Locke Answers: Commentary

This page provides a commentary to the excerpt from Locke’s ‘An Essay Concerning the Human Understanding.’

In the first ten paragraphs of Book I, Locke sets out to offer the main arguments and refutations to the thesis of innate ideas. The view, on Locke’s understanding of the doctrine, claims that notions are imprinted on the mind from birth. In contrast, his book determines to offer a thoroughly empirical account of all human knowledge, by which is meant an account which shows how all knowledge is derived from experience. The upshot, as he will say elsewhere, is that we must view the human mind at birth as a tabula rasa – a blank slate – waiting to be written on by the world of experience.

Such a view sits awkwardly with the social, moral and religious thinking of his time. In social terms, the egalitarian idea that all men are born equally ignorant threatens the elitism of the ruling class, with its belief that they are somehow gifted from birth and naturally equipped to rule in a way the common man is not. If one man knows no more than another at birth, then it would seem to be purely circumstance and opportunity that separates the noble from the base. In the moral realm, the thesis of no innate ideas threatens to dissolve the authority of ethical teaching. If our moral ideas are derived from experience, what is there to stand in the way of some new experience overturning our present ethical rules? Ethical relativism – the notion that one set of moral rules is no better or worse than any other – also seems to ensue. Who is to preside over moral disputes, when one man’s interpretation must be as good as another’s? In Locke’s time, perhaps those with the most at stake in defending the doctrine of innate ideas were the religious authorities. What heresy must it have seemed to them to maintain that man’s idea of an omnipotent, omniscient and all-loving God lacked any certainty and stood on no firmer foundation than the bizarre inference, soon to be published by two French naturalists, Comte de Bufon and Baron Cuvier, that life on Earth had undergone a series of “evolutionary” changes over time (the idea of evolution, of course, would much later be famously developed by Wallace and Darwin).

In order to avoid argument over which ideas are thought to be innate, Locke picks two trivial but, supposedly, uncontroversial examples. The whole doctrine of innate ideas, Locke suggests, may be represented by the token sentences ‘Whatsoever is, is’ and ‘It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be’, propositions which philosophers would later variously call necessary truths, conceptual truths, tautologies or implicit linguistic rules for the meaningful employment of these and other related terms.

The essence of Locke’s argument is that any example of a supposed innate idea will not find assent among children or ‘idiots’, a now rather anachronistic way of referring to people with learning difficulties. The point is that such people have minds, and if an innate idea is supposedly clearly imprinted on the mind, then they, too, should have no trouble assenting to these truths.

Locke offers his opponent a way out, but only with the intention of forcing him back to the position just rejected. One might suppose that innate ideas require the use of reason in order to be known. However, that would leave us without a distinction between innate ideas and those acquired through reasoning. Moreover, it would seem to imply a superfluity. Why imprint ideas on the mind if we still need reason to discover them, just as we do non-innate ideas? Locke finally corners the doctrine of innate ideas by pointing out that the examples offered do not require reason by those who actually do assent to them. The examples may be assented to without reason by most, but not assented to at all by children and the mentally impaired. Therefore, they are not innate, and they do not require the use of reason. It follows, on Locke’s account, that the doctrine of innate ideas is untenable. Locke still owes us, however, an account of how such propositions as these come to have, if not universal then at least widespread and pre-rational, assent – a task to which he sets his pen in subsequent pages.

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