By Kevin Rushworth

John Locke

Where do our ideas come from?
Published in 1690, John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding gave the world a truly different epistemology—or theory regarding the formation of knowledge . [1] Just as it heralded in the beginning of both eighteenth century and modern day thought, it took the place of an age-old tradition of human nature that revolved around man’s original sin. [2] Such a document is an essay, which was published in manuscript format with numerous different books or chapters. In an attempt to analyze Locke’s rejection of innate ideas and his “blank sheet of paper”, attention was focused on Book I of Locke’s Essay.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding was written in order to provide educated Europeans with a radical form of epistemology as seen by the increasing natural sciences of the late 17th and 18th centuries. [3] By writing this for an educated audience, language, style and content included within the document can speak to the increasing importance of rationalism in everyday life. Enlightenment philosopher John Locke—born in 1632 and died in 1704—not only made his mark on classical liberalism and government of the people as outlined in his Two Treatises of Government, but also human nature.

For John Locke, as written in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, human morality became a question of knowledge fuelled by the rationalism of the Scientific Revolution. [4]

It is this notion of morality and the foundation of human nature that will be the focus of this analysis. While Locke rejected innate ideas at birth, he instead believed a radical idea that humans are born as a tabula rasa otherwise known as a blank slate. [5] However, in order to comprehend the dramatic paradigm shift facilitated by the Essay, it is necessary to gain an understanding of a pre-Lockean notion of morality.

In the Garden of Eden biblical story, human nature was forever stained by Adam’s original sin—a notion outright objected by thinker John Locke. [6] Instead, humanity relied on God’s grace and understanding for salvation throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period. [7] For Locke, morality became a science based on empiricism; thus, if there were no innate abilities, then all of our ideas must come from experience. [8] With the aid of evidence, John Locke’s newly formed notion of human morality eradicated the last remnants of the Christian notion of both sin and depravity as human morality. [9] Historian Carl Becker, described humanity’s original sin as nothing more than a “black spreading cloud which for centuries had depressed the human spirit.” [10]

A crucial question posed by John Locke as part of his writing is paramount to the document’s story line and importance within the 18th century Enlightenment; How is it that our mind acquires ideas if human beings are not born with them? [11]

“Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety?” Locke probed. “Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge?” [12]

Immediately following such a perplexing query, Locke forms an answer; according to him, there were two fountains of knowledge in which human beings fashion ideas—through experience and observation. [13] For John Locke, experience was created through outside sensory perceptions; observation, on the other hand is those perceptions in operation. [14] But, as human beings are brought into the world, they are nothing but a slate wiped clean or a tabula rasa; our mind, according to Locke is “white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas.” [15] Within Book II of the Essay, he states that ideas are created through sensory perceptions of the material world and of the reflection of those perceptions within the mind. [16] As an example to show his rejection of innate ideas within humans, Locke refers to a child being locked in a room where he never sees anything but the colours black and white. [17]

“If a child were kept in a place where he never saw any other (colour) but black and white til her were a man, he would have no more ideas of scarlet or green, than he that from his childhood never tasted an oyster or a pineapple has of those particular relishes.” [18] In other words, humanity has the ability to perceive, doubt or believe what they see or hear with their sense perceptions. Locke easily sums up humanity’s ability to reflect upon their surroundings in the following passage from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

“This source of ideas every man has wholly in himself; and though it be not sense, as having nothing to do with external objects, yet it is very like it and might properly enough be called internal sense,” Locke wrote. “But as I call the other Sensation, so I call this Reflection, the ideas it affords being such only as the mind gets by reflecting on its own operations within itself.” [19] With the Essays publication, it became increasingly difficult for any compromise to be made between traditional religious values and the new demonstrative science of morality; the rift was widened as there was a belief that two sources of ideas was nothing but repugnant among Locke’s contemporaries. [20] If there were no innate ideas, then in a sense, human beings could not have been born with original sin—in marked contrast with the Christian doctrine of the time. [21]

Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Humanity’s ability to reason allows individuals the opportunity to gain understanding of their world around them through their sensory perceptions of reality. It must be known that Locke did not disregard evil and sin as part of our world; however, that sin did not originate with Adam in the Garden of Eden, but with humans blind to their own ability to reason. [22] While the Fountains of Knowledge alluded to in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding are sources of ideas, they are also a source of Lockean reason. [23] Littered throughout the Essay are allusions of light, darkness, blindness and sight—all notions of the lack of humanity’s reason and the salvation gained when reason is sought. [24]

For John Locke, reason is the light that filters into a darkened closet. “External and internal sensation are the only passages I can find, of Knowledge, to the understanding,” he wrote. “These alone, as far as I can discover, are the Windows by which light is let into this dark room. For, methinks, the Understanding is not much unlike a closet shut from light, with only some little openings left, to let in external visible Resemblances, or Ideas of things without.” [25] Reason is the light that parts the clouds of irrational thought for 18th century philosophes of the Enlightenment.

