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Is the distinction between real and nominal essence a useful one?
The distinction between real and nominal essence is most famously and clearly posited by John Locke, in response to the prevailing contemporary consideration of 'essence' of his time, which he rejected. In response, Locke proposed a new consideration, in terms of two distinct forms of essence, the real and the nominal. In asking whether this distinction is a useful one, I will take the question to mean specifically useful to Locke in terms of his overall theory as espoused in the Essay, and in particular in this case his theory of knowledge. The question thus prompts us to explore what it is that the distinction is intended to achieve, and to what degree it achieves this. We should begin to answer this question with an exploration of how and why Locke considers it necessary to reassess the notion of essence, and in what ways he disagreed with the traditional essentialist account. From here, we can begin to consider variously the definitions ascribed in this context to the terms 'real' and 'nominal', both by Locke and by the tradition he is attempting to overturn, at the same time elucidating the distinction between the two concepts in light of these definitions. As we shall see, while the distinction is one that is broadly useful for Locke, it is specifically important for Locke's theory of knowledge, and we should consider the manner in which this is so. We will consider also one notable difficulty with Locke's attack upon the Scholastics' definition of 'real' essence, in light of which distinction may be damaged to some degree. The concept of a distinction between different styles of essence is in fact one that preceded Locke. Aristotle posited an early version of the distinction, suggesting that we could know the meaning of a term such as 'goat-stag'1 without knowing what he called the 'essential nature' that the name would denote, were such a thing to actually exist. As the notion reached Locke's time, the idea of the distinction remained, however the nature of essence was considered in relation to the concept of 'forms', and it was this with which Locke disagreed. This view of essence in relation to the notion of forms posits both that a thing is what it is by virtue of being cast in a certain 'form', that it is capable of being grouped with others things of a similar nature by virtue of the fact that all these things are cast in the same form, and that the names that we give to some substances or things are determined by these forms, which are the objective, extant, mind-independent real essence of those things. Locke rejects this theory, arguing on the grounds of the mechanistic world-view that he proposes that the notion that there are indeed such mind-independent essences is false. He argues further that the boundaries placed upon the names we use for particular objects are determined solely by our abstract ideas, but accepts the notion of 'real' essence in some form, thus beginning to develop his distinction. Simple disagreement over the metaphysical nature of external reality is one reason as to why Locke rejects this contemporary essentialism, but there is a further reason, which relates to the theory of ideas he posits in the Essay, which provides clearer grounds for the distinction, and which should thus be explored. The traditional essentialism of Locke's day suggested that some of the kind-terms that we use in discourse are used to signify things that exist already in naturally determined kinds bound together by some unifying mind-independent essence, but also that our use of these terms does not presuppose our knowing these essences, nor our having knowledge of any criterion that isolates and identifies instances of that kind. 1 Aristotle, Posterior Analytics II.vii
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