Lockeian Roots of the Ontological Principle

by Juliana Geran Pilon

Juliana Geran Pilon is assistant professor of philosophy at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia 30322.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 192-199, Vol. 7, Number 3, Fall, 1977. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Whitehead specifically directs his readers to Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, and Hume for early glimpses of his own philosophy, especially in connection with the ontological principle. The author analyzes Locke’s concept of power by examining the contexts in which that term is used in Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, thus shedding light on problems common to both Whitehead and Locke.

It is a commonplace that creative thinkers are often unskilled in the historiography of philosophy; indeed, a penchant for distortion is all too common among the most outstanding intellects, as witness Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy. It would be wrong, however, to underestimate a priori the historical acumen of all luminaries in this discipline: Whitehead is a case in point. With some exceptions, Whitehead’s understanding of his predecessors is unusually insightful, the envy of historians surpassing him in diligence alone. It is especially useful, therefore, to trace the sources of Whitehead’s system, as he sees them, for the sake of a correct perspective.

Whitehead specifically directs his readers to Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, and Hume for early glimpses of his own philosophy, especially in connection with the ontological principle. As I have indicated in an earlier article (PS 6:249-54), Descartes’ contribution has to be explored further; as we shall see, the same is true of Locke. We shall analyze Locke’s concept of power by examining the contexts in which that term is used in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (E),1 thus shedding light on problems common to both Whitehead and Locke. One formulation of the ontological principle, however, is particularly relevant to the discussion that follows: "actual entities are the only reasons; so that to search for a reason is to search for one or more actual entities" (PR 37).

If we are to judge from Ivor Leclerc’s authoritative book on Whitehead’s metaphysics, Whitehead’s inspiration came from highly imperfect sources. Descartes is offered as a case in point, being "inconsistent with the subjectivism which dominates his thinking." Leclerc then goes on to claim that "a similar inconsistency with his [Locke’s] dominant subjectivist sensationalism is found in Locke’s doctrine that external things have the ‘power’ to produce sensory ideas in us." At the same time, that doctrine is "in full accord with the ontological principle" (WM 27). Confusion ensues: what does Whitehead borrow from Locke, and where do they disagree (and why)?

Upon closer examination, one is tempted to conclude that Leclerc may have underestimated Whitehead’s debt to Locke. For example, consider this passage from Whitehead:

In a simple physical feeling there is a double particularity in reference to the actual world, the particular cause and the particular effect. In Locke’s language (III, III, 6), and with his limitation of thought, a simple feeling is an idea in one mind ‘determined to this or that particular existent’. (PR 363)

Leclerc comments: ‘But it is to be noted that in Whitehead’s theory the representative theory of perception is avoided. For in Whitehead’s doctrine the objectification of the cause in the effect, i.e., in the percipient, is not a ‘representation’ of the cause or perceived actuality" (WM 161). I propose that, in fact, Locke’s account of perception and causality in general is very much in line with Whitehead’s own, that the concept of power is more complex and rather less "sensationalistic" -- indeed, more Whiteheadian -- than Leclerc seems to suggest.

Whitehead himself says quite explicitly that he believes both Descartes and Locke attempted to avoid a representational theory of perception. This is why ". . . both Descartes and Locke, in order to close the gap between idea representing and ‘actual entity represented,’ require this doctrine of ‘the sun itself existing in the mind’ " (PR 118). I shall attempt to show how Locke’s concept of power illustrates his struggle along Whiteheadian lines against a treacherous sensationalism.

According to Whitehead, Locke’s notion of power qua principal ingredient of an actuality "adumbrates both the ontological principle, and also the principle that the ‘power’ of one actual entity on the other is simply how the former is objectified in the constitution of the other" (PR 91). Since Whitehead never fully explains how it is that the notion of power "adumbrates" the ontological principle, further study is required. Unfortunately, the second principle (namely, that the ‘power’ of one actual entity upon another is simply how the former is objectified in the constitution of the other) tells us little about the sense in which the former entity can be said to be "objectified" in its effect. From the above quotation we can conclude only that the notion of "power" is a genuine predecessor of the ontological principle which is also somehow concerned with "objectification."

Consider, then, the sun in the mind, which represents the (objectified) power of the real sun to cast an impression in the sense that there is "something" in the sun that can do that. But "power" is clearly a relational term: we know what power a thing has from what it does to something else. Locke recognizes the two-sided character of the concept: when A exercises active power upon B, B exercises passive power insofar as it is equipped to receive A’s activity. If I didn’t have an adequate perceptual apparatus, the sun could go on shining forever without impressing any ideas upon me; if gold were not capable of being melted, fire could not be said to have the power of melting gold. So "power" is not simply a term relating unconnected, separate entities (as a library collects various books); rather, the objects involved are intimately interrelated.

