An Essay Concerning Human Understanding - Book II, Chapters 1-15 Summary & Analysis

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Book II, Chapters 1-15 Summary and Analysis

In Book I, Locke considers whether or not the material of our understanding, that is, ideas are innate or supplied to us by experience. Locke gives several proofs that suggest ideas come solely from experience and in Book II he sets out to give a full account of how ideas are developed from experience and the different aspects of our ideas and how they fit together in understanding. In Book II we find the famous metaphor from Locke of the mind as a "blank slate," though he actually writes that, before experience, the mind is a white piece of paper. Continuing the metaphor, ideas are written on the paper by experience. In this Book, Locke will explain exactly how experience writes those ideas into understanding and exactly how understanding then uses those ideas.

The first several chapters of the Book describe ideas in general and their origin in experience and sensation. First, Locke states again that experience is the only possible foundation of our knowledge. Once we have dispelled the idea that innate knowledge is possible, we must accept that all knowledge ultimately comes form experience. Locke argues that we come to have ideas from experience in two ways, through sensation and reflection. Sensation is the process that produces ideas from sensory sensation. Most of our basic ideas are from sensation such as our knowledge of color, sound, and taste. Reflection is the process of generating ideas from operations of our own minds. In some sense, reflection is just internal sensation of the operating of the mind and is not totally different from sensation. Both of these processes generate ideas from experience, only the object of experience changes; for sensation the objects are external, for reflection internal. The types of ideas that these two faculties generate are one of two kinds, either simple or complex. Simple ideas are uniform and unable to be broken up into constituent parts. Complex ideas are just the combination of several simple ideas into a new idea.

Locke goes over several examples of different simple and complex ideas and eventually comes to a notion of primary and secondary qualities of things. Some qualities of a thing, their color, taste, or texture for example, can change if facts about the thing are changed. For instance, an object may change color in different lights or if one is colorblind. Also, as Locke notes, a walnut that is crushed into a pulp will look very different in terms of color and texture than an uncrushed walnut. Food that has been cooked often tastes very different from the same food uncooked. Garlic can taste very pungent if it is uncooked but if it is even cooked slightly, its pungent flavor will change to a sweet and pleasing flavor. There are other qualities of a thing, however, that are primary and cannot change without changing the thing itself. Some of these include what Locke calls number and bulk. Number is the clearer of these two qualities and basically just says that if a thing is split it will become something different than what it previously was. Locke argues that primary qualities are, in some sense, in the thing itself, whereas secondary qualities arise out of the interaction of the thing and faculties of perception.

After this discussion of primary and secondary qualities, Locke goes on to explain the faculties of perception, retention, and other important faculties of understanding. First, Locke discusses perception, which, as he claims, is the passive faculty by which most of our ideas are generated. In some ways perception is the original route by which all of our ideas are generated. Besides this basic, passive faculty, we also need a faculty of retention. Retention allows us to store our ideas so that they may be recalled and used again in the future. This faculty is typically called memory. What Locke says here is not of great interest, though he does think that our ideas degrade over time and must be continually renewed through experience lest they vanish forever. Locke then discusses discerning, comparing, and composition. Discerning is the faculty that allows us to distinguish one idea from another. Comparing allows us to determine the difference in relations between ideas, while composition allows us to combine several simple ideas into complex ones. The final faculty that he discusses here is that of abstraction, whereby the mind subtracts qualities from particular ideas and turns an individual idea into a general representative of a type. So that to abstract form a particular chair to the notion of a representative type "chair," we subtract all that is specific and unique about a specific chair to give us a generalized idea of what any chair would have to have as qualities.

Locke then considers complex ideas in more detail. He has already suggested how complex ideas are generated but here he specifies that complex ideas can be made by combing several simple ideas into a new, complex idea, by bringing two simple ideas together without uniting them but seeing then as in some sense a new idea, or by abstracting from a simple idea into a general idea. Although there are many different complex ideas, Locke thinks that all complex ideas can be organized into three categories: modes, substances, and relations. Modes are different combinations or variations on a substance. Of these there are two kinds: simple and complex modes. The second category is substance, which represents the distinct separation between two things. That is, when a thing, or rather the idea of a thing, cannot meaningfully be divided, that constitutes a substance. The third category is that of relation or the idea of comparing two or more things on some dimension.

After briefly describing these three categories of complex ideas, Locke goes into some more depth on each category. The first is simple modes and to explain the notion, he uses the example of space. By taking the simple idea of space, derived from our sensation of solidity, we can modify it or vary it to generate all kinds of ideas such as distance or place. Finally we also generate two other key ideas which we will discuss later, body and extension. Duration, and ultimately our ideas of time, are also derived from a simple idea made into a complex idea in the same way by changing its modes, extending or reducing.

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