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Are There Any Innate Ideas? Essay

‘It is an established opinion amongst men, that there are in the understanding certain innate principles; some primary notions, characters, as it were, stamped upon the mind of man, which the soul receives in its first being, and brings into the world with it. ’ [1] Innate ideas are those principles that are found present in the mind at birth as opposed to those which arrive and develop throughout our lives as a result of sensory experience. Whether or not these innate principles exist, holds for many philosophers many important implications.

There are many examples of philosophers who at various times in the history of philosophy have put forward this theory in order to locate the source of valid knowledge. Famously, Plato claimed that knowledge procured from the senses is invalid. That the data received is merely a reflection or a shadow of reality and that the pure, true image of reality is imprinted upon our souls before birth. Without the possibility of any innate notions his theory would be implicitly invalid.

Rene Descartes is another of these examples. Descartes asserted in The Meditations that our notion of the existence of the self: cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), the existence of God, and some logical propositions like, from nothing comes nothing are all innate ideas and are all central to his philosophy. He believed that these innate ideas appear to us above all other notions in a way that is ‘clear and distinct’ [2] and that it is these ideas that are the source of all real knowledge.

More recently, and in opposition to the already established rationalist movement, which bases itself on the belief that our knowledge of the world is acquired by the use of reason, and that sensory input is inherently unreliable, more a source of error than of knowledge, grew a school of philosophy known as empiricism. John Locke, who has come to be regarded as the chief founding father of this movement launched his attack on innate ideas when he published his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690, which is an extensive philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations.

In direct opposition to Locke was one of his greatest admirers and subsequently his primary critic, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who reacted to this essay by composing his own, New Essays on the Human Understanding. His essay was a systematical critique of Lock’s work in which he examined each single topic raised and then altered them according to his own views and principles. The result of this academic relationship is a systematically bi-polar account on the human understanding and for the purpose of this area of study, an account of innate ideas.

In fact, one of the striking features of this discussion is that it is an intellectual battle between a great rationalist and a great empiricist. Locke, the empiricist, believing that experience is richer than thinking, stating that ‘no mans knowledge here can go beyond his experience’ [3] and Leibniz, the rationalist believing that ‘there are two kinds of truth: truths of reasoning and truths of fact. ’ [4] This crucial distinction separating the two philosophers provides us with the essence for their difference of opinion.

The belief in innate ideas is a distinguishing feature of rationalism and the disbelief being distinguishing feature of empiricism. For this reason, I have chosen these two philosophers to guide the flow of this essay, with each philosopher contributing to the individual arguments involved in their final claim, in order to create a broad debate. Leibniz’s New Essays on Human Understanding is a valuable commentary on Locke’s work which I hope will help to convey an objection to some of his theories.

Before continuing with the discussion it is necessary to establish a definition of the term idea. I shall use Locke’s definition of an idea as he provides a precise and simple one. For Locke an idea is quite simply ‘[that] which the mind can be employed about in thinking’. [5] That is to say, ‘whatsoever is the object of the understanding when a man thinks. ’ [6] This will naturally include all notions, innate or otherwise, all concepts and all memories.

Both philosophers were not concerned, at his stage of their enquiry into the human understanding, with the nature of ideas in general but were concerned with the ‘original of those ideas, notions… which a man observes, and is conscious to himself he has in mind; and the ways whereby the understanding becomes furnished with them. ’ [7] Locke believed that we rely upon experience as the source of ideas and knowledge. That the mind in its primary state is like a blank marble tablet which he called ‘tabula rasa’, [8] and it is through sensory experience our thoughts and notions are engraved upon it.

Leibniz, however, believed that the soul inherently contains the sources of various notions and doctrines. When it comes to the senses, contrary to general rationalist theory, Leibniz does not disregard them, as many rationalists seem to do, instead he maintains that truths of fact depend on observational experience and even truths of reason are brought in to consciousness through the aid of the senses. It is, nevertheless, important to understand that Leibniz believes that although we would never have came to think a thing without the senses, the senses themselves play a catechistic not a determinative role.

External objects merely remind us of the information we already contain on suitable occasions. Plato taught that such ideas were acquired by direct acquaintance (prior to birth) with the archetypes or Forms according to which all things are constructed. The senses are necessary for all our actual knowledge but they are not sufficient to provide it all, since they never give us anything but instances. These instances merely provide us with the impression that what we see conforms with reality and the laws of nature.

We can see that whenever we take a limited number of instances from the past to prove a rule that pertains to every example we might see in the future we are often proven wrong. This method of induction merely shows us what happened in the past. The empiricist employs induction when his thoughts move from the particular to the general, or from what we have experienced to what we have not experienced. In the strictest sense, nothing can truly be proven by induction.

‘From this it appears that necessary truths, such as we find in pure mathematics and particularly in arithmetic and geometry, must have principles who’s proof does not depend on instances nor, consequently, on the testimony of the senses, even though without the senses it would not occur to us to think of them. ’ [9] Experience, as Locke recognised, is twofold. Our observation may be employed either about external sensible objects, or about the internal operations of our minds. The latter is a source of ideas which ‘every man has wholly in him-self, and it might be called internal sense.

’ [10] Locke names this function of the mind, reflection. Internal reflection, Locke defines, is ‘that notice which the mind takes of its own operations, and the manner of them, by reason whereof, there come to be ideas of these operations in the understanding. ’ [11] The sensations we experience are our primary, particular, ideas, and abstraction follows upon reflection. The secondary idea, the product of this abstraction is a concept, a general notion. For example, the first cat we see is a particular cat. We then gain the general concept, cat.

