannot answer the question. Maybe we could change the subject. Did you hear about the IRS scandal?
Locke: Listen Langley… we need to stick to the question. We need to focus. We need to have intellectual perseverance. We need to follow the logic of the question to its inevitable conclusions!
Langley: Ok but what about the whole Benghazi affair?
Locke: Focus…think…one will never obtain wisdom if one lets his mind dwell on transient political affairs.
Langley: Ok, Ok…so what were you asking?
Locke: You were asserting that you have a universal idea of a triangle. You also admitted that every triangle must be either equilateral, isosceles or scalene- but it cannot be all three of these at once. You admitted that every triangle must have its sides disposed in only one of these ways at once. And so I ask you again… Which of the three is your universal idea? Is the universal idea of triangle equilateral , isosceles, or scalene?
Langley: Uhhhhhh… you know I don’t really get what you are saying and besides I just remembered that there is something that I have to do.
Locke: Maybe you were not cut out for philosophy?
Langley: Well maybe so…I actually was wondering if you know anything about plumbing. You see I have this stack pipe that appears to be a little on the leaky side….
As anyone can see from the above dialogue, Langley was simply no match for John Locke. Langley failed to defend the idea of the universal and so down it went in a flaming mess!
And along with the death of the universal, so died philosophy! So died Theology! So died the perfection of the intellect….and what is left?