Locke: Human Understanding Summary

john locke

An Essay concerning human Understanding by John Locke

An essay concerning human understanding is one of the greatest philosophy works : Locke, folllowing, Descartes, described the new world of spirit and consciousness, thaht make human dignity.

According to Locke, the understanding is the sign of human superiority over the animals and is comparable to the eye: it makes us see things, but it does not see itself naturally. Trying to reverse our eyes and make the understanding itself the subject of our review. Perhaps this will allow us to determine “the certainty and extent of human knowledge”.

Essay concerning Human Understanding tries to identify the various faculties of our mind, and how ideas are formed. Thus, we may discover the limits of knowledge, and therefore, we can identify an area of ​​thought where truth is attainable, and another where this is impossible. This is the best way for Locke to fight against skepticism, which doubts the possibility of achieving any truth whatsoever: it is to be thinner than the radical doubt, and to identify the type of The idea on which it is legitimate doubt, and the type of idea that resists it.

Locke says that means idea in a general sense of “all that is the subject of our minds when we think.”

Hobbes vs Locke is one of the top debates in philosophy.

An Essay concerning human Understanding Book I: innate ideas

In the first book, Locke attacks the doctrine of innate ideas, found in Descartes. This doctrine says that man is born with ideas already formed in the mind, like God, as he argues in his Meditations.

Locke shows that man can discover all the ideas by the mere use of his natural faculties. Thus, man is not born with the idea of ​​red, but he acquires it through the view.

Nevertheless, some principles are universally recognized. Can you imagine them to be because of their innate character?

Locke questions the existence of universal principles. Even a tautology such as “what is” is ignored by much of humanity, such as children.

Counter-argument: it is innate in their souls, but it does not see them, they do not realize it.

Locke shows that an idea is innate means that the soul naturally sees this idea is the meaning of this doctrine. So it can not be any innate idea unnoticed.

In fact, the only thing Locke grants the innateness is the fact that the faculty of understanding is innate.

Chronologically, these are the processes by which ideas are formed in our minds:

-Direction we discover the world, and therefore ideas appear in our mind

-These, more and more familiar, return to our memory and we give them names

-The spirit of other abstract ideas, these ideas brought by the senses: it is the general concepts

-Mind reasoning about these concepts and find others.

Locke devotes an entire chapter of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding practice principles, to show that none of them is therefore innate universal. Indeed, if morality was innate, we would all moral, and we would all have pangs of conscience for violation of murder or theft, which is not the case. The rules of morality need to be proven, so they are not innate.

Locke takes a classic argument from the skeptics, which shows the diversity of morals among the people: child sacrifice practiced by the Greeks or the Romans, the abandonment of the elderly in some tribes, etc..

In fact, we take innate practical principles because we have not seen or that has forgotten its origin. Looking good, “the doctrines that have no better sources than the superstition of a nurse or the authority of an old woman, become over time and by the consent of neighbors, many principles of religion and morality.

An Essay concerning human Understanding Book II: Ideas

To answer this question, Locke uses the famous metaphor of the empty table (or tabula rasa): “Let us suppose that in the beginning, the soul is called a vacuum, void of all characters, without any idea of any kind. How did it come to receive ideas? […] Where she draws all these materials that are like the back of all reasoning and all knowledge? “1.

The answer to Locke, who founded his empire: “To this I answer in one word, from experience: that is the foundation of all knowledge, and that’s where they get their first home “.

This experience is one of the objects of the sensible world, as well as domestic operations of our minds. Both types of experience, external and internal, “provide the materials in our minds of all his thoughts,” and are “the two sources from which all the ideas we have, or we can have naturally.”

Our senses are first affected in various ways by external objects, resulting in a certain type of perception, and thus their minds. Thus we get the idea from white to yellow, cold, etc.., More generally, what we call sensible qualities.

The feeling is the primary source of our ideas.

Or mind not only to welcome these ideas obtained through passive sensation: the operations of the mind (thinking, doubting, believing, reasoning, willing, etc.). To take the object. As a result, new ideas emerge, and the origin of the latter is no longer the sensation but the reflection.

In both cases, the idea is a perception, or of sensible bodies, or operations of the mind. This is why “having ideas, and perceptions have, one and the same thing.”

We see once again affirmed the empiricism of Locke, which supports this view of the mind as a tabula rasa.

Locke distinguished in the Essay on Human Understanding two kinds of ideas: ideas simple and complex ideas.

Simple ideas are mixed in the sensible object perceived. Yet man can be easily distinguished. He understands that the white and cold snow are distinct qualities simple: “nothing is more obvious to a man that clear and distinct perception he has of those simple ideas.”

These are “all the materials of our knowledge.”

The mind can combine these simple ideas, and make complex ideas “when the mind has once received these simple ideas, it has the power to repeat, compare, to unite them together with an almost infinite variety , and thereby to form new complex ideas. ”

However, it can create for himself new simple ideas.

Care must be taken to distinguish the ideas in the mind and the qualities in bodies, “material modifications that produce these perceptions in the mind.” It should not, in fact, “we figured (as it is perhaps too accustomed to do so) that our ideas are real images or resemblances of something inherent in the subject that produces them.”

In fact, “most of the ideas of sensation in our minds no more like something that exists outside of us, the names are similar to our ideas.”

The author of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding provides a definition of the idea as “a perception that is in our mind when he thinks.” While the quality of the object is “the power or faculty that has to produce a certain idea in mind.”

A distinction that has been made between idea and quality, Locke proposes a second: that between primary qualities and secondary qualities

The primary qualities are those that are “wholly inseparable from the body in a state it is, so it keeps them always, any change or alteration that the body comes to suffer.” They are in “every part of matter.”

