In Book 1 Locke sets out to dismiss and refute the Cartesian notion that the mind contains innate knowledge. He does this by dividing knowledge into two categories: speculative principles, by which he means the principles we use to build metaphysical or philosophical systems; and practical principles, by which he means the practical propositions which govern moral and social behavior. The Cartesians believed that certain basic principles in both categories were innate, that the mind comes with these basic principles already installed, as it were. Let’s look at how Locke refutes this.
Locke takes as his examples two principles commonly held to be innate as the basic building blocks of all speculative thought:
1. What is, is, what is not, is not.
2. It is impossible for something to be and not to be
The Cartesians argued that these principles were innate because they were universal; because they could be immediately assented to upon hearing without the use of reason; and because they lay dormant in the mind, imprinted on it, until the mind came to the use of reason and could perceive that they were there and readily assent to them.
Locke attacks these arguments by pointing out that these kind of speculative principles are not present in the minds of children, idiots or savages. Immediate assent is given to them because they are self-evident propositions, not because they are innate, and if they were innate, we would assent to them without the necessity for having them proposed. Because we give them our ready assent implies only that we have the capacity to understand them, not that the principles are innate in themselves. He shows the logical inconsistency of the ‘imprinted but not perceived’ argument by pointing out that to have an idea is to perceive it, that it is not possible to have an idea and not to perceive the having of it.
Whatever was never perceived by the mind was never in the mind. 1.3.21
His strongest argument, however is to show how the mind builds up general, speculative propositions of this kind from accumulating particulars, an idea that he develops later in Book 2 and Book 4.
The senses at first let in PARTICULAR ideas, and furnish the yet empty cabinet, and the mind by degrees growing familiar with some of them, they are lodged in the memory, and names got to them. Afterwards, the mind proceeding further, abstracts them, and by degrees learns the use of general names. In this manner, the mind comes to be furnished with ideas and language, the MATERIALS about which to exercise its discursive faculty. And the use of reason becomes daily more visible, as these materials that give it employment increase. 1.1.15
The Cartesians argued that moral principles were universal: justice, filial piety, virtue, keeping of compacts and so on, and that this universality made them innate. In the gap between what people do and their innate moral principles, which the Cartesians admitted was a weakness in their argument, they pointed to the existence of conscience: when we act against our innate moral principles, our conscience troubles us.
The universality argument is easy to demolish, and Locke does so by pointing out other societies and times where these principles were not recognized. Only a person who has never looked abroad beyond the smoke of his own chimneys could believe that such moral principles were universal much less argue therefrom for their innateness. The conscience argument he easily destroys also by pointing out that whole nations have committed enormities without any remorse, without any notion that the enormities were ‘wrong’.
Locke also says that these kind of practical principles are less self- evident than speculative principles, and therefore need proof to be assented to. Most of the time, such principles are merely a matter of social convenience, and not innate, and that they are inculcated in the young (and therefore cannot be innate if they need to be learned) as part of a general education. Because this inculcation of these moral precepts happens at such an early stage of life, there remains no memory of the teaching of them, and therefore they are supposed to be innate. He also shows that usually such practical principles are no more than custom.
Custom, a greater power than nature seldom failing to make them worship for divine what she hath inured them to bow their minds and submit their understandings to, it is no wonder that grown men, either perplexed in the necessary affairs of life, or hot in the pursuit of pleasures, should not seriously sit down to examine their own tenets, especially when one of their principles is, that principles ought not to be questioned. 1.2. 25
He furthermore argues that speculative and practical principles need to be expressed in propositions in order to be assented to; but the ideas of which such propositions are composed need to be understood, which means that the ideas come before the propositions, which means the principles cannot be innate if they are not primary; and that the terms in which the propositions are expressed need to be universal, which is clearly not the case, given the existence of many conflicting terms and indeed languages.
Some examples of Innate Principles shown to be erroneous
At one point in Book 1 Locke’s frustration with the ‘innate knowledge’ argument bursts forth, and he exclaims that although some philosophers believe that some knowledge is innate, they are always vague as to exactly what that knowledge is. He then posits some principles which might be supposed to be innate, and shows how they are not. The examples that he gives are:
Whole and Part
The most important of these is the knowledge of God (which I suppose, according to Locke’s own categories, must be a speculative principle at best.)
He argues that God is not an innate principle thus. The names of God in the world are various. It would hardly be reasonable to expect that God would imprint on our minds an innate knowledge of Himself in ideas and in terms for those ideas that were not universal and immediately and clearly understood. Moreover the idea of God found from place to place is contrary and inconsistent, and men have many low and pitiful ideas of what God is. If the idea of God – a more fundamental principle than which it would be impossible to find- is not innate, then it is reasonable to assume that no other principle can be innate either.
The Attack on Authority
Now, it would be reasonable to assume from this argument that the idea of God is also just a custom, a custom linked to authority. A modern mind, arguing from Locke’s own empiricism, arrives at the understanding that knowledge of God is illusory, an old wife’s saw. But Locke does not make this step. According to him, knowledge of God is arrived at through thought and meditation, and a right use of men’s facilities. In fact, throughout the Essay, Locke posits arguments which lead irrefutably towards atheism. But he himself always shies away from expressing such a conclusion, and always clearly asserts the existence of God. This tension between the freedom of a modern, scientific atheism and the imprisonment in an atavistic belief in God is one of the most interesting aspects of the Essay, not least because it is also a tension between two modes of expression: the deductive and the assertive. This tension is most developed in Book 4, but it can already be seen in Book 1.
What might be the origins of such tension? Is Locke’s mind so occluded by the darkness of religion that he cannot make the jump to the conclusion his empiricism necessarily leads to? Or is he exercising extreme caution in an age where the power of the Church is not only spiritual but also temporal, and where religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants are linked to the political struggles between the dynastic claims of the Stuarts and the House of Orange for the throne of England. Locke allied himself to the latter, and on King William’s ascension to the throne, Locke at last enjoyed the success and release from persecution that had seen him exiled to Holland for five years, where most of the Essay was written.
Locke hints at his awareness of the need for caution in this paragraph buried in Book 1 chapter 3: The complaints of atheism made from the pulpit are not without reasons, and though only some profligate wretches own it too barefacedly now, yet perhaps we should hear more than we do of it from others, did not the fear of the magistrate’s sword, or their neighbour’s censure, tie up people’s tongues; which, were apprehensions of punishment or shame taken away, would as openly proclaim their atheism as their lives do. 1.3.8
Locke’s relationship to authority, however, is clearly stressed in the whole thrust of Book 1, which repeatedly asserts the need for self-reflection and the observation of reality and experience; and which at the same time, repeatedly attacks with devastating sarcasm received opinions slavishly held: it is not worthwhile to be concerned what he says or thinks who says or thinks only as he is directed by another. (Epistle to the Reader). Moreover, given that the aim of Descartes was to unite the new developments in Newtonian science with Christianity, and given that the whole purpose of Book 1 is to show how Descartes’s doctrine of innate knowledge is wrong, can we not also assume a fundamental disagreement with Descartes’s whole project; can we not also assume a disagreement with the idea that the new sciences are compatible with a religious outlook on the world? Although it’s tempting to read the Essay in terms of our own context as an argument between Religion and Atheism, it’s probably more correct to read it in terms of Locke’s own context, as an argument between the narrow-minded authority of Catholicism and the more open tolerance of Protestantism.
This I am certain, I have not made it my business either to quit or follow any authority in the ensuing Discourse. Truth has been my only aim, and wherever that has appeared to lead, my thoughts have impartially followed, without minding whether the footsteps or any other lay that way or not. 1.3.24