An Essay Concerning Human Understanding By John Locke Summary and Analysis Book I: Innate Ideas

Summary

Any complete analysis of the knowing process must include an account of the sources of error as well as of the procedures that enable one to arrive at truth. Some distinction must be made between knowledge and that which is a false pretension of knowledge. Locke's observations had led him to believe that one of the most common sources of error and false pretension in his day was the generally accepted belief in innate ideas. "Self-evident truths," as they were frequently called, had constituted the basis or foundation for many of the popular doctrines proclaimed by scholars and were generally accepted as true by the masses of people who possessed neither the ability nor the inclination to think for themselves.

To be sure, these doctrines were not necessarily false but neither were they necessarily true. Being based upon principles that were regarded as innate, there was no way of determining which ones were true. Besides, this method of supporting beliefs was bound to lead to unfortunate consequences, and this was true whether the doctrines in question were true or false. The fact that these so-called innate ideas could not be questioned gave to the persons who proclaimed them an unwarranted authority over the minds of others and frequently led to intolerance and persecution.

This source of error and false pretension, Locke believed, could be eliminated if it could be shown convincingly that innate ideas do not exist and that the proper use of one's natural faculties was sufficient to account for all the knowledge that anyone possesses. This is precisely what he set out to do in Book I of the Essay. There are three chapters in this book, and they deal, respectively, with speculative principles, practical principles, and ideas about such topics as God, substance, and others for which the claim of being innate had been made.

It had been held that certain principles and ideas were innate because they are present in all human minds. Locke challenged this notion on two accounts. In the first place, he was convinced that there are no ideas which are present in all minds, and in the second place, even if there were ideas which are universally present, this would not prove that they are innate.

In order to make his position clear, Locke uses as an illustration one of the most general and widely accepted principles that can be imagined. That a thing cannot be what it is and what it is not at the same time is generally recognized as one of the laws of thought, or basic assumptions that are necessarily implied in all thinking. Locke reasons that if there is any principle that could properly be called innate, this one should qualify.

However, the fact of the matter is that there are comparatively few minds that have ever been aware of this principle at all. Certainly the idea is not present in the minds of young children. To be sure, even an infant may know that one object is not identical with another object, and this bit of knowledge does imply the law of non-contradiction, but the child is not aware of it, nor will he have any consciousness of it for years to come, if indeed he ever does become aware of it. The fact that he will give his assent to it at a later time, after the idea and its meaning have been explained to him, does not indicate that the idea was innate, even though the defenders of the doctrine have insisted that it does. If an idea of which we become aware at some later period is for that reason innate, then by the same logic we must conclude that all of the ideas which one acquires through the whole course of his life are innate. But to call all ideas innate robs that term of any special meaning which might distinguish innate ideas from any others.

Now the principle of non-contradiction along with the other laws of thought are the presuppositions on which all thinking is based. If these are not innate, it would seem most reasonable to conclude that none of the ideas that are based upon them can be regarded as innate. To say that an idea is present in one's mind when he is not conscious of it is to speak nonsense, for, as Locke understands it, the mind and consciousness are synonymous terms. In this respect, he followed the teaching of Descartes, who had said that the essence of matter was extension and the essence of mind was consciousness.

Again it is pointed out that if any principle or idea is innate, it must be present in the mind prior to any instruction or reflection upon it. If it does not appear until after the instruction, there is not only a possibility, but a very strong probability, that it has been derived from the instruction. Furthermore, ideas that are present prior to instruction should be more clear and distinct than those that appear later because they have had no opportunity to become corrupted by custom and false opinion. Since the principles under discussion fail to meet both of these tests, this is further evidence that they are not innate.

Having shown that speculative principles are not innate, Locke next gives his attention to practical or moral principles. It should be somewhat easier to show that these are not innate because there are no moral rules to which people give their assent so readily or so universally as they do the principles included in the laws of thought. There were, however, in Locke's day many scholars of repute who defended the idea that the principles of right and wrong are implanted in the human mind by God, and hence they are innate rather than being derived from human experience. Locke attempts to show there is no evidence that lends support to this theory.