These abstracted concepts must be, as agreed upon by both philosophers, necessarily universal if innate ideas are to exist. There must be those ‘certain principles …universally agreed upon by all mankind’ [12], for there to be the possibility of innate ideas. If the soul comes equipped with notions upon birth then they need necessarily be true as they must be formed through direct acquaintance with reality. Locke, however only agreed that if innate ideas are to exist there must be these universal notions, but he goes on to disagree that these universal notions do actually exist.

He argues that if we can show the possibility of another way in which man can come to universally agree upon certain truths then the argument from Universal consent can be proven wrong. He attempts to show that there can be no universal notions by making this empirical statement: ‘’tis evident, that all children and idiots, have not the least apprehension or thought of them (universal notions): and the want of that is enough to destroy that universal assent… there are those agreed upon notions that children and idiots do not know’ [13] The rationalist response to this is that we need not necessarily be aware of these notions to possess them.

There are many notions that we possess of which we are not necessarily unaware of. If we were permanently conscious of all that the mind contains, there would be, for example, no issues with memory. We are, for example, ‘not always aware of our acquired dispositions or of the contents of our memory, and they do not even come to our aid whenever we need them, though often they come readily to mind when some idle circumstance reminds us of them. ’ [14] Locke found this difficult to accept.

He says: ‘For to imprint anything on the mind, without the mind’s perceiving it, seems to me hardly intelligible. ’ [15] In his firm belief that we are all, including children and idiots, necessarily conscious of all of our ideas, and ‘[i]f therefore children and idiots have souls, have minds, with those impressions upon them, they must unavoidably perceive them, and necessarily know and assent to these truths, which since they do not, it is evident that there are no such impressions’ [16].

He goes further to say that if one states that any notion is imprinted upon the soul at the same time as the bearer is unaware of any such notion is logically impossible and therefore must be incorrect. He compares such statements to his own; ‘’Tis impossible for the same thing to be. And not to be’ [17]for ‘Whatsoever is, is’. [18] That is to say ‘To be in the mind and never to be perceived, is all one, as to say, “anything is, and is not”’ [19] It logically follows, for Locke, that children and idiots must necessarily be aware of all such notions.

One explanation for this problem would be that these ideas allow us to maintain our identity between thoughts and after sleep. Some important questions were raised in a discussion between Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj and a questioner, the questioner asks whether he was conscious before waking up to which Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj replied ‘In what sense? Having forgotten, or not having experience? Don’t you experience, even when unconscious? Can you exist without knowing? A lapse in memory: is it a proof of non-existence?

And can you validly talk about your own non-existence as an actual experience? You cannot even say that your mind did not exist. Did you not wake up on being called? And on waking up, was it not the sense of “I am” that came first? Some seed consciousness must be existing during sleep, or swoon. ‘ The next point that a rationalist would make would be that these ideas allow us to control our body without consciously thinking of every muscle tension and every chemical reaction that are involved in its functioning.

Leibniz said: ‘there are hundreds of indications leading us to conclude that at every moment there is in us an infinity of perceptions, unaccompanied by awareness or reflection; that is, of alterations in the soul itself, of which we are unaware because these impressions are either too minute and too numerous, or else too unvarying, so that they are not sufficiently distinctive on their own.

’ [20] To exemplify this notion to which Leibniz aptly gives the name, petite perceptions, he explains that the noise we hear when we are stood on the shore is the result of a multitude of minute perceptions, all of which combined complete the sound of the roaring sea. ‘To hear this noise as we do, we must hear the parts which make up this whole, that is the noise of each wave, although each of these little noises makes itself known only when combined confusedly with all the others, and would not be noticed if the wave which made it were by itself.

’ [21] It is evident, therefore, that each of these smaller perceptions are in some way registered by the subconscious. These minute perceptions according to Leibniz also give the impression of continuity. ‘Nothing takes place suddenly…nature never makes leaps’ [22] This infinity of perceptions highlights the connection that every being has with the universe. ‘To think otherwise is to be ignorant of the immeasurable fineness of things, which always and everywhere involves an actual infinity.

’ [23] These perceptions also explain, even for the empiricist, how we are all unique before as well as from the moment of creation, the difference between two individuals, always being ‘more than numerical’ [24]. After considering the works of both of these philosophers, for the natural rationalist it seems that logically, Leibniz gives an argument, throughout his essay, which displaces the one of Locke leaving me inclined to conclude that there are these innate inscriptions.

We experience in our everyday life the data to support the majority of his arguments. We can see that throughout history man has within him, whether rightly or not, the natural inclination to lean towards religion and the belief in a God of some sorts. This has been evident throughout each individual nation on at least one occasion in their history. We also have within us the implicit ability to, distinctly, recognize the absurdity of some statements such as; “this square is a circle”. We know, implicitly that this kind of statement is a logical impossibility.

We have this framework of logical ideas within us, [w]hat is innate is what might be called the implicit knowledge of them, as the veins of the marble outline a shape which is in the marble before they are uncovered by the sculptor. ’ [25] We need only consider these notions to find them there, ‘the light of nature, as it is called, involves distinct knowledge; and quite often a ‘consideration of the nature of things’ is nothing but the knowledge of the nature of our mind and of the nature of these innate ideas, and there is no need to look for them outside oneself.

Thus I count as innate any truths which need only such ‘consideration’ in order to be verified’ [26]. More importantly than all, is the problem of existence. We cannot find outside of us any example of our own existence. ‘If [all ideas] did [come from outside of us], we too should have to be outside ourselves; for intellectual ideas, or ideas of reflection, are drawn from our mind. I would like to know how we could have the idea of being if we did not, as beings ourselves, find being within us’.

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