Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Locke's thoughts on logic, rhetoric, reading and Cervantes

Don Quixote

The empiricist philosopher, John Locke (1632 – 1704), is best know for his Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) and Two Treatises of Government (1689). Also important are his Letters concerning Toleration (1689, 1690, 1692) and Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693).

But it was just today that I came across a reprint of his manuscript Some thoughts concerning reading and study for a gentleman (1703) which Dr Johnson's quotes from in his dictionary definition of rhetorick. I was particularly interested to reflect on Locke's notion of connectness in education.

Since the text is interesting in its own right I have copied the extracts that follow from it. The first is from the opening; the second praises Cervantes' novel Don Quixote (1605)

Locke concluded his thoughts by recommending the use of dictionaries and encyclopaedias.

[p. 405] Reading is for the improvement of the understanding.

The improvement of the understanding is for two ends; first, for our own increase of knowledge; secondly, to enable us to deliver and make out that knowledge to others.

The latter of these, if it be not the chief end of study in a gentleman; yet it is at least equal to the other, since the greatest part of his business and usefulness in the world is by the influence of what he says, or writes to others.

The extent of our knowledge cannot exceed the extent of our ideas. Therefore he, who would be universally knowing, must acquaint himself with the objects of all sciences. But this is not necessary to a gentleman, whose proper calling is the service of his country; and so is most properly concerned in moral and political knowledge; and thus the studies, which more immediately belong to his calling, are those which treat of virtues and vices, of civil society, and the arts of government; and will take in also law and history.

It is enough for a gentleman to be furnished with the ideas belonging to his calling, which he will find in the books that treat of the matters above-mentioned.

p. 406

But the next step towards the improvement of his understanding, must be, to observe the connexion of these ideas in the propositions, which those books hold forth, and pretend to teach as truths; which till a man can judge, whether they be truths or no, his understanding is but little improved; and he doth but think and talk after the books that he hath read, without having any knowledge thereby. And thus men of much reading are greatly learned, but may be little knowing.

The third and last step therefore, in improving the understanding, is to find out upon what foundation any proposition advanced bottoms; and to observe the connexion of the intermediate ideas, by which it is joined to that foundation, upon which it is erected, or that principle, from which it is derived. This, in short, is right reasoning; and by this way alone true knowledge is to be got by reading and studying.

When a man, by use, hath got this faculty of observing and judging of the reasoning and coherence of what he reads, and how it proves what it pretends to teach; he is then, and not till then, in the right way of improving his understanding, and enlarging his knowledge by reading.

But that, as I have said, being not all that a gentleman should aim at in reading, he should farther take care to improve himself in the art also of speaking, that so he may be able to make the best use of what he knows.

The art of speaking well consists chiefly in two things, viz. perspicuity and right reasoning.

Perspicuity consists in the using of proper terms for the ideas or thoughts, which he would have pass from his own mind into that of another man. It is this, that gives them an easy entrance; and it is with delight, that men hearken to those, whom they easily understand; whereas what is obscurely said, dying, as it is spoken, is usually not only lost, but creates a prejudice in the hearer, as if he that spoke knew not what he said, or was afraid to have it understood.

The way to obtain this, is to read such books as are allowed to be writ with the greatest clearness and [p. 407] propriety, in the language that a man uses. An author excellent in this faculty, as well as several others, is Dr. Tillotson, late archbishop of Canterbury, in all that is published of his. I have chosen rather to propose this pattern, for the attainment of the art of speaking clearly, than those who give rules about it: since we are more apt to learn by example, than by direction. But if any one hath a mind to consult the masters in the art of speaking and writing, he may find in Tully "De Oratore," and another treatise of his called, Orator; and in Quintilian's Institutions; and Boileau's " Traite du Sublime ;"a instructions concerning this, and the other parts of speaking well.

Besides perspicuity, there must be also right reasoning; without which, perspicuity serves but to expose the speaker. And for the attaining of this, I should propose the constant reading of Chillingworth, who by his example will teach both perspicuity, and the way of right reasoning, better than any book that I know; and therefore will deserve to be read upon that account over and over again; not to say any thing of his argument.


(p. 411)

To fit a gentleman for the conduct of himself, whether as a private man, or as interested in the government of his country, nothing can be more necessary than the knowledge of men; which, though it be to be had chiefly from experience, and, next to that, from a judicious reading of history: yet there are books that of purpose treat of human nature, which help to give an insight into it. Such are those treating of the passions, and how they are moved; whereof Aristotle in his second book of Rhetoric hath admirably discoursed, and that in a little compass. I think this Rhetoric is translated into English; if not, it may be had in Greek and Latin together.

La Bruyere's "Characters" are also an admirable piece of painting; I think it is also translated out of French into English.

Satyrical writings also, such as Juvenal, and Persius, and above all Horace: though they paint the deformities of men, yet they thereby teach us to know them.

There is another use of reading, which is for diversion and delight. Such are poetical writings, especially dramatic, if they be free from prophaneness, obscenity, and what corrupts good manners; for such pitch should not be handled.

Of all the books of fiction, I know none that equals "Cervantes's History of Don Quixote" in usefulness, pleasantry, and a constant decorum. And indeed no writings can be pleasant, which have not nature at the bottom, and are not drawn after her copy.

Source: The Works of John Locke (9 vols), vol 2; (1824).

Location:   British Library, Add. MS. 4290, ff. 11-14.

Further Notes:

"A paper dictated by Locke to Samuel Bold, giving advice on reading in various fields of study. Bold gives it the title “Mr Locke’s extempore advice, &c.” It was published by Pierre Desmaizeau in A collection of several pieces (1720), with the title “Some thoughts concerning reading and study for a gentleman” and often reprinted under that title with various of Locke’s works."

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)