*An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, by John Locke, 1689

john locke

john locke



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An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

by John Locke, 1689; revised editions, 1694, 1700

John Locke

(1632–1704)—the founding figure of the school of philosophy developed primarily in 18th-century England known as empiricism—wrote An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in addition to other influential books and a voluminous correspondence. The Essay is a vastly larger work than one might expect from its classification as an essay; in fact it constitutes one of the indisputably great works in the history of philosophy, and ranks among the most influential.
The beginnings of the Essay date back to 1671, at a time when Locke was participating in sustained philosophical discussions; during this period he realized that genuine philosophical progress could not be made until a thorough overview of the mind’s faculties, capacities, and contents was achieved. Although this initial overarching purpose motivated the Essay, the book was not written during a single uninterrupted period of Locke’s life. It is true that he wrote a paper on the capacities of the mind in connection with the discussions of 1671, and this formed the core of two early drafts of the Essay composed during the ensuing years. But in fact the Essay was assembled from many independent parts over many years, and grew vastly beyond its initial proportions: in his “Epistle to the Reader” Locke informs us that the Essay was “written by incoherent parcels; and after long intervals of neglect, resumed again, as my humour or occasions permitted.”
There are a number of intersecting reasons for this great philosophical study to have been called an “essay.” First, it began in conversation, and was in its earliest manifestation conceived as supplement both to philosophical dialogues and to further philosophical work of a different order. Second, it was composed and augmented over a number of years, with each new section essaying, or initially and in some cases provisionally, mapping out new conceptual territory for inclusion in the large work.
Third, the Essay comprised ultimately a very large number of individual essays on multifarious philosophical topics with considerable thematic independence.
There remains a further reason for the aptness of the title, even with the great size of the volume, and this concerns Locke’s authorial voice. On Locke’s arrival as a student of philosophy in Oxford in 1652 he was taught what the distinguished historian of philosophy Frederick Copleston has called in A History of Philosophy (1946) “a debased and rather petrified form of Scholasticism”; Copleston reports that Locke then and there “conceived a great distaste [for this philosophy], regarding it as ‘perplexed’ with obscure terms, and useless questions.” At that time he was also philosophically stimulated by his private reading of Descartes’ philosophical writings, in which the virtues of clarity and distinctness of thought are both exemplified and elevated to a position of epistemological indispensability. Locke was thus in pursuit of a style which would emphasize clarity, avoid obscure terms, facilitate the discussion of useful philosophical questions, and, as mentioned above, arise out of and contribute to philosophical dialogue. The voice at which he arrived, at an early stage in his work, is thus clear, commonsensical, rhetorically undecorated, and perfectly suited to the central philosophical tenets of empiricism. In short, Locke’s voice is essayistic; indeed, it became foundational to all of the developments in British empiricism to follow, and we can plausibly argue that it has been foundational to almost all major developments in British philosophy up to the present day (including utilitarianism, positivism, and “ordinary language philosophy”). It will be clear to any reader of the Essay that Locke’s authorial voice is integral to the philosophical method being developed and deployed in the book; this grand compendious undertaking is unthinkable in any other voice.
Locke’s fundamental philosophical aspirations in the Essay are to delineate the boundary between opinion and knowledge, to inquire into the origins of our ideas, to determine the degree of certainty we are able to achieve with those ideas, and to investigate the nature of faith or opinion (where we give our assent to propositions as true but where we do not possess certain knowledge). These lead him to compose a broad and encompassing typology of the contents of the human mind, providing classifications that are at once psychological and epistemological; indeed, Locke’s theory of human knowledge is—like Descartes’ philosophy before him and to which his work is in part indebted and in part polemically opposed inextricably intertwined with a theory of the mind.
Locke begins by observing that we have in our minds numerous ideas (he provides the examples whiteness, hardness, sweetness, thinking, motion, man, elephant, army, drunkenness, and others), and asks: How do we come by them? He answers by describing the mind as a “white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas” in its preexperiential pure state (which he famously characterizes elsewhere in the Essay as a “tabula rasa”). All the multifarious inscriptions made on this paper, he states, are reducible to one word: experience. “In that,” he writes, “all our knowledge is founded.”
With this one-word answer, he lays the cornerstone of British empiricism.
Locke quickly divides experience into two categories, noting that our observation is employed either with “external sensible objects” or with “internal operations of our minds perceived and reflected on by ourselves”; these two categories, ideas of sensation and ideas of reflection, are for him the “fountains of knowledge from whence all the ideas we have, or can naturally have, do spring.” (With this latter remark he is initiating a theme much discussed throughout philosophy’s history from his Essay onward: the attempt to demarcate the scope and limits of possible experience.) Examples of ideas of sensation are “yellow, white, heat, cold, soft, hard, bitter, and sweet”; examples of ideas of reflection are “perception, thinking, doubting, believing, reasoning, knowing, and willing.” Locke has thus elucidated the significance of his one-word answer; at the close of this part of the Essay he concludes that “All of our ideas are of the one or other of these. The understanding seems to me not to have the least glimmering of any ideas which it doth not receive from one of these two. External objects furnish the mind with the ideas of sensible qualities, which are all those different perceptions they produce in us; and the mind furnishes the understanding with ideas of its own operations.” Indeed, taking a polemical stand against the theory of innate ideas adumbrated by Descartes and his successors in 17th-century continental rationalism, Locke adds that we “begin to have ideas when [we] first have sensation.”
