Philosophy / How Does The Mind Get To Know According To John Locke?

How Does The Mind Get To Know According To John Locke?

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Autor:  ynill  20 June 2011
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Lynill Haze Muchamiel

How does the mind get to know according to John Locke?

From the beginning, this question has been asked already of many philosophers for many times. Even during the time of Aristotle this question was already existed, and it was indeed very controversial for them of how does the mind get know.

Historically this question has two answers. Some says that the mind is already endowed with something like innate ideas while others says that the mind starts out as a blank and somehow acquires knowledge through experience. These two answers somehow designate a division; the claim that we have innate ideas falls to the rationalist, and the claim that we can have knowledge through experience falls to the empiricist.

In this work mine, it will focus only to the empiricist view most especially to a philosopher whose name is John Locke. For Locke, mind gets to know through experience. The first thing for an empiricist to do is to get rid of the rationalist clear and distinct innate ideas. That is why; John Locke provides a counterpart answer from the rationalist and somehow criticizes their claim of giving some situations. The most important thing to do in the way of a purely negative attack on innate ideas is to cast doubt on their universality: Does everyone actually possess any such ideas?

Locke's counterargument consists on pointing to the absence of such ideas in "children, idiots, etc." He even goes to the extent of claiming that the propositions that most deserved consent – namely, the principle identity and contradiction – are so far from having a universal assent, that there is a great part that the mankind to whom they are not so much known. John Locke claims that a child cannot be made to assent to the principle of contradiction because he cannot grasp the large, comprehensive, and abstract names it involves, so much more to the idiots. In other words there are no universal innate ideas in the sense of explicitly held principles, but there is a sort of universal readiness to assent to such principles when experience gives rise to them.

Knowing these given situations, rationalist still claims that there are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience. They still held that knowledge originated in the intellect itself, without the partnership of senses. They even assert a doctrine that knowledge somehow imprinted already in the minds of all men. In the rationalist view, the intuition/deduction thesis, the innate knowledge thesis, and the innate concept thesis are essential. In fact to be a rationalist it needs to adopt at least one of them.

First let us talk about the intuition/deduction thesis. Intuition and deduction plays a very important role. In fact for Descartes, only intuition and deduction can provide the certainty needed for knowledge. But what is in intuition and deduction that even Descartes somehow gives a significant to it? Rationalist defines intuition as a form of rational insight. Intellectually grasping a proposition, we just see it to be true in such a way as to form a true, warranted belief in it. And deduction is a process in which we derive conclusions from intuited premises through valid arguments, ones in which the conclusion must be true if the premises are true. We intuit, for example, that the number five is a prime number greater than four. We then deduce from this knowledge that there is a prime number greater than four. Intuition and deduction thus provide us with knowledge a priori, which is to say knowledge gained independently of sense experience.

Second let us talk about to the innate knowledge thesis. In this thesis it states that we have knowledge of some truths in a particular subject area, as part of our rational nature. Like the intuition/deduction thesis, the innate knowledge thesis asserts the existence of knowledge gained a priori, independently of experience. But there is a difference that rest between them in the accompanying understanding of how this a priori knowledge is gained. The intuition/deduction thesis cites intuition and subsequent deductive reasoning. Before we arrive to that knowledge we have to undergo first a series of deducing process of a certain thing. Just like a banana we have to tear first its covers in order to know its reality. On the other hand, the innate knowledge thesis offers our rational nature. Our innate knowledge is not learned through either sense experience or intuition and deduction. It is just part of our nature, that the moment we were born, we have already some ideas. Rationalist says that experiences may trigger a process by which we bring this knowledge to consciousness, but experiences do not provide us with the knowledge itself. It has in some way been with us all along. According to some rationalist, we gained the knowledge in an earlier existence. According to others, God provided us with it at creation. Still others say it is part of our nature through natural selection.

The third important thesis of rationalism is the innate concept thesis. In this thesis it states that we have some of the concepts we employ in a particular subject area as part of our rational nature. This thesis is somehow the same with innate knowledge thesis, for they both assert that knowledge and concepts are not gained from experience, they are part of our rational nature in such a way that sense experience may trigger a process by which it gives to consciousness, and also experience for them does not provide the concepts or determine the information they contain. It just only gives a consciousness to a certain thing but it does not provide knowledge at all.

