Sämtliche schriften und briefe series VI, volume 6
Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften (ed)
pp 29-34

Date: end(?) 1699 - early 1700

Translated from the French

View this translation in PDF format (47k)

Back to home page

Search texts by category:



[A VI 6, p29]

     Mr Locke in his Reply to the late Mr Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester, quite rightly acknowledges on pp46f that certainty does not always require clear and distinct ideas.1 I think he will grant, however, that every instance of certainty requires something clear in the ideas which comprise it, and when it's a certainty of reasoning and not just of sense I think there must also be something distinct. But it is not necessary that the idea be completely clear and distinct. I draw a distinction here between clear and distinct, following the usage of the moderns and of Descartes himself, since that seems to me fitting to explain it properly, although the two able antagonists do not seem to employ this distinction.
     Mr Stillingfleet puts the way of obtaining certainty by reason in opposition to the way of obtaining it by ideas.2 Mr Locke quite rightly replies on p59 that there is no opposition between these two ways.3 Indeed, reasoning is nothing other than an analysis of ideas, or notions, concepts, or terms, as philosophers called them before the word "ideas" began to be widely used. Still it must be admitted that Mr Stillingfleet was right to complain about the abuse of the way of ideas, and it was apparently this abuse that he had in mind as opposed to the way of reasoning, by saying on pp92-3 in his first Reply that the world has been strangely amused by the commotion ideas have made recently,4 and by the expectation of extraordinary things which may happen on account of them.5 [A VI 6, p30] I too have spoken of this abuse, albeit more distinctly, in the Acts of Leipzig, November 1684, where I explained in what the abuse consists,6 which Mr Stillingfleet does not seem to me to have done sufficiently. The fact is that I myself have noticed in books and in conversations that a number of moderns claim to establish certain significant positions by a simple appeal to what they say they discover in their ideas. For example, some claim that the essence of body consists in extension, and when they are pressed to prove their thesis they do nothing but rely on what they say they find in their ideas. This would be reasonable if it were a matter of certain ideas which correspond to taste, for one should not dispute about tastes, that is, about those particular impressions which depend on the disposition in which one finds oneself, the ideas of which are clear and not distinct. But here it's a matter of ideas which should be distinct and which they claim others should have as they do. And to want to rest important truths on their so-called particular experiences is to do much the same as those who base themselves on the inner testimony of inspirations which they say are certain by themselves, without any other proof or sign. Thus Mr Stillingfleet seems to have wanted to blame the abuse of those who content themselves in this way by simply appealing (even in philosophy and especially as regards ideas) to their own inner testimony and resting their judgements on what they say they experience in themselves of the agreement or disagreement of these ideas, without wishing to come to a more distinct explanation of this agreement, that is, without wishing to come to the way of reasoning, through which they could oblige others to enter into the same concepts. It is also appropriate to consider that there are two notable abuses in definitions that one can commit in wanting to form ideas: one is what the excellent Jungius called obreption,7 the other is what I call chimerism. For example, suppose someone reasoned like this: "I am permitted to combine ideas, and to give a name to what results therefrom, so let us take the idea of a substance in which there is nothing but extension and call that 'body'; therefore the bodies in nature have nothing but extension." There would altogether be two errors in this reasoning. Obreption would be present in that, having given to the word "body" the definition which seems right to me (which is in some way arbitrary), I then want to apply it to what other men call "body". It is as if in Geometry someone gave to the word "oval" the definition other geometers give to "ellipse", and then wanted to prove that Mr Descartes' ovals are conic sections. The Chimerism here is to have made an impossible combination, for it is not granted that it is possible for there to be a [A VI 6, p31] substance which has nothing but extension. I know that these gentlemen want to justify the obreption by saying that one cannot conceive anything else in the bodies which exist in nature than what they have included in their definition, but in saying that they make a false supposition, or rather they confuse conceiving and imagining, since it is quite true that one can imagine only that which is extended, but they themselves elsewhere acknowledge that we conceive things which are not imaginable. Yes, they will say, but it is only thought that cannot be imagined. My response is that they thereby make another false supposition by claiming that nothing can be conceived except thought and extension, forgetting that they themselves often talk of force, which is neither one nor the other, quite aside from the fact that they have not proved that there is nothing possible bar what we conceive. So Mr Stillingfleet was right to say on p67 of his second response that Descartes made a fundamental mistake in locating the idea of matter in extension and having built on that his entire system of physics,8 a mistake Mr Locke did not make.
