- Locke’s Touchy Subjects: Materialism and Immortality by Nicholas Jolley
Jolley’s slim book joins a slew of recent work on Locke’s metaphysics of persons. The two “touchy subjects” of the title were the immortality of an immaterial soul and the resurrection of the same body. Jolley’s interpretive thesis is that Locke propounded a form of weak materialism, that is, property dualism (8, 131). He set this up as a corrective to the common reading that Locke was agnostic about the metaphysical state of the soul. As Jolley sees it, Locke’s thinking in support of weak materialism is spread across four works (Essay, Correspondence with Stillingfleet, Reasonableness of Christianity, and “Resurrectio et quae sequuntur”). His defense consists of tracing the arc of Locke’s thinking.
Jolley sees Locke as engaged with a Cartesian dualist and Locke’s goal as making weak materialism look metaphysically and theologically reasonable. Step one is to defend its conceptual possibility; step two its consistency with theology and the Bible; and step three its actuality via our natural mortality. Jolly’s Locke paves the way for materialism by attacking the Cartesian thesis that the soul always thinks (chapter 2), defending the thinking of material brutes (chapter 3), and emphasizing the obscurity inherent in our ideas of substance, body, and mind (chapter 4). Next, the logical and epistemic possibility of thinking matter is defended (chapter 5), which concludes the first step in Locke’s materialist argument. Chapter 6 clears up the tensions between the conceptual possibility of thinking matter and Locke’s cosmological proof of God’s existence (IV.x), which shows that materialism need not collapse into atheism. (Here, too, Locke’s concession that dualism is the most probable position is considered and dismissed [94–98].) Step two is completed by Locke’s non-substantial account of persons, which shows that materialism is not philosophically incompatible with the resurrection, and the explanation given to Stillingfleet that bodily sameness is neither biblically nor philosophically required for the resurrection (chapter 7). Having thus shown that, for Locke, weak materialism is not metaphysically or theologically [End Page 503] absurd, stage three begins with Locke’s theological works (Reasonableness and “Resurrectio”). This is where Jolly’s Locke goes beyond the metaphysical agnosticism that seems to mark the presentation in the Essay (chapter 8). The acceptance of natural mortalism is the tipping point for Jolley: “on the issue of immortality, thus, Locke joins hands with Hobbes” (125), and since for Hobbes “his mortalism is consistent with, and indeed implied by, his materialism” (118), so it must be for Locke.
Scholars will notice that, among the supporting details, Jolley often rests on highly contentious interpretations. Three especially stand out: restricting the mental transparency thesis to mental acts in order to dissolve the tensions with the introduction of the Molyneux problem (39–40); superaddition as an arbitrary annexation by God (74–75); and the non-substantial account of persons (100–109). Scholars will no doubt object to the absence of any justification for adopting these contentious interpretations. Indeed they will note that in each of these cases alternative interpretations are not even acknowledged to exist, let alone engaged.
But I want to call attention to a couple of broader concerns with Jolley’s argument and thesis. The first concerns the central move in the argument, the move from mortalism to materialism. After rightly noting that Locke’s mortalism as presented in Reasonablness is consistent with materialism and immaterialism (123), Jolley brings in “Resurrectio” to, presumably, close the gap between mortalism and materialism. The gap is vast, and there is no reason why an immaterialist—even one who thinks that immaterialism entails ontological simplicity!—cannot be a moralist. Yet Jolley never presents anything that bridges the gap and just concludes that Locke and Hobbes are hand-in-hand in this regard. We are owed more here.
The second concerns the nature of Jolley’s attribution of materialism to Locke. Had his reading been presented in terms of how eighteenth-century materialists could have been reasonably reading Locke...