But how do we come to the idea of power? Whitehead approaches this question by turning to Locke’s Essay where Locke reflects upon the fact that changes take place both in the universe and in the mind, there being a constant passage of things as well as a passage of ideas (book II, chapter xxi). The actuality of change gives rise to the reflection that some objects seem to initiate change while others are capable of responding. We feel ourselves capable of bringing about new states of affairs by exercising our will, so we say that we have power to do things. So far, at least, such reflections do not go beyond ordinary usage and common sense.

But Locke intends to transcend the vernacular. Thus, waxing philosophical, he agrees that "power" is a relational concept and yet at the same time he considers it to be a simple idea, one that cannot be "divided" further, being but one uniform appearance or conception of the mind -- it is received by observing both in ourselves and in natural bodies an ability to produce various effects. Writes Locke:

I confess power includes in it some kind of relation (a relation to action or change,) as indeed which of our ideas, of what kind soever, when attentively considered, does not? For, our ideas of extension, duration, and number, do they not all contain in them a secret relation of the parts? Figure and motion have something relative in them much more visibly. And sensible qualities, as colors and smells, etc., what are they but the powers of different bodies, in relation to our perception, etc.? And, if considered in the things themselves, do they not depend on the bulk, figure, texture, and motion of the parts? All which include some kind of relation in them. Our idea therefore of power, I think, may well have a place amongst other simple ideas, and be considered as one of them. (E-I 310f; original emphasis)

The idea of power, therefore, is simple even though it involves the interaction of two (Or more) distinct objects. This is no mere confusion;2 rather, it vividly conveys Locke’s belief in the dynamic character of the universe. But since, according to Locke, all our ideas when carefully considered contain some sort of relation (to action or change), and sensible qualities such as colors and smells have some relation to our perception, the idea of power is no more complex than our ideas of figure, motion, and sensible qualities. This point of view, which certainly seems to take dynamism as intrinsic to all our experience such that we have simple ideas of relational events, of change, is in keeping with the intent of Whitehead’s belief in the primacy of process. (It is also, adds Whitehead, an advance over Cartesian metaphysics, where "power" is not given a significant place. Change, according to Descartes, is a function of relative displacements rather than of energy and powers [PR 91], which runs counter to the spirit of the ontological principle.)

Locke proceeds to distinguish between the ordinary or vulgar notion of causality and power, on the one hand, and the true, philosophical notion on the other. To illustrate the former, Locke points out in book II, chapter viii of the Essay that the power in any body which seems to cause change in another is commonly considered as "the cause." The ordinary man is more ignorant about science than is the philosopher, for the latter knows that changes are to be attributed to the "particular constitution of its [a body’s] primary qualities" (E-I 179). Thus the sun’s making wax white and fire’s making lead fluid (these are practically the same examples as in chapter xxvi in the same book) "are usually called powers" -- a phrase added in the fourth edition. By "usually" Locke must mean "popularly," since he contrasts the philosopher’s correct use of "power" or cause as referring to the primary qualities: "The first . . . I think may be properly called real, original, or primary qualities. . . . [Light and warmth, e.g.,] are all of them equally powers in the sun, depending on its primary qualities " (E-I 181; original emphasis). It seems clear that while the common man is more ignorant than the philosopher since he, unlike the philosopher, doesn’t know that primary qualities within bodies are responsible for change, the philosopher can be ignorant as well, for he does not know how the primary qualities produce change. The mystery of causation, then, lies in ignorance concerning the nature of change, and such ignorance is not restricted to the many. In short, while Locke does not find the popular concept of power to be fully satisfactory (for secondary qualities are also popularly called "powers"), he certainly does not reject it but merely refines it, The definition of "power" advanced in book II, chapter xxvi, "that which produces any simple or complex idea we denote by the general name, cause, and that which is produced, effect" (E-I 433) is not inconsistent with common sense.

To complete his analysis, Locke uses the "historical method" for examining how we come to have the idea of cause qua power of initiating change. He remarks that it does not arise from looking at material objects (even though previously mentioned examples refer only to material or physical occurrences), but from introspection. Bodies "do not afford so clear an idea of active power, as we have from reflection on the operations of our minds" (E-I 311). Still, this statement implicitly does not rule out the possibility that some such idea of cause -- however unclear and perhaps indistinct -- might come from the observation of physical objects.