This is the extent, strength, shape, motion, number. Locke uses the example of wheat grain. Coupons a grain of wheat in two: each party has always a certain extent, some form, etc..

These qualities produce in us simple ideas, when we perceive them.

Secondary qualities are those things in “the power to produce various sensations in us by means of their first qualities [range, size, etc.].” 1. This is the color, sound, taste, etc..

The qualities come knocking our senses by the action of a particle insensitive.

If the primary qualities are in bodies, and thus are similar to the ideas we have, secondary qualities are not really in things, and ideas that we do not correspond to reality.

To better understand this idea, Locke is an example: “This is sweet, blue or hot in the idea is nothing in the body which we give these names a certain size, shape and particle motion insensitive which they are composed. ”

It is commonly believed that the secondary qualities are in things, and that what we see is the reality. It is believed for example that blood is indeed red. Another example: it seems extravagant to say that a second quality is not as heat in the fire. But our approach finger of flame we wrong. Yet no one would say that pain is actually a property from fire. Also the heat is not an actual quality of the fire. The heat is actually a movement of the particles that compose it, only this movement (which is a first quality) is real.

There is a foreshadowing of the doctrine of primary and secondary qualities in the Meditations of Descartes.

While Descartes had used the example of wax, used in Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding that of almonds in a mortar color and taste changes. Or no change on the kernel has been produced by the ram other than its shape and extent. So the only real thing, these are the primary qualities in the object.

Locke also raises the possibility of third qualities: the power to produce an effect, as the power of the sun to bleach wax, or the power of the match to produce a fire. They are generally regarded as powers, not as qualities of the object. But in fact, that these are secondary qualities.

Locke discusses several operations of the mind: perception, memory, abstraction. Only man has it. Animals do not reason on particular ideas.

Locke comes to presenting complex ideas, that we are combining simple ideas. He gives several examples: “the beauty, gratitude, a man, an army, the universe.”

They are three possible kinds: modes, substances, relations.

Modes, unlike substances, do not subsist by themselves, but are “dependencies substances or conditions.” For example: the triangle, murder.

There are:

– Single-modes, which combine simple ideas of the same species: for example a score (1 +1 +1, etc.).

– Mixed-modes that combine ideas from different species: eg beauty, which combines the ideas of form and color.

– Modes do not really exist, since they are the fruit of the combination of simple ideas in mind.

The complex idea of ​​substance refers to a thing subsisting by itself. For example, the idea of ​​lead, consisting of simple ideas of weight, color, etc..

Relationships are expressing ideas “comparison of an idea with another.”

The author of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding examines some specific ideas, like the idea of ​​space, time, number, etc.., Seeking to identify the precise manner in which they are formed in us.

He criticized the scholastic notion of substance: “We have indeed a vague idea of ​​what it does, not an idea of ​​what it is” 1.

Further, he said that anyone who examines this idea “will find that he has absolutely no other [idea] that I do not know what subject it is quite unknown, and it assumes to be the support of the qualities that are capable of exciting simple ideas in our mind, qualities commonly called accidents […] We give the name of this support material means or what is underneath that supports ”

If we have therefore also clear idea of ​​what the substance of a body, it is the same with respect to the substance of the spirit: the soul.

But we are not allowed to conclude that we do not have a clear idea in their non-existence.

This helps to refute materialism: although we have no idea what a spiritual substance. But we have no longer that of a bodily substance.

Locke reduced the Essay on Human Understanding good and evil to pleasure and pain: the good is what increases the pleasure, the evil which produces pain.

In a famously defined it this desire as a “concern” (uneasiness): The desire is “the concern that a man feels in himself by the absence of something that would give him pleasure if was present. ”

It should also be noted that “anxiety is the main if not the only stimulus that excites industry and human activity.”

Indeed, if we could run out of what is to be satisfied and staying “at home”, we do not want to.

Later, Locke says that what drives people to act is not the highest good, according to a traditional Aristotelian conception, but this concern.

Thus, the drunkard knows that away from the greater good when he starts to drink, but is driven by the concern of running out of what he wants most: alcohol.

Locke described the play of faculties, those of the understanding and the will. He asks questions like: are we free to will? This leads him to define freedom as “a man has the power to do any particular action, according to the will.”

Locke continues to show how some particular ideas form in our mind. It is interesting to note his explanation of the genesis of the idea of ​​God.

We get by internal observation of what happens in us the ideas of existence, life, knowledge, power, pleasure, happiness, etc.. Then “we extend each of these ideas by means of the one we have of the infinite and joining all these ideas together, we form our complex idea of ​​God.”

The author of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding developed his famous theory of personal identity. What is my personal identity? What is that I am a single person, even over the years, everything changed in me: my body, or growing older, my ideas, etc.. ?

Answer: “consciousness based personal identity.”

And “as far as this consciousness can extend over the actions or thoughts already passed, so far extends the identity of that person: the self is now the same as it was then and this past action was made by the same course, the one who gave it to in the mind. ”

This is not the identity of substance, but the identity of consciousness based on me. That is why it would be unfair to punish Socrates awakened to what sleeping Socrates thought.

Some ideas are clear (when the mind takes a blow in itself, has a “full and clear perception”), others obscure (where this is not the case).

Some ideas are distinct (when the mind is able to distinguish them from other similar ideas), others confused (when it is not the case).


Cite this article as: Tim, "Locke: Human Understanding Summary, April 24, 2012, " in Philosophy & Philosophers, April 24, 2012, https://www.the-philosophy.com/locke-human-understanding-summary.

Leave a Reply