I have received a good number of emails on Tom West’s friendly criticism of our dogmatically Straussian Locke. Here’s one from our friend Ivan Kenneally:
The thread on Locke is a provocative one. I think West is half right—the absence of any epistemological access to natural essence leaves only recourse to detecting discernible patterns. The unyielding skepticism of the first half of the essay (even first 3/4) gets eventually tempered by a deference to our ordinary experience, and some practical inferences they more or less justify. (This is basically Locke’s non-theoretical solution to the Cartesian problem of our access to the external world: our ordinary experience confirms that contact well enough. Locke’s pragmatism prefigures a lot of self-conscious non-foundationalism that comes in later modernity.)
But the threefold problem with West’s view is this: the rest of Locke’s epistemology is so thoroughly constructivist it’s almost theoretically impossible to articulate a hard demarcation between patterns apprehended and postulated. It’s important to remember that his notion of construction isn’t simply free imaginative creation or a conscious act of will: there is always a cultural or historical context, not to mention the fodder of our experience for the imagination to act upon in the first place. Two, the summum bonum of happiness is complicated by the fact that Locke thinks (and this is clearer in his letters sometimes) that happiness is ultimately elusive. Finally, there is no real coherent account of that species man that enjoys happiness, maybe THE lacuna in Locke. So even if nature survives as a standard of some kind, it’s a thoroughly compromised one.
It goes without saying that I at least kind of agree with this appreciative and astute criticism.