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Locke’s Formulation On Real And Nominal Essences Exploratory Essay


The formulation entailed in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke brings to fore vivid distinctions between real and nominal essences. Locke defines a real essence as the observable physical appearance of an object. He further describes it as ‘it is what it is’. In regards to a nominal essence, he views it as a conceptual idea made out of analogous qualities that are inherent in such objects.

The distinction brought out by Locke is therefore significant in bringing out both the semantic and epistemological roles. By giving an example of gold, Locke brings out his first contrast between the two essences. According to him, the nominal essence of gold is created by bringing together the noticeable qualities such as its yellowish and malleable nature that formulates the conceptual common idea of gold.

Locke asserts that “the quality of any object is characterized as the power to generate any Idea in our mind.” Locke further contends that there is an additional element of an unrecognizable microstructure that gives rise to these noticeable qualities. The microstructure, it is noted, is as a result of the corpuscular theoretical proposition by Boyle and the subsequent hypothesis of the ‘mechanistic’ physics.

Locke therefore refers to the internal formation of a substance as the real essence and further notes that in contrast to nominal essence, it has a foundation in actuality. Secondly, Locke proposes that the other distinction is visible through the naming of sorts, or what is commonly known as the ‘natural kinds’. According to him, he attributes the process of naming to nominal essences as opposed to real essences.

This is attributed to the fact that the formulation of conceptual ideas is created prior to acquiring knowledge of the internal corpuscular composition of objects. Further, due to the fact that the real essences of objects remain unknown, Locke argues that it becomes difficult to ascertain the corpuscular microstructure of objects and how the same comes up with the noticeable qualities that form the basis of classification.

He further contends that the corpuscular microstructure of objects generates all the pertinent and irrelevant noticeable qualities present in the particular object. Accordingly, the cognitive rationale of identifying the pertinent qualities becomes the foundation of picking out the nominal essences.

Locke therefore argues that the real essence is reliant on the nominal essence as it is from the nominal essence that the qualities that define the particular object are derived. The nominal essences are as a result of human option. The option entails the kind of qualities that the beings are seeking to incorporate in their categorization of species or genus. Locke avers that “the species are the workmanship of the understanding”.

Based on the above argument, it is not in doubt that most scholars view Locke as a ‘nominalist’. The concept of ‘nominalism’ allows the entities to subsist only as names that are applied to authorize anthology of tangible character. This means that neither the subsistence of real entities nor the universal nouns corresponds to each other. In addition, the conceptual common ideas subsist only in the mind.

First, Locke regularly refers to the tenure and consciousness of conceptual ideas inherent in the mind of humans. These conceptual ideas are those that represent a certain class of humans. The ‘name’ is therefore the only universal factor. Secondly, his ‘nominalism’ nature is evident in the abstraction nature that he harmonizes with what other ‘nominalists’ refer to as ‘improper’.

The ‘improper’ nature mentally detaches a particular quality from all the other perceived qualities. The type of abstraction inferred by Locke is not similar to that of ‘proper’ that permits the occurrence of universal essence in the observation of that particular quality.

Finally, it is imperative to infer that Locke’s view on abstraction is similar to that of other ‘nominalists’. This is attributed to the fact that both views hold a strong belief in the subsistence of conceptual ideas that exist in reality hence distinguishing themselves from those ideas that exist in the human mind.

Locke attributes Science to the metaphysical and epistemological analysis of material objects and their inherent abilities. The concept of scientia developed by Locke derives the knowledge of natural philosophy for beings. According to him, “Natural philosophy is incapable of being made a science.” Locke’s view of scientia is based on real essences and the essential association that links them.

As noted in the argument above, it is noteworthy that he clearly detaches the concept of real essences from that of nominal essences. However, he argues that humans possess the scientific knowledge of an object based on its real essence. The qualities are derived from the real essence based on the correlation between the essence and its other traits.

He therefore asserts that, “Such information is so definite that we cannot conceive even of God having made things any other way: Nor can we conceive this Relation and the connection of these two ideas.” It is therefore imperative to note that the presence of scientia in natural philosophy enables one to ascertain the qualities of an object without necessarily having to scrutinize them.

Locke gives a good example by describing the real essence of gold. He argues that if this essence is determined, then its qualities would easily be derived. This is despite the fact that gold in itself would not even be in existence. The concept of scientia therefore makes it possible to construe the object’s tertiary qualities and its ability to bring into being certain properties in other objects.

