Arguments in an essay concerning human understanding

In fact, in a famous passage where Descartes discusses the innateness of the idea of a triangle in an exchange with Gassendi, he argues that the latent presence of the idea of the triangle allows us to recognize triangular shapes in the physical world although we may never be aware of the true idea of the triangle. Book II of Locke's Essay contains a taxonomy of ideas of central importance for the rest of the Essay and, in particular, for what Locke will argue about the reality of ideas in Book IV.

Moreover, it is in this context that Locke lays the foundation of his empiricist epistemology and completes his attack on nativism by providing an empiricist story of the origin of all ideas. Bolton presents Locke's classification of ideas and points out difficulties with which such a prima facie neat taxonomy is fraught. She offers textual evidence against the common reading -- certainly encouraged by Locke -- of simple ideas as atomic and of complex ideas as compositional "Ideas that have compositional and noncompositional structure are found on both sides of the divide" She points out that Locke's taxonomy imposes constraints on his account of ideas and leaves no room for ideas we actually have 88, Finally, Bolton shows, convincingly in my view, that a detailed analysis of Locke's account of simple ideas of sensation and of complex ideas of relation and substance reveals possible limitations of Locke's anti-nativism 73, 78, 89, In Book II, Locke draws the famous distinction between primary and secondary qualities.

Michael Jacovides's essay, "Locke's Distinctions between Primary and Secondary Qualities" chapter four , argues that Locke did not draw one distinction but many. One of the greatest merits of the essay is Jacovides's insightful analysis of the various arguments that Locke provides in favor of such distinctions.

Vere Chappell, in the essay "Power in Locke's Essay" chapter five , explains what Locke meant by "power" in general and then devotes most of his attention to an examination of Locke's views on human will, freedom and motivation. Edwin McCann, in "Locke on Substance" chapter six , presents the traditional interpretation of substance as the logical notion of a substratum to qualities or the subject of predication.

In light of the difficulties of reconciling this view of substance with Locke's corpuscularianism, alternative interpretations of Locke's account of substance have been offered in the literature. McCann, however, argues that the traditional interpretation fares better as an interpretation of Locke's views than any alternative reading. Particularly interesting is McCann's criticism of what is the most common alternative way of interpreting Locke's account, that is, the view according to which Locke identifies the substratum with the real essence of body.

There are good grounds for this alternative reading.

Descartes view on innate ideas in human nature

First, although, as McCann points out, Locke never explicitly identifies the substratum with real essence , there is strong circumstantial evidence for such identification. The reasoning sustaining the alternative view is that since, according to Locke, the sensible properties of a thing are observable to us but its substance is not, and similarly the real essence of a body is not observable to us but the sensible qualities flowing from it are, Locke identifies substance with the real essence or unknown constitution of things Second, although it is true that the notion of a substratum is a logical one whereas the notion of real essence is a causal one, there is no inconsistency in one thing being related both logically and causally to the same qualities.

Finally, this alternative interpretation "avoids saddling Locke with a commitment to substrata as real, distinct entities" Despite the fact that McCann admits these points, he insists that especially Locke's correspondence with Stillingfleet provides evidence against this identification Gideon Yaffe, in his essay "Locke on Identity and Diversity" chapter seven , offers an original reading of Locke's theory of personal identity. Yaffe argues that the simple-memory and appropriation theories of personal identity are mistaken because they fail to appreciate the link Locke creates between the metaphysical question of personal identity and the moral question of punishment and reward.

According to Yaffe, Locke's theory is a "susceptibility-to-punishment theory" , according to which "the assumed order of priority of the metaphysical and the moral [is reversed]: the metaphysical facts -- the facts about who is the same person as whom -- just are moral facts; they are facts about who is appropriately punished or rewarded for those past acts" This is certainly a thought-provoking interpretation of Locke's views on personal identity.

One worry is whether this theory is free of the problem of circularity that famously troubles other readings of Locke's theory However, Yaffe has an interesting but possibly counterintuitive response to this worry According to Yaffe, the "susceptibility-to-punishment theory" is not circular because "[who] is identical to whom depends on who is rightly rewarded or punished rather than the reverse" Since it is the laws of nature "God's laws linking crimes with punishments and good acts with rewards" that determine the identity between actor and sufferer, "whether or not a later and earlier act of consciousness are the same depends on the content of natural laws" and, so, the circularity is broken.

Thomas Lennon, in "Locke on Ideas and Representation" chapter eight , discusses one of the key concepts of Locke's Essay. What are ideas, for Locke? How do they represent things to us? Do they represent things to us as proxies between the mind and extra-mental reality, hence lifting the so-called veil of ideas? Or are ideas simply modes of presenting these objects to the mind? What accounts for its cohesion? Again, mechanism seems hard-pressed to offer an answer. Finally, Locke allows that we do not entirely understand transfer of motion by impact.

When one corpuscle collides with another we actually do not have a very satisfying explanation for why the second moves away under the force of the impact. Locke presses these critiques with some skill and in a serious manner. Still, ultimately he is guardedly optimistic about mechanism. In Book 2, Chapter 21 of the Essay Locke explores the topic of the will. One of the things which separates people from rocks and billiard balls is our ability to make decisions and control our actions.

