Was Jonathan Edwards a Lockean Empiricist?

In the very first biography of Edwards penned in 1765, Samuel Hopkins records that the Northampton pastor “had an uncommon thirst for knowledge” from his earliest childhood. The young Edwards was not only a voracious reader; he was a well-rounded one. Mark Valeri has even posited that Edwards gave birth to a trans-Atlantic “cosmopolitan Calvinism,” a tradition subsequently adopted by the New Divinity theologians who claimed Edwards as their progenitor. However, for all of his expansive tastes, no one thinker grabbed Edwards’ attention and his time quite like John Locke. In his biography, Hopkins describes Edwards’ interaction with Locke with striking imagery:

“In his second year at college, and the thirteenth of his age, he read Locke on human understanding, with great delight and profit. His uncommon genius, by which he was, as it were by nature, formed for closeness of thought and deep penetration, now began to exercise and discover itself. Taking that book into his hand, upon some occasion, not long before his death, he said to some of his select friends…that he was beyond expression entertained and pleased with it, when he read it in his youth at college; that he was as much engaged and had more satisfaction and pleasure in studying it, than the most greedy miser in gathering up handfuls of silver and gold from some new discovered treasure.”

The precocious teenager gobbled up the writings of John Locke with such an “uncommon thirst” that Perry Miller theorized Edwards “read more deeply into Locke than did Locke himself,” and that upon reading An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) Edwards “grasped in a flash” the world of modern thought. Such accounts have given plausibility to the idea that Edwards was a devoted student of John Locke, pouring old Calvinism into the new wineskins of Lockean empiricism. Edwards undeniably utilized Locke’s language of sensory experience to describe the event of conversion. His “new spiritual sense” was developed and articulated through the use of empirical tropes. However, Jonathan Edwards was not a committed Lockean. According to George Marsden, “Miller’s portrait is to Edwards what Hamlet is to the actual Danish prince, a triumph of the imagination.” Edwards certainly utilized Lockean psychology, but never exclusively or blindly. In the words of Leon Howard, Edwards was a miser who “critically appraised his treasure.”

Perhaps where Edwards found congruity with Locke more than anywhere else is in the human faculties themselves. According to Locke, philosophers were in error when they treated the faculties as “some real beings in the soul that performed…actions of understanding and volition.” In other words, the will is not a self-activating entity that wills. Likewise, the understanding is not an independent agent who understands. In his Freedom of the Will (1754), Edwards advocated the same concept when he contended, “That which has the power of volition or choice is the man or the soul, and not the power of volition itself.” Faculties are not separate, self-determining entities. The moral agent is the man, not the will or understanding – an idea he admittedly adopted from Locke. However, Edwards labored to find harmony between the faculties to such a degree that, during the conversion event, even the clear distinctions and hierarchy between the powers of the self break down. And this is precisely where Edwards’ affective theology began to depart from Locke. According to George Marsden, Locke “opened up exciting new ways of looking at things, especially regarding the relation between ideas and reality. Locke was crucial in setting Edwards’ philosophical agenda and shaping some of his categories. Yet Edwards was no Lockean in any strict sense.”

Like Locke, Edwards held to the notion that an idea is the object of the mind and that these ideas are derived in “sensation” or “reflection,” both empirical categories. The raw materials for all human knowledge stem from human experience. The fundamental building blocks of knowledge Locke called “simple ideas.” (e.g. ideas of yellow, cold, bitter, thinking, willing, etc.) “Complex ideas,” on the other hand, are formed by the mind comparing or uniting these simple ideas through experience. Unlike complex ideas, the reception or possession of a simple idea is so basic an experience that it cannot be articulated through language. (e.g. describing the taste of a pineapple) Edwards adopted this kind of epistemology in his explanation of spiritual illumination, coopting Locke’s language of “ideas.” However, for Edwards, the simple idea becomes the principle for explaining the synergy between volition and understanding in the act of faith. According to Edwards, “Faith is the entire acquiescence of the soul in the idea of Christ as my Savior in a sense and conviction of his reality and goodness as a Savior as the Gospel reveals him.” Like John Locke, Edwards never confuses the actions of the mind and will with the external idea. But unlike his English counterpart Edwards believes that the origin of this “simple idea” of the Gospel comes not from experience but through the Holy Spirit. This “indwelling principle” creates a “new spiritual sense,” not to be confused with a separate faculty “but it is a new foundation laid in the nature of the soul.” Nearly identical to Locke’s illustration of the pineapple, Edwards was fond of comparing the relish for the things of God in the Gospel to the taste of honey, something impossible to be articulated fully.

Whereas Locke was deeply suspicious of religion to ascertain the truths of the human understanding, Jonathan Edwards adopted Lockean psychology in order to explain the origin of affective knowledge. Through the light of the Spirit, the gift of the “idea” of the Gospel could summon both the understanding and the will to elicit the religious affections, something Edwards defined as “the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.” Moreover, the will “always follows the last dictate of the understanding.” Unlike Locke and true to his Calvinistic view of general revelation, Edwards held that some kinds of simple ideas, like causality, are innate. Still, other kinds of knowledge are immediate and not imparted by nature, namely the supernatural idea of the Gospel through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Bruce Kuklick contended that “the foundation stone in the history of American philosophy is Jonathan Edwards.” However such an assertion should not lead us to believe, as Perry Miller did, that his Calvinistic theology found only one channel into modern philosophy. Nevertheless, Locke’s contribution to Edwards’ conversionism is undeniable. While adopting Lockean psychology in order to articulate the miracle of conversion, Edwards’ belief in the role of the Holy Spirit coupled with his high natural theology prevented him from drinking completely from the well of Lockean empiricism.

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