This does not mean that he rejects the belief that there are valid principles or rules for distinguishing right from wrong, but he does deny that there is any sound basis for regarding them as innate. The usual argument given in support of the belief that moral principles are innate is that there is universal agreement concerning them. Everyone knows, it is argued, that it is wrong to lie, to steal, and to do various other things. The awareness that these actions are wrong is said to precede any reflection or thinking about them and hence they must be innate. To this argument, Locke replies that there is no universal agreement about the rightness or wrongness of any particular action. It may appear that such agreement exists if practically everyone believes that it is wrong for a person intentionally to violate his agreements or to act unjustly in his dealings with his fellow humans.

But what is the extent of the agreement that we find? Actually we discover that the area of agreement is directly proportionate to the generality of the principles that are in question. When it comes to a specific action or what should be done in the concrete instances that arise, the agreement no longer exists. What does it mean for all men to subscribe to the principle of justice so long as they have different notions about what is the just or right thing to do in particular instances? Obviously, it can mean nothing. Justice or any other virtue can mean nothing more than the particular instances that are included in it. So far as these concrete particulars are concerned, there is no universal agreement and hence no reason for believing they are innate.

Further evidence that moral principles are not innate can be seen from the fact that it is customary to give reasons to support or justify one's belief in any given moral principle. In this respect, the belief in moral principles is different from belief in speculative principles. No one would think of giving reasons to justify the belief in the law of non-contradiction, which tells us that a thing cannot be what it is and what it is not at the same time. That would be like trying to prove the principles of proof itself, which would be nonsense. This is not the case with respect to moral beliefs. One can always give reasons for believing that people should keep their promises, pay their debts, or treat their fellow humans the way they would want to be treated themselves. Since the reasons are logically prior to the beliefs, we can only conclude that the beliefs themselves are not innate.

The affirmative side of Locke's argument can be seen in the explanation he gives for the origin of moral beliefs. Rejecting the idea that they are innate or even latent within the human mind, he argues that experience is adequate fully to account for the presence of any moral idea or principle present in anyone's mind. The basis for this belief lies in the fact that human nature is so constituted that everyone has a desire for happiness and an aversion to pain and misery. One learns through his experience that certain kinds of action are normally productive of painful consequences, and it is for this reason that he comes to regard them as wrong. On the other hand, actions that normally tend to produce happiness are approved. It is this approval that, according to Locke, constitutes the real meaning of the term "good" when it is used with a moral connotation.

To be sure, the meanings of such terms as "good" and "bad" and "right" and "wrong" are not determined solely by the immediate consequences that follow particular actions. It is necessary to take into consideration their long-range consequences in relation to life as a whole. It is also equally important that one should anticipate so far as possible the consequences that are likely to follow with respect to the lives of other people. In this connection, it is interesting to note that while Locke advocates such principles as kindness, benevolence, and justice in one's dealings with his fellow men, he does so purely for the reason that actions of these kinds will in the long run bring more happiness to the individual who performs them.

Virtues, according to Locke, are approved not because they are innate but because they are profitable. One's belief in moral rules or principles is an expression of his feelings of approval or disapproval. For this reason, it is not proper to speak of them as true or false since this would imply agreement or disagreement with some external standard that exists prior to, and independent of, experience.

There is, Locke believes, no sound basis for believing that any such standard exists. If a standard of this kind did exist, it is most unlikely that the behavior of people would take place in the ways in which it has been observed. It is reasonable enough to assume that moral principles, even if they were innate, would at times be violated by some persons. Gangsters and criminals of various kinds have always been a part of human society. But even so, we would not expect the criminals to be entirely free of any feelings of remorse, and certainly their actions would not be approved by a whole nation or by any civilized society.

What is the situation with reference to moral beliefs? Here we find that at least a great many of what have been recognized as important moral beliefs have been violated in a wholesale manner and without any feelings of remorse or disapproval on the part of the society in which the actions occurred. This could scarcely be expected if the rules in question had been innate. Ideas that are innate remain constant in spite of changing circumstances, but this is not true of the rules pertaining to human conduct. What has been recognized as right at one time and under a given set of circumstances will be regarded as wrong at other times and under different conditions. Even among the same people and under similar conditions, ideas about right and wrong will change from time to time.

In the third chapter of Book I, Locke concludes the discussion about innate ideas with an attempt to show that the idea of God is not innate. This is in many respects the most important part of his argument, for it was on the basis of a belief in innate ideas that so many of Locke's contemporaries had sought to prove the existence of God. There was a sense, too, in which the belief in God was regarded as the foundation for the principles of morality. Since the rules governing human conduct were regarded as laws, it was inconceivable that they could have come into existence without a lawgiver, and the lawgiver must be more than human, for the law was the standard by which human conduct was judged. Of all the ideas that had been believed to be innate, the idea of God was considered to be the most important.