Now the metaphysical question is: do we find active power in bodies, or do we not? Locke occasionally seems to indicate that "spirits" alone, not bodies, can afford any idea of producing motion rather than merely undergoing it. Should we then conclude that bodies do not exhibit power just because we cannot experience such power? Locke says that "the idea of the beginning of motion we have only from reflection on what passes in ourselves" and adds that the power of the mind by which it can move bodies is the will (E-I 311 ff.; emphasis mine). Are we to conclude that there is no power in such objects as do not have some sort of "will"? Or -- which might seem a more likely conclusion -- is the power in inanimate objects at all comparable to the will? How is one to answer such questions?

Having ideas, whether clear or unclear, of bodies or of matter being active may in itself provide the evidence for the claim that causally active objects exist in the physical no less than in the mental world. Locke postpones the whole issue of whether matter is active, writing in chapter xxi of book II:

Whether matter is not wholly destitute of active power, as its author God, is truly above all passive power; and whether the intermediate state of created spirits be not that alone which is capable of both active and passive power, may be worth consideration. (E-I 309f)

Locke evidently has trouble deciding whether to restrict "activity" to the voluntary action of minds of spiritual beings. In any event, he certainly does not dismiss out of hand the possibility that seemingly inanimate matter might be capable of some sort of agency or "power."

To be consistent, the question should be asked whether any spiritual being other than myself (whose actions I can introspectively know) truly exhibits active powers. Indeed, there is some doubt as to the times when lam exercising active volition. While Locke does not go quite this far, he does seem concerned about the concept of activity in the physical world. Yet his dismissal of the "common apprehension" that active powers play a role "in our complex ideas of natural substance" as they do in voluntary action "they being not, perhaps, so truly active powers as our hasty thoughts are apt to represent them," is conspicuously hesitant, For what is the force (that is to say, the weakness) of "perhaps"? Of "truly"?

By book II, chapter xxiii, Locke seems to have made up his mind: "Pure spirit, viz., God, is only active; pure matter is only passive" and spirits not merely "perhaps" but unqualifiedly are both (E-I 414). Then is true causality strictly a relation between material objects, merely a matter of some sort of correlation? If this were the case, Whitehead could hardly have found Locke of much use. Context seems to show, however, that here Locke is talking about a "conjecture" (E-I 414).

In fact, Locke asserts in book IV, chapter iii that all matter, insofar as it consists of active ultimate particles, is basically active. For "these insensible corpuscles, being the active part of matter, and the great instruments of nature, on which depend not only all their secondary qualities but also most of their natural operations" should render all matter eminently active (E-II 216). The corpuscles are active in virtue of primary qualities -- mechanical affectations by which all the phenomena can be explained at least in principle. Although Locke is pessimistic with regard to what we can actually know about these particles, believing as he does that we will always be in "incurable ignorance about them since we cannot know the minute parts of matter nor the manner of their interaction, he thinks that at least in principle it is possible to discover the causes of natural events. The causal instruments of nature are to be found in active physical things.

But what about the origin of sense-perception? How do we know? This question, of course, was at least as important to Locke as the problem of insufficient factual knowledge regarding the interaction of physical objects. Indeed, closer examination will reveal them to be the same problem, insofar as primary qualities are held responsible for changes in bodies and also ultimately for producing impressions of secondary qualities.

Some may argue that Locke’s concept of causality is altogether divorced from the epistemological context. Consider the following passage from the Essay:

It is therefore the actual receiving of ideas from without that gives us notice of the existence of other things, and makes us know, that something doth exist at that time without us, which causes* that idea in us; though perhaps we neither know nor consider how it does it. (E-II 326)

A. C. Fraser footnotes "causes*" as follows: "i.e., occasions. Locke does not attribute active power to matter or bodies" (E-II 326). But after having uncovered Locke’s intense struggle on this subject, one should realize that Fraser’s interpretation is simplistic at best. I suggest, instead, that Locke uses "causes" in the above quotation in a perfectly deliberate fashion to bring metaphysics and epistemology together. When outlining the popular definition of causality he had remarked that we are ignorant about the manner in which one substance produces another, about the way they act upon and generate each other; similarly, we are ignorant about the way external objects are perceived by us. That is, the physical and the psychological or epistemological mystery go hand in hand -- resulting from ignorance regarding the same "primary qualities."

