Locke's attack on Innatism Structure and Origin of Ideas

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March 19 2013 PHIL112 Student Notes (from the second hour)

[edited by Mark Steen]

John Locke (1689)

Locke's attack on Innatism

Structure and Origin of Ideas

Notion of innate ideas goes back to Plato, certain ideas are inborn in us.

ex: concept of God (Descartes)

-innate is not the same as a priori

-they do not come from the senses.

knowledge innatism:

-e.g. the principle of non-contradiction, geometrical axioms

-we don’t learn these truths from experience

- logical and mathemetical truths, moral truths, God, soul, Plato's forms

Concept Innatism (idea of innatism)

''idea of God'' is innate. -Descartes

- ''we are born with these'' -Descartes

-its invoked to explain how we can have ideas that do not correspond with experience.

Lock Rejects innatism!:

-they're not innate at all, all knowledge comes from senses/experience.

-''tabula rasa'' our mind is blank when we are born.

-children and idiots for example, its silly to expect any notion of these ideas if they're not conscious of the world around them.

- ockham's razor or a principle of parsimony – A theory-making principle – ‘do not multiply entities without necessity,’ or ‘for two theories A and B which explain phenomenon P, if all else is equal, the simpler theory is more likely true.’

which one to pick out of these theories? -pick the most simple one. Locke says his theory is simpler, as it posits only one source for ideas.

The Attack on Innate Knowledge

Locke’s dilemma for innatism:

a) everyone has this knowledge all along

b) everyone is born with the capacity for this knowledge.

If the innatist means a, then this is obviously false. If she means b, then this can be said for ALL knowledge, not just supposed innate knowledge.

Locke on the Origin and Structure of Ideas:

''ideas'' in Early modern philosophy

Locke: an idea is whatsoever is the object of the understanding when a man thinks.

-mental things

[not Locke, me - It seems, though, like this is a big mistake. Either physical objects are mental or we don’t think about them. My wife is pretty, not ''my wife idea.” I think of my wife, not my wife idea. (Although I might think of my wife via my wife idea).]

Types of Mental States:

-perceptions (perception of a house)


-propositions (snow is white)

-mental image

*our supplies of ideas define the limits of what is thinkable or conceivable by us.

Possible Sources of Ideas:



*constructed ideas? (factitious)

*simpler ideas?


*Simple Ideas: (e.g. redness, pain, toe) when we are young we take these and as we get older we put them together with each other to make more complex ideas. (e.g. my toe is in pain in the red spot)



*complex ideas (combining those simple ideas, example: kilometer-long hamburger)

Operations You Can Use to Construct Ideas:

- Composition (putting together, unicorn)

- Comparison (larger bottle)

- Abstraction (you see common/similar features of distinct things and get the notion of this feature apart from anything which has it)

**so, we have no inborn concepts. There can only be sensations (a few) we are born with for example a baby feeling comfortable in the womb of its' mother.

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