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The Enlightenment was an era that took place primarily in the 18th century and could best be described as a time of progress. Early on in the Age of Enlightenment men began to question old doctrines and search for a new method of thinking and understanding. An answer to one of the most fundamental questions was sought: Where do our ideas come from? Although many pondered the question, two primary schools of thought emerged as an answer to the question: empiricism and rationalism.
These ideas concerning the origin of ideas examine the ways in which we gain knowledge.
John Locke’s “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” stands as one of the essential books for philosophers and non- philosophers alike (Spencer and Krauze 10). Locke, an English philosopher who was regarded as one of the great empiricist of the enlightenment, if not the greatest, differed vastly in his ideas than rationalists such as Rene Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz. Leibniz, a German philosopher and mathematician, is most well-known for his “New Essays on Human Understanding” which are in response to John Locke.
Upon examining Locke’s empiricist view as well as Leibniz rationalist theory, the following conclusions will be clear: That both Locke and Leibniz reduce the origin of knowledge to the simplest explanation, that each philosopher believes their method of reasoning can prove the existence of God, but that ultimately both philosophers disagree on the origin of knowledge, specifically when it comes to innate ideas. John Locke in his writing, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” states his beliefs on the origin of the ideas within our minds.
He concludes that there are no innate ideas and instead proposes the well-known theory that the mind is a blank slate. Locke continues that man gains all the knowledge he has from experience. This experience can be broken down further into two types of experience, the first being sensation, which is described as our perception of the external material world using our senses. By perceiving the external world we gain the majority of our knowledge and therefore come to know the qualities of certain things such as hard, soft, bitter, sweet, hot, and cold.
Without the initial source of ideas from the external world perceived through our senses, our second source of knowledge could not exist. The second source of knowledge is the reflection of ideas in our mind that it has got from the external world. These operations of the mind, known as reflection, are summed up by Locke: “This source of ideas…though it not be a sense, as having nothing to do with external objects…might properly be called internal sense” (Kramnick 187).
Leibniz presents his views with his writings, “New Essays on Human Understanding” which, as stated before, are in response to John Locke’s philosophy. Leibniz is a rationalist and believes in a priori or innate ideas. His argument in based around the notion that although senses do provide us with ideas, there are ideas about the universe that are unexplained and cannot be explained by the senses. One of these is ideas is that there exists a God. Leibniz states, “…All we can do with in?nities is to know them confusedly and at least to know distinctly that they are there. Otherwise we…will be unable to have a sound natural science that explains the nature of things in general, comprising knowledge of God, souls, and simple substances in general (Leibniz 8). ” It would first appear that the rationalist view is coincidentally reduced down to a simpler state by the mathematicians Descartes and Leibniz. Ironically however, it can be argued that the empiricist view is the most basic and simple understanding of the human mind.
Specifically when Locke writes, “Let us then suppose the mind to be…white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas…” (Kramnick 186) After all, what could be simpler than thinking of the mind as a blank slate or, tabula rasa? On the other hand, although the rationalists generally attempt to use deduction and reduce the idea of human understanding to a basic fundamental principle, in Leibniz case what you end up with are complex ideas beyond our understanding that cannot be explained by sensation or any external source and therefore must be innate.
As Leibniz states, “…primitive ideas are those whose possibility is indemonstrable, and which are in truth nothing else than the attributes of God (Kramnick 189). ” Both of these views attempt to explain the origin of ideas in a simple way. It is a matter of opinion which one simplifies the idea the most. Surprisingly, both John Locke and Gottfried Leibniz agree that God does indeed exist. Although they go about providing their own proof to the matter, they ultimately wind up with the same answer to the age old question.
John Locke states in his writing: “We are capable of knowing certainly that there is a God (Locke 4:10:1). Locke’s argument goes: “For man knows that he himself exists (Locke 4:10:2)…nothing can produce a being therefore something must have existed since eternity (Locke 4:10:3)…therefore there has to be an eternal cognitive being…for it is impossible that incognitive matter should produce a cognitive being (Locke 4:10:11). ” Leibniz states: “…it is always true that nothing takes place in [our mind] which is not determined, and nothing is found in creatures that that God does not continually create (Kramnick 190).”
Leibniz offered an interesting explanation for why there exists suffering in the world. According to Leibniz: “Now, as there is an infinity of possible universes in the Ideas of God, and as only one of them can exist, there must be a sufficient reason for God’s choice, which determines him toward one rather than another (Leibniz 414-416)… And by this means there is obtained as much variety as possible, along with the greatest possible order; that is, it is the means of obtaining as much perfection as possible (Leibniz 243).”
So basically Leibniz believes that evil exists because without it our universe would lack a necessary variety, and God in his perfect wisdom knew that of all the infinite possible universes, that this one would produce the most perfection. Locke, though he believes that our knowledge is gained mostly through the senses and that we cannot know anything innately, does believe that there is another source of ideas. Reflection in his words, “do furnish the understanding with another set of ideas which could not be had from things…all the different acting of our own minds (Kramnick 186-187).”
Leibniz argues that what Locke calls reflection is an innate sense “of being, of unity, of substance (Leibniz 4)” and that, “because we are innate to ourselves…something that we carry with us is not something that comes from the senses (Leibniz 4). Leibniz simply calls out Locke for denying the existence of the innate sense that he calls reflection. Locke would certainly disagree. The arguments that these two great thinkers of the Enlightenment provided us were radical and profound. Locke with his empiricist views that the mind begins as a blank page and that all knowledge comes from sensation and reflection.
Leibniz expanded the rationalists’ arguments for the existence of innate ideas that we have innate tendencies and potentialities within us. They both provided the most basic and simple argument to explain the origin of ideas and they both believed in the existence of God, however, although the conclusion they reach is not all that different, how they believe man comes to possess the knowledge he has is vastly different that one cannot fail to notice.
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