Locke an essay concerning human understanding book 1 summary

THE EPISTLE TO THE READER

Together, Locke and Newton would become English figureheads of the Enlightenment. With Newton, Locke did so much to sponsor the 18th-century picture of the world as a kind of celestial clock, a vast and mechanical assembly of matter in motion, with man taking his place as an element, like a cog, in a regular and predetermined universe. He had, of course, been anticipated in this by his predecessor Thomas Hobbes , but he went further.

In the Essay he treats man as an appropriate subject for objective investigation.


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It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that Locke should have had an important effect not merely on philosophy and psychology, but also on thought and literature. Bertrand Russell once said, possibly speaking for effect, that Locke had made a bigger difference to the intellectual climate of mankind than anyone since Aristotle. Nonetheless, there is really no writer in this series who more impressively embodies the English spirit than Locke, in the sense that it is he who teaches us to think for ourselves, to weigh evidence empirically, to keep belief within limits, and to put all things to the test of reason and experience.

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Locke's "Essay Concerning Human Understanding," Book II

In "The Intellectual Setting and Aims of the Essay ," Rogers provides an informative account of the aim and scope of the Essay and of the intellectual development behind it. Of particular interest is the detailed analysis by which Rogers tracks Descartes' and Boyle's influences on Locke's philosophy.

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As Rickless notes, "a proper understanding of Locke's polemic serves to deepen one's understanding of the whole book" 66 since, for example, the anti-nativist arguments of Book I lead to the detailed discussion of the origin of every idea in Book II. Rickless begins by identifying the type of nativism dispositional nativism that Locke's polemic is directed against and its supporters. This part of the essay is useful inasmuch as it allows Rickless to dismiss the widespread view that Locke was addressing a straw man in his polemic But the most impressive part of the essay consists in identifying and analyzing in detail the various arguments Locke provides against nativism.


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This is no easy task and Rickless does an exceptionally good job. He argues that although Locke is successful in criticizing the nativist "Argument from Universal Consent", Locke's own arguments against nativism are much less successful. I particularly agree with Rickless that Locke's appeal to memory in the argument that Rickless calls "The Argument from Lack of Universal Consent" "gives solace to the dispositional nativist" Locke's account of memory E.

But "if we say this, then why can't we say, in defense of dispositional nativism, that ideas that are never brought to consciousness but we have the ability to 'paint' on the canvas of our minds without any accompanying perceptions of having had them before [that is, innate ideas] are also in the mind?

I also concur with Rickless that Locke's "argument from lack of innate ideas" roughly the argument that there are no innate principles because their constitutive ideas are not innate rests on the questionable premise that the ideas, for example, of identity and substance are unclear and hence not innate.

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But unlike Rickless I do not see the force of Locke's argument that it would be pointless for God to give us innate latent principles. But why should these principles' not being known to us imply that they serve no purpose for us? In fact, in a famous passage where Descartes discusses the innateness of the idea of a triangle in an exchange with Gassendi, he argues that the latent presence of the idea of the triangle allows us to recognize triangular shapes in the physical world although we may never be aware of the true idea of the triangle.

Book II of Locke's Essay contains a taxonomy of ideas of central importance for the rest of the Essay and, in particular, for what Locke will argue about the reality of ideas in Book IV. Moreover, it is in this context that Locke lays the foundation of his empiricist epistemology and completes his attack on nativism by providing an empiricist story of the origin of all ideas.

Bolton presents Locke's classification of ideas and points out difficulties with which such a prima facie neat taxonomy is fraught. She offers textual evidence against the common reading -- certainly encouraged by Locke -- of simple ideas as atomic and of complex ideas as compositional "Ideas that have compositional and noncompositional structure are found on both sides of the divide" She points out that Locke's taxonomy imposes constraints on his account of ideas and leaves no room for ideas we actually have 88, Finally, Bolton shows, convincingly in my view, that a detailed analysis of Locke's account of simple ideas of sensation and of complex ideas of relation and substance reveals possible limitations of Locke's anti-nativism 73, 78, 89, In Book II, Locke draws the famous distinction between primary and secondary qualities.

