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John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is a major work in the history of philosophy and a founding text in the empiricist approach to philosophical investigation. Although ostensibly an investigation into the nature of knowledge and understanding (epistemology) this work ranges farther afield than one might expect. Instead of just being merely a work in epistemology, this is really a reappraisal of many traditional philosophical questions, metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, and religious.
Locke begins his work in Book I by explaining the origin of the content of understanding, ideas. Ideas originate only from experience, claims Locke. His main argument in this Book is to argue against the idea that there is some knowledge that arises prior to experience, that is, the idea that some of our ideas or knowledge are innate. Locke uses several arguments against the innateness hypothesis but his main argument is that for an idea to be innate it would have to be universally shared and present in children and idiots. We can find no such knowledge and, hence, there is no reason to believe in innate ideas.
Having dealt with innate ideas and the origins of ideas, Locke turns in Book II to a detailed analysis of the content of knowledge, ideas. He categorizes ideas into simple and complex ideas. Simple ideas are generated directly by experience and refer to simple objects of sensation. Through a variety of simple procedures, simple ideas are transformed into complex ideas. These ideas can be abstracted further and further into general ideas. Locke then goes on to describe the multitude of ways our minds can operate on simple and complex ideas to generate what we think of as many other faculties and content of the mind. There is a short digression on the active and passive powers and an argument for a kind of compatabalism regarding free will. There is also an analysis of good and evil into pleasure and pain. Finally, Locke tries to account for false and fantastical ideas.
Book III deals with the signs that we use to communicate ideas to ourselves and to others, words. Book III follows roughly the same form as Book II, explaining how the different kinds of ideas can be communicated as different kinds of words. Towards the end of the Book, Locke discusses the importance of words to philosophy and to truth in general.
Book IV concerns knowledge generally and Locke spends the section explaining how our ideas, derived from experience and our words can account for our knowledge of various things. Locke also gives a unique empiricist proof of the existence for God and a strong attack on the possibility of faith and revelation. Finally Locke concludes by laying out a program for the future development of science along Lockean, empiricist lines. Many attempt to follow his trail, including David Hume and many modern philosophers. Though this work is idiosyncratic, it is hard to overemphasize its influence on philosophy and the development of thought over the last several hundred years.
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Not to be confused with An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
Title page of the first edition
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is a work by John Locke concerning the foundation of human knowledge and understanding. It first appeared in 1689 (although dated 1690) with the printed title An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding. He describes the mind at birth as a blank slate (tabula rasa, although he did not use those actual words) filled later through experience. The essay was one of the principal sources of empiricism in modern philosophy, and influenced many enlightenment philosophers, such as David Hume and George Berkeley.
Book I of the Essay is Locke's attempt to refute the rationalist notion of innate ideas. Book II sets out Locke's theory of ideas, including his distinction between passively acquired simple ideas, such as "red," "sweet," "round," etc., and actively built complex ideas, such as numbers, causes and effects, abstract ideas, ideas of substances, identity, and diversity. Locke also distinguishes between the truly existing primary qualities of bodies, like shape, motion and the arrangement of minute particles, and the secondary qualities that are "powers to produce various sensations in us" such as "red" and "sweet." These secondary qualities, Locke claims, are dependent on the primary qualities. He also offers a theory of personal identity, offering a largely psychological criterion. Book III is concerned with language, and Book IV with knowledge, including intuition, mathematics, moral philosophy, natural philosophy ("science"), faith, and opinion.
The main thesis is that there are "No Innate Principles", by this reasoning:
If we will attentively consider new born children, we shall have little reason to think that they bring many ideas into the world with them
and that "by degrees afterward, ideas come into their minds." Book I of the Essay is devoted to an attack on nativism or the doctrine of innate ideas. Locke allowed that some ideas are in the mind from an early age, but argued that such ideas are furnished by the senses starting in the womb: for instance, differences between colours or tastes. If we have a universal understanding of a concept like sweetness, it is not because this is an innate idea, but because we are all exposed to sweet tastes at an early age.
One of Locke's fundamental arguments against innate ideas is the very fact that there is no truth to which all people attest. He took the time to argue against a number of propositions that rationalists offer as universally accepted truth, for instance the principle of identity, pointing out that at the very least children and idiots are often unaware of these propositions.
