Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding—Book I


     Copyright © 2015 Bruce W. Hauptli


Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding was published in 1690.  Our selections give us a substantial amount of the text (though it would take two such volumes to give us the complete work).  The editor’s introduction is excellent, and there is also an excellent Glossary (beginning on p. 358) which is of great help given some of the now archaic words (and some of the now archaic senses of words he uses). 


Reading Assignment: read the following from the selections in the text:


Epistle:   total selection;

Book I:   total selection;

Book II:  Chapters i-xii, xxiii-xxix, xxi-xxxiii;

Book III: Chapters i-vii;

Book IV:  Chapters i-vi, ix-xv, and xviii (about 216 pages). 


The Epistle[1] to the Reader:


1 His subject is human understanding. 


He recognizes his fallibility, and will try to rationally convince us of what he says.  This acceptance of fallibility is a key element in empiricism.  Since, rather notoriously, the senses do not provide us with either certainty (or sometimes even confidence), empiricists are generally forced to both acknowledge, and account for, our fallibility. 


2 He wants to examine our abilities and know what the objects of our understanding are. 


3 “Vague and insignificant forms of speech, and abuse of language, have so long passed for mysteries of science; and hard or misapplied words, with little or no meaning, have, by prescription, such a right to be mistaken for deep learning, and height of speculation, that it will not be easy to persuade either those who speak, or those who hear them, that they are but the covers of ignorance, and hindrance of true knowledge....”  Cf., II xiii 18,[2] and all of II xxiii. 


-Like most “major” figures in philosophy, and like most of the Early Modern thinkers especially, Locke contends that previous thinkers were lost in idle speculations.  His emphasis upon the misleading character of language (that is, of the use of words without meaning), is extremely contemporary however.  This comment leads us to wonder what words he thinks are being used meaninglessly, and to wonder how, according to him, words get their meaning.  He provides the beginning of an answer to this question in I ii 15. 


Book I. Of Innate Notions:


As noted earlier, the first book of the Essay consists of Locke’s critique of the continental rationalists’ notion of “innate ideas and principles.”  He will consider both speculative principles and practical ones.  He also considers such “ideas” as that of a deity and of substance, and contends that we have no such innate ideas. 


Chapter i. Introduction:


The first chapter of this book introduces the core themes of the whole work, then the second through fourth chapters provide the argument against innate ideas. 


*I i 1 Locke compares the understanding to the eye: “whilst it makes us see, and perceive all other things, [it] takes no notice of itself: and it requires art and pains to set it at a distance, and make it its own object.”  It takes special efforts to “observe” the eye—to make it an object of visual study. 


*I i 2 He makes it clear that his purpose is to inquire into the origin, certainty, and extent of our knowledge, and, also, to come to understand the grounds of and degrees of belief, opinion, and assent. 


-Here Locke calls his methodology an “historical, plain method.”  By this he means that he will trace out the origins and “history” of our ideas and, thus, establish “the origin, certainty, and extent of our knowledge” as well as come to understand the “grounds” of our knowledge.  In his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty maintains that Locke’s (and the early Moderns’) view “...that we learn more about what we should believe by understanding better how we work can be seen to be as misguided as the notion that we shall learn whether to grant civil rights to robots by understanding better how they work.”[3]  In short, Rorty’s complaint is that there is a distinct difference between questions of causal origins and questions of epistemological justifications, and Locke’s “historical, plain method” does not recognize this important distinction. 

  This sort of objection is raised by many contemporary philosophers.  In his Hobbes to Hume, for example, W.T. Jones contends that Locke failed to distinguish psychological from justificatory theses: “...Locke concluded that his “historical plain method,” as he called it, had been established.  That is, he believed he had proved that there are no innate ideas, that “at its beginning” the mind is an empty surface, and hence that all its ideas come from experience, there being no other source from which they could come.  But Locke did not clearly distinguish between this psychological doctrine and the epistemological thesis that experience is the test for truth.  Hence the historical plain method was not only the procedure for tracing ideas to their origins in experience; it was also the fundamental thesis of empirical epistemology: Only experience can confirm or disconfirm our beliefs.”[4] 


I i 4-7 Locke contends that his inquiry is very important—we go seriously wrong when we go beyond our “tether.”  In effect, he is saying that while our knowledge is “limited,” so is skepticism—we can, and do have knowledge, but not knowledge of everything.  In these important sections, Locke makes it clear that he would avoid skepticism while accepting that our knowledge is limited.  Because we inhabit an epistemic “middle ground” (between complete knowledge and complete ignorance), he contends we must come to understand the origin, extent, and certainty of our knowledge. 


