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A deflationary interpretation of John Locke's theory of ideas

Danielle N Hampton, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This dissertation is a defense of a deflationary interpretation of Lockean ideas. The orthodox view is that Locke uses the term 'idea' to designate a collection of things that share some philosophically significant characteristic in common. While there is much debate over what this unifying characteristic might be, it is largely agreed upon that there is one, and only one, such characteristic. This is the assumption that I deny. I argue that Locke uses 'idea' as an umbrella term to cover several different types of mental items. In Chapter 1, I look at six non-deflationary interpretations of Locke's theory of ideas and show that while a few of these readings can account for some Lockean ideas, none of these readings can account for all of them. In Chapters 2 and 3, I argue for my deflationist view. I proceed by outlining the various parameters Locke uses to distinguish ideas into several distinct categories. The source, means of acquisition, content and the way in which ideas are related to their targets are all factors that create these divisions. The most basic division I draw is between actual sensations and stored ideas. I argue that reading sensations as appearances, i.e external objects as they appear to an observer, not only better accords with the text, but also circumvents notorious veil of perception worries. This reading is controversial insofar as I read Locke as subscribing to a form of direct realism rather than the strong form of indirect realism that is usually attributed to him. I then divide stored ideas into ectypes, (copies of appearances), archetypes, and fantastical ideas. Simple ideas and real ideas of substances are ectypes, ideas of modes and relations are archetypes and fantastical ideas are ideas of substances that we create that have no conformity to the real existence of things. Ectypes and fantastical ideas are images, whereas ideas of modes and relations are definitions or signs. While my reading of Locke is more complex than the standard non-deflationary views, it is preferable for several reasons. First, it accounts for all categories of Lockean ideas. Secondly, it is consistent with the text, whereas traditional readings are forced to explain away text that doesn't support their non-deflationary views. And lastly, it avoids skeptical concerns concerning the veil of perception. The more simplistic readings that have pervaded the Lockean literature simply do not do justice to the complexities of Locke's theory of ideas.

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Recommended Citation

Hampton, Danielle N, "A deflationary interpretation of John Locke's theory of ideas" (2015). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3689927.