• Locke

This page follows on from post 16: Locke’s ‘An Essay Concerning the Human Understanding’.

John Locke’s ‘An Essay Concerning the Human Understanding’, Vol 1, Book 1, 2nd ed. First Published in 1689.
Source: Project Gutenberg

No innate speculative principles.
[1] The way shown how we come by any Knowledge, sufficient to prove it not innate.
It is an established opinion amongst some men that there are in the understanding certain innate principles; some primary notions, characters, as it were stamped upon the mind of man; which the soul receives in its very first being, and brings into the world with it. It would be sufficient to convince unprejudiced readers of the falseness of this supposition if I should only show (as I hope I shall in the following parts of this Discourse) how men, barely by the use of their natural faculties, may attain to all the knowledge they have without the help of any innate impressions; and may arrive at certainty, without any such original notions or principles. For I imagine any one will easily grant that it would be impertinent to suppose the ideas of colours innate in a creature to whom God hath given sight, and a power to receive them by the eyes from external objects: and no less unreasonable would it be to attribute several truths to the impressions of nature, and innate characters, when we may observe in ourselves faculties fit to attain as easy and certain knowledge of them as if they were originally imprinted on the mind. But because a man is not permitted without censure to follow his own thoughts in the search of truth, when they lead him ever so little out of the common road, I shall set down the reasons that made me doubt of the truth of that opinion, as an excuse for my mistake, if I be in one; which I leave to be considered by those who, with me, dispose themselves to embrace truth wherever they find it.

[2] General Assent the great Argument.
There is nothing more commonly taken for granted than that there are certain principles, both speculative and practical, (for they speak of both), universally agreed upon by all mankind: which therefore, they argue, must needs be the constant impressions which the souls of men receive in their first beings, and which they bring into the world
with them, as necessarily and really as they do any of their inherent

[3] Universal Consent proves nothing innate.
This argument, drawn from universal consent, has this misfortune in it, that if it were true in matter of fact, that there were certain truths wherein all mankind agreed, it would not prove them innate, if there can be any other way shown how men may come to that universal agreement, in the things they do consent in, which I presume may be done.

[4] “What is is,” and “It is impossible for the same Thing to be and not to be,” not universally assented to.
But, which is worse, this argument of universal consent, which is made use of to prove innate principles, seems to me a demonstration that there are none such: because there are none to which all mankind give universal assent. I shall begin with the speculative, an instance in those magnified principles of demonstration, “Whatsoever is, is,” and “It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be”; which, of all others, I think have the most allowed title to innate. These have so settled a reputation of maxims universally received, that it will no doubt be thought strange if any one should seem to question it. But yet I take liberty to say, that these propositions are so far from having universal assent, that there are a great part of mankind to whom they are not so much as known.

[5] Not on Mind naturally imprinted, because not known to Children, Idiots, &c.
For, first, it is evident, that all children and idiots have not the least apprehension or thought of them. And the want of that is enough to destroy that universal assent which must needs be the necessary concomitant of all innate truths: it seeming to me near a contradiction to say, that there are truths imprinted on the soul, which it perceives or understands not: imprinting, if it signify anything, being nothing else but the making certain truths to be perceived. For to imprint anything on the mind without the mind’s perceiving it, seems to me hardly intelligible. If therefore children and idiots have souls, have minds, with those impressions upon them, they must unavoidably perceive them, and necessarily know and assent to these truths; which since they do not, it is evident that there are no such impressions. For if they are not notions naturally imprinted, how can they be innate? and if they are notions imprinted, how can they be unknown? To say a notion is imprinted on the mind, and yet at the same time to say, that the mind is ignorant of it, and never yet took notice of it, is to make this impression nothing. No proposition can be said to be in the mind which it never yet knew, which it was never yet conscious of. For if any one may, then, by the same reason, all propositions that are true, and the mind is capable ever of assenting to, may be said to be in the mind, and to be imprinted: since, if any one can be said to be in the mind, which it never yet knew, it must be only because it is capable of knowing it; and so the mind is of all truths it ever shall know. Nay, thus truths may be imprinted on the mind which it never did, nor ever shall know; for a man may live long, and die at last in ignorance of many truths which his mind was capable of knowing, and that with certainty. So that if the capacity of knowing be the natural impression contended for, all the truths a man ever comes to know will, by this account, be every one of them innate; and this great point will amount to no more, but only to a very improper way of speaking; which, whilst it pretends to assert the contrary, says nothing different from those who deny innate principles. For nobody, I think, ever denied that the mind was capable of knowing several truths. The capacity, they say, is innate; the knowledge acquired. But then to what end such contest for certain innate maxims? If truths can be imprinted on the understanding without being perceived, I can see no difference there can be between any truths the mind is capable of knowing in respect of their original: they must all be innate or all adventitious: in vain shall a man go about to distinguish them. He therefore that talks of innate notions in the understanding, cannot (if he intend thereby any distinct sort of truths) mean such truths to be in the understanding as it never perceived, and is yet wholly ignorant of. For if these words “to be in the understanding” have any propriety, they signify to be understood. So that to be in the understanding, and not to be understood; to be in the mind and never to be perceived, is all one as to say anything is and is not in the mind or understanding. If therefore these two propositions, “Whatsoever is, is,” and “It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be,” are by nature imprinted, children cannot be ignorant of them: infants, and all that have souls, must necessarily have them in their understandings, know the truth of them, and assent to it.