     Mr Locke bases certainty on knowledge, granting an assurance of faith but not a certainty of faith, inasmuch as the English version of the Bible, Hebrews X.22 mentions only assurance of faith, and when Mr Worcester produced Latin authors who oppose certum dubio,9 he responds on p126 that the word certainty does not have the same force in English.10 I do not wish to enter into this question of the meaning of words from the English language. I will say only that it seems that even the assurance that faith requires must depend on a knowledge of circumstances which assure us of the fact. He acknowledges on p137 that he has said that one cannot prove the existence of a thing by the idea one has of it alone:11 in that he agrees with the late Mr Worcester, and it is apparently against the argument of Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, revived by Descartes, that they both declare themselves. I once examined this argument in the aforementioned paper in the Acts of Leipzig, November 1684, and I found it good provided that one make up what is lacking in it. Now in order to give it absolutely demonstrative force, it must be proved that the idea of the perfect being is possible, it being a privilege of the divine substance to need only its possibility or essence to oblige us to attribute existence to it also. From which it follows that existence can be proved by ideas alone, although it is only so in this single case, which is also the one at issue between Mr Locke and his adversary, who are in agreement about it, though I cannot be with them for the aforementioned reason.
     I notice Mr Worcester has spoken favourably in his Second Reply of Aristotle's opinion on nature, namely that it's quite true that matter originally received its motion from the prime mover, but that corporeal substance nonetheless has in itself an internal principle of change, motion, action and life, which [A VI 6, p32] came from the first cause. For he says on p93 that this opinion of Aristotle's may well be true,12 and the silence of Mr Locke in his Reply (who usually reacts to what displeases him in his adversary's opinion) may well be a sign that he is not far removed from it, just as I admit for my part to not finding it unreasonable.
     What strengthens me in this belief is the passage from pp396ff of his Reply in which Mr Locke maintains that matter, which he says is extended and solid, can receive from God different degrees of perfection, like force and motion; life and vegetation; sensation and spontaneous motion; and perhaps even reason and thought.13 Indeed, by acknowledging that man is a substance endowed with a soul which reasons and with a suitable organic body, we acknowledge that God can give, join, unite to matter certain substantial perfections different from each other. Thus I would be in complete agreement had this noted author not seemed to add that it is matter, strictly speaking, which can think, or that thought could be a modification of matter, by saying on p66 of his First Letter to Mr Worcester that matter which has the modification of solidity could also have that of thought,14 and inferring from that that the soul could be material and mortal by its nature though immortal by grace, which would be sufficient (p68) for the great end of religion and morality,15 a view I would prefer to be able to avoid. It seems he had not done so even when he wrote his Essays on the Understanding, as is apparent from the passage the late Mr Worcester produced from it in his first reply, drawn from book 2, chapter 23, section 15, where it is said that joining together the ideas of thought, perception, freedom and power of self-motion will give us a notion of immaterial substance as clear as the one we have of matter,16 where it is apparent he makes an essential contrast between these two substances. To admit that one has changed one's mind deserves praise rather than censure, even if it was not changed for the better, since it is always a sign of sincerity. I admit, however, that I have important reasons not to go so far, drawn not so much from what best suits morality as from the inner nature of things. My view is therefore that as matter is only an essentially passive thing, thought and even action could not be modifications of it, but of the complete corporeal substance which receives its complement of two constitutives, namely of the active principle and the passive principle, the first of which is called form, soul, entelechy, primitive force, the second prime matter, solidity, resistance. Thus it will have to be said that action, life, sensation, and thought are affections or differences of the first, and not modifications of the second. And as for durability, it must also be said that every indivisible entelechy, such as our soul, always subsists, and cannot naturally perish.