However, a question must be asked of the primary document in question: How did the circumstances of the document’s creation have affected the content of Locke’s Essay? In order to begin answering such a question, it is necessary to understand his early life and the world into which John Locke was born.

In 1632, John Locke was born in Wringston, Somerset and he was 10 years old when civil war, otherwise known as England’s Glorious Revolution broke out in 1642; when Charles I was executed in 1649, young Locke was 16 years old. [26]

After the failure of the Rye House Plot in 1683—a Protestant plot to assassinate brothers Charles II and James—Locke fled to Holland after the arrest of a few of his associates, although his hand in the matter was highly unlikely. [27]

Looking back on his life, Locke reflected, “I no sooner perceived myself in the world but I found myself in a storm.” [28] Living in Holland under different names and at different addresses, Locke readied An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in self exile. [29] It was a shaky period in which the established order was being questioned—with radical reforms to English and European politics all the way to notions of human thought.

In 1689, when Protestant William and Mary of Orange took the English throne, signaling the end of the revolution, Locke made his way back to England. [30] During a discussion between friends, he stated that they must, “examine our own Abilities, and see, what Objects our Understandings were, or were not fitted to deal with.” [31] Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding was published in 1690.
While the Glorious Revolution affected the growth of Locke’s liberalism and the penning of his Two Treatises on Government, an ability to understand the extent of knowledge and certainty of knowledge has to be looked at in order to understand as to why An Essay Concerning Human Understanding was written in the first place.

As part of the Essay, his main aim was to both figure out what purpose God wanted humanity to know and how much He wanted people to know. [32]

He wrote, “My purpose is to enquire into the original, certainty, and extent of human knowledge; together, with the grounds and degrees of belief, opinion and assent.” [33] According to John Locke, there was a time in which man would have to be careful in its meddling of knowledge that exceeded human comprehension; “I can discover the Powers thereof; how far they reach; to what things they are in any degree proportionate; and where they fail us…” [34]

Man must stop looking into knowledge when they come to the “Extent of their Tether” and sit down in “quiet Ignorance of Those Things” when it comes to information beyond their mental capacity. [35] Just as probability of knowledge is discussed fully by John Locke in his writing of his Essay, so to is the certainty of ideas.John Locke states that there can be no knowledge of certainty, and that there was only an aspect of probability. [36] Probability—a double bladed sword—is steeped in empiricism, while on the other hand it is only probably logic. [37] When does humanity understand the difference between evidence based ideas and faulty logic?

Instead of revealing too much information than John Locke intended, instead, it is much the opposite. In parts, Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding is incredibly vague and as stated by Locke, even he understands the sheer obscurity of his writing. [38]

Instead of elaborating on how humanity discovered the truth behind human morality, this aspect of his Essay remains purposely unclear; many of Locke’s contemporaries stated that he had next to no moral teachings as part of his treatise on human nature. [39]

Locke fired back by saying that the main purpose of the Essay was only to explain how ideas are fashioned or created and not what forms those ideas took or how they should be crafted. [40] In order to understand modern

John Locke's Essay

thought and the significance of the changes Locke brought to human morality, it is necessary to study An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Such a document is necessary for the comprehension of both the modern history and modern thought of Western Civilization.

With his ability to reject what he labeled as false imaginations or irrational truths of theology, philosophy and epistemology, John Locke heralded in a period marked by religious deism and the skepticism of the 18th centuries. [41] Locke’s essay was also a huge influence upon French thought and was an inspiration for French philosopher Voltaire to pen his Lettres Philosophiques—published in 1734. [42] However, Locke’s Essay had its biggest impact upon education and how education was taught in the 18th century. If indeed human beings are nothing more than blank slates or a sheet of white paper at birth, then children can be shielded from poor influences and exposed to positive influences; thus, children can be raised as upstanding citizens only based on experiences. [43]

In response to Locke’s influences upon human morality—previously thought to be flawed and innately evil—our nature as a species was seen as being a product of the environment in which an individual is raised. [44] Without a proper education, Locke argued that man would never become moral human beings and thus, never the individuals that God wanted them to be. [45]

If I lived during this time frame, I would have agreed with John Locke’s position regarding innate ideas due to the empiricism and evidence based rationality booming during this time. Due to John Locke’s ability to relate sometimes tough notions of human morality into understandable situations, I would have found both his arguments and line of questioning around his ‘white sheet of paper’ highly credible.

In conclusion, John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is a necessary document to analyze when attempting to understand both the formation of ideas and its affect on western thought. In a time of Enlightenment and reform, Locke’s ideas worked to reject an ancient paradigm of original sin—based on empiric evidence, observation and the ultimate power of our ability to reason.

