An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Book I Innate Notions John Locke

John Locke (1689)

An Essay concerning Human Understanding.


Source: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). 38th Edition from William Tegg, London; scanned in three separate excerpts from early in the work.


CHAPTER II
NO INNATE PRINCIPLES IN THE MIND.

1. The way shown how we come by any knowledge, sufficient to prove it not innate. – It is an established opinion among some men, that there are in the understanding certain innate principles; some primarily notions, characters, as it were, stamped upon the mind of man, which the soul receives in its very first being and brings into the world with it. It would be sufficient to convince unprejudiced readers of the falseness of this supposition, if I should only show (as I hope I shall in the following parts of this discourse) how men, barely by the use of their natural faculties, may attain to all the knowledge they have, without the help of any innate impressions, and may arrive at certainty without any such original notions or principles. For I imagine, any one will easily grant, that it would be impertinent to suppose the ideas of colours innate in a creature to whom God hath given sight, and a power to receive them by the eyes from external objects: and no less unreasonable would it be to attribute several truths to the impressions of nature and innate characters, when we may observe in ourselves faculties fit to attain as easy and certain knowledge of them as if they were originally imprinted on the mind.

But because a man is not permitted without censure to follow his own thoughts in the search of truth, when they lead him ever so little out of the common road, I shall set down the reasons that made me doubt of the truth of that opinion as an excuse for my mistake, if I be in one; which I leave to be considered by those who, with me, dispose themselves to embrace truth wherever they find it.

2. General assent the great argument. – There is nothing more commonly taken for granted, than that there are certain principles, both speculative and practical (for they speak of both), universally agreed upon by all mankind; which therefore; they argue, must needs be constant impressions which the souls of men receive in their first beings, and which they bring into the world with them, as necessarily and really as they do any of their inherent faculties.

3. Universal consent proves nothing innate. - This argument, drawn from universal consent, has this misfortune in it, that if it were true in matter of fact that there were certain truths wherein all mankind agreed, it would not prove them innate, if there can be any other way shown, how men may come to that universal agreement in the things they do consent in; which I presume may be done.

4. “What is, is;” and, “It is impossible for the same thing to be, and not to be,” not universally assented to. – But, which is worse, this argument of universal consent, which is made use of to prove innate principles, seems to me a demonstration that there are none such; because there are none to which all mankind give an universal assent. I shall begin with the speculative, and instance in those magnified principles of demonstration: “Whatsoever is, is; ” and “It is impossible for the same thing to be, and not to be,” which, of all others, I think, have the most allowed title to innate. These have so settled a reputation of maxims universally received that it will, no doubt, be thought strange if any one should seem to question it. But yet I take liberty to say, that these propositions are so far from having an universal assent, that there are a great part of mankind to whom they are not so much as known.

5. Not on the mind naturally, imprinted, because not known to children, idiots, etc. – For, first, it is evident, that all children and idiots have not the least apprehension or thought of them; and the want of that is enough to destroy that universal assent, which must needs be the necessary concomitant of all innate truths: it seeming to me near a contradiction to say, that there are truths imprinted on the soul which it perceives or understands not; imprinting, if it signify anything, being nothing else but the making certain truths to be perceived. For to imprint anything on the mind without the mind’s perceiving it, seems to me hardly intelligible. If therefore children and idiots have souls, have minds, with those impressions upon them, they must unavoidably perceive them, and necessarily know and assent to these truths; Which, since they do not, it is evident that there are no such impressions. For if they are not notions naturally imprinted, how can they be innate? And if they are notions imprinted, how can they he unknown? To say, a notion is imprinted on the mind, and yet at the same time to say that the mind is ignorant of it, and never yet took notice of it, is to make this impression nothing. No proposition can he said to be in the mind which it never yet knew, which it was never yet conscious of. For if any one say, then, by the same reason, all propositions that are true, and the mind is capable ever of assenting to, may be said to be in the mind, and to the imprinted; since if any one can be said to be in the mind, which it never yet knew, it must be only because it is capable of knowing it; and so the mind is of all truths it ever shall know. Nay, thus truths may be imprinted on the mind which it never did, nor ever shall, know: for a man may live long and die at last in ignorance of many truths which his mind was capable of knowing, and that with certainty. So that if the capacity of knowing be the natural impression contended for, all the truths a man ever comes to know will, by this account, be every one of them innate: and this great point will amount to no more, but only to a very improper way of speaking; which, whilst it pretends to assert the contrary, says nothing different from those who deny innate principles. For nobody, I think, ever denied that the mind was capable of knowing several truths. The capacity, they say, is innate; the knowledge acquired. But then, to what end such contest for certain innate maxims? If truths can be imprinted on the understanding without being perceived I can see no difference there can be between any truths the mind is capable of knowing in respect of their original: they must all be innate, or all adventitious; in vain shall a man go about to distinguish them. He therefore that talks of innate notions in the understanding, cannot (if he intend thereby any distinct sort of truths) mean such truths to be in the understanding as it never perceived, and is yet wholly ignorant of. For if these words (“to be in the understanding”) have any propriety, they signify to be understood. So that, to be in the understanding and not to be understood; to be in the mind, and never to be perceived; is all one as to say, anything is, and is not, in the mind or understanding. If therefore these two propositions: “Whatsoever is, is;” and, “It is impossible for the same thing to be, and not to be,” are by nature imprinted, children cannot be ignorant of them; infants, and all that have souls, must necessarily have them in their understandings, know the truth of them, and assent to it.

