My response to Sam Gregg on “Locke, Metaphysics and the Challenge of America” is up. What I’d like to stress is that this is not ultimately an argument about John Locke. It’s an argument about the deep methodological questions involved in critiquing a society from a metaphysical standpoint:
The impulse to set up an exclusive clique of metaphysically approved thinkers and then devote our energies to “policing the border,” affirming only our favorites while consigning all others to the outer darkness, is not only unsound on the merits, it will also cut off our essentially Lockean society from the sources of cultural nourishment that it is most likely to be able to draw from…If all we do is emphasize that Locke has nothing morally or metaphysically significant to say, we will not only be stating a falsehood, we will be ensuring our own irrelevance…Indeed, we will be significantly helping our enemies…
Being myself a convert (in philosophical, not theological terms) away from voluntarism and nominalism to more metaphysically sound approaches, I am better positioned than most to appreciate the damage done to Locke’s thought by those influences. As Shakespeare wrote:
The heresies that men do leave
Are hated most of those they did deceive.
However, for the same reason, I am also better positioned than most to know what approaches are most likely to have a positive impact on the metaphysically impaired. Perhaps even more important, I am in a position to warn from personal experience that some approaches actually have a very strong negative impact, driving people further away from sound thinking and deeper into the loving embrace of reductionism.
Locke’s own story is instructive in this regard. Locke didn’t start out with bad metaphysics. Until the late 1660s he was a fairly conventional Oxonian. His main distinguishing characteristic was a keen professional interest in empirical science. But the Scholastic Mafia that ran Oxford didn’t like empirical science and didn’t have a constructive attitude toward new and different ideas. Anyone who didn’t 100% endorse their highly complex metaphysical system in all its detailed intricacies—including its mossbacked hostility to the experimental method—was treated as roughly the equivalent of Satan incarnate.
So they conspired to deny Locke a senior faculty position. By an amazing and totally inexplicable coincidence, that’s about the time Locke started reading deeply in the nominalist critics of metaphysical realism. The rest is history.
If the Oxford scholastics had taken a more constructive and engaging approach to their critics—if they had treated their metaphysical knowledge as a beautiful gift they could offer the world rather than as a litmus test for who gets the privilege of being admitted to decent intellectual society—the whole subsequent history of the English-speaking world might have been different. That’s something for us all to think about today.