Locke on the epistemological Status of scientific laws


  • Silvio Seno Chibeni State University of Campinas




This article aims to defend Locke against Quine’s charge, made in his famous “two dogmas” paper, that Locke’s theory of knowledge is badly flawed, not only for assuming the dogmas, but also for adopting an “intolerably restrictive” version of the dogma of reductionism. It is shown here that, in his analysis of the epistemological status of scientific laws, Locke has effectively transcended the narrow idea-empiricism which underlies this version of reductionism. First, in order to escape idealism, he introduced the notion of “sensitive knowledge of the particular existence of finite beings without us,” broadening thus his initial definition of knowledge in terms of the “perception of the agreement or disagreement of ideas” — a definition compatible with Quine’s interpretation. Secondly, after showing that we can have virtually no a priori knowledge of universal truths about substances, Locke extended the notion of “sensitive knowledge” to the particular propositions of “coexistence” in substances, appealing to the notion of “probability” for treating their inductive generalizations and, in particular, the phenomenological laws of science. Finally, acknowledging the essential presence of hypothetical, nonphenomenological laws in science, he anticipated much of the contemporary views on their role and nature, including, remarkably, a mild version of the epistemological holism championed by Quine.