6. That men know them when they come to the use of reason, answered. – To avoid this, it is usually answered, that all well know and assent to them, when they come to the use of reason; and this is enough to prove them innate. I answer,

7. Doubtful expressions, that have scarce any signification, go for clear results to those who, being prepossessed, take not the pains to examine even what they themselves say. For, to apply this answer with any tolerable sense to our present purpose, it must signify one of these two things; either, that, as soon as men come to the use of reason, these supposed native inscriptions come to be known and observed by them; or else, that the use and exercise of men’s reasons assists them in the discovery of these principles, and certainly makes them known to them.

8. If reason discovered them, that would not prove them innate. – If they mean that by the use of reason men may discover these principles, and that this is sufficient to prove them innate, their way of arguing will stand thus: viz. That, whatever truths reason can certainly discover to us and make us firmly assent to, those are all naturally imprinted on the mind; since that universal assent which is made the mark of them, amounts to no more but this – that by the use of reason we are capable to come to a certain knowledge of, and assent to, them; and by this means there will be no difference between the maxims of the mathematicians and theorems they deduce from them: all must be equally allowed innate, they being all discoveries made by the use of reason and truths that a rational creature may certainly come to know, if he apply his thoughts rightly that way.

9. It is false that reason discovers them. – But how can these men think the use of reason necessary to discover principles that are supposed innate, when reason (if we may believe them) is nothing else but the faculty of deducing unknown truths from principles or propositions that are already known? That certainly can never be thought innate which we have need of reason to discover, unless, as I have said, we will have all the certain truths that reason ever teaches us to be innate. We may as well think the use of reason necessary to make our eyes discover visible objects as that there should be need of reason, or the exercise thereof to make the understanding see what is originally engraved in it, and cannot be in the understanding before it be perceived by it. So that to make reason discover these truths thus imprinted, is to say, that the use of reason discovers to a man what he knew before; and if men have those innate impressed truths originally, and before the use of reason and yet are always ignorant of them till they come to the use of reason, it is in effect to say that men know, and know them not, at the same time.

10. It will here perhaps be said, that mathematical demonstrations, and other truths that are not innate, are not assented to, as soon as proposed, wherein they are distinguished from these maxims and other innate truths. I shall have occasion to speak of assent upon the first proposing, more particularly by and by. I shall here only, and that very readily, allow, that these maxims and mathematical demonstrations are in this different – that the one has need of reason using of proofs to make them out and to gain our assent; but the other, as soon as understood, are, without any the least reasoning, embraced and assented to. But I withal beg leave to observe, that it lays open the weakness of this subterfuge which requires the use of reason for the discovery of these general truths, since it must be confessed, that in their discovery there is no use made of reasoning at all. And I think those who give this answer will not be forward to affirm, that the knowledge of this maxim, “That it is impossible for the same thing to be, and not to be,” is a deduction of our reason. For this would be to destroy that bounty of nature they seem so fond of, whilst they make the knowledge of those principles to depend on the labour of our thoughts; for all reasoning is search and casting about, and requires pains and application. ...

