Not to be confused with An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
Title page of the first edition
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is a work by John Locke concerning the foundation of human knowledge and understanding. It first appeared in 1689 (although dated 1690) with the printed title An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding. He describes the mind at birth as a blank slate (tabula rasa, although he did not use those actual words) filled later through experience. The essay was one of the principal sources of empiricism in modern philosophy, and influenced many enlightenment philosophers, such as David Hume and George Berkeley.
Book I of the Essay is Locke's attempt to refute the rationalist notion of innate ideas. Book II 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. He also offers a theory of personal identity, offering a largely psychological criterion. Book III is concerned with language, and Book IV with knowledge, including intuition, mathematics, moral philosophy, natural philosophy ("science"), faith, and opinion.
The main thesis is that there are "No Innate Principles", by this reasoning:
If we will attentively consider new born children, we shall have little reason to think that they bring many ideas into the world with them
and that "by degrees afterward, ideas come into their minds." Book I of the Essay is devoted to an attack on nativism or 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 in the womb: for instance, differences between colours 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.
One of Locke's fundamental arguments against innate ideas is the very fact that there is no truth to which all people attest. He took the time to argue against a number of propositions that rationalists offer as universally accepted truth, 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 – "the perception of the operations of our own mind within us, as it is employed about the ideas it has got".
Furthermore, Book II is also a systematic argument for the existence of an intelligent being: "Thus, 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!"
Book 3 focuses on words. Locke connects words to the ideas they signify, claiming that man is unique in being able to frame sounds into distinct words and to signify ideas by those words, and then that these words are built into language.
Chapter ten in this book focuses on "Abuse of Words." Here, Locke criticizes metaphysicians for making up new words that have no clear meaning. He also criticizes the use of words which are not linked to clear ideas, and to those who change the criteria or meaning underlying a term.
Thus he uses a discussion of language to demonstrate sloppy thinking. Locke followed the Port-Royal Logique (1662) in numbering among the abuses of language those that he calls "affected obscurity" in chapter 10. Locke complains that such obscurity is caused by, for example, philosophers who, to confuse their readers, invoke old terms and give them unexpected meanings or who construct new terms without clearly defining their intent. Writers may also invent such obfuscation to make themselves appear more educated or their ideas more complicated and nuanced or erudite than they actually are.
This book focuses on knowledge in general – that it can be thought of as the sum of ideas and perceptions. Locke discusses the limit of human knowledge, and whether knowledge can be said to be accurate or truthful.
Thus there is a distinction between what an individual might claim to "know", as part of a system of knowledge, and whether or not that claimed knowledge is actual. For example, Locke writes at the beginning of Chap. IV (Of the Reality of Knowledge): "I doubt not my Reader by this Time may be apt to think that I have been all this while only building a Castle in the Air; and be ready to say to me, To what purpose all of this stir? Knowledge, say you, is only the Perception of the Agreement or Disagreement of our own Ideas: but who knows what those Ideas may be? ... But of what use is all this fine Knowledge of Man's own Imaginations, to a Man that enquires after the reality of things? It matters now that Mens Fancies are, 'tis the Knowledge of Things that is only to be priz'd; 'tis this alone gives a Value to our Reasonings, and Preference to one Man's Knowledge over another's, that is of Things as they really are, and of Dreams and Fancies."
In the last chapter of the book, Locke introduces the major classification of sciences into physics, semiotics, and ethics.
Reaction, response, and influence
Many of Locke's views were sharply criticized by rationalists and empiricists alike. In 1704 the rationalist Gottfried Leibniz wrote a 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"). Leibniz was critical of a number of Locke's views in the Essay, including his rejection of innate ideas, his skepticism about species classification, and the possibility that matter might think, among other things. Leibniz thought that Locke's commitment to ideas of reflection in the Essay ultimately made him incapable of escaping the nativist position or being consistent in his empiricist doctrines of the mind's passivity. The empiricist George Berkeley was equally critical of Locke's views in the Essay. Berkeley's most notable criticisms of Locke were first published in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. Berkeley held that Locke's conception of abstract ideas was incoherent and led to severe contradictions. He also argued that Locke's conception of material substance was unintelligible, a view which he also later advanced in the Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous. At the same time, Locke's work provided crucial groundwork for future empiricists such as David Hume. John Wynne published An Abridgment of Mr. Locke's Essay concerning the Human Understanding, with Locke's approval, in 1696. Louisa Capper wrote An Abridgment of Locke's Essay concerning the Human Understanding, published in 1811.
- Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding. 1st ed. 1 vols. London: Thomas Bassett, 1690.
- Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Alexander Campbell Fraser. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894.
- Locke, John. Works, Vol 1. London: Taylor, 1722.
- Clapp, James Gordon. "John Locke." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Macmillan, 1967.
- Uzgalis, William. "John Locke." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved on 22 July 2007.
- Ayers, Michael. Locke: Epistemology and Ontology. 2 vols. London: Routledge, 1991.
- Bennett, Jonathan. Locke, Berkeley, Hume: Central Themes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
- Bizzell, Patricia, and Bruce Herzberg, eds. The Rhetorical Tradition. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001.
- Chappell, Vere, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Locke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
- Fox, Christopher. Locke and the Scriblerians. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
- Jolley, Nicholas. Locke: His Philosophical Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Lowe, E.J. Locke on Human Understanding. London: Routledge, 1995.
- Yolton, John. John Locke and the Way of Ideas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956.
- Yolton, John. John Locke and the Compass of Human Understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.
- ^Essay, II, viii, 10
- ^Essay, I, iii, 2.
- ^Essay, I, ii, 15.
- ^Essay, I, iv, 3.
- ^Arnauld, Antoine; Nicole, Pierre (1662). La logique ou l'Art de penser. Paris: Jean Guignart, Charles Savreux, & Jean de Lavnay. . See part 1, chapter 13, Observations importantes touchant la définition des noms.
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.