Notice that Locke’s remark is perfectly in line with the ontological principle: the actual receiving of ideas is evidence that something actual exists causing those ideas. The common nature of perception and causality in general is implicit in Locke’s concept of power, as Whitehead correctly observed:

The problem of perception and the problem of power are one and the same, at least so far as perception is reduced to mere prehension of actual entities. Perception, in the sense of consciousness of such prehension, requires the additional factor of the conceptual prehension of eternal objects, and a process of integration of the two factors. (PR 91)

One may wonder, in retrospect, why Locke did not follow the traditional British empiricist approach and reduce causality to chains of successive transformations, attributing it instead to the "real active" elements in matter. Locke himself explains why. There is a sharp distinction between transformation and production: "It is but a very obscure idea of power which reaches not the production of the action but the continuation of the passion" (E-I 312). Continuation of passion is not causality, production of action is. Real causes are active and categorically distinct from effects. So the common sense notion of power that Locke cited originally is, indeed, never really repudiated. The philosopher has to refine and extend that concept, applying it not only in ordinary contexts (e.g., the sun’s heating) but to all nature, to the subtle, complex activities of primary qualities, or, in Whitehead’s terms, to the workings of all actual entities. Yet common sense and philosophy must both accept that there is a difference between mere succession and dynamic production of a new effect by means of real powers. On this point, certainly, Locke and Whitehead are emphatically in unison. The various internal difficulties of Locke’s notion of power should not, therefore, obscure the many similarities between Locke and White-head, which I shall enumerate by way of conclusion:

(1) Locke believes that power is a simple relational term; like Whitehead, Locke emphasizes the dynamism of the universe, process, and change.

(2) Unlike Descartes and flume, Locke distinguishes ontologically the object that initiates change (or has "active powers") from the object receiving it or being acted upon; this asymmetry Whitehead adopts as well.

(3) Like Whitehead, Locke believes that the inner configuration of things (their primary qualities), the true causal agents, can -- at least in principle -- be discovered (an attitude antithetical to some interpretations of positivism).

(4) Locke struggles with the question of whether matter is passive or active -- he is no unequivocal dualist -- and there are strong indications that he thought matter was, indeed, active.

(5) Perception and causality, for Locke as for Whitehead, are two aspects of the same process. In virtue of their "internal configuration," actual entities exercise power upon inanimate" objects as upon perceptual systems.

(6) Both Locke and Whitehead dismiss epistemological skepticism: the causes of events can be known, in theory if not always (according to Locke, hardly ever) in practice.

As a final comment, it should be noted that my intention in undertaking this largely historical endeavor has been, in no small measure, to convey a metaphilosophical message. Students of seventeenth century British natural philosophy know that Locke was one of many in his day who saw their task as continuous with the efforts of "natural philosophers" -- their scientific colleagues. It is in this most important respect that Whitehead resembles Locke (and Descartes, as my earlier article [PS 6:249-54] sought to show). Though certainly philosophers, these men thought themselves to be engaged in the same endeavor as the scientists: the rational (which is not to say not empirical) pursuit of knowledge. The philosopher, however, reaches beyond, for he must of necessity question his assumptions as well as seek reflectively some unity of thought. To a philosopher, predictive strength is not sufficient -- though perhaps necessary -- in the pursuit of truth.



E -- An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke, ed. by A. C. Fraser. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1959. The Dover edition is an unabridged and unaltered republication of the first edition of Locke’s essay, republished through special arrangement with Oxford University Press. (E-I refers to volume I, E-II to volume II.)

WM -- Ivor Leclerc, Whitehead’s Metaphysics: an Introductory Exposition. London: George Allen and Unwin 1969. Reprinted by Indiana University Press, 1975.

1. Bart Kennedy, "John Locke and Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism," Philosophy Today 21 (Winter, 1977), 389-404.

2. Juliana Geran Pilon, "Whitehead and Solzhenitsyn on Freedom and Harmony," The Intercollegiate Review 12/2 (Winter, 1976-77), 99-103.



1 Whether or not Locke’s discussion of "power" is ultimately consistent with other aspects of his philosophy is an interesting question. Although Leclerc thinks not, he does agree that Lockeian scholarship would benefit from taking Locke’s analysis of power more seriously. I certainly believe that in light of Locke’s (and Whitehead’s) concern with individual freedom (2), it seems likely that both philosophers would wish to preserve the concept of "active power" in nature and, in particular, in man. Bart Kennedy (1) takes a position consistent with my own.

2A. C. Fraser notes that "the preceding sentences rather imply that the idea of power is an idea of relation, and not a simple idea, Locke calls it simple, because ‘power’, while involving the idea of relation to its effects, is in itself incapable of being defined" (F-I 311). This interpretation seems to overlook the possibility that Locke may have conceived of causality as essentially dynamic.