Locke and the Notion of Power

  • S. Nicholas Jolley University of California, Irvine
Keywords: Categorical properties, Dispositions, Powers, Relations, Secondary qualities, Substance


In recent work Walter Ott has argued that Locke is a major contributor to the debate over causality that is a striking feature of early modern philosophy. According to Ott, Locke contributes to this debate by resurrecting a concept of power; in his view, Locke’s strategy is to reduce powers to relations. Section 1 of this paper criticizes Ott’s account by arguing that it needlessly introduces an incoherence into Locke’s doctrine of secondary qualities: if powers are relations, then secondary qualities are ideal, a claim that Locke denies. Section 2 argues that it is an exaggeration to say that Locke resurrects a concept of power: Locke’s project is not on a par with Leibniz’s rehabilitation of the Scholastic doctrine of substantial forms. It is argued, however, that Locke does believe that under certain conditions an appeal to powers can be defended against the charges of circularity and vacuity that were brought against the Scholastics. Section 3 of the paper develops this thesis by offering an account of the conditions that must be satisfied, for Locke, if talk of powers is to be defensible: powers must not be reified and, at least in the case of bodies, they must be grounded in categorical properties. It is argued that the grounding principle is satisfied in the case of Locke’s famous thinking-matter hypothesis. Section 4 addresses the issue of whether Locke extends this grounding principle to the case of mental powers. The paper concludes by arguing that if Locke does so, then he should adopt at least a weak form of materialism.