In support of this claim, it had been argued that some notion of a supreme being had been found in every society of which man had any knowledge. Even in the most primitive societies, evidence could be found that indicated a belief in some type of superhuman power which constituted for them an object of worship. The universality of a belief of this kind was often interpreted to mean that the idea had been implanted in human minds by the Creator himself and for the reason that it was absolutely essential for human welfare.

It should be noted in this connection that Locke believed in the existence of God and did not question the importance of this belief as the foundation for the principles of morality. He accepted, too, the idea of God as the Creator of the universe. What he did not accept was the belief that the idea of God was innate. He believed that he could show conclusively that it is not innate, and if there were no good reasons for believing the idea of God was innate, there would be less reason for thinking that any other idea was innate.

The argument presented in this section of the Essay has to do primarily with the meanings of words. Locke wanted to show that these meanings are acquired through experience rather than being impressed on the mind by some other force. He illustrates this point at the beginning of the chapter by referring to the ideas of impossibility and identity. A small child will know that it is impossible for one object to be identical with another object, but the child will not know the meaning of the words "impossible" or "identical" until his experience has taught him what they mean. Words derive their meaning from their use. They are not given to one at the time of his birth, nor do they have any meaning that is prior in point of time to one's experience.

Those who have asserted that the idea of God is innate have insisted that some notion of a supreme being has been present in the minds of all people. Even those who may now claim that they are atheists did at some time in their lives believe in God, but finding no adequate reasons to support their belief have abandoned it. Believing, then, that the idea of God has been held universally, they have advanced this reason for holding that the idea is innate. The importance of a belief in God and its significance for human welfare was another reason for insisting that the idea was implanted in human minds in order that the lives of people could be directed by it.

Locke's first argument is directed against the assertion that the idea of a supreme being is universal. He points out that anthropologists who have made a special study of primitive tribes have reported on various occasions that they have found tribes who have no idea of a god of any kind. At least there is no evidence of a belief of this kind and many indications of a complete absence of it. Christian missionaries working among primitive peoples have given similar testimony. Furthermore, the fact that there are many educated persons who are professed atheists is sufficient to prove that the idea is not universal. If the idea had been innate, it would have remained with them in spite of any evidence either for or against the belief.

Obviously, the idea of God is not universal; even if it were, this would not prove that the idea is innate. There are plenty of false ideas that have been held universally, and there are plenty of true ones that have not been accepted by all people.

Further evidence that the idea of God is not innate can be seen in the fact that the word itself has such a wide variety of meanings when used by different people. Even if you did find that men everywhere believe in God, this would not mean that they have the same idea in their minds unless their conceptions of God were alike, which is not what one finds to be the case. If God had implanted the idea of himself in human minds, it is reasonable to suppose that he would have given the same idea to all people.

Actually we find that the notions of deity held by different people vary so much that there is nothing in common among them except the name. These differences can be explained only on the basis of the varied experiences that accompany the different concepts. The ideas reflect not only the culture of the people who possess them but the extent to which they have reflected on the meaning of their experiences.

Having shown that the idea of God is not innate, it seems reasonable to conclude that no other idea is innate, for, according to the popular conception, everything in the universe is dependent on God. Locke concludes his discussion of this topic by showing that the idea of substance is not innate. It might be supposed that this idea is innate because it is not one that is derived from our normal faculties of sensation and reflection, and yet it is one that is present in our minds.

Ever since the days of Aristotle, people have been taught to believe that there is a substance or substratum in which the qualities that are perceived through the senses really exist. Descartes had set forth the idea that there are two kinds of substance in the universe, a material substance which is extended in space and a spiritual substance which is consciousness. Locke does not deny the existence of either of these kinds of substance, but he wants to show that the idea of substance is not innate. His argument on this point follows from the fact that the nature of substance is not given through either sensation or reflection, and consequently we can have no knowledge of it at all. The sensations that we do have may very well be the sensations of something, but to use Locke's words, it is "a something we know not what."

Analysis

Locke's refutation of the doctrine of innate ideas had important consequences for the history of modern thought. It marked the beginning of a new trend in humanity's attempt to understand itself and the world to which it belongs. It constituted a direct challenge to those rationalistic thinkers whose doctrines had been based primarily on principles which had been taken for granted and from which their conclusions had been reached by a process of deductive reasoning.