We feel that we are free in certain respects and that we have the power to choose certain thoughts and actions. Locke calls this power the will. But there are tricky questions about what this power consists in and about what it takes to freely or voluntarily choose something.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Summary & Study Guide Description

Locke first begins with questions of freedom and then proceeds to a discussion of the will. For example, if I wish to jump into a lake and have no physical maladies which prevent it, then I am free to jump into the lake. By contrast, if I do not wish to jump into the lake, but a friend pushes me in, I did not act freely when I entered the water. Or, if I wish to jump into the lake, but have a spinal injury and cannot move my body, then I do not act freely when I stay on the shore.

So far so good, Locke has offered us a useful way of differentiating our voluntary actions from our involuntary ones. But there is still a pressing question about freedom and the will: that of whether the will is itself free. When I am deciding whether or not to jump into the water, is the will determined by outside factors to choose one or the other? Or can it, so to speak, make up its own mind and choose either option?

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But in later sections he offers a qualification of sorts. That is that which successively determines the Will , and sets us upon those Actions, we perform. The uneasiness is caused by the absence of something that is perceived as good. The perception of the thing as good gives rise to a desire for that thing. Suppose I choose to eat a slice of pizza. Locke would say I must have made this choice because the absence of the pizza was troubling me somehow I was feeling hunger pains, or longing for something savory and this discomfort gave rise to a desire for food.

That desire in turn determined my will to choose to eat pizza. So even if, at this moment, my desire for pizza is the strongest desire, Locke thinks I can pause before I decide to eat the pizza and consider the decision. I can consider other items in my desire set: my desire to lose weight, or to leave the pizza for my friend, or to keep a vegan diet. Careful consideration of these other possibilities might have the effect of changing my desire set.

If I really focus on how important it is to stay fit and healthy by eating nutritious foods then my desire to leave the pizza might become stronger than my desire to eat it and my will may be determined to choose to not eat the pizza. On this point Locke is somewhat vague. While most interpreters think our desires determine when judgment is suspended, some others disagree and argue that suspension of judgment offers Lockean agents a robust form of free will.

Locke was one of the first philosophers to give serious attention to the question of personal identity.

Locke Innate Ideas

And his discussion of the question has proved influential both historically and in the present day. At heart, the question is simple, what makes me the same person as the person who did certain things in the past and that will do certain things in the future? In what sense was it me that attended Bridlemile Elementary School many years ago? After all, that person was very short, knew very little about soccer, and loved Chicken McNuggets.

I, on the other hand, am average height, know tons of soccer trivia, and get rather queasy at the thought of eating chicken, especially in nugget form. Nevertheless, it is true that I am identical to the boy who attended Bridlemile. Christian doctrine held that there was an afterlife in which virtuous people would be rewarded in heaven and sinful people would be punished in hell. This scheme provided motivation for individuals to behave morally. But, for this to work, it was important that the person who is rewarded or punished is the same person as the one who lived virtuously or lived sinfully.

And this had to be true even though the person being rewarded or punished had died, had somehow continued to exist in an afterlife, and had somehow managed to be reunited with a body. So it was important to get the issue of personal identity right.


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The negative project involves arguing against the view that personal identity consists in or requires the continued existence of a particular substance. And the positive project involves defending the view that personal identity consists in continuity of consciousness. We can begin with this positive view. Locke suggests here that part of what makes a person the same through time is their ability to recognize past experiences as belonging to them.

For me, part of what differentiates one little boy who attended Bridlemile Elementary from all the other children who went there is my realization that I share in his consciousness. Put differently, my access to his lived experience at Bridlemile is very different from my access to the lived experiences of others there: it is first-personal and immediate. I recognize his experiences there as part of a string of experiences that make up my life and join up to my current self and current experiences in a unified way. That is what makes him the same person as me.

John Locke’s (–) Essay Concerning Human Understanding () – Modern Philosophy

Locke believes that this account of personal identity as continuity of consciousness obviates the need for an account of personal identity given in terms of substances. A traditional view held that there was a metaphysical entity, the soul, which guaranteed personal identity through time; wherever there was the same soul, the same person would be there as well.

Locke offers a number of thought experiments to cast doubt on this belief and show that his account is superior. For example, if a soul was wiped clean of all its previous experiences and given new ones as might be the case if reincarnation were true , the same soul would not justify the claim that all of those who had had it were the same person.

Locke on Knowledge and Reality: A Commentary on An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Or, we could imagine two souls who had their conscious experiences completely swapped. In this case, we would want to say that the person went with the conscious experiences and did not remain with the soul. Most of these focus on the crucial role seemingly played by memory. Scholastic philosophers had held that the main goal of metaphysics and science was to learn about the essences of things: the key metaphysical components of things which explained all of their interesting features. Locke thought this project was misguided.

That sort of knowledge, knowledge of the real essences of beings, was unavailable to human beings. This led Locke to suggest an alternative way to understand and investigate nature; he recommends focusing on the nominal essences of things. For proponents of the mechanical philosophy it would be the number and arrangement of the material corpuscles which composed the body. Locke sometimes endorses this latter understanding of real essence.