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JOHN LOCKE AND THE ETHICS OF BELIEF. By NICHOLAS WOLTERSTORFF. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. xxi, 248.

In this book Nicholas Wolterstorff, a well-known proponent of "Reformed epistemology," sets out to investigate the modern origins of the evidentialist and foundationalist tradition that he opposes. He locates these origins in book 4 of Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Wolterstorff tells us that he had to overcome strong prejudices in writing the book, for "in the philosophical world I inhabit, Locke has the reputation of being boringly chatty and philosophically careless" (xii). He suggests that the earlier parts of the Essay deserve that reputation, but says that while reading book 4 he felt himself to be "present at the making of the modern mind" (xii). To Wolterstorff's credit, he seems to have vanquished some of his prejudices, for this book offers careful and charitable readings of many important strands in Locke's epistemology.

The organization of this book is rather odd. Chapter 1 occupies some 158 pages--nearly two thirds of the text. This is the core of the book, and it contains discussions of Locke's accounts of the nature and scope of knowledge, the governance of belief, and the relation between faith and reason. The remaining three chapters have less to do with Locke than one would expect, given the book's title. Chapter 2 is a discussion of Hume's critique of induction, presented as a challenge to Locke. Chapter 3 is titled "Locke's Originality," but is almost entirely devoted to elaborating and defending an account of Descartes's epistemology; the issue of Locke's originality is directly addressed only in the chapter's last three paragraphs. Chapter 4 makes the case that Locke was a modern philosopher (and, more surprisingly, that Descartes was not one); but here most of the focus is not on Locke but on accounts of modernity offered by Hegel, Max Weber, and Charles Taylor.

Wolterstorff portrays Locke as a socially engaged philosopher trying to address the fragmentation of moral and religious authority in seventeenth-century England. He says that Locke offers an account of how to conduct one's understanding, an account which is supposed to liberate one from unreflective adherence to political party or religious sect. According to that account, there is a very sharp distinction between knowledge and belief. Knowledge is scanty, and when it is lacking in matters of "maximal concernment" (particularly moral and religious matters), one has a responsibility to ensure that belief is at least properly grounded. The responsible believer is one who employs reason to govern his beliefs, and this involves three steps: acquiring a satisfactory body of evidence for and against a proposition (67), examining that evidence to determine its evidential force (73), and finally "adopting a level of confidence in the proposition which is proportioned to its probability on one's satisfactory evidence" (79). Reason comes into the picture as the faculty which is responsible for evaluating the cogency of arguments, and for determining the extent to which a proposition is supported by a body of evidence.

Not surprisingly, Wolterstorff argues that Locke's advice is unusable. He says that the problem with the first step in Locke's procedure is that we can never tell when our evidence is satisfactory--this is the moral of chapter 2's discussion of Hume on induction. The problem with the other two steps is that there are a number of ways in which we can be mistaken in our appraisal of probabilities. Locke never acknowledges that reason itself can make mistakes, but he does grant that some other faculty may produce mistaken beliefs about the strength of an argument or the probability of a proposition on some specified evidence. Wolterstorff says that this admission "serves to undercut his entire vision" (92).

Locke's discussion of the mistakes to which we are prone when assessing probabilities comes at 4.20.7-17. He says that even when the evidence is laid before us and "real Probabilities appear," several factors can cause us to withhold assent that is due, or even to give assent to the less probable opinion. These factors include such things as undue reverence for a firmly entrenched principle, attachment to a theory that one has invested a career in defending, and the corrupting power of passions other than the love of truth.

How does the admission that we can he susceptible to such factors serve to undercut Locke's entire vision? Wolterstorff points out that in those cases where we fail to correctly determine the force of our evidence, we may think that we have gotten it right. He says that this raises a question: "When we get one of these determinations wrong, what is it that we ought to do by way of proportioning assent?" (107) Locke's answer is that one ought to proportion one's level of confidence in a proposition to its actual probability on a set of propositions which are actually known by one and which actually constitute satisfactory evidence. But, Wolterstorff objects, surely this is mistaken: "For suppose that I embraced Locke's criterion. Then I would, according to the criterion, be doxastically guilty if I did not do what I did not on careful reflection believe that I should do. And if I applied the criterion in accordance with my beliefs, I would be doxastically guilty for doing what on careful reflection I believed that I should do" (108). This is evidently intended as a reductio of Locke's account, but I am inclined to reply on his behalf: "Exactly right! If your intransigent commitment to some principle--the doctrine of transubstantiation, for instance--distorts your evaluation of the evidence for a proposition, then the probability you should assign to that proposition may well be different from the probability that, on careful reflection, you think you should assign to it." Sometimes trying to do your epistemic best is not good enough. The remedy that. Locke proposes for these difficult cases is, as Wolterstorff points out, preventive rather than therapeutic--it is better education (153).

This book contains a great deal of interest besides its critique of Lockean evidentialism. There are illuminating discussions of Locke's treatment of memory knowledge, his account of the influence of the will on belief, his critique of religious enthusiasm, and his optimism about a science of ethics. Wolterstorff also has interesting things to say about other philosophers. In the chapter on Hume, for instance, he denies that Hume regarded the beliefs produced by induction as unjustified. In the chapter on Descartes, he argues that Descartes's methodological doubts are not doubts about the truth of commonsense propositions, but doubts about their certainty.

Especially impressive is Wolterstorff's command of a wide range of Lockean texts. He draws not only on the Essay, but on the Conduct of the Understanding, the letters on toleration, the correspondence with Stillingfleet, the Reasonableness of Christianity--even the Second Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity! One minor annoyance is that his references to Locke's writings outside the Essay are to the 1824 edition of the Works, which is arranged somewhat differently than the 1823 edition that most Locke scholars use. Another nuisance is that the index to this book is short and not very useful.

Though John Locke and the Ethics of Belief appears in Cambridge's "Studies in Religion and Critical Thought" series, its readership should include not only philosophers of religion, but epistemologists and historians of early modern philosophy.


Bowdoin College
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:The Philosophical Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1999

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