-In I i 5 (not included in our abridgement), he says: “how short soever their [mankind’s] knowledge may come of an universal or perfect comprehension of whatsoever is, it yet secures their great concerments that they have enough to lead them to the knowledge of their Maker, and the sight of their own duties.  Men may find matter sufficient to busy their heads and employ their hands with variety, delight, and satisfaction, if they will not boldly quarrel with their own constitution, and throw away the blessings their hands are filled with, because they are not big enough to grasp everything....It will be no excuse to an idle and untoward servant, who would not attend his business by candlelight, to plead that he had not broad sunshine.  The candle that is set up in us shines bright enough for all our purposes.” 


-*I i 6-7 Even if a sailor doesn’t know the length of his plumb-line, it is still quite useful to him.  Similarly, while our knowledge may be limited, knowing these limits may be most important to us.  Note that while the continental rationalists held that everything is knowable, Locke holds that our understanding is an instrument that may not “fathom” everything.  By understanding the limitations of the instrument, we can avoid becoming lost in a “vast ocean of being.”  In I i 4-7, then, Locke displays a major difference between his orientation and that of the continental rationalists and scholastic philosophers! 


*I i 8 For Locke, an idea is “whatsoever is the object of understanding.”  He says that:


-I presume it will be easily granted me, that there are such ideas in men’s minds; everyone is conscious of them in himself, and men’s words and actions will satisfy him, that they are in others. 

  Our first inquiry then shall be, “how they come into the mind.” 


--Note: his claim here is about both first person and third person ideas!  Also note that the “evidence” he offers here is just the sort of evidence which an empiricist should appeal to. 


-Note that the claim that they are “objects of understanding" will mean that ideas aren’t, aren’t simply, sensory experiences!  Examples of “objects of understanding” which are not sensory include: concepts, words, abstractions, etc.


-As R.S. Woolhouse points out, if we are going to understand Locke’s rejection of innate principles and ideas, we must know what the proponents of this doctrine had in mind.  For the scholastic philosophers and continental rationalists who appealed to them, innate knowledge claims were self-evident, true, and a priori (independent of experience) ideas, principles or knowledge claims which were imprinted on the mind by the deity.  Their truth was not guaranteed by their self-evidence or obviousness but, rather, by their source: 


...the current tendency is to suppose that the obviousness of an evident truth must consist in some internal characteristic or feature of self-evidence of the truth itself.  Our view is likely to be that we immediately accept some truths simply because we can see, without further thought, that they are indeed true.  Whereas a seventeenth-century innatist would explain the evidence, obviousness, and ready acceptability of some propositions by something extrinsic to the propositions themselves, namely their having been imprinted on our minds.[5] 


While some of these “innatists” (Spinoza and Leibniz, for example) would place these truths under the “principle of non-contradiction” (making them, in effect, guaranteed by “logic”), for them such truths, in turn are a basic expression of the very essence of the divine nature—thus they also hold that the self-evidence, acceptability, and truth of these propositions has an “extrinsic” explanation. 


I ii 1 Locke notes that many philosophers have held that there are innate principles (both speculative and practical) which are stamped upon the minds of men. 


I ii 2 He notes that it is commonly assumed that there is “universal assent” to certain “speculative” principles. 


-*I ii 3 Locke claims, however, that even if there were “universal assent,” that would not prove that such principles were innate.  There could be other ways by which such universal assent was produced (as he will make clear later, for example, common experience of a common world). 


I ii 4 Examples of such principles: “What is, is;” and “It is impossible for the same thing to be, and not to be.”  Locke claims that they are not universally assented to. 


-I ii 5 Children, idiots, etc., do not assent to them. 


-“No proposition can be said to be in the mind, which it never yet knew, which it was never yet conscious of.  For if any one may; then, by the same reason, all propositions that are true, and the mind is capable of assenting to, may be said to be in the mind, and to be imprinted....”  That is, if the innateness of principles is considered along the lines of a mental capacity, then all true ideas that are within the scope of the mind could be innate. 


