2. 1 Book I At the beginning of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke says that since his purpose is “to enquire into the Original, Certainty and Extant of human knowledge, together with the grounds and degrees of Belief, Opinion and Assent” he is going to begin with ideas — the materials out of which knowledge is constructed. His first task is to “enquire into the Original of these Ideas…and the ways whereby the Understanding comes to be furnished with them” (I. 1. 3. p. 44). The role of Book I of the Essay is to make the case that being innate is not a way in which the understanding is furnished with principles and ideas.
Locke treats innateness as an empirical hypothesis and argues that there is no good evidence to support it. Locke describes innate ideas as “some primary notions…Characters as it were stamped upon the Mind of Man, which the Soul receives in its very first Being; and brings into the world with it” (I. 2. 1. p. 48). In pursuing this enquiry, Locke rejects the claim that there are speculative innate principles (I. Chapter 2), practical innate moral principles (I. Chapter 3) or that we have innate ideas of God, identity or impossibility (I.Chapter 4).
Locke rejects arguments from universal assent and attacks dispositional accounts of innate principles. Thus, in considering what would count as evidence from universal assent to such propositions as “What is, is” or “It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be” he holds that children and idiots should be aware of such truths if they were innate but that they “have not the least apprehension or thought of them. ” Why should children and idiots be aware of and able to articulate such propositions?
Locke says: “It seems to me a near Contradiction to say that there are truths imprinted on the Soul, which it perceives or understands not; imprinting if it signify anything, being nothing else but the making certain Truths to be perceived” (I. 2. 5. , p. 49). So, Locke’s first point is that if propositions were innate they should be immediately perceived — by infants and idiots (and indeed everyone else) — but there is no evidence that they are. Locke then proceeds to attack dispositional accounts that say, roughly, that innate propositions are capable of being perceived under certain circumstances.
Until these circumstances come about the propositions remain unperceived in the mind. With the advent of these conditions, the propositions are then perceived. Locke gives the following argument against innate propositions being dispositional: For if any one [proposition] may [be in the mind but not be known]; then, by the same Reason, all Propositions that are true, and the Mind is ever capable of assenting to, may be said to be in the Mind, and to be imprinted: since if any one can be said to be in the Mind, which it never yet knew, it must be only because it is capable of knowing it; and so the Mind is of all Truths it ever shall know.
(I. 2. 5. , p. 50) The essence of this argument and many of Locke’s other arguments against dispositional accounts of innate propositions is that such dispositional accounts do not provide an adequate criterion for distinguishing innate propositions from other propositions that the mind may come to discover. Thus, even if some criterion is proposed, it will turn out not to do the work it is supposed to do. For example Locke considers the claim that innate propositions are discovered and assented to when people “come to the use of Reason” (I.2. 6. , p. 51).
Locke considers two possible meanings of this phrase. One is that we use reason to discover these innate propositions. Here he argues that the criterion is inadequate because it would not distinguish axioms from theorems in mathematics. Presumably the theorems are not innate while the axioms should be. But if both need to be discovered by reason, then there is no distinction between them. Nor will it do to say that one class (the axioms) are assented to as soon as perceived while the others are not.
To be assented to as soon as perceived is a mark of certainty, but not of innateness. Locke also objects that truths that need to be discovered by reason could never be thought to be innate. The second possible meaning of “come to the use of reason” is that we discover these ideas at the time we come to use reason, but that we do not use reason to do so. He argues that this claim simply is not true. We know that children acquire such propositions before they acquire the use of reason, while others who are reasonable never acquire them.
When Locke turns from speculative principles to the question of whether there are innate practical moral principles, many of the arguments against innate speculative principles continue to apply, but there are some additional considerations. Practical principles, such as the Golden Rule, are not self-evident in the way such speculative principles as “What is, is” are. Thus, one can clearly and sensibly ask reasons for why one should hold the Golden Rule true or obey it. (I, 3. 4. p. 68) There are substantial differences between people over the content of practical principles.
Thus, they are even less likely candidates to be innate propositions or to meet the criterion of universal assent. In the fourth chapter of Book I, Locke raises similar points about the ideas which compose both speculative and practical principles. The point is that if the ideas that are constitutive of the principles are not innate, this gives us even more reason to hold that the principles are not innate. He examines the ideas of identity, impossibility and God to make these points. In Book I Locke says little about who holds the doctrine of innate principles that he is attacking.
