Summary Essay Concerning Human Understanding

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

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John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is a major work in the history of philosophy and a founding text in the empiricist approach to philosophical investigation. Although ostensibly an investigation into the nature of knowledge and understanding (epistemology) this work ranges farther afield than one might expect. Instead of just being merely a work in epistemology, this is really a reappraisal of many traditional philosophical questions, metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, and religious.

Locke begins his work in Book I by explaining the origin of the content of understanding, ideas. Ideas originate only from experience, claims Locke. His main argument in this Book is to argue against the idea that there is some knowledge that arises prior to experience, that is, the idea that some of our ideas or knowledge are innate. Locke uses several arguments against the innateness hypothesis but his main argument is that for an idea to be innate it would have to be universally shared and present in children and idiots. We can find no such knowledge and, hence, there is no reason to believe in innate ideas.

Having dealt with innate ideas and the origins of ideas, Locke turns in Book II to a detailed analysis of the content of knowledge, ideas. He categorizes ideas into simple and complex ideas. Simple ideas are generated directly by experience and refer to simple objects of sensation. Through a variety of simple procedures, simple ideas are transformed into complex ideas. These ideas can be abstracted further and further into general ideas. Locke then goes on to describe the multitude of ways our minds can operate on simple and complex ideas to generate what we think of as many other faculties and content of the mind. There is a short digression on the active and passive powers and an argument for a kind of compatabalism regarding free will. There is also an analysis of good and evil into pleasure and pain. Finally, Locke tries to account for false and fantastical ideas.

Book III deals with the signs that we use to communicate ideas to ourselves and to others, words. Book III follows roughly the same form as Book II, explaining how the different kinds of ideas can be communicated as different kinds of words. Towards the end of the Book, Locke discusses the importance of words to philosophy and to truth in general.

Book IV concerns knowledge generally and Locke spends the section explaining how our ideas, derived from experience and our words can account for our knowledge of various things. Locke also gives a unique empiricist proof of the existence for God and a strong attack on the possibility of faith and revelation. Finally Locke concludes by laying out a program for the future development of science along Lockean, empiricist lines. Many attempt to follow his trail, including David Hume and many modern philosophers. Though this work is idiosyncratic, it is hard to overemphasize its influence on philosophy and the development of thought over the last several hundred years.

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John Locke’s purpose in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is to inquire into the origin and extent of human knowledge. His conclusion—that all knowledge is derived from sense experience—became the principal tenet of empiricism, which has dominated Western philosophy ever since. Even George Berkeley, who rejected Locke’s distinction between sense qualities independent of the mind and sense qualities dependent on the mind, produced his idealism in response to Locke’s provocative philosophy and gave it an empirical cast that reflected Western culture’s rejection of innate or transcendental knowledge.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is divided into four books: book 1, “Of Innate Notions”; book 2, “Of Ideas”; book 3, “Of Words”; and book 4, “Of Knowledge, Certain and Probable.”

In preparation for his radical claim that all ideas are derived from experience, Locke begins his essay with a careful consideration of the thesis that there are innate ideas. Locke first examines the notion that there are ideas that are a necessary part of human understanding and are, therefore, common to all people. Locke’s attack on this thesis is from two directions. He argues that many of the ideas that are supposed to be innate can be and have been derived naturally from sense experience, that not all people assent to those ideas that are supposed to be innate. Locke maintains that even if reason enables people to discover the truth of certain ideas, those ideas cannot be said to be innate, for reason is needed to discover their truth.

In book 2, “Of Ideas,” Locke considers the origin of such ideas as those expressed by the words “whiteness,” “hardness,” “sweetness,” “thinking,” “motion,” “man,” and the like. The second section states his conclusion: Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters, without any ideas. How comes it to be furnished? . . . Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience. . . . Our observation, employed either about external sensible objects, or about the internal operations of our minds perceived and reflected on by ourselves, is that which supplies our understandings with all the materials of knowledge.

The two sources of ideas, according to Locke, are sensation and reflection. By the senses people come to have perceptions of things, thereby acquiring the ideas of yellow, white, or cold, for example. Then, by reflection, by consideration of the mind in operation, people acquire the ideas of thinking, doubting, believing, knowing, willing, and so on.

By sensation people acquire knowledge of external objects; by reflection people acquire knowledge of their own minds. Ideas that are derived from sensation are simple; that is, they present “one uniform appearance,” even though a number of simple ideas may come together in the perception of an external object. The mind dwells on the simple ideas, comparing them to one another, combining them, but never inventing them. By a “simple idea” Locke...

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