-I ii 6-12 If we say that while they are innate, men come to know and assent to them upon the use of their reason; then innateness is loosing its “substance.”  These principles are supposed to provide the ground for reasoning! 


-I ii 12 Children use reason without these principles, indeed, “till after they come to the use of reason, those general abstract ideas are not framed in the mind, about which those general maxims are, which are mistaken for innate principles, but are indeed discoveries made, and verities introduced, and brought into the mind by the same way, and discovered by the same steps, as several other propositions, which nobody has ever so extravagant as to suppose innate....” 


*I ii 14 Locke contends that while it is true that there is no knowledge of the general and self-evident principles which they call innate without the exercise of reason, this does not imply that these principles are innate. 


*I ii 15 In this section Locke outlines his theory of the origins, development, and nature of knowledge—a theory that holds that there is knowledge of particular ideas well before there is any use of reason: “The senses first let in particular ideas, and furnish the yet empty cabinet; and the mind by degrees growing familiar with some of them, they are lodged in the memory, and names got to them.  Afterwards the mind proceeding farther, abstracts them, and by degrees learns the use of general names.  In this manner the mind comes to be furnished with ideas and language, the materials about which to exercise its discursive faculty; and the use of reason becomes daily more visible, as these materials, that give it employment, increase.  But though the having of general ideas, and the use of general words and reason usually grow together; yet, I see not, how this any way proves them innate.”  [Cf., II xi 15.  ]


-Here Locke sketches an empiricist theory of learning and meaning where we move from simple initial experiences to knowledge of complex abstract truths:


--particular ideas,




--general names,

--ideas and language,

--general ideas. 


--It is a good idea, at this point, to look at the “Table of Contents” for Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  After discussing innate principles and ideas in Book I, he turns to a lengthy discussion of “ideas” in Book II (since they are the origin of all knowledge), he discusses “words” in Book III (since they are requisite for any general knowledge and for much of our practice), and finally, in Book IV, he discusses “the extent, degrees of, and objects of our knowledge and opinion.” 


“In ideas thus got, the mind discovers, that some agree [with one another], and others differ [from one another], probably as soon as it has any use of memory; as soon as it is able, to retain and receive distinct ideas.  But whether it be then, or no, this is certain, it does so long before it has the use of words; or comes to that, which we commonly call the use of reason.  For a child knows as certainly, before it can speak, the difference between the ideas of sweet and bitter (i.e. that sweet is not bitter) as it knows afterwards (when it comes to speak) that wormwood[6] and sugarplums[7], are not the same thing.” 


-It is important that we distinguish, here, between “having sensory experiences” and “knowing something.”  Locke’s “historical plain” method is concerned with tracing the origins of the ideas which we have, and philosophers have frequently contended that this concern does not provide an answer to the justificatory questions which are relevant in determining the appropriateness of knowledge claims.  Rorty notes the following in this regard:


why should [Locke] have thought that a causal account of how one comes to have a belief should be an indication of the justification one has for that belief? 

  The answer, I think, is that Locke, and seventeenth-century writers generally, simply did not think of knowledge as justified true belief.  This was because they did not think of knowledge as a relation between a person and a proposition....Locke did not think of “knowledge that as the primary form of knowledge.  He thought, as had Aristotle, of “knowledge of” as prior to “knowledge that,” and thus of knowledge as a relation between persons and objects rather than persons and propositions.  Given that picture, the notion of an examination of our “faculty of understanding” makes sense....It makes even more sense if one is convinced that this faculty is something like a wax tablet upon which objects make impressions, and if one thinks of “having an impression” as itself a knowing rather than a causal antecedent of knowing.[8] 


-In the passage in question, Locke speaks of the child’s “knowledge of the difference between sweetness and bitterness,” and this seems little removed from simply the “having of” the experiences—what Locke calls (I ii 5) the “imprinting” of the mind.  In considering Locke’s overall theory, we will have to be attuned to the potential differences between


(a) sensible things,

(b) sensory impressions (or experiences),

(c) sensory ideas, and

(d) sensory knowledge (perhaps both of the “of” and “that” sorts). 


There is a real danger that these potentially different categories are being confused.  These themes will have to be examined as we proceed, however, and so we turn back to the attack upon innate ideas and principles. 


I ii 18 Locke notes that universal and ready assent is a mark of self-evidence, not innateness. 


