John Locke’s Essay presents a detailed, systematic philosophy of mind and thought. The Essay wrestles with fundamental questions about how we think and perceive, and it even touches on how we express ourselves through language, logic, and religious practices. In the introduction, entitled The Epistle to the Reader, Locke describes how he became involved in his current mode of philosophical thinking. He relates an anecdote about a conversation with friends that made him realize that men often suffer in their pursuit of knowledge because they fail to determine the limits of their understanding.
Summary: Book I
In Book I, Locke lays out the three goals of his philosophical project: to discover where our ideas come from, to ascertain what it means to have these ideas and what an idea essentially is, and to examine issues of faith and opinion to determine how we should proceed logically when our knowledge is limited. Locke attacks previous schools of philosophy, such as those of Plato and Descartes, that maintain a belief in a priori, or innate, knowledge. He begins by opposing the idea that we are all born knowing certain fundamental principles, such as “whatever is, is.” The usual justification for this belief in innate principles is that certain principles exist to which all human beings universally assent. Locke contends that, on the contrary, no principle is actually accepted by every human being. Furthermore, if universal agreement did exist about something, this agreement might have come about in a way other than through innate knowledge. Locke offers another argument against innate knowledge, asserting that human beings cannot have ideas in their minds of which they are not aware, so that people cannot be said to possess even the most basic principles until they are taught them or think them through for themselves. Still another argument is that because human beings differ greatly in their moral ideas, moral knowledge must not be innate. Finally, Locke confronts the theory of innate ideas (along the lines of the Platonic Theory of Forms) and argues that ideas often cited as innate are so complex and confusing that much schooling and thought are required to grasp their meaning. Against the claim that God is an innate idea, Locke counters that God is not a universally accepted idea and that his existence cannot therefore be innate human knowledge.
Summary: Book II
Having eliminated the possibility of innate knowledge, Locke in Book II seeks to demonstrate where knowledge comes from. He proposes that knowledge is built up from ideas, either simple or complex. Simple ideas combine in various ways to form complex ideas. Therefore, the most basic units of knowledge are simple ideas, which come exclusively through experience. There are two types of experience that allow a simple idea to form in the human mind: sensation, or when the mind experiences the world outside the body through the five senses, and reflection, or when the mind turns inward, recognizing ideas about its own functions, such as thinking, willing, believing, and doubting.
Locke divides simple ideas into four categories: (1) ideas we get from a single sense, such as sight or taste; (2) ideas created from more than one sense, such as shape and size; (3) ideas emerging from reflection; and (4) ideas arising from a combination of sensation and reflection, such as unity, existence, pleasure, pain, and substance. Locke goes on to explain the difference between primary and secondary qualities. Ideas of primary qualities—such as texture, number, size, shape, and motion—resemble their causes. Ideas of secondary qualities do not resemble their causes, as is the case with color, sound, taste, and odor. In other words, primary qualities cannot be separated from the matter, whereas secondary qualities are only the power of an object to produce the idea of that quality in our minds.
Locke devotes much of book II to exploring various things that our minds are capable of, including making judgments about our own perceptions to refine our ideas, remembering ideas, discerning between ideas, comparing ideas to one another, composing a complex idea from two or more simple ideas, enlarging a simple idea into a complex idea by repetition, and abstracting certain simple ideas from an already complex ideas. Locke also discusses complex ideas, breaking them down into four basic types: (1) modes, which are ideas that do not exist in and of themselves, such as qualities, numbers, and other abstract concepts; (2) substances, either self-subsisting things (such as a particular man or a sheep) or collections of such things (an army of men or a flock of sheep); (3) relations, such as father, bigger, and morally good; and (4) abstract generals, such as “man” or “sheep” in general. Complex ideas are created through three methods: combination, comparison, and abstraction.
Summary: Book III
In book III, Locke discusses abstract general ideas. Everything that exists in the world is a particular “thing.” General ideas occur when we group similar particular ideas and take away, or abstract, the differences until we are left only with the similarities. We then use these similarities to create a general term, such as “tree,” which is also a general idea. We form abstract general ideas for three reasons: it would be too hard to remember a different word for every particular thing that exists, having a different word for everything that exists would obstruct communication, and the goal of science is to generalize and categorize everything.
John Locke (1689)
An Essay concerning Human Understanding.
Source: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). 38th Edition from William Tegg, London; scanned in three separate excerpts from early in the work.
NO INNATE PRINCIPLES IN THE MIND.
