What are Locke’s arguments against the existence of innate knowledge and ideas? Is his attack successful?

Locke, in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding attempts “to inquire into the origin, certainty and extent of human knowledge”1. In doing so, he argues that there are no innate principles in the mind. By this he means that there are no notions that are “stamped upon the mind of man, which the soul receives in its very first being and brings into the world”2. He uses in his arguments the example of two universal maxims (“Whatever is, is” and “It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be”) in order to illustrate how these principles, which he deems “have the most allowed title to innate”3 are in fact equally capable of being empirically derived claims. Lock uses various arguments to assert that in fact all the claims for innate principles are equally capable of being derived through the senses. For the purposes of this essay we will explain the arguments, as well as their possible objections.

Firstly, Locke argues that if principles were innate, they would have universal assent (that is, everyone would be at agreement regarding them). But, Locke claims this is not the case, and so Universal Assent ceases to be a valid argument for innate ideas. But how is it that he can be sure that universal assent is indeed not given to these innate principles? Firstly, one need only retrace history to see the diverse values and ideals of various cultures and epochs. But it could be argued that the explanation for these diverse principles lies in experience. Experience divides us into individuals (as we each experience separate things), if we apply this to different cultures, we see that it is possible that we perhaps began with innate ideas, and then society conditioned us into variances. Essentially, experience taints each individual/culture/epoch differently, resulting in our divergence from universal assent. Another example of the lack of universality is found in children. Arguably, children need to be taught these principles, and in teaching them they

Modern Philosophy, an Anthology of Primary Sources: John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding p.270 2 Modern Philosophy, an Anthology of Primary Sources: John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding p.272 3 Modern Philosophy, an Anthology of Primary Sources: John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding p.272


cease to be innate. But there is a case for a child‟s actions giving assent to maxims before they are verbally capable of doing so. That is to say- one may teach a child that “Whatever is, is” and “It is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be” but it does not necessarily follow that the child does not already know these truths. Children lack the verbal and cognitive maturity of adults, but even in their very simplistic actions they are capable of displaying knowledge of these maxims. Locke‟s reply to this objection would be to say that if a child is not conscious of the maxim, it is not possible for it to be given assent. Locke believes that “to say that a notion is imprinted on the mind, and yet at the same time to say the mind is ignorant of it is to make this impression nothing”4 But why is this so? Why isn‟t it possible for beings go have thoughts they are not conscious of? On the other hand it could also be argued that those which we consider should be innate maxims are in fact the opposite: they are derived from the senses and the influence of society. Theoretically, if innate principles exist, then they would be more evident in children than in adults, since children are less exposed and affected by society and the world at large.5 So that makes those which we consider to be innate really a result of our experiential influences. Locke‟s strongest argument against universal assent is in proving that there are other things (not innate ideas) which we agree on universally- making universal assent no longer a quality unique to innate ideas. For example, we universally agree that 2 + 2 = 4, and mathematics is clearly an empirical science. In proving this, we see that if Universal Assent meant that innate idea‟s existed, then empirical truths, such as maths, or that “sweet is not sour”, and “black is not white” would also, by that criterion, be innate truths. Another of Locke‟s arguments against innate ideas lies in the premise that we arrive at these maxims by the use of reason. As a response to Locke‟s statement that “these prepositions are so far from having universal assent that there is a great part of mankind to whom they are not so much as known”6, it is suggested that were these

Modern Philosophy, an Anthology of Primary Sources: John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding p.272 5 Philosophy: The Classics, p.81 6 Modern Philosophy, an Anthology of Primary Sources: John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding p.272


people presented with the maxims, they would give immediate assent to them, without a moment‟s thought. But this leads back to the earlier argument, as we also give immediate assent to things such as “2 + 2 = 4” or that “sweet is not sour” or that “black is not white”, which are clearly not innate maxims. It is also suggested that people would eventually arrive at the maxims by the use of reason. To this Locke replies “reason is the faculty of deducing unknown truths from principles or propositions that are already known”7. That is to say, in using reason to arrive at these „innate‟ truths, makes them, by the very nature of reason, not be innate. In another facet, it could be said that children assent to truths when they reach an age of reason, where they become verbally and cognitively capable of giving assent. But to this Locke would reply that it would be impossible to know if a child was simply communicating innate ideas, or recalling on experience to realize and assent to the maxims. Also, children are capable of reason well before they give assent to the maxims, making the „Age of Reason‟ idea redundant.

Another argument posed against innate ideas lies in the idea that innate principles are self evident and would be assented to upon realization or understanding. But how can these ideas be considered innate if they are not explicitly known? This belief essentially states that something is innate if we have the capacity to know it. Locke says here, that if that were so, we would know everything we could ever possibly know. That is to say, we have a capacity to know a lot of things, it does not necessarily follow that all those things are innate- or that we do in fact know them. Lastly Lock uses the example of God to prove that innate ideas are impossible. Since the idea of God is the best example for an innate idea, in proving that not all cultures have an idea of God, as well as the controversial concept of God, Locke manages to assert finally that the basest of innate ideas is not universally agreed upon, and therefore cannot be innate. To conclude, Locke‟s arguments against nativism are well structured and extensive. However, they depend on the assumption that the contents of the human mind


Modern Philosophy, an Anthology of Primary Sources: John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding p.272


are transparent to itself: essentially that we are incapable of unconscious thought8. Furthermore, his arguments rely on the belief that an idea must be given universal assent in order to be innate. Locke gives innate ideas the quality of requiring universal assent in order to prove their innateness as a crutch in which he constantly reproaches. But what if there were another defining confirmation of innate ideas? Essentially, Locke misses the simplest of oppositions against innate ideas: that there would be no way of proving them to be true. Realistically, there is no way to verify that those ideas which we consider innate are in fact true, not to mention innate.


Philosophy: The Classics p.81


Bibliography and works consulted

Warburton, Nigel. Philosophy: The Classics (2nd edition). Routledge, 2001 Ariew, Roger and Eric Watkins (editors). Modern Philosophy: an anthology of primary sources. Hackett Publishing Company, 1998

Lecture Notes


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