*I ii 19 He contends that the “less general” self-evident principles (such as “red is not green,” and “one and two are equal to three”) are known before the “more general” ones; “...and so, being earlier in the mind than those (as they are called) first principles, cannot owe to them the assent, where-with they are received at first hearing.” 


-Note: he is, in effect, saying that the continental rationalists have things “backwards:” the “first principles” upon which all other knowledge and understanding is to depend actually come later than the particular principles.[9]  Note also that while he contends that they “begin” in the wrong place, he is also a “foundationalist”—he seeks out the “origin” of knowledge and believes that our other knowledge claims are erected upon this foundation.  An essential characteristic of a foundationalist theory in epistemology is that it adheres to what some call the “thesis of epistemic priority”—as Susan Haack notes, they are “...theories of justification which require a distinction, among justified beliefs, between those which are basic and those which are derived, and a conception of justification as one-directional, i.e., as requiring basic to support derived beliefs, never vice versa.”[10] 


I ii 22 Locke maintains that if the “innateness theorists” were to maintain that such principles were innate because they were implicitly understood, this would be a fruitless doctrine, as it would make all principles and truths innate. 


I ii 24 Locke reiterates that if the principles are innate, they must be universally assented to, and he notes that since they are not given such assent, they can not be innate. 


Critical Comment: consider mathematics and logic.  While this sort of “knowledge” is not immediately found in children, and while it is “abstract,” it is rather undeniable that such knowledge is highly universal.  His “historical plain method” might be able to account for how the vast portion of mankind comes to have such knowledge if only one could countenance moving from individual a posteriori experiences to universal and apparently a priori ones [and/or contingent].  This seems to be impossible however.  Here, of course, we confront a fundamental difference between the empiricists (who begin with the a posteriori [and/or contingent], and have trouble getting to the a priori [and/or necessary]); and the rationalists (who begin with the a priori [and/or necessary]; and have trouble getting to the a posteriori) [and/or contingent].  Looking forward we can see Kant looming on the horizon—though the move to the synthetic a priori may only seem to be the “solution” to this problem. 


Chapter iii. No innate practical principles:


I iii 1 Locke maintains that like the speculative principles, the practical ones lack universal assent.  Moreover, he contends, practical principles lack the sort of self-evidence which the continental rationalists find so important for their innate principles. 


*I iii 3 As was the case with speculative principles, talk of tacitly or implicitly innate practical principles will not do.  While there are innate desires, there are no innate practical principles:


-“Nature, I confess, has put into man a desire of happiness, and an aversion to misery: these indeed are innate practical principles, which (as practical principles ought) do continue constantly to operate and influence all our actions, without ceasing: these may be observed in all persons and all ages, steady and universal; but these are inclinations of the appetite to good, not impressions of truth on the understanding.  I deny not, that there are natural tendencies imprinted on the minds of men; and that, from the very first instances of sense and perception, there are some things, that are grateful, and others unwelcome to them; some things that they incline to, and others that they fly; but this makes nothing for innate characters on the mind, which are to be the principles of knowledge, regulating our practice....” 


-Note the difference between a theory which would tell us what our practical duties are, or what the right and wrong courses of action are based upon our desires and inclinations, and one which tries to give such direction based upon innate and rational principles! 


-Note also that Locke clearly indicates here (and elsewhere) that the mind is not a perfectly blank tablet.  It has certain powers and propensities!  His psychology, I will point out, is both atomistic and associationistic. 


*I iii 4 Locke maintains that moral and practical principles require argument, while (at least some) speculative principles are self-evident.  Since innate principles must be self-evident, of course, there can not be any innate practical principles. 


-As Woolhouse notes: “Locke believes the doctrine of innateness stops people thinking for themselves.  It thus tends to support the current orthodoxy of established parties and factions [I iii 20]....It was of prime importance for Locke that people should seek after truth and see it, wherever it lay, for themselves.  Their beliefs should be determined by what they see to be true, not what is handed down to them.  The passages in which this thought finds expression are amongst the most passionately eloquent of any Locke wrote [I iv 23].”[11] 


*I iii 9 Were the moral and practical principles innate, it would be hard to account for the fact that individuals transgress against them. 


-This is an important point, since any good ethical theory must provide an account of how we go wrong (as well as what right action consists in). 