After knowing a little background to the rationalist view, we go now to the main course of this work, to the empiricist most especially to a British Philosopher whose name is John Locke. It will be now easy for us to know the philosophy of empiricist for we have already a picture of how rationalist assert their claim of how does the mind get to know. In the empiricist view, about a particular subject they reject the corresponding version of the Intuition/Deduction thesis and Innate Knowledge thesis. For them, Insofar as we have knowledge in the subject, our knowledge is a posteriori, dependent upon sense experience. They also deny the implication of the corresponding innate concepts thesis that we have innate ideas in the subject area. Sense experience is our only source of ideas. We can actually know them through our senses. Empiricist also rejects the corresponding version of the superiority reason thesis. Since reason alone does not give us any knowledge, it certainly does not give us superior knowledge, for reason is nothing else but the faculty of deducing unknown truths from the principles or proposition that are already known. It is simply that reason does not grasp ideas.

The empiricism thesis does not entail that we have empirical knowledge. It entails that knowledge can only be gained, if at all, by experience. They give so much importance of our sense experience for this is the only way of having such ideas of a particular thing.

In Book II of An Essay concerning Human Understanding, Locke claims that ideas are the materials of knowledge and all ideas come from experience. The term "idea" stands for whatsoever is the object of understanding when man thinks. In (Essay I, 1, 8, p. 47) it states that experience takes two forms. First, there is what we might call the "external" experience, by which objects in the external world, outside our mind, enters in to our mind through sensation, for example, hot, cold, red, yellow, hard, soft, sweet, and bitter. All these ideas are gained through sensation. Second there is what we called the "internal" experience, we have of the operations of our minds, or reflection, for example, thinking, willing, believing, doubting, denying, affirming, and comparing. Both of these are kinds of experience, reflection on what is going on inside no less than sensation of what is going on outside. For Locke, these are the two and only two means by which ideas become inscribe on the blank tablets of our mind. In fact, sensations and reflections are the two fountains of knowledge. Without sensation mind would have nothing to operate upon, and therefore could have no ideas of its operations. It is "when he first has any sensation" that "a man begins to have any ideas." The operations of the mind are not produced themselves by sensations, but sensations is required to give the mind material for working on. Man cannot possess any such ideas if he does not have any senses at all for he cannot grasp the objects to be known. Our minds can have this knowledge through these experiences that we have. We cannot say that our ideas are innate for first it must bring to us a consciousness in order to know. And just as the absence of ideas in infants is evidence against any doctrine of innate ideas, so the gradual development of ideas in children, corresponding to the development of their experience, is the evidence for the empiricist doctrine that ideas originate in experience. We cannot deny the fact that from the beginning when we were born we do not have some ideas. Our minds are just a blank paper needs to be written by our experiences. If we will put to consider that we have already ideas when we were born, it is already possible for us to do what we are ought to do for we have already ideas of some truths. But how come that from infancy to childhood it needs a parental guidance, which is supposed to be we have already innate ideas according to the rationalist? In this situation, we can firmly say that our mind grasp ideas through experience. Thus for Locke the only original form of all our ideas take their beginning are from external material things as the objects of sensations, and the operations of our own minds within as the object of reflection. There is no innateness of ideas as what rationalist claim.

Locke has an atomic or perhaps more accurately a corpuscular theory of ideas. There is, that is to say, an analogy between the way atoms or corpuscles combine into complexes to form physical objects and the way ideas combine. Ideas for Locke are either simple or complex.

