AN ESSAY CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING
Author: John Locke (1632-1704)
Summary of the Essay:
With An Essay Concerning Human Understanding John Locked attempted to inquire into the origin and extent of human knowledge; what today we call epistemology, concluding that all human knowledge is achieved simply because of our sense experiences.
Locke’s philosophy became the basis of what we study as British empiricism.
Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753), rejected Locke's distinction between sense qualities independent of the mind and sense qualities dependent on the mind, posing his own idealistic philosophy against Locke's philosophy.
Structure of the Essay
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding contains four books: Book I, "Of Innate Notions"; Book II, "Of Ideas"; Book III, "Of Words"; and Book IV, "Of Knowledge, Certain and Probable."
Locke attacked the thesis that there are innate ideas, ideas with which humans are born and common to all men; they shape our convictions about the world.
He argues that many of these so called “innate ideas” have been derived in the course of our lives from sense experience, and that those ideas are not common to all men.
Locke discusses the origin of such ideas (abstracts) as those expressed by the words "whiteness," "hardness," "sweetness," "thinking," "motion," "man," etc. The second section states his answer.
Let us assume, he says, that the mind is a white and blank piece of paper, without any ideas. This premise allows him to ask: how is then the mind furnished? From where did all the materials of reason and knowledge come to be there? From experience! was his answer. Adding:
Our observation, employed either about external sensible objects, or about the internal operations of our minds perceived and reflected on by ourselves, is that which supplies our understandings with all the materials of knowledge.Sensation and Reflection are the two sources of our ideas. We perceive thing through our senses, acquiring the ideas of yellow, white, cold, as we move through life. Then, by reflection —an operation of the mind— we acquire the ideas of thinking, doubting, believing, knowing, willing, and other abstractions.
In sum, by sensation we acquire knowledge of exter¬nal objects; by reflection we acquire knowledge of our own minds.
What are Simple Ideas? Simple ideas are derived from sensation; that is, they have "one uniform appearance," even though a number of simple ideas may come together in the perception of an external object. The mind compares them to each other, combines and re-combines them, but never invents them—they neither created nor innate in the mind. By a "simple idea" Locke meant what Bertrand Russell called a "sense-datum," that comes from sense experience, such as the odor of decayed fruit, or the taste of a lemon. The uniqueness the reaction produced by these simple ideas Locked called “quality.”
The "quality" of something produces an idea in a person sensing the thing. Today, we prefer to say that something shows a "characteristic" or a "property."
Furthermore, Locke distinguished between primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities are those which matter owns as part of itself; for example: solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number. Secondary qualities are various sensations produced in humans by things; for example: colors, tastes, sounds, heat, and odors.
Locke also discussed a third kind of quality or power—the capacity to affect or to be affected by other objects. Thus, fire can melt clay; the capacity to melt clay is one of fire's powers, and such a power is neither a primary nor a secondary quality.
Complex ideas are operations of the mind, and they fall into three groups: ideas of modes, of substances, and of relations. Modes are ideas that are considered to be incapable of independent existence, being abstraction such as the ideas of triangle, gratitude, and the justice. When we think of substances we think of "particular things subsisting by themselves." Ideas of relations are the result of comparing ideas with each other.
After a consideration of the complex ideas of space, duration, number, infinite, pleasure and pain, sub¬stance, relation, cause and effect, and of the distinctions between clear and obscure ideas and between true and false ideas, Locke proceeded to a discussion,
In this book Locke discusses language: words and essences. Words are signs of ideas by "arbitrary imposition," depending upon noted simi¬larities and dis-similarities from which we form classes. Locke then went on to note the imperfections and abuses of words.
To Locke knowledge is "the perception of the connection of, agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy, of any of our ideas." For example, white is not black because there is neither connection nor agreement, but a dissimilarity between what is white nor what is black. "White is not black" involves the separation by "is not" of the signs "white" and "black," signifying the disagreement between the ideas of white and black.
The remaining chapters of Book IV deal with his argument as to whether we have knowledge of our existence by intu¬ition, of the existence of God by demonstration, and of other things by sensation.