Locke summary an essay concerning human understanding

Whenever the memory brings any idea into actual view, it is with a consciousness that it had been there before, and was not wholly a stranger to the mind. And then I desire an instance of an idea, pretended to be innate, which before any impression of it by ways hereafter to be mentioned any one could revive and remember, as an idea he had formerly known; without which consciousness of a former perception there is no remembrance; and whatever idea comes into the mind without that consciousness is not remembered, or comes not out of the memory, nor can be said to be in the mind before that appearance.

For what is not either actually in view or in the memory, is in the mind no way at all, and is all one as if it had never been there. If therefore there be any innate ideas, they must be in the memory, or else nowhere in the mind; and if they be in the memory, they can be revived without any impression from without; and whenever they are brought into the mind they are remembered, i.

They bring with them a perception of their not being wholly new to it. By this it may be tried whether there be any innate ideas in the mind before impression from sensation or reflection. I would fain meet with the man who, when he came to the use of reason, or at any other time, remembered any of them; and to whom, after he was born, they were never new. If any one will say, there are ideas in the mind that are not in the memory, I desire him to explain himself, and make what he says intelligible.

Locke must explain how all our ideas are generated solely out of the materials given to us in experience, and how experience alone can justify our knowledge claims. But, before I proceed on to what I have thought on this subject, I must here in the entrance beg pardon of my reader for the frequent use of the word idea , which he will find in the following treatise.

It being that term which, I think, serves best to stand for whatsoever is the object of the understanding when a man thinks, I have used it to express whatever is meant by phantasm, notion, species , or whatever it is which the mind can be employed about in thinking ; and I could not avoid frequently using it. From IV. From II.

In that all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself.

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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 thinking. These two are the fountains of knowledge, from whence all the ideas we have, or can naturally have, do spring. And thus we come by those ideas we have of yellow, white, heat, cold, soft, hard, bitter, sweet, and all those which we call sensible qualities ….

Let any one examine his own thoughts, and thoroughly search into his understanding; and then let him tell me, whether all the original ideas he has there, are any other than of the objects of his senses, or of the operations of his mind, considered as objects of his reflection. Locke thinks that sensation and reflection are our only sources of ideas.

Though the qualities that affect our senses are, in the things themselves, so united and blended, that there is no separation, no distance between them; yet it is plain, the ideas they produce in the mind enter by the senses simple; and unmixed. For, though the sight and touch often take in from the same object, at the same time, different ideas;—as a man sees at once motion and colour; the hand feels softness and warmth in the same piece of wax: yet the simple ideas thus united in the same subject, are as perfectly distinct as those that come in by different senses.

First , then, there are some which come into our minds by one sense only. Secondly , there are others that convey themselves into the mind by more senses than one. Thirdly , others that are had from reflection only. Fourthly , there are some that make themselves way, and are suggested to the mind by all the ways of sensation and reflection.

Thus we say, fire has a power to melt gold, i. For we cannot observe any alteration to be made in, or operation upon anything, but by the observable change of its sensible ideas; nor conceive any alteration to be made, but by conceiving a change of some of its ideas. As able to make, or able to receive any change. The one may be called active , and the other passive power. Whether matter be not wholly destitute of active power, as its author, God, is truly above all passive power; and whether the intermediate state of created spirits be not that alone which is capable of both active and passive power, may be worth consideration.

I shall not now enter into that inquiry, my present business being not to search into the original of power, but how we come by the idea of it.

2. The Limits of Human Understanding

But since active powers make so great a part of our complex ideas of natural substances, as we shall see hereafter, and I mention them as such, according to common apprehension; yet they being not, perhaps, so truly active powers as our hasty thoughts are apt to represent them, I judge it not amiss, by this intimation, to direct our minds to the consideration of god and spirits, for the clearest idea of active power.

For, our ideas of extension, duration, and number, do they not all contain in them a secret relation of the parts? For all power relating to action, and there being but two sorts of action whereof we have an idea, viz. Thinking and motion, let us consider whence we have the clearest ideas of the powers which produce these actions.

Locke draws what should by now be a familiar distinction. Thus a snowball having the power to produce in us the ideas of white, cold, and round—the power to produce those ideas in us, as they are in the snowball, I call qualities; and as they are sensations or perceptions in our understandings, I call them ideas; which ideas , if I speak of sometimes as in the things themselves, I would be understood to mean those qualities in the objects which produce them in us.