1. The way shown how we come by any knowledge, sufficient to prove it not innate. – It is an established opinion among some men, that there are in the understanding certain innate principles; some primarily 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 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 faculties.
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 an universal assent. I shall begin with the speculative, and 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 an universal assent, that there are a great part of mankind to whom they are not so much as known.
5. Not on the mind naturally, imprinted, because not known to children, idiots, etc. – 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 he 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 he said to be in the mind which it never yet knew, which it was never yet conscious of. For if any one say, 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 the 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 well 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 results 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 reasons 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 engraved in it, and cannot be in the understanding before it be perceived by it. So that to make reason discover these 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. 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 has 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. ...
BOOK II, CHAPTER I: OF IDEAS IN GENERAL, AND THEIR ORIGINAL.
l. Idea is the object of thinking. – Every man being conscious to himself, that he thinks, and that which his mind is applied about, whilst thinking, being the ideas that are there, it is past doubt that men have in their mind several ideas, such as are those expressed by the words, “whiteness, hardness, sweetness, thinking, motion, man, elephant, army, drunkenness,” and others. It is in the first place then to be inquired, How he comes by them? I know it is a received doctrine, that men have native ideas and original characters stamped upon their minds in their very first being. This opinion I have at large examined already; and, I suppose, what I have said in the foregoing book will be much more easily admitted, when I have shown whence the understanding may get all the ideas it has, and by what ways and degrees they may come into the mind; for which I shall appeal to every one’s own observation and experience.
2. All ideas come from sensation or reflection. – Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper [tabula rasa], void of all characters without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, From experience: in that all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself. Our observation, employed either about external sensible objects, or about the internal operations of our minds, perceived and reflected on by ourselves is that which supplies our understandings with all the materials of thinking. These two are the fountains of knowledge, from whence all the ideas we have, or can naturally have, do spring.
3. The object of sensation one source of ideas. – First. Our senses, conversant about particular sensible objects, do convey into the mind several distinct perceptions of things, according to those various ways wherein those objects do affect them; and thus we come by those ideas we have of yellow, white, heat, cold, soft, hard, bitter, sweet, and all those which we call sensible qualities; which when I say the senses convey into the mind, I mean, they from external objects convey into the mind what produces there those perceptions. This great source of most of the ideas we have, depending wholly upon our senses, and derived by them to the understanding, I call, “sensation.”
4. The operations of our minds the other source of them. – Secondly. The other fountain, from which experience furnisheth the understanding with ideas, is the perception of the operations of our own minds within us, as it is employed about the ideas it has got; which operations, when the soul comes to reflect on and consider, do furnish the understanding with another set of ideas which could not be had from things without and such are perception, thinking, doubting, believing, reasoning, knowing, willing, and all the different actings of our own minds; which we, being conscious of, and observing in ourselves, do from these receive into our understandings as distinct ideas, as we do from bodies affecting our senses. This source of ideas every man has wholly in himself; and though it be not sense as having nothing to do with external objects, yet it is very like it, and might properly enough be called “internal sense.” But as I call the other “sensation,” so I call this “reflection,” the ideas it affords being such only as the mind gets by reflecting on its own operations within itself. By reflection, then, in the following part of this discourse, I would be understood to mean that notice which the mind takes of its own operations, and the manner of them, by reason whereof there come to be ideas of these operations in the understanding. These two, I say, viz., external material things as the objects of sensation, and the operations of our own minds within as the objects of reflection, are to me, the only originals from whence all our ideas take their beginnings. The term “operations” here, I use in a large sense, as comprehending not barely the actions of the mind about its ideas, but some sort of passions arising sometimes from them, such as is the satisfaction or uneasiness arising from any thought.
5. All our ideas are of the one or the other of these. – The understanding seems to me not to have the least glimmering of any ideas which it doth not receive from one of these two. External objects furnish the mind with the ideas of sensible qualities, which are all those different perceptions they produce in us; and the mind furnishes the understanding with ideas of its own operations.
These, when we have taken a full survey of them, and their several modes, combinations, and relations, we shall find to contain all our whole stock of ideas, and that we have nothing in our mind which did not come in one of these two ways. Let anyone examine his own thoughts; and thoroughly search into his understanding, and then let him tell me, whether all the original ideas he has there, are any other than of the objects of his senses, or of the operations of his mind considered as objects of his reflection; and how great a mass of knowledge soever he imagines to be lodged there, he will, upon taking a strict view see that he has not any idea in his mind but what one of these two have imprinted, though perhaps with infinite variety compounded and enlarged by the understanding, as we shall see hereafter.