BOOK II, CHAPTER I: OF IDEAS IN GENERAL, AND THEIR ORIGINAL.

l. Idea is the object of thinking. – Every man being conscious to himself, that he thinks, and that which his mind is applied about, whilst thinking, being the ideas that are there, it is past doubt that men have in their mind several ideas, such as are those expressed by the words, “whiteness, hardness, sweetness, thinking, motion, man, elephant, army, drunkenness,” and others. It is in the first place then to be inquired, How he comes by them? I know it is a received doctrine, that men have native ideas and original characters stamped upon their minds in their very first being. This opinion I have at large examined already; and, I suppose, what I have said in the foregoing book will be much more easily admitted, when I have shown whence the understanding may get all the ideas it has, and by what ways and degrees they may come into the mind; for which I shall appeal to every one’s own observation and experience.

2. All ideas come from sensation or reflection. – Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper [tabula rasa], void of all characters without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, From experience: in that all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself. 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 thinking. These two are the fountains of knowledge, from whence all the ideas we have, or can naturally have, do spring.

3. The object of sensation one source of ideas. – First. Our senses, conversant about particular sensible objects, do convey into the mind several distinct perceptions of things, according to those various ways wherein those objects do affect them; and thus we come by those ideas we have of yellow, white, heat, cold, soft, hard, bitter, sweet, and all those which we call sensible qualities; which when I say the senses convey into the mind, I mean, they from external objects convey into the mind what produces there those perceptions. This great source of most of the ideas we have, depending wholly upon our senses, and derived by them to the understanding, I call, “sensation.”

4. The operations of our minds the other source of them. – Secondly. The other fountain, from which experience furnisheth the understanding with ideas, is the perception of the operations of our own minds within us, as it is employed about the ideas it has got; which operations, when the soul comes to reflect on and consider, do furnish the understanding with another set of ideas which could not be had from things without and such are perception, thinking, doubting, believing, reasoning, knowing, willing, and all the different actings of our own minds; which we, being conscious of, and observing in ourselves, do from these receive into our understandings as distinct ideas, as we do from bodies affecting our senses. 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.” 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. By reflection, then, in the following part of this discourse, I would be understood to mean that notice which the mind takes of its own operations, and the manner of them, by reason whereof there come to be ideas of these operations in the understanding. These two, I say, viz., external material things as the objects of sensation, and the operations of our own minds within as the objects of reflection, are to me, the only originals from whence all our ideas take their beginnings. The term “operations” here, I use in a large sense, as comprehending not barely the actions of the mind about its ideas, but some sort of passions arising sometimes from them, such as is the satisfaction or uneasiness arising from any thought.

5. All our ideas are of the one or the other of these. – The understanding seems to me not to have the least glimmering of any ideas which it doth not receive from one of these two. External objects furnish the mind with the ideas of sensible qualities, which are all those different perceptions they produce in us; and the mind furnishes the understanding with ideas of its own operations.

These, when we have taken a full survey of them, and their several modes, combinations, and relations, we shall find to contain all our whole stock of ideas, and that we have nothing in our mind which did not come in one of these two ways. Let anyone examine his own thoughts; and thoroughly search into his understanding, and then let him tell me, whether all the original ideas he has there, are any other than of the objects of his senses, or of the operations of his mind considered as objects of his reflection; and how great a mass of knowledge soever he imagines to be lodged there, he will, upon taking a strict view see that he has not any idea in his mind but what one of these two have imprinted, though perhaps with infinite variety compounded and enlarged by the understanding, as we shall see hereafter.

6. Observable in children. – He that attentively considers the state of a child at his first coming into the world, will have little reason to think him stored with plenty of ideas that are to be the matter of his future knowledge. It is by degrees he comes to be furnished with them; and though the ideas of obvious and familiar qualities imprint themselves before the memory begins to keep a register of time and order, yet it is often so late before some unusual qualities come in the way, that there are few men that cannot recollect the beginning of their acquaintance with them: and, if it were worth while, no doubt a child might be so ordered as to have but a very few even of the ordinary ideas till he were grown up to a man. But all that are born into the world being surrounded with bodies that perpetually and diversely affect them, variety of ideas whether care be taken about it, or no, are imprinted on the minds of children. Light and colours are busy at hand every where when the eye is but open; sounds and some tangible qualities fail not to solicit their proper senses and force an entrance to the mind; but yet I think it will be granted easily, that if a child were kept in a place where he never saw any other but black and white till he 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 pine-apple has of those particular relishes.

