Traces of a “philosophy of being” in Locke’s idea on abstraction. Some critical remarks

  • Davide Poggi
Keywords: abstraction, general ideas, Principium individuationis, idea of substance, ontology


Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding introduces a coherent theory of knowledge and a clear conception of philosophy, its method and purposes, yet it is far from being intended as a systematic work and, consequently, does not adopt an extreme coherentism. On several occasions and with regard to key aspects, Locke puts the readers in front of deliberately open-ended reflections and uncertainties which, rather than being symptomatic of weakness, reveal that he agreed with Bacon that the search for the truth should be a collective (shared and supportive) and in fieri (unexhausted and perfectible) activity. This is highlighted by his conception of abstraction: in the Essay, two different kinds of abstraction coexist, which are not always compatible, although they are sometimes treated as if they were equivalent. In addition to the classical conception of abstraction involved in the formation of general ideas, Locke puts forward another conception which introduces a non-inductive and, therefore, non-empiricist process focusing on the existence of the content. This second kind of abstraction, which has been, in my opinion, scarcely explored in the history of philosophy, helps reflect on Locke’s concept of existence (or, maybe, on ‘the concepts’ of existence, given some ambiguities in his thought) and its central role in the Essay, adding a further element to what could be called a Lockean experimental ontology.