John Locke, a renowned English philosopher in the seventeenth century, argued against the
pre-existing prevalent belief of innate knowledge, such as those led by Descartes. Many of
Locke’s arguments begin with criticisms on philosophers’ opinion on innate knowledge,
notably Descartes. Therefore, many of Locke’s arguments are direct rebuttals of Descartes
and other philosophers’ beliefs about the existence of innate knowledge. To arrive at the
conclusion that innate knowledge is impossible, Locke comes with various premises and
rebuttals that add weight to his arguments.
First, Locke emphasizes that knowledge and ideas are learned through experience, not
innately. He argues that people’s minds at birth are ‘blank slate’ that is later filled through
experience. Here, the ‘senses’ play an important role because ‘the knowledge of some truths,
as Locke confesses, is very in the mind; but in a way that shows them not to be innate’. By
this, Locke argues that some ideas are actually in the mind from an early age but these ideas
are furnished by the senses starting in the womb. For example, the color blue and the
‘blueness’ of something is not that which is learned innately but is some is learned through
exposures to a blue object or thing. So if we do have a universal understanding of ‘blueness’,
it is because we are exposed to blue objects ever since we were young. The blue sky is what
many would acquaint with blue easily and at a young age.
Second, Locke argues that people have no innate principles. Locke contended that innate
principles rely upon innate ideas within people but such innate ideas do not exist. He says
this on the basis that there is no ‘universal consent’ that everyone agrees upon. Locke quotes
that ‘There is nothing more commonly taken for granted that there are certain principles
universally agreed upon by all mankind, but there are none to which all mankind give a
universal assent’. This argues against the very foundation of the idea of innate knowledge
because principles that garner universal assent are thought to be known innately, simply because it is the best explanation available. However, it cannot even be an explanation for
such belief because no ‘universal consent’ exists. Rationalists argue that there are in fact
some principles that are universally agreed upon, such as the principle of identity. But it is
far-fetched to claim that everyone knows this principle of identity because for the least,
children and idiots, the less-intelligent ones are not acquainted with it.
There are several objections to these premises and arguments that are outlined above.
The argument by Locke that there are some ideas that are in the mind at an early age gives
credence to argument for the innate ideas. For ideas to be furnished by the senses later on
there has to be ideas that are laid as foundations. If such ideas are innate, as acknowledged by
Locke, no matter how trivial or less significant these ideas may be as one may argue, such
claim could give weight to the idea of innate knowledge. Innate knowledge or ideas, after all,
doesn’t imply that all ideas are innate because as one can see, there are things that we learn
through our experiences and encounters in life as well. So as long as there is even the basic
principle that is innate early in life, then innate knowledge can be known to exist.
The validity behind the claim that there is no ‘universal consent’ is also questionable.
Locke argues that no principle that all mankind agrees upon exists because there are those
who are not acquainted with such principle, notably children and idiots. However, the terms
children and idiots are somewhat misguided. How are children and especially the idiots
categorized? Is there a specific criteria used for those who are classified as...