7. Men are differently furnished with these according to the different objects they converse with. – Men then come to be furnished with fewer or more simple ideas from without, according as the objects they converse with afford greater or less variety; and from the operations of their minds within, according as they more or less reflect on them. For, though he that contemplates the operations of his mind cannot but have plain and clear ideas of them; yet, unless he turn his thoughts that way, and considers them attentively, he will no more have clear and distinct ideas of all the operations of his mind, and all that may be observed therein than he will have all the particular ideas of any landscape or of the parts and motions of a clock, who will not turn his eyes to it, and with attention heed all the parts of it. The picture or clock may be so placed, that they may come in his way every day; but yet he will have but a confused idea of all the parts they are made of, till he applies himself with attention to consider them each in particular. ...

CHAPTER III: OF IDEAS OF ONE SENSE

l. Division of simple ideas. – The better to conceive the ideas we receive from sensation, it may not be amiss for us to consider them in reference to the different ways whereby they make their approaches to our minds, and make themselves perceivable by us.

First, then, there are some which come into our minds by one sense only.

Secondly. There are others that convey themselves into the mind by more senses than one.

Thirdly. Others first are had from reflection only.

Fourthly. There are some that make themselves way, and are suggested to the mind, by all the ways of sensation and reflection.

We shall consider them apart under these several heads.

1. There are some ideas which have admittance only through one sense, which is peculiarly adapted to receive them. Thus light and colours, as white, red, yellow, blue, with their several degrees or shades and mixtures, as green, scarlet, purple, sea-green, and the rest, come in only by the eyes; all kinds of noises, sounds, and tones, only by the ears; the several tastes and smells, by the nose and palate. And if these organs, or the nerves which are the conduits to convey them from without to their audience in the brain, the mind’s presence-room, (as I may so call it,) are, any of them, so disordered as not to perform their functions, they have no postern to be admitted by, no other way to bring themselves into view, and be received by the understanding.

The most considerable of those belonging to the touch are heat and cold, and solidity; all the rest – consisting almost wholly in the sensible configuration, as smooth and rough; or else more or less firm adhesion of the parts, as hard and soft, tough and brittle – are obvious enough.

2. I think it will be needless to enumerate all the particular simple ideas belonging to each sense. Nor indeed is it possible it we would, there being a great many more of them belonging to most of the senses than we have names for. The variety of smells, which are as many almost, if not more, than species of bodies in the world, do most of them want name. Sweet and stinking commonly serve our turn for these ideas, which in effect is little more than to call them pleasing or displeasing; though the smell of a rose and violet, both sweet, are certainly very distinct ideas. Nor are the different tastes that by, our palates we receive ideas of, much better provided with names. Sweet, bitter, sour, harsh, and salt, are almost all the epithets we have to denominate that numberless variety of relishes which are to be found distinct, not only in almost every sort of creatures but in the different parts of the same plant, fruit, or animal. The same may be said of colours and sounds. I shall therefore, in the account of simple ideas I am here giving, content myself to set down only such as are most material to our present purpose, or are in themselves less apt to be taken notice of, though they are very frequently the ingredients of our complex ideas; amongst which I think I may well account “solidity” which therefore I shall treat of in the next chapter.


John Locke�s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) is an inquiry into the source and limits of human knowledge, and is an examination of the nature of belief, opinion, and faith. Locke explains how knowledge is gained from sensation and reflection, how knowledge is distinguished from belief or opinion, and how certainty of knowledge is attained by intuition, reason, and sensation.

Locke also discusses the relationship between knowledge and language, the relation between words and ideas, the causes of the misuse of language, the causes of error in making judgments, the nature of truth, the nature of the reality of knowledge, the role of judgment in deciding upon truth or falsehood, and the boundaries between faith and reason.

Locke�s Essay is divided into four books: Book I: "Of Innate Notions," Book II: "Of Ideas," Book III: "Of Words," and Book IV: "Of Knowledge and Opinion."

Book I is a sustained attack against the doctrine that there are innate ideas in the human mind. Book II presents the theory that all ideas arise from sensation and reflection. Book II argues that ideas may be simple (e.g pleasure and pain) or complex (e.g. modes, substances, or relations), that some ideas may be clear and distinct while other ideas may be obscure and confused, and that ideas may be adequate or inadequate representations of the experiences which produce them. Book III explains that words signify ideas, that words are necessary for communication, that words may be misused when they are misapplied to confused ideas, and that the misuse of words may be a source of error. Book IV asserts that ideas are the source of human knowledge, that ideas determine the nature and extent of human knowledge, and that ideas determine the reality, truth, and certainty of human knowledge.

