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  • An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

John Locke (1634–1704)




An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

John Locke’s Essay presents a detailed,
systematic philosophy of mind and thought. The Essay wrestles
with fundamental questions about how we think and perceive, and
it even touches on how we express ourselves through language, logic,
and religious practices. In the introduction, entitled The
Epistle to the Reader,
Locke describes how he became involved
in his current mode of philosophical thinking. He relates an anecdote
about a conversation with friends that made him realize that men
often suffer in their pursuit of knowledge because they fail to
determine the limits of their understanding.

Summary: Book I

In Book I, Locke lays out the three goals of his philosophical
project: to discover where our ideas come from, to ascertain what
it means to have these ideas and what an idea essentially is, and
to examine issues of faith and opinion to determine how we should
proceed logically when our knowledge is limited. Locke attacks previous schools
of philosophy, such as those of Plato and Descartes, that maintain
a belief in a priori, or innate, knowledge. He begins by opposing
the idea that we are all born knowing certain fundamental principles,
such as “whatever is, is.” The usual justification for this belief
in innate principles is that certain principles exist to which all human
beings universally assent. Locke contends that, on the contrary,
no principle is actually accepted by every human being. Furthermore,
if universal agreement did exist about something, this agreement
might have come about in a way other than through innate knowledge.
Locke offers another argument against innate knowledge, asserting
that human beings cannot have ideas in their minds of which they
are not aware, so that people cannot be said to possess even the
most basic principles until they are taught them or think them through
for themselves. Still another argument is that because human beings
differ greatly in their moral ideas, moral knowledge must not be
innate. Finally, Locke confronts the theory of innate ideas (along
the lines of the Platonic Theory of Forms) and argues that ideas
often cited as innate are so complex and confusing that much schooling
and thought are required to grasp their meaning. Against the claim
that God is an innate idea, Locke counters that God is not a universally
accepted idea and that his existence cannot therefore be innate
human knowledge.

Summary: Book II

Having eliminated the possibility of innate knowledge,
Locke in Book II seeks to demonstrate where knowledge comes from.
He proposes that knowledge is built up from ideas, either simple
or complex. Simple ideas combine in various ways to form complex ideas.
Therefore, the most basic units of knowledge are simple ideas, which
come exclusively through experience. There are two types of experience
that allow a simple idea to form in the human mind: sensation, or
when the mind experiences the world outside the body through the
five senses, and reflection, or when the mind turns inward, recognizing
ideas about its own functions, such as thinking, willing, believing,
and doubting.

Locke divides simple ideas into four categories: (1) ideas
we get from a single sense, such as sight or taste; (2) ideas created
from more than one sense, such as shape and size; (3) ideas emerging
from reflection; and (4) ideas arising from a combination of sensation
and reflection, such as unity, existence, pleasure, pain, and substance. Locke
goes on to explain the difference between primary and secondary
qualities. Ideas of primary qualities—such as texture, number, size,
shape, and motion—resemble their causes. Ideas of secondary qualities
do not resemble their causes, as is the case with color, sound,
taste, and odor. In other words, primary qualities cannot be separated
from the matter, whereas secondary qualities are only the power
of an object to produce the idea of that quality in our minds.

Locke devotes much of book II to exploring various things
that our minds are capable of, including making judgments about
our own perceptions to refine our ideas, remembering ideas, discerning between
ideas, comparing ideas to one another, composing a complex idea
from two or more simple ideas, enlarging a simple idea into a complex
idea by repetition, and abstracting certain simple ideas from an
already complex ideas. Locke also discusses complex ideas, breaking
them down into four basic types: (1) modes, which are ideas that
do not exist in and of themselves, such as qualities, numbers, and
other abstract concepts; (2) substances, either self-subsisting
things (such as a particular man or a sheep) or collections of such
things (an army of men or a flock of sheep); (3) relations, such
as father, bigger, and morally
; and (4) abstract generals, such as “man” or “sheep”
in general. Complex ideas are created through three methods: combination,
comparison, and abstraction.

Summary: Book III

In book III, Locke discusses abstract general ideas. Everything
that exists in the world is a particular “thing.” General ideas
occur when we group similar particular ideas and take away, or abstract,
the differences until we are left only with the similarities. We
then use these similarities to create a general term, such as “tree,”
which is also a general idea. We form abstract general ideas for
three reasons: it would be too hard to remember a different word
for every particular thing that exists, having a different word
for everything that exists would obstruct communication, and the
goal of science is to generalize and categorize everything.






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