Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
John Locke’s purpose in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is to inquire into the origin and extent of human knowledge. His conclusion—that all knowledge is derived from sense experience—became the principal tenet of empiricism, which has dominated Western philosophy ever since. Even George Berkeley, who rejected Locke’s distinction between sense qualities independent of the mind and sense qualities dependent on the mind, produced his idealism in response to Locke’s provocative philosophy and gave it an empirical cast that reflected Western culture’s rejection of innate or transcendental knowledge.
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding is divided into four books: book 1, “Of Innate Notions”; book 2, “Of Ideas”; book 3, “Of Words”; and book 4, “Of Knowledge, Certain and Probable.”
In preparation for his radical claim that all ideas are derived from experience, Locke begins his essay with a careful consideration of the thesis that there are innate ideas. Locke first examines the notion that there are ideas that are a necessary part of human understanding and are, therefore, common to all people. Locke’s attack on this thesis is from two directions. He argues that many of the ideas that are supposed to be innate can be and have been derived naturally from sense experience, that not all people assent to those ideas that are supposed to be innate. Locke maintains that even if reason enables...
(The entire section is 1282 words.)
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