Volume 57, Issue 2, June 1997
Donald L. M. Baxter
Abstraction, Inseparability, and Identity
Berkeley and Hume object to Locke’s account of abstraction. Abstraction is separating in the mind what cannot be separated in reality. Their objection is that if a is inseparable in reality from b, then the idea of a is inseparable from the idea of b. The former inseparability is the reason for the latter. In most interpretations, however, commentators leave the former unexplained in explaining the latter.
This article assumes that Berkeley and Hume present a unified front against Locke. Hume supplements Berkeley’s argument just where there are gaps. In particular, Hume makes explicit something Berkeley leaves implicit: The argument against Locke depends on the principle that things are inseparable if and only if they are identical. Abstraction is thinking of one of an inseparable pair while not thinking of the other. But doing so entails thinking of something while not thinking of it. This is the fundamental objection.