I iii 12 Locke points out that practical principles provide commands, and he notes that commands are not actually propositions—they are not sentences which must be true or false.  Moreover, for there to be innate practical principles, the notions like a “deity,” “law,” “the afterlife,” etc., would all have to be innate (since such commands would require these other notions).  Since these other notions are not innate, neither can the practical principles be. 


I iii 13 Locke draws a distinction between innate laws and laws of nature.  The latter may be learned, while the former should be already “in mind.”  It is more characteristic of the “modern scientific mind-set” to investigate and attempt to learn the natural laws, than it is to “look inside oneself for innate ideas!” 


I iii 14 Locke notes that examples of innate practical principles are hard to come by, and this should not be the case if they exist. 


*I iii 22-24 Locke notes that we come by training and teaching to hold our practical principles as if they were self-evident.  But most people take their “basic practical principles” on trust. 


*I iii 27 He maintains that our practical principles need examination and scrutiny: “if it be the privilege of innate principles, to be received upon their own authority, without examination, I know not what may not be believed, or how anyone’s principles can be questioned.  If they may, and ought to be examined, and tried, I desire to know how first and innate principles can be tried; or at least it is reasonable to demand the marks and characters, whereby the genuine innate principles may be distinguished from others.” 


Chapter iv. Other considerations concerning innate principles both speculative and practical:


*I iv 1 Locke points out that if there are to be any innate principles (whether speculative or practical), there must be innate ideas: “...if the ideas, which make up those truths, were not [innate], it was impossible, that the propositions, made up of them, should be innate, or our knowledge of them be born with us.  For if the ideas be not innate, there was a time, when the mind was without those principles; and then, they will not be innate, but be derived from some other original.” 


*I iv 2 But when we consider newborn children, it becomes difficult to accept that they have very many ideas at all! 


-“One may perceive how, by degrees, afterwards, ideas come into their minds; and that they get no more, nor no other, than what experience, and the observation of things, that come in their way, furnish them with; which might be enough to satisfy us, that they are not original characters, stamped on the mind.” 


-*I iv 3 Locke asks how anyone could believe that “[logical] impossibility” and “identity” could be the “first” ideas in a child—before such ideas as “white” and “sweet?”  “Is it the actual knowledge of impossibile est idem esse, & non esse,[12] that makes a child distinguish between its mother and a stranger, or, that makes it fond of the one, and fly the other?” 


-I iv 4 Locke points out that we do not have a settled concept of identity which we would have to have if we had an innate idea of “it is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be.”  Discussions of personal identity and souls over the ages clearly point out how unclear our “idea of identity” is.  [Cf., II xxvii!] 


--I iv 5 The idea of the resurrection makes this clear (what is resurrected?). 


--I iv 6 The problems which arise with “part-whole” relations expose the difficulty with identity also.  For such ideas to be innate, ideas of extension, number, and relation would also have to be innate! 


In sections 7-17, Locke discusses the “innateness” of the idea of a deity:


I iv 7 Is the idea that the deity is to be worshiped an innate one?  If so, then the ideas of a deity and of worship must be innate!  But there clearly is no universal idea of worship. 


*I iv 8 He claims that the idea of “God” is not innate: “if any idea can be imagined innate, then the idea of God may, of all others, for many reasons, be thought so; since it is hard to conceive, how there should be innate moral principles, without an innate idea of a deity; without the notion of a lawmaker, it is impossible to have a notion of a law, and an obligation to observe it.” 


-But, Locke notes, there are whole “nations” which lack the idea which the continental rationalists rely upon here! 


-I iv 9 Moreover, he notes, even if all human being had the idea of a deity, this would not prove that the idea was innate. 


--“...the visible marks of extraordinary wisdom and power, appear so plainly in all the works of the creation, that a rational creature, who will seriously reflect on them, cannot miss the discovery of a deity....” 


-I iv 14 He contends that the “idea of a deity” varies amongst human beings. 


*I iv 18 Locke contends that the idea of substance is not innate either.  Indeed, according to him, it is not even an idea: “...we neither have [it], nor can have [it], by sensation or reflection.”  When we look at what we have, he says, we find “...only an uncertain supposition of we know not what; (i.e. of something whereof we have no particular distinct positive) idea, which we take to be the substratum, or support, of those ideas we do know. 


