Abstract Ideas: Locke vs. Berkeley

Essay by bullshitUniversity, Bachelor'sA+, April 2004

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In the following paper I will present and analyze John Locke's position on the nature of general terms. I will do so by breaking down his position and then through the criticisms presented by George Berkeley will unveil more about the nature of general terms.

In Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding he discusses the nature of general terms. For this, Locke defines a general term as that which is used as sorter, putting entities into groups or categories such as that which refer to shape, or color. This definition is clearer when it is juxtaposed with a singular term, which is defined as a term that refers to a particular entity such as a proper name. Locke believes that general terms refer to abstract ideas. The formation ideas become general ideas by separating them from their particulars, such as time and place, and then putting them into sorts. This enables them to represent more than one single particular existence.

Locke illustrates this by the example of a child who gets the idea of his mother and his nurse. These picture-like ideas become enclosed in his mind through all of those attributes and qualities, which he associates with each of these particulars. Upon exposure to more particulars, he notices that commonalities of qualities that resemble his idea of this mother and nurse. Then by abstraction, he separates the non-relevant qualities which gives rise to an idea which all of those commonalities fit in to, and he forms the general idea of man. According to Locke the concept of generality is born.

However, general ideas differ from any other ideas in that they do not refer to any actual thing in the world, only the totality of groups. This is the dilemma that Locke sees with general terms. How have these...