Michael Jacovides's essay, "Locke's Distinctions between Primary and Secondary Qualities" chapter four , argues that Locke did not draw one distinction but many. One of the greatest merits of the essay is Jacovides's insightful analysis of the various arguments that Locke provides in favor of such distinctions.

Vere Chappell, in the essay "Power in Locke's Essay" chapter five , explains what Locke meant by "power" in general and then devotes most of his attention to an examination of Locke's views on human will, freedom and motivation. Edwin McCann, in "Locke on Substance" chapter six , presents the traditional interpretation of substance as the logical notion of a substratum to qualities or the subject of predication. In light of the difficulties of reconciling this view of substance with Locke's corpuscularianism, alternative interpretations of Locke's account of substance have been offered in the literature.

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McCann, however, argues that the traditional interpretation fares better as an interpretation of Locke's views than any alternative reading. Particularly interesting is McCann's criticism of what is the most common alternative way of interpreting Locke's account, that is, the view according to which Locke identifies the substratum with the real essence of body. There are good grounds for this alternative reading.


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First, although, as McCann points out, Locke never explicitly identifies the substratum with real essence , there is strong circumstantial evidence for such identification. The reasoning sustaining the alternative view is that since, according to Locke, the sensible properties of a thing are observable to us but its substance is not, and similarly the real essence of a body is not observable to us but the sensible qualities flowing from it are, Locke identifies substance with the real essence or unknown constitution of things Second, although it is true that the notion of a substratum is a logical one whereas the notion of real essence is a causal one, there is no inconsistency in one thing being related both logically and causally to the same qualities.

Finally, this alternative interpretation "avoids saddling Locke with a commitment to substrata as real, distinct entities" Despite the fact that McCann admits these points, he insists that especially Locke's correspondence with Stillingfleet provides evidence against this identification Gideon Yaffe, in his essay "Locke on Identity and Diversity" chapter seven , offers an original reading of Locke's theory of personal identity. Yaffe argues that the simple-memory and appropriation theories of personal identity are mistaken because they fail to appreciate the link Locke creates between the metaphysical question of personal identity and the moral question of punishment and reward.

According to Yaffe, Locke's theory is a "susceptibility-to-punishment theory" , according to which "the assumed order of priority of the metaphysical and the moral [is reversed]: the metaphysical facts -- the facts about who is the same person as whom -- just are moral facts; they are facts about who is appropriately punished or rewarded for those past acts" This is certainly a thought-provoking interpretation of Locke's views on personal identity.

One worry is whether this theory is free of the problem of circularity that famously troubles other readings of Locke's theory However, Yaffe has an interesting but possibly counterintuitive response to this worry According to Yaffe, the "susceptibility-to-punishment theory" is not circular because "[who] is identical to whom depends on who is rightly rewarded or punished rather than the reverse" Since it is the laws of nature "God's laws linking crimes with punishments and good acts with rewards" that determine the identity between actor and sufferer, "whether or not a later and earlier act of consciousness are the same depends on the content of natural laws" and, so, the circularity is broken.

Thomas Lennon, in "Locke on Ideas and Representation" chapter eight , discusses one of the key concepts of Locke's Essay. What are ideas, for Locke? How do they represent things to us?

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Background

Do they represent things to us as proxies between the mind and extra-mental reality, hence lifting the so-called veil of ideas? Or are ideas simply modes of presenting these objects to the mind?

Lennon argues for the latter reading of Locke's account of ideas throughout the article and addresses other interesting questions such as, what is it that makes an idea represent one object rather than another for Locke? In Book III, Locke presents his theory of language and draws the famous distinction between nominal and real essences. In "Locke on Essences and Classification" chapter nine , Margaret Atherton discusses Locke's distinction between nominal and real essences.