King's College London
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To scrutinize the whole of Nature: The Royal Society and its fellows 1660-1730

Locke on perception

Title page and frontispiece portrait from John Locke's An essay concerning human understanding. London: printed for J. Churchill, and Samuel Manship, 1716 [Rare Books Collection B1292.C3]Title page and frontispiece portrait from John Locke's An essay concerning human understanding. London: printed for J. Churchill, and Samuel Manship, 1716 [Rare Books Collection B1292.C3]The philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1668. Although he was never a particularly active participant, as his scientific interests tended to be purely medical, he was a close associate of other Fellows, such as Wilkins and Boyle.

Locke was not only one of Boyle’s literary executors, but accepted Boyle’s corpuscular theory of matter. This had major implications for Locke’s epistemology. Although Locke does not mention Wilkins by name, his philosophy of language was a refutation of the assumptions on which Wilkins founded his magnum opus. Wilkins had assumed that the essences of things would be available to human perception, and so a direct correspondence between signs and things could be made. Locke thought that if Boyle’s views on matter were followed, it would be impossible for humans to gain a precise idea of the real essence of matter, as its invisibility to the naked eye, and the uncertain powers of microscopy, would create barriers to human perception.

Furthermore, languages did not reflect reality directly, but rather the imposition of human perception on reality. Languages changed in arbitrary and irrational ways, because they were necessarily the result of human custom and society. Any attempt to create a universal language defied the nature of language.

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