An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke

(Originally read and written August 13th 2013)


“Truth has been my only aim; and where-ever that has appeared to lead, my Thoughts have impartially followed, without minding, whether the footsteps of any other lay that way, or no. Not that I want a due respect to other Men’s Opinions; but after all, the greatest reverence is due to Truth; and, I hope, it will not be thought arrogance, to say, That, perhaps, we should make greater progress in the discovery of rational and contemplative Knowledge, if we sought it in the Fountain, in the consideration of Things themselves; and made use rather of our own Thoughts, than other Men’s to find it. For, I think, we may as rationally hope to see with other Men’s Eyes, as to know by other Men’s Understandings. So much as we ourselves consider and comprehend of Truth and Reason, so much we possess of real and true Knowledge. The floating of other Men’s Opinions in our brains makes us not one jot the more knowing, though they happen to be true. What in them was Science, is in us but Opiniatrety, whilst we give up our Assent only to reverend Names, and do not, as they did, employ our own Reason to understand those Truths, which gave them reputation (52).”

In this work, Locke wants to find out how we come to know things. Locke believes it is reason that makes us unique in the animal kingdom. It’s our ability to reason and understand the world that “sets Man above the rest of sensible Beings” and gives us “Advantage and Dominion” over other animals. By understanding the nature of our Reason and how we learn new ideas, we will better comprehend what sort of questions our thoughts are able to handle and what is beyond its limitations.

A potential benefit of this enquiry is that if he can discover the limitations of our understanding and where it often fails then he hopes he can convince others “to be more cautious in meddling with things exceeding its comprehension; to stop, when it is at the utmost Extent of its Tether; and to sit down in a quiet Ignorance of those Things, which, upon Examination, are found to be beyond the reach of our Capacities.” This would suggest that Locke believes there are limitations to what we are capable of knowing. It also denotes that much disagreement in philosophical discussions or heated discussions stems from trying to apply the intellect beyond questions it can definitively answer or discern. Locke defines ideas as “the object of understanding when a man thinks.”

During his day, a popular philosophical opinion was the theory of innate ideas. This theory proposes that we are born with many of our core ideas, that many of our ideas our already imprinted in the mind at birth, and it’s only a matter of recollecting or rediscovering them. Locke sets out to challenge the theory of innate ideas.

For innate ideas to be true, then there would have to be universal agreement about those innate ideas since everyone should be born with those same ideas. However, Locke notes that even if there was universal agreement that wouldn’t prove innate ideas since there could be other explanations for why there is universal agreement. Nevertheless, it is clear by looking at children, people from other cultures, and those that are mentally handicapped that these groups have “not the least Apprehension of Thought of [supposed innate truths]” (such as “it is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be”), therefore these ideas cannot be innate. Not only that, but if innate ideas existed, it would be these populations that should have the “fairest and clearest” conception of them as they are uninfluenced by culture. Some proponents of innate ideas would object that the ideas are there, but these groups, particularly children, haven’t developed enough mentally to be able to use their Reason to discover them.

Locke retorts that it is nonsensical to say innate ideas are there but we’re just unaware of them. It is like saying you know and you don’t know at the same time. By this line of reasoning, we could assume anything we’re capable of learning is already imprinted in the mind, which means you can never learn anything new, but merely recall what you already know and have forgotten. Not to mention if these ideas have to be recalled or discovered after the fact then there is no way to distinguish them from an idea learned from experience and those that are innate, but of which we were merely ignorant.

Are morals or “practical principles” (to use Locke’s actual wording) innate?

1. A look at human history reveals that morals are not innate, nor universal for that matter.

2. A look at different human societies around the world with different rules and customs reveals that morals are not innate since if they were innate they would have to be universal. Some might object that these cultures understand the innate moral principle, but merely fail to follow them, but this argument produces a nonsensical result since that would mean an entire society, aware of the right moral principle innately, is choosing to ignore these “universal morals” despite it being in their best interest.

2. Even though certain forms of justice and contracts might be honored even among thieves, they do so from convenience, not because justice and a respect for agreements is innate. It would be impractical if thieves had to worry about robbing each other, so a code of conduct allows them to get on with business without having to worry about watching their back. AS Locke notes, their code of conduct might extend to themselves, but certainly not to the people they are robbing.

3. Any objections that suggest people understand universal morals, but don’t put them into practice can be rejected two ways: “the actions of men [are] the best interpreters of their thoughts.” If we have a lot of people who aren’t practicing what they supposedly preach or at least contemplate in private then there is no reason to interpret this as innate since it isn’t universal. If these supposedly innate principles are only speculative in nature rather than something that finds expression in our actions then they’re not really different in kind from speculative Maxims. They would then be innate ideas, not innate morals, and be vulnerable to all the objections that apply to innate ideas.

4. If principles were innate then we would never have a reason to question or demand a justification for a proposed moral rule since it would be self-evident to every person (by the very fact that our ideas of what is right is innate).

5.While one could argue all men desire happiness, this is not an innate idea, but something more like a general instinct, and turning to the different philosophers of the past, such as Thomas Hobbes or the ancient philosophers, each will have a different conception of happiness and different rules that follow due to this different conception.

6. The existence of conscience is no evidence of innate morals since other explanations are possible: education, company (our peers, family, and friends), and customs of our country. And there are plenty of people who make immoral decisions and don’t seem to lose any sleep over these transgressions of moral rules, hence even the existence of conscience isn’t universal and therefore can’t be evidence of innate moral principles.

