16. Locke’s ‘An Essay Concerning the Human Understanding’

In the ten paragraphs of this excerpt, John Locke presents an excellent example for any critical thinker, setting out the assumptions of his opponents and rebutting each one in turn with logical analysis. Working through his ideas will always pay dividends, not least because many of the issues and arguments he puts forth – in this excerpt and elsewhere – are still being repeated in debates both in and out of philosophy.

In this excerpt, Locke begins his attack on the doctrine of innate ideas. Apparently still misunderstood by Christian critics, Locke’s point turns not on the fact that people fail to follow supposedly innate moral rules, but that such rules and other supposed innate ideas are not seen to be true when their meaning is grasped in the way that sentences such as ‘It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be’ are. Even these kinds of sentences – the best candidates that innatists could offer in Locke’s time for God-given truths – are not, as Locke argues in the pages following this extract, examples of innate truths provided by God but merely semantic tautologies.

While the question of whether there are any innate ideas or not was certainly not settled by Locke, it did stimulate a century of debate between the opposing camps of rationalists and empiricists (Locke’s view belongs to the latter camp). Kant had sought to resolve that impasse with his ‘Copernican revolution‘, but discussions in the 20th Century by Chomsky and others regarding language use led to something of a revival for the doctrine of innatism.

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  1. He was a pretty smart dude. But some of his ideas seemed incomplete. Like he gave up before following through on them.

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