Locke advances his psychological and epistemological typology by distinguishing between simple and complex ideas, as this distinction manifests itself in our experience of both sensation and reflection. Light and colors, with their many shades and combinations, or all kinds of sounds and noises, or all kinds of tastes and olfactory experience, or all sensations of touch, taken together constitute a vast range of sensory experience. Introducing another centrally significant philosophical theme that has been discussed through to the present day, Locke observes that “Few simple ideas have names.” In observing that we have far more simple ideas of sensation than we have names for them, Locke gives rise to a newly focused question, inquiring into the very relation between language and perception. (He returns to this at the beginning of Book III of the Essay, articulating a theory of language that, consistent with everything thus far put forward, posits mental entities—ideas—as inner meanings that are contingently externalized through association or linkage to external signs, i.e. spoken or written words.
The foundations and central tenets of this theory have been much discussed, and much criticized, in 20th-century analytical philosophy, notably by Ludwig Wittgenstein and his successors.) Locke’s fundamental point here is that ideas such as solidity, which we obtain by the experience of, for instance, feeling resistance to the pressure of our hands on an unyielding object, are simple ideas of sensation. Simple ideas of reflection, by contrast, are given to us by direct inspection—or introspection—of the mental activities of perception or thinking, or volition or willing. There are simple ideas of both sensation and reflection: the ideas of pleasure or delight, or their opposites, pain or uneasiness; these ideas, like those of existence, unity, power, and succession, are “suggested to the understanding by every object without and every idea within.”
Before moving to his examination of complex ideas of sense and of reflection, Locke renders a fundamental distinction that has also been developed and discussed ever since.
He distinguishes “primary” from “secondary” qualities in objects. The power to produce an idea in us, he explains, is a quality: thus a snowball has the power to produce in us the ideas of white, cold, and round. Primary qualities are those that, for Locke, are “utterly inseparable” from the object in question, in “what state soever it be.” Thus a candle, melted down, may display many changed qualities, but those that do not—that cannot— change are primary. Similarly, a grain of wheat divided into many parts still possesses the qualities of solidity, extension, figure, and mobility in each part. “Divide again,” Locke writes, “and it retains the same qualities.” By contrast, secondary qualities “in truth are nothing in the objects themselves but powers to produce various sensations in us by their primary qualities, i.e., the bulk, figure, texture and motion of their insensible parts”; colors, sounds, and tastes are in this category. Fundamental to Locke’s empirical ontology is the related claim that primary qualities resemble the objects really out there in the world; they alone provide true reports of the nature of reality beyond the reach of subjectivity. It is thus an ontological mistake to believe that warmth is actually in the fire, that coldness is in the snow.
Indeed, Locke asserts that if we could directly perceive the primary qualities, the secondary ones would disappear. It was Locke’s empiricist follower George Berkeley (1688–1753) who argued that, on these grounds, the idea of the material world must be dismissed as a crude myth, since any knowledge or ideas we have of primary qualities are derived in the first instance from our sensation, and thus are in fact secondary qualities— and hence not true or reliable reports of extrasubjective ontology, but rather only further secondary ideas that thus fail to resemble external reality. In Berkeley’s Lockean-inspired idealist ontology, the very idea of “external reality” is highly suspect.
Locke’s second great successor in the tradition of British empiricism, David Hume (1711–76), argued that on strict Lockean grounds causation is necessarily illusory; in fact, we only experience the constant conjunction of events in the world, not their causal relations. Causal relations, in that they are projected onto the world subjectively rather than perceived from it objectively, are similar in ontological status to secondary qualities.
In short, Locke’s most fundamental distinction within his larger epistemic typology, the distinction between primary and secondary qualities in objects, led to two different extreme ends of empiricism, the first being Berkeleyan idealism and the second Humean skepticism.
Locke’s discussion of complex ideas of sensation and of reflection greatly extends his explanation of the origin of our ideas; complex ideas are those that are “made up of several simple ones put together,” such as “beauty, gratitude, a man, an army, or the very universe.” Here too integrating his concern with linguistic meaning and the philosophy of language, Locke says that while the mind may consider each simple element of these complex ideas independently, in combinations, or as one entire thing, they are still “signified by one name.”
There is a vast amount of philosophy in Locke’s Essay, including psychological and epistemological subdivisions and distinctions not mentioned here, as well as philosophical examinations of perennial conceptual quandaries such as free will versus determinism, the problem of personal identity (added in the second edition), and fundamental issues in the philosophy of religion. But throughout the Essay Locke remains true to his central empiricist cornerstone: “All those sublime thoughts which tower above the clouds, and reach as high as heaven itself, take their rise and footing here; in all that great extent wherein the mind wanders, in those remote speculations it may seem to be elevated with, it stirs not one jot beyond those ideas which sense or reflection have offered for its contemplation.”