Further, since it is imperative that scientia is entailed in real essences, then the same is integrated in the pertinent information regarding the material substances. In so doing, it becomes easy to ascertain the tertiary qualities of an object without having to observe them. Based on the above argument, it can therefore be concluded that Locke holds a strong opinion that science apprehends real essences.

Hume’s Natural and Philosophical Relations

Hume defines the concept of relations as one that entail intricate ideas. He further characterizes the relations into natural and philosophical relations. The natural relations are set to explain the existing set of ideas that correlate with each other in the mind. The philosophical relations on the other hand entail those ideas that are arbitrarily adjoined in the mind.

In his words, he avers that, “The word Relation is regularly applied in two senses that are distinguishable from each other. Either for that quality, by which two ideas are correlated in the mind, and the one are naturally introduced by the other, or for those instances that even the arbitrary combination of these two ideas are comparable”.

Hume further asserts that, “The seven philosophical relations include resemblance, identity, continuity, contiguity in space and time, proportion in number, quality, contrariety and causation.” He further notes that, “Three of the aforementioned relations are natural ones, being resemblance, contiguity in time and space and causation.”

The natural relations entail such qualities that rely on the standard of association to attach and embed ideas in our minds. Philosophical relations on the other hand bring out the relationship inherent in any substance as a result of free will or preference. It is therefore arguable that the distinction between the two relations is based on mental activities of the two relations.

According to Hume, the natural relation describes a normal outline in the combination of ideas in the mind. In his argument, he avers that ideas do not arbitrarily exist in the mind but rather tend to connect to each other. Further, the correlation between the three relations that makes up the natural relation creates a regular sequence of ideas in the mind.

This kind of sequence, according to Hume, is a natural one. Thus, his depiction of this particular associative progression is that the ideas naturally initiate each other. This creates an inference that the ideas are therefore dependent on each other to ensure successive production of sequence in the mind.

Therefore, the associations of the ideas that are present in the mind are as a result of natural production of each other in accordance with any of the three aforementioned relations. Hume continues to explain that upon occurrence of a particular thought, it creates a certain idea in the mind. This means that the formulated idea is related to the prior occurrence of thought in a certain manner.

Consequently, the association is as a result of relation between the two whereby the idea is formulated in the mind by virtue of the thought and in accordance with the three relations of resemblance, causation and contiguity. In contrast to natural relations, philosophical relations on the other hand relate to the two ideas that the mind willingly evaluates.

It can easily be inferred that what Hume simply mean is that the mind evaluates two ideas, brings out their qualities and correlates them based on the acknowledged qualities. However, this concept creates an interpretative difficulty as its suggestion is not compatible with Hume’s system of the mind.

According to his system, he does not regard the mind as an entity on its own hence its inability to coherently evaluate two ideas and distinguish their relation. However, he asserts that the ideas in philosophical relations are intricate as compared to natural relations.

This is attributed to the fact that philosophical relations are concerned with the concept of evaluating two arbitrarily ideas that have been identified. Further, if the selected ideas in the mind are not consistent with each other, then it is imperative to argue that our perception in regards to their connection cannot be as a result of the shift of imagination from one idea to the other.

Hume’s argument in regards to cause and effect infers that they are natural relations. The warmth that emanates from the sun is a good example. The idea that the sun formulates a warm sensation is in the imagination. According to Hume, he infers that causes and effects are revealed through incidents and not reason.

This is due to the fact that the coexistence between the two is as a result of constant relation between particular substances. Further, even after encountering an incident of causal correlation, the effects experienced are not as a result of reason. They are actually based and dependent on past incidentals. Hume attempts to explain the reason of the connection despite the fact that the past and future events are not interlinked.

He avers that the connection is based on incidents and that any inference from such incidents is based on the assumption that nature is unvarying. This is taken to mean that the future is similar to the past. The connection is therefore based on the associative mechanism. The connection between cause and effect is therefore reliant on the regular concurrence of two adjoining substances or events.

The associative uniformity of ideas is derived from the habituation of the mind so as to formulate a certain idea due to the repetitive nature of incidents of two substances bearing similar experiences.

Hume further asserts that, “the relation of cause and effect are contiguous in time and space, and that the substance referred to as cause is experienced before the other referred to as effect.” This creates an implication that relations should be viewed as real as failure to view them as such would make it difficult to construe the idea that was formulated on one’s mind.

Hume On Personal Identity

It is not without doubt that Hume failed to solve the problem of personal identity. In the appendix of his Treatise, he argues that his failure is attributed to two principles that are not consistent with each other but cannot be discarded altogether.

