Essay concerning human understanding john locke analysis

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Complex Ideas in John Locke’s ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding’

Have doubts regarding this product? Post your question. Accepting such a view would make it impossible to distinguish between innate ideas and new ideas that we discover. He also takes up at some length the claim that innate propositions are discovered when people come to use reason. For Locke it makes no sense to describe a truth that is discovered through the use of reason as innate and he constructs a careful argument to back this up, investigating and refuting different interpretations of the claim.

I do not have space here to go into too much detail here, but Locke goes on to reject the claim that there are innate practical moral principles or that we are born with innate ideas of God, identity or impossibility. Book II of the Essay , Of Ideas , lays out how human beings acquire knowledge, beginning by making a clear distinction between different types of ideas. There are simple ideas which we construct directly from our experience and complex ideas which are formed by putting simple and complex ideas together.

Locke divides complex ideas into three types which he describes as ideas of modes , substances and relations.

Syntactic Analyses 50: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, (John Locke)

Thus they are things that depend on us for their existence, including things as diverse as the ideas of gratitude, rectangle, parent, murder, religion and politics. Substances are things in the material world that exist independently, including what we would generally describe as substances such as lead and water, but also including beings such as God, humans, animals and plants and collective ideas of several substances such as an army of men or flock of sheep. Locke proposes that the mind puts ideas together in three different ways.

Essay Concerning Human Understanding Book II - John Locke - Education, Philosophy, Psychology - 1/9

The first is to combine simple ideas to form complex ones. The second is to bring two or more ideas together and form a view of them in relation to each other.

The third is to generate general ideas by abstracting from specific examples. Thus we ignore the specific circumstances in which we gain a particular piece of knowledge, which would limit its applicability, and generalise so that we have some rule or idea that applies in circumstances beyond our direct experience. He goes on to discuss how sensation and reflection give rise to a number of kinds of ideas, including moral relations and ideas of space, time, numbers, solidity, identity and power.

Here we are not talking about power in the sense it is used in physics the rate at which energy is used nor about the power one person exerts over another, but rather in a much more general sense of an ability to make a change active power or receive a change passive power. Thus most words can be classified according to the same categories as ideas were in Book II; words for substances, modes and relations. He emphasises that when we use words they always represent the ideas the person speaking has in his or her head, which are not necessarily the same as the ideas associated with those words in the mind of the person listening.

Without the sense of sight it is not possible to understand any definition put forward in the way a sighted person can. Complex ideas, on the other hand, can be defined in terms of simple ideas, provided we are equipped with all the appropriate senses e. For example a rainbow can be defined in terms of its shape, the colours it consists of and the order they appear in. For Locke the real essence of something is not something we can ever know, as there will always be some properties, or some behaviour that we are unaware of.

Nominal essences on the other hand will vary from person to person. This whole account of essences, and indeed the deliberate use of the word essence , represents an important break from the essentialism of the Aristotelian tradition that Locke was taught in his youth. Aristotle believed that there are natural kinds, the essences of which can be organised into a single hierarchical system of classification which corresponds to the way nature is structured.

Locke rejected this claim entirely.

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 90 – An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke (1689)

Rather than a unique classification open to discovery by the scientist Locke thought it useful to classify things in lots of different ways depending on what one wanted to do. This is quite a profound difference. It represents an important break with the thinking of the past and in this he was clearly influenced by natural philosophers such as his old friend and mentor Robert Boyle.

Part of the reason for discussing words in Book III of the Essay is precisely to break down the idea of fixed boundaries between species or sorts of ideas. It might seem from this discussion that Locke believed that words never retain a common meaning when they are used by one person speaking to another, but this is not the case. Locke, the master of common sense, was well aware that words must sometimes signify the same meaning to different people for otherwise there would be no communication and language would be completely useless.

However, the more complex the idea signified by the word, the more likelihood that the word represents a different idea in the mind of each person who hears or reads it. For the most part Locke sees language as a tool for carrying out the pragmatic communication necessary in everyday life.

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His approach is to deal with what knowledge is, how we reach it, what the different types of knowledge are and how certain we can be of any knowledge we gain. Here we can see why Locke is at such pains to make it clear what he means by ideas and their signs words before defining knowledge and embarking on the central question of the Essay.

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John Locke Writing Styles in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

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