[A VI 6, p33]

     Moreover, I am delighted to see some people moving away from the overly materialistic philosophy, which sought to explain everything in bodies by the simple modifications of matter, and that they no longer go to the extremes of those who refuse all sensation to beasts and who imagined that the action of bodies belongs only to God. Mr Locke even goes so far as to retract what he said in his Essay, book 2, chapter 8, §11, that bodies act only by impulsion,17 and promises us that he wants to change this in the next reprinting of his work, having been persuaded by reading the excellent Mr Newton that there is an attraction in matter even at some distance.18 The very learned Mr Bentley also makes use of this in his fine sermons against atheism, which he wrote in accordance with the will of the late Mr Boyle.19 I remember when I was very young I wrote a short discourse against this error that the late Mr Spizel appended to a letter he had printed.20 In that work I employed another kind of attraction, or rather of preservation [retention], that I thought had to be acknowledged in matter and which could only be there by a higher cause; it is the union of parts which means that one has difficulty separating bodies and that a moved part draws the other with it, which cannot be explained either by rest, which is irrelevant, or by hooks or glutinosities, or even by firm bodies compressed by fluids, since all that already presupposes a firmness or attachment.21 It is true that I now think all the phenomena of matter are explicable by mechanical laws, but at the same time I think that the very principles of these laws have a higher source, and that there is in bodies something more than what is material. This also leads me to acknowledge, very willingly, that God's power can raise bodies to actions which surpass mechanical laws, which are only the effect of the principle of order he established, without giving up the right to depart from this order for reasons of a higher order.
     I have written these Reflections on Mr Locke's Reply at the request of a friend,22 to instruct us, sententiis rationibusque collatis,23 and in no way to gainsay a person of very great merit and for whom I have great respect. I wish to be included here my Schediasma de Cognitione, veritate et ideis, which I cited above, from the Acta Eruditorum of Leipzig, [A VI 6, p34] November 1684, and my Essays on Dynamics contained in several issues of these Acta,24 in which a number of things I have only touched on here are explained.


