Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding is one of those large, difficult, canonical works that are cited a great deal more often than they are read. In the case of the Essay this syndrome has resulted in historical mythmaking which, while rightfully monumentalizing Locke’s book, has done so at the expense of its actual or potential significance. Walker’s study is aimed at destroying the myths about the Essay while rethinking its significance, through a carefully rhetorical reading of its text.
Rhetoric is, of course, one of the things which Locke—along with Bacon and Descartes—is held to have rejected from philosophical discourse. This image of Locke as a proponent of commonsensical empiricism and an opponent of rhetorically-oriented speculation is one of the mainstays of intellectual history—of several distinct histories, in fact: philosophical, literary, and linguistic. But, Walker argues, it is also a mythic image. He further holds that an attentive, unprejudiced reading of the Essay will illustrate this claim by showing the work to be imagistic through and through. The Locke who emerges from this [End Page 250] rereading is not the sworn enemy of those literary effects to which language lends itself, one who has proven convenient to the formulation of neat defenses of poetry (including rhetoric) against simple-minded epistemologues. Walker’s suggestion is that this Locke, not having existed, had to be invented. The Locke of the Essay as Walker rereads it is, instead, a thinker about mind, language, and their intertwined effects who stands much closer to Nietzsche than anyone might have thought previously. And this Locke is anything but the naive philosophical butt simply awaiting a sophisticated (meaning, linguistically-oriented) deconstruction of the kind associated with Nietzsche.
As might be expected from this summary, the spirit of Paul de Man hovers over Walker’s project. But this is deconstruction with a difference (and what other kind is worthwhile?). On the one hand, Walker’s whole analysis follows the mandate laid down in de Man’s celebrated essay on “The Epistemology of Metaphor” (1978), which is to ignore the commonplaces of intellectual history about Locke and to look at the text of the Essay with an eye to what happens there (the relevant passage in de Man is quoted on p. 133). On the other hand, however, the result of following out de Man’s suggestion has been Walker’s discovery and demonstration of severe problems in de Man’s own treatment of Locke and his Essay, a treatment that depends for its effect very strongly on the kind of mythmaking that casts Locke and Nietzsche as antagonists, and more specifically Locke as the problem for which Nietzsche proves the diagnosis.
Walker is in fact quite harsh on de Man in places. Thankfully, however, the relevant chapters of his book do more than provide a litany of “de Man’s flagrant violations of fact and reason” (p. 154)—though this is no bad place to start in reconsidering de Man’s analyses, which have all too easily acquired the status of received wisdom. The exemplary achievement of Walker’s book, aside from its careful scrutiny of Locke’s writing, is to have suggested criteria against which deconstructive readings can be judged (a task that deconstructors themselves have been inclined to shirk). After all this, what remains, meanwhile, of the Essay? “I find the Essay to be complicated . . . ,” Walker asserts, modestly but pregnantly (p. xv). Another claim that his study enforces against de Manian orthodoxy is that literary and intellectual history is indeed still possible, not despite but precisely because of close linguistic analysis: the change that rhetorical reading brings to historical study is to show that literary history is more complicated than is often supposed.