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Emmanuel M.

Naag
LM6A
Philosopher John Locke greatly admired the achievements that these scientists (his friends in the Royal
Society) had made in physics, chemistry, and medicine, and he sought to clear the ground for future
developments by providing a theory of knowledge compatible with such carefully-conducted study of
nature.
The goal of Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), then, is to establish
epistemological foundations for the new science by examining the reliability, scope, and limitations of
human knowledge in contrast with the pretensions of uncritical belief, borrowed opinion, and mere
superstition. Since the sciences had already demonstrated their practical success, Locke tried to apply
their Baconian methods to the pursuit of his own philosophical aims. In order to discover how the
human understanding achieves knowledge, we must trace that knowledge to its origins in our
experience.
Locke's investigation into human knowledge began by asking how we acquire the basic materials out of
which that knowledge is composed, our ideas. For Locke, an idea is Essay I i 8) (Note that this is an
extremely broad definition: it includes concrete sensory images, abstract intellectual concepts, and
everything in between. The colors and shapes I see before me right now are ideas, and so are my
hunger, my memories of the ocean, my hopes for my children, the multiplication tables, and the
principles of democratic government.) Ideas, then, are the immediate objects of all thought, the
meaning or signification of all words, and the mental representatives of all things. Locke's question was,
where do we get all of these ideas which are the content of our knowedge?
First, Locke eliminated one bad answer to the question. Most of Book I of the Essay is devoted to a
detailed refutation of the belief that any of our knowledge is innate. Against the claims of the Cambridge
Platonists and Herbert of Cherbury, Locke insisted that neither the speculative principles of logic and
metaphysics nor the practical principles of morality are inscribed on our minds from birth..
As the correct answer to the question, Locke proposed the fundamental principle of empiricism: all of
our knowledge and ideas arise from experience. (Essay II i 2) The initially empty room of the mind is
furnished with ideas of two sorts: first, by sensation we obtain ideas of things we suppose to exist
outside us in the physical world; second, by reflection we come to have ideas of our own mental
operations.
But wait. It isn't true that I can think only about what I myself have experienced; I can certainly think
about dinosaurs (or unicorns) even though I have never seen one for myself. So Locke's claim must be
about the ultimate origin of our ideas, the source of their content. He distinguished between simple and
complex ideas and acknowledged that we often employ our mental capacities in order manufacture
complex ideas by conjoining simpler components. My idea of "unicorn," for example, may be
compounded from the ideas of "horse" and "single spiral horn," and these ideas in turn are
compounded from less complex elements. What Locke held was that every complex idea can be
analyzed into component parts and that the final elements of any complete analysis must be simple
ideas, each of which is derived directly from experience. Even so, the empiricist program is an ambitious
one, and Locke devoted Book II of the Essay to a lengthy effort to show that every idea could, in
principle, be derived from experience.