Locke begins by presenting a number of arguments against the existence of innate ideas. These arguments include the proposition that if there were innate principles of truth in the human mind, then these principles would be universally recognized. But careful examination reveals that there are no such universally recognized principles of truth. Even if there were truths which were universally agreed upon, this fact would not prove that such truths are innate in every human mind.

Another argument against the existence of innate ideas is that if there were innate principles of truth in the human mind, then reason would not be necessary to discover these principles of truth. However, reason is indeed necessary to discover such basic principles of truth.

Another argument against the existence of innate ideas is that if there were innate moral or practical principles in the human mind, then these principles would be universally known and agreed upon. However, there are no such universally agreed-upon moral or practical principles. Reason is necessary to determine the truth of moral or practical principles. Moreover, if there were innate moral or practical principles in the human mind, they could be easily distinguished from other moral or practical principles; but it is impossible to divide moral or practical principles into those which are innate and those which are not innate.

According to Locke, any ideas in the mind are either actual perceptions or are formed from memories of previous perceptions. If there were any innate ideas in the mind, then they would have to be memories of previous perceptions. These perceptions would have to be caused by previous sensation or reflection, but memories of previous perceptions could not be innate if they were produced by previous experience, and thus there are no innate ideas in the mind.

Another argument against the existence of innate ideas is that if there were any innate ideas, then they would be clear and distinct and would be easily distinguishable from other ideas. However, the truth of some ideas is clear and distinct, while the truth of other ideas is more difficult to discover. Truths which are clear and distinct cannot be assumed to be innate, any more than truths which are more difficult to discover can be assumed to be contingent and not necessary.

According to Locke, there are two sources of knowledge: 1) sensation and 2) reflection. The objects of sensation are things external to the mind. The objects of reflection are the internal operations of the mind. Ideas may be simple or complex. Simple ideas may be provided by sensation and reflection. Complex ideas may be provided by variations, combinations, and relations of simple ideas.

Locke explains that some ideas may be provided by a single form of sensation, while other ideas may be provided by more than one form of sensation. Some ideas may be provided by both sensation and reflection. Simple ideas of reflection include perceptions (thoughts) and volitions (acts of will). Locke says that the understanding is the faculty of thinking, while the will is the faculty of volition. Simple ideas of both sensation and reflection include: pleasure, pain, power, existence, and unity.1

Locke also explains that complex ideas include: modes, substances, and relations. Modes may be simple (variations of ideas) or mixed (combinations of ideas). Ideas of substances may represent particular things which are characterized by distinct qualities. Relations may compare ideas with each other.

Simple modes include modes of space, duration, number, motion, sensation, thinking, feeling, and power. Modes of space include: distance, capacity (or volume), figure (or shape), and place (or location). Modes of duration include: finite duration (time), and infinite duration (eternity). Modes of sensation include: taste, touch, smell, vision, and hearing. Modes of thinking include: remembrance, recollection, attention, dreaming, reasoning, judging, willing. Modes of feeling include: love, hatred, desire, joy, sorrow, hope, fear, despair, anger, envy, grief. Modes of power include active power and passive power.

Locke argues that ideas about active and passive power are simple ideas and are the source of our ideas about liberty and necessity. Locke describes liberty as the power to perform, or not to perform, voluntary actions according to the determinations of the mind. Necessity is the lack of power to alter or control a mode of action according to the determinations of the mind. Necessity may take the form of compulsion (involuntary action) or restraint (hindrance of action).

Regarding the question of whether there is freedom of the will, Locke argues that freedom and the will are each a power or ability which may belong to an agent or individual. Freedom belongs to an agent or individual, and not to the will itself, because the will is only a power or ability. The will cannot be described as free or not free, because it is not an agent or individual. Furthermore, the will is not a substance or being.

According to Locke, human beings may have freedom of volition, but they do not have freedom from having volition. They may be free to will, but are not free not to will. Liberty is a power to act, or not to act; but human beings cannot choose whether or not to have the power of volition. They can only choose whether or not their actions will be guided by their own volition.

