June 29, 2018

Richard Hooker's Influence on Locke's Epistemology

The influence of 'the judicious Hooker' (1554-1600) on Locke's political philosophy is impossible to miss: Hooker is cited by name 13 times in Locke's Second Treatise of Government, which is not a very long book and contains very few other explicit citations. However, Hooker is rarely mentioned in discussions of Locke's epistemology. I suggest that he should be. Recognizing this fact helps to strengthen the case for the unity of Locke's thought (epistemological, scientific, religious, and political) which has been made by John Rogers, Nicholas Jolley, and others.

Hooker's general epistemology looks most like Locke's in this passage from book 2, chapter 7 of Ecclesiastical Polity (McGrade 1:127-128):

The truth is, that the mind of man desires evermore to know the truth according to the most infallible certainty which the nature of things can yield. The greatest assurance generally with all men is that which we have by plain aspect and intuitive beholding. Where we cannot attain to this, there what appears to be true by strong and invincible demonstration, such as wherein it is not by any way possible to be deceived, thereto the mind does necessarily assent, neither is it in the choice thereof to do otherwise. And in case these both do fail, then which way greatest probability leads, thither the mind does evermore incline ... Now it is not required or can be exacted at our hands, that we should yield to anything other assent, than such as does answer the evidence which is to be had of that we assent to. For which cause even in matters divine, concerning some things we may lawfully doubt and suspend our judgment, inclining neither to one side nor other ... [and] of some things we may very well retain an opinion that they are probable and not unlikely to be true.

Here we find versions of several key Lockean epistemological doctrines: two degrees of knowledge, intuitive and demonstrative, with intuitive being more certain; the propriety and importance of holding merely probable beliefs; and doxastic involuntarism.* Hooker does not develop this view in detail, and he doesn't have anything like Locke's definition of knowledge in terms of ideas, but the basic structure is quite similar.

Perhaps more importantly, Hooker, like Locke, wields his epistemology as a weapon in defense of the use of reason in matters of religion. The central goal of Ecclesiastical Polity is to argue that different Christian churches may justly (without violating any divine command) introduce different forms of church government and ritual practice. Hooker's Puritan opponents had held that the church ought to do nothing without the sanction of the divinely revealed Scriptures. In response, Hooker defends the (traditional) view that the God-given faculty of reason is a type of 'natural' or 'general' revelation, distinct from the 'special' revelation found in Scripture (cf. Locke, EHU §4.19.4). According to Hooker, we cannot understand or believe Scripture without employing our natural reasoning faculties and so for Scripture to undermine reason would be for it to undermine itself. On the basis of this general picture of the relationship between reason and revelation, Hooker argues that God never intended the Scripture to prescribe every detail of our lives (or even our corporate religious life) in a universal, one-size-fits-all sort of way, but instead intended to leave room for the use of reason to determine what is appropriate in our specific circumstances.

In defending this role for reason in religion, Hooker makes a number of arguments that are quite similar to Locke's. In chapter 6 of the Preface (McGrade 1:24) Hooker argues that because his sola scriptura Puritan opponents do not claim to have received "intuitive revelation" their claims must rest on their own 'collection' from Scripture and hence be merely probable (cf. EHU §4.18.6). Additionally, Hooker raises the regress/circularity objection to the view that Scripture is self-validating:


it is not the word of God which does or possibly can assure us, that we do well to think [the Bible is] his word. For if any one book of Scripture did give testimony to all; yet still that Scripture which gives credit to the rest, would require another Scripture to give credit to it: neither could we ever come to any pause whereon to rest our assurance this way, so that unless besides scripture there were something which might assure us that we do well, we could not think we do well, no not in being assured that scripture is a sacred and holy rule of well-doing (book 2, chapter 4 [McGrade 1:110])

This bears a close similarity to the other main part of the argument of EHU §4.18.6:

I do not see how those, who make Revelation alone the sole Object of Faith, can say, That it is a Matter of Faith and not of Reason, to believe, That such or such a Porposition to be found in such or such a Book, is of Divine Inspiration; unless it be revealed, That that Proposition, or all in that Book, was communicated by Divine Inspiration. Without such a Revelation, the believing, or not believing, that Proposition, or Book, to be of Divine Authority, can never be Matter of Faith, but Matter of Reason.