These, which I call original or primary qualities of body, are wholly inseparable from it; and such as in all the alterations and changes it suffers, all the force can be used upon it, it constantly keeps; and such as sense constantly finds in every particle of matter which has bulk enough to be perceived; and the mind finds inseparable from every particle of matter, though less than to make itself singly be perceived by our senses: e. It being impossible to conceive that body should operate on what it does not touch which is all one as to imagine it can operate where it is not , or when it does touch, operate any other way than by motion.

By the operation of insensible particles on our senses. Bulk, figure, texture, and motion of parts and therefore I call them secondary qualities. There is nothing like our ideas, existing in the bodies themselves. They are, in the bodies we denominate from them, only a power to produce those sensations in us ….


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But light, heat, whiteness, or coldness, are no more really in them than sickness or pain is in manna. Take away the sensation of them; let not the eyes see light or colours, nor the can hear sounds; let the palate not taste, nor the nose smell, and all colours, tastes, odours, and sounds, as they are such particular ideas , vanish and cease, and are reduced to their causes, i.

Hinder light from striking on it, and its colours vanish; it no longer produces any such ideas in us: upon the return of light it produces these appearances on us again. Can any one think any real alterations are made in the porphyry by the presence or absence of light; and that those ideas of whiteness and redness are really in porphyry in the light, when it is plain it has no colour in the dark?

It has, indeed, such a configuration of particles, both night and day, as are apt, by the rays of light rebounding from some parts of that hard stone, to produce in us the idea of redness, and from others the idea of whiteness; but whiteness or redness are not in it at any time, but such a texture that hath the power to produce such a sensation in us. What real alteration can the beating of the pestle make in an body, but an alteration of the texture of it? For, if we imagine warmth , as it is in our hands, to be nothing but a certain sort and degree of motion in the minute particles of our nerves or animal spirits, we may understand how it is possible that the same water may, at the same time, produce the sensations of heat in one hand and cold in the other; which yet figure never does, that never producing the idea of a square by one hand which has produced the idea of a globe by another.

If there were no observers or perceivers, what would the world be like, according to Locke? That is, what qualities does a physical object have in itself? How does Locke argue for his three theses? If our sensation of heat resembled any quality in the object, that quality would have to be the cause of the heat that it produces.

Why think that the color of an object i. Hint: use II. Finally, what about thesis iii : secondary qualities are nothing but powers in objects to produce certain ideas in us?

Well, this is just to combine i and ii. Note that primary qualities are powers and genuine qualities in objects; secondary are merely powers. But as Locke points out, ideas of secondary qualities depend not just on the objects; they also depend on the perceivers. Think of as many different ways to change the color of this room as you can. Had the poor Indian philosopher who imagined that the earth also wanted something to bear it up but thought of this word substance, he needed not to have been at the trouble to find an elephant to support it, and a tortoise to support his elephant: the word substance would have done it effectually.

And he that inquired might have taken it for as good an answer from an Indian philosopher—that substance, without knowing what it is, is that which supports the earth, as take it for a sufficient answer and good doctrine from our european philosophers—that substance, without knowing what it is, is that which supports accidents.

So that of substance, we have no idea of what it is, but only a confused obscure one of what it does. Would he not think himself mocked, instead of taught, with such an account as this? If any one should be asked, what is the subject wherein colour or weight inheres, he would have nothing to say, but the solid extended parts; and if he were demanded, what is it that solidity and extension adhere in, he would not be in a much better case than the Indian before mentioned who, saying that the world was supported by a great elephant, was asked what the elephant rested on; to which his answer was—a great tortoise: but being again pressed to know what gave support to the broad-backed tortoise, replied— something, he knew not what.

Now that we know how we think about individual substances e. From III. By this way of abstraction they are made capable of representing more individuals than one; each of which having in it a conformity to that abstract idea, is as we call it of that sort. The ideas of the nurse and the mother are well framed in their minds; and, like pictures of them there, represent only those individuals.

The names they first gave to them are confined to these individuals; and the names of nurse and mamma , the child uses, determine themselves to those persons. Afterwards, when time and a larger acquaintance have made them observe that there are a great many other things in the world, that in some common agreements of shape, and several other qualities, resemble their father and mother, and those persons they have been used to, they frame an idea, which they find those many particulars do partake in; and to that they give, with others, the name man , for example.

