Lockes essay concerning human understanding

Taken together, they comprise an extremely long and detailed theory of knowledge starting from the very basics and building up. Book I, "Of Innate Ideas," is an attack on the Cartesian view of knowledge, which holds that human beings are born with certain ideas already in their mind. Once he feels secure that he has sufficiently argued the Cartesian position, Locke begins to construct his own theory of the origins of knowledge.

Lockes essay concerning human understanding

Following this introductory material, the Essay is divided into four parts, which are designated as books. Book I has to do with the subject of innate ideas. This topic was especially important for Locke since the belief in innate ideas was fairly common among the scholars of his day.

Lockes essay concerning human understanding

The belief was as old as the dialogues of Plato, in which the doctrine of a world of ideas or universals had been expressed. Plato had taught that ideas are latent in the human mind and need only the stimulation of sense perception to bring them to the level of consciousness. Many of the philosophers of the so-called rationalistic school followed Plato in this respect.

In the era that preceded Locke, Descartes had insisted that the criterion of truth was to see so clearly and distinctly that it could not be doubted. For him the source of all knowledge was to be found in these ideas, which because they were innate, were also true. From them all other truths could be derived by making logical inferences.

Locke saw many of the difficulties that follow from this position, and it occurred to him that these could be avoided if it could be shown conclusively that innate ideas do not exist. Any attempt to further the cause of human knowledge must begin by showing the falsity of this position. This is what he attempted to do in Book I.

A more affirmative aspect of this theory of knowledge was set forth in Book II.


Having stated his reasons for rejecting the belief in innate ideas, he now goes on to show how it is possible to construct the whole pattern of human knowledge from what has been experienced.

Beginning with an account of simple ideas which are derived from the senses, he proceeds to an explanation of the ideas of reflection, perception, space, time, substance, power, and others that are related to these.

Book III has to do with the meanings of words. It includes analysis of general terms, the names of simple ideas, the names of substances, an account of abstract and concrete terms, and a discussion concerning the abuse of words.

Book IV treats the subjects of knowledge and probability. Some information is given about knowledge in general, and this leads to a discussion with reference to the degrees of knowledge and the extent of human knowledge. In addition, it includes a detailed account of such subjects as the reality of knowledge, the nature of truth, the character of judgments, and the respective roles of reason and faith.

Locke's theory of knowledge as a whole may be said to have four dominant characteristics. These are empiricism, dualism, subjectivism, and skepticism. A brief word concerning each of these should be helpful in preparing one to read the entire book.

Locke's empiricism was to a large extent the result of the contrast he had observed between the natural scientists of his day and the work of the moralists and theologians. The conclusions advanced by the scientists were tentative and always subject to revision in the light of new facts.

Moralists and theologians were usually of the opinion that their doctrines expressed the final and absolute truth, and no amount of experimentation or observation would cause them to change. The scientists were making remarkable progress and, with all of their differences, were discovering more and more areas of agreement.

No similar progress could be observed in the areas of morals and religion. Indeed, there seemed to be more confusion and disagreements here than in other fields of inquiry. What was the reason for all of this? The answer, as Locke saw it, was to be found in the different methods that had been used.

The scientists did not begin with some innate idea or presupposition from which their knowledge could be derived.

Lockes essay concerning human understanding

Instead, they looked to experience as the sole source of information, and they accepted as true only those conclusions that could be verified by experiment and observation. The moralists and theologians had used a different method.

They began with some authoritative statement. It might be an innate idea, as it was in the philosophy of Descartes, or it could be a divine revelation or something that was so regarded by an ecclesiastical body.

Whatever was accepted in this fashion necessarily became the source from which knowledge must be derived.In Book IV of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (), Locke defined knowledge as “the perception of the connexion of and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy of any of our ideas.” Knowledge so defined admits of three degrees, according to Locke.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke is one of the great books of the Western regardbouddhiste.com has done much to shape the course of intellectual development, especially in Europe and America, ever since it was first published in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding 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.

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