Locke, John (1632–1704)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA054-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved January 16, 2019, from

2. The understanding and innate principles

Locke’s Essay is a work about the understanding. In Locke’s day the understanding was considered to be one of the faculties of the mind, along with the will and, for some philosophers, the passions. The Essay presents a theory of the understanding, but this is done with a special, epistemological focus, because Locke aims also to ‘enquire into the original, certainty, and extent of humane knowledge; together, with the grounds and degrees of belief, opinion, and assent’ (Essay I.i.2). The theory of the understanding that Locke develops is complemented by short accounts of the nature and function of the will and of the nature of the person or self. He has little to say, however, about the passions. Thus, while Locke’s own terms of reference are different from those in use today, many of his central claims are relevant to issues in contemporary philosophy of mind, epistemology and moral philosophy.

For Locke, the understanding is, in the first instance, the faculty or power of mental perception. The objects of this faculty are threefold: ideas, the relations between ideas and words, and the relations between ideas themselves. Much of the Essay is concerned with spelling out the content of and relations between these three forms of perception. It focuses on the origins of ideas and what the understanding can do with them. However, Locke’s project also has a normative dimension: he is concerned to specify the correct way to conduct the understanding while at the same time avoiding common errors in its use. The short, posthumous work Of the Conduct of the Understanding, which was originally intended to be grafted into the Essay, sets out the habits and practices of the understanding that are conducive to its correct operation, as well as providing an inventory of some of its misuses.

The Essay commences with a wholesale rejection of the view that the understanding contains innate principles, that is, principles of metaphysics or principles of morality that we are born with (see Innate knowledge). Instead, Locke claims that at birth, apart from those things that we sense in the womb (Essay II.ix.5), our understandings are a blank slate, a tabula rasa. Locke’s general target here is the widely held view that knowledge is built upon necessary principles or common notions that are acquired without the use of the understanding and, in particular, without the need for experience. Those who promoted unfounded and unexamined principles as foundations for knowledge were in the danger of building speculative systems of knowledge founded on hypotheses rather than on experience.

Against the promoters of innate principles, Locke attacked the view that universal acceptance is a mark of innateness, that there can be propositions in the mind that are unperceived, and that the mind has dispositions to know certain principles. For example, he argued that there are no universal principles that all people know, and that even if there were principles that everyone knew, that would not guarantee them to be innate. So universality cannot be a criterion of innateness. However, the strongest argument against the innatist position was Locke’s own positive alternative: his theory of the understanding developed using the way of ideas. So successful was Locke’s positive alternative in the case against the innatists that the contemporary reception of the Essay and most subsequent scholarship has focused on Locke’s rejection of innate ideas rather than the broader project of rejecting innate principles.

Citing this article:
Anstey, Peter. The understanding and innate principles. Locke, John (1632–1704), 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA054-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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