Volition may be determined by a desire for pleasure or for the avoidance of pain. Happiness may be produced by actions which are good, while misery may be produced by actions which are evil. Good actions may be performed because they produce pleasure, while evil actions may be avoided because they produce pain. Good actions may also be performed because they are seen as good in themselves, while evil actions may be avoided because they are seen as evil in themselves.

Locke defines desire as a state of uneasiness which is produced by a longing for something. The satisfaction of desire produces happiness, while the frustration of desire produces unhappiness. Desire may not direct volition toward every form of good, because every form of good may not be seen as necessary for happiness. Moreover, human beings have the power to delay or suspend satisfaction of their desires, in order to attain an ultimate good. Thus, the desire for happiness may direct volition toward a particular form of action, but the desire for happiness is in turn guided by the faculty of judgment within the understanding.

Complex modes include modes of motion, thinking, and power. Complex ideas may also include ideas of substances and relations. Complex ideas of substances include: 1) ideas of the primary quality of things as discovered by sensation, 2) ideas of the secondary quality of things as discovered by sensation, and 3) ideas about the active and passive powers of change in the primary qualities of things as discovered by sensation. Locke contends that relations may be defined more clearly and distinctly than substances, and maintains that it is generally more difficult to define all the simple ideas which are combined into complex ideas of substances than it is to define all the simple ideas which are combined into complex ideas of relations. Relations are complex ideas which include: relations of cause and effect, relations of time, relations of place and extension, relations of identity and diversity, relations of proportions, relations of law, and relations of morality.

Locke declares that ideas may be described as clear and distinct, or as obscure and confused. Complex ideas may be clear and distinct in one aspect, but may be obscure and confused in another aspect. Ideas may also be described as real or illusory, true or false, adequate or inadequate.

Locke argues that the mind is passive insofar as it receives simple ideas from sensation, and that therefore all simple ideas are real. The mind is active insofar as it combines simple ideas to form complex ideas, and therefore complex ideas may be either real or illusory.

Locke also argues that all simple ideas are adequate, but that complex ideas may be either adequate or inadequate. Complex ideas of modes and relations are adequate, but complex ideas of substances are inadequate. Adequate ideas are those which perfectly represent the archetype to which they refer, while inadequate ideas are those which imperfectly represent the archetype to which they refer.

Abstract ideas may be either simple or complex. Abstract ideas define the nominal essence of things, but do not always define the real essence of things.

According to Locke, ideas are true or false only insofar as they refer to propositions. Sensations cannot be called true or false unless the mind makes some judgments about them, and then truth or falsehood belongs to the actual judgments and not to the sensations themselves. The truth or falsehood of propositions or judgments may reside in: 1) whether they conform to what they are intended to represent, 2) whether they refer to something that really exists, and 3) whether they refer to the real essence of something.

In analyzing the relation between language and knowledge, Locke says that words are signs of ideas. Proper names signify particular things, while general names (or terms) signify a class or category of things. General terms are signs of abstract ideas, which may define the essence of a class or category of things. Each distinct, abstract idea defines the distinct essence of something. The real essence and nominal essence are not the same for any substance which is referred to by a complex idea. Locke argues that the real essence of substances is unknown. However, the real essence and nominal essence are the same for any sensation which is referred to by a simple idea. The names which are given to simple ideas may be either concrete or abstract.

Locke explains that language may be misused or misunderstood when a speaker or writer uses words which do not refer to any clear or distinct ideas. Misuse of language may also occur when a speaker or writer uses words which are inconsistent in their meaning. Misuse or misunderstanding of language may also occur when words which only represent the nominal essence of a substance or quality are assumed to represent the real essence of a substance or quality. Misuse or misunderstanding of language may also occur when it is falsely assumed that the listener and the speaker share the same understanding of the meaning of words.

To prevent the misuse of language, Locke recommends that every speaker or writer use words which refer to clear and distinct ideas. Words which refer to complex ideas should be clearly defined, and names of complex ideas should have commonly accepted and recognized signification. A speaker or writer should not use words which do not have any consistent meaning.

Knowledge, according to Locke, is gained through perception of how ideas agree or disagree. Ideas may agree or disagree in their: 1) identity, or diversity, 2) relation, 3) coexistence, or necessary connection, and 4) real existence (i.e. their reference to something that actually exists).2

Locke defines three degrees of knowledge: 1) intuition, 2) demonstration, and 3) sensation. Intuitive knowledge is an immediate perception of the agreement or disagreement of a group of ideas, without the intervention of any other ideas. Demonstrative knowledge is a perception of the agreement or disagreement of a group of ideas, based on reasoning and on proofs provided by intervening ideas. Sensory knowledge is a perception of the agreement or disagreement of a group of ideas, based on sensory experience of the external objects to which they refer.

