An Essay Concerning Human Understanding - Book I Summary & Analysis

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Book I Summary and Analysis

Locke begins his Essay by claiming that it is understanding that separates mankind form all other creatures on earth. It is the understanding, the ability to reason, that allows humans to create technology and to organize our environment. Our understanding, though, like our eyes, is an instrument of perception and apprehension and is, therefore, closed to direct perception itself. In the same way that we can not see the very eyes that allow us to see other things, we also are not able to direct our understanding back in on itself to directly comprehend our own powers of reasoning. Here, Locke is, no doubt, partially leveling an attack at his predecessor Rene Descartes who claimed to have a method that allowed him to introspect directly into the workings of his understanding. Since, as Locke claims, we do not have direct access to our understanding, we must find a way to look at understanding in a vacuum and see what we can gather from this method.

Locke claims that the purpose of his investigation is to break the understanding into its constituent parts. First, the origin, certainty, and extent of human knowledge, that is, how we come to know things, how well we know them, and the types of things we can know. Second he wants to analyze the grounds and degrees of belief, opinion, and assent. That is, where our beliefs come from, why some beliefs are better than others and why we should or should not believe certain things. What the mind is, whether it is material or spiritual, is not part of his investigation. Rather, his investigation is into what we would call in contemporary philosophy Epistemology,—the sources, criteria, and meaning of knowledge and belief.

Locke continues and concludes chapter 1 by attacking another idea, also from Descartes, that we need to begin an investigation of understanding by doubting everything that we know. This, Locke, claims is absurd; our understanding given to us by God, according to Locke, will necessarily be up to the job of investigating our most important questions. Furthermore, the fact that our understanding may be limited does not in any way invalidate the knowledge that we may still have access to. Some knowledge is better than none, even if we are never truly able to true understand. Locke finishes his introductory chapter by defining his use of idea as the object of understanding in the mind.

In Chapter 2 of Book I, Locke is arguing against the claim that there are ideas in the mind that are innate, that is, present before experience. It is Locke's central argument in this work that there are no innate ideas but rather that the mind needs sensation from experience to generate ideas. In this chapter Locke deploys his main argument against innate ideas. For an idea to be innate, even an idea that seems as natural as it is impossible for the same thing to be and not be, the idea must be understood by anyone who understands the words used in the sentence including children and idiots. Locke then goes on to show that not everyone does, in fact, understand or know many of the ideas that defenders of the innateness hypothesis claim they should. As Locke argues, it is not enough for most people to know some idea for it to be innate, it must be known by everyone and this is too high a hurdle for most ideas to pass. Locke claims that ideas come from experience and it is through language that we are able to name these experiences and to organize and arrange them into more abstract ideas. Without language and the content that come from experience, knowledge and, hence, innate knowledge would be impossible. Before we can know whether the idea that it is impossible for the same thing to be and not be is an innate truth, we must have a clear idea what "impossible" means. However, as Locke shows, very intelligent adults have different ideas of what "impossible" means and hence their understanding of the statement that it is impossible for the same thing to be and not be will vary. Far from showing that the previous claim is innate, we have learned that there are many ways of understanding the statement, hence it cannot be innate.

In the previous chapter, Locke argues that there are no innate principles in the mind because even for obvious seeming principles, there is never the universal assent that is necessary for a principle to be innate. In this chapter, Locke seeks to make the same argument for practical rather than just theoretical principles and ideas. In this context, practical principles are principles that are meant to be action guiding including moral principles. While Locke admits that many moral principles and principles of justice seem obvious and are often even followed by bandits and the immoral, he claims that this does not show that they are innate. Moral rules and principles need to be justified by reasons. Any moral principle, even one so fundamental as the golden rule, can have asked of it, "why should I follow that?" without any confusion. This shows that the moral rules, though natural, are not innate. Locke is arguing here, at least tangentially, for the authority of natural principles of reason over innate principles. Natural principles are, like they sound, natural for humans, but not necessarily innate. For instance, property is a natural convention for humans to establish, but knowledge of how and which property rules to establish must be learned.

In the final chapter of Book I, Locke returns to the idea that even if primary sensations are felt in the womb or very early on, this still does not meant that the ideas that refer to those sensations, say pain or pleasure, are also innate. Those ideas and the words that refer to them must be learned. He again returns to the idea that even if two people have a notion of some idea, say impossibility, it does not mean that the idea itself will mean the same thing to both people; this shows that the idea is not innate. To conclude, he repeats his main argument from the section that there is no universal assent to the ideas that those like Descartes claim to be innate, hence there is no way that those ideas are, in fact, innate.

This section contains 1,074 words
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)
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