But before we talk about to the two forms of ideas of Locke, we have to consider first the two powers of the mind, the passive side, and the active side, so that it would be easy for us to understand. In the passive side of a mind it receives what we now call the simple ideas contributed by sensations and reflection. These are created by our interaction with sensible qualities in things of the sensible world. These ideas are developed out of our observations concerning the operations of the mind. For example, a man grasp from his sensations that an apple was color red and it was smooth. These ideas that come from his sensations are called simple ideas. Though the sight and touch often take in form the same object at the same time different ideas; as a man sees at once motion and color, the hand feels softness and warmth in the same piece of wax; yet the simple ideas thus united in the same subject are as perfectly distinct as those that come in by different senses. The ideas that come from the sense of sight are different from those ideas that come from the sense of touch and the same also to other senses. When the understanding is once stored with these simple ideas, it has the power to repeat, compare, and unite them, at this point it is now in the active side of the mind that constructs complex ideas out of simple ones. As simple ideas are observed to exist in several combinations united together, so the mind has a power to consider several of them united together as one idea; and that they are united in external objects, but as itself has joined them. Ideas thus made up of several simple ones put together and it is already complex; such as the universe for example, before we come up to this idea we have to consider first the objects it involves like the earth, stars, man and all the living things etc. And thus, we join them as a whole to form one idea of a universe. Though complicated of various simple ideas or complex ideas made up of simple ones; when mind pleases, considered each by it as one entire thing, and signified by one name. The results of these activities of the mind are complex ideas that fall into three general categories: substances, modes, and relations. The ideas of substances are such combinations of simple ideas as are taken to represent distinct particular things subsisting by themselves; in which the supposed or confused idea of substance itself is always the first and chief. Modes are such complex ideas which, however compounded, contain not in them the supposition of subsisting by themselves, but are considered as dependences on, or affections of substances. Finally, relation which consists in the consideration and comparing one idea with another, if they are connected in fact or in thought.

In this faculty of repeating and joining together its ideas, the mind has a great power in varying and multiplying the objects of its thoughts infinitely beyond what sensation or reflection furnished it with, but all this still confined to those simple ideas which it received from those two sources, the sensation and reflection, which are the ultimate materials of all its compositions. For simple ideas are all from things themselves; and of these the mind can having no more nor other than what are suggested to it. Our ideas really depend upon to our simple ideas for it is like our starting point or the foundations of ideas that we have right now. Although Locke made many remarks concerning sensations, he did not explain how it excites in the mind. He only stated that God produced in us the capacity for doing so.

According to Locke, those characteristics of objects which cause ideas in our mind through sensation are called "qualities." For him there are two kinds of qualities in the objects, the primary and secondary qualities. Primary, or real, qualities are those that always exist in an object. It refers to the intrinsic features of object itself. These features are inseparable from the thing even when it is divided into parts too small for us to perceive, the primary qualities are independent of our perception. They exist even we do not perceive them. On the other hand the second quality of an object is called secondary qualities. The secondary qualities are powers in bodies to produce ideas in us like color, taste, smell and so on that are caused by the interaction of our particular perceptual apparatus with the primary qualities of the object. They are simply generated by the mind and merely dependent on it. In these cases, our ideas do not resemble their causes, which are in fact nothing other than the primary qualities of the insensible parts of things. . Our ideas of primary qualities resemble the qualities in the object; their patterns do really exist in the bodies themselves, while our ideas of secondary qualities do not resemble the powers that cause them. It really depends to our perception. We can only know the secondary qualities of an object dependent to what we sense. For this reason, Locke somehow brought to conclusion that the knowledge that we have are severely limited, for we cannot know the primary qualities.

Thus, for example, the primary qualities of the rose include all of its quantifiable features, its mass and momentum, its chemical composition and microscopic structure; these are the features of the thing itself, and somehow obtain already of the object itself. They are not dependent to our senses, for they can exist even without perceived. The secondary qualities of the rose, on the other hand, include the ideas it produces in us, its yellow color, its delicate fragrance; these are the merely effects of the primary qualities of its corpuscles on my eyes and nose. Like the pain we feel when we stick our finger on a thorn, the color, and smells are not features of the rose itself. These are derived to what we perceived from the rose. These are generated and dependent to our mind.

Thus, as a conclusion, in every idea that we have right now in our minds are merely a product from our experiences that we encounter all day long. It is absurd to say that we have already innate ideas as what rationalist claims. For in fact as what Locke asserts, we can only get ideas through our sense experience. In general, it is very interesting to quote from the famous saying of Aristotle that says "Nihil est in intellectu quod non antea fuerit in sensu." (There's nothing comes into the mind without passing through the senses.)

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