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Essay Concerning Human Understanding

The relationship between ideas and objects in the real world has been the source of many philosophical arguments. Research papers on Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding show how Locke offers an account of the manner in which the mind perceives things in the world. Next, he attempts to determine the relationship between ideas and the objects associated with those ideas. It is in this context that Essay Concerning Human Understanding draws the distinction between simple ideas, which exhibit primary qualities, and those that display secondary qualities. An exccellent research paper on Locke's work will do the following:

  • Examine Berkeley's critique of this distinction between primary and secondary qualities.
  • Discuss Berkeley's claim that Locke has no grounds for such a distinction, as well as the consequences of rejecting it.
  • Demonstrate that although Berkeley's argument does not refute Locke's distinction, but creates a more implausible position that denies the existence ideas apart from our perception of the physical world. 

Essay Concerning Human UnderstandingFor Locke in Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ideas of primary qualities resemble qualities that actually do belong to an object, while ideas of secondary qualities are not present in the objects, which these ideas resemble. Locke defines quality as the "power which a subject has to produce an idea in the mind." The primary qualities, for John Locke, are those which are found everywhere in the physical world. These primary qualities would include such concepts as solidity, extension, motion, rest, and number. On the other hand, Locke's secondary qualities refer to things that objects can produce in people through their primary qualities. These secondary qualities include colors, sounds, tastes and other ideas that are produced by the primary qualities of objects. Locke also includes the powers that some objects have to change other objects as secondary qualities. For example, the power of fire to produce different colors in objects is the same secondary quality that creates a sense of warmth in people when they experience fire.

John Locke is the reason behind the popular acceptance of the phrase “tabula rasa”, which is translated as meaning a clean slate or a blank tablet. What this means in terms of Locke’s theory of ideas, is that a baby is born into this world with a clear mind. There is nothing imprinted on the brain, no innate ideas which are born with the child.  Instead, everything that a baby learns, from that first moment, is formed through impressions derived through the infant’s senses. Locke argued that, throughout life, we are limited in our knowledge and ideas by those things which we have experienced and if we do not have sensual input, we cannot know anything.

Locke assumed that, while some ideas are apparent at a very early age, this is not evidence of inherent knowledge, but of senses working from birth to distinguish such things as color and tastes. From there Locke points out that, if people have no innate knowledge from birth, they cannot have any innate principles guiding their behavior. In support of this theory, Locke offered the fact that nowhere in the world are there any absolute truths to which all people can universally agree. Building upon those first sensations after birth, Locke believed that human beings developed both simple and complex ideas.

Simple ideas are those experienced by direct senses. While it is possible to reflect on simple ideas in order to understand them, simple ideas cannot be created by reasoning alone. They must be gained through the benefit of experiences which provide sensual information to the body. And since the body first perceives everything through its senses, everything that is intellectually known must once have been a product of the senses.  In this process the mind is viewed as passive, being acted upon rather than acting.

Lock recognizes different types of knowledge, born of simple and complex ideas. The first of these is intuition. This is to say that people can perceive, immediately, an agreement or disagreement between two ideas. However, if a person does not immediately perceive a relationship between ideas, he can gain knowledge of the relationship through demonstration. At this stage of knowledge a person must gain experience of some sort in order to prove the connection of ideas which are in and of themselves each intuitively known. Lock argued that, short of intuition or demonstration, all we have are faith and opinion which do not qualify as knowledge in terms of general truths. He referred to this as sensitive knowledge, an understanding which “going beyond bare probability, and yet not reaching perfectly to either of the foregoing degrees of certainty, passes under the name of ‘knowledge’”.

It is essential to realize that in defining knowledge, Locke sees knowledge as being fundamentally different from belief. Knowledge is direct awareness of some fact, perceiving an agreement or disagreement between things. Belief, on the other hand, is the acceptance that something is true without actually being directly aware of the facts which might support it. This is supported by the knowledge that many beliefs which people hold and claim have been proven to be false. The existence of both knowledge and belief, and their difference, is a primary issue in understanding Locke’s theory of ideas and how it relates to life.

Locke believed it was an important purpose of human beings to try to the greatest extent possible to get things corrects. This means that whenever the outcomes or consequences of our actions will significantly impact our lives, or the lives of others, it is our responsibility to base our actions on knowledge and not on belief. This means allowing ourselves to gain the necessary experiences in order to formulate complex ideas either inherently or through demonstration. However, Locke also recognized that direct knowledge through perception and insight was not possible in all things. Thankfully he believed that it was possible for people to regulate the process through which they formed beliefs by collecting evidence on both sides of the issue, analyzing the evidence and placing a level of confidence in one’s resulting beliefs. Locke’s theory on ideas and knowledge are also apparent in his other writings on government, religion and education. In reference to religion, Locke relates the process of regulating beliefs specifically to issues of morality and religion. However, he also argues that knowledge of God’s existence can be supported through a person’s experiences. In other words, experiences about the world’s construction and the existence of things like miracles could significantly demonstrate to people that God does exist. Past demonstrating existence, however, Locke did not feel there was definitive knowledge available about God. What people feel that God reveals in his existence can only be expressed in belief, as there is no single, universal reflection on the meaning of his existence

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