Locke says that demonstrative knowledge is based on intuitive knowledge, in that every step in reasoning which produces demonstrative knowledge also provides intuitive certainty.3 Demonstrative knowledge of the agreement or disagreement of any group of ideas is based on an intuitive knowledge of the agreement or disagreement of any intervening ideas. Thus, knowledge may have both intuitive certainty and demonstrative certainty.

Locke also argues that knowledge can extend only as far as our ideas can extend.4 Intuitive knowledge cannot be extended to all ideas, and demonstrative knowledge cannot be extended to all ideas. The agreement or disagreement of all ideas cannot be known by intuition. The agreement or disagreement of all ideas cannot be known by reason. The agreement or disagreement of all ideas cannot be known by sensation. Locke also emphasizes that misuse of language may hinder perception of how ideas agree or disagree and thus may limit knowledge.

Knowledge may become universal if it is attained through perception of the agreement or disagreement of abstract ideas.5 Perception of the agreement or disagreement of abstract ideas may provide universal truths. Truth belongs to propositions insofar as they unify words and ideas which agree with each other, and insofar as they separate words and ideas which disagree with each other.

Locke explains that propositions may be mental or verbal. Verbal truth may belong to propositions which unify words and ideas which agree with each other, but in order to have real truth, propositions must also represent ideas which agree with objective reality. Propositions representing ideas which disagree with reality may have verbal truth, but not real truth. Knowledge is real insofar as it is based on ideas which agree with the objective reality of the world.

According to Locke, human knowledge may be threefold, in that: 1) intuition gives us knowledge of our own existence, 2) demonstration gives us knowledge of the existence of God, and 3) sensation gives us knowledge of the real world.6 If we do not have clear and certain knowledge of how our ideas agree or disagree, then we must use our judgment in order to unify or separate our ideas appropriately. Judgement is a faculty which enables us to unify or separate ideas according to their presumed, rather than known, agreement or disagreement.

Reason can extend only as far as our ideas extend. Reason may not always resolve the confusion caused by obscure and imperfect ideas. Reason may not resolve the difficulties caused by false assumptions, unless it is used to reject those false assumptions. However, reason may not always be necessary when the agreement or disagreement of ideas can be known intuitively.

Locke asserts that any truth which is discoverable by reason is also discoverable by divine revelation. However, we do not need divine revelation to discover truths which can be known by reason. Propositions which are contradicted by reason cannot be assumed to be verifiable by divine revelation. Indeed, we need reason to establish whether or not a proposition may be a divine revelation. Faith may convince us of the validity of something which cannot be known by reason. However, faith may not be able to prove the validity of something which is contradictory to reason. Faith is not by nature contradictory to reason. Thus, propositions which are contradictory to reason cannot be proven to have any validity by being called matters of faith.

Four main sources of errors of judgment which are described by Locke include: 1) lack of proofs for propositions, 2) inability to use proofs to verify propositions, 3) unwillingness to use proofs to verify propositions, and 4) use of wrong measures of probability.7

The sciences, or the disciplines of human knowledge, are divided by Locke into: 1) natural philosophy, 2) ethics, and 3) logic. Natural philosophy is concerned with whether things are knowable in themselves. Ethics is concerned with whether there are moral principles for human action. Logic is concerned with the correct use of signs (words and ideas) to discover and communicate knowledge.

Locke�s Essay Concerning Human Understanding offers important insights into how knowledge is attained through intuition, reason, and experience. Although Locke says that experience is the source of all our ideas, he does not say that experience is the only source of knowledge. Indeed, he says that knowledge of how all our ideas agree or disagree cannot be attained solely through experience. Intuition, reason, and experience may each produce knowledge of many truths, but each cannot separately produce knowledge of all truths. Thus, the faculty of understanding may combine these degrees of knowledge to produce a more unified knowledge which transcends the limits of intuition, reason, and experience.


1John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Peter H. Nidditch (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 128.
2Ibid., p. 525.
3Ibid., p. 533.
4Ibid., p. 538.
5Ibid., p. 562.
6Ibid., p. 618.
7Ibid., p. 706.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

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