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The Essay concerning human understanding

Summary

SUMMARY SUMMARY

The Essay Concerning Human Understanding is sectioned into four books. 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. "Of Innate Ideas" begins with an argument against the
possibility of innate propositional knowledge (that is, innate knowledge of fact, such as the fact that
whatever is, is), and then moves on to an argument against the possibility of innate ideas (such as the
idea of God).

Once he feels secure that he has sufficiently argued the Cartesian position, Locke begins to construct his
own theory of the origins of knowledge. The short answer is: from experience. The long answer is Book
II. Book II lays out Locke's theory of ideas. He argues that everything in our mind is an idea, and that all
ideas take one of two routes to arrive in our mind: either they come in through the senses, or else they
come in through the mind's reflection on its own operation. He also classifies our ideas into two basic
types, simple and complex (with simple ideas being the building blocks of complex ideas), and then
further classifies these basic types into more specific subcategories. The vast majority of this book is
spent analyzing the specific subcategories of our ideas.

Though Book II is primarily an attempt to account for the origin of all our ideas, it also includes two other
very important discussions, only tangentially related to the subject of the origin of ideas. Chapter VIII
contains Locke's argument for a distinction between primary and secondary qualities. He attempts to
show that there are two very different sorts of relations that can hold between the qualities of the
outside world and our ideas about those qualities. The relation between primary qualities (e.g. size and
shape) and our ideas of them is one of resemblance; what we sense is roughly what is out there. In
contrast, the relation between secondary qualities (e.g. color and odor) and our ideas of them is one of
mismatch; there is nothing out in the world that resembles our sensations. In chapter XXIII, Locke tries to
give an account of substance that allows most of our intuitions without conceding anything
objectionable.

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In Book III, "Of Words," Locke turns from philosophy of mind to philosophy of language. Ideas, however,
are still an important part of the picture. According to the theory of meaning that Locke presents, words
do not refer to things in the external world but to the ideas in our heads. Locke, relying heavily on his
theory of ideas, attempts to give an account of how we form general terms from a world of particular
objects, which leads him into a lengthy discussion of the ontology of types (that is, the question of
whether there are any natural kinds out in the world or whether all classifications are purely
conventional).

Book IV, "Of Knowledge and Opinion," finally gives us the long awaited theory of knowledge. Locke
begins with a strict definition of knowledge, one which renders most sciences (all but mathematics and
morality) ineligible. Knowledge, according to Locke, is the perception of strong internal relations that
hold among the ideas themselves, without any reference to the external world. He lists four sorts of
relations between ideas that would count as knowledge (identity/diversity, relation, coexistence, actual
existence), and then distinguishes between three grades of knowledge (intuition as the highest,
demonstration as a middling level, and sensitive knowledge as a sort of pseudo- knowledge). The
remainder of the book is spent discussing opinion or belief, which is the best we can hope for from
nearly all our intellectual endeavors.

Locke is very careful to refrain from speaking as if opinion is "mere opinion;" he is not a skeptic and does
not believe that science is futile. On the contrary, he is very eager to claim in the last chapters of
theEssay, that we should be satisfied with this level of certitude and that we should continue collecting
scientific data with gusto. Gaining a better and better opinion of the world is a worthy goal, and one that
he shares. He does ask, however, that we be aware that as good as our opinions become, they are never
going to reach the level of knowledge.

Summary from cliff notes

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding begins with a short epistle to the reader and a general
introduction to the work as a whole. 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. 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.

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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.

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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. 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. Since this knowledge
could be obtained by deductive inference from the initial starting point, it was believed to have a
certainty and finality about it that would not be possible on any other basis.

People who believe they have certain or absolute knowledge are likely to be intolerant of those who
hold opposite opinions. Intolerance leads to persecution and the suppression of human freedom. In view
of these considerations, it seemed clear to Locke that the method employed by the scientists was the
only safe one to follow and that this method should be extended to cover all fields of inquiry.

In his acceptance of the empirical method used by the scientists, Locke took over some of their basic
presuppositions as well. One of these was the belief in an external world the existence of which is quite
independent of what human minds may know about it. Although he remained somewhat skeptical about
the nature of that which is external to the mind, he followed the customary procedure among the
scientists of referring to it as a material world. On the other hand, knowledge and all that is included in
human consciousness were regarded as the world of mind, something that was separate and distinct
from the world of matter.

This dualism of mind and matter was comparable to that of a knowing subject and an object which is
known. Just how these two worlds, which are so different in their respective characteristics, can interact
on one another is something that Locke did not explain, but that an interaction of some kind did take
place he never doubted. It had been recognized for some time that the sense qualities of color, sound,
taste, and so forth, do not belong to the objects that are sensed but to the mind which perceives the

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objects. At the same time, it was generally assumed that spatial characteristics and such items as size,
weight, and density are present in the objects which constitute the material world.

Locke followed the customary practice of designating the qualities that belong only to the mind as
secondary and those that belong to the objects as primary. Recognizing the difficulty that is involved in
knowing anything at all about the real nature of that which is external to the mind, he assumed that,
whatever its nature might be, it was capable of acting on human minds and causing the sensations that
are experienced.

Having accepted the empirical method as the only reliable one for an adequate understanding of the
phenomenon of human knowledge, Locke was led by the logic of his position into a kind of subjectivism.
This means that one may have genuine knowledge about only the workings of the human mind, and
consequently no positive claims can be made about the nature of that which lies outside the sphere of
consciousness. This may seem to be a strange position for him to take since the scientists whose
methods he was attempting to follow always considered that they were studying the material world and
not merely the appearances which it produced in human minds.

Locke's major contribution in this respect consisted in shifting the emphasis from a study of nature to a
study of the mind and the processes by means of which knowledge of any kind is obtained. In doing this,
he achieved a measure of success, for he was able to give some account of the way in which ideas are
formed even though he was unable to present any empirical evidence for assertions concerning the
nature of that which is external to the mind.

It is obvious that the logical outcome of Locke's empirical method could be nothing other than
skepticism insofar as the real nature of the external world is concerned. While it is true that Locke
continued to believe in many of the basic assumptions of the scientists of the seventeenth century, he
could provide no evidence from human experience to support their validity. He believed as ardently as
any of the scientists that there is a rational order in nature and a cause and effect relationship which
holds good for all observed phenomena. But since these beliefs imply more than the facts of experience,
we may have faith in their validity but we can have no certain knowledge concerning them. Because the
term knowledge had been used in a way that implied certainty, Locke was forced to the conclusion that
we can have no genuine knowledge about nature. All that we can have is probable knowledge.

This conclusion he did not think should cause any alarm, nor should it be disturbing to any thoughtful
person. Probable knowledge is, in many areas at least, reliable knowledge, and as such it is sufficient for

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our needs. Since this is true, we ought not to bemoan the fact that our minds are limited. Rather, we
should learn to make use of what capabilities we do possess. The only certain knowledge that we have is
the kind which is illustrated in the field of mathematics, where the test of truth is the consistency of our
ideas with one another. But this type of knowledge does not tell us anything about the world of nature,
nor does it give us truths in the areas of morals and religion.

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