I do not mean to claim that Hooker is the only source where Locke could have gotten these ideas, or that the views of Locke and Hooker are precisely the same. Certainly, Hooker's religious rationalism is more moderate than Locke's, and Hooker's religious views are more orthodox. However, Hooker is one writer that we know Locke read and appealed to in other contexts who could have been a source for some of Locke's views in epistemology. Certainly the issue of religious epistemology is a key thematic overlap between these two otherwise very different books, Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity and Locke's Essay.

I want to close by discussing an important point of divergence (more important, I think, than Locke's 'Way of Ideas') between Locke and Hooker that I think helps to show the unity of Locke's epistemological, religious, and political thought. This is Locke's radical individualism.

One of the reasons Locke cites Hooker so frequently in his political writings is that Hooker, though considered a safely 'establishment' thinker in both politics and religion, was a kind of early social contract theorist and was opposed to claims of divine right for either monarchs or bishops. Hooker is quite explicit in holding that just rule rests on the consent of the governed. However, he means something very different by 'the governed' than Locke and other classic liberals do. Here is Hooker's explanation in book 1, chapter 10:


Men always knew ... that strifes and troubles would be endless, except they gave their common consent all to be ordered by some whom they should agree upon: without such consent, there were no reason, that one man should take upon him to be Lord or Judge of another ... [But] by experience they found ... that to live by one man's will, became the cause of all men's misery. This constrained them to come to laws ... Laws do not only teach what is good but they enjoin it, they have in them a certain constraining force ... Laws are matters of principal consequence; men of common capacity and but ordinary judgment are not able (for how should they?) to discern what things are fittest for each kind and state of regiment ... Howbeit laws do not take their constraining force from the quality of such as devise them, but from that power which does give them the strength of laws ... for any Prince or potentate of what kind soever upon earth to exercise [legislative power] of himself and not either by express commission immediately and personally received from God, or else by authority derived at the first from their consent upon whose persons they impose laws, it is no better than mere tyranny. Laws they are not therefore which public approbation has not made so. But approbation not only they give who personally declare their assent by voice sign or act, but also when others do it in their names by right originally at the last derived from them. As in parliaments, councils, and the like assemblies, although we be not personally ourselves present, notwithstanding our assent is by reason of other agents there in our behalf ... Of this point therefore we are to note, that since men naturally have no full and perfect power to command whole politic multitudes of men; therefore utterly without our consent we could in such sort be at no man's commandment living. And to be commanded we do consent, when that society whereof we are part has at any time before consented, without revoking the same after by the like universal agreement. Wherefore as any man's deed past is good as long as himself continues: so the act of a public society done five hundred years since stands as theirs, who presently are of the same societies, because corporations are immortal: we were then alive in our predecessors, and they in their successors do live still. Laws therefore human of what kind soever are available by consent (McGrade 1:72-77).

Let me point out a few things from this long quotation (and some of the surrounding text I didn't quote). First, Hooker, like Locke, has a picture of a 'state of nature' organized into family units and governed by a law of nature. However, again like Locke, Hooker holds that the lack of a common judge to adjudicate disputes between people in the state of nature creates a likelihood of degeneration into 'endless strifes and troubles'. However, to be subjected to every whim of an absolute monarch turned out to be even worse than the state of nature. (Locke remarks that to think that, to avoid the strifes that occur in he state of nature, people would choose absolute monarchy, "is to think, that men are so foolish, that they take care to avoid what mischiefs may be done them by pole-cats, or foxes; but are content, nay, think it safety, to be devoured by lions" [Second Treatise, §93].) As a result, laws were invented.