-While he doesn’t use this word in this section, what he is saying is that there is a “notion” but no idea—words used, but no underlying referent.  In II xxii 2 he makes this distinction clear: “...these ideas are called notions as if they had their original, and constant existence, more in the thoughts of men, than in the reality of things; and to form such ideas, it sufficed, that the mind put the parts of them together, and that they were consistent in the understanding, without considering whether they had any real being: though I do not deny, but several of them might be taken from observation, and the existence of several simple ideas so combined, as they are put together in the understanding.”  Cf., also II xiii 19, II xxii 2, and II xxiii. 


*I iv 20 Ideas are “in” the mind either by being perceived or by being remembered, and, of course, the latter must once have been perceived!  But “whenever there is the actual perception of any idea without memory, the idea appears perfectly new and unknown before to the understanding: whenever the memory brings any idea into actual view, it is with a consciousness, that it had been there before, and was not wholly a stranger to the mind.  Whether this be not so, I appeal to everyone’s observation: and then I desire an instance of an idea, pretended to be innate, which (before any impression of it by ways hereafter to be mentioned [sensation and reflection] anyone could revive and remember as an idea, he has formerly known; without which consciousness of a former perception there is no remembrance....” 


I iv 22-24 Locke maintains that the differences in our “understandings” of things arise because we are differently careful in the application of our faculties (presumably of sensation and reflection)! 


-22. “...ideas and notions are no more born with us, than arts and sciences; though some of them, indeed, offer themselves to our faculties, more readily than others; and therefore are more generally received....How much our knowledge depends upon the right use of those powers nature has bestowed on us, and how little upon such innate principles, as are in vain supposed to be in all mankind for their direction.” 


-23. We must think for ourselves and not “trust to authority.”  As Woolhouse notes, “Locke believes the doctrine of innateness stops people thinking for themselves....It was of prime importance for Locke that people should seek after truth and see it, wherever it lay, for themselves.  Their beliefs should be determined by whatever they see to be true, not by what is handed down to them.”[13] 


24 The notion of innate ideas came about when individuals were content to stop their inquiries once they found something they took to be self-evident!  They believed that inquiry had to stop somewhere, and stopping with self-evident propositions seemed wholly appropriate. 


-Just as a good moral theory must have an explanation for immoral behavior, so a good epistemological theory must explain epistemological error.  Locke’s answers to such errors (as stated in these three sections) are misuse of our intellectual powers, reliance upon authority, and laziness. 


*I iv 25 He will turn to how the understanding should proceed.  Locke offers a foundational metaphor: he hopes he will not be tempted to employ “props or buttresses, leaning on borrowed or begged foundations...” and he appeals to “...men’s own unprejudiced experience, and observation” to evaluate the truth of his claims. 


-His use of a foundational metaphor tells us a good deal here.  While he will differ significantly from the continental rationalists as to where we find the foundations for our knowledge, he agrees with them that the foundational way is the way to go.  We need to look carefully to see that as he builds his system he doesn’t end up using props or buttresses! 


(end of Book I). 


Leibniz’ Criticism of Locke’s Critique of Innate Ideas:


In his Hobbes to Hume, W.T. Jones offers versions of a number of “classical criticisms” of Locke’s critique of innate ideas.  First, he maintains that Locke’s critique of innate ideas has a deep flaw:


Leibniz[14] willingly acknowledged that, as Locke maintained, all our knowledge “begins in particulars and spreads itself by degrees to generals.”  But this is merely a statement about the psychological order of coming to know; it in no way affects the fact that “the generals” must be true in order for the particulars to be recognized.  Our knowledge, Leibniz pointed out, does indeed begin in experience; and there is noting in our minds other than their several experiences—nothing, that is except the mind itself.  In this way, Leibniz characteristically presented a compromise formula that, it might be thought, Locke could accept.  But about the nature of this mind that knows the experiences, the two thinkers were poles apart.  For Leibniz assumed that the real is rational; hence he believed that the mind must be the kind of thing that can know this universal rational order.  Locke, on the other hand, assumed that the real is actual, that the test of truth is experience, and that the mind, accordingly, is simply a surface on which experience writes. 

  From Leibniz’s point of view, Locke arbitrarily assumed that the mind is an illuminated surface and then triumphantly discovered that the surface is unmarked prior to experience.  Leibniz’s position was, in effect, that the mind has depth as well as surface.  Locke, for his part held the Leibnizian assumption of unconscious depths to be but a springboard to speculative and uncritical metaphysics.  We should, he thought, make no assumptions about the nature of the mind but wait to discover its nature, like the nature of everything else, in experience. 

