Are There Any Innate Ideas?

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‘It is an established opinion amongst men, that there are in the understanding certain innate principles; some primary notions, characters, as it were, stamped upon the mind of man, which the soul receives in its first being, and brings into the world with it.’ [1]

Innate ideas are those principles that are found present in the mind at birth as opposed to those which arrive and develop throughout our lives as a result of sensory experience. Whether or not these innate principles exist, holds for many philosophers many important implications. There are many examples of philosophers who at various times in the history of philosophy have put forward this theory in order to locate the source of valid knowledge. Famously, Plato claimed that knowledge procured from the senses is invalid. That the data received is merely a reflection or a shadow of reality and that the pure, true image of reality is imprinted upon our souls before birth. Without the possibility of any innate notions his theory would be implicitly invalid. René Descartes is another of these examples. Descartes asserted in The Meditations that our notion of the existence of the self: cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), the existence of God, and some logical propositions like, from nothing comes nothing are all innate ideas and are all central to his philosophy. He believed that these innate ideas appear to us above all other notions in a way that is ‘clear and distinct’ [2] and that it is these ideas that are the source of all real knowledge. More recently, and in opposition to the already established rationalist movement, which bases itself on the belief that our knowledge of the world is acquired by the use of reason, and that sensory input is inherently unreliable, more a source of error than of knowledge, grew a school of philosophy known as empiricism. John Locke, who has come to be regarded as the chief founding father of this movement launched his attack on innate ideas when he published his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690, which is an extensive philosophical enquiry into the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations. In direct opposition to Locke was one of his greatest admirers and subsequently his primary critic, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who reacted to this essay by composing his own, New Essays on the Human Understanding. His essay was a systematical critique of Lock’s work in which he examined each single topic raised and then altered them according to his own views and principles. The result of this academic relationship is a systematically bi-polar account on the human understanding and for the purpose of this area of study, an account of innate ideas. In fact, one of the striking features of this discussion is that it is an intellectual battle between a great rationalist and a great empiricist. Locke, the empiricist, believing that experience is richer than thinking, stating that ‘no mans knowledge here can go beyond his experience’ [3] and Leibniz, the rationalist believing that ‘there are two kinds of truth: truths of reasoning and truths of fact.’ [4] This crucial distinction separating the two philosophers provides us with the essence for their difference of opinion. The belief in innate ideas is a distinguishing feature of rationalism and the disbelief being distinguishing feature of empiricism. For this reason, I have chosen these two philosophers to guide the flow of this essay, with each philosopher contributing to the individual arguments involved in their final claim, in order to create a broad debate. Leibniz's New Essays on Human Understanding is a valuable commentary on Locke’s work which I hope will help to convey an objection to some of his theories.

Before continuing with the discussion it is necessary to establish a definition of the term idea. I shall use Locke’s definition of an idea as he provides a precise and simple one. For Locke an idea is quite simply ‘[that] which the mind can be...
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