Locke, Leibniz and Borges: Universal and Particular Concepts in the Nouveaux Essais.

vendredi 1er octobre, 13h40-14h10

Résumé de la communication :

In his story, Funes the Memorious (in Ficctiones), J. L. Borges illustrates a Lockeian picture of the human mind with both insight into and inspiration from Leibniz’s New Essays. In the story, Borges describes a young fellow, Funes, who is crippled due a horse riding accident, but also acquires absolute memory so that he experiences and recalls every sensation in full detail (NE III iii 1). Funes’ memory is so acute that he is able to recall every shade of a leaf, every aspect of any cloud or face he has ever seen. No longer able to perceive anything anew, Funes lives in the mighty presence of his recollections. So intense and acute are his recollections that he lives an overwhelmingly rich (though extremely frightening) life.

In Leibnizian spirit (E III iii 3), Borges remarks that, for all the richness of his mental life and imagery, Phunes is not capable of thought. For "to think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract." Having no universal concepts, and unable to compare the wealth of his particular sensory impressions, Funes knows only distinct individual images and the names he picks for them. "In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details". For example, he recalls numbers by the arbitrary names he gives them. The numbers appear to him as an ensemble of independent names, not as a related system.

Borges’ character may be seen as a brilliant reductio argument of Locke’s radical picture of the origin of ideas in the human mind. Yet Locke was well aware of this problem and responded to it with his theory of abstraction. The objection Borges so nicely articulates partly explains why Locke’s radical empiricist model (presented in E II I) is refined and weakened in the course of his Essays. While Funes knows no universal concepts, Locke accounts for the emergence of universals and their general terms by means of comparison of and abstraction from the particular images and sensations stored in the human mind.

According to Locke, only particulars truly exist (NE III iii 1). Universal ideas are generated in the mind by comparing them, drawing similarities and abstracting from differences between them. For Leibniz, as well, particulars constitute the fundamental ontology of the created world. Yet, according to Leibniz, each particular thing also has a complete concept that defines its essence and possibility. In contrast to Locke, such a concept is not accessible to the human understanding; rather, it is conceived in God’s understanding – the ultimate region of ideas and possibilities.

Both Leibniz and Locke are nominalists in the sense that, for both, only particular things actually exist. However, whereas for Locke, universals are mere abstractions generated in the human mind, for Leibniz, universals also serve as the basic constituents (in the conceptual sense) of individual concepts. While Locke is mainly concerned with the origin of ideas in the human mind, according to Leibniz, ideas originate in God’s mind and may be perceived in the human mind in a limited way only.

Thus in spite of a nominalist commitment they share, and in spite of Leibniz’s constant attempt to find points of rapprochement between their systems, Leibniz’s metaphysics of concepts is very different from Locke’s. While Locke’s Essay is almost entirely focused on the emergence of ideas in the human mind (as evidenced by the title), Leibniz presupposes a realm of pure concepts in the divine mind. This difference is the source of many seemingly minor points of disagreement between Theophilus and Philaletes.

In this paper, I will investigate the contrast between the emergence of universal concepts through abstraction from particular things according to Locke and the emergence of individual concepts in God’s mind (and how they are related to universal concepts) according to Leibniz.