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An Essay Concerning Human Understanding  
Locke Essay 1690.jpg
Title page for the first edition
Author John Locke
Country England
Language English
Subject(s) Epistemology
Publication date 1690
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Part of a series on
John Locke
Social contract
Limited government
Tabula rasa
State of nature
Right to property
Labor theory of property
Lockean proviso
Works
Fundamental Constitutions
of Carolina
(1669)
A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689)
Two Treatises of Government (1689)
An Essay Concerning
Human Understanding
(1690)
Some Thoughts Concerning
Education
(1693)
Of the Conduct of
the Understanding
(1706)
Notable People
Robert Filmer
Thomas Hobbes
1st Earl of Shaftesbury
David Hume
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Adam Smith
Immanuel Kant
Thomas Jefferson
Related
Empiricism
Classical liberalism
Polish brethren

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 1690, the essay concerns the foundation of human knowledge and 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 Bishop Berkeley.

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. 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.

Contents

Book I

Locke's main thesis is that the mind of a newborn is a blank slate (tabula rasa) and that all ideas are developed from experience. 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 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. 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.

Book II

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, although Locke stops short of endorsing the Judaeo-Christian God, 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." Locke argues in the book that it is irrational to conclude otherwise. This preference towards separating God from his Judaeo-Christian ties may explain why so many of the men who helped found The United States (e.g. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams), many of whom were staunch proponents of much of Locke's work and rhetorical methods, could hold to an unmoving belief in God (or "Providence") while not articulating traditional Christian theology.

A 17th century Latin translation Philosophus Autodidactus (published by Edward Pococke) of the Arabic philosophical novel Hayy ibn Yaqzan by the 12th century Andalusian-Islamic philosopher and novelist Ibn Tufail (known as "Abubacer" or "Ebn Tophail" in the West) had an influence on John Locke's formulation of tabula rasa in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Ibn Tufail demonstrated the theory of tabula rasa as a thought experiment through Hayy ibn Yaqzan in which he depicted the development of the mind of a feral child "from a tabula rasa to that of an adult, in complete isolation from society" on a desert island, through experience alone.[1]

Reaction, response, and influence

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 such as David Hume.

Bibliography

  • Clapp, James Gordon. "John Locke." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Macmillan, 1967.
  • Uzgalis, William. "John Locke." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved on July 22, 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.

References

  1. ^ G. A. Russell (1994), The 'Arabick' Interest of the Natural Philosophers in Seventeenth-Century England, pp. 224-262, Brill Publishers, ISBN 9004094598.

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Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
by John Locke

Table of Contents


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