Whereas Book I is intended to reject the doctrine of innate ideas proposed by Descartes and the rationalists, Book II explains that every idea is derived from experience either by sensation – direct sensory information – or reflection – "the perception of the operations of our own mind within us, as it is employed about the ideas it has got".
Furthermore, Book II is also a systematic argument for the existence of an intelligent being: "Thus, from the consideration of ourselves, and what we infallibly find in our own constitutions, our reason leads us to the knowledge of this certain and evident truth, that there is an eternal, most powerful, and most knowing being; which whether any one will please to call God, it matters not!"
Book 3 focuses on words. Locke connects words to the ideas they signify, claiming that man is unique in being able to frame sounds into distinct words and to signify ideas by those words, and then that these words are built into language.
Chapter ten in this book focuses on "Abuse of Words." Here, Locke criticizes metaphysicians for making up new words that have no clear meaning. He also criticizes the use of words which are not linked to clear ideas, and to those who change the criteria or meaning underlying a term.
Thus he uses a discussion of language to demonstrate sloppy thinking. Locke followed the Port-Royal Logique (1662) in numbering among the abuses of language those that he calls "affected obscurity" in chapter 10. Locke complains that such obscurity is caused by, for example, philosophers who, to confuse their readers, invoke old terms and give them unexpected meanings or who construct new terms without clearly defining their intent. Writers may also invent such obfuscation to make themselves appear more educated or their ideas more complicated and nuanced or erudite than they actually are.
This book focuses on knowledge in general – that it can be thought of as the sum of ideas and perceptions. Locke discusses the limit of human knowledge, and whether knowledge can be said to be accurate or truthful.
Thus there is a distinction between what an individual might claim to "know", as part of a system of knowledge, and whether or not that claimed knowledge is actual. For example, Locke writes at the beginning of Chap. IV (Of the Reality of Knowledge): "I doubt not my Reader by this Time may be apt to think that I have been all this while only building a Castle in the Air; and be ready to say to me, To what purpose all of this stir? Knowledge, say you, is only the Perception of the Agreement or Disagreement of our own Ideas: but who knows what those Ideas may be? ... But of what use is all this fine Knowledge of Man's own Imaginations, to a Man that enquires after the reality of things? It matters now that Mens Fancies are, 'tis the Knowledge of Things that is only to be priz'd; 'tis this alone gives a Value to our Reasonings, and Preference to one Man's Knowledge over another's, that is of Things as they really are, and of Dreams and Fancies."
In the last chapter of the book, Locke introduces the major classification of sciences into physics, semiotics, and ethics.
Reaction, response, and influence
Many of Locke's views were sharply criticized by rationalists and empiricists alike. In 1704 the rationalist Gottfried Leibniz wrote a response to Locke's work in the form of a chapter-by-chapter rebuttal, the Nouveaux essais sur l'entendement humain ("New Essays on Human Understanding"). Leibniz was critical of a number of Locke's views in the Essay, including his rejection of innate ideas, his skepticism about species classification, and the possibility that matter might think, among other things. Leibniz thought that Locke's commitment to ideas of reflection in the Essay ultimately made him incapable of escaping the nativist position or being consistent in his empiricist doctrines of the mind's passivity. The empiricist George Berkeley was equally critical of Locke's views in the Essay. Berkeley's most notable criticisms of Locke were first published in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. Berkeley held that Locke's conception of abstract ideas was incoherent and led to severe contradictions. He also argued that Locke's conception of material substance was unintelligible, a view which he also later advanced in the Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. At the same time, Locke's work provided crucial groundwork for future empiricists such as David Hume. John Wynne published An Abridgment of Mr. Locke's Essay concerning the Human Understanding, with Locke's approval, in 1696. Louisa Capper wrote An Abridgment of Locke's Essay concerning the Human Understanding, published in 1811.
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- ^Essay, II, viii, 10
- ^Essay, I, iii, 2.
- ^Essay, I, ii, 15.
- ^Essay, I, iv, 3.
- ^Arnauld, Antoine; Nicole, Pierre (1662). La logique ou l'Art de penser. Paris: Jean Guignart, Charles Savreux, & Jean de Lavnay. . See part 1, chapter 13, Observations importantes touchant la définition des noms.