And thus they come to have a general name, and a general idea. Wherein they make nothing new; but only leave out of the complex idea they had of Peter and James, Mary and Jane, that which is peculiar to each, and retain only what is common to them all. When therefore we quit particulars, the generals that rest are only creatures of our own making; their general nature being nothing but the capacity they are put into, by the understanding, of signifying or representing many particulars.

For the signification they have is nothing but a relation that, by the mind of man, is added to them. But yet I think we may say, the sorting of them under names is the workmanship of the understanding, taking occasion, from the similitude it observes amongst them, to make abstract general ideas , and set them up in the mind, with names annexed to them, as patterns or forms, for, in that sense, the word form has a very proper signification, to which as particular things existing are found to agree, so they come to be of that species, have that denomination, or are put into that class.

The frequent productions of monsters, in all the species of animals, and of changelings, and other strange issues of human birth, carry with them difficulties, not possible to consist with this hypothesis; since it is as impossible that two things partaking exactly of the same real essence should have different properties, as that two figures partaking of the same real essence of a circle should have different properties.


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  6. But were there no other reason against it, yet the supposition of essences that cannot be known; and the making of them, nevertheless, to be that which distinguishes the species of things, is so wholly useless and unserviceable to any part of our knowledge, that that alone were sufficient to make us lay it by ….

    By this real essence I mean, that real constitution of anything, which is the foundation of all those properties that are combined in, and are constantly found to co-exist with the nominal essence; that particular constitution which everything has within itself, without any relation to anything without it.

    Locke on Knowledge and Reality: A Commentary on An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

    What sort of person they are or any outside circumstances are not a part of their identity. He says that identity is composed of what that individual thinks of himself or herself. That is what they'll become.

    CHAP. I.: Introduction.

    An Essay Concerning Human Understanding study guide contains a biography of John Locke, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, and a full summary and analysis. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke. Remember me. Locke's empiricism was to a large extent the result of the contrast he had observed between the natural scientists of his day and the work of the moralists and theologians.

    The conclusions advanced by the scientists were tentative and always subject to revision in the light of new facts. Moralists and theologians were usually of the opinion that their doctrines expressed the final and absolute truth, and no amount of experimentation or observation would cause them to change. The scientists were making remarkable progress and, with all of their differences, were discovering more and more areas of agreement.

    An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke

    No similar progress could be observed in the areas of morals and religion. Indeed, there seemed to be more confusion and disagreements here than in other fields of inquiry. What was the reason for all of this? The answer, as Locke saw it, was to be found in the different methods that had been used.

    The scientists did not begin with some innate idea or presupposition from which their knowledge could be derived. Instead, they looked to experience as the sole source of information, and they accepted as true only those conclusions that could be verified by experiment and observation.

    The moralists and theologians had used a different method. They began with some authoritative statement.

    Essay Concerning Human Understanding Book II - John Locke - Education, Philosophy, Psychology - 1/9

    It might be an innate idea, as it was in the philosophy of Descartes, or it could be a divine revelation or something that was so regarded by an ecclesiastical body. Whatever was accepted in this fashion necessarily became the source from which knowledge must be derived.

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    Since this knowledge could be obtained by deductive inference from the initial starting point, it was believed to have a certainty and finality about it that would not be possible on any other basis. People who believe they have certain or absolute knowledge are likely to be intolerant of those who hold opposite opinions. Intolerance leads to persecution and the suppression of human freedom. In view of these considerations, it seemed clear to Locke that the method employed by the scientists was the only safe one to follow and that this method should be extended to cover all fields of inquiry.

    In his acceptance of the empirical method used by the scientists, Locke took over some of their basic presuppositions as well. One of these was the belief in an external world the existence of which is quite independent of what human minds may know about it. Although he remained somewhat skeptical about the nature of that which is external to the mind, he followed the customary procedure among the scientists of referring to it as a material world. On the other hand, knowledge and all that is included in human consciousness were regarded as the world of mind, something that was separate and distinct from the world of matter.

    This dualism of mind and matter was comparable to that of a knowing subject and an object which is known. Just how these two worlds, which are so different in their respective characteristics, can interact on one another is something that Locke did not explain, but that an interaction of some kind did take place he never doubted. It had been recognized for some time that the sense qualities of color, sound, taste, and so forth, do not belong to the objects that are sensed but to the mind which perceives the objects.

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