Sunday, September 7, 2014

Not Enough Time for Locke, but Time Enough for Everything

If I had more time, I’d sit down and write six or seven posts about the John Locke reader I just finished and then publish one a day for a week. He just wrote so much that I didn’t remember. I’d read the Essay Concerning Human Understanding in college. One of the first things I read in the Britannica Great Books set was his second treatise on government, and few years later I read his Letter on Toleration. But of all that material, all I had remembered vividly was the problem of reality set by his insistence that what we see is only an image in the mind. That problem stayed so strongly in my memory because it had raised a real intellectual disturbance in my mind. It held a prominent place in my consciousness as I read Thomas Reid this past March, so as it happens, I blogged about Locke and this epistemological problem earlier this year.

My basic plan for Year 8 told me to review the works of John Locke, and I picked the reader edited by John Yolton primarily because it included large portions of Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity, which I wanted to read but couldn’t find free on the internet. Now I’m especially glad I chose this anthology instead of just reexamining the Essay, because it showed me the whole spectrum of Locke’s interests. Epistemology, ontology, psychology, education, philosophy of science, probability, ethics, politics, economics, literature and hermeneutics, and theology are all here. As far as I know, Locke had nothing to say on mathematics, and he didn’t treat any of these subjects (even probability or economics) with any mathematical figures or precision. But otherwise, his work ranges over almost the entire gamut of philosophical topics.

In fact, covering the sweep of human knowledge was itself one of the topics he wrote on. Near the end of the reader, I found this:
He that will inquire out the best books in every science, and inform himself of the most material authors of the several sects of philosophy and religion, will not find it an infinite work to acquaint himself with the sentiments of mankind, concerning the weighty and comprehensive subjects.
The suggestion that a zealous student can achieve the task (to describe the task by the vague and doubly negative phrase “not infinite” is about as mathematical as Locke gets) forms the hopeful basis of any Great Books program, and I’ve found it to be essentially true. Sure, I’ve added to the canon Mortimer Adler laid out in his set of classics. I’ve assigned myself to read more poetry and more fiction from the last two hundred years. I’ve included in my schedule scriptures from Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. I’ve taken on epics from China and Persia that Adler never hinted at. But still my list is finite: it comes to an end in just over two years.

Well, OK, after that I start my third decade of assigned reading. And, yes, the more I learn, the more I see how much I don’t know.

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