1. "I do not remember any Words or Principles of mine produced to shew any ground for such a supposition, that I placed Certainty only in clear and distinct Ideas." John Locke, Mr. Locke's Reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcester's Answer to his Second Letter (London, 1699), 47.
2. See Edward Stillingfleet, The Bishop of Worcester's Answer to Mr. Locke's Second Letter (London, 1698), 10-11.
3. "Your Lordship distinguishes the Certainty which consists in the perceiving the agreement of disagreement of Ideas, as expressed in any Proposition from Certainty by Reason. To have made good this distinction, I humbly conceive, you would have done well to have shewed that the agreement or disagreement of two Ideas could not be perceived by the intervention of a third, which I, and as I guess other People call Reasoning, or knowing by Reason." Locke, Mr. Locke's Reply, 59.
4. Stillingfleet was referring to Antoine Arnauld and Nicolas Malebranche, who had a very bitter debate about ideas from 1683-86.
5. "the World hath been strangely amuzed with Ideas of late, and we have been told, that strange things might be done by the help of Ideas, and yet these Ideas at last come to be only common Notions of things, which we must make use of in our Reasoning." Edward Stillingfleet, The Bishop of Worcester's Answer to Mr. Locke's Letter (London, 1697), 93.
6. Leibniz is referring to his essay Meditationes de cognitione, veritate et ideis [Meditations on knowledge, truth and ideas]. An English translation is available in Leibniz, Philosophical Papers and Letters, trans. and ed. Leroy E. Loemker (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1969, 2nd ed.), 291-6.
7. Joachim Jungius, Doxoscopia (Hamburg, 1662).
8. "As to Corporeal Substances, his fundamental mistake was in a wrong Idea of Matter, which he made to be the same with Extension; and upon this he built his Systeme of Nature." Stillingfleet, The Bishop of Worcester's Answer to Mr. Locke's Second Letter, 66-7.
9. "what is there in the Original of the word Certainty which makes it uncapable of being applied to Faith? I had thought that our Word was taken from the Latin; and that among the Romans it was opposed to doubting, Nil tam certum quam quod de dubio certum [Nothing is so certain than what is certain from doubt]." Stillingfleet, The Bishop of Worcester's Answer to Mr. Locke's Second Letter, 24.
10. "Your Lordship goes on to ask, Have not all Mankind who have talked of Matters of Faith, allowed a Certainty of Faith as well as a Certainty of Knowledge? To answer a question concerning what all mankind who have talked of Faith have done, may be within the reach of your great Learning: As for me, my reading reaches not so far. The Apostles and the Evangelists, I can answer, have talked of Matters of Faith, but I do not find in my Bible, that they have any where spoke (for 'tis of speaking here the Question is) of the Certainty of Faith; and what they allow, which they do not speak of, I cannot tell. I say in my Bible, meaning the English Translation used in our Church; though what all Mankind, who speak not of Faith in English, can do towards the deciding of this Question I do not see, it being about the signification of an English word. And whether in propriety of speech it can be applied to Faith, can only be decided by those who understand English, which all Mankind who have talked of Matters of Faith, I humbly conceive did not.
     To prove that Certainty in English, may be applied to Faith, you say, That among the Romans it was opposed to doubting, and for that you bring this Latin Sentence, Nil tam certum est quam quod de dubio certum. Answ. Certum, among the Romans, might be opposed to doubting, and yet not be applied to Faith, because Knowledge, as well as Believing, is opposed to doubting; and therefore unless it had pleased your Lordship to have quoted the Author out of which this Latin Sentence is taken, one cannot tell whether Certum be not in it spoken of a thing known, and not of a thing believed." Locke, Mr. Locke's Reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcester's Answer to his Second Letter, 125-6.
11. "Your Lordship urges, that I have said, That no Idea proves the existence of the Thing without it self, which Argument reduced to form, will stand thus. If it be true, as I say, that no Idea proves the existence of the thing without it self, then upon the supposition that Knowledge consists in the perception of the agreement or disagreement of Ideas, we cannot attain to the knowledge of the truth of this Proposition, that there is a God." Locke, Mr. Locke's Reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcester's Answer to his Second Letter, 137.
12. "Aristotle did not make Motion to arise from Matter, but asserted it to come from a first Mover, and said, That those Philosophers talked like Men not well in their Wits, who attributed Motion to Matter of it self; as I could easily prove, if it were needful... It may be said, That Aristotle said this, because he took Nature for such a Substance as had the Power of Motion in it self; I do not deny, but he look'd on that as the proper Acception of Nature; but from hence it follows, that whatever Substance had such a Principle of Motion in it self was truly and properly Nature; not as exclusive of a Superiour Principle of Motion, but as having an internal self-moving Principle. And herein Aristotle differed from some modern Philosophers, who make all Motion to come from the Impulse of another Body, and to be a meer Mode of Matter continued from one Body to another. I confess Aristotle was of another Opinion from those Gentlemen, and look'd on Motion as an Effect of an inward Principle; and not meerly of an External Impulse: but whether Aristotle were mistaken herein is not the Question; and it is possible he was not." Stillingfleet, The Bishop of Worcester's Answer to Mr. Locke's Second Letter, 91-3.