6. Observable in children. – He that attentively considers the state of a child at his first coming into the world, will have little reason to think him stored with plenty of ideas that are to be the matter of his future knowledge. It is by degrees he comes to be furnished with them; and though the ideas of obvious and familiar qualities imprint themselves before the memory begins to keep a register of time and order, yet it is often so late before some unusual qualities come in the way, that there are few men that cannot recollect the beginning of their acquaintance with them: and, if it were worth while, no doubt a child might be so ordered as to have but a very few even of the ordinary ideas till he were grown up to a man. But all that are born into the world being surrounded with bodies that perpetually and diversely affect them, variety of ideas whether care be taken about it, or no, are imprinted on the minds of children. Light and colours are busy at hand every where when the eye is but open; sounds and some tangible qualities fail not to solicit their proper senses and force an entrance to the mind; but yet I think it will be granted easily, that if a child were kept in a place where he never saw any other but black and white till he were a man, he would have no more ideas of scarlet or green, than he that from his childhood never tasted an oyster or a pine-apple has of those particular relishes.
7. Men are differently furnished with these according to the different objects they converse with. – Men then come to be furnished with fewer or more simple ideas from without, according as the objects they converse with afford greater or less variety; and from the operations of their minds within, according as they more or less reflect on them. For, though he that contemplates the operations of his mind cannot but have plain and clear ideas of them; yet, unless he turn his thoughts that way, and considers them attentively, he will no more have clear and distinct ideas of all the operations of his mind, and all that may be observed therein than he will have all the particular ideas of any landscape or of the parts and motions of a clock, who will not turn his eyes to it, and with attention heed all the parts of it. The picture or clock may be so placed, that they may come in his way every day; but yet he will have but a confused idea of all the parts they are made of, till he applies himself with attention to consider them each in particular. ...
CHAPTER III: OF IDEAS OF ONE SENSE
l. Division of simple ideas. – The better to conceive the ideas we receive from sensation, it may not be amiss for us to consider them in reference to the different ways whereby they make their approaches to our minds, and make themselves perceivable by us.
First, then, there are some which come into our minds by one sense only.
Secondly. There are others that convey themselves into the mind by more senses than one.
Thirdly. Others first are had from reflection only.
Fourthly. There are some that make themselves way, and are suggested to the mind, by all the ways of sensation and reflection.
We shall consider them apart under these several heads.
1. There are some ideas which have admittance only through one sense, which is peculiarly adapted to receive them. Thus light and colours, as white, red, yellow, blue, with their several degrees or shades and mixtures, as green, scarlet, purple, sea-green, and the rest, come in only by the eyes; all kinds of noises, sounds, and tones, only by the ears; the several tastes and smells, by the nose and palate. And if these organs, or the nerves which are the conduits to convey them from without to their audience in the brain, the mind’s presence-room, (as I may so call it,) are, any of them, so disordered as not to perform their functions, they have no postern to be admitted by, no other way to bring themselves into view, and be received by the understanding.
The most considerable of those belonging to the touch are heat and cold, and solidity; all the rest – consisting almost wholly in the sensible configuration, as smooth and rough; or else more or less firm adhesion of the parts, as hard and soft, tough and brittle – are obvious enough.
2. I think it will be needless to enumerate all the particular simple ideas belonging to each sense. Nor indeed is it possible it we would, there being a great many more of them belonging to most of the senses than we have names for. The variety of smells, which are as many almost, if not more, than species of bodies in the world, do most of them want name. Sweet and stinking commonly serve our turn for these ideas, which in effect is little more than to call them pleasing or displeasing; though the smell of a rose and violet, both sweet, are certainly very distinct ideas. Nor are the different tastes that by, our palates we receive ideas of, much better provided with names. Sweet, bitter, sour, harsh, and salt, are almost all the epithets we have to denominate that numberless variety of relishes which are to be found distinct, not only in almost every sort of creatures but in the different parts of the same plant, fruit, or animal. The same may be said of colours and sounds. I shall therefore, in the account of simple ideas I am here giving, content myself to set down only such as are most material to our present purpose, or are in themselves less apt to be taken notice of, though they are very frequently the ingredients of our complex ideas; amongst which I think I may well account “solidity” which therefore I shall treat of in the next chapter.