Locke – Human Understanding

25th March 2011

“..the understanding that sets man above the rest of sensible beings, and gives him all the advantage and dominion which he has over them; it is certainly a subject, even for its nobleness, worth our labour to inquire into.”
Lock, 1695 p. 1

John Locke was one of the two thinkers that were responsible for linking the Scientific Revolution to the ideas of Enlightenment thought. He famously distinguished between the real essence and the nominal essence. The real essence according to Porter, “ was the corpuscular substructure, the casual nexus from which flow the properties that make a body the body that it is, whereas the nominal essence was the collection of phenomoninal properties accessible to our senses that result from that real essence, and in terms of which we sort bodies into categories (Porter, 2003, p.24). Locke claimed, “philosophy was, as much as astronomy, a discipline subject to the rigors of the scientific method and critical inquiry” (Merriman, 2010, p. 314). He believed that the scientific method could be applied to the study of society.

Locke’s essay concerns the foundation of human knowledge and understanding and explains the continuous development of the conscious mind. Believing that all knowledge is sensory, lock denied the existence of inherited abilities, the Cartesian position that holds that man innately knows basic logical propositions, and rejected the Augustinian view that humanity is stained by original sin. Locke’s main thesis is that the mind at birth is a blank slate or “empty” mind, a tabula rasa (the frequently attributed tabula rasa does not occur in the Essay), which is both filled and shaped by experience and that it is these sensations and reflections which are the two sources of all our ideas and that all ideas are developed from experience (Uzgalis, 2007). “Idea”, the key term throughout Locke’s Essay he defined as “… whatsoever is the Object of the Understanding when a man thinks, … whatever is meant by phantasm, notion, species, or whatever it is, which the Mind can be employ’d about in thinking” (Locke, 2008, p. 16). Any object of awareness or of consciousness must be an idea.

The first book of his essay, although an introduction for the complete essay, largely focuses on attacking the doctrine of innate ideas, the idea known as nativism. Nativism is the belief that certain ideas or beliefs (pieces of knowledge) are planted in the mind prior to experience.
“It would be sufficient to convince unprejudiced Readers of the falseness of this Supposition, if I should only shew…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”. (Locke, 2008, p. 17)

Locke conceded that some ideas are developed in the mind from an early age, but also argued that such ideas, such as color and taste, are attributed to the senses starting in the womb. He maintained that knowledge of particular truths does not depend on a grasp of the general truths. Universal understanding of concepts such as sweet and sour, he claimed, is not because they are innate ideas, but is the result of exposure to these tastes at an early age.

In the second Book of the Essay, the central thesis of Locks argument is developed and his theory of ideas is set out. Here he expresses the distinction between passively acquired ideas, such as “dark,” “sweet,” “soft,” etc., and complex constructive ideas, such as numbers, identity, diversity and abstract ideas, and also distinguishes between primary qualities of bodies, like shape and motion, and secondary qualities such as the “powers to produce various sensations in us” such as “soft” and “sweet.” (Valberg, 1980, p.437) These secondary qualities, Locke claims, are dependent on the primary qualities.

Book iii relates to the use of language and abstraction, while Book IV deals with knowledge, including intuition, philosophy, faith, and opinion. Book IV can also be seen a rational for the existence of an intelligent entity. Locke writes that, “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.” (Locke, 2008, p. 398) Locke argues that one could not reasonably come to any other conclusion.

It is along these lines that Locke maintains that people have no innate principles. He asserts that innate principles would rely upon innate ideas, which do not exist. One of Locke’s underlying arguments against innate ideas is that there is no single truth to which all people conform. He pointed out that universally accepted truths, such as the principle of identity as offered by the rationalists, fails to hold true since at the very least children and idiots are often unaware of these propositions. (Locke, 2008, p. 18) Locks systematic argument begins with his rejection of the doctrine of innate ideas proposed by Descartes and the rationalists and follows on to explain 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 employ’d about the Ideas it has got” (Locke, 2008, p. 55).

Although many praised Locke’s work, his empiricist perspectives were met with disapproval from the rationalists. In 1704 the rationalist Gottfried Leibniz wrote the chapter-by-chapter rebuttal, Nouveaux Essais Sur L’entendement Humain or New Essays on Human Understanding in response to Locke’s essay. Locke was a torchbearer for the new scientific culture that found expression in the enlightened and progressive citizens of Britain at the end of the seventeenth century. “He inaugurated the enlightenment” (Skirbekk, 2001, p.214).

Locke’s essay is frequently seen as one of the primary sources of empiricism in modern philosophy and provided the essential background required for the work of future empiricists such as David Hume. It also influenced other enlightenment philosophers, such as George Berkeley. His intense interest in the relationship between nature and the social order led him to consider many other issues such as individual rights, gender, educational reform, religious tolerance, freedom of the press and separation of political powers. Many of these ideas are still valid in today’s society as much as they were in his own.


Lock, J., 1695, An essay concerning humane understanding in four books, London, http://gateway.proquest.com.ezproxy.usq.edu.au/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_id=xri:eebo:citation:12402520 [Accessed: February 17th, 2011]

Lock, J., [1700], 2008, An essay concerning humane understanding, 4th Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Merriman, J., 2010, A History of Modern Europe: From the Renaissance to the Present, 3rd Ed., W.W. Norton & Company, New York, N.Y.

Porter, R., Park, K. & Daston L. (eds.), 2003, The Cambridge History of Science: Early Modern Science, vol. 3, Cambridge University Press, pp. 24

Skirbekk, G. & Gilje, N., 2001. A History of Western thought: from ancient Greece to the twentieth century, Routledge, New York, N.Y. pp. 213-223

Ueberweg, F., History of Philosophy, Vol. 2: From Thales to the Present Time Vol. 2 Ch. 11 pp.363-371

Uzgalis, William. “John Locke.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [Accessed February 17th, 2011], http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke/#BooI

Valberg, E, 1980, A Theory of Secondary Qualities, Philosophy, Vol. 55, No. 214 (Oct., 1980), pp. 437-453, Cambridge University Press on behalf of Royal Institute of Philosophy, [Accessed: March 7th, 2011], http://www.jstor.org/stable/3750314




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