See also Philosophical Essay
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689; revised editions, 1694, 1700; edited by Peter Nidditch, 1975; Essay draft A edited by R.I.Aaron and Jocelyn Gibb, 1936;
Essay draft B as An Essay Concerning the Understanding, Knowledge, Opinion, and Assent, edited by Benjamin Rand, 1931; drafts A and B edited by Nidditch, 2 vols., 1980–82
Hall, Roland, and Roger Woolhouse, Eighty Years of Locke Scholarship: A
Bibliographical Guide, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983
Further Reading
Aaron, R.I., John Locke, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971 (original edition, 1938)
Aarsleff, Hans, From Locke to Saussure: Essays on the Study of Language and Intellectual History, London: Athlone Press, 1982
Ayers, Michael, Locke, London: Routledge, 2 vols., 1991
Bennett, Jonathan, Locke, Berkeley, Hume: Central Themes, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971
Brandt, Reinhard, editor, John Locke, Berlin: de Gruyter, 1981
Colman, John, John Locke’s Moral Philosophy, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1983
Cranston, Maurice, John Locke: A Biography, London: Longman Green, and New York: Macmillan, 1957
Dunn, John, Locke, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984
Gibson, James, Locke’s Theory of Knowledge and Its Historical Relations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1917
Mackie, J.L., Problems from Locke, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976
Tipton, I.C, editor, Locke on Human Understanding: Selected Essays, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977
Woolhouse, R.S., Locke’s Philosophy of Science and Knowledge, Oxford: Blackwell, and New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971
Woolhouse, R.S., Locke, Aldershot: Gregg Revivals, 1994 (original edition, 1983)
Woolhouse, R.S., The Empiricists, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988
Yolton, John W., John Locke and the Way of Ideas, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956
Yolton, John W., editor, John Locke: Problems and Perspectives, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969
Yolton, John W., Locke and the Compass of Human Understanding, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970

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