[1] Katherine M. Morsberger, “John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: The “Bible” of the Enlightenment,” Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 25 (1996): 1, http://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed November 27, 2010).

[2] Morsberger, “John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: The “Bible” of the Enlightenment,” 1.
[3] W. M. Spellman, “The Christian Estimate of Man in Locke’s Essay,” The Journal of Religion 67 no. 4 (Oct. 1987): 476, http://www.jstor.org/ (accessed November 27, 2010).
[4] Steven Forde, “What does Locke Expect us to Know?” The Review of Politics 68 no. 2 (Spring, 2006): 234, http://www.jstor.org/ (Accessed November 26, 2010).
[5] Morsberger, “John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: The “Bible” of the Enlightenment,”:2.
[6] Forde, “What does Locke Expect us to Know?” 242.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Forde, “What does Locke Expect us to Know?” 235.
[9] Spellman, “The Christian Estimate of Man in Locke’s Essay,”:476.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Morsberger, “John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: The “Bible” of the Enlightenment,”:2.
[12] Marvin Perry, et all, “John Locke Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” in Sources of the Western Tradition: From the Renaissance to the Present, ed. 7 (Wadsworth: Boston, 2008), 65.
[13]Morsberger, “John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: The “Bible” of the Enlightenment,”:2.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Perry, et all, “John Locke Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” in Sources of the Western Tradition: From the Renaissance to the Present, 65.
[16] Johnathan Dancy, et all, A Companion to Epistemology, (London: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010), 500, http://books.google.ca/books (accessed November 26,2010).
[17] John Locke, Selections From Locke’s Essay on the Human Understanding, (General Books: London, 2009), 31, http://books.google.ca/books (accessed November 28, 2010).
[18] Locke, Selections From Locke’s Essay on the Human Understanding, 31,.
[19] Perry, et all, “John Locke Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” in Sources of the Western Tradition: From the Renaissance to the Present, 66.
[20] Robert L. Armstrong, “Cambridge Platonists and Locke On Innate Ideas,” Journal of the History of Ideas 30 no. 2 (Apr. Jun., 1969):192-193 , http://www.jstor.org (accessed November 27, 2010).
[21] Perry, et all, “John Locke Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” in Sources of the Western Tradition: From the Renaissance to the Present, 65.
[22] Morsberger, “John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: The “Bible” of the Enlightenment,”:2.
[23] Morsberger, “John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: The “Bible” of the Enlightenment,”:2.
[24] Morsberger, “John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: The “Bible” of the Enlightenment,”:2.
[25] Morsberger, “John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: The “Bible” of the Enlightenment,”:3.
[26] John Locke, and Pauline Phemister, John Locke An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, (London: Oxford University Press, 2008), page viii, http://books.google.ca/books (accessed November 27,2010).
[27] Locke, and Pauline Phemister, John Locke An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, page ix
[28] Mark Goldie, Locke Political Essays, (Cambridge: United Kingdom, 1997), page xiv, http://books.google.ca/books (accessed November 26, 2010).
[29] Locke, and Pauline Phemister, John Locke An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, page ix
[30] Locke, and Pauline Phemister, John Locke An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, page ix
[31] Locke, and Pauline Phemister, John Locke An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, page x
[32] Dancy, et all, A Companion to Epistemology, (London: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010), 500 , http://books.google.ca/books (accessed November 26,2010).
[33] Dancy, et all, A Companion to Epistemology, (London: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010), 500 , http://books.google.ca/books (accessed November 26,2010).
[34] Spellman, “The Christian Estimate of Man in Locke’s Essay,”: 476,.
[35] Spellman, “The Christian Estimate of Man in Locke’s Essay,”: 476,.
[36] Morsberger, “John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: The “Bible” of the Enlightenment,”:6.
[37] Morsberger, “John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: The “Bible” of the Enlightenment,”:6.
[38] Forde, “What does Locke Expect us to Know?” 238.
[39] Forde, “What does Locke Expect us to Know?” 238
[40] Forde, “What does Locke Expect us to Know?” 238
[41] Morsberger, “John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding: The “Bible” of the Enlightenment,”:9
[42] Gabriel Bonno, Locke and Voltaire, “The Diffusion and Influence of Locke’s “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” in France before Voltaire’s “Lettres Philosophiques,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 91 no. 5 (Dec. 3 1947):421, http://www.jstor.org (accessed November 27, 2010).
[43] Spellman, “The Christian Estimate of Man in Locke’s Essay,”: 476,.
[44]Spellman, “The Christian Estimate of Man in Locke’s Essay,”: 476,.
[45]Spellman, “The Christian Estimate of Man in Locke’s Essay,”: 490,.
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