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An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

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Essay Concerning Human Understanding


by:
John Locke

Summary

The Essay Concerning Human Understanding is sectioned into four books. Taken together, they comprise an extremely long and detailed theory of knowledge starting from the very basics and building up. Book I, “Of Innate Ideas,” is an attack on the Cartesian view of knowledge, which holds that human beings are born with certain ideas already in their mind. “Of Innate Ideas” begins with an argument against the possibility of innate propositional knowledge (that is, innate knowledge of fact, such as the fact that whatever is, is), and then moves on to an argument against the possibility of innate ideas (such as the idea of God).

Once he feels secure that he has sufficiently argued the Cartesian position, Locke begins to construct his own theory of the origins of knowledge. The short answer is: from experience. The long answer is Book II. Book II lays out Locke’s theory of ideas. He argues that everything in our mind is an idea, and that all ideas take one of two routes to arrive in our mind: either they come in through the senses, or else they come in through the mind’s reflection on its own operation. He also classifies our ideas into two basic types, simple and complex (with simple ideas being the building blocks of complex ideas), and then further classifies these basic types into more specific subcategories. The vast majority of this book is spent analyzing the specific subcategories of our ideas.

Though Book II is primarily an attempt to account for the origin of all our ideas, it also includes two other very important discussions, only tangentially related to the subject of the origin of ideas. Chapter VIII contains Locke’s argument for a distinction between primary and secondary qualities. He attempts to show that there are two very different sorts of relations that can hold between the qualities of the outside world and our ideas about those qualities. The relation between primary qualities (e.g. size and shape) and our ideas of them is one of resemblance; what we sense is roughly what is out there. In contrast, the relation between secondary qualities (e.g. color and odor) and our ideas of them is one of mismatch; there is nothing out in the world that resembles our sensations. In chapter XXIII, Locke tries to give an account of substance that allows most of our intuitions without conceding anything objectionable.

In Book III, “Of Words,” Locke turns from philosophy of mind to philosophy of language. Ideas, however, are still an important part of the picture. According to the theory of meaning that Locke presents, words do not refer to things in the external world but to the ideas in our heads. Locke, relying heavily on his theory of ideas, attempts to give an account of how we form general terms from a world of particular objects, which leads him into a lengthy discussion of the ontology of types (that is, the question of whether there are any natural kinds out in the world or whether all classifications are purely conventional).

Book IV, “Of Knowledge and Opinion,” finally gives us the long awaited theory of knowledge. Locke begins with a strict definition of knowledge, one which renders most sciences (all but mathematics and morality) ineligible. Knowledge, according to Locke, is the perception of strong internal relations that hold among the ideas themselves, without any reference to the external world. He lists four sorts of relations between ideas that would count as knowledge (identity/diversity, relation, coexistence, actual existence), and then distinguishes between three grades of knowledge (intuition as the highest, demonstration as a middling level, and sensitive knowledge as a sort of pseudo- knowledge). The remainder of the book is spent discussing opinion or belief, which is the best we can hope for from nearly all our intellectual endeavors.

Locke is very careful to refrain from speaking as if opinion is “mere opinion;” he is not a skeptic and does not believe that science is futile. On the contrary, he is very eager to claim in the last chapters of theEssay, that we should be satisfied with this level of certitude and that we should continue collecting scientific data with gusto. Gaining a better and better opinion of the world is a worthy goal, and one that he shares. He does ask, however, that we be aware that as good as our opinions become, they are never going to reach the level of knowledge.


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An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Background

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Background

Published in 1669, John Locke ’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is the foundational text for modern philosophical empiricism. This essay set the standard for empirically-based arguments against the traditions of rationalism. Locke puts forth the underlying premise that simple ideas are created through experience, while more complex ideas are created by the mind as it integrates these simple ideas into more complex concepts.

The Essay also differentiates between the primary qualities of objects and the second quality of objects. Primary qualities are inherent within the object and remain fixed and not subject to perception. The secondary qualities are those aspects which originate within the observer and are subject to changes in perception. While significant as part of Locke’s modernization of empirical thought, the central issue that An Essay Concerning Human Understanding seeks to contest is the establishment and widespread acceptance of the existence of innate ideas.

The existence of innate ideas, which are already in place at birth, was fundamental to the logic of Cartesian rationalism. This logic proposed the existence of ideas which exist independent of both perception and experience. Therefore, they had to be considered essential and universal truths that could only exist by virtue of agency the individual mind on which they were imprinted. Since innate knowledge could not be gained through perception or experience, the only logical conclusion to explain their existence was they were put there by a perfect supreme creator.

Locke’s essay raises objections to the fundamental reasoning of the existence of innate ideas through rational analysis based on empirical evidence. The central symbol in the essay to describe how knowledge is acquired is the “tabula rasa” or blank slate that exists at birth. Only through experience can knowledge be written upon that slate. The systematic undermining of the theory of innate ideas first targeted the weakest pillar of its support: it must be true because there is universal agreement that it must be true. Locke response to this unsound support was to observer that “this argument of universal consent, which is made use of to prove innate principles, seems to me a demonstration that there are none such; because there are none to which all mankind give a universal assent.” The investment of belief in an idea partly on the basis that it is universally accepted as true actually seems antithetical to the underlying skepticism of rationalist philosophers toward in trusting any and all received perceptions as true; Locke uses the revelation of this contradiction as the wrecking ball which proceeds to demolish belief in the existence of innate ideas.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding proceeds from this point toward a methodical dismantling of the principle of non-experiential knowledge using the most basic of empirical evidence. How can ideas like a circle being round and that 2 plus 2 equals four be considered innate, his essay, asks, when every child must be taught these thing before understanding them? Furthermore, what of those individuals who are incapable of ever understanding such simple concepts despite supposedly being born with them already in place?

In fact, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding brings empirical philosophy into the modern world, where it can influence every discipline from history to scientific experimentation. The historical context within which Locke composed the essay endowed its epistemological issues with a more immediately political dimension. The rough treatment directed toward contesting the widespread belief in innate ideas was manifested in part as an attack upon the power and authority of its most fervent proponents. These proponents were political and religious figures exploiting universal agreement on the existence of innate ideas maintain and manipulate the faith of the masses who had been conditioned to believe that the opinions of those in power were absolute facts.

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Study Guide for An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding study guide contains a biography of John Locke, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, and a full summary and analysis.

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