Many human laws, according to Hooker, simply record what was already part of the law of nature. However, "Laws do not only teach what is good but they enjoin it, they have in them a certain constraining force," and this constraining force can only come either from God or from the consent of the governed. Like Locke, Hooker holds that Moses exercised divine right monarchy, but no contemporary monarchs do; their right is always based on consent of the governed.

Now, the key point of difference between Locke and Hooker is, as I said, the nature of 'the governed' who consent. According to Hooker, this consent is given by 'society' which is a type of 'corporation' and this is meant to explain how we today can be bound by consent given "five hundred years since" when we were not even born: "corporations are immortal"** and so the 'society' that gave its consent in the past still lives today. This results in a much more limited right of rebellion in Hooker than Locke would recognize: this consent is valid until it is "revok[ed] by the like universal agreement" of the society. For Locke, the consent is individual and can be revoked individually; for Hooker the consent is communal and can only be revoked communally.

This contrast between Hooker's communalism and Locke's individualism shows up in numerous places in their political and religious thought, but it can also be seen in a crucial place in their epistemologies: the definition of 'reason'. For Locke, reason is a matter of exercising one's own cognitive faculties. In a narrower sense, reason is merely the use of a train of intermediary ideas to enable us to perceive the agreement or disagreement of two ideas. It is all a matter of what I myself am able to perceive by examining my own ideas. Hooker, by contrast, writes:


although we know not the cause, yet thus much we may know, that some necessary cause there is, whensoever the judgements of all men generally or for the most part run one and the same way ... The general and perpetual voice of men is as the sentence of God himself. For that which all men have at all times learned, nature herself must needs have taught; and God being the author of nature, her voice is but his instrument ... The apostle S. Paul having speech concerning the Heathen says of them, They are a law to themselves [Romans 2:14]. His meaning is, that by force of the light of reason, wherewith God illuminates everyone which comes into the world [John 1:9], men being enabled to know truth from falsehood, and good from evil, do thereby learn in many things what the will of God is; which will himself not revealing by any extraordinary means to them, but they by natural discourse attaining the knowledge thereof, seem the makers of those laws which indeed are his, and they but only the finders of them out (book 1, chapter 8 [McGrade 1:62]).

In the surrounding text, Hooker argues at much greater length that we ought not to substitute our own private judgment for the consensus gentium, which he here says "is as the sentence of God himself." Although this is not fully explicit, it seems to me that Hooker has a communal notion of reason. Indeed, he often moves seamlessly between arguments for the propriety of using reason in religion and arguments for the propriety of relying on merely human testimony in religion. 'Reason' for Hooker often seems to mean what the human race can learn by our natural faculties, whereas for Locke it is what I individually can learn by my natural faculties. The communal picture of reason, in which I often need to defer to others, is employed by Hooker to defend his more communal picture of politics and religion. The kind of deference involved drastically restricts the right of rebellion or civil disobedience and also creates space for a deferential acceptance of religious orthodoxies.*** Locke, in precisely analogous fashion, uses his individualistic epistemology to push toward his individualistic approach to politics and religion, with its almost total rejection of human religious authorities and its severely limited picture of civic authority.


(Cross-posted on The Mod Squad)


* In chapter 6 of the Preface (McGrade 1:26), Hooker says that "An argument necessary and demonstrative is such, as being proposed to any man and understood, the mind cannot choose but inwardly assent," and he appears to treat this as a point of contrast between demonstration and probability, but in the discussion quoted above he clearly says that probable belief is involuntary.

** Yes, that really is a quote from Richard Hooker in 1593 and not Mitt Romney in 2012.

*** Locke may have Hooker, or other similar writers, in mind when he writes, "those who set up force again in opposition to the laws, do rebellare, that is, bring back again the state of war, and are properly rebels" (Second Treatise, §226). That is, Locke denies that he is giving anyone a 'right of rebellion'; he's claiming that when governing authorities exceed the bounds of the social contract they create a state of war and the people who resist them are not really 'rebelling' at all.

Posted by Kenny at June 29, 2018 1:50 PM
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