For this reason he has sometimes been accused of attacking straw men. John Yolton has persuasively argued (Yolton, 1956) that the view that innate ideas and principles were necessary for the stability of religion, morality and natural law was widespread in England in the seventeenth century, and that in attacking both the naive and the dispositional account of innate ideas and innate principles, Locke is attacking positions which were widely held and continued to be held after the publication of the Essay. Thus, the charge that Locke’s account of innate principles is made of straw, is not a just criticism.
But there are also some important connections with particular philosophers and schools that are worth noting and some points about innate ideas and inquiry. At I. 4. 24. Locke tells us that the doctrine of innate principles once accepted “eased the lazy from the pains of search” and that the doctrine is an inquiry stopper that is used by those who “affected to be Masters and Teachers” to illegitimately gain control of the minds of their students. Locke rather clearly has in mind the Aristotelians and scholastics at the universities. Thus Locke’s attack on innate principles is connected with his anti-authoritarianism.
It is an expression of his view of the importance of free and autonomous inquiry in the search for truth. Ultimately, Locke holds, this is the best road to knowledge and happiness. Locke, like Descartes, is tearing down the foundations of the old Aristotelian scholastic house of knowledge. But while Descartes’ focused on the empiricism at the foundation of the structure, Locke is focusing on the claims that innate ideas provide its first principles. The attack on innate ideas is thus the first step in the demolition of the scholastic model of science and knowledge.
Ironically, it is also clear from II. 1. 9. that Locke sees Descartes’ claim that his essence is to be a thinking thing as entailing a doctrine of innate ideas and principles. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is Locke’s most famous work. In it, Locke critiques the philosophy of innate ideas and builds a theory of the mind and knowledge that gives priority to the senses and experience. He describes the mind at birth as a blank slate (tabula rasa), filled later through experience.
The essay was one of the principal sources of empiricism in modern philosophy, and influencedphilosophers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant. The way Locke states his purpose in the “Epistle” preceding the essay is strongly reminiscent of Kant’s own objective, or rather it is an anticipation of Kant’s undertaking in the first Critique. Locke speaks of the limits of human understanding and the danger of trying to go beyond our natural capacities, letting our thoughts “wander into those depths where they can find no sure footing,” with the consequence of ending up in “perfect skepticism,” which became in fact the position of Hume.
What distinguishes Locke from Kant is the absence of the critical element—a factor meant to give a clear-cut criterion of legitimate knowledge based on the functions of our consciousness. Locke is an empiricist, in the sense that his starting point lies in the perception of sense objects, rather than in the function of our mind. Yet, even Locke admitted that our mind came with some ability to process the ideas that form the objects of our understanding. Locke drafted the Essay over a period of about 18 years. In the “Epistle to the Reader,” Locke writes that the germ of the essay sprung from a conversation with friends.
At a point where this discourse seemed stuck, Locke remarked that it could not proceed without a close examination of “our own abilities and… what objects our understandings were, or were not, fitted to deal with. ” This conversation occurred around 1671, and in that year Locke formulated two drafts of the Essay. He would continue to work on it for nearly two decades, clarifying and expanding his basic position. Though dated 1690, the book actually first appeared in 1689 (Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 489). Ideas Locke’s main thesis is that the mind of a newborn is a blank slate and that all ideas are developed from experience.
Book I of the Essay is devoted to an attack on the doctrine of innate ideas. Locke allowed that some ideas are in the mind from an early age, but argued that such ideas are furnished by the senses starting at birth: for instance, differences between colors or tastes. If we have a universal understanding of a concept like sweetness, it is not because this is an innate idea, but because we are all exposed to sweet tastes at an early age.
Book II of the Essay sets out Locke’s theory of ideas, including his distinction between passively acquired simple ideas, such as “red,” “sweet,” “round,” etc., and actively built complex ideas, such as numbers, causes and effects, abstract ideas, ideas of substances, identity, and diversity.
Locke also distinguishes between the truly existing primary qualities of bodies, like shape, motion and the arrangement of minute particles, and the “secondary qualities” that are “powers to produce various sensations in us” (Essay, II. viii. 10) such as “red” and “sweet. ” These “secondary qualities,” Locke claims, are dependent on the “primary qualities.
” This part of Locke’s thought would be sharply and famously criticized by Berkeley, who argued that there was no basis for a distinction between primary and secondary qualities and for asserting that primary qualities were any more “real” than the secondary ones.
