An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Infobox Book
name = An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

image_caption = Title page for the first edition
author = John Locke
cover_artist =
country = England
language = English
subject = Epistemology
publisher =
release_date = 1690
media_type =
pages =
isbn =

"An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" is one of John Locke's two most famous works, the other being his "Second Treatise on Civil Government". First appearing in 1690, the essay concerns the foundation of human knowledge and understanding. He describes the mind at birth as a blank slate (tabula rasa, although he did not use those actual words) filled later through experience. The essay was one of the principal sources of empiricism in modern philosophy, and influenced many enlightenment philosophers, such as David Hume and Bishop Berkeley.

Book II of the "Essay" sets out Locke's theory of ideas, including his distinction between passively acquired "simple ideas", such as "red," "sweet," "round," etc., and actively built "complex ideas", such as numbers, causes and effects, abstract ideas, ideas of substances, identity, and diversity. Locke also distinguishes between the truly existing "primary qualities" of bodies, like shape, motion and the arrangement of minute particles, and the "secondary qualities" that are "powers to produce various sensations in us" inote|"Essay", II.viii.10 such as "red" and "sweet." These "secondary qualities", Locke claims, are dependent on the "primary qualities". He also offers a theory of personal identity, offering a largely psychological criterion. Book III is concerned with language, and Book IV with knowledge, including intuition, mathematics, moral philosophy, natural philosophy ("science"), faith, and opinion.

Book I & II

Locke's main thesis is that the mind of a newborn is a blank slate (tabula rasa) and that all ideas are developed from experience. Book I of the "Essay" is devoted to an attack on nativism or the doctrine of innate ideas. Locke allowed that some ideas are in the mind from an early age, but argued that such ideas are furnished by the senses starting in the womb: for instance, differences between colors or tastes. If we have a universal understanding of a concept like sweetness, it is not because this is an innate idea, but because we are all exposed to sweet tastes at an early age.

Along these lines, Locke also argued that people have no innate principles. Locke contended that innate principles would rely upon innate ideas, which do not exist. For instance, we cannot have an innate sense that God should be worshipped, when we cannot even agree on a conception of God or whether God exists at all. inote|"Essay", I.iii One of Locke's fundamental arguments against innate ideas is the very fact that there is no truth to which all people attest. He took the time to argue against a number of propositions that rationalists offer as universally accepted truth, for instance the principle of identity, pointing out that at the very least children and idiots are often unaware of these propositions.

Whereas Book I is intended to reject the doctrine of innate ideas proposed by Descartes and the rationalists, Book II explains that every idea is derived from experience either by sensation – direct sensory information – or reflection – "the perception of the operations of our own mind within us, as it is employed about the ideas it has got".

Reaction, response, and influence

Locke's empiricist viewpoint was sharply criticized by rationalists. In 1704 Gottfried Leibniz wrote a rationalist response to Locke's work in the form of a chapter-by-chapter rebuttal, the "Nouveaux essais sur l'entendement humain" ("New Essays on Human Understanding"). At the same time, Locke's work provided crucial groundwork for the work of future empiricists such as David Hume.


*Clapp, James Gordon. " [ John Locke] ." "Encyclopedia of Philosophy". New York: Macmillan, 1967.
*Uzgalis, William. " [ John Locke] ." "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy". Retrieved on July 22, 2007.
*Ayers, Michael. "Locke: Epistemology and Ontology". 2 vols. London: Routledge, 1991.
*Bennett, Jonathan. "Locke, Berkeley, Hume: Central Themes". Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.
*Bizzell, Patricia, and Bruce Herzberg, eds. "The Rhetorical Tradition". 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001.
*Chappell, Vere, ed. "The Cambridge Companion to Locke". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
*Fox, Christopher. "Locke and the Scriblerians". Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
*Jolley, Nicholas. "Locke: His Philosophical Thought". Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
*Lowe, E.J. "Locke on Human Understanding". London: Routledge, 1995.
*Yolton, John. "John Locke and the Way of Ideas". Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956.
*Yolton, John. "John Locke and the Compass of Human Understanding". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

External links

* [ John Locke at Project Gutenberg] , including the "Essay".
* [ Locke chronology]
* [ Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on John Locke]
* [ Locke links]

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