7. Those who maintain innate practical principles, never state what these universally shared morals are.

8. If custom and education cannot blot out the innate moral principles, then we should find them in all mankind and if they can blot out our innate moral principles, then we would expect to find them “clearest and most perspicuous” in children and illiterate people, who have received least impression from foreign opinions.” But whichever position a person chooses to defend the idea of innate morality, they will find in the real world that either different cultures don’t share universal morals (due to being raised in different customs and education systems) and if the latter that children and illiterate people don’t all share the same moral principles.

9. If morals are innate and partially products of custom, what method can we use to distinguish the difference between the two? Locke says he’d be more than happy to entertain such a method if provided one, but from what he can tell there seems to be no way of distinguishing innate morals from those formed by custom.

Locke believes that “if there were any Ideas to be found imprinted on the Minds of Men, we have reason to expect, it should be the Notion of his Maker.” The existence of atheists and cultures that don’t believe in G-d, such as the Chinese, suggests that the idea of G-d is not innate since it isn’t universally shared by everyone. But even if everyone did have a notion of a G-d it still wouldn’t follow that the idea of G-d must be innate since many cultures have idea or words representing the sun, heat or numbers, and these ideas need not be ubiquitous because they are innate but rather all people view the sun everyday, experience heat everyday, and have concept of numbers in order to go about representations needed in business or social transactions. Even in a single society, men have not only different, but contrary ideas about their Creator. It is impossible for an idea to be innate in all humans, but for many people to disagree about the innate idea. This disagreement proves the idea of G-d isn’t innate.

Instead the way we actually learn is through experience, the senses, or some sort of proof that recombines simpler ideas or truths that we already accept, which themselves were initially ascertained through the senses or experience. We begin with the simplest ideas as children and gradually build up our knowledge to more complex ideas. For example, a person could not know the process of addition or that 3+4 = 7, until he can count to seven and understands the amount the symbol “7” represents in the real world. Locke suggests we also learn morals this way. Children begin as tabula rosa (blank slates) upon which they learn right and wrong, morals, and appropriate behavior from their parents and other people they interact with. This process begins at such a young age that by the time we become full-grown adults and reflect back on our moral principles we assume those ideas must have always been there and must come from G-d and nature from the time of birth. We then use these ideas that we believe innate (but are really just the product of custom, habit, and parents) as a touchstone for judging all other ideas and morals. We begin life as a tabula rosa (blank slate) in which experience furnishes the mind. Two foundations of knowledge are the sense (which provide sensations) and reflection (perception, thinking, doubting, believing, Reasoning, knowing, and willing). He further defines reflection as idea about the mind’s own operation. Although another way to think about it is as the manipulating tool that transforms simple ideas we receive from sensations into other, usually more complex, ideas. All ideas originate in these two functions of the mind.

“He that attentively considers the state of a child, at his first coming into the world, will have little reason to think him stored with plenty of Ideas, that are to be the matter of his future knowledge. ‘Tis by degrees he comes to be furnished with them (56).”

From this, Locke explains the vast differences in knowledge that people seem to possess as a matter of less experience of objects and less inclination to reflect. Not everyone has equal access to objects. A country bumpkin with minimal resources who has never left his home town will have less experience of objects in the world than a rich cosmopolitan who spends his resources frequently traveling the world and is always seeking new experiences.
Locke argues that G-d has fitted us with pain and pleasure, which are part of our minds that he calls reflection, to motivate us to action. If we didn’t pleasure in any thoughts or experiences then we’d have no reason to prefer one over the other. There’d be no reason to prefer a filet mignon over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich if we had no capacity for pleasure. Locke isn’t, however, saying that we have an innate idea of pain and pleasure, but rather these are faculties of the mind that help us sift through experience and reacts to them. The power of an object to produce an idea in the mind is its quality. So for example, a snowball produces the ideas of white, cold, and round. Locke recognizes primary and secondary qualities. No matter what changes or alteration an object suffers it will retain its primary qualities. If you had a grain of wheat, no matter how many times you divided it, it would retain its solidity, extension, figure, etc. Secondary qualities would include colors, sounds, tastes, etc., which he claims aren’t inherent in the objects themselves, but rather it produces that sensation in us by their primary qualities. Secondary qualities aren’t in the objects themselves, but are produced from the primary qualities and perceived by the senses. There is a difference between the qualities in bodies and the ideas produced by them in the mind. Secondary qualities are produced when primary qualities (bulk, figure, texture, and motion) are changed or altered.

“But when we consider the Sun, in reference to Wax, which it melts or blanches, we look upon the Whiteness and Softness produced by the Wax, not as Qualities in the sun, but Effects produced by Powers in it: Whereas, if rightly considered, these Qualities of Light and Warmth, which are Perceptions in me when I am warmed, or enlightned by the Sun, are no otherwise in the Sun, than the changed made in the Wax, when it is blanched or melted, are in the Sun.”

These powers of the sun alter the waxes pirmary qualities: bulk, figure, texture, or motion of its parts.

Complex ideas are built from simple ideas; however, complex ideas form from manipulating simple ideas through the various process of reflection. Locke believes that complex idea come in three different forms:

1. Modes – These are ideas that depend on substances, such as triangle and gratitude. Modifications of idea. So for example, inch, foot, yard, mile, etc. are modifications of the idea of space. Another example would be our idea of duration in which the modes are its different lengths: hours, days, years, etc. Interestingly, Locke argues we come to understand duration by noticing the succession of our own thought, how one thought comes after another. Shades of different colors would be examples of different modes.

2. Substances – this is a combination of simple ideas that when combined represent a particular thing that exists by themselves. If I have the idea of white dullish color, a certain degree of weight, hardness, ductility, and fusibility, then they add up to become lead.

3. Relations – This is when we compare one idea with another.


One thought on “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke

  1. Pingback: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume | The Consolation of Reading

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