John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Reply Wed 26 May, 2010 03:34 pm
I recently finished John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Let me just start off by saying that I love John Locke; not because I am an American that embraces the ideals set forth in his Second Treatise, but it is because he is my catalyst into philosophy. I remember picking up an abridged version of the Essay and simply being overwhelmed by Locke's genius, although I have to admit at that time I did not understand about 75% of the work. Since my first read through I know what Locke is finally talking about.

About a year later I found a Dover edition of the Essay that was unabridged and complete (it contained all the editions). The book also has a 140 page introduction of the work itself by Alexander Fraser, who also annotated the work as well. This edition is by far the best edition I have seen at any library or store.

John Locke is one of the founders of the empirical school of thought (next to Hobbes and Bacon) and was soon to be followed by Berkeley and Hume. Locke is also incredibly important to the American people ("Life, Liberty, and Property" ring a bell to any of you yanks?).

Locke began the Essay in 1671 but did not publish it until 1690. The work would later be reprinted several times with an edition in Latin, English, and French (there was a posthumuously edition published as well). There are four books that create the essay and it is comprised of two volumes for the Dover edition: book one deals with a rebuttal of innate principles, book two deals with simple and complex ideas (along with modes), book three with language, and book four with knowledge. I have only re-read the first two, but I will read the fourth at some point; the third book I am not too concerned with.

Book I

The first book is an attack against those who believe in innate practical and speculative principles (the Cartesians). Locke argues for what he calls the Tabula Rasa or "blank slate". For him, if there are innate principles of any kind they must be given assent by everyone; and since not everyone can assent to certain innate principles, then there can be none. This is one of the arguments that he gives for the rejection of innate principles. One of Locke's main tenets is the reliance upon sensation being the foundation of all knowledge (as well as its limit). He uses this in ones of his arguments as well by showing that a baby cannot possibly have any innate principles at all as it only knows those sensations of warmth and hunger. There is no way a baby can know mathematics or logic or anything of the abstract. These arguments are but two of the many arguments given by Locke in the first book. Locke also states that he desires to remove all of the absurd language used by philosophers in the first book.

Book II

Book two is where we move into the meat of Locke's philosophy or "empirical psychology" if you want to call it that. Locke starts off with simple ideas which are the very basis of our knowledge. Ideas are simple insofar as they cannot be broken down any further (they cannot be analysed); colors for example are simple ideas. Simple ideas deal with what is simply immediate (or Hegel's sense certainty in the Phenomenology). Simple ideas cannot be destroyed. So anything that is of the five senses are the only ones that we can have simple ideas of. This is referred to by Locke as "sensation". "Reflection" deals with being able to abstract them in the mind. Locke later devotes a chapter to the simple ideas of reflection where he talks about Perception and Volition.

Locke also mentions simple modes; modes (simple or complex) do not subsist by themselves, "but are considered as dependences on, or affections of sustances". Simple modes deal with only the same variation of the same simple idea e.g. a dozen or score, "which are nothing but the ideas of so many distinct units added together". Locke claims that both time (which he calls duration) and space are simple modes as they only deal with lengths or units of the same thing (time or space).

Primary Qualities are those qualities that are of the object itself; these being the simple ideas of solidity, extension, figure, motion, number. Secondary qualities deal with the object acting on our senses; we cannot know whether or not the object is gold, but only that the objects power is affecting our sense of sight to make it as though it is gold.

Complex ideas are those ideas that are given to us from the outset; Locke makes note of this and says that we can only know of simple ideas after we have abstracted from complex ones. Ideas such as man, lead, centaur, God, etc., are all considered complex. It is only when we break them down into their parts that we can understand the simple ideas.

Infinity cannot be comprehended completely. This type of infinite is the kind used by Kant in the Critique.

Locke also deals with practical principles; these, for the most part, are utilitarian. Locke relies on the pain and pleasure modes in order to determine what is god and evil. Whatever is the good is pleasurable, and whatever is the evil is painful.

There are sections of the book the also deal with identity, memory, and personhood. Basically for Locke a person is not a person unless he has a concious memory of the past.

Locke also contributes a few chapters to adequate and inadequate ideas, along with true and false ideas. All simple ideas are adequate, while modes and complex ideas are not. True ideas are ones that conform to reality, false ideas are ones that do not viz. I have an idea of a centaur but i do not see it in reality, hence its false.

There are a few stories Locke brings up in book II, the most famous being the rational parrot story (which is absurd, albeit hilarious).

There are many more parts of book II which I did not cover but I have given a sufficient synopsis of it nevertheless. Overall Locke's Essay is a must-read for anyone who is seriously into philosophy (at least the first two books); the work is brilliant, well structured, and one of the foundational pieces of western thought. I strongly encourage everyone who claims to be a philosopher of any sort, to peruse this wonderful work by one of my favorite nomialists.
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