[6] That men know them when they come to the Use of Reason answered.
To avoid this, it is usually answered, that all men know and assent to them, WHEN THEY COME TO THE USE OF REASON; and this is enough to prove them innate. I answer:

[7] Doubtful expressions, that have scarce any signification, go for
clear reasons to those who, being prepossessed, take not the pains to
examine even what they themselves say.

For, to apply this answer with any tolerable sense to our present purpose, it must signify one of these two things: either that as soon as men come to the use of reason these supposed native inscriptions come to be known and observed by them; or else, that the use and exercise of men’s reason, assists them in the discovery of these principles, and certainly makes them known to them.

[8] If Reason discovered them, that would not prove them innate.
If they mean, that by the use of reason men may discover these principles, and that this is sufficient to prove them innate; their way of arguing will stand thus, viz. that whatever truths reason can certainly discover to us, and make us firmly assent to, those are all naturally imprinted on the mind; since that universal assent, which is made the mark of them, amounts to no more but this: that by the use of reason we are capable to come to a certain knowledge of and assent to them; and, by this means, there will be no difference between the maxims of the mathematicians, and theorems they deduce from them: all must be equally allowed innate; they being all discoveries made by the use of reason, and truths that a rational creature may certainly come to know, if he apply his thoughts rightly that way.

[9] It is false that Reason discovers them.
But how can these men think the use of reason necessary to discover principles that are supposed innate, when reason (if we may believe them) is nothing else but the faculty of deducing unknown truths from principles or propositions that are already known? That certainly can never be thought innate which we have need of reason to discover; unless, as I have said, we will have all the certain truths that reason ever teaches us, to be innate. We may as well think the use of reason necessary to make our eyes discover visible objects, as that there should be need of reason, or the exercise thereof, to make the understanding see what is originally engraven on it, and cannot be in the understanding before it be perceived by it. So that to make reason discover those truths thus imprinted, is to say, that the use of reason discovers to a man what he knew before: and if men have those innate impressed truths originally, and before the use of reason, and yet are always ignorant of them till they come to the use of reason, it is in effect to say, that men know and know them not at the same time.

[10] No use made of reasoning in the discovery of these two maxims.
It will here perhaps be said that mathematical demonstrations, and other truths that are not innate, are not assented to as soon as proposed, wherein they are distinguished from these maxims and other innate truths. I shall have occasion to speak of assent upon the first proposing, more particularly by and by. I shall here only, and that very readily, allow, that these maxims and mathematical demonstrations are in this different: that the one have need of reason, using of proofs, to make them out and to gain our assent; but the other, as soon as understood, are, without any the least reasoning, embraced and assented to. But I withal beg leave to observe, that it lays open the weakness of this subterfuge, which requires the use of reason for the discovery of these general truths: since it must be confessed that in their discovery there is no use made of reasoning at all. And I think those who give this answer will not be forward to affirm that the knowledge of this maxim, “That it is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be,” is a deduction of our reason. For this would be to destroy that bounty of nature they seem so fond of, whilst they make the knowledge of those principles to depend on the labour of our thoughts. For all reasoning is search, and casting about, and requires pains and application. And how can it with any tolerable sense be supposed that what was imprinted by nature as the foundation and guide of our reason should need the use of reason to discover it?


Match the words in 1 to 10 with an appropriate meaning in the context found in the text given in a to j (the first one has been done as an example).

Click on the image to enlarge.

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Vocabulary in use
Use the correct word from 1 to 10 to complete the gaps in the sentences 11 to 20. Use a standard dictionary to look up any other words whose meaning you are unsure of.

11. Any government that suddenly raises taxes with little justification will always receive ___________ from the general public.

12. Evolutionary theory is now so well-entrenched as a scientific paradigm, it is not considered a mere _____________ at all by the majority of the scientific community.

13. Despite continued public health announcements, there is still little ________________ of the dangers of passive smoking on infants among a large percentage of the adult population.

14. Creating a robot that behaves as if it were a human being may be one thing, but developing an Artificial Intelligence that has a true _________________ is a wholly different prospect.

15. During the second half of the Twentieth Century, most linguistics experts believed that some kind of universal grammatical rules must be ______________ in human beings.

16. According to empiricists from Locke in the 17th Century to W.V.O Quine in the 20th, all human knowledge is ________________ ; that is to say, derived from experience.

17. The idea that there is no such thing as free will seems to be ______________ with the idea that human beings cannot be blamed for their actions in the view of many moral philosophers.

18. To some, it would be ______________ to suggest that the professor had made a mistake; nevertheless, it is the duty of every critical thinker to expose falsehood and error wherever it occurs.

19. Descartes argues that if our minds receive __________________ from the external world via our sensory organs, we can have no direct knowledge of what the world is like since our sensory organs cannot be trusted to report reliably.

20. If the idea that we live in a world of material objects more or less as we commonly believe is to have any ______________ , some answer must be found to the problems raised by global scepticism.

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Paragraph Main ideas
Be sure to follow the reading technique outlined earlier. Make a note of each paragraph’s main ideas. When you are ready you can compare your notes with my notes on the paragraph main ideas.

Basic arguments

1. Explain why, according to the view of Locke’s opponents, ‘Whatever is, is’ must be an innate idea?

2. What principal assumption of his opponents’ argument does Locke attack?

3. What rebuttal does Locke offer on behalf of his opponents to the point about children and ‘idiots’?

4. Explain how Locke’s reference to mathematical truths answers the rebuttal.

5. What is Locke’s argument for the claim that innate propositions are not discovered by reason?

See the answers, read the commentary or continue reading

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