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Locke's Cassowary and the Ethos of the Essay PETER WALMSLEY In the introductory chapter of an Essay Concerning Human Understanding , Locke sets aside any speculation about the physiology of the brain. However "curious or entertaining" such a "Physical Consideration of the Mind" might be, it is foreign to his present purpose, that of considering "the discerning Faculties of a Man, as they are employ'd about the Objects, [with] which they have to do" (Li.2).' But despite these initial claims, Locke frequently turns to the material world in his account of mental powers and their objects. He is always ready to fix his argument in the concrete and familiar with an example or an analogy, populating his prose with sugarplums and curry-combs, tombstones and lobsters. Nor do such images seem out of place in the service of an epistemology so concerned with our experience of the world. One of Locke's first tasks is to determine the nature and validity of our knowledge of sensible objects. In the course of this inquiry he invokes many conventional instances of the limits of such knowledge, as when he asks us to consider how the beautifully mingled red and white of porphyry is lost in the dark, or how an almond becomes bitter when pounded in a mortar (Il.viii. 19-20). But Locke's examples and images often seem to serve another, less immediate purpose in the Essay. Consider the metaphor which predominates in the opening chapter. Locke proposes to undertake a "Survey of our own Understandings" in order to discover the 253 254 / WALMSLEY "Extent of our Knowledge" and find the "Horizon . . . which sets the Bounds between the enlightened and dark Parts of Things" (Li.7). This geographical analogy points to a pervasive if often implicit concern — that of locating human understanding, and even humanity itself, within a larger field of phenomena. Indeed, Locke's sense of the importance of his project depends on a very traditional claim for the distinguishing character of the understanding as that which "sets Man above the rest of sensible Beings, and gives him all the Advantage and Dominion, which he has over them" (I.i.l). This issue resurfaces in Book IPs account of our powers of abstraction, where Locke, with uncharacteristic assurance , argues that the power of "having general Ideas, is that which puts a perfect distinction betwixt Man and Brutes" (II.xi.10). And it is in this vein that Locke wonders whether or not an old man, his faculties exhausted, is much "above the Condition of a Cockle, or an Oyster" (II.ix.14), or puzzles over an ancient account of a monster which was half man and half hog (III.vi.27). Such images participate in the Essay's unresolved inquiry into the extent of human understanding and its speculations about our place in the world. Of all the examples, domestic and natural, which Locke employs in the argument of the Essay, the most exotic, surely, is his cassowary. The bird appears several times in the course of the work, receiving its most thorough treatment in Book Ill's discussion of the "Names of Substances": Were I to talk with any one, of a Sort of Birds, I lately saw in St. James's Park, about three or four Foot high, with a Covering of something between Feathers and Hair, of a dark brown colour, without Wings, but in the place thereof, two or three little Branches, coming down like sprigs of Spanish Broom; long great Legs, with Feet only of three Claws, and without a Tail; I must make this Description of it, and so may make others understand me: But when I am told, that the name of it is Cassuaris, I may then use that word to stand in discourse for all my complex Idea mentioned in that description; though by that word, which is now become a specifick name, I know no more of the real Essence, or Constitution of that sort of Animals, than I did before; and knew probably as much of the nature of that Species of Birds, before I learn'd the name, as many English-men do of Swans...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
pp. 253-267
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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