Now it is quite evident that any system of doctrines can be supported if one only accepts as true the premises on which they are based. The real issue consists in determining whether the premises are true. By insisting that their premises were innate ideas, the proponents of these doctrines assumed that they must be true. In fact, they held that they should not even be questioned.

By showing that the whole concept of innate ideas is an erroneous one, Locke had hoped to make it clear that any idea might be brought into question. Any good reason for believing that any particular idea or principle is a true one must be obtained from some other quarter. The only source for establishing the validity of any belief must be found in the facts that have been obtained through human experience. From this point of view, one could see the necessity for a change in the method of inquiry. Instead of employing the deductive method for arriving at truth, one should use an inductive type of procedure.

Locke's argument concerning the erroneous character of the belief in innate ideas was one of the important factors that led to the remarkable development of empirical philosophy which took place during the century that followed the publication of the Essay. While it is true that the new emphasis which was given to the empirical method did not mean the complete disappearance of rationalistic philosophy, it did mean that the proponents of rationalism were forced to proceed with more caution than before. On the other hand, the influence of empiricism became more and more prominent with succeeding generations, and it is still one of the main characteristics of contemporary thinking.

While the magnitude of Locke's influence in shaping the course of Western philosophy can scarcely be questioned, it is not at all clear that he succeeded in proving as much as he had set out to do. He was quite successful in his attempt to show that speculative principles, along with practical principles and such ideas as God, substance, and the like, are meaningful only in the light of human experience.

But that there is nothing in the mind except that which comes in through the senses may not be granted so readily. The law of non-contradiction is not an innate idea if one means by innate that the idea must be present in one's immediate consciousness and fully understood without any reference to experience. But this was not the meaning of innate as this term had been used by the rationalistic thinkers whom Locke had set out to refute.

Plato, for example, had taught that ideas such as justice, truth, humanity, and, in fact, everything that we are accustomed to denote by common nouns are present in the soul prior to its entrance into a human body. He did not think the soul was conscious of these ideas until the mind had been stimulated by sense perceptions. He believed there were good reasons for holding the view that there is more in the mind than what comes in through the senses.

Plato's chief reason was the fact that we can think of objects which have not been experienced. We can think of a perfect circle even though we have never seen one. This would not be possible on the basis of experience alone. It is true that we would never think of a perfect circle if we had not experienced an imperfect one, but this only illustrates his point that sense experience is needed to bring into consciousness that which was latent within it before.

Descartes' conception of innate ideas had to do with his criterion of truth. He held that any idea which one sees so clearly and distinctly that it cannot be doubted must be true. The one idea that for him was the starting point for his whole system of philosophy was that of his own existence. This was an idea that no one could doubt, for even the doubting would necessarily imply its existence. He also argued in a similar manner that one must admit the existence of God.

But Descartes did not insist that every individual is conscious of either the idea of the self or the idea of God. In other words, it was not the universality, but rather the logical necessity, that formed the basis for both of these ideas. Like Plato, he held that the ideas are present in the mind without being perceived by the senses, but this did not imply that the full meaning of either of them was necessarily present in one's consciousness.

Another point in Locke's argument that was open to challenge was his conception of what constitutes a human mind. Apparently he had accepted the definition of mind that Descartes had used. Descartes had distinguished mind from matter by stating that matter is extension and mind is consciousness. This would mean that unless an idea was present in one's consciousness, it was not in his mind at all.

Leibnitz was able to show quite conclusively that this conception of mind is not adequate to account for all the facts. Actually the mind includes a great deal more than that of which one is conscious at any particular moment. Certainly the phenomenon of memory provides ample reason for believing that at least part of the mind is at times below the level of consciousness. If this were not true, one could not distinguish between remembering something and obtaining information for the first time. In fact, the idea of a subconscious mind is so generally accepted by psychologists that no one is inclined to doubt it.

Once the idea of a subconscious mind is admitted, Locke's argument about the universality of an idea loses its force, for the idea may be located in this part of the mind and not brought into the level of consciousness until after experiences have taken place. It should, however, be remembered that one of Locke's major objectives was to refute those who maintained that their understanding of the meaning of certain ideas was necessarily true and that no one had a right to question them. So far as this objective was concerned, his argument was indeed adequate.

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