Locke Answers: Main ideas

This page refers to the reading exercise on the excerpt by Locke.

Paragraph Main ideas

[1] Locke says that showing how all ideas can be derived from experience would falsify the idea that some ideas are innate, since it would be ‘impertinent’ to assume that God would give us both the means to discover these ideas and then supply the ideas themselves. Why else would God give us the means if he supplied what they can provide (i.e. why give us sight if we could perceive colours without its aid). However, the task of proving that all knowledge can be derived from experience Locke intends to defer to later in his treatise. Instead, he contents himself in this paragraph with claiming that he will do no more at the present time than show why he first doubted that there are any innate ideas.

[2] Some principles are supposedly agreed by all mankind; it is then assumed that this univeral agreement can only be accounted for by the doctrine that these principles must be innate.

[3] The argument for innate ideas from universal consent would be proven false if universal consent could be accounted for in some other way.

[4] However, Locke argues that there are no ideas which have universal consent. He offers two examples of universal ideas, and suggest that neither are, in fact, universally consented to.

[5] The first argument for the claim in 4, is now given. Neither children nor idiots [sic] universally consent to the propositions offered. After much repetition, Locke’s point seems to be that if ‘being innate’ is equivalent to ‘being consciously known’ then the point about children and ‘idiots’ clearly proves it false. On the other hand, if the point is that innate truths are those that we are capable of knowing, then the claim is vacuous, since any truth we could know is a truth we are capable of knowing, and so the doctrine of innate ideas proves nothing.

[6] Locke suggests his opponents might argue that innate propositions are those that we come to know when we come to use reason.

[7] This argument must have one of two forms: either, once we come to use reason, these innate principles are immediately known, or we certainly come to know their truth assisted by reason.

[8] In answer to both arguments, Locke says that being discovered by reason does not show they are innate. For that implies that all mathematical truths are innately known. In particular, it would show that both the maxims (axioms) and theorems of mathematics would have the same status, a view he takes to be a reductio ad absurdum.

[9] Locke gives another rebuttal of the argument offered in 7. Now he claims that reason is not used in the discovery of principles such as given in 4. Reason is the use of our understanding to discover otherwise unknown truths, but if innate principles are unknown, then by the argument given in 5. they cannot be innate. The protagonists position amounts to a contradiction, viz, we both know and do not know innate ideas.

[10] Locke continues by stating that reason is a method of ‘casting about’ for knowledge, but how can something be innate if it needs the use of reason to discover it? Moreover, the sentences offered in 4. are understood to be true as soon as they are understood.

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