The first notable principle according to Hume is “that all perceptions are distinct existence” and the second one is “that there is no real correlation between the distinct existences in the mind.” It is therefore arguable that if each and every perception is viewed as a ‘distinct existence’, then they can only be unified if all of them are connected in one way or another.

Hume avers that these distinct fundamentals can only be integrated in the mind through causation, resemblance and contiguity relations. However, he dismisses the contiguity relation by arguing that it is irrelevant in this particular issue as it only brings to fore the resemblance of objects that are interlinked in time and space.

Secondly, resemblance relies on recollection, a fact that he argues renders it irrelevant as recollection cannot unify the distinct ideas. He therefore dismisses resemblance on the ground that it will not create the required connection. Third, he asserts that the causal factor that connects the distinctive events does not exist. Therefore, causation ceases to be of any relevance in providing the anticipated connection.

It can therefore be inferred from his argument that his problem with personal identity is more psychological than metaphysical. In his description of identity, Hume avers that the progression of perceptions that formulates in our imagination does not have an identity. For that reason, the identity attributed to the formulated perception is falsified.

This becomes a major problem to personal identity as it is not clear how the perception is connected to the imagination that lead to the belief that the progression actually acquires an identity. Further, even though there is no connection, the perceptions appear to be somewhat interconnected so as to create an impression of a connection that brings to fore the concept of identity at a certain point.

Hume asserts that, “My hopes disappear when faced by these principles that act as a unifying factor to our consecutive perceptions formulated in our feelings and awareness. I fail to ascertain any theory that seems to satisfy my head.” Hume further acknowledges his earlier opinion on identity as being incoherent.

According to him, he views the successions that comprise substances and persons as being pertinent to concept of perceptions. However, he continues to argue that though the propensity for substance identity attribution is not dependent on the succession of the substances, the personal attribution on the other hand is dependent on the succession of perceptions.

More so, the substances are actually divergent from perceptions. This seems to be the worrying factor by Hume concerning the problem of personal identity.

First, it appears that Hume seem to criticize the apparent peculiarity between perception and substance. This is inferred in his assertion that the doctrine is a bad philosophy as it creates the principle of double existence. Further, Hume assumes that the doctrine of distinct substances has populated the universe hence preserving its identity over time. Thus, it brings to fore the plurality of substances that formulates a certain belief.

Based on these two assumptions, it is therefore evident that the substance and personal identity are inconsistence. According to Hume, the inconsistency acts as interference to one another such that both fail to yield the desired beliefs.

It is not in doubt that Hume perceives the two principles as affecting the problem of personal identity. Hume gives a detailed description of the input by resemblance relation to the perceptions that brings to fore the concept of identity.

According to him, the relations of resemblance that correlates the formulation of the perceptions relating to the person’s remembrance, and its perceptions inherent in its inferior order that formulates the images brings to fore the simple conversion in our minds. The conversion therefore enables one to view the perception of another person.

However, this principle is disputable as the reflection upon the collection of perceptions that comprise the imagination creates additional perceptions to the collection. It is for this reason that an argument is posed as to why Hume’s contentious issue seems to render the two principles as being inconsistent.

First, the fact that the person’s perception is inhered intrinsically in an individual and secondly, that the imagination of that individual perceives a kind of real connection in his perceptions. Further, recollection that is assisted by the relation of causation unifies the perceptions that jointly form the mind.

The presence of that recollection creates a relation between past and present perceptions that have been experienced by another being. The relation of contiguity is also important as it protects the idea of ‘self’. This is pertinent to ensure that the information of progression of connected perceptions is inherent in the same person.

It can therefore be inferred that the notion of identity is reliant on the three natural relations. This is because they re-degenerate the idea of memory that helps one to ascertain his personal identity. It is by having a memory that the individual is able to recognize oneself over a period of time.

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IvyPanda. (2019, June 4). Locke’s Formulation On Real And Nominal Essences. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/lockes-formulation-on-real-and-nominal-essences/

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"Locke’s Formulation On Real And Nominal Essences." IvyPanda, 4 June 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/lockes-formulation-on-real-and-nominal-essences/.

1. IvyPanda. "Locke’s Formulation On Real And Nominal Essences." June 4, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/lockes-formulation-on-real-and-nominal-essences/.


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IvyPanda. 2019. "Locke’s Formulation On Real And Nominal Essences." June 4, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/lockes-formulation-on-real-and-nominal-essences/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'Locke’s Formulation On Real And Nominal Essences'. 4 June.

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