13. "The Idea of Matter is an extended solid Substance; where-ever there is such a Substance, there is Matter; and the Essence of Matter, whatever other Qualities not contained in that Essence, it shall please God to superadd to it. For example, God creates an extended solid Substance, without the superadding any thing else to it, and so we may consider it at rest: To some parts of it he superadds Motion, but it has still the Essence of Matter: Other parts of it he frames into Plants, with all the Excellencies of Vegetation, Life and Beauty, which is to be found in a Rose or a Peach-tree, &c. above the Essence of Matter in general, but it is still but Matter: To other parts he adds Sense and Spontaneous Motion, and those other Properties that are to be found in an Elephant. Hitherto 'tis not doubted but the Power of God may go, and that the Properties of a Rose, a Peach or an Elephant, superadded to Matter, change not the Properties of Matter; but Matter is in these things Matter still. But if one venture to go one step further and say, God may give to Matter, Thought, Reason and Volition, as well as Sense and Spontaneous Motion, there are Men ready presently to limit the Power of the Omnipotent Creator, and tell us, he cannot do it... But 'tis farther urged, That we cannot conceive how Matter can Think. I grant it; but to argue from thence, that God therefore cannot give to Matter a Faculty of Thinking, is to say God's omnipotency is limited to a narrow Compass, because Man's Understanding is so; and brings down God's infinite Power to the size of our Capacities." Locke, Mr. Locke's Reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcester's Answer to his Second Letter, 396-8.
14. "your Lordship will argue, That by what I have said of the possibility that God may, if he pleases, super-add to Matter a Faculty of Thinking, it can never be proved that there is a spiritual Substance in us, because upon that Supposition it is possible it may be a material Substance that thinks in us. I grant it; but add, That the general Idea of Substance being the same every where, the Modification of Thinking, or the Power of Thinking joined to it, makes it a Spirit, without considering what other Modifications it has, as, whether it has the Modification of Solidity or no. As on the other side Substance, that has the Modification of Solidity is Matter, whether it has the Modification of Thinking or no." John Locke, A Letter to the Right Reverend Edward Ld Bishop or Worcester (London, 1697), 66.
15. "To what I have said in my Book, to shew that all the great Ends of Religion and Morality are secured barely by the Immortality of the Soul, without a necessary Supposition that the Soul is immaterial, I crave leave to add, That Immortality may and shall be annexed to that, which in its own Nature is neither immaterial nor immortal." Locke, A Letter to the Right Reverend Edward Ld Bishop or Worcester, 68.
16. "by putting together the ideas of thinking, perceiving, liberty, and power of moving themselves and other things, we have as clear a perception and notion of immaterial substances as we have of material." John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding (London, 1690), II.23.15.
17. "The next thing to be considered is, how bodies operate one upon another, and that is manifestly by impulse, and nothing else. It being impossible to conceive, that body should operate on what it does not touch, (which is all one as to imagine it can operate where it is not) or when it does touch, operate any other way than by motion." Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, II.8.11.
18. "'Tis true, I say, "That Bodies operate by impulse and nothing else". And so I thought when I writ it and yet can conceive no other way of their operation. But I am since convinced by the Judicious Mr. Newton's incomparable Book, that 'tis too bold a Presumption to limit God's Power in this Point, by my narrow Conceptions. The gravitation of Matter towards Matter, by ways unconceivable to me, is not only a Demonstration that God can, if he pleases, put into Bodies, Powers, and ways of Operation, above what can be derived from our Idea of Body, or can be explained by what we know of Matter, but also an unquestionable and every where visible Instance, that he has done so. And therefore in the next Edition of my Book, I shall take care to have that Passage rectified." Locke, Mr. Locke's Reply to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Worcester's Answer to his Second Letter, 408. Locke did indeed change the passage; from the fourth edition of the Essay onwards, II.8.11 read: "The next thing to be considered is, how bodies produce ideas in us; and that is manifestly by impulse, the only way which we can conceive bodies operate in." For this change of view Locke was indebted to Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica [The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy] (London, 1687).
19. Richard Bentley, Eight Sermons, Preached at the Hon. Robert Boyle's Lecture, in the Year MDCXCII (London, 1693). Boyle made provision in his will for a foundation that would fund annual lectures on the topics of natural and revealed religion. Boyle died in 1691, and Bentley's sermons in 1692 were therefore the first in the series.
20. Leibniz is referring here to his short paper Confessio naturae contra atheistas [The confession of nature against atheists] (1669), which was published by Gottlieb Spizel in De atheismo eradicando (Augsburg, 1669). An English translation is available in Leibniz, Philosophical Papers and Letters, 109-12.
21. "If I push part of a paper, the part which is pushed gives way; therefore no reaction or motion of resistance can be assumed. But not only does it give way; it also carries with it the remaining parts which adhere to it. It is indeed truly and with good reason that Democritus, Leucippus, Epicurus, and Lucretius of old, and their modern followers, Peter Gassendi and John Chrysostum Magnenus, asserted that the whole cause of cohesion in bodies may be explained naturally through the interweaving of certain shapes such as hooks, crooks, rings, projections, and in short, all the curves and twists of hard bodies inserted into each other. But these interlocking instruments themselves must be hard and tenacious in order to do their work of holding the parts of bodies. Whence this tenacity? Must we assume hooks on hooks to infinity? ... There remains only one answer which these most subtle philosophers can make to such objections; they may assume certain indivisible corpuscles, which they call atoms, as the ultimate elements of bodies, which, by their varied shapes, variously combined, bring about the various qualities of sensible bodies. But no reason for cohesion and indivisibility appears within these ultimate corpuscles... In explaining the atoms, we may therefore rightly resort to God, who endows with firmness these ultimate elements of things... [T]hrough the ultimate analysis of bodies, it becomes clear that nature cannot dispense with the help of God." Confessio naturae contra atheistas, in Leibniz, Philosophical Papers and Letters, 112.
22. This friend has not been identified.
23. "to have opinions united to arguments".
24. Leibniz is referring to his Specimen dynamicum from the April 1695 edition of the Acta eruditorum (pp145-157), and De ipsa natura, from the September 1698 edition (pp427-440).

© Lloyd Strickland 2009