The weak point in Locke’s thought is that, in his own words, the substrate of those primary qualities, substance, is a “I know not what. ” In other words, Locke is convinced that there must be something (substance) that is the foundation of objective existence and carries the primary qualities, but he is unable to further define it based on his empirical method.
Along these lines, Locke also argued that people have no innate principles. Locke contended that innate principles would rely upon innate ideas, which do not exist. For instance, we cannot have an innate sense that God should be worshipped, when we cannot even agree on a conception of God or whether God exists at all (Essay, I. iii). Here, the close relationship between Locke’s epistemology and his moral and social views becomes evident. One of Locke’s fundamental arguments against innate ideas is the very fact that there are no truths to which all people attest.
He takes the time to argue against a number of propositions that rationalists offer as universally accepted truths, for instance the principle of identity, pointing out that at the very least children and idiots are often unaware of these propositions. Whereas Book I is intended to reject the doctrine of innate ideas proposed by Descartes and the rationalists, Book II explains that every idea is derived from experience either by sensation–direct sensory information–or reflection–mental construction. In chapter 27 of Book II, Locke discusses personal identity, and the idea of a person.
What he says here has shaped our thoughts and provoked debate ever since. Book III is concerned with language, and Book IV with knowledge, including intuition, mathematics, moral philosophy, natural philosophy (“science”), faith, and opinion. Book I The main thesis is that there are “No Innate Principles”, by this reasoning: If we will attentively consider new born children, we shall have little reason to think that they bring many ideas into the world with them and that “by degrees afterward, ideas come into their minds.
“ Book I of the Essay is devoted to an attack on nativism or the doctrine of innate ideas. Locke allowed that some ideas are in the mind from an early age, but argued that such ideas are furnished by the senses starting in the womb: for instance, differences between colors or tastes. If we have a universal understanding of a concept like sweetness, it is not because this is an innate idea, but because we are all exposed to sweet tastes at an early age.  One of Locke’s fundamental arguments against innate ideas is the very fact that there is no truth to which all people attest.
He took the time to argue against a number of propositions that rationalists offer as universally accepted truth, for instance the principle of identity, pointing out that at the very least children and idiots are often unaware of these propositions.  Book II Whereas Book I is intended to reject the doctrine of innate ideas proposed by Descartes and the rationalists, Book II explains that every idea is derived from experience either by sensation – direct sensory information – or reflection – “the perception of the operations of our own mind within us, as it is employed about the ideas it has got”.
Furthermore, Book II is also a systematic argument for the existence of an intelligent being: “Thus, from the consideration of ourselves, and what we infallibly find in our own constitutions, our reason leads us to the knowledge of this certain and evident truth, that there is an eternal, most powerful, and most knowing being; which whether any one will please to call God, it matters not. ” Book III Book 3 focuses on words and language.
Locke connects words to the ideas that they signify, claiming that man is unique in being able to separate sounds into distinct forms, and signify them with concepts, which become words and then that these words are built into language. Chapter ten in this book focuses on the “abuse of words. ” Here, Locke calls out metaphysicians for making up new words that have no clear meaning. He also criticizes the use of words which are not linked to clear ideas, and to those who change the criteria or meaning underlying a term.
Thus he uses a discussion of language to demonstrate sloppy thinking. Locke was perhaps ahead of his time in numbering amongst the abuses of language “affected obscurity”, where philosophers invoke old terms and give them new meanings, or construct new terms without clearly defining them, in order to purposely confuse the reader, or to make themselves appear more learned or their ideas more complicated and nuanced or erudite than they actually are. Book IV This book focuses on knowledge in general – that it can be thought of as the sum of ideas and perceptions.
Locke discusses the limit of human knowledge, and whether knowledge can be said to be accurate or truthful. Thus there is a distinction between what an individual might claim to “know”, as part of a system of knowledge, and whether or not that claimed knowledge is actual. For example, Locke writes at the beginning of Chap. IV (Of the Reality of Knowledge): “I doubt not my Reader by this Time may be apt to think that I have been all this while only building a Castle in the Air; and be ready to say to me, To what purpose all of this stir?
Knowledge, say you, is only the Perception of the Agreement or Disagreement of our own Ideas: but who knows what those Ideas may be?… But of what use is all this fine Knowledge of Man’s own Imaginations, to a Man that enquires after the reality of things? It matters now that Mens Fancies are, ’tis the Knowledge of Things that is only to be priz’d; ’tis this alone gives a Value to our Reasonings, and Preference to one Man’s Knowledge over another’s, that is is of Things as they really are, and of Dreams and Fancies. “
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