2.1 Book I
At the beginning of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke says that since his purpose is “to enquire into the Original, Certainty and Extant of human knowledge, together with the grounds and degrees of Belief, Opinion and Assent” he is going to begin with ideas — the materials out of which knowledge is constructed. His first task is to “enquire into the Original of these Ideas…and the ways whereby the Understanding comes to be furnished with them” (I. 1. 3. p. 44). The role of Book I of the Essay is to make the case that being innate is not a way in which the understanding is furnished with principles and ideas. Locke treats innateness as an empirical hypothesis and argues that there is no good evidence to support it. Locke describes innate ideas as “some primary notions…Characters as it were stamped upon the Mind of Man, which the Soul receives in its very first Being; and brings into the world with it” (I. 2. 1. p. 48). In pursuing this enquiry, Locke rejects the claim that there are speculative innate principles (I. Chapter 2), practical innate moral principles (I. Chapter 3) or that we have innate ideas of God, identity or impossibility (I. Chapter 4). Locke rejects arguments from universal assent and attacks dispositional accounts of innate principles. Thus, in considering what would count as evidence from universal assent to such propositions as “What is, is” or “It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be” he holds that children and idiots should be aware of such truths if they were innate but that they “have not the least apprehension or thought of them.” Why should children and idiots be aware of and able to articulate such propositions? Locke says: “It seems to me a near Contradiction to say that there are truths imprinted on the Soul, which it perceives or understands not; imprinting if it signify anything, being nothing else but the making certain Truths to be perceived” (I. 2. 5., p. 49). So, Locke's first point is that if propositions were innate they should be immediately perceived — by infants and idiots (and indeed everyone else) — but there is no evidence that they are. Locke then proceeds to attack dispositional accounts that say, roughly, that innate propositions are capable of being perceived under certain circumstances. Until these circumstances come about the propositions remain unperceived in the mind. With the advent of these conditions, the propositions are then perceived. Locke gives the following argument against innate propositions being dispositional: For if any one [proposition] may [be in the mind but not be known]; then, by the same Reason, all Propositions that are true, and the Mind is ever capable of assenting to, may be said to be in the Mind, and to be imprinted: since if any one can be said to be in the Mind, which it never yet knew, it must be only because it is capable of knowing it; and so the Mind is of all Truths it ever shall know. (I. 2. 5., p. 50) The essence of this argument and many of Locke's other arguments against dispositional accounts of innate propositions is that such dispositional accounts do not provide an adequate criterion for distinguishing innate propositions from other propositions that the mind may come to discover. Thus, even if some criterion is proposed, it will turn out not to do the work it is supposed to do. For example Locke considers the claim that innate propositions are discovered and assented to when people “come to the use of Reason” (I. 2. 6., p. 51). Locke considers two possible meanings of this phrase. One is that we use reason to discover these innate propositions. Here he argues that the criterion is inadequate because it would not distinguish axioms from theorems in mathematics. Presumably the theorems are not innate while the axioms should be. But if both need to be discovered by reason, then there is no distinction between them. Nor will it do to say that one class (the axioms) are assented to as soon as...
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