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Essay Concerning Human Understanding

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An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is one of John Locke's two most famous works, the other being his Second Treatise on Civil Government. First appearing in 1689, the essay concerns the foundation of human knowledge and understanding. He describes the mind at birth as a blank slate (tabula rasa), filled later through experience. The essay was one of the principal sources of empiricism in modern philosophy, and influenced philosophers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant.

Locke drafted the Essay over a period of about 18 years. In the "Epistle to the Reader," Locke writes that the germ of the essay sprung from a conversation with friends. At a point where this discourse seemed stuck, Locke remarked that it could not proceed without a close examination of "our own abilities and...what objects our understandings were, or were not, fitted to deal with." This conversation occurred around 1671, and in that year Locke formulated two drafts of the Essay. He would continue to work on it for nearly two decades, clarifying and expanding his basic position. Though dated 1690, the book actually first appeared in 1689.


Book II of the Essay sets out Locke's theory of ideas, including his distinction between passively acquired simple ideas, such as "red," "sweet," "round," etc., and actively built complex ideas, such as numbers, causes and effects, abstract ideas, ideas of substances, identity, and diversity. Locke also distinguishes between the truly existing primary qualities of bodies, like shape, motion and the arrangement of minute particles, and the secondary qualities that are "powers to produce various sensations in us"

such as "red" and "sweet." These secondary qualities, Locke claims, are dependent on the primary qualities. Book III is concerned with language, and Book IV with knowledge, including intuition, mathematics, moral philosophy, natural philosophy ("science"), faith, and opinion.

IdeasEdit

Locke's main thesis is that the mind of a newborn is a blank slate and that all ideas are developed from experience. Book I of the Essay is devoted to an attack on the doctrine of innate ideas. Locke allowed that some ideas are in the mind from an early age, but argued that such ideas are furnished by the senses starting at birth: for instance, differences between colors or tastes. If we have a universal understanding of a concept like sweetness, it is not because this is an innate idea, but because we are all exposed to sweet tastes at an early age.

Along these lines, Locke also argued that people have no innate principles. Locke contended that innate principles would rely upon innate ideas, which do not exist. For instance, we cannot have an innate sense that God should be worshipped, when we cannot even agree on a conception of God or whether God exists at all.

One of Locke's fundamental arguments against innate ideas is the very fact that there are no truths to which all people attest. He takes the time to argue against a number of propositions that rationalists offer as universally accepted truths, for instance the principle of identity, pointing out that at the very least children and idiots are often unaware of these propositions.

Whereas Book I is intended to reject the doctrine of innate ideas proposed by Descartes and the rationalists, Book II explains that every idea is derived from experience either by sensation – direct sensory information – or reflection – mental construction.

LanguageEdit

The close of Book II suggests that Locke discovered a close relationship between words and ideas that prompted him to include a book on language before moving on to discuss knowledge. Book III addresses definitions, names, and the imperfections and abuses of verbal communication. To most scholars, this content is less coherent and important than the surrounding material.


KnowledgeEdit

For Locke, knowledge was the perception of the relation between the agreement or disagreement of ideas.

Book IV is devoted to a discussion of knowledge.

Reaction, response, and influenceEdit

Locke's empiricist viewpoint was sharply criticized by rationalists. In 1704 Gottfried Leibniz wrote a rationalist response to Locke's work in the form of a chapter-by-chapter rebuttal, the Nouveaux essais sur l'entendement humain ("New Essays on Human Understanding"). At the same time, Locke's work provided crucial groundwork for the work of future empiricists like David Hume.

ReferencesEdit

  • Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Macmillan, 1967. s.v. "Locke, John".

See alsoEdit

External linkEdit

de:An Essay concerning Humane Understanding {enWP|Essay Concerning Human Understanding}}

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