An essay concerning human understanding online text

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ILT edition of Locke's Essay.

Locke's 'Essay Concerning Human Understanding'

Chinese University of Hong Kong online edition of the Essay. The article on Locke in the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy is an authoritative outline and has an appropriate bibliography attached. This will take you further in various specialist directions. Best is probably the outstanding Episteme site. The mind doesn't, for instance, stop existing when someone is in a dreamless sleep and then suddenly reappear when they wake up. Rather, the mind is there the whole time, though dormant.

Locke then applies the "mode" treatment to the simple ideas of pleasure and pain. In his scheme, love, hatred, desire, and fear are all "modes of pleasure and pain" because all of them are mental attitudes related to those two basic phenomena. Even the most complicated emotions, Locke argues, have some relationship to pain and pleasure, and thus to the two main sources of ideas: sensation and reflection.

This marathon chapter does much more than its simple label would imply.

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In it Locke first distinguishes between two kinds of power: passive and active. Passive power is the ability of a body set into motion to "transfer" that motion to something else. A billiard ball, for example, has the passive power to move other balls on the table if it comes into contact with them. But the ball only has this "power" because it has been struck by the cue. Active power, in contrast, is the ability to "cause" motion, and not merely to transfer it. For Locke, this is an attribute of "spirits," including the human mind.

Actively willing our bodies to move is, he says, an act fundamentally distinct from being passively moved about.

The meat of the chapter is in Locke's discussion of free will. For Locke, will is a "power to begin or forbear, continue or end several actions of our minds, and motions of our bodies. Taking these definitions as his starting point, Locke says it is absurd to ask "whether will be free. These preferences, in turn, are constrained by our inborn inclination to seek pleasure and shun pain. The differences in human activity are based on our different ideas of what will bring pleasure and pain, as formed by our education and judgment. Moreover, we tend to value our immediate desires over any long-term consideration.

For both of these reasons, we often misjudge what is good for us in the long run. Locke 's terminology can be a little hard to follow here. To reiterate, a simple mode is a kind of complex idea built out of a simple idea.

Like other modes, it is an attribute or quality that a substance can have, and not a substance in itself. In his later years Locke devoted much of his attention to theology. His major work in this field was The Reasonableness of Christianity , published again anonymously in This work was controversial because Locke argued that many beliefs traditionally believed to be mandatory for Christians were unnecessary.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Locke argued for a highly ecumenical form of Christianity. Closer to the time of his death Locke wrote a work on the Pauline Epistles. The work was unfinished, but published posthumously.

A short work on miracles also dates from this time and was published posthumously. Locke suffered from health problems for most of his adult life. In particular, he had respiratory ailments which were exacerbated by his visits to London where the air quality was very poor. His health took a turn for the worse in and he became increasingly debilitated. He died on 28 October while Damaris Masham was reading him the Psalms.

He was buried at High Laver, near Oates. He wrote his own epitaph which was both humble and forthright. He reports that they were able to make little headway on this topic and that they very quickly met with a number of confusions and difficulties. Locke realized that to make progress on this topic it was first necessary to examine something more fundamental: the human understanding.

We need to know how we acquire knowledge. We also need to know which areas of inquiry we are well suited to and which are epistemically closed to us, that is, which areas are such that we could not know them even in principle. We further need to know what knowledge consists in. Locke thinks that it is only once we understand our cognitive capabilities that we can suitably direct our researches into the world. In Book I Locke rules out one possible origin of our knowledge. He argues that our knowledge cannot have been innate.

This sets up Book II in which Locke argues that all of our ideas come from experience. In this book he seeks to give an account of how even ideas like God, infinity, and space could have been acquired through our perceptual access to the world and our mental operations.

Book III is something of a digression as Locke turns his attention to language and the role it plays in our theorizing. Finally, Book IV discusses knowledge, belief, and opinion. Locke argues that knowledge consists of special kinds of relations between ideas and that we should regulate our beliefs accordingly. According to Locke, ideas are the fundamental units of mental content and so play an integral role in his explanation of the human mind and his account of our knowledge.

Locke was not the first philosopher to give ideas a central role; Descartes, for example, had relied heavily on them in explaining the human mind. Ideas are the sole entities upon which our minds work. On one reading, ideas are mental objects. The thought is that when an agent perceives an external world object like an apple there is some thing in her mind which represents that apple.

So when an agent considers an apple what she is really doing is thinking about the idea of that apple.

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On a different reading, ideas are mental actions. The thought here is that when an agent perceives an apple she is really perceiving the apple in a direct, unmediated way.

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The idea is the mental act of making perceptual contact with the external world object. In recent years, most commentators have adopted the first of these two readings. But this debate will be important in the discussion of knowledge below. Finding specific targets, however, might not be that important given that much of what Locke seeks to do in Book I is motivate and make plausible the alternative account of idea acquisition that he offers in Book II.

The nativist view which Locke attacks in Book I holds that human beings have mental content which is innate in the mind. This means that there are certain ideas units of mental content which were neither acquired via experience nor constructed by the mind out of ideas received in experience. The most popular version of this position holds that there are certain ideas which God planted in all minds at the moment of their creation. Locke attacks both the view that we have any innate principles for example, the whole is greater than the part, do unto others as you would have done unto you, etc.

He also uses evidence from travel literature to point out that many non-Europeans deny what were taken to be innate moral maxims and that some groups even lack the idea of a God. Locke takes the fact that not all humans have these ideas as evidence that they were not implanted by God in humans minds, and that they are therefore acquired rather than innate. This makes it sound as though the mind is nothing prior to the advent of ideas.

He makes it clear that the mind has any number of inherent capacities, predispositions, and inclinations prior to receiving any ideas from sensation. His anti-nativist point is just that none of these is triggered or exercised until the mind receives ideas from sensation. In Book II Locke offers his alternative theory of how the human mind comes to be furnished with the ideas it has.

Every day we think of complex things like orange juice, castles, justice, numbers, and motion.

An essay concerning human understanding. (Book, ) []

These two are the Fountains of Knowledge, from whence all the Ideas we have, or can naturally have, do spring. In the above passage Locke allows for two distinct types of experience. Outer experience, or sensation, provides us with ideas from the traditional five senses. Sight gives us ideas of colors, hearing gives us ideas of sounds, and so on. Thus, my idea of a particular shade of green is a product of seeing a fern. And my idea of a particular tone is the product of my being in the vicinity of a piano while it was being played.

Inner experience, or reflection, is slightly more complicated. Locke thinks that the human mind is incredibly active; it is constantly performing what he calls operations. For example, I often remember past birthday parties, imagine that I was on vacation, desire a slice of pizza, or doubt that England will win the World Cup. Locke believes that we are able to notice or experience our mind performing these actions and when we do we receive ideas of reflection.

These are ideas such as memory, imagination, desire, doubt, judgment, and choice. But many of my ideas are not simple ideas. My idea of a glass of orange juice or my idea of the New York subway system, for example, could not be classed a simple ideas. Locke calls ideas like these complex ideas. His view is that complex ideas are the product of combining our simple ideas together in various ways. For example, my complex idea of a glass of orange juice consists of various simple ideas the color orange, the feeling of coolness, a certain sweet taste, a certain acidic taste, and so forth combined together into one object.

Thus, Locke believes our ideas are compositional. Simple ideas combine to form complex ideas. And these complex ideas can be combined to form even more complex ideas.

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