  Thus the basic question was not whether there are innate truths (whether there are canned goods in the closet), but what sort of thing the mind must be to know (as everyone, including Locke, acknowledged that it does know) universal truths.[15] 


Building upon this discussion, Jones contends that Locke failed to distinguish psychological from justificatory theses (the passage was cited above [in discussing I i 2].[16] 


     In his Bacon to Kant: An Introduction to Modern Philosophy, Garrett Thomson characterizes Leibniz’ critique of Locke’s attack upon innate ideas as follows:


in his New Essays on Human Understanding [post, 1768], his commentary on Locke’s work, Leibniz replies to Locke’s attack on the theory of innate ideas by developing the theme of innate capacities.  He argues that the mind is innately determined to believe certain principles rather than others.  Leibniz argues against Locke that necessary truths are universally true and cannot be learned by sense perception, since sense perception can only give us knowledge of particulars.  Leibniz argues that induction from sense experience can never establish necessary truths as such, because necessary truths are universally true.  Consequently Leibniz sees a need for innateness to account of our knowing necessary truths.[17] 


I recommend that students who wish to pursue the controversy here look at John Harris’ “Leibniz and Locke on Innate Ideas” (it is on reserve in the Green Library in Locke on Human Understanding, Ian Tipton ed., pp. 25-40), and at "Rationalism vs. Empiricism" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  There are many, many more very good articles and sites devoted to this controversy. 


Notes: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] An epistle is a letter. 

[2] John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding [1690], abridged and edited by Kenneth Winkler (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996), p. 4.  Citations to the Essay are generally indicated by the following device: Book, Chapter, Section—thus the reference here would be: to the Second Book, Chapter 13, Section 18.  I will use this method of reference throughout rather than referring to the page numbers of the text.  I will also add emphasis to passages without further notice in this supplement for pedagogic purposes. 

[3] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1978), p. 255. 

[4] W.T. Jones, Hobbes to Hume: A History of Western Philosophy (second edition) (N.Y. Harcourt Brace, 1969), pp. 245. 

[5] R.S. Woolhouse, Locke (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota, 1983), pp. 22-23. 

[6] Wormwood is a bitter, aromatic herb (used in making absinthe). 

[7] That is, a bonbon. 

[8] Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, op. cit., pp. 141-142.  Emphasis added to passage twice. 

[9] We must be careful, here, and consider whether a distinction between temporal and epistemological priority is relevant here. 

[10] Susan Haack, Evidence and Inquiry: Towards Reconstruction in Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), p. 14.  Cf., Roderick Firth's "Coherence, Certainty, and Epistemic Priority," The Journal of Philosophy v. 61 (1964), pp. 545-557. 

[11] R.S. Woolhouse, Locke, op. cit., p. 30. 

[12] That is, “it is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be.” 

[13] R.S. Woolhouse, Locke, op. cit., p. 30.  Emphasis added to passage. 

[14] These criticisms are offered in Leibniz' New Essays on Human Understanding [post, 1765].  Leibniz read Locke's Essay in English when it was first published in 1690 and sent him some criticisms through Thomas Burnett and Lady Marsham.  Ten years later he studied the French translation more thoroughly and planed to publish his critique (written between 1703 and 1705) under the above title.  When Locke died in 1704, he abandoned publication, and it was not until after Leibniz' own death that his “essay” was published.  It is available in a translation by Peter Remnant and Jonathan Bennett (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1981); and the “Preface” is available in G.W. Leibniz: Philosophical Essays, eds. and trans. Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989); some of the Leibniz-Burnett correspondence is in the same volume; and some of the Locke-Marsham correspondence is available in Women Philosophers of the Early Modern Period, ed. Margaret Atherton (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994).  Cf., John Harris, “Leibniz and Locke on Innate Ideas,” in Locke on Human Understanding, ed. I.C. Tipton (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1977), pp. 25-40.  This essay originally appeared in Ratio v. 16 (1974), pp. 226-242. 

[15] W.T. Jones, Hobbes to Hume: A History of Western Philosophy, op. cit., pp. 244-245. 

[16] Cf., ibid., p. 245. 

[17] Garrett Thomson, Bacon to Kant: An Introduction to Modern Philosophy (second edition) (Prospect Heights: Waveland, 2002), p. 149. 

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